Mama’s the word: Inside Africa’s all-female radio service

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Margaret Sentamu (second right) and members of the Mama FM team. by Chris Matthews

Radio pioneers

Up in the hilly district of Kisaasi, in Uganda’s capital Kampala, it is another busy day for the Mama FM team with discussions on family planning, human rights, along with international and local news all to be aired before the end of the day.

Founded by Uganda Media Women’s Association (UMWA), Mama FM is the first all-female run radio service in Africa.

The station gives a voice to young female journalists in a country where traditional gender roles often persist and shines a spotlight on underreported areas and problems impacting women’s rights.

One of those journalists is Hilda Namara. A recent journalism graduate, Namara joined the station in November and is among its team of more than 20 volunteer reporters and staff.

‘I really felt good coming to Mama FM because I want to defend the rights of women and children,’ the 24-year-old says. ‘Here, you have to bring out something educative that can impact society and the young generation.’

The day we speak Namara has just finished producing two news bulletins for the station, including a segment on raising awareness of the Maputo Protocol – the legislation promoting human rights and women’s rights across Africa.

‘As a women I have the right to stand up and speak out about the problems – they give us that courage at Mama FM,’ Namara says. ‘It is not like other media houses where they want catchy stories and headlines.’

A member of the Mama FM team.

Chris Matthews

Radio pioneers

The service was first launched in 2001 by Margaret Sentamu and a small group of female journalists keen to address the lack of diversity in the country’s media.

Globally, the presence of women in print, radio and television production is 37 per cent, according to the Global Media Monitoring Report 2015, while across Africa that figure is only 22 per cent.

Working for Uganda’s national radio and television services in the 1980s, Sentamu says it was rare to find many women working in such positions, something she believes stems from long-standing gender roles in society.

Although 34 per cent of parliamentary seats are occupied by women, much of Ugandan society still sees women operate domestic and household duties.

‘Women in Uganda have been brought up to be submissive and are not expected to speak in public,’ Sentamu, UMWA’s executive director, says.

‘In terms of the gender roles it is women who are expected to do the domestic work so you need to have 80 per cent of your time concentrated on domestic chores.’

‘When it comes to the 8am to 5pm jobs women would rather do that because they can’t stay beyond 5pm so when bigger stories are breaking we are already at home looking after our family.’

Breaking broadcast boundaries

UMWA was created in 1983 and Sentamu joined three years later with the organization focusing efforts on advocacy and raising awareness of issues faced by women in Ugandan society.

But it was while a journalism teacher in Kampala’s universities in the 1990s, where in a class of 15 only two were female, that Sentamu thought of creating a dedicated media service that put women in editorial control.

‘We started thinking of how we can increase the voices of women in the media,’ she says. ‘[Some people think] we are not meant to do political stories or are not expected to be aggressive in journalism.’

‘We had been working with other organizations but if you are not in charge of the editorial content you may not get the stories. So we thought the best way is to create own our own media.’

I am a feminist, I want to see more women in the limelight but there is this cultural brainwash that women cannot break through

Today, the station houses two recording studios, large work spaces for its journalists and is accessible across central and southern Uganda with 90 per cent of shows in the local Luganda language.

Its programming also includes entertainment, sports and music shows but for Namara, it is the opportunity to educate and challenge traditional gender views that excites.

‘I love the way things are done here especially in the news department,’ she says. ‘I know my journalism is not for nothing,

‘I know I can help out a child, a lady or any vulnerable people that are suffering through my work. As media, we can create impact.’

The station has both male and female journalists and programme coordinator Catherine Apalat says through its promotion of female voices the service shows the need for a balanced media in the country, while at the same time breaking down stereotypes.

‘We aim to mainstream issues in our programming,’ Apalat says. ‘It is not all about the problems that women face. Women do not live in an island and men have to know these issues so that they are able to live in peace.’

Chris Matthews

Slow progress

UMWA, which also conducts rural outreach programs, now boasts more than 180 members and with internships and enrollment at universities on the rise, improvements are being made.

Today, there are many female news personalities in the country with the likes of Barbara Kajai, editor-in-chief of nationwide media house Vision Group and Monitor Publications’ managing director Carol Beyana helping close the gender gap.

