Martin Ssemakula is the man who has been through the trenches of radio ever since privately owned radio stations were first licensed to operate in Uganda in 1993. Martin knows the power of media and he uses it to educate the masses about appreciating the environment.
At 60 as his age mates are settling down into retirement, Martin is working on setting up the climate change radio. This has nothing to do with his age mates but rather his love for radio as a platform for transformation.
His hair has turned grey just as his well-trimmed beard. In a Steve Jobs fashion, he is wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans for our early morning coffee meeting. Save for the grey, there is nothing 60 about him. His husky baritone voice remains as youthful as that of a thirty year old.
It all started in 1992 when Martin returned from Russia then known as the Soviet Union where he had gone to study journalism. Upon graduating as a broadcaster, he decided to return home six years later.
The winds of change were sweeping through Uganda. The NRM government had been in power for six years and things were starting to take shape again after many years of ruin. The media space too was trying to open up. The New Vision newspaper was running and the Monitor was putting its pieces together. But there was still one radio, Radio Uganda. The government owned radio station was the only local station running on the AM and FM frequencies. Employment opportunities on radio were so slim. Much as Martin desired to work on radio, there was no space for him. He had to settle for the newspaper as a freelance writer.
If there is one thing news does, it goes around. As a journalist, he too caught the news. His friend and fellow journalist David Ndyanabo told him about the new radio station in the offing. A one Thomas Kato and his sons Patrick and John were in the process of setting up the first privately owned FM radio station. Radio Sanyu. As they chased for the license, they were setting up. Martin asked to work with them and the doors opened.
With a background of a hands-on training, Martin knew he could deliver and deliver he did. He was tasked to become the producer of the station long before it went on the airwaves on Christmas day in 1993. His job was to design the radio shows that were going to run and to train the presenters. A cohort of talented young men and women like Alex Ndawula (RIP), Chris Ireland, Gloria Kamba, Christine Mawadri, Irene Bazaraki (RIP), Irene Nambi, Kaddu Ssozi and Timothy Kalyegira walked into the studios and rocked Kampala with a new riveting sound. The music and news were different. The shows were livelier and everything was in English. This was Radio Sanyu.
Then, like now, Martin lived at his family home in Zana off Entebbe Road. In the evenings as he made his way back home, he noticed something. The people he was seeing by the roadside were not listening to Radio Sanyu. It occurred to him that this was a high end station. “I was uncomfortable. The station had mostly music which did not appeal to the layman. Coming from a broadcasting background, I wanted to go a bit deeper. Also we were broadcasting in English but the people around me were not speaking the language. We were not addressing the issues affecting the people.” He acknowledges.
In 1995, the news made more rounds. This time, it was the Buganda Kingdom opening up a radio station. The Buganda Kingdom had been restored in 1993 and there was a lot of excitement about the news. The kingdom was seeking to reach out to its people through a radio station. That is how the Central Broadcasting Services (CBS) FM was born.
Peter Ssematimba who had been previously at Capital FM won the contract of setting up the station. He reached out to Martin to join him, an idea that resonated well with him. He did what he had done at Radio Sanyu; designed programmes and trained the presenters. It was such a joyous ride. Here, he was reaching out to the people he would see on the streets. The muntu wa bulijjo, as he puts it.
CBS was the talk of town. It reached the corners of the kingdom and beyond. It was a success it was set out to be. Martin was happy with the progress in his personal life through this impact they created as a team.
However, as he interacted more with the listeners, he noticed there was a gap. There was a need to have a programme specifically designed for the development of muntu wa bulijjo who were the majority listeners. That led to the birth of a 30-minute program every Monday and Thursday after the 9pm news called Nekolera Gyange in 1998.
To him, this was about the work but beneath the line, he was executing his purpose of transforming the lives of the muntu wa blijjo through something he loved doing. One programme after another, a life in Katwe was touched as was another in Kikuubo and Kyanamukaaka.
Around 1999, two gentlemen Robert Kintu and Garvin Anderson from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) approached him to have the same idea of helping the muntu wa bulijjo replicated in other countries. Martin was hired by ILO to pilot Nekolera Gyange in other parts of Africa.
He later left CBS to fully focus on the work with ILO. He was always on the next plane to another country until 2006 when the project wound up.
In all this, his voice was scarcely on radio. He was the radio maker. He was the fixer. He knew who needed what and where. The years that followed, he spent them doing broadcast consultancy work for different organisations but outside the radio studios.
“I have had a media blast,” he beamingly tells me. “I have since designed a number of other programmes like Binojjo on CBS and on other radio stations across the country.”
For all these years of running around Uganda, his heart has remained with the muntu wa bulijjo something her rubs off with his simple demeanour. He has been to most of the corners of the country. Having been around for some time, he has seen a number of things change.
“Growing up in Zana, there’s a lot of green. Most of it is all gone. Lubowa used to be a green hill as was Seguku. Today, they are no more.”
He has seen a lot of green disappear off the hills. He has seen concrete blocks rise up from where swamps and wetlands peacefully dwelt. As he walks through communities, he sees the clogged channels belching with plastic. It is not uncommon to see trucks felling charcoal to the urbanites every after ten minutes on the road. And because he walks a lot, he is not exempted from the fumes released from the trucks and other motorists.
“Tree cover is almost gone in many places,” says a sombre Martin. “There is something that everyone can do to reverse the negative effects of climate change. We simply can’t sit back.”
This growing concern forced him to think of radio again. This time round, he wanted to do it himself. He designed a radio talk show on climate and issues on climate change. He wanted to address the very things which were dear to his heart.
“Environment concerns should not only be reported as a science but should be broken down to the understanding of the ordinary person. That gap is what climate change radio is about.”
Recently in 2019, he reached out to CBS FM management to give this climate conversation a voice an idea they dearly welcomed. The show is called Gakuwebwa Munno. The show airs on Monday from 9:30am to midday. There, he hosts different individuals championing climate protection in different capacities.
Much as the show is on air and running, it does not have a sponsor yet which means the radio station is not profiting off it. You cannot talk about climate change without talking about the environment, the economy and everyone. For Martin to be able to address the needs of the environment, he has to put into consideration everyone, including the needs of the radio station.
The show runs only once a week. The 45 minutes it is given are not enough to host all the guests he would wish to.
There are so many people out there doing their best to protect the environment but they need to be heard. They need a voice to amplify theirs. They need to know that we see them and we appreciate.
Currently, the show only airs on CBS FM which is a Luganda speaking radio station. Whereas it has a wide listenership which makes it one of the biggest radio stations in the country, it still does not come close to the intended impact. “CBS is more of an adult audience whereas the message should be targeting the young people. There is need to have local solutions to local challenges.”
It is against that background that he hopes to set up the Climate Change Radio through which these conversations will be shared with the rest of the world. He observes, “It’s easier to translate from English to any other language other than doing the translation in only Luganda.”
Martin is a father of two, Julia (32) and Leo (24) who live in Greece and the United States respectively. He is a proud grandfather too. He stays in Zana with his dear mother, a sister and a nephew.
He went to St Henry’s Kitovu and Caltec Academy Makerere and Belarus University, Russia, for his college training.