On June 25th, 2022 at 2:00 pm (East African Time), my team and I were warmly received by the Kampala-based South Sudanese community, some of whom had traveled far and wide from the refugee camps to listen to what “I am My Mother’s Wildest Dream" had to say. A story of a young boy in his teenage years will remain with me for some time to come. He traveled all the way from one of the many refugee camps in Uganda, sat in the front seat, and listened in while we launched the book. After the launch, he found his way to where my team and I were to get a glimpse of me. We opened up to him and he had a good chat with my friend and editor, Kamille Thomas.
The event, despite the last-minute push, attracted over 100 people, the majority of whom were young people aged 15-30, anxious and excited at the same time. Notable attendees were Amb. Kambula Milton, President of the Global Peace Services, and Mr. Lual Akol, Education Attache of the South Sudan Embassy in Uganda (absent with apology) among others. The event started a bit late due to inconveniences caused by the unpredictable Kampala weather. There were heavy downpours just an hour before the event which the organizers blamed for a low turnout. I wondered what things would be like if it did not rain as the hall was already packed with some attendees standing.
The launch was organized by the Generation Mentorship Club (GMC) with a generous host provided for by the NextGen International School. We began the program with a word of prayers. We were then welcomed officially by the organizers first by the Chairman of the GMC, Mr. Kuduop Mawich. Kuduop stressed the fact that the GMC team was committed to fighting illiteracy and ignorance and that it was an honor to be able to put in place such an important event to launch my book. He was impressed by the my ability to stand up despite the sensitive nature of my life story.
The same words were stressed by the GMC Coordinator in Kampala who also doubled as the co-organizer, Mr. Mahoth Rong. Mahoth was among the very few young men whom I met over the course of my book release last year. He not only read the book but went on to give a celebrated review. Mahoth remarked that my story spoke to many young people including himself and that it was very important that the youth found time to read it.
After a short-while, Kamille Thomas took over the stage with her big question: “so how many of you guys have a dream?” The hall was moved not by the question as such but by the inspiration behind the question. Thomas went on to stress that dreams move people to action. Quoting the renowned work of James Allen (1903)’s As the Man Thinketh, Kamille said, “the dreamers are the saviors of the world.” She told the audience that big dreams don’t get distracted not even by the naysayers. “The people who try to talk you of your dreams are those who never attempted anything in their lives.” She said assuredly.
Following her brief inspirational speech, Kamille went on to introduce me, connecting her “Dream Speech” to my own life story amidst a huge applause. I began my story with a gratitude to see an audience full of the young, energetic and powerful minds, the kind of people to whom my book was directed. I delved into the nitty-gritty of my book with a focus on my struggles navigating the anatomy of marriage at the age of 14, my teenage motherhood, the divorces that followed, my life in military and the mental baggages that came with that but above all, as I did in other tour locations, I called out for parents and the society to re-define the vision for their kids particularly the girl child. I emphasized the need for a more calibrated vision for girl child education. I stressed the need to restructure our current bride-wealth so that it did not look like a commercial activity but as a dignified process meant to retain our rich cultural norms.
My brief author address was followed by a rich panel. The panelists consisting of two young men and a well-versed religious leader brought additional perspectives to the launch. One of the panelists, Mr. Matai Muon, a great friend and my Overall African Book Tour Coordinator spoke truth to power. Matai’s riveting review probably contributed a lot more to young Africans getting out there to get a copy of my book. A feminist himself, Matai sees himself in my struggles as he is also finalizing a much similar story.
Matai spoke about 11 minutes stressing the importance of a written African woman story, touching on a number of key issues. He challenged the existing dowry system and how it worked against the youth who were trying to set up themselves in an economically pressing world. He spoke to the critical need to read and write about our stories because written stories compel people to action. More importantly, he called upon young people in particular, young men to own women stories and be champion of positive change in their midsts, ensuring girls and women get the dignified life they deserve.
John Wiyual, the Interfaith Leader from the Natherence Church, a local religious outpost in Kampala spoke to the familiarity of my story having lived in the refugee camp of Dimma together with my dad while I was growing up. In a surprising move, he spoke about the need to have women lead and be respected without any reference to the biblical footnotes where a lot of verses stress the importance of women submissiveness to male, considered traditionally as a breadwinner, a shadow they often misuse to abuse their female counterparts.
Jon Pen, a poet and a writer spoke about the need to put pen to paper and start the daunting task of the writing process. Pen, a once time dropout of the renowned Makerere University since 2003 used the opportunity to challenge the audience to proceed properly with education without shortcuts. “I am back to Makerere to complete my degree program after a short break of more 18 years,” he announced to a curious audience amidst a wave of laughter. In an unexpected move, Pen, a staunch government critic announced that he was also delighted to represent the government of the Republic of South Sudan as a delegate of Lual Akol, the invited Guest Speaker.
He joked that it was rather embarrassing to speak for the government of South Sudan but that he did it both as a matter of necessity and because of his friendship with Lual Akol. In that capacity, Mr. Pen relayed the message of academic integrity, urging the audience to study well and properly with a stress on the ongoing academic drama between a group of the South Sudanese students who completed their studies at the Kampala University - Juba Branch and the central administration in Kampala who refused to graduate them citing “administrative misunderstandings.”
The most important session arrived; Question and Answers session. Kampala by far remains the only tour location with more questions than answers. During the opening remarks, women and girls in the room were quiet. I still do not understand where they obtained the courage to dominate the Q&A session. One of the participants, a young lady who appeared to be in her early 20s broke down to tears while on the podium. She started her remarks on the gender-based violence at the domestic level. Unfortunately, she was not able to make clear her own experience as emotions took charge of her.
I was asked to explain why I married more than three times, why I married a Kenyan and how I coped with a Kenyan husband! I was asked to talk about relationships, to speak about life in America and whether America was heaven on earth! Audience inquired about how they could be part of the revolution. Some were interested in my next step while others were furious about the demeaning dowry system and were curious about how and what they could contribute to the debate so that it was stopped before it could consume the next generation. I heard a lot of comments on mental illness. There was a general agreement that mental health in South Sudan was a small topic yet a brutal silent killer.
Participants were interested in my trauma healing processes.
In my answers, I made it clear some questions would be better answered by the book while others I would try to answer. I spoke about the power of having a mental health support. I revealed that as a nurse, I suffered in silence for over a decade thinking that I was fine. I emphasized that mental illness affected people from all walks of life and that help must be sought. I shared my two cents about dowry and why it needed to be revisited. I used my story to shed light to the concept of bride-wealth - how it kept women and young girls hostages of tradition. I shared that the current dowry system was out of reach. I called out to the youth to undertake in the change process and join the South Sudanese #MeTooMovement to empower girls and women for a better, more prosperous society.
As a keynote speaker, Amb. Milton, a true pan-African brand started off with a rich African history dating back to 300 BC. He said that the old African culture respected women and treated them as precious as gold. He wondered a loud where this culture that now demeans women originated from. Amb. Milton suggestively said, “this book should be launched at a continental level, at the African Union to be precise.” He presented that my story was African women’s story which must be told at a higher level to effect policy conversation for a long term progress.