When a person arrives from Africa to Scandinavia, the narrative of their arrival – migration, asylum-seeking and escape; humiliation, danger and life-threatening paths – is often full of soreness and humanitarian catastrophes, to say the least. This interview outlines a positive story on overcoming difficulties: The story of Denis is a success story. A success reached through incredible amount of determination and inner power of a whole community to overcome many difficulties, unimaginable to us.
It was a year ago when I first heard of an anti-corruption project initiated under a mango tree in Budondo, Uganda. My Scandinavian friends were part in that project, but still that mango tree remained a remote place in my mind that would not be reached out in this lifetime – at least until Denis Muwanguzi, one of the youngsters playing under that same mango tree arrived in Sweden to complete his masters’ degree in public health at the Lund University in Malmö. He has been in the area only for a couple of weeks, but due to the uniquely progressive approach of his parents, already infiltrated Scandinavian connections with little culture shock. Denis sees his childhood, school years and the opportunity to attend higher education and travel in the world through a cheerful, yet very sensible lens.
Where is the village you were born and how should we imagine the community you come from?
I was born and raised in a rural area – Budondo, Luuka District in the Eastern part of Uganda. The community is kind of remote and the majority of its people are below 15 years old, and there is big gender inequality.
What do you mean by remote community? What is it far from?
The village is about 24 km from the nearest town, Iganga. The road that connects us is muddy in the rain season and very dusty in the dry season. We don’t have electricity, internet connection, or education facilities. Secondary schools are about four-five kilometres away. The only mean of transport to Iganga is riding the motorcycle.
You came to Sweden to complete your masters’ degree. Did you apply for a scholarship?
There was no way to get into any institute in Sweden otherwise, so yes, I applied for a Swedish Institute scholarship. I was meant to get my government sponsorship but I was disappointed that students I beat in national exams were admitted on the government scheme and I wasn’t. But I was lucky to get a Swedish scholarship the first time I applied to it. I also believe in God and I attribute my successes to Him.
Why did you choose public health to pursue your academic career?
I wanted deeper understanding of some public health concepts, make friends, connections and a network for professional and personal development. So, I applied for a masters’ degree.
What was the most astonishing difference you perceived between Sweden and Uganda?
Gender equality and women empowerment, transparent and effective government structures.
What is the difference you see between these two societies regarding women empowerment?
Girls here of my age have their life in control. They have hope, feel safe, have opportunities to do what they want to, less or no pressure from society and family about what they “should be” in their life. One can easily see their confidence just they way they talk, portraying self reliance. Women in Sweden have opportunities. And the social expectations of what women can do is quite different. In my community, women are expected in most cases to be taken care of, to stay at home, to care for kids, do house chores, it is okay to pay them less because it is men who have the responsibilities.
You also mentioned transparency and effective government structures.
Well, just to link these two topics and take it to the lowest level of leadership: how a man easily walks away with rape just because a local leader has advised that those two families should sort things out (usually the man to pay the girl’s family). Loss of hope for community members that even if they brought up something like that, that there would be at least help out there. There are vast categories of jobs meant to be for men, decision making is by men, for example. There are instances where women cannot take their sick child to hospital when the husband is not around, because they would need the husband’s consent for it. It is hard for me to think of a woman in my community who has gone all the way and finished college school apart from my sisters.
How and where did you manage to attend school?
I had my first two-three years of primary education at a nearby government school. My siblings had failed to go past primary level because of the poor quality of education – they could not even write their names when in the top class of primary level. While my dad was away, he took me to another school in Kampala, the capital city. The quality of education in this particular school was average but the quality of life was not much different from the village. I changed a lot of schools because of lack of school fees. In the end, I finished my primary education in the capital, secondary education in the central region of the country and high school and college in the countryside.
Where exactly did you finish college?
At Mountains of the Moon University, in the Western part of Uganda.
How about your brothers who dropped out of school? Are you the only one who could finish school in your family?
They were taken back to school. I’m the sixth born but we almost finished college at the same time.
This is probably not something common in Budondo, is it? I mean all siblings to be able to finish college.
Not common at all, the value of education is still low. It took us a great deal of determination to finish school. If I was in the village, I wouldn’t probably have gone to school if I knew what I would go through.
Your parents urged all of you to complete your education?
Yes, they did. They set a good example and tried to expose us to what it really meant to have an education.
Why did they think that education was so important?
My Dad used to share a lot of information on this issue both directly and indirectly. An educated person’s thinking and mind sharpens with exposure to different and vast knowledge, they get good jobs, and being able to support the elderly. My dad has been a great role model for me, and I’m sure for the rest of my siblings. I have never seen him hit my mum. They talk about issues.
What does your father do?
He is a self-claimed retired teacher. He works with the Budondo community now to help deal with community problems, just like how he has trained his children to do. He started the Budondo Intercultural Center with Åse Eliason Bjurström, whom I have known since I was a teenager. She is my Swedish family now. She has conducted workshops on sustainable development, theatre in my community, has created partnerships, connected professors, students, teachers. She has worked with my dad for quite long and his work with her has shaped the kind of work our community organization is doing. If it’s life of a tree of our work, I can’t forget to say that she has been that tap root right from germination.
How about your subjective impressions of Sweden? The atmosphere? The way people communicate, things they eat, the way they spend their time, etc.?
People here are so peaceful but so individualistic. In Uganda, you can feel warm even with people you don’t know. Here, it’s possible to sit with someone on the same bus almost every day and you will never have a conversation.
Who do you make friends here?
I have some other fellow countrymen here that I usually hang out with. So, I usually rotate between class and home. Aside from my really close family friends I visited in Boras, I haven’t actually experienced a typical Swedish life here for the last 6 weeks I have spent here. People here are so reserved (I don’t know whether with me only or generally) but it is hard making friends here. You can meet today and tomorrow, they seem not to have seen you before. I have a couple of Swede friends, of course, only it takes time for them to get to be friends. The more I get to figure out how things are here, the more I want to work here and stay a bit longer. I don’t feel so home sick like I expected I would.
How do you communicate with your family?
Phone calls once a week, Facebook with my siblings.
What are your plans for the future?
Finish school and after that I would love to find work around Sweden or Europe that that will connect with the work I am doing in Budondo. I want to see how I can be a link between these two parts of the world.