Iranian Elections: An Exercise in Civility within Restrictions

by: Negin Fazeli

I have just come back from Iran where I witnessed the pre and post presidential elections. This will not be a piece on the fairness of elections nor a judgment on the governing bodies currently ruling Iran. Let’s just say that we all agree that elections that disqualify most candidates from the get go are not fair by any international standards.

If we can, for a moment though, put this fact aside, there are many interesting things to be noted about elections in Iran. For those of us living abroad, in particular in the United States, the difference of approach is remarkable. To begin with, the actual candidates are not identified until about a month before the elections in Iran. Compare this with the never ending campaigning that goes on in the U.S. for two or more years prior to an election, thereby directing all the energy, money, and effort of the candidates toward getting elected or re-elected as the case may be; rather than toward the business of governing and putting forward legislation.  The short time period makes for a quick, but powerful and effective campaign.   I think whatever a candidate needs to say can be said over the period of one month prior to an election and there is no need for a two year drag during which many positions change.

During my stay in Iran, three debates were held between the eight vetted candidates, one of which ran four hours long.  I ended up watching bits and pieces in three locations! Interestingly enough, even though the candidates were ‘pre-qualified’, based on some pre-determined criteria, giving the impression that all of them must be made from the same cloth, their opinions ran the gamut on different topics.

Everything from the economy, poverty, internal infrastructure, and the nuclear issue was discussed and a range of views were put forward by each candidate. Arguments were heated and the difference of opinion covered a wide spectrum.  It was interesting to watch as candidates discussed everything from the lack of ‘joy’ in society to the shame that marks the nation resulting from how the last election was conducted. This was particularly interesting indeed as touchy feely subjects never had a place at the table before this election.  At some point one of the candidates said “We (referring to the country’s mighty decision makers) have to stop the practice of branding university students with stars (referring to the process of marking students with a star which in turn leads to their expulsion as a result of unwelcome political activity)”; he said, “Universities are where human beings are formed, where they become adults. It is their function to question and to protest, what other point is there?” Again, Interesting!  At some point, I was not sure I was in the Islamic Republic of Iran, watching State run TV.

Throughout the debates, political prisoners, the press, student protests, and personal freedoms were discussed just as vehemently as economic and nuclear issues. For eight hand-picked, conforming candidates, there certainly was not much conformity to be found.

In addition to the debates, which were animated but civilized for the most part, the State run TV offered free air time to each candidate to present and defend his platform. There was no need to raise money to generate airtime spots, no need to bow to big interest and its money so that a candidate could be heard. Campaign Finance Reform, what is that? Time was given to each candidate for free so that no one had to make deals with the devil to buy that time.

As far as the election itself, it began to take shape at the eleventh hour.  For two weeks prior to E-day, I asked everyone I met, the street sweeper, the cabbie, the bank teller, the businessman and the housewife the same question: who will you vote for? The resounding answer was ‘no one’; followed by something like ‘did you not see what happened last time around? One of their own will win, Velayti or Qalibaaf (both conservative candidates) of course. What is the point of voting?’ Every single person I met had decided to boycott the election to show disapproval of the process after what had taken place four years ago — what had been known as the ‘Stolen Election’.

At times, it did not seem an election was taking place except for the pleas on TV urging people to vote and exercise their right. Some print and TV spots carried the following message: ‘your vote means an affirmation of our Nation (system) and of Islam’. I don’t know if this was to encourage voting or perhaps a reverse psychology move to have people stay away!

The only two people I met who were going to vote were one eternal optimist, the kind which is hard to find in Iran these days, and one eternal pessimist who has turned pessimism into an art form. Both fall in the critical age of 30-45; both knew something we didn’t know!

We had two days to go until Election Day. Out of the eight vetted candidates two were reform seeking and the other six were hard line conservatives. The conservatives have begun to call themselves “Osulgara” — meaning “Principles Driven”. One of the conservative candidates dropped out, leaving the rest of the ‘highly principled conservatives’ in the race — one of these candidates, I was sure, would drive the country into war — an Iranian Neocon.

Then something happened that changed everything.  Mr. Khatami, a beloved yet weak, former Reformist president, asked Mr. Aref, the Stanford-educated, former head of Tehran University, to step out in favor of the only other Reformist, Mr. Rohani, so that the votes could be consolidated behind one candidate on the left (left of the very right may be more apt in Iran). Mr. Aref took himself out of the race and this was the flame that ignited what was to finally become an election just two days before people were to take to the polls. With one reformist candidate left, up against the ‘principles-driven’ ones, people started to ponder boycotting the boycott and going to the polls. Two nights before the election, finally there was action, chanting, gatherings and lots of music and celebrations in favor of Mr. Rohani’s presidency. Lethargic attitudes were slowly being taken over by a mild glimpse of hope that perhaps, just perhaps… it was possible to defeat the conservatives this time around.

