Africa’s Agents of Change
The arrival of the first peace fellows at the new peace center in Kampala, Uganda, heralds the beginning of a new era for Rotary and the continent.
In the last week of February, in Kampala, Uganda, 15 Rotary Peace Fellows gathered at Makerere University for the inaugural session of Rotary International’s new peace center. Among them, the peace center’s first cohort represented 11 countries and spoke, in addition to English, a dozen African languages, including Luganda, Swahili, and Zulu. “Coming from diverse backgrounds, and yet with a shared desire for peace in Africa, they are the epitome of unity in diversity,” said Anne Nkutu, a member of the Rotary Club of Kampala Naalya and the host area coordinator for the Makerere University peace center.
With an average age of 40 when they were admitted to the program, the fellows are not novice peacemakers. These are established professionals with a minimum of five years of experience in peace and development. They arrived at Makerere University — home to an established program in peace and conflict studies — already working on an initiative, or with an idea for one, that promotes peace or social change within their workplace or community. “The fellows are more interested in the practical side of peacebuilding,” said Helen Nambalirwa Nkabala, the director of the peace center. “They want to see how things are done, as opposed to our regular students, who are more interested in the theoretical aspects. So the fellows come off as, and indeed are, change agents.”
Prior to arriving at Makerere, the peace fellows began their studies with a two-week online session, the first stage in Rotary’s new yearlong certificate program in peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and development. (The peace center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, which previously offered a three-month version of the certificate program, has also adopted this new model.) Following the 10-week session in Kampala, they will return home to begin implementing their social change initiatives, checking in periodically with their instructors and fellow students. They will return to Makerere in early 2022 to complete the program.
Earlier this year, as they prepared to depart for Kampala, Rotary magazine spoke with six of the peace fellows via Zoom and WhatsApp. The conversations were a crash course in African history and politics. They were also an inspiration, offering a glimpse of the possibilities that lie ahead for Africa once these peace fellows — and those to follow in the years ahead — complete their studies at Makerere and disperse across the continent to share what they have learned.
The first time Patience Rusare encountered tribalism in her native Zimbabwe, she was in first grade. As members of the Shona tribe living in Bulawayo — a city dominated by the Ndebele people — her family didn’t speak the local language as well as their neighbors. “I answered a question in class, and the other kids laughed and called me a derogatory name,” recalls Rusare, now 32. “I went home and asked my parents: Is something wrong with us? You could see that the tensions were coming from home, and the children were bringing them to school.”
Twenty-five years later, Rusare is an editor and a senior political journalist for The Patriot, a newspaper based in Harare. In 2013, after years of writing business stories, she changed her focus. She began covering conflicts, whether political crises in Lesotho and Mali in 2014 and 2015, hostile Ugandan elections in 2016, or a coup d’état in her native Zimbabwe in 2017, often tracing underlying issues back decades to explain the current climate.
“People were not making informed decisions,” Rusare says. “And that lack of information can make people desperate and easy to manipulate.” As she wrote in an unbiased manner, she began to see a direct correlation between the information in her stories and public policy. In Lesotho, Rusare says, mediation from a Botswana-based intragovernmental organization called the Southern African Development Community led to a resolution that was influenced by a story that she had written for The Patriot. “I feel like I really made positive change in the world there,” she says. “They have some lasting peace in Lesotho.”
I want my children to grow up in an environment where all people love each other regardless of the ethnic groups they belong to. They will know that we are all diverse, but we are all one.
In 2019, in hopes of learning “the nitty-gritty of peace dealings,” she got a master’s degree in peace, leadership, and conflict resolution. “I made a commitment to myself to use the media to create a more just and peaceful world,” Rusare says.
As special elections, rescheduled from 2020, approach in Zimbabwe, the same tribal conflict that Rusare witnessed as a child rages on. Through her social change initiative, Rusare wants to change the approach of journalism in Zimbabwe. “We’ve got to get rid of the idea of ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ and work as peace practitioners,” she says. “A positive peace story can get people to buy a newspaper if it’s a good enough human-interest story.” Her plan is to train 20 journalists in the art of conflict reporting — a group of Ndebele and Shona journalists, working together — and charge each one to go out and mentor journalists among their own people until the approach extends across the country and beyond.
“I don’t want my children to go through what I went through,” says Rusare of her 8-year-old and 3-year-old. “I want them to grow up in an environment where all people love each other regardless of the ethnic groups they belong to. They will know that we are all diverse, but we are all one.”
