By Patty Huston-Holm
Be careful little eyes what you see…ears what you hear…tongue what you say…hands what you do…
This children’s song based on Mark 4:24-25, popular in America today and written in 1956, likely wasn’t known in Uganda when Johnson Mayamba was growing up. Nevertheless, the words ring true for the now 33-year-old who was abandoned by a father who had eight children by four women, was chased away by relatives unwilling to help a single mom feed a hungry boy and was mocked for his ignorance by teachers and classmates in school.
The most stinging memory was planted by a science teacher at a primary school in Abaita Ababiri village near Entebbe. She publicly shamed Mayamba. When he didn’t have the correct answer to a question, she mocked him with words and laughter and allowed students to do the same. After one exam he failed with a 50%, the teacher brought out a cane to issue 50 strikes to the 12-year-old’s buttocks and thighs – one for each missed point. The teacher stopped somewhere after 40 because the boy was flattened out and unable to take more.
“I wasn’t stupid,” Mayamba said. “I was simply in a new environment, having been transferred from a poorly facilitated village school to the one in the city.”
Unbeknownst at the time, Mayamba’s “little” eyes, ears, and body encounter that the teacher used that day to remind him he wasn’t good enough were molding his future as an advocate against mistreatment. Today, he understands it, researches it, writes about it and teaches it.
With a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication from Uganda Christian University (UCU) and experience as a journalist, he moved on to get a Master of Philosophy in Human Rights and Democratization in Africa from the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He’s affiliated with the Canadian-based Journalists for Human Rights organization with a role of helping 20 Ugandan members of the press to be voices for unrepresented people. These include print and broadcast human rights stories related to the economically poor, the mentally and physically handicapped and others.
While mentoring Ugandan journalists, Mayamba continues his own learning as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, USA. He was among just over 200 who applied for the fellowship from Uganda and was the only Ugandan chosen for the 10-month journalism-focused program that ends in June 2022.
“I never thought I would come to the United States,” he said, speaking from his dormitory room in Phoenix, Ariz. “All the glory goes to God.”
Mayamba had a strong upbringing in the Catholic church, but says his relationship with God strengthened while he studied at UCU. In his studies, as well as engagement in the UCU chapel choir and as a guild and public debate leader, he realized that with God, obstacles and accomplishments have meaning.
“When you give 100% to God and trust Him, you can overcome,” he said.
Human rights advocacy and Christianity blend together well, especially guided by the Matthew 7:12 “do unto others” scripture, according to Mayamba. As a working journalist, he often prayed with and for those he interviewed for stories. For the journalists he mentors now, he suggests the same along with the urging to be sensitive when writing about people subjected to discrimination. He also cautions reporters about their own safety when covering topics that have opposition from government officials, high-profile opinion leaders and even media houses themselves.
“Have the facts,” he said. “That’s the best protection to mitigate risk.”
At 9,000 miles away from his home in Uganda and on the day of this interview in December 2021, Mayamba is in the state of Arizona, closely watching another timely human rights issue – the coronavirus pandemic. He recently published a paper entitled “Low Supply and Public Mistrust Hinder Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout in Africa.” He writes that in November 2021, only 4% of the world’s vaccinated people live in developing countries like Uganda.
“Developed countries that aren’t sharing enough of the vaccine are partially to blame,” Mayamba said. “Misinformation or lack of information breeding distrust by media in all countries bears the rest of the responsibility.”
Social media and traditional media are accountable for honest storytelling, Mayamba says. His master’s research focused on media freedom, specifically in Uganda. Reporters Without Borders ranks Uganda among the lowest in the world when it comes to press freedom. While Uganda’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression with “on paper” protection of human rights, there are radio, TV and print limitations and restrictions related to reporting on certain topics and persons, according to Mayamba’s experience and research.
While the United States press is freer and human rights more respected than in Uganda, “it’s not as rosy here as I thought,” he said. “In this land of the free, there needs to be more and louder voices for homeless people, immigrants. . . and on racial injustice and gun violence.”
From his dorm room window in Phoenix, Mayamba daily observes nearly two dozen homeless people living on a square of land. During a visit to New York City and looking past the amazing buildings, he saw men and women living in parks and on the streets. In his brief time in Washington, D.C., he observed first-hand the massive police response and multiple phone video recordings of the arrest of a black man accused of stealing a small item from a store. He watches, hears and reads the news about arrests, trials and confusion about wrongful deaths on American soil and about Mexican families camped at the USA border in hopes of obtaining asylum from terrorism in their country.
“Telling these stories honestly and fairly is the role of a journalist,” he said. “Human rights stories are lacking everywhere.”
One such story he hopes to learn more about is that of a middle-aged white man living under the stars outside his residence in Arizona. In the midst of book studies, computer research, and service projects, such as preparing food in boxes for people like this man, he wants to “learn his story and tell him mine.” So far, the man appears educated but without a home because he lost his job.
Looking ahead to his life a decade from now, Mayamba doesn’t see himself reporting the news in a country such as his, where the pay is too low to support a family. But he does see himself continuing to train others to “amplify the voices” of those less represented and understood in his native Uganda. In three years, he hopes to embark on his Ph.D. studies and be teaching journalism with an emphasis of human rights reporting.
For now, he’s navigating the American culture that includes daily converting temperatures in Fahrenheit instead of Celsius and distances in miles vs. kilometers. He appreciates a winter in the warmth of Arizona instead of living in a state with cold and snow. He soaks up knowledge in a school named after Walter Cronkite, a late veteran broadcaster that he never knew. He learns alongside 13 other journalists from 13 countries, including South Korea, Russia, Hungary, and Palestine.
He thinks about his mother who died of cervical cancer in September 2014, leaving behind her two sons – Johnson Mayamba and the younger Titus Bulega – as a legacy. He also thinks about that childhood teacher who meted that early punishment that was illegal then but exists still and about the mocking classmates.
“At the end of the day, I moved ahead of them,” he said. “And I learned to stand up for myself and for others.”
(The author of this article, Patty Huston-Holm, who is the Uganda Partners communications director, first met Johnson Mayamba when he was an intern at the UCU Standard newspaper in 2013. Among stories they worked on together at that time were the suicide of a student and conditions at a women’s prison in Jinja, Uganda.)