Podcast: Little Big Voice

Power of the Streets Episode 3: Ugandan writer Rosebell Kagumire edits an African feminist blog. She discusses the importance of curating these voices and how allies with large platforms influence the current movement. This discussion looks at the media’s role in trivializing sexual violence and the growth of support for survivors.

About Power of the Streets

Power of the Streets is a podcast about how we speak truth to power. In a series of intimate interviews, host Audrey Kawire Wabwire brings us the achievements and stories of the young people driving Africa’s human rights movement.


Audrey Kawire Wabwire: This is Power of the Streets, a podcast series brought to you by Human Rights Watch about how we speak truth to power. I’m Audrey Kawire Wabwire, and I’m based in Nairobi, Kenya.

So far in the season, we’ve been to Nigeria and Malawi to hear from some of the people driving Africa’s #MeToo movement. We have so many other countries to get to, but in this episode, we’re taking the conversation to Uganda.

Everyone we speak to in the series has a second, a minute, or an hour, when they realize that they need to make a change. The moment when they decide to step up… and Rise.

Rosebell Kagumire: The world shocking me in, in ways that, you know, I spent most of my university days running around as a journalist, I was working for Daily Monitor, one of them, you know, leading independent daily’s in the country. So it really, really opened my eyes at a very young age because you know, you're coming from secondary school you don't know much about the world or even your country. 

Audrey: That's Rosebell Kagumire, she's the curator and editor of the prominent blog, African Feminism, which works with over 27 African feminists. The blog is just one of the ways she uses to organize and stand up for women's rights. 

Rosebell: Those were I think, early stages of awakening or of, I would say at least to be concerned beyond my own, you know, beyond my own being, you know, I could tell you, like before I was aware of, of course human inequalities, I was aware of patriarchy, even if I didn't know the word, at least that from the early age, you know, about that. But to be really quite aware of other people's inequalities beyond, even if you're a woman, even if your a girl like you are not affected the same as other factors that affect other people, it was when I started, you know, being a journalist at a very young age.

Audrey: So let's go back a bit to the beginning. You know, tell me about the moment when you began your activism.

Rosebell: It's not a moment. I think it's a journey, so there's different moments, but overall I would call it a journey to arrive where you are at. Um, my background, you know, I'm a journalist by training my first job for 10 years. I worked in Uganda newsrooms. So definitely I, so, and I started working as a journalist, rather you know at a very young age. Uh, you know at university, I hadn't even graduated. 

Audrey: Hmm, how old were you? 

Rosebell: 18, 19. But working there, like by the age of 20, I was covering covering riots in Kampala. I was covering, you know, I was covering political parties. Then I was, you know, learning on the job, learning many things that I, probably, my education would not have given me. So it really opened my eyes at a very young age to what was coming, what was going on in the country, but also opened my eyes in terms of like, privilege to understand, you know, even if I didn't know, like the right words, maybe right now, like looking at feminist language, but I was quite aware at a young age about, uh, the inequalities that inepted my country.

Audrey: That's really interesting. And you're speaking about some really heavy stuff, but let's go back to what you're saying, um, about, you know, how you are beginning your, your realization of, you know, how, you know, different people are living in your country and you're reporting about this and learning at the same time. Do you think that it was this just seeing these things that, you know, drove you to where you are today? Or is it something else?

Rosebell: I remember a very pertinent issue, I was an intern in, in one of the newsroom in the newsroom, you know, a Daily Monitor newsroom. And I didn't know anybody. Oh, well I had an uncle who worked in the same newsroom, but he's quite senior. So you, you spend your days of, of course, sort of figuring out things with your colleagues and making your own connections. And, so one of the editors, senior editors came to me and said, Oh, you know, because as at school I'd send in stories. And sometimes I have to come the next day, there was no internet, much connections at the time. So he was like, ‘Oh, you know, I need your phone number and your email, uh, in case when you send stories, I have some questions.’ This was a sub editor, you know, I'm like, ‘Oh, all right.’

I give them to him. Like we were in the same flow of the newsroom. And I think within like 30 minutes, I was seated on a certain spot. In my end, the phone, uh, my phone rang, no, no like the intercom rang, then I pick it like, ‘who is it?’ And somebody doesn't talk, you know, I'm like, that's strange. Okay. Anyways, it's an office phone. So I, I go, I had my first phone, my uncle had bought me a Siemens, small phone.

Audrey: Yes I remember.

Rosebell: My uncle had given it to me because I could not afford anything like a phone at that point. Um, so my phone rings, then someone is like, ‘Oh, do you know who this is?’ So my feeling is that at the time, very few people had a phone. So I thought it was one of my friends. Maybe they were on holidays and maybe they are, they are teasing me. I'm like, uh, you know, I'm going to hang up if you don't tell me who you are. So he told me he was the editor, I had just given my phone number to. We're in the same newsroom he's calling me. Can you imagine? And I was mad. I just hung up.

