Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rotary District 9200 Conference

Hello blog followers. Though I am getting ready to upload a number of delayed posts I figured it would be best to go in reverse order here and begin with the most timely. I am sitting here at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, attending the 86th District 9200 conference in Uganda. There are 1700 East African Rotarians, Roteractors, Interactors, and guests in attendance. It’s quite the organizing feat. I arrived yesterday, and met up with another Ambassadorial scholar from Nairobi, who I interestingly had yet to meet. We took the day to get to know one another and find our way to our much less resorty hotel.

Though last night they had an unbelievably nice cocktail reception by the pool, today is the first day of the conference and has proven quite interesting. The morning was filled with introductions and formalities and then led into an address by the President of Rotary International. He spoke of the need to modernize Rotary to reach out to younger generations…noting that district 9200 is already one of the best in attracting young members.

The real fireworks started with the second session right before lunch. There are a number of high profile, incredibly intelligent, sometimes controversial professors from east Africa. Perhaps the most contentious is Ugandan Professor Mahmood Mamdan formerly of Columbia University, now more full time at Makarere in Kampala. The other, less contentious but equally hailed is Professor PLO Lumumba of Kenya. When Lumumba speaks you are instantly thrown back to the cadence and sound of civil rights leaders in the 1960s. He speaks forcefully but inspiringly. He spent his time discussing the ills of Africa and lack of leadership. But he used the opportunity to praise Rotary for creating a community of citizens that looks at impossible tasks and rather than turn away responds that one must try because there is no other option.

Mamdan was a bit more grounding, choosing bravely to speak on a topic of extreme relevance. For the past 3 weeks Ugandans have been engaged in a protest called “Walk to Work” or Walk2Work on twitter. In response to rising fuel and food prices, a few Ugandan opposition leaders called on citizens to avoid taking their normal transport and instead walk to work. Not too many showed for the first protest because the opposition is poorly organized and fairly unpopular. The police however responded harshly, arresting the lead opposition leaders, shooting tear gas into crowds of walking citizens, and arresting many on charges of walking without a permit.

The response shifted the spotlight to the protests and on the second walk to work day 2 days later hundreds of people showed up to walk with opposition leader Besigye. When the police intervened this time, protesters pushed passed only then to be confronted by military police shooting rubber bullets and more tear gas into the crowd. We are now on our 4th walk to work day and true to form the opposition has yet again been arrested on non-descript charges. Today unfortunately, the protest has seemed to turn more violent. A 4 year old child has been reportedly shot and killed and protestors in the west of the country have responded violently towards police with unconfirmed reports of a few dead.

You could be completely unaware of all of this, sitting in the quiet Munyonyo resort, but Mamdan gave a brilliant speech contextualizing it in the broader struggle in North Africa, the historic struggle of South Africans in the 1960s in Soweto, and what it means for democracy in the country. We are now breaking for lunch, but so far the conference is proving fun and inspiring. Well done Rotary!