Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rediscovering Mbarara

I visited Mbarara to attend my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in August 2010, and while there, I met Stanley Katembeya the Chairman of FDC for Mbarara District. He and Major John Kazoora, who was preparing to vie for the Mbarara municipality seat; took me aside and asked me why I was fighting the party in Kampala while Mbarara, the district of my birth; had no FDC candidate for it’s women’s parliamentary seat. This is the seat that Miria Matembe lost in 2006 when she run as an independent candidate against the Movement’s Emma Boona. Mbarara District had always been Movement territory and even the municipality voters who exhibited more progressive tendencies by voting Winnie Byanyima, Kizza Besigye’s wife to Parliament in 2001; did so while she stood on the Movement ticket. The thought of an FDC candidate getting enough votes to carry a seat at the district level was unthinkable. To try and do it in three months was a fool’s dream. Yet in this seemingly impossible Movement constituency I found my escape from being the next ‘Beti Kamya:’ another arrogant activist who thought her political ambition was greater than the interests of the party. I had not traveled from the United States to cause havoc in the opposition ahead of an important election so I abandoned the fight for Nakawa and went to contest in Mbarara.
Once again people asked me why I simply did not walk away from the party and the election campaigns after being so poorly treated in Nakawa. The easy answer would be that I had to save some face after pulling it out from the humble pie that it had been rubbed in by my colleagues. But there was no easy answer. There were so many factors that kept propelling me forward and one was that the issues we raised in 2001 were still relevant even more so in 2011; and I still had it in me to lend my voice to a cause for which we started striving ten years earlier. All the internal drama within FDC was diversionary and if I succumbed to it then our detractors would have achieved a major victory. The platform and space that the election period offers to highlight governance issues in Uganda is temporary and any activist would want to use it effectively. It did not matter whether my voice was heard in Nakawa or Mbarara so long as it added a ripple to that wave that would bring change. Winning was important but it was only the icing on the cake and if I lost, which was almost certain in Mbarara; at least I would have taken the message of change to villages and towns in the District where they had never known that there was an alternative to the Movement. At a very personal level I had reason to continue campaigning because I had accepted money from supporters in a fundraising drive and I felt obligated to follow through with the campaign.
On November 26th 2010, I was officially nominated by a Returning Officer of the Uganda Electoral Commission, thereby becoming FDC’s candidate for the position of Woman MP, Mbarara District. I put Nakawa behind me and embarked on the campaign trail with gusto. My Movement opponent however was not about to let me forget Nakawa and one fine morning we woke up to find that she had plastered my Nakawa campaign posters across Mbarara town! My team quickly pulled down the posters and I wrote a letter of complaint to the Electoral Commission accusing Emma Boona of stealing my property and using it in her campaign. We had witnesses who saw her showing the posters to voters and telling them not to be confused because I was running for the Nakawa seat. A smart move on her part, and one that I would have to continuously address throughout my campaign in Mbarara.
I discovered that Mbarara District was much larger than I thought and my campaigns were constrained by limited funding against the money printing election machinery of the Movement. Where I could only pledge UGX 50K towards a worthy cause my opponents pledged UGX 1 million and above. I suspected that we were all breaking the law in some way or another because this was an indirect way of buying votes and if it continued many opposition candidates would be broke before the Movement stopped printing money. Luckily for us the Electoral Commission announced that all candidates should stop making financial pledges of any kind to voters and so this became my favorite line at meetings where candidates were invited for the sole reason of fundraising, better known as ‘de-toothing’ in Ugandan speak.
Traveling from the poverty stricken villages with no roads in Bukiro to the beautiful mountainous landscapes of Mwizi in Rwampara, from the open plain, grazing lands and rolling hills of Bubaare to the slums of Kisenyi in Kakoba; from Kashaka town to Biharwe town and crossing Kashaari county from Mile 4, to Bwizibwera, Rutooma, Rubindi and to the last town before Ibanda District; I fell in love with my home again. I spoke my native Runyankore and rediscovered my people and their way of life. I sang songs with them, prayed with them, danced with them and spoke with them. Many times I was frustrated by the begging bowl that was extended at every campaign stop, but I learnt to ignore it and they came to know me as the ‘poor’ candidate; which I was. Still people opened up to me in women’s groups and youth groups as I stopped to join them in their gardens to harvest millet kernels and drink the obligatory glass of milk when it was offered. I discovered a serious alcohol problem among the men and youth in the small village towns. When women got up to go the fields to work, men arrived at the local bar as early as 9:00am and waited for election candidates to fill their glasses with the local brew. It was sad to see their bodies wasting away and the resignation of their women and elders to this alcoholic lifestyle that had taken over the villages.
At times I was shocked when I arrived at a campaign stop and was welcomed as the Movement woman candidate! There were really places in Mbarara where people had never heard of FDC! Mary Kabateraine and I broke out in laughter when somewhere deep in Rubindi women welcomed us with songs praising the Movement and President Museveni and their men who were a little wiser, were so embarrassed they chased the poor ignorant women away from the meeting as we protested. Many people doubt me when I tell them that I did not care whether I won or lost the election and perhaps at a certain level it does not ring true but the satisfaction I got from immersing myself into these conversations with the people of Ankore were well worth the effort whatever the outcome of the election.
At 50 I know that my love for Uganda runs deeper than my zest for activism and politics and am forever grateful for the time that I spent engaged with the people of Mbarara.

feeling satisfied

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