Thursday, May 6, 2010

Multiple faced Rwagweri

Stephen Rwagweri is a social worker, book writer, broadcaster and currently working on a very ambitious project to build a museum for the people of Rwenzori region. He is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of a development organization called Engabu Za Tooro, which operates in the Rwenzori region which includes the western Uganda districts of Kasese, Bundibugyo, Kabarole, Kyenjojo and Kamwenge.

His books

I wrote my first book at the university called the invasion and later, I researched on the subject of culture among the tribes of western Uganda mainly Batooro and the neighboring tribes and wrote another book titled Tooro and her peoples, past, present and future. These are the two books published so far although I have many more not yet published.

The invasion book was a creative piece on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It was inspired by how the scourge of HIV/AIDS was threatening society and putting the hopes of many people in jeopardy. As a person, I got touched because I saw our generation under very serious threats and decided to put my reflections into this book. It was welcomed by many organizations fighting the HIV/AIDS scourge like AIDS control program, Uganda Aids Commission and UNDP which, contributed resources for the development and final publication. It was distributed through schools, institutions and book centers all over the country.

Where he got the writing skills

Writing skills or spirit is a talent in born and people need to catalyze or develop it. At secondary level I was a student of literature and it was my favorite subject which, exposed me to reflecting on the skills and inspirations of the writers and after S.6, I studied philosophy at philosophical centre in Jinja which strengthened my imaginative capacities and reflective qualities but much more is the will power, the encouragement and the interest to write.

My education background influenced my writing abilities and other courses I did later like social work, my work experience later also influenced the subjects to write on

I wrote the first manuscript of my first book (the invasion), when I was in my S.6 vacation, at that stage many people could not believe that I had written a book, when I told my parents they said I had ran mad, my uncle too declared me mad. They thought books are written by professors and that was one of the challenges I faced because I was convinced that I had done my best, but it was so difficult to share with anybody since they couldn’t believe me writing a book based on my experience and education. I was helped by a friend who helped me to type the manuscript; I sent it to a publishing firm in Nairobi. The person reading my manuscript in Nairobi asked whether the author of the book is a professor at Makerere University by the name of Rwagweri Stephen. He thought I was a lecturer to think of writing a book, by then and it was more shocking to tell them that I was a first year student for the first degree in the institution. Of course they developed some biases and carried on the biases while looking on my manuscript. These two issues show the biases communities have on who should do what at what stage.

Copies distributed so far for the invasion book

If you think in terms of copies, you have distributed as a writer you will get disappointed. What is important is putting your ideas and experience in specialized form whereby, it will live on even generations after you. I had a lot of imaginations and this is a lesson to upcoming writers that books after writing and publishing will go on marketing themselves endlessly. In the field of writing, the real experience is different. I can’t recall he number of copies I managed to distribute or my publishers or distributors put out there. I recall a number of times we did a re-print, the books were distributed in the first months and year after the launch and after the pace of its distribution becomes very limited unless it’s a directly academic or educational book. Our society has a very serious problem of lacking a strong reading culture which discourages the writers and its one of the reasons I have slowed down in my writing. It isn’t so much that one is moved by the urge to get money from writing but moved by the urge to communicate a message and you get satisfaction when you get feedback, generate debate and reflections from people receiving your message. We have more of a listening population because if I went on radio and started discussing a topic, the following day will get a feedback especially if the topic is well handled, controversial and brings out challenging issues which generate debate and discussions. I have used both methods of communication in my life experience. I have written and been a regular panelist on many radio programs and radio has been more effective in terms of reaching out to the targeted audience.

I see my first book quoted in academic books and papers because it was distributed well in secondary schools. Once in a while, I hear people telling me that I have read your book. It’s however, not very satisfying in terms of communicating a message.

His second book: Tooro and her peoples, past present and future

After university, I moved to Tooro region and started engaging in community development work. In the field we faced challenges on certain issues in the development programs we were implementing and we started researching on a number of development issues as they affect community and it’s where I got the inspiration to write my second book. There were certain constraints to participation in development in the community which were determined by traditions and history of the communities and these are the issues that inspired me to write an anthropological book on the communities in Tooro region so that the community can adopt positive attitudes to development.

