#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Benjamin Rukwengye (BR) on Mentoring
RK: It is a pleasure to have you on #360Mentor Rukwengye. You are one person who has been very consistent in mentoring. I am glad we are going to be hearing from you today.
BR: Thank you Robert
RK: Before we dive into the subject of the day, there are three personal things I would like you to address, if you don’t mind. Your breakfast, why is it that you eat your breakfast in the car?
BR: Robert, it’s not me. It’s the traffic. The traffic is so bad that by the time you get to the office, you are already hungry. And you have this dish of snacks sitting next to you. So there is nothing you’re supposed to do but eat it.
RK: You remind me of my primary school days when we would carry a snack to school but by breaktime, it’s done because you’ve been pinching at it and there’s nothing left.
BR: See, I’m not alone.
RK: The second one, you recently finally got your academic transcript, would you like to talk about It?
BR: Finally, oh my God! It was a very interesting experience because it should be straightforward. Ordinarily, when you graduate, you are supposed to get your transcript at graduation. What happened was, there were 30 students in the class and only seven of us graduated that year. I didn’t feel any need to go through the graduation ceremony and stuff because a couple of my friends in the class had not graduated. I didn’t want to feel like I was having a good time when many of my friends had not graduated.
RK: What happened in the class?
BR: Nothing had happened in class. You know when you are paying for masters, you are also charged a fee for your supervisor, the university had not remitted their payment and they refused to do their work. So they didn’t graduate.
RK: Oh my! Has that ever been corrected?
BR: Yes. They graduated two years later. But because I had not cleared through that process, I went back to clear and I couldn’t because I had overpaid my tuition and they could not clear me until it was a zero balance. That took forever. It went on for three weeks. I didn’t need the transcript because I had started my entrepreneurship journey. But now a time came and I needed it and I was told I needed two weeks for the transcript to be printed. It took the help of eight people for me to have my transcript. There is a problem there. There are many people who have given up on their transcripts.
RK: They say it pays to know people in higher places. I will ask the other question later. Tell me, what do you do on a daily basis?
BR: What I do on a daily basis is learning and teaching and learning. That’s how I would describe it. Myself and the people I work with try to learn and improve ourselves. We have young people in our networks that look up to us as a means for them to their next step. My work and my team is to grow them to a place where they are able to create opportunities for themselves and others that look up to us as a stepping stone for them and others.
RK: Me and you first met when you came over to Vision to talk about mentoring young people. Who are these young people you mentor?
BR: That core group of the people we mentor right now starts at the age of three upto about 30. And what we do is training that focuses on what is called the 21st century skills in order to prepare them to make the transition from school to work.
RK: What are those skills?
BR: Critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, curiosity, collaboration and communication. Skills that have been identified as crucial for the future of work. These skills are not taught in our schools. Sometimes these young people are not able to find jobs, sometimes not because the jobs are not there, but because there is a skills mismatch. Because our schools do not train us to identify problems, to think critically, to solve those problems, they are unable to spot the problem and build an opportunity for themselves and others.
What we are doing are three things;
· Offering training that offers these skills. Training is done in an experiential manner so that they are able to learn on the job which is different from how they learn at school.
· The second thing is to provide products that can accelerate this learning process. So we have books, games, tool kits, templates that young people can then use to accelerate the learning process.
· The last one is direct mentorship. We get experienced people that the learners can learn from to ease up transition.
That is how we do mentorship.
RK: Let’s go back to things you described; critical thinking, curiosity, communication and collaboration, what is involved in each one of them?
BR: If you think about a typical graduate who has been through school, the teacher gives them all the information they need to learn. And then the only way to tell if they are intelligent is if they can reproduce that same information in the exact way it was given. If you have gone through school like how many of us have, you are not required to think but rather to reproduce what you have been taught.
You are not part of knowledge creation as a learner. But we also know that when you go to a workplace, there are roles of taking instruction and reproducing them is required but many of the roles don’t require that. But for you to grow, to become a manager, you are required to offer more than the next guy. All of them can remember. They know the same thing. You need to be different. And how you are different is the ability to identify a problem and find a solution to it.
RK: Basically, one of the things you do is to equip the learners with these abilities?
BR: That is the core of what we do.
RK: That goes for the ability to communicate, think, and all these kinds of things?
