COVID-19 Crisis Inspires Ugandan Youth to Use Internet For Debate And Preparation For 2021 Elections

  • by Rodney Mponye
  • July 6, 2020

“My future is bleak, I feel helpless,” sadly reckons Sarah Namagembe, 22, a hairstylist at Sparkles Salon. Namagembe last received a coin on 12th March before her work which pays her on commission sent her parking when the President announced a lockdown in the country. I

f and when she gets money, it’s only a handful from relatives or friends to keep her from going hungry. The rent of the small house in which she stays piles every day and she keeps wondering when all this will stop. A month? Maybe six?

No one knows. The future stares at her with an unsmiling face.

There is a big contrast between Namagembe and Prisca Akellowanga, a student of Secretarial and Administration at YMCA.

Akellowanga was left stuck in her hostel by the lockdown says although she felt trapped at the beginning, the lockdown panned out as a blessing in disguise.

Akellowanga is part of a WhatsApp group known as ‘The Big Debate’. Created on March 24 after the country wide lockdown was declared in Uganda, by the University Debate Project alumni a project run by Open Space Centre.

The group focuses on bringing forth topics for discussion among youths on matters affecting them and their societies. Topics discussed include menstrual health, inclusive education, climate change, and due to COVID-19 related motions like, the economy under lockdown, gender based violence and so on. 

How it works

Akellowanga explains that a roaster is put up for topics to be discussed for a week. A topic is scheduled for the morning at 10 am and in the evening at 9 pm each day. Members in the group register their names below topics of interest until each side of the motion has a person on the proposition and opposition.

 “We then take the time to research and prepare our arguments beforehand,”

When the day and time of debate comes, the moderator sends a voice note or writes in the group giving opening remarks and asking the first speaker to prepare themselves in the next seven minutes.

The proposing side will write their points after which the speaker from the opposing side will be given seven minutes to prepare a counter argument. Both sides are given a time period of five minutes to make their points.

The proposing side will then make closing remarks within three minutes and the last speaker will follow suit.

Akellowanga explains that other people in the group will then comment with votes on who won the debate. After the votes are counted and the winner announced by the moderator, voters will give their reasons for choosing one person’s argument over the other and also point out where the debaters need to improve, or advice on what would have made an argument better.

“This system has triggered us to do more research and be aware of our society as youths. In an effort to make better points, we research how to debate with facts and improve the art of presenting our cases to appeal to people,” Akellowanga explains.

The group has about 200 active youth who have contributed at least once to ongoing debates. For a month, to every winner of each debate in the morning and evening, Open Space Centre , a youth-led organisation and a key stakeholder in the Debate Movement of Uganda, awarded 1GB of data.

According to Ashraf Kakaire, the communications and partnerships manager at Open Space Centre, using social media to engage the youth was one of their ways to put youth at the front of the discussions during the pandemic. 

The centre also supported other activities including Twitter chats mainly on education.

Twitter Chats

Secure Muganzi is an ardent participant in the different online engagements organised by OpenSpace. In the just concluded tweetchat on ‘Inclusive education for all’. According to him, these talks help the youth to contribute to solutions on the present day issues affecting society. “We discussed how we can best include everyone in education during lockdown. Most of us think social media but not everyone is social media,” he explains adding, that the chat came up with solutions like engaging people from Local Councils (LCs) instead of the Residential District Councillor (RDC) like the government was doing since they are far from people.

In places that have students at University, Muganzi says those students can help to teach others in lower classes. This would work at the village level where COVID-19 cases have not yet been discovered.

Although the government had planned to use radio and TVs, Muganzi says in the discussion that system was found not to be inclusive as many families do not own a radio or TV. However, a mega phone for each village was found to be a more practical solution. 

For people with special needs, Muganzi says the Government can use available resources by dealing with organisations that are already in direct touch with those people.

The youth in this group wonder if the Ministry for Education and Health ever pick up any of their points.

Kakaire says the challenges faced as organisers included the fact that only elite youth tend to use Twitter thus leaving out many they would love to, some people missed the conversation due to timing issues, Twitter does not accord users enough words for people to expound on issues as they may have wished, among other things.

No one left behind

To further involve the youth in productive activity, Open Space used Zoom to train youth aspiring for electoral- political positions in the coming elections Under the Ready to Stand Project supported by US based National Endowment for Democracy with 32 of the beneficiaries being Persons with Disabilities.

“It was very exciting when a mainstream organisation wanted to involve us in their activities. By mainstream I mean an organisation with the everyday youth that do not have any disability,” remarks Douglas Waidada the Chairperson Board of Governors Show for Disabilities, an NGO with a primary focus on PWDs

Although in their world, being a part of something remotely normal needs campaigns for inclusivity, PWDs and especially youth with disability (YWD), hope to make a change for the future and they are willing to do the work.

True to this, Muzamiru Muwanga, 32, a lecturer at Makerere Business Training Center in Kapchorwa shows the zeal for leadership in his everyday work. He trains a small capacity building team for youth in Agriculture and has a small training center for people interested in learning computer.

“I’ve always had leadership positions but in low places,” Muwanga comments.

He expresses gratitude when he was notified that there would be a training on leadership for youth interested in political positions in the upcoming 2021 elections via Zoom. Although he had never used the app, he was willing to learn. Now he wants to vie for a position as the District councillor for PWDs in Kapchworwa District in the 2021 elections.

“The training opened up my mind to bigger possibilities and stressed the fact that we can also compete. We learnt about how electoral structures work from the grass root-up, how one starts from the village to parish, sub-county and then the district councillor electoral college.

Other things he learnt include, how do you come up with the message for your electorates, deliver it, what is the plight of those particular people? What makes them feel that you are part of their fight? How do you get a theme for your campaign? Creating a team to increase your chances of winning by making allegiance with someone credible and dependable in society and also how to get resources to run the campaign including involving family members, friends, soliciting from people and the alternative of going through a political party as a flag bearer.

Using Zoom to facilitate the cause

“It came at a good time as we head for the campaigns for the 2021 elections. We didn’t have transport and moving from Sironko to Kampala was impossible in lockdown, but technology helped,” Simon Peter Okwii, a youth with sight impairment now vying for a seat on the East African legislative assembly under the affirmative action of PWDs. “I am not only looking at political leadership but management level,” he affirms.

The team leader Show for Disabilities, Betty Cheptoek says helping her members to using zoom wasn’t easy as it was the first time for her to use the application as well.

After being able to use it, she described her experience, “It was like we like we were in a room seeing each other,” she comments adding, “The strategy of Zoom was very disability friendly. For the Deaf, we had a sign language interpreter and the slides, which they could read. The facilitators would read the slides out loud for those with visual impairment.”

Other people included Persons with Albinism or Physical Disability but could hear and see. Cheptoek says that when there was a challenge affecting any PWD, she would privately inbox Kakaire who would work on the issue promptly.

Challenges faced

While Zoom was a brilliant tool to use, there are some challenges that came with it. Some

While some people struggled with keeping time, Melanie Mataaga, a social worker from Kamuli district says she ended up losing track of the conversation due to the terrible internet connection.

Simon Peter Okwi also reveals having a visual impairment, it was hard to see some PowerPoint presentations that were not in large print so he relied mostly on sound while others found the conversation half way through.

Waidada says that relying on sound is usually easier in physical presence than over an electronic and there was no way to ask the facilitator to repeat themselves.

Okwi however asserts that despite the challenges they faced, the knowledge they gained was worthwhile; “The lockdown had a detrimental effect on how our lives go on especially in our social construct but with the engagements, we have confidence and hope to achieve our goals.”