Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that refunding of goods paid to a bride’s family after divorce was illegal, sparking celebration by rights groups who said women would no longer be “chained in violent relationships”.
In Uganda, as in many nations, the custom of the groom or his family paying a sum of money or property – known as a “bride price” – to the parents of the bride upon a marriage has a long tradition.
Bride prices are payments made from the groom’s family to the bride’s – the opposite of dowries paid in some countries, where the bride hands goods over to the man.
The Supreme Court ruled that refunding it upon dissolution of a customary marriage was unconstitutional, after local women’s rights group Mifumi launched an appeal following an earlier court decision, arguing the practice contributed to domestic violence.
“Refunding compromises the dignity of the woman,” Chief Justice Bart Katureebe said, according to the Daily Monitor newspaper, adding that paying a dowry back implied a woman was in a marriage as though on “loan”.
Mifumi said the judge’s decision was a “landmark in the history of Uganda” that meant women were “now free to walk out of an abusive relationship without fear” of how their family would pay back the bride price.
Mifumi said the payment of a bride price “reduces the status of women to cattle, to property that can be earned and paid for and exchanged for goods.”
The charity, along with 12 other individuals, first launched a 2007 petition at the Constitutional Court, arguing that the refunding of bride price portrayed women “as an article in a market for sale” amounting to “degrading treatment”.
The court however dismissed the petition in 2010, with the group then taking the case to the Supreme Court.
When Silver Tumwesigye, a sharply-dressed Ugandan motorbike taxi driver known by his nickname ‘Silverstone,’ had an accident six years ago it was a double blow.
First he had to pay for surgery for his head injury and weeks of hospital treatment, then he suffered months of no income as he recovered at home.
Motorbike taxis, known as “boda-bodas” in Uganda and elsewhere in East Africa, are an affordable and effective – but dangerous – way of cutting through the traffic clogging Kampala’s streets.
Now a startup, dubbed “Uber for motorcycle taxis” after the popular ride-sharing company, hopes to make them safer and more reliable.
Silverstone survived his accident but the loss of his daily income of around 20 000 shillings ($5) threatened his family with destitution.
“I was so worried – not about me, but about my children, my wife,” said the 36-year-old father-of-four. “I struggled to pay the rent and school fees.”
Close to 40 percent of trauma cases at Uganda’s main Mulago Hospital are the result of boda-boda accidents, according to a joint study in 2010 by the hospital and the country’s Makerere University.
Like similar services in other developing world urban hubs like Jakarta, SafeBoda hopes to ease traffic in the Ugandan capital connecting customers with a registered driver nearby with the tap of a finger.
The company has enlisted 75 drivers at 20 “stages” – the boda-boda version of taxi ranks – since its launch in November. Each receives driving lessons, motorcycle maintenance and customer service training, and a first aid course taught by the Uganda Red Cross Society.
Drivers pay a membership fee of 10 000 shillings a week and are given a smartphone, a bright orange reflective vest and helmet, and a spare helmet for customers.
“The boda-boda industry got a bad name,” said SafeBoda’s 28-year-old co-founder Ricky Rapa Thomson.
“We want to say we are safe bodas. We should create a good reputation that will lead to more business, so we make more money and become more successful,” said Rapa, who has been a boda driver for four years and also runs motorbike tours of the city.
It was on one of his tours that a visitor from Britain suggested meeting 30-year-old Belgian social entrepreneur Maxime Dieudonne, to help him develop an app to increase safety and provide better service.
Rapa teamed up with Dieudonne, Scottish development economist Alastair Sussock, 29, and the Rwanda-based mobile tech company HeHe Labs to create SafeBoda.
Sussock said the start-up conducts a “very lengthy process of driver training and multiple interactions and recommendations for drivers”.
“The recent issues in India with Uber, with one of the drivers accused of raping a passenger, shows the challenges on background checks or lack of any checks,” he said.
Sussock said that while this made SafeBoda different from Uber, Lyft and other apps which allowed drivers to sign up very easily, it ensured a “higher quality of drivers”.
Rigorous vetting means there are now 250 boda-boda drivers on the SafeBoda waiting list. Silverstone plans to join up, saying that his accident taught him the hard way that safety pays.
The SafeBoda app is also evolving and will soon add another Uber-like touch, allowing customers to rate drivers.
The company hopes to have at least 1 000 boda-bodas across Kampala by the end of the year, before expanding regionally, and perhaps even farther.
“There’s a couple of other countries like India that could be really interesting,” said Sussock.
For the last six years Juma Katongole, 32, has ferried passengers around Kampala’s notoriously potholed roads. He joined the SafeBoda programme soon after its launch.
The father-of-four has gained three new regular customers and reckons he takes home an extra 10 000 shillings a day.
“In the future I’m planning on building a house because I’m still renting,” he said. “I’m happy and customers are also happy with SafeBoda, they appreciate it,” he said.
“Newzbeat” makes a catchy change from a standard news bulletin: Ugandans call the broadcasters “rap-orters”, a youth team of hip-hop artists-turned-journalists rapping the headlines.