BR: Yes. Going back, this problem is rooted in how we study and the things we studied.
RK: What is it that is failing us in the form of systems in place?
BR: The demands for today are what is failing us. Look, Robert, both my grandparents were teachers. They taught pretty much the same way, the same things that children in school are learning. My granddad is 92 and my grandma is 89.
RK: Wow! And they are still alive?
RK: Lucky you man!
BR: Thanks. When you think about it, these guys were teaching in the 60s and 70s teaching the same way a child in P4 and S1 is still learning yet the world has changed 180. The world has changed over 180 for the last 50 years. But, the form of instruction has not. The demands of the world have changed but we haven’t changed how we are meeting those demands.
When I started boundless, I had a conversation with a friend who was at Yale. He had been to three other countries before coming to Uganda. I had never been out of the country at the time. She had now moved to Uganda volunteering at an orphanage in Rakai and it didn’t make sense that she had this wealth of world exposure when she was my age and I didn’t have any. She had a five year headstart on me which I would never be able to catch up with.
While it would take me another 10 years to start Boundless, in a normal system, I should have started Boundless as a 15 year old because it is not a grand idea. I didn’t invent anything.
But if you look at many of our entrepreneurs like Solomon King, imagine if they had had to start earlier than they started. That is what functional systems do. They allow for you to do that. How good would all of us have had a 5 year head start. Realising that, it occurred to me that maybe we need spaces where learning is different which allow young people to start as early as possible because they need to make these mistakes. They need to experiment with these ideas.
RK: And in a safe environment where failure does not debilitate them.
BR: Yes. Now we have guys who are 18/19 who have started businesses. Even though the businesses they have started now do not take off, they are never going to fail at another. The lessons they are picking today at 19, I am picking at 35, we cannot compete.
By the time they are 35, they will be billionaires. And it is possible for us to do those things.
RK: I am curious, at what point did this crystallize and that you had to address it?
BR: I don’t have a eureka moment.
RK: What about a road to Damascus moment? What’s the evolutionary moment?
BR: It probably starts with 4040 with the work we were doing when we had just started. We were asking people to do mentorship when they were not equipped to do mentorship. At that point we were not thinking about it as mentorship. All we did was ask young people to go to schools to volunteer, but we realised that they don’t have what we want them to be able to deliver in the way that we wanted it to be delivered.
I was working as a research associate at ACME at the time, so we did research on education. We wanted to find that nexus between education and employment. Then I realized the problem was bigger than we thought it was. But then I didn’t know what needed to be done. In 2015, I had Boundless registered but we were only able to begin work in 2017. For two years I didn’t know what to do. Neither did I have the courage to start.
I created a toolkit of the things I thought I should have learnt when I was in S2/3 and how I should have learned them. There were about 8 modules which I sent around to friends for review. They however, referred me to work with schools. I went to about four schools with the toolkit, but they didn’t have the time for them because they did not have time for that kind of stuff. They told me to go back in case I wanted to do career talks. But that is not what I wanted.
I wanted a process where learning is experiential and that it would be a while for them to pick the things that they need to pick. And they said no. I was stuck for two years. I sort of got discouraged and didn’t know what to do. It was the conversation with that friend that opened up my eyes. Eh told me she started travelling when she was 18. And it hit me that 18, in Uganda is about S6 ‘vac’.. and I think that was my eureka moment.
It hit me that when you are in S6 vac, you basically do nothing. I had done nothing. I sat at home and watched TV. And went to SANTOS to eat ice cream. Once I understood that, I said maybe what we need is not the school but start at S6 vacation.
BR: I started reading on volunteerism and all these subjects. I read up on those things you guys went to Kyankwanzi to do. I wanted to find something. I didn’t know that parents would let their 17 year olds leave Kampala to go and volunteer in Kanungu for two weeks.
That allowed me to think of a programme that allowed for these young people to go into their communities to go and come back. Parents are familiar with their communities. Once I figured that out, I didn’t know how to start. Then one day I sent out a tweet for people to send me their siblings in S6 and a few brave people sent me their siblings for the next six weeks. One of the girls that attended, Pearl, has just completed her Law degree. I remember her telling me her parents had always been sending her to attend the career related programs but she appreciated Boundless the most because it sent them to go and explore problems in their communities and also speak to their community leaders. That was a different process of learning. She told me not to drop the community engagement programme.
