Sunday March 2 2014

Enthusiastic about the environment

Mugyema filming a documentary

Mugyema filming a documentary in Katakwi. PHOTO BY EDGAR R. BATTE  

By Edgar R. Batte

He would like to simply call himself a broadcaster but his is a face and voice you will identify with environmental broadcasts. Andrew Mugyema became a public face for his fanatical presentation of environmental issues on Eco Talk, on NTV Uganda.

He no longer graces our screens but he has not gone quiet about the environment.
Today, he is the Chief Executive Officer of Media Steps, a company he started to keep his tabs on development communication issues. His work involves documenting issues for both public and private business.

Environment enthusiast
Environment is still high on his agenda and he would like to make his contribution in trying to avert the adverse effects of climate change in Uganda where population pressure has ignited human activity of deforestation and clearing of swamps.
“The fact that agriculture contributes to more than 80 per cent of our survival in most of the households in Uganda, I discovered that it is dependent on environment, and the well-being of the environment directly impacts people in terms of their production and at a bigger level our economy also largely depends on agriculture,” he argues, explaining part of his inspiration to be an environmentalist. But one of the arguments for conservation was and still is that we are dependent on ‘Mother Nature’ to produce all that we depend on.

As a journalist, Mugyema discovered that most of his colleagues were interested in political reporting and when he opened pages in the newspapers or switched on the radio, the media was filled with broadcast of political views and news. “Society forgot that its survival is heavily dependent on environment as the first step of survival in terms of health, the food we eat, the air we breathe and the general survival for the current generation and others to come,” he argues.

Climate change and issues of environment were not given attention. So, Mugyema saw an opportunity to stand out of the crowd and contribute to that limited pool of knowledge and awareness.

In creating special attention about these issues, he broadened them and people were able to connect their situation and how important the environment can be especially in the face of climate change.

Starting out
Mugyema’s is a journey that started in 2001. As an intern at Wavah Broadcasting Services (WBS), yet to graduate from Makerere University with a journalism honours degree, Mugyema was more interested in investigative journalism. “I was lucky to be nominated by my editor then, Herbert Were, for a World Bank training specifically targeting problems of African states, developing countries and the the factors perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty. The training revolved around issues to do with money laundering, corruption, bad governance and how you can investigate a story and unearth some of these evils for the general public,” he recalls.

Turning point
His turning point came a year later, in 2002 when he travelled to England for a course in broadcast. He picked lessons in broadcast techniques, TV production, operating different cameras, and how to package different elements of TV like features and mini-documentaries.
It was a personal drive, supported by his family with recommendation from WBS. While in the UK, Mugyema was struck by the level of environmental preservation.

“There is a lot of industrialisation but government and developers are careful. A few kilometres from London itself are forests that have been protected with wild animals and this is an equivalent of the distance from Kampala to Kajjansi. There are specific measures to safeguard the environment which means there are wetlands, forests, tree planting activities in the city centres,” he explains.

So bringing this message very strongly on Ugandan television was timely.
He made sure he investigated and read beyond what people know. “Some of the first stories I did when I came back were about the seasonal floods in Bwaise. I went beyond reporting what was featured in the newspapers and on radio, which was about blaming government and drainage channels,” he recounts.

Starting Eco Talk
The environment enthusiast looked at how people’s property was destroyed. He investigated and found that it had to do with felling trees on the slopes that overlook Bwaise, encroachment on the wetlands that were supposed to filter and later purify waste water as it goes back to the lake.

“When I started doing all those stories the response was good and I started getting feedback from environment sources that were willing to even explain these issues further. That led to the birth of the weekly feature called Eco Talk on NTV. I was its pioneer presenter,” Mugyema explains about the birth of the television programme that earned him respect as a journalist on the environment beat.

Finally, he had an opportunity to come up with weekly themes that tackled environment which meant interfacing specialists to get their take on different issues. The results were good and soon the nomination for awards came. Mugyema’s focus was always on having a good story out.