Iranians went to the polls in school and places of worship all over the country and abroad. Although the numbers did not reach the over eighty percent ones like the last time, it was still a respectable election with over seventy percent of eligible voters taking part.  Friday, the weekend day in Iran, was Election Day which is a good day to go to the polls. There is nothing else to do but vote! In fact, something I have never understood in the US is why elections are held on Tuesdays when people have a hard time making it to the polling stations between work and school etc… Even though it was Friday and people were off and the polls opened at 8:00 AM, there were such long lines that the election committee extended the voting hours by two hours to accommodate all those who wished to vote.

Polls closed, the counting began and I unfortunately had to jump on a plane. By the time I reached Istanbul, the reformist candidate was in the lead. By the time I landed in Los Angeles, he had won.

What seemed an impossibility just two short weeks prior, had now become a reality. There was no run off as the conspiracy theorist had predicted. The conspiracy theory went something like this … the reformist candidate would make it to a run-off to appease the Nation and give a sense of legitimacy, but the result of the run-off election would come later putting the conservative in office and no one would be the wiser. The system will win, yet again. However, Mr. Rohani, the Reformist candidate won by over 50% of the votes, guaranteeing his place as the next president of Iran and eliminating the need for a run-off.  Conspiracy theorists couldn’t have predicted this and everyone I talked to was a conspiracy theorist – well except the one eternal optimist.

Well done Mr. Optimist!

As a side note, it is important to note that local elections were taking place at the same time and scores of women were running for city councils in every city. It will be some time before one can run for president, but this was a good start, I thought.  To my untrained eye, the month leading up to the election can be summed up as utter indifference, wild suspicion turning into cautious speculation, quiet deliberation, hesitant action and a final explosive victory.

Now only if the first step of candidate elimination could be eliminated, we could perhaps have a model for elections, short, sweet, to the point, intelligent with mass participation.



Negin Fazeli: June 2013

Playing Jazz in the Rainy Season: Stories from Africa!

The rains have finally come.




It startled me early this morning and practically threw me out of bed as it pounded against the windows; wailing through the seams of the sliding glass door; demanding to be let in.

It’s midnight now. The lights flicker across the river like murmurs of another world whispering — come to me.  Take off your shoes; leave your hair entangled from the night before and skip across the dark waters.  Come play with the happy children; hold my hand; let me look into your eyes. I will tell you everything.

Tord Gustavsen is playing on the stereo.   Jazz – that exquisite other worldly music that washes over me when I am covered with the dust of this potholed city – my very own secret passageway to a parallel universe where people sip vintage wine, keep their virtual wealth in their digital portfolios; debate the existential paradigms of life and death over pretty food and later ponder while savoring Italian espresso; why do they hack limbs in Africa?

Did you know that the skies are starless here? Opaque, unrelenting and sealed shut.  Not a shooting star. Not a glow of light. Not a breath of hope.  Just the moon at times rising up to take note of who was taken away in a wooden box earlier that day and tell the child witches sleeping in the cemetery on the Avenue of Independence to hush up before they are dragged away.

Smoke-filled heat choking by day.

Darkness gripping by night.

It’s the rainy season and the mist slowly descends on invisible lines of trapeze laying out warm, delicious beds for those elusive winged creatures. Wake up; they say in a muted buzz. Its time to multiply. Soon more will rise from newly hatched eggs to feast on the sun-scorched bodies of men, women and children whose bellies are half full of the same thing they had two days ago, black beans soaked up in dough. And that’s on a very good every other day.

They say God is Congolese.  But if this is his home, then surely he must have lost his keys.

Crystal drops from another world run unexpected up and down the piano, then holds to let the music breath; and I hold to listen through the colors of the open voicings. It has started to drizzle.  One. Two. Three. And suddenly the skies erupt like a madman and the flickering lights across the river drop into the mist and vanish in a blink. The heavens crack and a deluge is released breathless into the night; unleashing a mad rush upon the city, washing over the dust, washing over the disease, the cracked garbage strewn lives, washing away the enclave of squatters I see day after day in that eternally unfinished construction across the way; kicking over their rusted pots and those rags hanging in the gaping holes staring through the half mortared bricks in the exposed frames of their lives; washing away the gawkers, peddlers and the hangers-on sleeping in bundles; knocking over the phone card salesmen and the fixer uppers nodding off in their plastic chairs down on each street corner. This must be how the unwanted get recycled on this continent.

The sliding glass door to my balcony shimmers – then shakes violently; rumbling through the floor — a stern warning, a small reminder of my insignificance.

The music drowns in the steady drone of the deluge and a violent lash of lightening sends me cowering behind the kitchen counter for fear that the gods may shatter the glass and come for me. Thunder lashes again and again against the window and I am completely deafened to everything but its existence.

The parallel universe of those exquisite harmonies is light-years away; far, far in another time, another place where man is the master of his destiny and rules his world.  Even the illusion of control breeds hope I am told.

Here – in the heart of darkness – under the starless skies I am invisible and nature is the daily reminder that it holds all the cards.  Be silent and obey, it thunders.

You are nothing.

