Investigation: How people with dreadlocks are discriminated

Mr Ivan Lubulwa, also referred to as Dogota, works as a boda boda rider, a commercial motorcycle driver. He has worn dreadlocks since 2017. PHOTOS/ NICHOLAS BAMULANZEKI

What you need to know:

  • In a survey of 133 Ugandans conducted by the CCIJ between August and October 2023, 36 people had worn dreadlocks at one time. Of those, 14 people said they had experienced discrimination, and nine said they had experienced harassment. 

On March 10, 2021, the Uganda Police Force (UPF), acting on what they called intelligence to avert a planned protest in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, arrested and detained more than 60 people. Many of those arrested, roughed up, and later released without charge, had dreadlocks.

Patrick Onyango, the spokesperson of the Kampala Metropolitan Area Police at the time, said in a statement that those arrested were suspected to be planning to “cause havoc” or stage protests in the city. But many of those later released without charge said they had no idea a protest was planned.

In December 2020, police arrested Bukeni Ali. Also known as Nubian Li, the musician and opposition supporter was held on Kalangala, an island in Lake Victoria, for months. After his release, he said his dreadlocks were forcibly cut off.

And in 2018, police swept through Kampala to arrest 400 people accused of theft and other crimes, and later through Kisenyi, a site with many informal settlements, where they arrested more than 300 people labeled as “thugs.” A year later, another sweep led to the arrest of 400 more people. 

Police spokesman Onyango said at the time they would need to screen those arrested before they would appear in court. Critics said the widespread arrests included some people with dreadlocks who were simply in the wrong place.

The Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) found that many people, especially men, in Uganda fear police targeting them for their dreadlocks, or other forms of discrimination, such as being denied jobs or opportunities. 

There are several cases of people wearing dreadlocks reporting being arrested without charges, simply due to being present near a political protest and having dreadlocks, or seen as affiliated with drugs and criminality in urban centers.

Others say they were denied job opportunities unless they changed their hairstyle, and in some cases people were forced to cut their hair either by police during a detention, from attacks motivated by hatred, or under pressure from institutions denying them service.

“They call us drug addicts and bayaaye (crooks),” said Patrick Bavumula, who wears dreadlocks. “We have been segregated to the extent of being denied jobs because of how we look.”

Challenges of proving targeting occurs

It’s difficult to prove a person was unfairly arrested directly linked to having dreadlocks. The hairstyle is rarely referenced in police statements and when people are held, roughed up and released, there is little documentation to prove why or what happened. 

In searches for the words “dreads” or “dreadlocks” on the Uganda Police Force announcements, Uganda’s Media Centre, or the Judiciary of Uganda, no results came up. Three police sources from different parts of Kampala told the CCIJ they couldn’t comment publicly due to fearing for their jobs: however, they said such targeting does exist. They declined to provide documentation to prove people were held and released without charges.

Many people with dreadlocks say they fear police target them and associate their hairstyle with criminal behavior or opposition support.

Collecting comprehensive and accurate data on the experiences of individuals with dreadlocks is inherently challenging, as it not only depends on self-reporting which may be subject to underreporting or bias, but also involves the nuanced interpretation of personal encounters, which can vary widely in perception and reporting, making it difficult to generalize findings. 

In a survey of 133 Ugandans conducted by the CCIJ between August and October 2023, 36 people had worn dreadlocks at one time. Of those, 14 people said they had experienced discrimination, and nine said they had experienced harassment. 

Twenty people said they had been forced to change their hairstyle for a job, school or other opportunities, and seven said they had been stopped or questioned by police at least one time. Of those who said they had been targeted by police, they most commonly reported that it happened in a public space, such as a park or street.

Ssemakula Issa Mukasa, the Secretary for Defence of the Rastafarian Community in Uganda (RCU), told the CCIJ that his office has on many occasions pushed for the release of colleagues wearing dreadlocks who were arrested as suspects, primarily because of their hairstyle.

