I was born a white child in Uganda, East Africa to missionary parents, Velma and David Freeman. When I was 8 years old, our time in Africa came to a sudden and frightening end.
Just three months earlier, my dad had witnessed the brutal killing of our town mayor in Masaka. The mayor had been dragged through the town on the back of a pickup truck, and then a major in the army openly slit his throat as a warning to anyone who might stand against the regime of the ruthless and unpredictable dictator, President Idi Amin. My father was the only white man he could see, along with a few Asians in the crowd.
Our deportation was ordered shortly thereafter. Idi Amin’s soldiers picked up my father late one night and took him to jail. We had 48 hours to leave. Little did I realize at that young age that everything I knew as normal would change forever.
Years passed, and I found myself reading everything that came across my path on Uganda. My heart stirred for the country of my birth, and I longed deeply to see it again!
My life led me into a career in the media, and I became a national television show host for a programme called, “THE DAILY: with Mark and Laura-Lynn”. Mark was an African American football player, now coach for the B.C. Lions. I would tease him endlessly about my Ugandan birth place and how he was born in the United States. “Who is REALLY more African American?” I would chide.
Last year, my entire family decided that we would all go back. Eleven of us! It would be our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Uganda. I did not realize that this trip would breathe such a fire in my soul that I would be compelled to do something beyond myself, something that would capture my complete attention and change the course of my life.
I was overcome, undone and impassioned by that experience. I went to the home I grew up in and held the hands of those who had held me as a baby. My heart was irrevocably tied to this great land and her people. When I returned to Canada, I had a deep desire to make a difference to the country that owned my heart. I knew I would have to return.
I decided to do a “project”. I just couldn’t shut up about it. I found myself scheming on all sorts of ideas. I would often dream at night about going back and building structures. But, what could one girl really do?
A great lady and friend of my family, Ruth Moody, had lost her husband recently to cancer. She was left trying to find her new reality and where she fit in without her adventurous husband, Doug. I told her of my plans to do a “project” that, as yet, had no firm legs or strategy. She called me and said she would accompany me and would cover my airfare and hotels as a support to my “project”. I was thrilled beyond belief — but what was my project?
It was seven months until Ruth and I would fly off together. Time ticked on and the dull anxiety in my stomach grew with each passing week. Ruth had already paid my ticket; I needed a project — and fast.
In my turmoil, my good friend, Rod Forrest, from Compassion Canada helped me think through what I could do. As a woman, I love my home. If I could change a desperate woman’s life in some way by providing this same comfort I enjoyed, I would be satisfied. He suggested a turnkey home that would cost about $6,500 and would radically alter a family’s life. I said, “Like an extreme home makeover,” and my spirit lit up inside me.
Which brought me to my next anxiety: How do you raise money? I had no organizations behind me, no one jumping to my rescue with tons of money. I was alone. I wanted to give up! However, Ruth had paid my way and expected me to do something.
This was the darkest part of the journey. The pressure was overwhelming, and I found myself in the fetal position for nights on end, whilst my husband would gently pat me on the back and say, “It’s okay, Hon. We will figure out a fundraiser”. I groaned with fear and insecurity.
In my desperation, one day, I thought about all the great speakers and authors I had interviewed over my 10-year media career. I also had 5 HD cameras sitting in my basement in storage for Trillenium Media Group, the production company I had done my national TV show with. I decided to do a live studio audience taping and invite some pretty significant people to do a night of inspirational speaking. When I asked them, David Bentall, Dr. John Izzo and Dr. Susan Biali gave up their usual large speaking fees to be a part of the evening.
This led me to my next emotional meltdown. ”OK, so I have the project and the fundraiser, but who will build the house, and who is the woman to receive the house?”
One connection I had made was with the Vice-President of Uganda, Mr. Gilbert Bukenya and his Private Secretary, Joseph Lukwago. They had, ironically, visited Vancouver, in October of 2009 and were the most significant political leaders to come in 20 years. Joseph and I became fast friends and spoke many times over the next few months across the continents.
On exactly the day I needed true answers, I received an email from Joseph, the Private Secretary to the VP of Uganda. He made an impassioned, logical plea to allow His Excellency, Vice President Gilbert Bukenya to choose a very destitute woman from his home town and to use his own builders to complete the house. Joseph also threw in the promise of an on-camera interview with the VP. DONE!
The fundraiser yielded about $10,000 from 180 beautiful Canadians. In the weeks that followed, a further $5,000 came in. I was elated and so grateful.
They built the house. And when I arrived in May of 2010 I was able to do an on-camera interview with the Vice-President at his home and hear his heart and see the amazing initiatives he has implemented to help the poor of his country.
The woman they chose to receive the Uganda Extreme Home Makeover was Maria, a beautiful, 60-year-old woman with the most incredible spirit! She had stood as one desperate, lone, poor woman, living in the jungles of Africa. She had no running water or electricity.
As her age gave way to the loss of hope for a bearable life, she wondered how she could continue to care for the three kids entrusted to her or deal with the rain that would flood her entire mud home. Her rising blood pressure signalled that there was no seeming end in sight to the stress.