As much as man is dominant in that otherworldly plane, nature is the master here, reminding man of his insignificance every day; until finally — he knows it to be true.

When I leave I will cry and miss the rains.

Finally, I understand the quiet resignation in their eyes.

It has been a whole year.  And Africa is creeping inside me slowly … slowly… every day.


Nos Freres: Les Kasaians


If you ever should come to the Congo be sure and ask for a window seat for it is only then that you will appreciate the size of this immense country which spans over two time zones; and feel the disconnect between disparate population centers who have come to find themselves citizens of the same country by the simple fluke of a colonial pen.                                                     

 I finally gave up my “kiss me” hat for a bright blue Chinese made umbrella from the local market. I have realized in Africa it is the sun which is the ultimate tyrant. My follicles are burning and my hair is falling out. Soon I will need some of the same colorful extensions and polyester wigs that I see the African mammas wearing. I now understand the reason behind those giant head wraps.


Kamina, a city of 200,000, is the capital of Haut Lomami in Southeastern Congo. It is also the entry way from the Province of Kasai where the railway spills down from the north to the mining areas in southern Katanga bringing a steady migration of Kasaians from the time of the Belgians through the reign of Mobutu and up to today. This territory is also the heartland of the Luba people, birthplace of the current president and home to the grand chief of the ancient Luba empire. You would think any one of these reasons should be enough to give Kamina some importance – or at least the functioning basics. But you would be wrong. It is a dustbowl of dirt roads filled with grimy impoverished souls who live on subsistence farming and mostly go unemployed.

My team mate and I are staying at an abbey run by a very short and very round abbot priest who rents out rooms for $15 a night – and this is the five star of the city. There is no running water and yours truly makes do with a bucket of cold water that is filled and placed at my door every day. The town is generally in the dark at night but the five star abbot motel has electricity, albeit intermittent and extremely feeble due to overload on the local power facilities – and this is not exactly considered an appliance heavy zone. The faint flicker is just enough to keep you from bumping into walls at night but you can forget about reading. S,omehow the old TV in the communal room where the priests eat works, and every day for hours on end they sit captivated in front of a continuous loop of ad campaigns for Joseph Kabila with the number 3 flashing in the corner – that’s candidat numero trois!

The highlight of the week is Sunday when the whole town dresses up to attend one of the astounding numbers of churches of all shapes and colors, to worship and sing songs. The abbot also dresses up in his finest, hops on his motorcycle and zips to his parish to orate on the wisdom of the almighty who must have surely had good reason to ignore his children in this part of the world. He says he is a Luba — a true Katangan, and has taken it upon himself to enlighten the two of us observers with regard to the hazards of disorderly migration and its eroding effects on society.

“Nos freres, les Kasaians. They are our brothers of course.”

“Of course.”

“But you can’t just have people streaming into your home, taking away jobs. It creates problems, unemployment, insecurities. You can hardly walk at night in the cities any more. People will steal your money”


I told him I have lived in the U.S. for a long time and I have moved and changed states four times.

“Exactly!” the priest cuts me off. “So you know what I mean! Meme chez vous, I am sure they did not just let you move to California comme ca!”

“Uh, actually — I just packed up my bags and left Massachusetts; — new electricity bill, new driver’s license. That was that.”

“Ah oui?! How is that possible? You did not have to inform anyone?”

“Well… Yes actually. The local post office, so they would not throw out my old mail”.

*** *** ***

One Week Later – Breaking News:

“…Clashes in the city of Kamina – 600 kilometers Northeast of Lumumbashi during elections campaign. In the opposition neighborhoods where the Kasais live, at least a dozen homes were burnt, a woman was raped, many businesses were pillaged…” We called our friendly priest to get the skinny but he declined comment. He said it must have been a simple misunderstanding and hung up.

*** *** ***

Elections in Two Acts

What separates Congolese Elections from ours are two things:  Music and Machetes!   The first marks the enthusiastic opening of the electoral campaign and the other, well… that’s in case anything goes wrong.

Act I — Music: The first week of campaigning went off with an explosion of song and dance, hundreds of multi colored flags and more party acronyms than I or anyone else can keep track of. Posters were hung up daily by hopeful candidates only to be torn down by their adversaries the following day. The campaign strategy of choice is small and large motorized caravans blasting music twenty-four-seven on boom box mounted trucks filled with young, exuberant, often unemployed men.

The mayor was clearly exasperated when he received us. “What’s the matter with these people.  No coordination, no nothing …. on fait juste comme ca!  boooo baaaa boooo baaaa.”    

The candidates basically come in two varieties – those with Polos and those without Polos – that’s a T-shirt to us Anglophones.  The first group plasters the streets and media with cinemascope pictures and round the clock advertising.  They also pay their finest pop stars to sing their praise on their privately owned TV channels. The second group mostly peddles toilette paper size ads door to door, hauling their own party flag on a radio mounted motorcycle, screaming into a megaphone from town square to rally.  