In the book, I wrote on how communities started in Tooro over the years and how they moved on changing and adapting to situations and how they evolved. We were trying to find an explanation why communities behave the way they behave, respond the way they respond. I was trying to explain the people today using their sociological evolution, background, history, origins, interactions and their experiences overtime which was a sociological approach to a social issue.

A lot of people mainly researchers always come to me to look for the book and a number of times have quoted it. Tourists who want to know more about our communities have also bought many copies. You will hear very few ordinary people reading it; I have tried using both writing and radio methods of communication but radio has been more effective for to my target audience. I tried writing a monthly magazine called Tooro Negamba discussing social and cultural issues which were the same issues presented on radio and the reaction was different. Radio discussions would always rise a reaction in the public and same messages wrote in the magazine would not generate anything; people would just see photos and keep it. This de-motivates the writing spirit among authors but, I am not saying that people should not write because we should promote a culture of reading overtime. Writing has got its own advantages because your message is kept on record and referred to, after generations.

Writing is not just a talent, you write because you have an urge to communicate something and at times you want to see immediate results communicated, because if you write a book and keep it in your cupboard, it ceases to be a book because the interest, the urge of any writer is to communicate and writers get the satisfaction when they feel their messages have been communicated effectively, there are clear indicators which shows effective communication like feedback from the target readers. Reaction doesn’t need to be positive, you can be abused and disagreed with. If you write because you want to communicate and you find people not bothered about your messages because of a poor culture of reading then you get discouraged.

My reasons for writing have always been very practical reasons to give my opinion and guidance about a very practical and immediate situation and if I find through writing that I can’t communicate and influence then I get discouraged.

Still writing

I have continued writing on topics for academic utility, intellectual utility and research purposes for scholars, tourists and future generation reflections.

I am writing a book on inter-generational transfer of knowledge looking at the mechanisms of intergenerational transfer of information, knowledge, and wealth in the traditional past and how it is done today. This is highly an academic topic and it doesn’t communicate on an immediate problem to be solved. I am also writing on my personal experience a book which I don’t want to mention the title because other people can steal my idea because it’s not yet published. Its looks at my own personal experience which I trace from the time I started understanding that I am a human being. I keep on updating it everyday, putting on the experiences and the lessons leant for future generations to reflect on and this book will continue throughout my life. Much more I am also in electronic communication where I use radio to communicate to people who are more of a listening than a reading population.

I have been having a number of radio programs on different topics and challenges facing society but the current one is called Ekoomi, on one of our radio stations in this country. It looks at the origins of society and how they influence the present day development. Our approach to development is the use of indigenous knowledge and reconstructing it into today’s development practices and theories. We have been recognized for this, we challenged the existing development paradigm which insists on transplanting the western knowledge into our communities as the accepted civilization, if you want to teach our communities to do certain things or address certain problems, you have to pick certain standardized models determined by the western civilization but we are saying that we are in the modern civilization but the traditional wisdom of our ancestors can also be relevant to help us today tackle the development challenges and problems. Development is a process incarnated within our own community, incidentally people still consider development as an external idea and people go to New York to get development models to solve the problems in their villages which isn’t proper thinking. We have a belief that there is a solution in every problem, when learning mathematics my teacher used to call numbers problems and when you see a mathematical problem, within it lays a solution. Our people must learn to appreciate the values and relevance of our traditional wisdom in our communities and adopt it in today’s development practices so that our development is incarnated in our own experience and identifies with us.

Where he gets the time to write the books

People are doing so many things in this world and I don’t consider myself the busiest person. As long as what you are doing is coming from your experience, building on your experience and all building towards a certain direction. I do many things all aimed at social, economic and cultural liberation of our people and passing through different forms for instance, I promote traditional performing art, traditional enterprises where people realize their incomes through traditional enterprises, human rights because at times people are constrained by their own beliefs and the gluttony of leaders who feel that they can only be leaders by making other people not understand what they should do.