Maria had cried out to God year after year to be helped, to be seen, to be rescued. By an uncanny, unmistakable miracle, a blonde girl, born in Uganda, moved by an irrepressible urge to make a difference and helped by a generous woman who paid her way back was part of a masterful plan to have people on a different continent build a brand new brick house for Maria. Plus, a new outdoor kitchen, latrine, solar lighting and a house full of furniture were all part of the package.
On my way to Uganda, in my naiveté, I thought all of this had happened so that I would personally grow and step out of my comfort zone, throw a fundraiser, increase my personal skills, get over my fears, and offer Canadians an opportunity to give from their abundance. And all of that happened. But, it turned out, it wasn’t really about me. This all happened because of Maria, alone in the jungle, needing a miracle and, if not me, who would have done it? I have returned home, floored by the goodness that can change a life, swept away by the power of love and captivated by this thing called compassion.
I am now completely driven to build a village that will bring skills training to overcome poverty. The fears that once engulfed me are gone. I see Maria’s face and several million just like her that continue to cry out to be seen, helped and rescued. I cannot turn my back now.
I will return in November to Uganda. I am beyond excited to see what adventures lay just beyond my own mind’s limitations. I press on towards the call to do my part to finish the course that destiny has laid before me.
Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
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Find out more — or donate — at Uganda Extreme Home Makeover.
Estimates by the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization (LVFO) indicate that stocks of the Nile perch have decreased over the past decade from 1.9 million tons to only 600,000 tons in 2009. For each of the nations bordering Lake Victoria — Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya — exports of fish are falling, with yields dropping 10,000 tons in 2008, according to the international fisheries magazine Globefish.
“Fishing has almost collapsed in Uganda, especially Lake Victoria,” said Seremos Kamuturaki, Executive Director of Uganda Fisheries & Fish Conservation Association (UFFCA). “The stock has dwindled tremendously, as evidenced by the fishermen’s small daily catches. This has resulted in very low incomes and a food-insecure fishing community. The people have nothing to eat.”
While visiting in the United States, Kamuturaki explained the dire situation facing his nation in an interview with Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL). He was on a mission to ask for public support from the US, Canada, and the EU in boycotting Nile perch in order to save the livelihoods of local Ugandan fishermen and their families.
We asked Kumuturaki to begin by giving us some background. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
KAMUTURAKI: The major factor is the international fish export trade. Before that, there were enough fish for people to catch, to sell, to put money in their pockets — and to eat. Now, with increasing fish exports to Europe and America, this has directly increased the pressure on our fishing stocks.
In the past, fishermen used to fish fewer hours per day. But with the increasing demand, it meant that people had to fish throughout the day and during the night. And this actually had a bearing on the stock. Initially, the men who were hiring the boats started catching a lot more, much more than before. Then, to make it worse, they started catching even the smaller fish. Now there are no fish.
When there was a booming business in the fish export trade, many fish factories were established on the shores of Lake Victoria. There are about 25 in Uganda, about 30 in Kenya, about 20 in Tanzania. So, you can imagine all that over-capitalization on the lake.
BPGL: What is the effect of over-capitalization on the local people?
KAMUTURAKI: Over-capitalization meant that these factories had to break. They are there for profit making, and cannot operate at a loss. They have to get fish at whatever cost, whether they’re small fish or big fish. And so, all this pressure on the lake has resulted in collapse.
It is a major problem in the area. I tell you, people are very poor. The fishermen themselves don’t keep the fish. The little that is caught is taken away by the factory to be processed and exported to support the fish export and processing factories. So this is the major concern for me.
BPGL: What about breeding? Are young fish replenishing the stock?
KAMUTURAKI: That’s also a problem. There are two new dams in series just downstream of what they call the source of the Nile. These are in addition to one that was built in the 1940s. The dams have caused the water level of Lake Victoria to recede.
And when the waters recede, it means the shallow areas that act as fish breeding grounds are left bare. And being left bare means killing the eggs that were there and exposing the young fish to predators. So that has contributed to the dwindling fish stocks in addition to overfishing and destructive fishing gear.
BPGL: What is the effect on the local economy
KAMUTURAKI: Before the introduction of the fish-export trade on Lake Victoria, women used to get fish from their husbands. They used to smoke sun-dried or dry-salted fish, sell them locally, and get money to feed their children and support the family. Now, with the increasing liberalization of the fish-export trade, it has meant that women have lost. They cannot compete with the strong factory agents who buy fish at the highest price.
Women are being thrown out of the business. What is happening now is that, for the woman to get fish, she has to sell her body. That is the negotiating tool. The man says, “If you want me to sell you fish, you have to go to bed with me.” It’s sex for fish. It’s crooked. Without that, women can’t get the fish, I can assure you. They can’t.
BPGL: What is happening to the families under pressures such as these?
KAMUTURAKI: A lot of families are breaking up. They are disintegrating because of economics. You know what happens in Africa when there is no food in the house, when there is no money? (It’s not only in Africa — it’s true with any human beings — it could happen in the US.) You’ll see families breaking. Without food, without money, there’s no life at all. And the culture is completely lost.
