In life, we all have that one thing or two for which our heart beats. it varies from person to person. Awel’s heart beats for a transformed community. In his waking and going to bed, that is where his treasure is. It is on this road, that he was walked for close to two decades using the tools at his disposal to impact someone else’s life. This is a tale of community engagement, social justice and the power of social capital.
Over the years, Awel has combed a number of corridors serving in different capacities but mostly as a founder of different initiatives. His recent assignment was at the Government Citizen Interaction Centre (GCIC) where he served for the last two and half years.
This kind of work saw Awel get heavily involved in the primary negotiations and planning that went on to make GCIC get reorganized to serve its role. This is his style of doing work. He creates brands and lets them grow without being at the forefront.
His works speak volumes. “The work is never about me. The day the work becomes about me then it doesn’t matter. People will always know.” He is an ideas-person whose heart is fully sold out to community transformation and social justice. In a world where ideas work, commitment is the currency. Today, he is paying that currency.
As a young man, Awel Uwihanganye had a tough childhood. Things were hard. Going through school was a struggle and that is when his mind was opened to the concerns of community. He made a promise to God that if he ever made it through, he would avail himself to the service of community. “If I get a better life, better education, I will do my best to help others.” Making such a promise is easy. It soothes your pain and gives you the hope to carry on for another day. It is when your turn to fulfil it comes that reality hits you.
There is always that one day when things change. Awel had such a day. He moved to Canada for his undergraduate degree and the five years he spent there, he had a chance to rewrite his story. “There was this lecturer who kept emphasising that the best thing we’ll ever get out of university are not our degrees but rather our social capital.”
Indeed, it was true. He partnered with a classmate Peter with whom they set up CEED in 2005. At that time, the war in northern Uganda had had a toll on the people. So many lives had been lost and many children had been left orphaned or detached from their families. After their initial visit in 2004, it dawned on him that they had to do something. They founded CEED to advocate for the children of the night communities as they had come to be known. In 2005, he moved back to Uganda to run the organisation.
Peter, on the other hand, remained in Canada mobilising resources which were used to run the organisation here. The best place the two had a better understanding of was the university. They sold the idea to the student body which kept on sending volunteers to come and work with the organisation. This came to be the model on which the organisation was established and run.
Having served for four years as the director, it was time for him to move on. He felt he had given the organisation the solid foundation it needed.
While still working as the director at CEED, the two founders were invited in Montreal where the city mayor honoured their work in the region. The recognition came with a big cheque which rolled off a lot of the challenges the organisation was shouldering. “It was the first time in my life I was recognised for doing something good and I loved the feeling.”
This recognition challenged him. “Who is recognising the young people in Uganda?” He got an idea which he shared with a friend Ivan Kyambadde with whom they teamed up to found the Young Achievers Awards in 2009. The awards were to motivate young people. Someone out there was cognizant of the work they were doing. The awards were well received and many young people looked up to them. “It’s always humbling to see what the award can do to someone’s life.”
In 2013, the awards were handed over to a group of young people to run them. It was such a huge price that Awel and Ivan had to pay.
During the time of running Young Achievers Awards, Awel attended the ASPEN Leadership Institute which exposed him to the leadership question.
Back home the awards were good but they were not answering the leadership question. Beyond winning awards, the winners and all the players in the other disciplines needed to be guided on how to lead and lead well.
Also, at ASPEN, one of the challenges that the fellows had to take on was to come up with a leadership program that they would run in their country. These two factors led to the birth of the Leo-Africa Institute. While reflecting on this journey, Awel had this to say;
“Social enterprise is hard. I have had amazing lessons. Hard lessons. The price you pay and the sacrifices you have to make can have a huge toll on you. But I promised to commit on this journey. It would have been easier to settle in a position or place, but am not like that. I made a commitment to transform communities.”
LEO institute promotes servant leadership. “It is not about the people that run it. Service is a privilege that should not be taken lightly.”
When the doors opened in 2013 for LEO, it became Awel’s fulltime job as the director. The institute was established a leadership program, a magazine and a number of other projects. All these are done in partnership with a number of institutions that believe in the dream. The institute puts out calls where the young leaders apply and enrol for the programs.
Through doing this work, Awel has met many influential people including presidents with whom he has established personal relations. One of such a relation with President Museveni led to a challenge. The president tasked him to take on the responsibility at GCIC to create an interactive relationship between the government and the people. This is one project that Awel looks back to with a lot of delight. “For one, I got an insight into how the government works.”
As he looks back on the journey he has had transforming communities especially working with young people, he is grateful. He has had to pay a price for the decisions and choices made but the reward outweighs it all.
He believes there is still a lot of work to be done. He believes Uganda’s biggest resource right now are the young people. Unfortunately, he is surprised that the government is not doing as much to tap into this resource. “The young people are currently on their own.”
His advice to the youth is to invest in themselves, to acquire skills as much as they can. “Use this time to build social capital. Social capital is as good as money in the bank. Who can you call?”