Mukasa, whose office is nestled in Kalerwe in Kawempe Division of Kampala – an area with many informal settlements, high levels of poverty, and where many people with dreadlocks can be found – also said a majority of the arrests are never documented. This makes it hard to follow up for either legal redress or any other form of remedial action. Often the most they can do is informally lobby for the person’s release.

Patrick Onyango, the spokesperson of the Kampala Metropolitan Area Police,  denied that the police specifically target people with dreadlocks.  “We do not act by mere appearance of somebody. We don’t arrest you because of mere appearance,” he said. “There are important people in this country with dreadlocks, have you seen us arresting them?”

Onyango added that police would only target someone if they had information that person had a criminal background. “If intelligence gets information that so and so participates in criminality, and we have concrete information, that is when we target you and arrest you,” he said. “But when you don’t have any criminal record, we don’t arrest you just like that.”

Still, a fear of targeting and unfair arrest means many people with dreadlocks make choices to avoid increasing their risk, said Ivan Lubulwa, also referred to as Dogota, who has worn dreadlocks since 2017.

He works as a boda boda rider, a commercial motorcycle driver.

“It is dangerous for us to move at night because the moment operations are mounted by police or any other security organ, then you are the first [category of] people to be arrested,” he said. Since he decided to grow dreadlocks, he avoids staying out past 6 p.m. “We also find it hard to fit in communities and lead comfortable lives like other persons in our own country.”

Uganda’s legal system allows police (or even citizens) to arrest someone on a suspicion they may be about to commit a crime. 

A 2005 report from a US-based law school International and Comparative Law review article said, “This leads to further problems because, in Uganda, arrests lead to detention, and when an arrest is made by an unqualified law enforcer, arbitrary arrests and unreasonable detentions become far too common, and in turn overwhelm the penal institutions.” 

That report said many people can then be arrested due solely to being friends of suspects, people who were seen in the same area as a suspect prior to the crime, or even innocent bystanders. 

The law also requires anyone arrested to appear in court within 48 hours, but numerous human rights reports say that timeframe is often not met.

The U.S. Department of State 2022 Country Report on Human Rights Practices also reported arbitrary and unjustified arrests, and said the “government was reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government, and impunity, including for serious abuses, was a problem.”

Dogota said he decided to wear dreadlocks due to his passion for the late South African reggae artist Lucky Dube. “We had a neighbor who had Lucky Dube’s portrait in his room and I liked it so much,” he said.

“I was 9 years old, and I could not decide for myself on whether to grow the dreadlocks because I was still young.” Dogota said when he finally decided to grow dreadlocks in 2017, his mother was convinced it was a sign he was becoming connected to “rogue elements” in the community.

“The moment she noticed my dreadlocks, she immediately got the wrong impression about me,” he said. “I had to work extremely hard to disprove her and other people about me having this kind of hair.”

Dogota said he often hides his hair, and works hard to prove to his family that he can earn a decent living despite his hairstyle. He bought his mother a 14-inch color television, something she had never owned before. “I wanted to show that even with this kind of hair, I was still a decent person like any other. Well-intentioned, (the way) any parent would wish his or her child to be,” he said.

Mr Ibrahim Sserwadda, a casual labourer, does his laundry in Kalerwe, Kampala on October 23.

The right to wear dreadlocks

It’s not illegal to wear dreadlocks in Uganda, said Noah Muwanguzi, a practicing lawyer and advocate of the Court, who is based in Kampala.

“People wear dreadlocks for a variety of different reasons,” Muwanguzi told CCIJ in an interview. “Some do so as an expression of their religious beliefs, culture or fashion, among others. All these sets of people have the right to do so and this right is protected under the law.”

Articles 21(2), 29 and 37 in the Constitution protect citizens from discrimination for religious or political reasons, and protect the right to freedom and expression.

“A person also has the right to enjoy, profess and practice any culture, tradition, creed or religion,” Muwanguzi said, according to Article 37. “In view of the above Articles of the Constitution of Uganda, a person has the right to wear dreadlocks. There is no known law under the laws of Uganda that impedes that right.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also articulates similar protections of religion and freedom of expression and Uganda has also ratified many United Nations treaties agreeing to protect human rights.