BPGL: What are you doing to try to solve this problem in Uganda?
KAMUTURAKI: For us, every year, we do campaigns. We organize a campaign at a regional level for all countries: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania. Every year, we get support from the Oxfam Novib and Code Eight. We run these campaigns every year, and we condemn the government about it. We pressure the government to change these policies, which hurt the poor.
We have been doing this for the last three years on Lake Victoria. We haven’t succeeded, but we have the hope that we shall succeed. But what’s important is for the global north peoples and organizations to pressure the consumers in Europe and America not to eat the fish.
BPGL: Which fish do you want us to boycott?
KAMUTURAKI: Nile perch from Lake Victoria. It is not being caught with sustainable fishing methods. That’s one reason. And second, the people are suffering socially and economically. So, if there’s a boycott on these continents, America and Europe, where the fish is consumed, then there can be some kind of pressure on our government to stop all these bad things. And that’s the only way to go.
We want the Ugandan government to change their policy from one of export to allowing people to catch locally and sell locally. That way there’s enough for people to eat in the future.
BPGL: What are you doing to try to pressure the government about the water level in Lake Victoria?
KAMUTURAKI: I can assure you that at one time there was a massive demonstration by various people, environmentalists and so forth. Some people were almost shot! My colleague died from an accident last year in September, and he had an accident because he was one of the demonstrators.
So, you see that’s how the situation is. When you want to fight for the rights of the people and you are demonstrating — or not even demonstrating, but you are expressing your grievances — government doesn’t tend to understand you. It’s driven by foreign investment. That’s the interest in our government.
BPGL: Are you seeing the effects of climate change in Uganda?
KAMUTURAKI: Yes, that is another major concern I have. Climate change on Lake Victoria has caused a lot of problems. I can attribute it to a massive cutting of the forest by the people, within the islands of Lake Victoria and along the shoreline. They cut the trees to build houses and to get wood for smoking fish.
Then, there is the recent palm oil project by an Indian company on Bugala Island. The whole forest was cleared just to plant palm oil. Can you imagine that? The forest had been acting as the regulator of the rainfall. Now, you can see the whole ecosystem was destroyed.
BPGL: How was that allowed to happen?
KAMUTURAKI: The government allowed it, because the government wants to see more foreign investors and more taxes. And all this is driven by the World Bank. They profitize everything and liberalize the trade duties. It is the World Bank that is behind it. It is an IMF kind of thing. At the macro level, the World Bank is responsible.
I think the situation is so bad. People are telling the government, but the government doesn’t seem to bother. That is what they call industrialization or transformation of agriculture. The government thinks that these investments are okay.
BPGL: What is the purpose of your being in the U.S.? How does that relate to your work back at home?
KAMUTURAKI: Unless we in Africa build strong alliances with the organizations that are in America and Europe, where the consumers are, we shall not succeed in our campaign efforts in Africa. We need to build strong alliances and networks in Africa and with organizations, social movements, and the NGOs in America and Europe. Together, we can put pressure at a global level, at a regional level, as well as at a national level. It will not help us to only put pressure at a national level.
My purpose in coming here is to see that we are viewed as this kind of alliance, as well as for networking and the sharing of information. We must have solidarity in fighting these oppressors of human beings.
BPGL: How long has the overfishing by international interests been going on?
KAMUTURAKI: Since 1980. That was the beginning of the huge industrial fish processing factories in Uganda. Nineteen years is a long time for the companies to raid our natural resources. Trading in fish is not like a factory producing clothing. It’s a natural resource. It has a limit.
BPGL: You are seeking support from consumers in the US. I assume you would also like to have support from our president. If you had a chance to speak with President Obama, what would you say to him?
KAMUTURAKI: I would tell him not to support some of these policies, which hurt Africans. If he was not supporting them, they would stop. The system would stop. But the system is still continuing. Maybe he has not been told. He has to know, because he has heard these voices from the past president, so he has to know this was happening before. As a president, he must know. He’s informed. He’s briefed. I would tell him, “Please, stop supporting policies from Africa which hurt the poor.”
BPGL: What is your message for the American and European people?
KAMUTURAKI: I want to appeal to people in the U.S. and Europe, for example, that there are very many efforts in Africa that are supporting genuine programs and genuine interventions, but they lack support. And I invite those who have the financial and material support to come and join the good-intentioned Africans like us to fight this trouble.
That is my appeal to Americans, because now I am in the land of America. An American who has good will, who has a good heart, and a good intention, I call upon him or her to come to our rescue. Let us join our hands together and fight this struggle.
We don’t have the capacities to be able to advance this struggle alone. We need the support of our brothers and sisters in America here, those who have the genuine vision to support the poor. That’s my message to Americans. And to the Europeans, I give the same message.
Let’s get our hearts together, and together we shall succeed.
We may feel like shedding tears, but we will not give up. We shall continue struggling, struggling, until one day, we know, one day, one time, we shall succeed.
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