That to me, became clear that it is what we needed to do. Then I got a lot of support from people who saw what I was trying to do. They helped me to redefine Boundless to what it is today.
RK: Of the four cohorts you have had, what are the common shortcomings that keep coming up?
BR: I think our system is designed to disempower learners. It takes initiative out of the learners. All the earners require is to show up.
RK: Yet the workplace needs more than showing up. So these people are without initiative and without drive. Is that what you are saying?
BR: Yes. But that is because they have been conditioned to do that. If you went to school and you were found reading a novel, it was confiscated. If you asked questions that showed your curiosity, the teacher would call you out.
RK: The problem is that your curiosity exposed the teacher’s lack of either authority or knowledge.
BR: But you see, these problems eventually grow. Disempowered children become disempowered adults.
RK: And therefore a social burden.
BR: When the learners come to Boundless, they realise they are responsible for their own learning. You find there are people who enjoy going out and finding out this knowledge on their own and there are those who fizzle out and don’t know how to go about it.
RK: What have been the results of your work?
BR: Results are easy to find. I can give you the numbers of how many have graduated and how many have started businesses. But for me some of the results are those we did not set out to do. There is a story of a girl who told us she had found a sense of purpose and now at home, they looked up to her with a lot more respect. And this is why.
In S6, she was the one they picked on to do whatever there was. In the evening, everyone would return with a story to tell and she had nothing to share because she had stayed home the whole day. Then she joined Boundless and she is supposed to go into the community, find out things on her own, volunteer at a school and serve in the kitchen. She told me, now at home, when we sit to talk about the day, I too, have something to share because now I feel that I matter at home.
Secondly when my friends call me for plot and I tell them I am busy, indeed I am busy.”
That there is a sense of purpose.
Young people need validation to be able to pursue their next step. I don’t think there is anything more important about our work than the fact that we are required to give a sense of purpose to the young people that come to our programs.
RK: Someone could be wondering, how does one get into Boundless?
BR: There’s a paradox to this question. People who use these programs tell you something that baffles many of us. When you put up a call you have people in 100s signing up but not showing up. And it is not for Boundless. It is the same for Refractory and Media Challenge.
I worked briefly as the head of recruitment at Teach For Uganda, one of the things that used to baffle me is that you would shortlist say 20 people for interviews and only eight show up and the 12 don’t show up or communicate yet they received communication.
And this even happens to people much older who do not need parental coercion. So when you ask about who needs to sign up, I don’t know where to begin from.
Sometimes we receive young people who tell us that their parents sign them up.
RK: Do the parents reach out to you to talk about these things?
BR: Now they do. In the past we didn’t, but now we do. We have programs that are open. We have a digital program called the Mentor where anybody can sign up and create an account and access content, mentorship.
But we also have programs that require one to apply and fill in application forms which require one to answer questions on how they will solve the problems in their communities. This application is designed for students in S4, S6 or university. Sometimes you get calls from parents complaining about the questions that are very hard. But the questions are for the learners not parents.
RK: So what is the parent doing filling in the forms for the child?
BR: I don’t know.
RK: From your point of view, there should be something wrong with the parents here.
BR: Robert, parents are part of the learning system here. The parents went through the same system and expecting them to offer more might be asking for too much. Sometimes they don’t know. They think they are doing the best for their children, but it’s hurting.
I recently wrote about it. elections in primary and secondary school. If parents are giving their children upto seven million shillings to win an election to become a prefect, that is money I don’t even earn.
RK: You mean these elections for prefects and the like?
BR: Yes. I hear these stories from the young people on our mentorship programs. Children have to tile and buy pavers for the school compound so that they win an election at school.
RK: No, Rukwengye, No.
BR: Yes.. sometimes we blame teachers but they too are products of this system. Parents are also part of this system. The things we are trying to correct, if we don’t do anything, it is going to get worse. The things we are trying to correct are much bigger than we can imagine.
RK: How do we deal with this parent failure?
BR: Education doesn’t only happen at school, it happens between school and home. If everything is broken, it cannot be perfect because if you take care of the process, you don’t have to worry about the end because you can predict it.
The process that leads to our upbringing which is happening at home, on the way to school and at school is dysfunctional which means the products we will have will also be dysfunctional.
RK: You say if you don’t fix this problem, we are all in deep trouble, what do you see that many of us are not seeing?