The UDPS opposition party has the iconic Etienne Tshisekedi as their candidate — a 30 year veteran politician and career adversary of power since the time of Mobutu — and he apparently has the scars to prove it.  The bulk of his followers are the large population of Kassaians in various provinces, although he hopes to capitalize on Jean Pierre Bemba’s untimely detention at The Hague for crimes against humanity. JP came in second in 2006 Elections.  But that is a whole other story.

Within minutes of our arrival, the doorways, front yard and gate entrance of UDPS headquarters are jammed with members and partisans, spilling out into the pavement and the street, each brandishing a rectangular red card — chanting and singing.

  “What’s that?”  I ask a young man who shoves his card in my face.

“Carton Rouge! Carton Rouge!”   

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Madame!  Don’t you watch football?”


“Bon!  It’s a red card! It means he is out of the game. Kabila must go!”

“Ah! You see….us women – we don’t know anything about soccer.”

Of the hundred and forty plus parties, most are aligned with the President and are only campaigning for legislative seats. To increase chances at representation, many have nominated additional candidates through parallel parties which will probably crash and burn after the elections are over. Meanwhile it’s the true Katangan identity that is hanging in the balance.  Who is real and who is fake – the topic which one week later brings us to Act II – Machetes:

We are walking in one of the poorer neighborhoods where the campaign caravan of UDPS clashed with knife and machete wielding youth of UNAFEC who claim to be guardians of the true Katangan identity.   One person is dead, another in coma and forty others injured.  The burnt and vandalized carcasses of three minibuses are still blocking the neighborhood.  The head of UNAFEC who calls himself the BABA – or “Father” of Katanga has said there are too many “mosquitoes” in his living room… Oh, to be so close to the Rwandan border and still take the names of insects in vain.

Today Lubakat men with grass skirts and painted faces are dancing in the streets. Our hotel is filling up with armed guards and the square is packing with polo wearing groups holding up flags and banners. President Kabila is coming to town and people are climbing walls and hanging from trees to see him.  Meanwhile Tshisekedi has not started campaigning. He has proclaimed himself President.  From South Africa.  His followers say he is just kidding but I wonder if his plane will even be cleared to land. 

On CNN, another Republican candidate in the U.S. is squirming out of a sexual scandal. <yawn> …. sounds like a rerun to me.

Midnight in DRC: Let the games begin…

DR Congo: Katanga – part of what is known as the copper belt of Africa containing the largest reserves on the continent.  This is also where the uranium for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki  bombs were sourced.  Further up, there is coltan and casseterite for those of you fixated on the cell phone story – and of course there is gold — that curiously useless, yet endlessly coveted shiny material which proves the basic two driving forces of human survival – fear and greed. If you further count its inexplicable wooing effects on the female species, you have covered the third instinct – sex.  

Ruashi Mines

Like the rest of Congo, Katanga is a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities and languages — forty three to be exact — excluding of course all the “foreigners.” And by that I don’t mean me.   I have my very own special designation: “Muzungu” – White; which means people point and call me out gratuitously on the street; and at every traffic light a policeman will stick his head inside the car, address me directly and ask me for money. Just because.

No. Here, the foreigners are from the next door province – the Kasai – once again a legacy left by the Belgian colonizers who brought them en masse to work in mining areas, gave them positions of privilege over the Katangans, notably the Luba, and created a schism which was later manipulated by Mobutu and others culminating on their wholesale persecution and expulsion in 1992.  They called them insects and asked the population to rise up – a creepy echo of what was to happen next door in Rwanda only two years later. 

Except for the very dead and departed Mobutu, many from the same generation are still around to animate the political narrative of next month’s Elections in Congo.  Eleven candidates are running.   Etienne Tshisekedi, a Kasaian, is the heavy weight presidential contender and long time political veteran since the time of Mobutu when he was jailed and tortured. Along with nine others, he will be facing off President Joseph Kabila, himself an ethnic Luba and the proverbial son of Katanga, which is considered to be his natural fiefdom. There are also over 18,000 candidates running for 500 seats in the National Assembly from 147 political parties — how is that for a vibrant democracy?!


It is a few minutes past midnight and the Election campaign has officially kicked off.   There is commotion outside my window and I can already see groups of young men hoisted up on their cars and climbing walls to hang the posters of their favorite candidates.  In a few hours the city will be covered with hundreds of names and faces.  I have rented a room in an old colonial hotel facing the main town square.   An open air jeep with disco lights, ghetto amps and doctored headlights is zooming through the empty square blaring dance music and yelling political slogans on the megaphone. Vote for my guy! Vote for my guy! 


I quickly throw on my observer shirt, take my camera and run downstairs to join the half-drunk clusters of youth climbing whatever they can. Their excitement is palpable. They instantly pull me amidst them, shake my hand, twirl me around to read the writing on my shirt and pose for me.  They point to the pictures and say he is the one.  He is the best. This time — this one will remember us when he gets to Kinshasa.  You’ll see. 