I think a few more minutes, a few minutes later, I go into my inbox. You know, I find in my email, I found an email from him. It's like, ‘Oh, you're so beautiful.’ Can you imagine?

Audrey: Just 5min later?

Rosebell: He had sent, I think the email before, so I went into my inbox and read, I was so mad. My blood was boiling.

Audrey: Oh my can you imagine that, that’s awful.

Rosebell: And I was like, what do I do to this situation? So anyways, I am that strong-willed, I just immediately responded to him and told him, I'm not here for a beauty show. You should see in that email, when I read his letter, I was like, Oh my God, I'm so, so daring. I can't even imagine 18 years old. I'm telling this man, who's probably like 45 or 40. I'm like, I'm not here for a beauty show and I don't care your opinion of my looks. 

Audrey: Yeah. Go you!

Rosebell: Things like that. I'm like, I give you my number for professional purposes. I don't think that. And I told him to act his age, it was such a take down.

Yeah. It was a proper take down. You know, I sent it, I was mad. Then I walk around, I think in the evening when I ask, when I was sent out for an assignment, I go and ask a friend of mine who was a photographer, very nice person, guy. I asked him, what exactly does this guy do? What is his power? So after I sent the email *laughing* I start thinking about what is going to happen.

He was like, Oh, uh, he does, this is what he lays actually determines which stories go on, which page and stuff. I'm like I'm finished. He's like what happened? I'm like something happened. I, I just took him on. So I don't know if I'm going to publish anything.

And he's like, okay, just, just keep a distance and see how he reacts, but make sure you just know he has powers like to lay pages and stories. You know he can throw out your stories stuff. So I start panicking. Then I start, I called my uncle. He was not in the newsroom. 

Audrey: Uncle I have messed up.

Rosebell: Like I would not have. I'm a very independent person even if you are my relative in the same space and the chances of me coming to you with anything are zero. But that was a very urgent matter. Like I asked I, his phone was off actually, as I said, I had sent him and I didn't know, like he didn't tell me he was not around. So I learned later from the editor, that my uncle had gone to cover some, some out of, out of town news. You know, he was there for a few days. I started panicking. I sent him an email describing the whole situation, you know I am so young, I even forward him my response and the email.

Okay. Uh, so, so anyways, uh, he he's he's replies and tells me calm down, there's no nothing's going to happen to you. 

Audrey: Good.

Rosebell: And I'm coming back in a few days. We, I’ll see how to handle this, you know? Um, so I dunno. Um, I think when he comes back, he kind of has a conversation with his senior colleagues about this. I don't even know how that email ended up in another newspaper. So somehow there was, yeah, there was something happened around this time, but he told me was, I think he's colleague. Like he shared he’s like, we need to address this kind of thing. I walked into the newsroom after this was published, they called a meeting and they talked about sexual harassment about interns. There was like some women who were senior journalists, editors. They said, we need a meeting, but I wasn't even in there in the office.

So I came from my school. I used to come like later because I had to attend school. When I reached the reception. Everybody was looking at me funny it was like, what's going on. First I had not been the one who sent that. Like I, you know, like, no. So that was for me, the earliest. Anyway, they called me and asked me and, and told him, like, you cannot, you know, this is it, but I could stand up for myself against somebody with that much power, at the age of 18. So I think that you, you can’t really be an activist and stand up for people if you can't stand up for yourself, it starts with the self, you know, you can't otherwise, I don't know, like you can't hold it longer. Like you can't go on working longer if you have not done the inside job of standing up for yourself.

Audrey: Yes, yes. That, that is so important. I, a hundred percent agree. And, you know, talking about the movement, the #MeToo movement in Africa, um, this conversation was quickly followed by, you know, uh, discussion about marginalized workers in the humanitarian industry. That's the subsequent Aid Too movement, um, which exposed sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, and just a general toxic working environment that women in particular are subjected to in the global aid sector. And this sector is white, male-dominated. You wrote a very personal reflection based on your experience in this. Tell us about it.

Rosebell: Yeah. You know, like how I’ve been talking about like, um, building consciousness around gender and my place in the world. Uh, not, uh, an individual story, but a story that is rooted in history and the systems that are around us. Um, I think that it was because of my studies around gender and that led me to understand that, to understand racial politics and racism and how it manifests right. And so I went, uh, I was invited to go, um, take part in a campaign and the campaign was on migrant rights and I was very passionate about at the time there was really a crisis happening, uh, along across the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden. Um, people were many African young people were on the move to Europe, to the Middle East in millions, you know? Um, so I thought it was a very important platform to really advocate.