It’s simply not in Peter Pal’s personality to talk about trauma. When he speaks of harrowing experiences — fleeing a civil war in his native Sudan in 1989, seeing loved ones and friends die, spending 11 years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia with no goal beyond survival — it’s with a surprising, matter-of-fact frankness. “You learn to live through it so that you can be strong,” he says.
So when Pal tells you about the day in 2001 when he left the camp and immigrated to Australia, you might think he would never look back. You’d be wrong. “I want to give South Sudan stability and improve the lives of people there,” says Pal, 52. “If I have the opportunity to help, I will. Because I am one of them.”
As a community educator for the Victorian Electoral Commission in southeastern Australia, Pal is trained in peacebuilding and diplomacy. “The electoral process is critical for good government, for choosing the right leadership and learning to exercise democracy,” he says. “People have the right to make the final decision about what’s right for them.” When he heard about the Rotary Peace Fellowship, he recognized an opportunity to use his skill set on a global level — and take it back to his home country nearly 8,000 miles away.
On a 2017 trip to South Sudan, Pal was shocked to find that formerly healthy rural areas had been urbanized without the necessary health facilities and educational opportunities. Small towns had been completely neglected by the government. He envisions combating this neglect by promoting peace — not simply the absence of war and tribal infighting, but a day-to-day stability where essential services such as health care, food, and water are available. “Without these things, people will always fight amongst themselves,” says Pal. “Only when there is this kind of peace do you have the opportunity to plant seeds of education.”
As part of his social change initiative, Pal plans to engage with professional peacebuilders to explore alternative dispute resolution. Of particular focus is the need to restore dignity for the most vulnerable victims of South Sudan’s continued crisis: mothers and children. “Ignorance continues to dehumanize them in Africa,” Pal says. “Women continue to give birth to children who don’t really flourish. And though they’re not part of the politics, they are the ones who suffer when people die in a reckless war.”
Despite all that Pal has experienced, he remains hopeful. And why not? Twenty years ago, he escaped a violent civil war in Africa, and now he has returned on a peacebuilding mission. “If we are not optimistic, we will all be stuck focusing on what’s in our own hand rather than looking into alternatives that can be applied for the betterment of all society,” he says. “Not just in South Sudan, but for Africa and the world.”
A democratic country in southern Africa, Zambia is not known for its record on women’s rights. As Jew Moonde explains, the country’s deeply embedded patriarchal values have traditionally subjugated women in a variety of ways, some of them violent, some systemic. Gender discrimination has been woven into the fabric of Zambian society, he says, and as a result, when election time arrives, women’s voices are not heard.
“Women have not gotten a fair share of participation in the electoral process,” says Moonde, 50, the peace and conflict manager of the Electoral Commission of Zambia. “And if women are not engaged in the political process, their grievances will continue building up. It is time for women to take a stand politically.”
Zambia’s recent elections have been marred by violence and intimidation, which breaks Moonde’s heart. For nearly half his life, the Lusaka native has been a consultant with the Zambia Center for Inter-Party Dialogue (ZCID); working with this Lusaka-based NGO, he’s dedicated to building an infrastructure to ensure free and fair elections, whether by meeting with politicians to sensitize them to the gender imbalance or training people on how to manage conflict in the electoral process. After two decades, many of ZCID’s legal reform proposals have been passed into law by parliament.
If you want change to come, empower people with the knowledge that they have the right to something.
But getting women involved in the political process is only part of Moonde’s mission. He wants to get the younger generation on board, too. “Politics is predominantly for old folks in Zambia,” says Moonde, who has degrees in psychology and peace and conflict studies. “Unemployed youths are the implementers of violence, and they’re also the victims.” To engage them, ZCID focuses on social media outreach and youth-oriented community radio stations; it also helps young people develop skills that might one day help them find a rewarding career. “If you want change to come, empower people with the knowledge that they have the right to something,” says Moonde.
If all goes as planned during his peace fellowship, Moonde wants to acquire the knowledge to help transform ZCID into a statutory body: a permanent peace structure that provides an official platform for dialogue and mediation in Zambian politics. “I start hearing politicians talking and youths talking, exercising their rights to expression,” says Moonde. “It shows us that what we do has an impact on people. No one will help Zambians unless they do it themselves.”
There are more than 11,000 Rotaract clubs worldwide; one of them is in a refugee settlement in Africa. Founded in 2016 in Nakivale — a huge rural camp in southwest Uganda where about 150,000 people live in more than 75 villages spread across an area roughly the size of Kolkata — the club has members from half a dozen African countries. “Nakivale is like a mini-United Nations,” says Paul Mushaho, the club’s co-founder. “People have fled their homes because of war and had trauma on the way here.”