But many still believe progress is slow. Nankwanga Eunice Kasirye, a former editor at NBS Television and now Uganda coordinator for the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), says more needs to be done to promote gender equality from a young age.

‘I am a feminist, I want to see more women in the limelight but there is this cultural brainwash that women cannot break through,’ she says.

‘It starts from the schools and homes where we come from. Girls should be mentored that they have equal potential and they grow up with an open mind.’

And while she says the number of women pursuing journalism careers has increased, there remains a lack of opportunity in newsrooms across the country.

‘We want people's’ mindset to change,’ she adds. ‘So in a period of five years we have a generation of strong media ladies and have a ripple effect of the generations that come after.’

‘All the men in positions of management we need to involve them so we can build a generation of media that is respected regardless of sex.’

IAWRT recently launched a mentorship programme for aspiring journalists and Mama FM continues to have a steady stream of interns – 75 per cent of whom must be women – while in May the station will host the first Gender Media Awards in Uganda.

Sentamu, whose own daughter is embarking on a journalism career, admits that while funding is a hurdle, the Mama FM team remain committed to championing gender equality in the media and Ugandan society at large.

‘We are not-for-profit, so it does not belong to me for example but to the women’s movement,’ she says, ‘We founded it, we manage it and we are not ready to let it go.’

And for Hilda Namara, who has her reporting sights set on issues of land ownership and inheritance rights for women over the coming weeks, Mama FM’s pioneering role in Ugandan media is as strong as ever.

‘I am really proud to be a journalist,’ she says. ‘As a young journalist I know it is important to me to be a voice to the voiceless and be an ear to those people.’

Gaelle Enganamouit: ‘We are helping the girls of tomorrow’

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Gaelle Enganamouit at a training session in Yaounde, Cameroon. © Thomas Obrador/Ze Place To See

'I lived here, just three minutes from the stadium,' says Gaelle Enganamouit as she gestures to beyond the training pitch walls. 'In front of the house where my mum lives we have some space and we would make goals with anything we could find. I am happy to be back here to play in my area.'

Cameroon’s star striker talks as she receives a massage on the training pitch next to the national stadium in Yaounde, where the day before, on 19 November, she helped the hosts to victory against Egypt in the opening match of the Women’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON) football tournament.

The 24-year-old, who plays professionally in Sweden, is something of a poster girl for the competition and women’s football in Cameroon with her image and golden mane like hairstyle adorning billboards and receiving international success.   

'The national team is a real symbol and they now serve as a reference with their fighting spirit they show to inspire Cameroonians and young people,' Minister of Sports and Physical Education Pierre Ismael Bidoung Mkpatt says.  

The opening ceremony of the Women's AFCON 2016 in Yaounde, Cameroon saw the hosts defeat Egypt 2-0.

Chris Matthews

The two-week competition involving the continent’s eight premier women’s teams is being seen as a landmark event for Cameroon, and many hope the tournament will help raise the profile of women's football and its global development.

Just earlier in November, Gambian goalkeeper Fatima Jawara died in the Mediterranean on a migrant crossing, bringing into sharp focus the inequalities between male and female players pursuing football success domestically, as well as merging football with the problems that still plague African nations and global development.

'The tournament will create a huge awareness in their different communities and really send a message across that it will be like a stepping stone' – Collins Diony

Similar to many African countries, women’s football in Cameroon is often hard to enter and it provides limited opportunities. From an early age, family members expect girls to study or work, often in informal economies.

Girls in Cameroon are 10 per cent less likely than boys to complete secondary school, while around 50 per cent of working women in the country are employed in agriculture.   

The youngest of nine siblings – seven sisters and two brothers – growing up in Yaounde, Engangmouit says she started playing football aged five but seeing girls playing on the streets was rare.

'When I was a child I always liked to play football and be with men all the time because I like football and it was not easy to see women playing football,' she says. 'You know it is not easy for parents to let their children play football because they want everybody to go to school.'

Her growing talents didn’t go unnoticed and by the age of 14 she was playing with one of the few women’s teams in Yaounde and had been called up to the under-16 national team.

At age 19, the chance came to play in Europe with Serbian side Spartak Subotica. Enganamouit’s decision to leave school to pursue her dreams proved to be a difficult time for her parents.