And then that was at the time 2015, the rise of populism in Europe, you know, anti-immigration, anti-blackness all come and  go together. I thought, you know, this is a very good campaign but then slowly the politics inside politics and organization were not sustainable. There were not enough black people in the organization. Um, it was totally like, it was probably 80 something percent white, and I'd never been in a place like that in my whole world. You know? Um, I don't think I was prepared for it, you know, uh, in, and also when you go to meeting and most people were heads were white male middle-aged men who, you know, see themselves as experts on our countries and our lives. And as a very conscious African, it was a struggle. It was a struggle to bring myself to these, uh, to these rooms. You know. 

Audrey: Did you feel like the expectation was just, you know, keep quiet, just be grateful you're here?

Rosebell: Of course. And once I was there, there was one, uh, Kenyan guy who was one of the heads of departments. And this guy who actually hired me, a white, called the only black man in management to kind of show me off like, you know, I have hired a black person that was the first red flag. And it was like, why are you excited to hire me as a black person? Like showing me off? Like, yeah. So it was really in small doses, but to be honest the system had no means of accountability, if you were, you were facing workplace harassment, which I went through. Bullying at work by that supervisor and I wasn't alone. There was another Kenyan guy. There was a South Sudanese, uh, woman, uh, in the same department who, who joined later on, who also left around the same time as me and went through horrible, horrible episodes of violence from this person.

And there was nowhere to report, like even when the one of us reported and nobody responded to them, you know, but also, uh, I came to a place as a consultant. So you don't have many rights. You understand, in this space, you're a black woman, you're a consultant you're living in Europe. Um, you're far away from home, you know, uh, so many vulnerabilities that I had never experienced in my life. And you don't have security of job because your consultant. This same person, um, abusing you is the person to actually sign off If you were to get, you know, an extension, uh, a next contract. So it was quite, uh, I spent, I think half of the year in that place crying with my friends.

Audrey: Ohhh, I’m so sorry.

RosebellI: t was terrible. That’s how violent it is and you don't, it's so insidious because someone asks you, so what was that one thing? The person, it's not one thing, someone yelling at you, people when systems are white systems set up, um, as what we call the white industrial complex right now, to, it's like, you are the good white people trying to save these black people. And then when you're a black person in that system, it's a whole different experience. Yeah. But there was top level sexist, racist abuse, um, that actually the very system has no mechanism of even addressing. 

Audrey: Yeah, I agree. Um, I'm remembering one of, a campaign you are involved in a push for Stella Nyanzi, uh, you came out publicly and really supported Stella during her court case on, uh, cyber harassment and offensive communication. That time she’d published a poem in 2019 condemning the president, president Museveni. Um, and in an article you wrote about one of her court appearances, you mentioned a moment where the magistrate suggested that she should take a seat. Um, it, it might be, she was standing and, you know, Stella, she decided no I'm going to keep standing. So she says, I'm going to keep standing. I'll stand for all women. Yeah. Could you talk about why the statement from Stella really resonated with you and put it in context of, you know, the movement and where, where  were women that time in Uganda?

Rosebell: I covered a lot of court sessions for that case. And, um, in, in that moment, remember the magistrate was a woman who was presiding over this case. And of course she was often shocked out of her system because this is, this is, you know, these are poems that you have to put up in the courtroom and have to be read loudly 

Audrey: When you show the evidence yeah.

Rosebell: Yes this is the evidence you're dealing with at your hand. So often the court sessions were long. So I think it had taken like five hours and Stella standing as an accused in the doc in, and then at some point the magistrate sort of having mercy on Stella says, um, I think Stella should have a seat. It's fine. You can have a seat. And Stella was about to take a seat and the magistrate adds, especially, you know, she's a woman. I was like, I'm sure she knew that this is not something you tell Stella. It is against all her politics to, because you have mercy on her because she's a woman. Does that mean if you, if there was another person in that dock it challenges on so many levels. So another human being you're supposed to treat them, you know how. But also, um, like quietly saying like she's weak because she was a woman. And Stella said, I'm not, thank you let's continue. And that was a very, very powerful moment saying I'm going to stand up for myself and for the women that you think are weak. And if that's, you know, it's like, of course she was not actually in a very good health, but she actually resisted with all her life.

Audrey: Stella’s resistance as you're covering it as we are witnessing it. It's, you know, as you're saying, it's multi-faceted and it's, uh, trying to challenge people to think about power in these structures very differently in ways that maybe they usually resist or are afraid of thinking about them. What do you think it's doing for young women, young queer activists right now?

