As we kick in a new year here at Project Diaspora, we are excited to be continuing our Diaspora at Work series of interviews where we catch up with interesting members of the African Diaspora busy at work changing the continent. This week, we caught up with published, award-winning Ugandan documentary photographer, Andy Kristian. Among other notable mentions, he’s founder of the civic engagement project, Voices of Uganda.
Tell us a little about your background… and how you ended up in the Diaspora?
I am a Ugandan/East African Documentary Photographer. I grew up in Mbarara with my extended family of about 14. My mother was single and I am the fourth of 5 children. My mom’s brother, Chris, always lived and still lives in Canada. As a kid, this was kind of cool. My family says they always knew that I would end up living abroad. That is because even as a child, I was always dissatisfied with the status quo in the country. I ended up in the Diaspora not so much because I wanted to leave my country, but because I wanted to learn, to be stimulated and inspired and exposed, and that’s what’s happened to me. As I speak, I am now ready to return to Uganda, and to inspire the change I have always dreamed.
How did you get into photography?
My boyhood friend, Edgar’s dad was a school teacher who supplemented his income to support his five children and his wife by taking portraits of students, church folk and people in the hood. Both my friend’s dad and mom used to travel a lot, which offered us an opportunity to explore with some of his abandoned cameras and play in his dark room. Edgar was so proficient because he had learned from his dad. In turn, I learned from him and got my first interest in image making, but would not discover myself as a career photographer until about a decade later while working as a consultant on the Juba Peace Process between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Government of Uganda (GoU).
How did you retain a close connection with your homeland even though you lived in the Diaspora? What drives your passion to stay engaged with the Pearl of Africa?
First, unlike many who leave Uganda at a very young age and lose their connection to their heritage, I first left when I was about 22. By this time, I was already contributing to my kid brother’s tuition fees, and therefore somewhat responsible. For example, by 19, I already knew I wanted to invest in tree planting both as an economic means and an environment conservation strategy. The tree planting craze has just began in Uganda, and some of us already dreamed of these things even as teenagers. When I was about 16 or 17, I was so discouraged and annoyed by our government’s failure to make a dual carriage network to Entebbe Airport. I had never been overseas, but it made sense to me that the road to Entebbe Airport should have the fastest road in the country, with people rushing to catch planes. Years later, the government failed to seize another opportunity brought by CHOGM to correct the wrong! How does this rhetoric fit into your question? It is this passion, the desire to lead, the love for my country that has kept me plugged in. I read the online versions of the Daily Monitor and the New Vision every single day.
What lessons can other members of the Diaspora learn from your engagement that they could use?
The Diaspora has some of the best minds that Uganda has. From Engineers to Doctors to Nurses to Photographers to Servicemen to business men, the best that Uganda has, live abroad. We in the Diaspora need to step out and lead. We need to use our minds to uplift our people. Most of us are discouraged by the way of things in Uganda, but we can’t just do nothing. We have to do something, anything. We need to use our gifts and talents to serve our country, whatever profession or business one is engaged in.
What led you to start Voices of Uganda? Tell us a little bit about the project. What are you hoping to achieve?
I have an academic background in Peace & Security studies, and that’s how I got involved in the Uganda Peace Process. After having abandoned this career for photography, I am still a peace maker and non violence advocate. But above all, I felt the need to begin walking the talk, instead of talk talk talk. That is when I began conceiving of Voices of Uganda. I felt a responsibility towards my country, and knew that I had a duty to serve our people in whatever small way that I could with my talents. From a peaceful message, the project revolved into a greater civic engagement project, in which I could have real citizens talking to other citizens to get involved in issues based politics; for example, instead of voting for someone because they are of a similar tribe, people should start evaluating the candidates, and voting for them because of their abilities to serve the greater needs of that community. That has been the essence of the project, and I think with my partners in distribution, we have managed to plant seeds of true democracy and social change. Oh, and do not forget so quickly what happened in Kenya, Togo, Zimbabwe and what’s now happening in Ivory Coast and Tunisia.
Will you eventually consider moving back permanently to the country as a “reaspora” or are you planning on living the duel life-style?
I hinted above that I am already considering moving back to Uganda. I am at the point now where it makes a lot of sense to be based in Uganda than in USA. I came to the USA to learn, and that I have succeeded in doing. Now I need to come back to Uganda to teach what I have learned. As a “social change” documentary photographer, there’s more for me to document in Uganda and East Africa than there is in the USA. I am now working on some neat projects, that I am quite positive will change a lot of lives. My partner and I are looking to raise several thousands of dollars that will benefit pediatric cancer children of Uganda. With the state of our health service delivery, we have to take some matters in our own hands. We are going to organize the Uganda Charity Week, which will become an annual event. Every Ugandan will want to be associated with this. Plans are in the pipelines, and we will welcome anybody who has something to contribute; ideas, money or otherwise.
What are your hopes for Uganda election season due next month? Any concerns? And what kind of impact has VoU made in the run up to the elections next month?
My hopes for the Uganda election season in Feb 2011 is that first, it would be a peaceful one. Second, that the majority of Ugandans would have the wisdom of voting for leaders that will advocate for meaningful change. Third, that there would be no vote rigging, vote stuffing and every poll dishonesty. Fourth, that the losers would accept the results gracefully or use legal means to challenge results rather than wielding guns, iron bars and stones.
I am quite positive that the Voices of Uganda project has had a lot of impact on the people in respect to the issues I have raised above. It is unfortunate however, that there wasn’t enough funds to have the initiative penetrate even to the remotest of villages, especially where the “issue based voting” is needed. Nevertheless, I have planted a seed, and if someone else can water it, who knows?