'I was studying at the Lycee but I was focused on football,' she says. 'They were not happy because they said I needed to learn something before I play football because [they thought] football was nothing.

'In the past, this was how every parent thought. Now parents are starting to think football can be a profession.'

Gaelle Enganamouit after a training session in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Thomas Obrador/Ze Place To See

Since 2014, she has been playing in the Sweden’s professional league, winning the 2015 ‘Golden Boot’ award and shortlisted for the BBC African footballer of the year award this year.

The popularity of Enganamouit has spiked an interest for the women’s game. Together with a second-place finish at the 2014 edition and the debut appearance at the Women’s World Cup in Canada last year, her fame has put the Indomitable Lionesses on the map.

Yaounde’s Omnisports Stadium was a buzz of anticipation and excitement prior to the tournament kick-off on Saturday as thousands of supporters descended on the arena dressed in green and gold and carrying tooting horns and whistles around the arena.

'I am really excited because I know Cameroon will win,' 20-year-old student Cassandra Mamekem said while standing outside the stadium with a group of friends. 'I am a fan of football and [women’s football] is really increasing, the rate of it is flying.'

The tournament, also featuring current champions Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, has been a major investment for President Paul Biya’s government, and while corruption blights his tenure, significant infrastructure developments have been made.  

Redevelopments to the Yaounde stadium cost in excess of $6.5 million, while $597 million backing from Italy and Turkey will contribute to broader sporting infrastructure projects ahead of the men’s Africa Cup of Nations in 2019.

The opening ceremony of the Women's AFCON 2016 in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Chris Matthews

However, investment in women’s football domestically remains muted. Six of Cameroon’s tournament squad play locally in an amateur league, the benefits from which are nominal and in stark contrast to the acclaim for Enganamouit and others in Europe.  

It is a similar situation for many across the continent. Ghana’s Black Queens called a government bonus of $2,000 ‘unacceptable’ after winning the Africa Championships in 2015 – the year before John Mahama’s government flew $3 million in cash to Brazil to settle disputes over World Cup appearance fees with the men’s national team.    

Together with the tragic death of 19-year-old Gambian goalkeeper Jawara, the disparity of treatment between male and female players highlighted the renewed need to raise the profile of women's football in Africa.

One of those helping push the women’s game locally is the Cameroon Football Development Programme. While it offered football coaching and workshops for boys in the southwest of Cameroon before, the nonprofit organization has recently started running sessions for girls too.

They have formed eight teams across the area and run a small informal league aimed at promoting the women’s game in the country and altering traditional community views.

' Due to cultural barriers, parents say that football is not a game for girls, so seeing girls from other countries play in competitive games at this tournament will give these girls a different perspective and an insight into what a young woman can do,' director of operations Collins Diony says.

'[The tournament] will create a huge awareness in their different communities and really send a message across that it will be like a stepping stone.'

It is one of several initiatives helping to boost sporting gender equality across Africa.

In Ghana, Right to Dream opened Africa’s first residential academy for girls in 2013. In South Africa, the Girls & Football programme uses football to promote education on gender values and violence, while AFCON tournament debutants Kenya just launched the first domestic league for women in the country this year.

In coastal Limbe, the tournament’s second city, the locals are out in force as Nigeria and Ghana play out an entertaining 1-1 draw. A Ghanaian lady dressed in her country’s colours tells me she has travelled 1,550 kilometers from Accra to support the team, while friends Justine and Agatha have attended both games so far in the new stadium.

Justine, a 45-year-old mother of eight with three daughters from Limbe, says parental support for women’s football is growing: 'We see females playing here and I am very happy. [My daughters] do play – they want to be footballers when they are older and if they do I will be happy.'     

Sports minister Mkpatt admits more needs to be done by government to back the women’s game and he says plans are in place to raise standards in the country.

'The professional league will be created soon. Women’s football developed only recently and we cannot expect them to have specialised facilities – it takes time,' he says.  

'Now we are talking about the Cameroon women’s team playing the Africa Cup of Nations and not talking about men this time around. It is an indication of the importance and symbolic nature of what women are doing in Cameroon.'