I get time to write my books because once you are a writer, the writing spirit creates its own space, it attacks you at any moment and you start writing. An idea can come into your mind at midnight and you wake up because something tells you to put it down or you can be in the middle of a certain function and somebody makes a statement that tickles your mind and jump out of the function disturbed to go somewhere and sit down for five minutes and put down the idea, you can’t resist the temptation of writing because you are too busy.

His Tooro cultural centre project

The institution I head called Engabu Za Tooro, has a number of programs which range from promoting traditional music to promoting cultural economic activities and reconstructing traditional indigenous knowledge into today’s development practice and our greatest strength has been using new models of culture and development we have created. Looking at all these experiences a few people have put us forward like Cross Cultural Foundation Uganda which researches and publishes books on innovative cultural activities in the country. They researched and produced a documentary promoted by Commonwealth Foundation on Engabu Za Tooro experience pointing on a two way model cultural programs we have. One of them is the Koogere cultural and women empowerment program which uses the traditional wisdom in today’s gender development issues. There is also the Koogere cultural school which seeks to professionalize the cultural service provision. Some scholars on culture and development who seek to research on the position of culture in contemporary development have also picked on our cultural projects as case studies to illustrate the role and position of culture in modern development.

Of recent, we have been accredited by the United Nations body called the Intellectual Property Organization to participate in the activities of the committee on intellectual property, traditional knowledge, genetic resources and folklore. All these achievements put together, demanded the need to have to a home where cultural programs can thrive and for consolidation of all our achievements. We came up with the idea of a cultural centre which will be an epicenter of cultural research, information, education, reclamation of cultural values and promotion of cultural approach to development. The centre, the first of its kind in the region will involve facilities like an amphi theatre which will be an open space for performances in traditional dances. We have done a lot of work to promote traditional music as part of the overall promotion of cultural expression.

The second facility will be a community museum, museums in Uganda and all African countries have been seen as facilities of the state and Uganda has only one national museum based in Kampala and not accessed by most people. We have been promoting the idea of community museums because people should not look at museums as initiatives of the state only.

The project started six years back with developing the idea and beginning to collect material, there is a lot of old material in the communities which is disappearing in the present times but our children, scholars, tourists need to look a them and see where societies came from.

To stop materials from disappearing, we started organizing vintage exhibitions every year during our annual cultural week where we call people to bring things of the past related to the society for safe custody; from there we started making collections.

We already have a small museum and the only challenge now is to construct the infrastructure and consolidate the material because without the infrastructure, you can’t consolidate the material and display them adequately for people to view and other problems like theft and destruction. We shall also establish a community concert hall, a cultural heart as mini-museums, so that the diversity of our cultural heritage is well maintained since our area is so rich in terms of cultural diversity.

The main collection at the centre of the museum will have all collections from all communities beginning with all the communities in western Uganda.

The main objective of the museum is to preserve our heritage for tourism and income, future generation and education and research therefore, the primary target will be our own people so as to promote local tourism because some of the things in the museum are no longer in daily use therefore local people have to look at their past and learn to be tourists in their local communities.


United Nations has got different agencies with specialization under different themes like UNESCO on culture and science, UNICEF on children and many others but among the many UN agencies, there is also World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) which looks on intellectual property issues and among them is the issue of traditional knowledge of communities, issues of genetic resources that are passed on from one community to another. People who sit on these committees are nominated by member states to represent their countries, the UN has got mandate to select a non governmental body and accredit it to any of those committees based on its specialized experience and knowledge in the areas of relevancy. We applied for when an opportunity at the WIPO for any organization with experience in traditional knowledge as it relates to today’s development presented itself.

In 2009, Engabu Za Tooro after a very long process of assessment was considered to have brought up new and innovative models of adopting the traditional knowledge into today’s development practice. It was nominated as an observer to participate in the future sessions of inter-governmental committee on intellectual property, genetic resources, traditional knowledge and folklore. This means that a small effort that started in the rural region of western Uganda is recognized at a UN level and secondly, it gives us chance to interact with many development actors which increases on our knowledge base.

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