I arrived around 2.30 at club Obligato, where the massively popular radio talk-show ‘Ekimeeza’ was about to start. I was welcomed by a group of middle aged men, who directed me to the man sitting at the head of a table. The table was about 12 meters long and seated around 16 people. An audience of about 150 people was surrounding this central structure. ‘Ekimeeza’ is the Ugandan word for ‘big table’; it is the place where Ugandans can give their opinion concerning specified social and political issues and where their voice will be heard, not only by the other participants, but by thousands of people tuned in to Radio One FM 90. In short, Ekimeeza is described as the people’s parliament. The man sitting at the head of the table is dressed in a casual polo with a bright orange and green stripe. He is the only one eating and is clearly the man in charge. He is James Wasula, founder and chairman of Ekimeeza. After introducing myself to him and clarifying my white presence as a social researcher I take a seat in the second row where people are discussing an article in the newspaper, others silently sit and wait. The man behind me hands me a printed paper where the topic of today’s discussion is set out. ‘The Constituency Development Fund: how effective can 10 million Shillings be in developing a constituency’? After half a page of information concerning the ‘CDF’ the letter notes: Remember Ekimeeza is a forum for intellectual discussion and not unqualified emotional outbursts, kindly observe this fact and debate accordingly.
After the microphone has been connected by Mr. Wasula, deafening all attendants with an extremely loud and high pitched beep, we hear commercials aired on Radio One, signaling that the show is about to start. Everybody gets quiet. Mr. Wasula starts by welcoming everyone and introduces the topic as written down on the paper, after this he asks the first speaker ‘Mrs Masala’ to come up to the microphone. A big woman, casually dressed in a Zain T-shirt, comes up to the microphone and starts a furious speech on the mismanagement of the Constituency Development Fund and tells the audience how Members of Parliament are eating the CDF money given to them. She seems to have carefully watched the way in which official members of parliament express themselves; constantly adding to her sentence, ‘So Mr. Speaker!’ referring to the chairman. It seems that the audience (90 % men) is not very happy with this woman and start murmuring and joking. After 3 minutes a man sitting next to Mr. Wasula holds up a note saying ‘TIME’. The woman rounds up her speech and goes back to her seat. The next speaker is called to the stage by Mr Wasula.
45 minutes into the Ekimeeza, a big man with a neat suit shows up at the venue, he approaches the table and is immediately offered a chair and a drink. It turns out that this man is a Member of Parliament (MP) and when he is given the stage a few minutes later he gets all the time he needs to make his argument (about 13 minutes). The audience respects this and listens carefully to what he has to say. After his contribution he stays to listen to the other speakers and gets a second chance to give his view on the CDF. 2 hours go by with speeches from a wide range of participants, young, old, rich, poor, ruling and opposition party members, all of which are broadcasted live on the radio.
With every speech my view on freedom of expression in Uganda has to be altered, is this political debate actually going on in a country where politics is a synonym for corruption, state propaganda and censorship? Are these people involved in an ingenious plot set up by the ruling party to fake freedom of speech? Or are these people really having an open and well organized political debate about one of the many problems facing their society? When speaking with some of the participants after the show I realized that this was real and that participants were as excited as I was about this oasis of free speech and popular politics. Ekimeeza on Radio One is a pioneering show in its genre. It is exploring the possibilities of the popular radio talk-shows in Uganda. Many Radio Talk-shows feature a talk-show host and some selected guest speakers, Ekimeeza offers open access to anyone who wishes to contribute.
One thing that struck me during the Ekimeeza was the absence of dialogue and structuring of the topic as a whole. Mr. Wasula, who was equipped with the second microphone, refrained from summing up the argument, engaging in critical remarks or demanding clarification of what was said by the speakers. An occasional joke and a sporadic question was all he added to the forum. This resulted in repetition of arguments by some speakers. He did sum up some messages he received from listeners send to him by SMS or from the audience who could write their contributions on a piece of paper.
When I talked to Mr. Wasula after the show he explained that the Ekimeeza structure is aiming at maximum openness and minimum liability for the organizers of the talk-show. People are responsible for their individual accounts; this is what keeps the Ekimeeza unbiased as an institution and thus acceptable for everyone, even for government officials who are often the subject of criticism. Mr. Wasula is instructed by Radio One not to direct the debate or express interest in a certain argument brought to the table. In this way Ekimeeza can evade allegations of being politically biased. Within a society, at times associated with political disparity, the Ekimeeza seems to create a window of opportunity for free speech and political integration of the people’s perspective.
In April 2009 I went to Uganda to do three months of fieldwork research. My main interest was interactive radio talk-shows and the way these media platforms were able to stimulate public debate and enhance transparency and awareness among Ugandan citizens concerning politics and public service delivery. The mobile telephone boom in Uganda allows much more citizens to participate in these radio talkshows and as a consequence you can see interactive talk-shows mushrooming all around Uganda. I visited several radio stations and attended various political radio debates. In my following posts I will share my fieldnotes and first hand experience with you..