BR: 1. First of all I must say I am not a pessimist. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing the work I am doing. My work demands that I stay optimistic.
2. However, I also exist in spaces and around people who are interested in doing whatever they can, to make things work and that is also very encouraging.
3. I believe that these problems are solvable. From that point of view, the future will be better in some way. Otherwise there would be no point in life.
What I worry about though is that those who are trying to make a difference might choose to give up if nothing is done. Everyone has a responsibility and I believe that’s what mentorship is all about. You recognise you have something to give. That you have a certain privilege that brings you the responsibility to give back and make things better for those that might not be in the position to be where you are .
RK: The question of role models. How important are role models in the process?
BR: We are looking at moving from where we are towards the next big space. What role models or mentors do is to help shortcut the process of learning. They have gone before us and learnt a lot more before we did. We don’t have to go through the same process to take as long as it would have if our mentors and role models do their work well. That’s why role modeling is very important.
RK: Great. Should public figures be aware of their mentoring obligation simply because they are public figures?
BR: That is a tricky question. I have seen conversations where someone says, you know I didn’t sign up to be a role model for your children, so don’t hold me to that standard. To one side, this is true. Apart from people like me who have come out to say we are mentors, we are supposed to act a certain way. But very few people have publicly said they want to live their lives as mentors.
But you see the thing with leadership and responsibility is that whether you like it or not, there are going to be people who look up to you. This means that whether you have asked for it or not, you are going to be a mentor. You are responsible. The people at the top did not ask for it but they now have a responsibility to the people down. That is why some people argue that public figures don’t have a role in making role models. I don’t agree.
RK: I will share my experience. When you become a public figure, you become of public trust. You enjoy this status of acclaim or even celebrity because the public has accepted that you should do that. In my view, this puts a certain obligation on you. You cannot just enjoy the status of being a public figure and then you say you didn’t sign up for it.
BR: I agree with you.
Moses Rutahigwa: How are you helping parents to embrace the new soft skills which are very relevant for our young people which are not taught in our system. How are you helping parents drive that instead of leaving it to teachers?
BR: Moses, unfortunately we haven’t yet started engaging parents but we plan on doing so. This is certainly something we cannot do without bringing parents on board.
Amos Kiyingi: How do we go about creating a system change to ensure that things you have highlighted are not the things we are still talking about 10 years from now? How do we make the mentorship space known that it is beneficial to all.
BR: The thing about systemic change is that change is gradual and it is very very slow, especially this kind of change. I used to think that some of the things I believed needed to change would shift immediately but the context in which we work doesn’t allow for these things to shift as fast as we would like them to. At a personal level, I have decided that I am going to do what is required of me while I am here and make sure that whoever comes after me does not start from where I started.
But also recognise that this change race is not for me to complete necessarily, but others might be the ones that complete that race. So are we going to see these things change? Maybe not. Are we going to see them change the way we want them to? Maybe, maybe not. But that should not deter us from doing what we are doing today. Whoever that is going to come after you needs to know that the work you put in made the difference. That is the motivation for me. Let’s all do our bit to move the needle.
Solomon King: I would like to talk about systems change. These take a lot of time at government level. It takes more than 10 years to design a new curriculum. The other thing that the government is keen on is what your evidence looks like. You need to be able to prove that your intervention makes sense for them to begin giving it thought.
The most important thing Rukwengye, Myself and Amos Kiying are doing is that we create evidence through the actions that we do. In 5 -10 years, we shall have enough information that we shall present and implement it. If you choose to work with convincing the government exclusively then you will not have the results they need to take you seriously. I just wanted to add that.
RK: Rukwengy, your last word
BR: Thank you so much, Robert, for the opportunity to talk about our work. I must say I am not a fatalist. We do problem solving that is why I am doing this. All of us believe that the social challenges we face as a country are not beyond our means to solve but we also need to constantly consider the systems that allow for these social problems to continue and thrive.
Lastly, to anyone doing this sort of work, just do your bit today without feeling like it is your responsibility to complete this race. Eventually, all of us doing this work will be gone. The people that started the civil rights movement are central to what we see today. Had they not started, we could not be seeing any of that.
Again, thank you so much. Check out our work www.thementoronline.org. See you online.
RK: Thank you very much Rukwengye.