Rebels in the Mist

I am in Kalemie. Its hot like an oven. I picked up a hat on the street only to realize at the last minute, it says “Kiss Me!”. I have to check the code of conduct I signed and see if I am violating any observer rules. Adalbert is our driver – a skinny little guy with a big grin who clunks us around in his boss’s car for $50 a day of which he keeps 5 – and this is the city rate. If we leave town we need a 4X4 and the price shoots up to $150. That’s actually cheap. The muzungu rate starts at $250 per day courtesy of the sad state of the roads and lack of other options.

The town is in the northern part of the province besides the beautiful Lake Tanganyika. Somewhere else this coast might have been dotted with bars and restaurants – maybe even a resort or two. Here, the local “super” market is a 3X6 with a dusty counter piled up with powdered milk, sugary drinks and cheap biscuits from the Emirates; and the closest to a café is the dilapidated “Hotel du Midi” with plastic chairs serving beer. Like the rest of Congo, this place must have seen better days before the war but there are still hints of colonial charm with its fading remains in the backdrop. There is even a mid-century rusty train sitting at the edge of town which has probably not moved since the Belgians left.

Today, besides the endless sprawl of basic staples and used consumables, every other sign along the main road reads either: Pharmacy, Hairdresser, Vodacom; or else its a guy sitting under an umbrella with his feet propped up on a wooden box piled with stacks of decomposing Congolese bills. These days the road is also dotted with an alphabet soup of political parties and fly-by-night local NGOs hoping to make a few bucks by offering “support” services to their favorite candidate. The pharmacies have names of god, Christ and his extended family; the political parties are titled Democracy, Progress, Liberation and other such fictional concepts. The most credible are the hairdressers and money changers. At least their objectives are clear.

Salon de Coiffeur


The dust and the pollution are suffocating. Hundreds of motorcycle taxis race up and down kicking up a reddish storm as they try to avoid the deep trenches on either side of the road. And when the Colonel roars through town in his three jeep open cortege like some kind of celebrity, everything gets lost in a blur leaving only two options: keep the window down and inhale it all, or roll the window up and bake nice and toasty!

“C’est colonel Igwe.” Adalbert beams with childish adoration as the uniformed man in the cocked beret standing up in the first jeep makes victory signs and zooms past almost knocking us over. “En tout cas on est tres contentes” — What is it with Africans and their love affair with Big Men?!

Apparently the Colonel has been reassigned by popular demand after a series of armed banditries in broad daylight, a couple even at the bank disbursing salaries of the U.N. personnel – now that’s what I call going too far. They said there were police and soldiers nearby but they watched and drank beer. That’s Eastern Congo for you — national currency: Impunity.

Elections are barely 6 weeks away but honestly just making it to a polling sites will be a challenge considering the state of the roads and the credit roll of the armed groups — among them war lords who eat their victim’s body parts, Mai Mai rebels who think water makes them invincible, and ex-genociders from Rwanda still at large – some now apparently with registration cards – add to that — Gold, Coltan and Casseterite – Karibu Elections indeed!

I hope the superstar colonel has a plan.


Karibu Elections 2011

“Good efternoon Madam, Mossieu; jumbo karibu and BON – JOUR!” The platinum blond, pudgy air hostess of the Soviet era Antonov charter welcomed aboard the assorted mix of ID dangling aid workers and peacekeepers as we walked up the rear cargo ramp, hauling our duffels and back packs.

“Good efternoon ladies and gentlemen; jumbo karibu. — and BON! JOUR!”. She clasped her hands enthusiastically, and with that last bit, dipped a dainty courtesy squeezing tighter in her polyester uniform.

This was my flight to Lumumbashi — 1,500 kms and two time zones later to South Eastern Congo, which means three stops, one plane change and two potential possibilities to get bumped off by someone more worthy on the U.N. roster list.

The U.N. flight from Kinshasa was Canadian owned and operated, starring a hip young male airhost with a slick hairdo and a stud in his ear. The Russian Antonov on the other hand, was to take us the rest of the way in the middle of the Congolese rainforest down close to the Zambian border after a delay of two hours on account of the weather.

“Jumbo Karibu …. No not there…..please to go all the way down…” She momentarily loses her hospitality grin and motions me unceremoniously down the narrow aisle. I look down the cramped walkway and low overhead where the rest of the passengers had been stuffed and instead point behind to several rows of open seats – one of them even with nice legroom.

“That — for VIP!” She snaps, somewhat to the delight of two Russian officers sitting comfortably in the roomy back and continues to usher me down the musty carpet where the co-pilot had now emerged to pack in the rest of the people and the luggage.

“I already looked down there. There is no room. I have a huge bag — see?” I hold up my oversized bag stuffed with the usual – camera, mosquito net, emergency light, first aid kit, rope, etc.

“He said no room?” Apparently referring to the co-pilot. “Don’t pay any attention to him. I tell you, there is room.” She points to a single empty seat next to an oversized man in camouflage and beret, holding his duffel on his lap.