Stadium volunteer and budding footballer Suzie Massing, who is 21 and whose father Benjamin played for the Cameroon men’s national team in the 1990 World Cup, says the tournament can hopefully change some of society's views towards girls playing sport.

'If you want to work, there are jobs that as a woman you cannot do, but the tournament is important because it can help show that women can be like men in all areas.'   

And with Enganamouit leading from the front as the Indomitable Lionesses aim to reach the final on 3 December – a semi-final against Ghana awaits on Tuesday 29 November – the young striker believes success will be a spark for the women’s game in Cameroon.  

'Now there is more support – before, when the women’s team played there wasn’t 100 people in the stadium. Today we have 40,000,' she says. 'We are so full of pride for this and the game today can help make this for the young girls who want to play professionally tomorrow.'

A new beginning for economic transformation in Africa?

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A bustling market in Kigali, Rwanda. Joachim Huber under a Creative Commons Licence

Government ministers, economists, UN and World Bank officials have stressed the need for diversification from commodities and continent-led economic growth in Africa at a forum in Rwanda this week.

Speaking at the African Transformation Forum (ATF) in Kigali Monday, Carlos Lopes, secretary at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, said development models should be more tailored across the continent and emphasized the need for industrialization.

‘Africa needs structural transformation, which is changing the compositions of the economic structure. And the best way to do it is through industrialization,’ he said.

‘If you look at those experiments in other parts of the world, they do not adjust to our needs right now, because they were implemented under the world economic conditions that are no longer available to Africa.’

While commodity-rich countries like Ghana and Nigeria have experienced strong economic growth in recent years, ATF argues such growth is often not inclusive enough across societies.

RELATED: 'Growth is the only way', Dinyar Godrej explains why we need to find another way, and fast. From '10 economic myths that we need to junk', New Internationalist magazine, issue 488.

Headline-grabbing GDP figures are often cited as concrete evidence for growth, but such percentages often mask deeper societal problems.

‘African current growth has not generated sufficient jobs and has not been inclusive enough to significantly curb poverty,’ Lopes added.

The Millennium Development Goals ended in 2015, and saw the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day drop from 1.9 billion to 836 million. Though many praised its outcomes, others criticized its top-down donor-led approach.

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The inaugural ATF event, organized by the Accra-based think tank African Centre For Economic Transformation (ACET), is hoping to engage governments in greater economic change and aims to foster more ‘African-led’ growth.

KY Amoako, president of ACET, said the forum represents a ‘new beginning for economic transformation’ and the need for improved regional integration on the continent.

‘The sharp fall in commodity prices, or the slowing of the Chinese economy, has once again shown how vulnerable most African economies remain to external factors… transformation can help change that,’ Amoako said.

‘How can we mobilize our collective forces to drive the agenda? Every country can move at its own speed... but we must move together.’

Declining commodity prices have left many nations reeling. Angola, where oil accounts for 90 per cent of foreign-exchange revenues, saw inflation top 16 per cent in January; oil-rich Nigeria’s currency continues to plummet; South Africa, Ghana and Botswana are all enduring economic instability.

Talks focused on the need for countries to diversify productivity from reliance on commodities, by promoting local manufacturing, technology and growth in agri-business and by enhancing financial management.

Ghana’s deputy finance minister reflected on the need for strong, coherent governance as critical for economic transformation and the need to ‘show people you are doing the right thing’.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) committed $2.6 billion to economic development in Africa in 2014. Its director general for economic development, David Kennedy, said it is vital to ‘improve governance, transparency and accountability to enhance the enabling environment and the investment climate’ on the continent.

‘We should have a focus on commercializing agriculture. There are opportunities to increase that and link smallholder farmers to markets and really impact poverty in that way, he said.

‘We think there is a really good opportunity for export-based manufacturing and we will look to have partnerships with a range of countries.’

ACET is looking to forge ties with the African Union, World Bank and African Development Bank to create localized development frameworks that can be adopted by countries.

It also launched its Coalition for Transformation agenda with the aim of engaging governments and organizations in promoting greater regional integration and more tailored development goals.

The current poster-boy for African economic growth is host country Rwanda. Paul Kagame’s 16-year authoritarian reign as president – much maligned for its human rights abuses – has seen the country transformed economically.

