This past week Edward Ssebuwufu opened his Friday evening radio show his usual music, a Ugandan pop song simply titled “Africa.” The lyrics are a wry commentary on the politics of his native nation—“who can buy our country, we’ve put it up for sale” — and for Ssebuwufu they had once again proven to be prophetic. It was February 19th, the day after Uganda held presidential elections, and despite allegations of corruption and fraud it appeared that Yoweri Museveni would be back for a fifth term in office.
Ssebuwufu was not actually in Uganda last week, nor were most of his listeners. The show was on Radio Uganda Boston, which broadcasts worldwide on the Internet from a studio in Waltham, Massachusetts—a historic mill city in the northeast United States that has become a major center for the Ugandan diaspora.
But while the audience is scattered, their attention and sentiments are not. Once Ssebuwufu took his place behind the broadcast desk and announced the latest election figures, he opened the phone lines — punching two buttons on the mixing board to bring the first guest on air. It was a man in Norway asking which polling centers were reporting Museveni’s purported victory. A second caller in Maryland wanted to know what could be done next to challenge the results. A third claimed that the government was just waiting for everyone to go to sleep so that they could swap the numbers in Museveni’s favor. According to Ssebuwufu — who had been at the station for seven hours already that day — this has been the general tone in the diaspora: frustration, and disappointment.
And not without good reason: the elections in Uganda this past week have been mired by irregularities. Radio stations were censored and social media blocked; opposition candidates were repeatedly arrested and protests quelled while state funds fed the incumbent’s campaign; and reports of vote-buying and pre-checked ballots led the US State Department to announce: “The Ugandan People deserve better.”
Despite Museveni’s history of election tampering many in the diaspora had hoped that this time would be different. As Ssebuwufu describes it, that hope is a personal one. “If you ask any Ugandan, they will tell you: ‘I am here, I’m working—one time I want to go back home.’ That means that most of the Ugandans are living outside Uganda not because they want to, but because the situation back home is not good.” For now at least, that situation is not likely to change.
There was a lot of disappointment in Waltham on February 19. Freddie Kibuuka works the counter at Karibu, a Ugandan restaurant just off the city’s main drag. He is 29, which means that he has only known one president in his lifetime. “We felt this was our time to take power. We thought 30 years is too much.” Kibuuka spoke softly, the sense of defeat showing on his face.
At one of the tables, John Nsubuga expressed a more cynical view. Gesturing with a paper coffee cup, he announced: “You can never vote them out, only fight them out.” I heard a similar sentiment next door, where Gerald Mutiaba works as an accountant and manages his own Internet radio station. “I don’t know why people got so surprised when he came out to be the winner.”
Mutiaba placed Museveni’s reign in a larger context: “It is a trend, it has been happening. Look at Mugabe, he did it, Gaddafi did it, Saddam … Maybe we need to learn a lot from history, because it tends to repeat itself.”
But whether surprised or resigned, hopeful or skeptical, everyone I met was also concerned for Uganda’s stability, and wanted calm, despite the injustice. Ssebuwufu told me that he has been closing out his radio show with a different song: a version of “Give Peace A Chance” released last year by the aging South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
Ssebuwufu’s message to his listeners—whether in Uganda or the diaspora—is simple: “We are Ugandans. This is a process which comes every five years. It comes and it goes.” He adds: “Please don’t fight each other. I think we’ve walked that path for so long, enough is enough.”
The Friday night broadcast wrapped up at 9:30pm. Seven thousand miles away the sun was about to rise over Kampala. That immense distance is not as far as it once was, as Ssebuwufu’s program illustrates. The election unfolded in real time—so even though diasporic Ugandans could not vote from abroad, they could still follow official announcements, instantly share reports with relatives, and air their own views.
I had previously spent time at Radio Uganda Boston researching their music programming and its ability to connect the stations’ dispersed listeners, but coming back during the election season really drew out for me the extent to which Internet technology affects the meaning, experience and limits of being in the diaspora.
The very concept of a diaspora has always been defined in part by the existence of a shared homeland—whether real or imagined—that is preserved as a memory or myth. But for Ssebuwufu’s generation Uganda is much more than a myth; it’s a reality that they can see, hear, engage, and influence. And yet, they are still removed—protected to some degree, and also powerless; it’s still “back home” as Ssebuwufu likes to say. The election seemed to highlight that paradox of being both intimately connected and physically separated. Ssebuwufu’s listeners couldn’t take to the streets and most could not even cast ballots, so instead they called in and asked him: “What can be done next?”
“What can I do?”
Ssebuwufu didn’t have all the answers. There wasn’t much he could do either, except to keep broadcasting, to give his community an outlet for their frustration, and to hope for the best. “We are just waiting to see what happens, and we keep on praying that it’s not so bad.”