SRosebell: I think it's very important to have a visible ally in a country where a few years ago you had a law that was calling for a death penalty for LGBTQ Ugandans. So having somebody consistent and afraid putting these issues in any movement that is against oppression, has to look at all types of oppression. You know? So she brings that good voice of checking different people, whether it's the men in the movement. She challenges them because, uh, we are not oppressed the same as a woman and a man. You know, we are not oppressed the same. When the, when the country systems break down, we don't suffer the same way. When you come from a country where 14 people, 14 women die everyday due to pregnancy complications. For a life of a woman in our country, it means at some point you will almost die.

And that's not something a man in our country will ever have to contend with. So I think that she brings that analysis to them, to, to her challenge, to the, to the status quo and say, yes, we have to be open. And also, you know, bringing other people that are marginalized, like queer Ugandans, you know, like they are Ugandans, they have the same rights as you, while a typical mainstream opposition person would not support LGBTI rights in our country.

Audrey: Yeah. Uh, Rosebell, we, um, you know, you're doing a lot of work. You're really busy. I am so glad you had the time to even come and chat. I saw that during the pandemic, you're chilling in the village, I was really following your Instagram and you're making this really beautiful baskets. So I just, wanted to hear about, about your self care and how you take care of yourself, amidst all, you know, facing these stories and these issues every day, which can be super draining.

Rosebell: When the, when the pandemic hit in Uganda, we reported our first case. Um, I was, uh, I was born in the village. I love, I love being out in the countryside and being with my parents, my, my relatives. I, for me, that is where my roots are. Even when people say, are you from Kampala? I'm like, no, I live in Kampala, but I'm not from there. I'm from somewhere else. You know, that's where my roots are. That's where people I know have seen me young and, you know, uh, know a lot about me. So I knew that I didn't want to, this to be a situation where I'm in an apartment in a city and stuck. So I was able to stay with my mom and my aunties. And then in one of the conversations we were like, what do we do?

You know, we are idle, we need to do something. My mom knows how to weave baskets very well. And my aunties are like, let's, let's continue. Let's do this. You know? Um, so then we started. I had not actually attempted to weave a basket since I was probably like nine years old because we used to do those things in schoolwork handwork in school in, in, in my area. So, actually we started uh basket. Weaving a basket is like so addictive, you know, once you wake up and you touch it, like you can’t stop people just say, oh, lunchtime. And if you want, like, to finish the basket, like you can actually say, I don't want lunch. I need to finish this. So it's very therapeutic work is, makes you focus. Like it's like, the world is not existing.

Audrey: It’s like a meditation kind of.

Rosebell: Yeah and also like, the weaving is good socially. So my aunties would come and we'll sit and do together and share stories. And so in that, you know, able to connect with people differently in a way I would not have connected with them if we didn't go back. And we made so many baskets by the time I was coming back to Kampala, after six months, we had many baskets. So I started selling for them. Yeah. Then until actually until like Christmas time, they also made so many baskets and I put them on my Instagram and send, send people to deliver them. And they did, they did really, um, it helped them a lot because, you know, everybody’s  work was on hold, you know, in a lot of older women, of course, even if in the rural area, like you depend on your farm, they don't have problems with food, but money was nowhere to be seen. You know?

Audrey: Um, you've talked about lots of interesting things you're doing. Where can someone see your work? Where can they find you on social media online, anywhere?

Rosebell: Well, you can find me on Twitter at Rosebell K. And if you're tired of arguments, you can find me on Instagram. You know, where I like to retreat to, uh, Instagram, just, you know, easy life. I love fashion. I love other things. 

Audrey: Yes. Um, by the way I should have started with Rosebell’s fashion is amazing, but continue.

Rosebell: Yeah, but you know, often, like we started with how people want to put you in a box. So often when I meet people there, I think they expect like a very big woman with a very big presence. And I disappoint many often. But, but also like when you're a woman in this space and you articulating these issues, people tend to think you have no life. Yes. Or they think that this is the only life you live. So we're always shocked to see my other side, like, you know, we are very multifaceted people. I mean, many things in one day, you step out you go and enjoy life however you can find it.


Audrey: You have been listening to Power of the Streets, a podcast series brought to you by Human Rights Watch. I’m Audrey Kawire Wabwire.

That’s the end of our show. Check out our show notes for more about Rosebell and her work at African Feminism.

In the next episode, we take the conversation to Gambia.

To learn more about Human Rights Watch visit HRW.org. Follow us on Twitter @HRW and onInstagram @Humanrightswatch for updates about the show. 

Join the conversation using the hashtag Power of the Streets and share your thoughts with Rosebell or any of our other guests, and you can tell us how you’re speaking truth to power. 

Our producer is Andisiwe May and this is a Volume production. 

The main theme song, Au Revoir is produced by Young OG Beats.

Till next time, thank you for listening.

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