”No. I think I will sit over there.” I reply feeling instantly claustrophic. I turn decisively and walk back toward the cargo rear where the two officers are sitting; in the process revealing the bold print on the back of my vest: International Observer.

“I think over here.” I sit down, shove my bag under the seat and fasten my seatbelt.

“Yes. Ok.” She says, suddenly very agreeable “No problem Madam”

Then she leans down and whispers quietly “How about over there?” She points to the super VIP row with the nice leg room.

“Jumbo karibu fasten seat belt have a pleasant flight.” She recites on auto pilot, then pauses for a moment. “I come back with some nice coffee for you.” She winks at me and walks off.

I stretch out my legs, stow my bag away and lean against the window. The rain begins to pour.

It has been five years since the last elections in Congo. The major opposition party which had boycotted in 2006 is back in full force and they have many followers where I am going. I stared hypnotically at the double wheels as the plane picks up speed, splashing the rain furiously and then takes off.

“Madam, Mossieu, Good efternoon. Jumbo Karibu and Bon Jour. Please fasten seat belt and yourself read the card with safety features in seat pocket. Our flight to Lumumbashi is one hour and half. Jumbo Karibu — Bon Voyage and Safari Njema.”

Meeting Sam: A Journey to the Source

Source of the Nile

I am back in Jinja – the source of the Nile.  From here it snakes up Uganda through the Sudan, joins up with the Blue Nile crossing Egypt and finally pours into the Mediterranean. This is also where Idi Amin threw in the corpses when he went on a rampage against the Indians in the 1970’s.   They say that’s why there are so many Marabous; surreal! — Enormous storks with scavenging beaks, long shriveled necks and balding heads just lounging atop the trees, feasting around garbage dumps, sweeping down from rooftops with their giant black wings extended like some omen and multiplying in plain sight.   It is as if elephants suddenly began to fly along 5th Avenue and no one batted an eye.   

Marabous around Jinja

“What was that word you said?” Sam leans over from the passenger seat.

 “Dali-esque.” I reply. “I can’t believe these creatures in the middle of the streets. It is like I am in a Dali painting.”  

 He bursts out laughing.  Sam Tushabe is my friend — an easy mannered, round shaped Ugandan with a perfect set of teeth eager to march out every time he smiles, and who is happy to break into a hearty laugh at the slightest encouragement. He puts one hand on his chest, throws back his head and belts out an infectious laugh that comes in installments – as if the more he thinks about it, the funnier it gets.  Recently, he has taken up wearing a hat.  It suits him. He cocks it just so, head inclined, large African toes sticking out of his sandals – he peers out quietly, multitasking on his two phones and networking with the hundreds of supporters and friends he has met along the way. Thank goodness for them 3G apples!       

Moses is Sam’s driver — skinny guy with a fringe beard and a cap. He says his mother chose the name because it was an important one.  Not like the one his father wanted — ‘Steven’. 
“Steven?! No. You look much more like a Moses to me.”  I assure him.  
”I know!” he beams, glancing quickly at the back seat as he rumbles over a pothole. “People tell me that all the time.”  He says it the same way my Persian friends do when someone compares them to ‘Italians’.

He turns into a dirt road alive with the morning bustle interrupting the cackle of a large rooster who runs across for dear life as Moses parts the way.   Fruit vendors, rickety wooden shacks selling first world disposables and second hand consumables line the narrow street. Assorted kids, some half naked others in faded mismatch, run behind the car and wave furiously as we pull into a small compound. A flock of small children in bright yellow suddenly spills out.   They all want to shake hands and take a picture, each pushing the other with their school satchels to be in front. They almost knock me over. They are irresistible and I oblige as best as I can.   Inside — a room full of women – 20 or so — each with a sowing machine sitting in rows, like a class room.  They bolt up instantly as we walk in and begin clapping in rhythm.   The teacher looks a bit like Cesaria Evora, only thinner. She sits at a slightly larger desk stacked with samples – shirts, shorts etc…   

 This is one of Sam’s projects – an empowerment center for single women.  So many single women heading households full of orphans; so many orphans on their own heading household – orphans of parents, victims of AIDS.   

Empowerment Group

Sam Tushabe

I first met Sam in a Masters program at the American University in Washington DC.  He posted his graduation picture online – cap, gown – the works; clasping his diploma in front of the School of International Service. Knowing his story now makes it all the more remarkable for all the stars that had to be aligned to make the improbable possible.  

We are touring his projects in a minivan bearing his logo – it is a map of Africa with the letters: AOET – It stands for Action for Empowerment.  I know. The “O” doesn’t quite figure but the energy of the circle does!  

 Sam’s father disappeared long before, like so many fathers in Africa. His mother carried water for pennies and sold fire wood sitting on the side of the road.

“We had nothing — nothing!”  He shakes his head. She died of AIDS when Sam was only 13.     