“Uganda’s anti-gay law is making news/Some countries have found it befitting to accuse/Uganda of treating gays as German Jews/Nothing to gain from this and more to lose,” rapped the artists in one recent episode.
That song focused on a law signed by President Yoweri Museveni banning homosexuality, which drew widespread international condemnation. US Secretary of State John Kerry likened it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.
“President Museveni says he won’t bow down to the West/Uganda has a right to decide what’s best,” the rap continued.
Hearing the news in hip-hop style may sound strange. But in Uganda, where the press faces censorship pressures and the country’s huge youth population often takes little interest in current affairs, a programme where “rap-orters” broadcast with “rhyme and reason” has become popular.
“NewzBeat“, screened in both English and the local language Luganda on the popular channel NTV every Saturday afternoon and evening before the station’s traditional news bulletins, took to the air last year.
‘Push the boundaries’
The show is presented by Sharon Bwogi, Uganda’s “queen of hip hop” known as Lady Slyke, the dreadlocked and eloquent Daniel Kisekka, dubbed the “Survivor”, and teenage rapper Zoe Kabuye, or MC Loy.
It aims to “promote diversity and visibility for marginalised groups” and “push the boundaries of press limitations” in Uganda, according to Lady Slyke.
“At first we had some complaints, people were saying ‘We’re not really understanding what you’re doing’,” the designer and artist, who was inspired by church music to start rapping when she was 13, told AFP.
But Bwogi added that today people from all walks of life followed the programme, including businessmen and government ministers.
“People keep asking for more and asking me questions about certain topics,” said Bwogi, 28, who also raps at venues across Uganda professionally. “I think they love the whole flavour.”
“NewzBeat”, which runs for about five minutes an episode, usually features about four local, regional and international stories.
Nothing is off limits. The programme has “rap-orted” stories on Uganda’s anti-pornography laws,the political situation in Ukraine and Ebola updates from west Africa.
Challenging political leaders
Corruption is another favourite topic.
“All around the world this problem remains/The abuse so far is keeping people in chains,” rapped Kisekka in a bulletin on graft. “But lately some signs of hope have made the headlines/Of corrupt officials being handed heavy fines.”
Bwogi said “NewzBeat” talked about corruption since graft was a major problem for Uganda.
“Sometimes if you want to be attended to… you need to pay a little something,” she said.
Often local reporters run into trouble trying to highlight this problem.
Uganda’s Human Rights Network for Journalists and other activist groups have repeatedly warned that the space for reporters to operate freely in the east African country is shrinking.
Last October, one journalist was ordered to pay damages or face jail after accusing a government official of corruption, and there have been other similar cases.
Kabuye, 14, who has rapped on everything from the Egyptian single mother who spent 43 years living as a man to the national identification registration, said many of her friends are disinterested in the news.
“They used to say it’s boring, but when they see ‘NewzBeat’, they’re like ‘what’s the time?'” said the student, who has been rapping since 2009 and now juggles her “NewzBeat” commitments with her homework.
Kisekka, 40, said that in the beginning many viewers dismissed the show as “just entertainment”, but they have come to “appreciate the art form and start listening to the news”.
People were now taking rap more seriously, the artist said.
“It is not just talking about women and booze and all that, it’s delivering the news,” said Kisekka.
For the future, “NewzBeat” staff are looking at recruiting specialist “rap-orters” to cover fields such as science and technology. They are also keen to expand across Africa.
In Tanzania, a mini-season of four episodes recently aired and another four are set to run in the lead-up to the country’s elections, scheduled for October.
“Media belongs to the power of the day,” Bwogi rapped in one episode. “The Chinese have CCTV/the British have BBC/And we too are making our voices heard on NTV.”
Doctors amputated Ugandan schoolboy Jesse Ayebazibwe’s right leg when he was hit by a truck while walking home from school three years ago.
Afterwards he was given crutches, but that was all, and so he hobbled about. “I liked playing like a normal kid before the accident,” the nine-year-old said.
Now an infrared scanner, a laptop and a pair of 3D printers are changing everything for Jesse and others like him, offering him the chance of a near-normal life.
“The process is quite short, that’s the beauty of the 3D printers,” said Moses Kaweesa, an orthopaedic technologist at Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services (CoRSU) in Uganda which, together with Canada’s University of Toronto and the charity Christian Blind Mission, is making the prostheses.
“Jesse was here yesterday, today he’s being fitted,” said Kaweesa, 34.
In the past, the all-important plaster cast sockets that connect prosthetic limbs to a person’s hip took about a week to make, and were often so uncomfortable people ended up not wearing them.
Plastic printed ones can be made in a day and are a closer, more comfortable fit.
The scanner, laptop and printer cost around $12 000, with the materials costing just $3.
Ayebazibwe got his first, old-style prosthesis last year but is now part of a trial that could lead to the 3D technology changing lives across the country.
The technology is only available to a few, however, and treatment for disability in Uganda in general remains woeful.