Moving away from a reliance on agriculture, its services sector now accounts for almost 50 per cent of its economy, while moves to promote ‘Made in Rwanda’ products and numerous foreign investments are helping advance manufacturing in the commodity-scarce, landlocked nation.

GDP growth has averaged 7.5 per cent for more than a decade, resulting in employment levels of a reported 98 per cent, a wave of infrastructure developments and even the promotion of a ‘smart’ technology city, among other notable successes.

‘Twenty-two years ago Rwanda’s very survival was at stake… we figured it out by doing it because we had no choice,’ said Kagame in an address to attendees in Kigali.

‘Help took years to arrive and was not appropriate to our circumstances. We had to start with our own resources and ideas and the desire to get out of the mess our country was in.’

In the current commodities slump, which further revealed the porous nature of many African economies, achieving tangible growth alongside democratic governance is paramount and the two are not always in sync. Whether ACET can help facilitate it remains to be seen.

Clampdown continues on Nigeria’s LGBT community

Protester outside Nigerian High Commission

© Chris Matthews

When Goodluck Jonathan etched his presidential signature on the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act last month, indelibly marking all gays and lesbians in Nigeria as criminals, he said it was a reflection of the country’s ‘beliefs and orientations’, but as the clampdown continues, the global voices of dissent grow louder.

‘The government is duping the conscience of the people,’ said Davis Mac-Iyalla, a Nigerian LGBT activist, who along with around 100 others took to the streets of London to protest the decision last week.

Gathered outside the Nigeria High Commission, holding placards penned with the words ‘Love Is Not A Crime’, ‘LGBT Rights Are Human Rights’ and ‘Stop State Homophobia’, protesters voiced their disgust at a law which has unashamedly created a parallel pariah state in the country

Adopted by the Senate in 2011, passed by the Lower House of Parliament in May last year and signed by Jonathan on 7 January, the bill has made same-sex marriages and civil unions punishable by 14-year prison terms. Public displays of affection, gay nightclubs, LGBT societies and advocacy groups are outlawed too, all of which has left the LGBT community in Africa’s most populous nation more isolated and exposed than ever before.

Embedded homophobia

The demonization of gays and lesbians in Nigeria is an embedded cultural view. A recent study revealed that 98 per cent of the country believed gay people should not be accepted in society. And even before the latest draconian measures were introduced, homosexuality was still illegal and the LGBT community a marginalized element of society.

Mac-Iyalla, founder of Anglican LGBT organization Changing Attitude Nigeria, was himself forced to flee Nigeria in 2008. Arrested, beaten and tortured by police in the capital Abuja two years earlier, Mac-Iyalla’s campaigning for LGBT rights had made him a target back home.

Protesters voiced their disgust at a law which has unashamedly created a parallel pariah state in the country

After receiving a series of death threats while speaking at the Anglican church’s Lambeth Conference in 2008, Mac-Iyalla was granted asylum in Britain and has been unable to return home since.

‘Where in the Bible does it tell you to persecute people who are different to you?’ asked Mac-Iyalla as he looked up to the vacant windows of the embassy building, knowing a response would not come.

The fervent belief in fundamental Christianity among many Nigerians denounces homosexuality as ‘sinful’ and ‘abnormal’, while the sharia law practiced in the largely Muslim north advocates death by stoning for those suspected of homosexual activity.

Religion is a driving force in the lives of millions of Nigerians and Pentecostal preaching against homosexuality has been applauded and taken as gospel for decades. Homophobia has trickled down the generations and the new law is ‘locked in to an African Christian mentality’ according to one Anglican priest.

‘It is nothing to do with Christianity, but the majority of Nigerians think they are expressing basic Christian values. It is something which is locked in to an African Christian mentality,’ said Colin Coward, founder of Changing Attitude UK.

Escalating violence

Since the passing of the law, violence towards the LGBT community has escalated sharply, and Coward, a prominent LGBT activist, revealed how a friend was one of 14 men hunted down in Abuja and assaulted by a vigilante group last week.

He said: ‘A friend in Abuja was taken out of his home at night and beaten by a vigilante gang who suspected him of being gay. They took him to a police station, where he was stripped naked, interrogated and physically and mentally abused by police officers. All his possessions were taken and now he is in hiding.’