“I would walk on the streets and people would stop me to say thank you which also happened even among peers in other media houses. And of course, I would get special mentions in conferences I was attending and most of the stories I was doing were references for people to understand the environment and climate changes,” he elaborates about some of the recognitions his efforts got him.

The big stories
One of the biggest stories he calls to mind is the one which involved big companies where each made accusations at another of contaminating Lake Victoria. “Much of the water was extremely green and I did my investigations and found out that it is as a result of chemicals from some of the companies specifically from Uganda Breweries Limited at Luzira. They were excreting directly and fish was dying,” he discloses. He was again doing more than the average journalist who would report about the lake turning green but not bothering to find out why it was turning so.

To do this particular story Mugyema hired a boat and sailed across this part of Lake Victoria with his camera, to get evidence of how the big company was discharging waste water into the lake. He went on to speak to the fishermen who explained to him that they live with the stench of dead fish.

“When I took all this on video with interviews with specialists who talked about aquatics, the water science and fish cycles. It brought about a change. The brewery bought a better machine that could manage the waste. They put some specific units to start monitoring similar disposals into the lake,” he recollects. He says, “I would never do a story on the surface but rather go underneath and people really appreciated that.”

Mugyema was the journalist behind the story of famine outbreaks in Eastern Uganda after extensive droughts and water bodies drying out. “I camped in Eastern Uganda for eight nights and captured people who were really malnourished and an influx of children in hospitals. The call for me was not about short-term measures but bringing awareness that this is something that had been predicted and explained. This was at the time when the minister had denied that there was hardly any death,” he recalls.

Proving the minister wrong
He challenged the minister, Tarsis Kabwegyere, with his images. “Once the images were out, parliament suspended some of the activities and looked at it as a matter of national interest. A lot of attention was put to the issue of hunger in Eastern Uganda,” Mugyema proudly recounts.

Many people came in with relief. Mugyema’s images were telling especially those showing stunted children with kwashiorkor, people with sunken eyes with nothing to eat but leaves. It was a picture of people who were breathing their life away.

When Mugyema left NTV Uganda, Eco Talk lost steam but thanks to Craig Kadoda who seemed to have resurrected it and gave it another face. However, when he left, it died naturally. Mugyema has been offered a placement at Uganda Broadcasting Service (UBC) as Editor-in-Chief. Even as newsroom chief he made sure his team of journalist brought well-done stories on environment.

“I also remained active in the circles of environment awareness and worked with Oxfam as an environment fellow; from there I participated in training with fellow journalists. We have networks online where we give each other tips on what to do,” he says in an ‘I-am-now-retired tone. He is not out yet. He still picks up the phone and calls different radio stations and newspapers about story ideas on the environment.

Mugyema’s biggest frustration though is government’s weak policies and enforcement which has let people put up factories in the middle of the wetlands where they discharge.
“These people have licences to be there. The law provides that you can have activities in the wetlands like fish farming, put a recreational centre, conserve birds and other things, put a green belt where people can sit and enjoy nature but people are putting murram day in day out,” the environmentalist explains, adding, “The factory owners will show you that they have environment impact assessment reports passed by the very authority- Nema.
Mugyema still makes his contribution through Media Steps, a company he started to do development communication.

The private man
Away from the hustle of uniquely documenting with a creative eye, Mugyema is a family man, married to Lillian Lubale Mugyema. He is a father of three; a girl and two boys. It was his childhood that partly shaped Mugyema into the man he has become. His parents always worked hard to provide him with the necessities.

“I grew up listening to lectures from our dad about education and that if I ever failed to study I would eat from a dustbin and that reference was made every time we passed by street children or homeless kids,” he recalls.

His dad stressed to him that education is the biggest inheritance he would give him. And when dad and mum were not home Mugyema’s big sister, Lillian Nuwagaba, now married to professor Augustus Nuwagaba, was in charge.

He recalls: “She was always in to find out what the report said and if you had a lower mark than the previous term she would do a lot of counselling and you would feel so guilty for the previous mark or a better one. So we were more accountable to her.”