But the right to have the hairstyle does not mean discrimination does not happen. While there may be people wearing dreadlocks who are justly charged with crimes, taken to court and face a fair legal process, many of them are also detained and later released with no charges, according to Nicholas Bwanika Bbale Mugerwa, the secretary of publicity of the RCU. He said many people with dreadlocks choose to lead an isolated life because of the possibility of unfair treatment.

“When Rastafarians are imprisoned, security operatives immediately cut off their hair,” said Mariam Matovu, the women’s leader at the RCU. She said the organization pays between $15 to $25 dollars (between 60,000 and 100,000 Ugandan shillings) each time they need to repair someone’s dreadlocks after they were cut off. “I can’t estimate the amount of money I have invested,” she said. “We lack funds, but most Rastas complain about (police) cutting their hair and imprisoning them unfairly.”

The challenge of such targeting is similar in other countries as well. In Cameroon, there were reports soldiers targeted people with dreadlocks, associating them with separatist fighters. In Mali, a journalist said his dreadlocks were cut while in detention.

In Nigeria, people fear that police target people with dreadlocks and tattoos. In Guinea, a detained musician said police targeted him due to his dreadlocks, thinking he was a protester.

There are also fears that Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act, passed in 2023, could lead to further targeting of men with long dreadlocks. Previous sweeping arrests, such as when 44 people were arrested at an LGBTQ shelter in 2021, included men wearing dreadlocks, according to videos and photos shared on social media.

In Malawi, men wearing their hair long can be arrested under the section on Idle and Disorderly Persons. The Human Dignity Trust said this law is seen as criminalizing gender expression.

In November 2023, Uganda’s Minister of State for Gender and Culture Affairs submitted a statement to Parliament on the 16 days of activism campaign against GBV 2023, which runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10.

The campaign aims to increase public awareness of gender-based violence, increase reporting of cases and access to services for survivors and victims, and enhance accountability.

The statement refers primarily to sexual violence and this year’s theme of prevention of violence against women and girls, although it acknowledges that both women and men can be victims of gender-based violence.

A precedent of human rights violations

Uganda is regularly cited as a country with high levels of police corruption and brutality. About three quarters of respondents in Uganda said they believe police are involved in corruption, according to an Afrobarometer survey.

More than half of the respondents said they believe police “often” or “always” use excessive force in managing protests and dealing with suspected criminals. Amnesty International has referenced cases of arbitrary arrests during political protests and in the lead-up to elections, during protests against the cost of living, and targeting specific groups such as the LGBTI community.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about police brutality and other human rights abuses.  Two Facebook groups document police brutality in Uganda with videos or photos of people being beaten or injured by Uganda police or security forces.

In February 2023, the government announced the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Kampala would be closed after its contract ended.

A February letter sent from Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the OHCHR, said that it was no longer needed due to “the prevailing peace throughout the country, coupled with strong national human rights institutions and a vibrant civil society—with capacity to monitor the promotion and protection of human rights.”

Police spokesman Onyango said it may be that people feel targeted even when the police adhere to proper procedure.

“If we are carrying out an operation, and you are with dreadlocks or not, we get you taking marijuana, or engaging in any crime, definitely we can’t say because you have dreadlocks we can’t arrest you,” he said. “So it is their perception that they have been targeted.”

Smoking marijuana remains illegal in Uganda, despite media reports that a Supreme Court decision had loosened the restrictions. The new Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances (Control) Bill, passed in August 2023, allows for the production of marijuana for medical use, and enforces strict regulations related to substance abuse.

Amid discussions of police brutality, people with dreadlocks are a minority among other groups that report targeting, such as activists or opposition supporters.

“Because they are few, when they are arrested, they think they are being targeted, they want favors,” Onyango said. “You know when you are lonely in a family, (when) you are the only one, you want to believe that anything that is done to you is wrong that they are now targeting you.”

This report was produced by the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ), a nonprofit organisation that brings together investigative reporters, visual storytellers and data scientists to investigate key global issues affecting underserved communities. This investigation was produced with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.