Kawuma: Ugandan at forefront of Norway anti-racism demos

Herbie Kawuma, 35, a Ugandan social worker and gospel artiste based in Oslo, Norway.

Two weeks after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed while being arrested by police in Minneapolis, USA, on May 25, Florence Namasinga Selnes, a researcher based in Norway, received a link to the heartrending video.
She thought she could handle it, but found herself shedding tears. She has since decided to avoid any images related to the story, but the gruesome scenes of the killing resurrected memories of Namasinga’s first experience as a victim of racism.

A former Ugandan journalist, Namasinga had relocated to Norway where she lived with her boyfriend, now-husband, when her child reported that someone had told her that their father’s girlfriend is a ‘nigger,’ a term she finds “so demeaning,” and used “to describe someone you despise so much.”

Namasinga is a mother to a bi-racial daughter, the only Afro-Norwegian In her countryside village and at the kindergarten.

Namasinga did not feel offended instantly, but the more she reflected on it, she wrote in a 1073-word monologue on Facebook on June 7. The reality sank in, arousing emotional and psychological insecurity.

But two days before her post, the African Students Association in Norway had responded to Floyd’s death in a bolder way by staging peaceful protests in the capital Oslo and other Norwegian cities to show solidarity to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign that has swept across USA and Europe.

Herbie Kawuma, 35, a Ugandan social worker and gospel artiste based in Oslo, was among the leaders of the rallies.

According to a June 6 article on Forbes, an estimated 12,000 people filled the park in front of the Norwegian parliament to participate in the protests. Norway lifted its lockdown in May, but events of more than 500 people are still suspended and social distancing in public spaces is a must to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“We feared that government could hold us [the organisers] responsible because no one is allowed to gather more than 50 people in one place. But they couldn’t charge us because that would lead to another demonstration,” Kawuma told us in a Facebook exchange.

“We had to make a choice between fearing coronavirus and watch Black people being mistreated and killed, then spend all our lives on our knees. We chose to speak out. I also demonstrated against police brutality because it’s everyday life in my home country Uganda; to send a message to my people that together we can stand against evil in peace.”

The plan
According to Kawuma, the plan was to stage a peaceful protest outside the American Embassy in Oslo, on Tuesday June 2 at 9am.

“This is not a public event,” the message reads in part, “and the police have not been notified. It’s important that all communication is done through private messaging… with friends/activists you trust.”

But police learnt of the plan, anyway. “So we shifted to Friday June 5,” Kawuma says.
Again, police learnt of the changes and restricted the demonstration to only 50 people due to Covid-19 scare.

“Only 50 were allowed to go to the American Embassy and Norwegian Parliament but still people showed up in big numbers. Others were to form a human chain around the capital, each two metres apart. But still thousands went to the embassy while more than 600 went to parliament to decoy those who went to the embassy.”

But police was already at the embassy and blocked the protesters 100 metres away. “We demonstrated there for an hour before marching to the parliament.”

In one video clip, Kawuma, wearing a red bandana for a mask, is seen leading the chants: “Black lives matter”; “Hands up,” as followers respond: “Don’t shoot,” “Say his name,” he says.

“George Floyd. We are one,” they respond.

The multiracial protesters flagged placards reading: “No justice, no peace.” “Black man, don’t shoot.” “Police the new Hitler.” “Skin colour isn’t reasonable suspicion” “Change yourself.” “Silence is violence,” among others.

Kawuma says they walked for 6kms from the American embassy to the parliament. “My regiment knelt 12 times, on every traffic lights stop in tribute to the Black lives lost, 400 years of slavery and mistreatment of Blacks around the world.”

But he turns his guns on fellow Blacks. “It’s bad that White people kill Black people. But it’s even worse that African leaders kill fellow Blacks in even more inhumane ways than police killed Floyd, in the name of law enforcement. That power of the gun must end.”

Overt vs convert racism
Kawuma and Namasinga concur that Norwegians are good people, but acknowledge that racism is everywhere, although the levels in Norway are not as overt as it in the US.

To some people, Kawuma says, it’s due to lack of misconceptions that Africans are still primitive, uneducated, “largely due to what they see in media about Africa: wars, hunger and disease. But to some it’s just hate and bitterness”.

“Can you imagine some Africans give their children Norwegian names to ‘protect’ them from prejudice?” Kawuma says. “But your name is your history, your roots.”

“Our kids have been called names. Many we meet without knowing us think we all came here as refugees, asking why we ran from our countries. Job applications with African or foreign names are ignored. Many African kids are being taken away by welfare services and never see by their parents again because of the mindset that Africans mistreat their children.”

Worker not refugee
The first born of a peasant family in Kasubi, Kampala, Kawuma literally grew up on the streets, as he told Sunday Monitor in 2016. At 14, he virtually became the father to his four siblings after both parents died of HIV/Aids. He tried everything for survival: boxing, hawking, singing and breakdancing in church.

But he stayed focused on education. From Mukiise Nursery School, Kawuma finished his primary education at Kasubi Church of Uganda Primary School. For lack of tuition, he hopped from one secondary school to another, taking some lessons from home. After his O-Level at Kampala Citizens’ High School, Kawuma got a diploma in Business Computing at MacMaine School of Computing.

In 2005, a Norwegian friend, who spotted him in his breakdancing gigs, got him a scholarship to the University of Oslo, where he enrolled in childcare studies and theology. He won the prestigious Price Net Model Award as the Norway Youth Ambassador of 2012, an honour given to a person with an immigrant background who makes a special effort for children and adolescents.

The Norwegian minister for Children, Equality and Social Inclusion described Kawuma “as a vaccine against bullying because he can see who needs a little extra attention, and include them in the community.”

“I worked my way up here. My services benefit my community, and I pay taxes. But it hurts when one looks at me only in that image of refugee,” says Kawuma who also helps Ugandan youths develop their talents via sports, music, and vocational education.

Purpose and impact
I have children of mixed race so I must teach them the beauty of our racial diversity; that one’s colour or origin does not make them less human than others. Racism may still go on. But this time the Black man’s voice has been heard loud.”