Debate: A good platform for branding

Mugisha says some of his wins include individual awards and helping teams and individuals win some awards. Photos |

What you need to know:

Doing it all: Cohens Mugisha is a teacher, mentor, speech and debate coach. He is currently the programmes manager at National Debate Council Uganda. He shares the journey of how he shaped his career in debate right from his early life at school.

How have you groomed your debating skills over the years? Contact Information

I went to Nyakahaama Primary School, where I had no chance to participate in debate but had opportunity for oral Literature contests in class, representing groups in riddles, folktales, reading and story narration.

My first encounter in debate was in my first term of Senior One at Bigyera Secondary School – Ibanda. I forget the words I said then but I remember sweating and being extremely nervous.

However, I dealt with each barrier and block at a time until I was able to speak and sustain speeches for hours effortlessly. Since then, debating became part of my identity, I fixed it on my weekly timetable. I practiced, competed, attended training locally and internationally but also helped to support my colleagues. I also researched and learnt from both my seniors and those that I trained.

When did you organise your first debate and how did it turn out?

In my Senior One is when I started to feel the urge not only to speak but share opinions in class. Being in the same environment with eloquent colleagues that had come from good primary schools with fine English, I strived to be like them or even better. I wanted to be different.

In 2015, during my S.6 vacation at Mahyoro SS Kitagwenda, I organised my first debate. It was extremely humbling. I arranged a friendly debate with my former school and Rwenzori peace building debates where the school scooped a district trophy; it was the very first of its kind in Kamwenge.

It is from here that I grew popular in debate and earned myself an opportunity at the National Debate Council. Here, I volunteered as a coordinator for Ankole, Kigezi and Rwenzori regions. The village boy in me traversed those big schools not only to coordinate but also train.  The highlight was when I mobilised regional qualifiers in Ankole sub-region and more than 35 schools attended.

What achievements can you count from your journey in this career path so far?

My most remarkable benefit is the networks. I have met people I would never have met, been to places I only used to watch or hear about; my first time to step in Parliament was because of debate.  I have earned individual awards and helped teams and individuals win some. I have had numerous opportunities to train, judge and coach schools throughout the country and national teams at international tournaments.

What is most satisfying to me are two things; the intangible benefits such as the skills and abilities I continue to grow overtime. Second, is the question of what impact I bear on individuals, groups, and communities I interact with. All in all, my biggest manifestation of achievement is every time I get good feedback after an interaction.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Striking a balance on expectations and needs for self and those that need my support. I remember incidents when I have conflicted with my teachers and lecturers upon failure to attend lessons, late submission of coursework. Also, the more networks you get, the more people will need your help and time. It is not easy to balance. Then financial costs involved in travel, data bundles and gadgets.

I have made attempts as an individual to set specific goals, but also debate teaches one to prioritise in situations where the plate is full and overflowing. I started to learn from my mistakes not by running away from things I cherished but rather by devising means to do the same differently. Overtime, I have learnt that even when I can, but I am not meant to be part of everything every time.

In what other forms or categories of art does debate manifest?

Debate is a great talisman. It is magic itself.  It manifests in distinguished presentation and communication, public speaking, and leadership. Some of the best orators, spoken word poets and writers I have seen have interacted with debating.

In which ways do you think individuals can use this platform to create awareness of substantial change in society?

If only we could understand the power of debate in different settings, we would partly find remedies to some of the prevalent societal problems and needs such as hunger, conflicts, unemployment, corruption, climate change effects and the list goes on.

Using debate as a key tool to promote advocacy, harmonious expression and purposeful activism on issues that affect students, public servants and communities.

What do you think of the debate culture currently? Is it growing?

Well, we are not where we should be, but this is not where we were in the last five years. Debate is more popular in school set-ups where most of the young generation is chanced to share views.

There are programmes by various debate organisations intended to build and enhance the capacity of teachers/coaches and debate judges so they can provide quality and impactful training and adjudication.

Covid-19 came as a disguised blessing to the debate circuit in Uganda and Africa at large. That time sparked a wave of local and international online debate and speech exchanges in both competitive and friendly arrangements.  These have tremendously shifted the curve and given lessons to debaters, debate organisers and educators.

If you were to change something in this art for better, what would it be?

Firstly, I know there have been efforts by NDC Uganda to advocate for Education policy reviews to include debate on the annual school calendar but also for the government to invest and incentivise debate education and organisation just like other curricular activities.

Secondly, working towards a positive mindset so that debate is not just regarded as a competition but rather a form of education or training for any willing individual regardless of their status.

Apart from debate, what are your other interests?

I like sports; volleyball in particular, creative and performing arts as well as travelling and adventure. I also have keen interest in mentorship programmes, EdTech, leadership and philanthropic activities.

What are some of the things that create a good debate?

For me it is passion or love for what one is doing, being conscious of why they are pursuing debate and how relevant is it to their tasks, career dreams and aspirations. Attaching more value to the intangible and invisible benefits such as skills that reward you sustainably than the wins and prizes. Self-motivation to do better and greater. Harness the power of practice. Practice whenever and wherever you can. Finally, get a coach or mentor on top of your support network.  

What opportunities do you see in debate as an art?

I see ample space for networking, expression and advocacy, leadership, and governance. It is a good platform for personal and company branding, travel, and scholarship opportunities and part-time career opportunities. To some, debate offers an opportunity for self-exploration that eventually moulds change agents in our societies.