Public reaction to the decision is alarmingly evident, as is the politically motivated timing of its enactment.

‘It is nothing to do with Christianity, but the majority of Nigerians think they are expressing basic Christian values. It is something which is locked in to an African Christian mentality’

On 28 May 2011, Goodluck Jonathon gave his inauguration speech as president. He talked of an ‘era of transformation’, promising to tackle the ‘bane of corruption’ and ‘to create greater access’ to education, employment and healthcare, but almost three years in and Jonathan’s presidency is floundering.

Only last week, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Mallam Sanusi, was suspended for ‘alleged mismanagement of funds’ (although conflicting accounts have emerged), while reports of malpractice by senior government officials and companies including the National Petroleum Corporation are widespread.

With unemployment levels spiking over 22 per cent, several state governors defecting to the newly formed All Progressives Congress party and Boko Haram insurgency unabating, the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act is clearly an attempt to win public favour ahead of next year’s general elections.

‘The government has a tendency to throw at the baying mob a populist cause just to sure up their own popularity,’ said Nigerian cabaret artist Son of a Tutu at last week’s London protest.

The law has made the LGBT community a ‘scapegoat to distract the people’, according to Mac-Iyalla, while Yemisi Ilesanmi, one of the protest organizers and author of Freedom to Love for ALL: Homosexuality is not Un-African, believes the ruling PLP party has deliberately targeted a ‘vulnerable’ section of Nigerian society.

‘As a Nigerian and bisexual it is important [for me] to speak out – we must be the voice for the voiceless back home. The government uses vulnerable groups and passes such laws to attain political support and popularity among the Nigerian people,’ she said.

Draconian laws

In a country where gender roles are largely conservative, the bill represents a sombre assertion of traditional values.

Worryingly, they are draconian laws which are spreading across the continent – homosexuality is illegal in 36 countries in Africa. On 24 February, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni introduced stricter anti-gay legislation in the country making same-sex marriages and acts of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ punishable by life imprisonment.

Alastair Stewart, of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a UK-based LGBT rights group, fears the Nigerian bill could be a catalyst for similar laws across the continent.

‘There is a growing concern of a domino effect occurring. These laws are empowering conservative organizations and rightwing religious groups to seek such laws in other parts of the continent,’ said Stewart.

With a population of 160 million, over 500 languages and more than 100 ethnic groups, Nigeria is a place where diversity abounds; yet this legislation, however much intended as a display of autonomy and a rebuttal of Western ideology, is a symbol of regression and ignorance, as Mac-Iyalla pronounced through the microphone: ‘You call yourself the “Giant of Africa”. What is giant about this law?’

Whether Nigeria will one day come to celebrate its LGBT community is unknown, but this latest law further oppresses and ostracizes a part of society who should be helping the country kickstart its era of democratic transformation. As author Chimamanda Adichie eloquently surmised in a recent essay, ‘The mark of a true democracy is not in the rule of its majority, but in the protection of its minority.’

‘The blood of Ethiopians cries out for justice’

Saudi Embassy protest in London

© Chris Matthews

Cries of ‘shame on you’ rang around Curzon Street in London on 18 November as more than 300 Ethiopians gathered outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy to protest against the treatment of migrant workers in the country.

Waving flags, singing in unison and holding placards adorned with slogans demanding action – ‘The blood of Ethiopians cries out for justice’, ‘Stop the torture’ and ‘Being poor is not a crime’ – hundreds of London’s Ethiopian diaspora crowded the usually busy west London street.

The protest, in response to Saudi authorities clampdown on migrant workers, came after several migrants, including at least two Ethiopian nationals, were killed during violent clashes with security forces in the oil-rich Gulf State last week.

Sunday 3 November saw an end to a seven-month amnesty demanding that all migrant workers without legal status in the country be deported, resulting in the mass demonstrations and riots seen across the country and in the capital Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is home to an estimated nine million migrants workers, many from Ethiopia and neighbouring East African nations, and authorities argue that the clampdown will reduce growing unemployment levels among Saudi nationals.

However, there are widespread accusations of abuse towards migrant workers in the Kingdom, with numerous reports of murder, rape and torture against members of the foreign population.

