William Mutenza calls on other Ugandans in the Diaspora to get out of their comforts zones and take advantage of the opportunities back home By Vincent Gasana
Invitations to the Uganda Convention-UK are already out for the 12th of September 2015. In fact the organisers began preparing for this year’s event on the last day of last year’s. Behind every detail of this year’s event, as every other year for the past four years, will be William Mutenza, whose brain child was the convention.
Now in its fifth year, the annual event has grown exponentially, as Mutenza recalls,“Initially we had budgeted for three hundred to attend, we ended up with nearly two thousand, and the costs were more than we had planned for”.
It has clearly been an organisational challenge, and a financial burden, so why does he bother, why did he even bother starting it? The idea came out of smaller initiatives. Mutenza recalls one, “The Uganda Business and Professional Association”. He discarded these, “because they were not inclusive”. The Uganda Convention he explains is for everyone, whether they have established businesses, or hoping to start one, or just to network.
Mutenza’s motivation is primarily public spirited. His sense of frustration of unfulfilled potential within the Ugandan Diaspora flows under the surface of everything he says about his aspiration for the community. “Looking at our community, it is twenty years (sic), since our community had arrived here in significant numbers, and it seemed to be stagnant. There about 100,000 Ugandans, but, few of us think of connecting with back home”.
He gives a graphic example of how things flow in what he believes is the wrong direction. “When you travel to Uganda you find about 90% of passengers are Europeans or Asians, very few are Ugandans. Most of them are sent by companies, doing research, NGOs, they are coming to our countries because of the opportunities we have. When these planes are coming back to Europe, they are always full of Africans. So for me my vision is to create a platform where people can look beyond this comfort zone and start looking at Africa, as the only way they can better than themselves”.
There were other community organisations, as there are now, when he and a group of like minded volunteers launched the first Uganda Convention, but, he did not feel that these initiatives were sufficiently engaged with forging that all important link with their country of origin.
“We felt strongly that Ugandans need to be really engaged, engaged progressively, not in the way we normally do, bring artists, have fun and then wait for another year. This time it was engaging them by trying to tap into the skilled labour force, showing them that they could repatriate their skills back home, and make money of it, while contributing to the development of Uganda”.
This idea of enlightened self interest is a theme that runs through much of Mutenza’s thinking. “Another one of the objectives of the convention was to help people who had ideas but did not know whom to talk to. Come, network with other business minded people, share ideas, probably (sic) you can pick something for your next move. We work with the government a lot, as well as the private sector, we bring in government officials who come and talk about opportunities in Uganda”.
In line with Mutenza’s own thinking, the convention stretches beyond business to other areas where he believes the community needs support. “We realised that our youth here are lost. There are cultural conflicts between our own culture, and what they experience outside the home, including what they pick up on television. We try to instruct them in our cultural values, and show them the dangers of discarding those values”. This year, the Convention will be hosting Her Royal Highness Sylvia Nagginda Nnabagereka Queen of Buganda who will be making a presentation on celebrating positive culture and providing development solutions.
Youth engagement is a particular worry for Mutenza, and with the youth forum the convention takes on the role of a community support group than a business organisation. For Mutenza however, it is all of a piece. Whether it is building wealth creation in the community, encouraging cultural identity among the young, it is all building a foundation for the community’s prosperity. As he reels them off, the issues addressed in the youth forum are deep seated and serious. “We tackle health problems, unplanned pregnancies, crime is becoming a big problem, drug abuse, so we try to get the youth themselves to address these, so we can create leaders among them. We want the youth to take control, come up with their own themes. We don’t want to impose on them what we think they should do”.
As he warms to his theme, it becomes clear that whether he knows it, or acknowledges it himself, business promotion is just an element of the Uganda Convention. He is clearly concerned with the wellbeing of the community and the convention was his way of trying to address as many of those concerns as possible, while at the same time creating wealth, which he sees a sine qua non for community development. In his early forties, Mutenza already feels a self imposed burden of an elder statesman.
“For us (sic) we are aging, most of us are planning to go back home, the convention is about people repatriating, looking at opportunities back home and engaging them to go back home but we forget we have our youth we are leaving here in this country, we must leave them with structures to properly follow in our footsteps”.
The convention is in many ways a concrete example of Mutenza’s belief that everyone has a responsibility to the community, beyond the personal. “Me I believe (sic) that everyone has a calling, my calling was to bring our people together”. He contends that many among his compatriots have forgotten why they came here in the first place. “If my reason for leaving Uganda had been because I was fleeing political persecution, I would have gone to a neighbouring country, but, I came here, I came here because I wanted to better myself. Many Ugandans get comfortable and forget why we came here. It was to better ourselves, so why don’t we do it collectively. I believe that communities can only succeed if they have a structure that can bring them together”.
Mutenza’s efforts are all the more laudable because he has had to wade through the sensitivities of Ugandan politics. He is careful to make clear that he works with government in order to open opportunities for the Diaspora. He is keen to make it clear that government makes no financial contribution to the convention, and above has no control over it.
“For most Ugandans the things that bring together have been tribe and politics, which divide us even more. The convention is for all Ugandans whatever their tribe or politics. We campaign only for the betterment of Ugandans, not for politics or tribe”.
Indeed, now that the convention has outgrown its beginnings, Mutenza is hoping to set it up as a self sustaining social enterprise. It is yet to break even, once it does, he would like to go back to spending more time on his own career.
“For me I would like to get more Ugandans involved, so I can go back to my work as a graphic and web designer. I also have my personal projects in Ugandan which take my time”.
One of those personal projects is this Magazine, which Mutenza publishes. Like the convention, he hopes that the Magazine (the Promota) can “provide a platform for Ugandans to know about the things that can make a difference to their individually, and as a community”.
Mutenza’s desire to share more of the responsibility for the running of the annual event that is the Uganda Convention is a challenge to all Ugandans who care for their community. He has done his bit, carried more than his fair share of responsibility for his community. Who else feels “calling” as he terms it.