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Caravan takes voter education to Masindi
“Nothing is as immeasurable as the level of awareness,” says Eng. Badru Kiggundu, Electrol Commission Chairman, while officially launching the Democracy Caravan in Kampala.
Eng. Badru Kiggundu, Electrol Commission Chairman, officially launching the Democracy Caravan, 6th May 2009, in Kampala. Photo by Devapriyo Das
15. May 2009
MASINDI-About a thousand people including the mayor, religious leaders have gathered at the football stadium for an all-night vigil to mark Masindi District Anti-Witchcraft Week.
Screaming “abufuma mugende” (witchdoctors go!) the crowd hopes to exorcise witchcraft, child-sacrifice and homosexuality. Eliminating bribery, vote-rigging, and ballot-stuffing is not on the agenda.
“The people down here are ignorant of basic democratic principles and even our Constitution,” says Joseph Kyomuhendo, of the Legal Aid Project under Uganda Law Society.
In a cupboard behind him, stacks of files marked ‘Land Disputes’ and ‘Domestic’, are testament to the growing number of cases – three hundred so far this year- that are being handled by the Society. It is a sign of growing awareness, yet Kyomuhendo suggests that the majority of local people
“rely on their MPs and councillors to make decisions for them.”
Masindi is like Uganda in miniature. Home of the Banyoro, it attracts economic migrants of many ethnicities and faiths from around the country; houses people displaced by northern Uganda’s erstwhile rebel insurgency, and hosts refugees from as far away as DRC and Kenya.
Unsurprisingly, locals find it hard to understand or practise local democracy. For many, the only incentive to participate in public life is the small perks – bars of soap, packets of sugar – that candidates bring during campaigns.
However, a unique initiative known as the “Democracy Caravan” is now in Masindi, trying to resuscitate the idea of public trust by using community theatre to increase citizens’ participation in public life.
Spearheaded by the International Anti-Corruption Theatre Movement (IATM) and sponsored by MS Uganda, the Caravan – a jaunty maroon bus- will travel to villages and towns across Masindi, Iganga, Bukedea, Apac, Koboko and Nakapiripirit over the next six months.
IATM Executive Secretary, John Kakaire, says “Our challenge has always been that people elect leaders but cannot hold them accountable.” He hopes the Caravan will change this by giving “people a chance to understand what the provisions of the Constitution are, their roles and responsibilities, their duties….”
This daunting task is to be achieved by using Forum Theatre, where audiences are presented with a crisis situation selected from real life. The audience debates amongst themselves to find amicable ways to resolve the impasse.
In Masindi, the 400 people who turned up to watch the performance at the Boma Grounds witnessed a well-known scenario: a bullying, lazy husband, who mistreats his wife, tries to marry a young second wife; and who supports every aspiring MP so long as they buy him waragi.
“The whole business of democracy at home is new in this country!” remarks Kakaire. “Most people would not like to see children ask questions… wives sometimes are taken as if they have nothing to contribute to the family.”
The Caravan aims to encourage transparency and equality and positively influence behavioural change in the long term. It hopes to convince leaders and grassroots that undemocratic behaviour is against the national interest, and to encourage citizens to lawfully engage in democratic politics, while compelling leaders to deliver development goals.
That such an activity is run by non-profit organisations speaks of a state failure to provide civic education. According to sources at Masindi Local Government, the Law Society’s local branch, and local radio stations, the Electoral Commission of Uganda only appears in the district before general elections, using radio broadcasts and lectures to educate the people on how to exercise their franchise.
Eng. Badru Kiggundu, EC chairman, cautioned that “Nothing is as immeasurable as the level of awareness.” While officially launching the Democracy Caravan in Kampala on May 6, he pointed out that “Democracy is expensive, particularly electoral democracy […] It’s very difficult to mobilise everybody and bring them at every centre and expect them to share these education messages.” He implied that awareness was high and could only grow, and that NGO initiatives need not be at cross-purposes to state efforts. A few days later at the launch of the Caravan’s Masindi edition, Julia Bintu, Woman MP Masindi, concurred, saying NGOs complement government.
The quality of this working relationship will help determine outcomes in the 2011 general elections, as Masindi’s electorate learns how to vote, and why it must vote. But in the meanwhile, local democracy will have to vie with witchdoctors and bribe-bearing leaders for the attention of the average citizen.
Devapriyo Das is a Free Lance Journist - Email: email@example.com
This article can also be viewed on THE OBSERVER Web Site: http://www.observer.ug/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3364&Itemid=59