Zelealam Tesdema, one of the organizers of the London protest, urged the Saudi Arabian government to take action and called for those responsible for such acts to be brought to justice.

‘This protest is part of a global movement to stop the brutality, the rape and the murder of migrant workers. The government needs to stop the violence and bring the security forces and authorities to justice,’ Zelealam Tesdema said.

As numbers swelled and voices became louder and more fervent, a police cordon formed in front of the protesters, barring any advances to the gates of the Saudi Arabian embassy.

Zelealam Tesdema said it was vital people had the opportunity to ‘voice their concerns’. A petition calling on the ‘Saudi government to stop the brutal and inhumane treatment’ of Ethiopians was delivered to the embassy.          

More than 23,000 Ethiopians, who were living illegally in Saudi Arabia, have now surrendered to officials there, and the Ethiopian government has already started repatriating those ordered to leave the country.

The UN Refugee Agency said that in excess of 51,000 Ethiopians have made the journey across the Gulf of Aden this year alone.

Another of the protest’s organizers, Bekele Woyecha, who has lived in London for six years, fears that many of those on return flights to the capital Addis Ababa will now be left with nothing.

‘A lot of people who left Ethiopia in the first place were doing so because of economic or political problems and so for them returning it will be difficult. These people have nothing now – the authorities in Saudi Arabia have taken everything that they have.’

In a country where labour laws are routinely abandoned and workers’ rights systematically ignored – highlighted by images of maltreatment against migrants circulating online in recent days – an environment of abuse has festered and Adam Coogle, Middle-East Researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes such malpractice is likely to continue.

‘Many migrant workers are unaware of the official rights available to them. Saudi Arabia will still be dependent on migrant workers for many years to come – the labour laws provide conditions in which abuses can take place.’

The large number of undocumented workers in the country has created a vast under-the-table economy and Coogle says that many employers have ‘complete power’ over migrant workers, often confiscating travel documents and preventing workers from changing jobs once they begin working for an employer.

And although such treatment of migrants is a problem not unique to the Arabian Peninsula, the tragic events of recent weeks have a shone an alarming light on the darkness that pervades in the country. The protest on the streets of London has helped bring awareness to the human rights violations and ongoing plight of migrant workers within the Saudi state a little more into focus.

Emmanuel Jal: ‘Our freedom fighters have become dictators’

Emmanuel Jal.

Gatwitch Records

‘Ask yourself, what can I do as a South Sudanese to make my country better?’ asks Emmanuel Jal from the stage of Hackney’s Round Chapel Auditorium, during a break from the delirious dancing, hand-clapping and flag-waving that greets the rest of his performance. It is a question that both the diaspora and those inside the world’s newest nation have been asking for two years now, and one that Jal has been attempting to answer for quite some time.

Marking the country’s second anniversary of independence in July, South Sudan Oyee Live brought together diasporans from across Britain for a night of celebration, fundraising and live performances, with Jal the stellar attraction. After the performance we sit down to chat in a small room in the church’s underbelly, Jal evidently exhausted from his contortionist-like movements on stage and the physical and mental excursions of such an emotional evening:

‘It’s an event to remember the whole of Sudan,’ he says. ‘To remind ourselves that the freedom we have, the identity that we have now did not come easy. The women who were raped in the war, the women who gave up their children, the soldiers who died in the war – it is to remember them – and to celebrate that we are here.’

From child soldier to peace activist

An outspoken critic of the government, Jal has had a remarkable journey, from boy soldier to refugee to acclaimed hip-hop musician (his debut album War Child tells his harrowing tale) and prominent peace activist (he has set up the GUA Africa, Lose to Win and We Want Peace charities to help development in his homeland). Not surprisingly, the softly spoken artist has become something of a cultural icon for the new South Sudan.

Despite the jubilant scenes which welcomed independence – and an end to a 35-year civil war – on 9 July 2011, two years on and democracy and peace are increasingly fractured. President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his government have been accused of mass corruption and misusing public funds since coming to power, with money for agriculture, food and basic infrastructure reportedly swallowed up by ministers and government officials – cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor and finance minister Kosti Manibe were recently suspended by Kiir over such allegations. According to the UN, over 30 per cent of the South Sudanese population are food insecure, and Jal is clear as to where the blame lies.