In 2016, Mushaho, a student with degrees in business information systems and computer engineering, fled his native Democratic Republic of the Congo after receiving death threats from a Mai-Mai militia group. Almost as soon as he arrived in Nakivale, Mushaho saw opportunities to improve the refugees’ quality of life. Two of his earliest projects were a money-transfer service and a beekeeping business that sold honey. That second project caught the eye of Rotarians in Kampala.
Soon, with an assist from the American Refugee Committee (known today as Alight) and Rotary clubs in Uganda and Minnesota, Mushaho was launching his own Rotaract Club in Nakivale. Its members have taught farming and masonry skills, planted trees, established a women’s community center, and delivered blankets and mattresses to people who have taken in orphaned children. “I tell them: All we have given you is a sign of appreciation for all you do in the community,” Mushaho says.
A charismatic 29-year-old, Mushaho has an almost supernatural ability to find ways to help. When he saw that the camp’s elderly population found themselves marginalized, he organized lunches where they could share their experiences as former diplomats, engineers, teachers, and doctors. When he noticed that young refugees of different nationalities weren’t interacting, he helped organize a soccer tournament. More recently, Mushaho’s team made and delivered 14,000 masks and 8,000 bars of soap to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Nakivale. “I see people who are happy, simply by receiving what they are supposed to get,” says Mushaho. “We are creating hope in people who have lost their hope.”
In 2018, Mushaho was invited to the United Nations Africa headquarters in Nairobi, where he was honored as one of six Rotary People of Action: Young Innovators. “Our refugee community realized our local challenges needed local solutions,” he said in his speech. “We are not beggars; we are a generation of change and inspiration.”
In Makerere, Mushaho sees a reflection of his environment in Nakivale, where he was surrounded by innovative, multicultural people who were full of ideas and energy, all of them seeking ways to break barriers that inhibited promoting peace. “The fellowship aligns closely to what I am doing in the camp,” says Mushaho. “When I go back, I will know how to tackle different challenges in different communities based on their norms and beliefs. My dreams and hopes are delighted.”
“If people are not calm, no one is going to get anywhere,” says Catherine Baine-Omugisha. In this instance, the 45-year-old Kampala attorney is referring to her legal specialty — conflict mitigation and appropriate dispute resolution in family issues — but she might as well be talking about her own personal path.
With her composed demeanor and pragmatic approach, Baine-Omugisha rose through the male-dominated world of law in Uganda, serving as a magistrate, a lecturer, a technical adviser in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and, currently, a private practitioner with her own consulting firm in Kampala.
Through it all, her approach has been the same: Maintain composure. Listen, encourage others, and seek solutions. Be open to exploring a new way of doing things. Test it. If it works, embrace it. In 2000, while serving as a magistrate at Masaka Chief Magistrate Court in southern Uganda, Baine-Omugisha joined a pilot program called the Chain Linked Initiative; to enhance access to criminal justice, it encouraged collaboration among police, prosecutors, prisons, probation officers, welfare agencies, and the judiciary. The program worked so well that it was rolled out nationwide.
I may not single-handedly change Uganda’s direction. But every intervention I make to change the ordinary citizen’s outlook toward human rights is a good contribution.
Now she is hoping her fellowship will enable her to apply that spirit of cooperation on a larger scale. “In Uganda, at the moment, we are dealing with issues of respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, and corruption,” says Baine-Omugisha. Her principal concern is domestic violence, an ongoing problem that stems from a combination of factors: cultural and gender biases, economic hardships, and a lack of awareness about what actually constitutes domestic violence. In educating community leaders about domestic violence’s triggers and effects, as well as its legal and policy framework, she hopes to shift the focus to prevention, rather than addressing it after the fact.
There is a southern African philosophy called ubuntu that says, “I am because you are.” It’s a reminder that no one can exist alone. Baine-Omugisha says the fellowship has helped her rediscover that concept’s value as a homegrown peace approach, and she plans to put it into effect. “I may not single-handedly change Uganda’s direction,” she says. “But every intervention I make to change the ordinary citizen’s outlook toward human rights is a good contribution. If we have a number of people doing that, we can bring about significant change.”
While growing up, whenever Fikiri Nzoyisenga washed dishes, his friends could not stop laughing: Why are you doing the dishes? That is for the woman to do. He just shrugged. In his home, chores were for girls and boys, just as his father and stepmother shared the cooking and other domestic tasks. “This was not normal,” says Nzoyisenga. “Things were very different in my household than in others.” It was also different in another way: With his father a member of the majority Hutu group and his stepmother a Tutsi, their marriage was forbidden. “They did it anyway,” says their son, “to show there was no problem with that.”