“There’s no support from the government for disabled people,” said Kaweesa. “We have a disability department and a minister for disabled people, but they don’t do anything.”
There are just 12 trained prosthetic technicians for over 250 000 children who have lost limbs, often due to fires or congenital diseases.
The 3D technology is portable and allows technicians to work on multiple patients at a time, increasing the reach of their life-changing intervention.
“You can travel with your laptop and scanner,” said Kaweesa, adding that the technology could be of great use in northern Uganda, a part of the country where many people lost limbs during decades of war between the government and Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, who specialised in chopping off limbs.
After receiving his first 3D socket Ayebazibwe was overjoyed. “I felt good, like my normal leg,” he said. “I can do anything now – run and play football.”
The boy’s 53-year old grandmother, Florence Akoth, looks after him, even carrying him the two kilometres to school after his leg was crushed and his life shattered. She too is thrilled.
“Now he’s liked at school, plays, does work, collects firewood and water,” said Akoth, who struggles to make ends meet as a poorly-paid domestic worker caring for five children.
Sitting on a bench outside the CoRSU fitting room were three young children and their parents.
“This is her first time walking on two legs,” said Kaweesa, pointing at a timid young girl who lost both her legs in a fire.
“Because they’ve seen other kids walking, playing, they realise they’ve been missing that,” he said “Once you fit them they start walking and even running.”
Bouncing and grinding, singer Jemimah Kansiime’s music video was a hit among her Ugandan fans, but not for conservative politicians who say it broke a tough new anti-pornography law.
The 21-year-old singer, who uses the stage name “Panadol wa Basajja” – literally, “medicine for men” – has already spent five weeks in jail after her arrest for a music video that gives a lingering and generous focus on wet and soapy buttocks.
Now she faces up to 10 years in jail, if found guilty in the first full trial under the law – which took effect in February 2014 – that critics such as Human Rights Watch argue so loosely defines pornography it has encouraged public attacks on women wearing skimpy clothing.
Critics say it is part of a growing anti-liberal movement including tough laws against homosexuals in Uganda, where religious-driven conservatism appears to be on the rise and where US evangelical preachers rather than pop stars like Kansiime often receive rock star welcomes.
“I was aware that there are some sections of society that are conservative,” said the singer, smoothing her rainbow coloured hair extensions that always cover one eye.
But one thing she thought she had learnt from her idols – including Rihanna and Nicki Minaj – is that sex sells.
“I was just experimenting to see if I put on a short dress, will the audience like it?” said the singer.
She made the video that has placed her in hot water last year for her song Nkulinze – or “I am waiting for you” – about “a young lover’s intimate fantasies”.
It has proved popular, and the video has been watched over 140 000 times on YouTube. But Kansiime said she never dreamt that writhing in her underwear was breaking the law. She and her then manager Didi Muchwa Mugisha were arrested in November.
Mugisha pleaded guilty and was fined 200 000 Ugandan shillings (75 dollars), but Kansiime pleaded not guilty, and was held for five weeks before raising the cash bail.
“When I was making that video I never intended it for children, I intended it for adults. I did not sell or distribute the song,” said Kansiime, wearing a short, leopard print dress with tiny straps, revealing a push up bra underneath.
“My rights have been trampled upon, my freedom of expression has been trampled upon,” she told AFP in her simple tin-shack home in the capital Kampala.
Her lawyer, Isaac Semakadde, argues the case is a test for the right of Ugandan performers to “express themselves”.
“That right to erotic entertainment, there has to be a space for it in an open and free society,” he told AFP, saying divisions must be made between clearly criminal offences such as child pornography.
“To ban all forms of pornography, all forms of nudity, is outrageous,” he said.
She was tracked down and arrested after Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo was shocked at the video. Lokodo has recently boasted that he and his “intelligence team” of spies are “on the ground” watching such singers closely.
“That’s why Panadol was arrested,” he said, describing her videos as “very obscene and vulgar”, and warning of more arrests.
The former priest said singers such as Rihanna were “the type of people I’m condemning.”
“She’s a very provocative dancer… there’s nothing at all good there,” he said.
In his continued crackdown on pornography, Lokodo has this year ordered police to arrest men who procure prostitutes and described a popular local television dating show as prostitution. Local media reported that he also confronted Uganda’s youngest MP when she walked into parliament in a short skirt.
Semakadde accuses the ethic ministry of ignoring more pressing issues.
“The decadence in society does not start and stop with prostitution,” he said. “There’s corruption – but they have no answers to that, so they go for the most vulnerable.”
Kansiime is due next in court later this month. But Semakadde said he will request the case is halted while the Constitutional Court deals with a separate petition brought by activists against the law, arguing it is “overbroad and vague”.
Amnesty International has called for the law to be repealed and Semakadde ultimately wants it scrapped, too.
Inspired by her struggle, Kansiime’s next song tackles unemployment.
As she awaits her next court appearance, she insisted that she had the right to film “whatever I want”, but conceded she may need to cater for more conservative tastes if she is to make a living from her music.
“I have to do something that people like, I have not benefitted from that video,” she admitted.