“The last year of her life all I did was turn her in bed — and then turn her again. She was in so much pain.” He said all the friends from his generation are also gone, as well as his sister.   This is devastation on the scale of the Genocide that took place next door in Rwanda, except that HIV/AIDS took their lives slowly, painfully and over many years sucking every family resource on its way.    At the height of the crisis Uganda had almost 40% infection rate before Museveni mobilized a national campaign. Over two million orphans were left behind; many of them also infected with AIDS. 


“Making coffins was profitable business here.”  Says Sam.  

I count: eleven graves in the back yard at one house.  Here lays the brother; the father; the mother; daughters one by one – leaving behind only a ragged grandmother with one surviving daughter and eight barefoot children  — many of them HIV positive.  


“Oh Moses!”  I beg our Moses as I stand in respect, “We need a miracle here?” 



Namokose Suleina lives with seven children, only two of them biological.  Her husband died of AIDS and she gradually inherited child after child as their parents perished.  AOET provides them with schooling, food, supplies and free health care. She is a graduate of the women’s center and has been given a sowing machine as a start up kit and a contract to make school uniforms for AOET. That is how he completes the circle — the “O” in the AOET.   She wants Sam to run for President.  

 Sitting under the tree and surrounded by her extended family she goes on and on about Sam’s organization.  I don’t understand Luganda – but her smiling face, arms that keep coming together in an embrace and the word AOET…AOET need little translation.     

One of the children — Joel went to America with Sam.   He left a cripple and came back walking.   They could not believe it.  Shakira is the youngest – perhaps nine or ten and both of her parents died of AIDS. She sings and dances for us.   

When his mother passed, Sam resorted to the only thing he knew – carrying water and selling firewood.  He saved his pennies in a box. His mother had made him promise on her death bed he would go to school.


“But how was I going to go to school at 13, if I had not been able to go when she was alive?”  Still — he kept on saving until he had enough.  

“It took two and a half hours to get to school each way.  I walked part of the way – then ran part of the way.”  He was so much older they called him grandpa! He didn’t care. He got top marks and soon he was ready for high school.


“But this one was a boarding school. Every child had to bring his own mattress and there was no way I could afford one.”  He begged the school master to admit him anyway. He slept on the floor. Sam studied during the day, cleaned classrooms after school and learnt other skills to pay his way.  He says in life you have to work for everything.  

“Even by African standards my mother did the lowest job, but I never saw her beg. It was just not an option.”    

As Sam pushed ahead, the universe opened doors and his stars slowly aligned. He got a job in a local NGO, then applied and was admitted to the University of Kampala.  

Then something incredible happened.  One night in Nairobi he saw a six year old girl on the streets, rummaging through garbage.


“First I thought she was crazy.  Or disturbed.   But when I looked closer I noticed there was nothing wrong with her.  She was just hungry and lonely. I started to cry.  I thought — a six year old alone going through the trash – no child should be living like that.” That night something shifted in Sam.  

Three weeks later he met an old woman who had taken in eight children whose parents had died of AIDS.  She had just come across a ninth abandoned child and was desperate to give it away because she did not have the means.  That day Sam sponsored his first child and in the next few years he took on more children.  By 1999 he was taking care of 20 orphans on his own, supporting them through odd jobs and painting souvenirs at tourist points.  He had found his life’s calling.


In 1999 AOET was born and by 2001 Sam had 140 children under his wings – the first 60 funded entirely by his paintings.    

“I would stand at the source of the Nile where Speke stood and paint the landscape.   Tourists loved it. I painted through the night.”


Today he operates in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana and Zambia. He has built health clinics, schools, women’s vocational training and empowerment centers.  His clinics are stocked when government facilities are empty and his primary school ranks 10th among 500 in his district.  He provides school lunch – often a child’s only meal in a day; and shuttle transportation so no child has to go through what he did. He has over a thousand children and hundreds of women in his programs and the whole town knows him. He is the real deal – I call him “Uncle Sam”, I agree with Namokose. He should run for office.      

“No.  I do more good this way.” He says after he stops laughing. 

Unlike so many in the aid “business” with large overheads or bloated bureaucracies, Sam’s projects are all substance.  He draws a meager salary, drives an old car and expects ‘heart’ from his team.  No air conditioned land cruisers or fancy offices for this bunch.  I wondered about a strange contraption standing in the school yard next to an unfinished wing. 

”Oh, that is a brick making device.  We discovered we could save 40% on the construction cost if we could make the bricks ourselves.”

He spends endless days and nights driving across many lands, telling his story to whoever will listen so that he can do more for his children.


“I want to do big things for my country.” He says.   “The biggest tragedy is not to be able to dream. That is what is wrong with my continent. We have forgotten how to dream.” 

One more thing: he has divested himself of a veto, his organization is decentralized and managed by consensus – how is that for breaking stereotypes in Africa. 

I ask the women I have met to close their eyes and tell me how they see the future.   Invariably they speak of a hopeful future for their children but fear the rising food prices. 