Music is the only thing that speaks to your mind, your heart and your soul system, and influences you without you even knowing it

‘The very people who fought for our freedom now attempt to take our freedom away – they become dictators. Even though the government says they want money to build roads and invest in agriculture, that money is being pocketed for themselves.’

It was this fight for freedom that Jal took part in. A soldier in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) from the age of seven, Jal, like thousands of other ‘lost boys’ fighting in the rebel movement, was indoctrinated with the ways of war and an acute hatred of those in the North. By the age of 12 though, he had become disillusioned with the war effort and sought a way out.

What ensued was a treacherous three-month walk to eastern Sudan, being smuggled onto a Kenyan plane by British aid worker Emma McCune (the inspiration behind his song 'Emma') and finally reaching Nairobi where McCune looked after him and gave him an education. However, when McCune was killed in a car crash only months later, Jal was forced to the streets and it was from there that he began to use music as a way to convey the extraordinary experiences of his young life.

‘Music is the only thing that speaks to your mind, your heart and your soul system, and influences you without you even knowing it. You can use music to reach out to the people and give a positive message and the unification of our people requires a lot of different things to move together. I have an opportunity to have a voice in my country and push my country forward, so I’m just trying to do the best I can.’

A common identity

And his is a voice which is being heard the world over. Appearances at Live 8, Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday Concert and this year’s Glastonbury Festival among others have helped spread his message to millions. And his work for GUA Africa, the charity set up to build the Emma Academy – a school in the country’s Lear county in memory of Emma McCune – and We Want Peace – which aims to ‘raise awareness on the fundamental principles of justice, equality, unification and conflict prevention, through the power of music’ have provided Jal the platform to bring about change.

Jal in concert.

Tamam Global

‘I use my music to inspire and educate the young people and to call the people to action. You just have to try to do whatever you can. No one man can change the entire world, but you can leave your philosophies and your ideas and try and inspire someone to carry them on.’

His efforts have come at a cost, though. During a trip to South Sudan last September to promote International Peace Day, Jal was beaten unconscious by police and National Security forces. Reports of police brutality against individuals across South Sudan are becoming alarmingly frequent and threaten indelibly to damage the fledgling government.

‘The police are terrorizing the citizens. There are many brave journalists in the country who have been attacked, too – some are kicked out, some remain and get beaten and one of the greatest, Isaiah Abraham, was actually killed.’ Abraham, a freelance journalist and persistent critic of the government, was shot dead by masked gunmen outside his home last December. Although the government promised a full investigation, it is widely believed the order was carried out by government officials and to date no arrests have been made.

With security of ordinary South Sudanese a major issue, confidence in the government plummeting and escalating ethnic violence, implementing stability and peace is becoming ever more difficult.

The police are terrorizing the citizens. There are many brave journalists in the country who have been attacked, too – some are kicked out, some remain and get beaten and one was actually killed

Jal talks of a ‘common identity’ that is being eroded by inadequate government policies and rising unrest among rival ethnic groups angered by the government’s lacklustre actions. One such policy was a nationwide disarmament programme that has been virtually impossible to implement. Vast numbers of weapons remain from the civil war and government efforts can barely begin to scratch the surface, given the sheer volume of arms in the country. Some of those carrying out the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration programme have also been accused of human rights abuses: accounts of torture, rape and killings are common in many communities.

‘One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve heard was from the President of Uganda, who said: “If your teeth have a gap, it means you can’t chew your meat properly”. If our politicians have those gaps and divisions in them and they’re not with the common identity then there will be a lot of tribal fights and then what will happen is, the resources that we have, we will not be able to enjoy,’ Jal explains.

However sombre Jal’s assessment of his homeland may be, the affable musician still remains hopeful that the country will one day prosper and its people unite. After all, it is his mission to help make South Sudan better. And if he can help inspire others in his country to do the same and come together as one, then South Sudan’s third birthday could be something very different.

‘Nobody can change our country but ourselves. It’s not the president that’s going to make our country move forward. The most important people, the biggest resource, is us – the people.’

Chris Matthews is a freelance journalist.

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