In the staunchly patriarchal country of Burundi, his family’s defiant example made a huge impression. “The way I was raised by my father and stepmother shaped what I became,” says Nzoyisenga, 36, the founder and executive director of Semerera, a Bujumbura-based youth coalition against gender-based violence that works in three provinces in Burundi. “Women in my community used to face many challenges linked to our Burundi culture that considered women inferior to men,” he says. “So I wanted to be an advocate for women’s rights.”
Nzoyisenga survived an unstable childhood that included civil wars in Burundi and Democratic Republic of the Congo (where he lived for five years), went on to study law, and began volunteering for women’s empowerment organizations. It was only a matter of time before he became a community organizer. Through Spark MicroGrants, he led programs that empowered nearly 3,000 households from more than two dozen villages across Burundi. With Semerera, a team of 14 has assisted more than 8,200 women and girls through socioeconomic initiatives, leadership empowerment, and free legal support to victims of abuse and discrimination.
Nzoyisenga does not overlook another crucial element to change: educating men on gender inequalities. “We cannot talk about peace without giving all people the opportunity to live with dignity and contribute to the development of their communities,” he says. “We are part of the problem, so we must be part of the solution.”
After completing his Rotary fellowship, Nzoyisenga plans to expand his work to two more provinces of Burundi, where he will mentor other young people through campaigns around peaceful cohabitation, cohesion, and human rights. “My father taught me tolerance and acceptance, and respecting others no matter their differences,” he says. “In time, we hope more men and women in Burundi will come to understand that things need to change.”
As they completed their 10-week, on-site session at Makerere University, the peace fellows provided an update about their time at Rotary’s new peace center. Or at least they tried to. “I can’t explain in words what an amazing experience this has been for me,” said Rusare. “The fellowship has made me more determined to pursue my social change initiative on peace journalism. The design is finally taking shape.”
She praised her teachers, who shared “practical experiences that made it easy to grasp many theoretical approaches” to peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Moonde provided a detailed outline of those approaches; they included instruction in analytical methods drawn from the business world; sessions led by representatives from the Institute for Economics and Peace (a Rotary partner); and an introduction to indigenous traditions, such as the Mato Oput ceremony — which involves the drinking of a bitter herb — practiced by the Acholi people of northern Uganda.
Though pandemic restrictions led to the cancellation of a planned trip to Rwanda, the peace fellows had many opportunities for work in the field, including visiting the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement near Uganda’s border with South Sudan and meeting with survivors of the disastrous landslides in the country’s Bududa district. “These excursions enabled us to have firsthand engagements on peacebuilding and conflict transformation in communities affected by migration and environmental disasters, as well as gender-based violence,” said Baine-Omugisha.
Meet the other Makerere Peace Fellows
Nigeria; security and crisis management
United Kingdom; psychosocial support and trauma treatment
Nigeria; conflict transformation and violence prevention
Uganda; disability rights and inclusion advocacy
Botswana; community empowerment and social justice
Uganda; youth protection and social service development
Zimbabwe; media and information literacy
Liberia; civil society engagement and skill-building
Somalia; gender equality and human rights policy
The fellows also interacted with local Rotarians, who worked with the peace center’s host area committee to serve as counselors to the new arrivals. “They showed them around Kampala, and invited the fellows to their homes and clubs,” said Nkutu. “Despite living in a country with a history of conflict, Rotarians have not been clear on how they can get involved. The peace center has generated interest in learning about the different ways Rotarians can promote peace and conflict prevention.”
“The inaugural cohort is very warm,” added Nambalirwa Nkabala. “They quickly settled in comfortably with each other. They have harnessed their differences in personalities and cultures for the good by being a support system to each other.” That camaraderie — a literal fellowship — among the peace fellows will sustain them through 2021 as they work on their initiatives in their home countries. It will also serve as a model for the next cohort of peace fellows at Makerere.
“Having a peace center at Makerere University means a lot to Africa,” Mushaho told The Wave, the monthly newsletter published by District 9211 (Tanzania and Uganda). “It’s a great opportunity for Africans to learn and understand that peace is the foundation of every development.”
The peace fellows will return to Makerere in early 2022. We’ll check back with them then to see what they have achieved — and what lies ahead for Rotary and Africa.
The 2023-24 application for fellowships at all Rotary Peace Centers will be available in February 2022. Candidates will have until 15 May 2022 to submit their completed application to The Rotary Foundation. Districts must submit endorsements to The Rotary Foundation by 1 July.
This story originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Rotary magazine.
From peace fellow to international advocate