I ask the children he has sponsored what they wish to be when they grow up and it does not surprise me to hear that so many want to be nurses or doctors.  They all speak English. Mary wants to be a surgeon; Emmanuel an accountant; Vincent a bank manager, his brother a water engineer – a reflection of the realities on the ground – disease; poverty and lack of infrastructure.


Immaculate and her Children


 Abel wants to be a pilot. “I want to drive the President.”   I assume he means Museveni.

“I hate to break the news,” I tease him, “but he probably already has a pilot who ‘drives’ him, but you never know.  He may fire the other guy and take you on.” 

Akello also wants to be a doctor. She writes her name for me with her left hand: Akello Mercy. She is beautiful – perhaps twelve or thirteen – a perfect juicy face with shaved head, raised cheeks and a smile that would bring out the sun.


“She’s left handed;” Moses whispers the obvious in my ear.   

“Did you know President Obama is also left handed?” I ask; then realize she doesn’t need Obama for inspiration. Sam is setting the example here.


Later I thought about Sam’s comment. Perhaps this is the reason one forgets to dream.  It is the loss of hope. Hope — that elusive commodity that fuels all things alive. 


They say when Pandora opened the box, she let out all the woes of the world – hope is the one thing that remained intact so that man could go on living.  

…and this is Sam’s gift to his children – the gift of hope.  

Breaking the Fourth Wall in Rwanda

By Elise Webb

Our van rumbles up the dirt roads with ruts running deep from the rainy season. Children seem to be the first to spot us and call out; many even chase after us. In the rear view mirror you can see them waving and yelling; filling up the frame with arms and feet, dust building up between us and them. The only word I understand is ‘muzungu’ (white person) and it’s yelled over and over again like it’s my name. I get a bit worried in the old social researcher sense that the very fact I am there is changing the process.

In Little-Engine-that-Could-style our van reaches the crest of a beautiful hill and we park. The vista is like none other. I won’t be surprised if in the next few years Hollywood discovers Ngororero and chooses it as the backdrop for a Neverland or Shangri-La. Each hill builds a horizon of overlapping layers and every inch of the land is cultivated. It’s an intricate patchwork of terraces flecked with houses. I hadn’t realized, until speaking with my boss, Rebecca, that this beauty, striking because it’s so orderly, is actually a source of tension here. How can you expect to raise infinite generations with finite plots land? As the population grows, it’s getting harder to take care of families since the traditional ways are not growing in tandem.

We’re here for a Search for Common Ground participatory theater performance and actors tumble out of the van, quickly constructing a simple performance space. The theme this time is “The Citizen and the Officials, Working Together for Development.” Thankfully, the commotion is more interesting than the muzungu and I am free to observe.

As the troupe hammers in posts for a perimeter of the stage people stop and stare. Each hit brings a new audience member. Clang!—a man in a t-shirt emblazoned with “Del-a-where?” stops. Clang!—a lady dragging a reluctant goat pauses. Clang!—a handful of children clump up, hiding behind one another, curious enough to gape but not to approach alone. You can see in the distance, behind bushes and around corners, like mirages, figures waiting, observing the action, just like I am.

Soon the sound system blares lively music such as Shakira’s “This Time for Africa” and the actors dance vibrantly in a circle. That’s when the spectators start. They sit. They stand. They shoo others to get out of their way. A dance contest literally pulls people into the circle. After a winner is selected the actors move on to the real business for the day, playing four typical scenes of conflict from around the Ngororero District. The people watch attentively, leaning in, wrinkling their faces with concern, releasing their tension with bursts of laughter. One scene is so funny to the crowd; you can see a woman with tears streaming down her face. They know these conflicts; they have met these fictional characters every day.

Engaging the audience.

The moment of truth hits when the people are asked to participate. Some readily jump in to offer solutions, like how to solve a dispute between a husband and wife. Some scenes take a bit of coaxing. Asking a spectator to join the actors in pretending to be a government official while real authorities are watching in the audience, can be a bit intimidating. Yet it is truly magical when it works. An idealistic 19-year-old boy argues in the role of a district official, that true leaders should stick up for the sufferers. A district executive secretary herself joins the next scene to display her savvy at problem solving which generates whispers from the crowd and calls to the leader about personal grievances. This small piece of theater was actually encouraging an active dialogue. From the reactions of some in the audience, collaboration with government leaders is new.

The marriage of theater and social justice movements is not new; I’ve seen the effect on a grand scale in the Czech Republic. But to see sparks of change, to see acute and genuine attentiveness to the performance is something few American actors get to feel. Sure there’s applause and laughter but the western restrictions of lights and sets make the ‘fourth wall’ an unassailable barrier. Here with SFCG, theater is a living breathing organism that the audience feeds with their opinions and insights. Hopefully, this nourishing dialogue will speed up growth of lasting connections between citizens and their representatives. If nothing else for one afternoon in the sun, everyone had a chance to be heard.

Elise Webb is an international intern for SFCG in Rwanda who recently arrived in Kigali. This article appeared first on Search for Common Ground and on Cram Magazine: