Uganda: a rising rap star advocates for a welcoming world
Kampala, 5 July 2016 - As a teenager, Alino dreamed of being a hip hop artist in Congo, where music is the pulse of the country. But like many young people, family demands and expectations that Alino pursue a more stable career put his dreams on hold while he studied petroleum chemistry in a prestigious Congolese university. Never did Alino think that he’d be a rising rap star, and never did he dream it would be while living in exile in Kampala, Uganda.
“That was my father deciding for me. If I didn’t do it we wouldn’t be in good books so I had to do it. I wanted to (study) music…but music is not regarded as something noble by many people here. My father said if I wanted to study music I’m out of his house,” he recalls.
Family life lost. Overall, his family had a good life together. His father had a stable job at the Central Bank and owned land and several homes. He and his eight siblings studied at nice, Jesuit schools and were planning to pursue university in Europe. His childhood was a happy one, but as a young adult conflict ruined what he calls his “family life”.
“I wish I could go back to being eight, nine, ten years old and live it again. We had a good family but war disrupts a lot of things, financially but also in terms of unity. We had to split up many times and this meant we didn’t have a very good bond, or at least one that lasted for a long time.”
When armed conflict reached his home town of Bukavu the family went in different directions to their safety.
“We walked for so many miles on foot to reach my grandmother’s village. We walked like a whole month and they killed people randomly so if you have a big family like ours you’d split up – some would take one way, some would take another way so if they kill some of us at least some will survive.”
Path to pride. Alino’s path led him to Kampala, mainly due to the kindness and advice of strangers. Upon arriving, he was homeless for weeks, spending nights on the streets or in police stations until finally he found a friend of a friend who took him in for a while until he was told he had overstayed his welcome. Today he stays with his father’s close friend in his family’s home in the urban centre.
He has yet to find his own family, but has been able to carve out his own niche in the refugee community, known by many by his stage name ‘Kizaza’ and also as man who has helped thousands to ease their way into life in Kampala by teaching them English.
“The work I’m doing, I feel so proud of it. I feel a lot of dignity from it…I feel like I’m a contribution to a community. When I was coming out of Congo I didn’t have that feeling, I felt like I was going to end up in the dust bin like trash.”
His discouragement ended when he heard from a friend that his impeccable English skills, which he learned from watching Nigerian movies in DRC, could help others. Four years ago, he began teaching English at JRS where he still teaches today.
“I am empowering them. After some time, a year or two after teaching them, I go downtown and come across some people running their businesses. They stop me and tell me, ‘If today I can stand here and sell this stuff it’s because of the English you taught me.’ (When they) express that gratitude that is very, very amazing. It’s not really making people rich but helping them find balance in society.”
Many of his younger students, he says, have entered universities while the older ones run their own businesses, making enough money to send their children to school – a paramount opportunity for refugees who’ve lost their chance to study and build a better life due to conflict.
Breaking through. This experience of losing everything and rebuilding his life has served as a source of inspiration for the raps he composes and performs throughout the city.
“It’s kind of hard trying to breakthrough, but I’m not giving up because I believe and I just want to go. I did hip hop music before I knew I’d be displaced. When I reached here with the situation I went through, with what I saw, it gave me a lot of fuel, it gives me a lot to talk about and I feel like I got a role to play.”
He has taken his experience of overcoming conflict and displacement to compose music on deeper topics of child soldiers, sexual violence against women, destruction of villages and refugee life.
“People are sick of the way these issues are being addressed. I know hip hop music formally was used to pass messages like that so…I want to do that from my perspective too,”
Music for change. Overcoming the stigma that comes with being a refugee, Alino says, is the core mission of his music. He remembers the day when he also believed negative stigmas of refugees and wants to see a day when refugees are not only accepted but allowed to thrive.
“There was a time I was sitting at home watching wars and refugees going into Angola, into Ethiopia on TV. I was young…I knew what it looked like, a lot of people moving, you know, they don’t have proper clothing, carrying mattresses, carrying what they could…when you’re running for your life and you see the camps where they live you see the way these people live, you don’t need anybody to tell you, but you just think, these people, look at them they are dirty… People think refugees are people who come here to enjoy life, to eat their food here. They don’t know these are people that just didn’t have any other choice and that they didn’t want to come to Uganda…It feels unfair, if anyone else can put themselves in the shoes of a refugee I think they’ll understand.”
The days of conflict in Ethiopia and Angola are long gone, but refugee influxes have increased substantially. Today, he says, he watches refugee flows from Syria, Iraq and beyond on TV and the danger he fears this negative stigma is not only still present, but is influencing policies worldwide.
“There’s so much hatred brought from people who don’t understand the plight of refugees. I’ve seen how much some countries started changing policies, because people just want some space to be safe and free. I’ve seen how some countries start erecting detention centres to detain these people. I’ve seen how some rich countries are coming up with propaganda to discourage people who want to seek a safe haven from coming to their countries.”
Alino is right. Nations around the world are detaining asylum seekers, denying them basic rights, erecting walls at borders and funding countries with poor human rights abuses – like Turkey or Sudan – to stop migrants from getting too far on their journey to safety.
He remembers a very different lesson in school of the hospitality in the West, or as he says “those countries that colonised us, those countries that have money, those countries that are being tough on refugees, they taught us to welcome, they taught us that in the case of emergency like this you need to open your borders and offer them a place to stay. In Africa, we’ve done it, we always open our borders, we might not have money to give but we give them a place to stay.”
In fact, Uganda is known as the most hospitable country for refugees in the entire world, consistently keeping its borders open, not only housing 600,000 people to seek refuge, but encouraging them to work and study.
“These other countries are complaining they can’t take 10,000 refugees. Ten thousand refugees is too much? Come to Uganda, Uganda is a third world country but how many hundreds of thousands are here in Uganda? I want the world to be a welcoming world for refugees, to accept them, resettle them, give them access to education and life. It’s a good thing to do. Its common sense”
For now, Alino is using the opportunity to work and reside in Uganda to the fullest. Looking back, he feels the whole experience has made him a better person and that, eventually, he will become a famed musician and caring father.
“It built me as a man, and it built me for the better. Right now in my mind there’s nothing I cannot do. Life in Uganda taught me that you can start low but things can get better. The future is bright, it’s got to be bright. We’ve been through a lot of miserable things and maybe it’s our time to have smile on our faces for once. I believe in the future because I’m working toward building a great one.”
Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa communications officer