Uganda talent show brings out best in young refugees

Jesse Kamstra, LWF country representative in Uganda (center), with the winners of the contest. Photos: LWF/ S. Nalubega
Jesse Kamstra, LWF country representative in Uganda (center), with the winners of the contest. Photos: LWF/ S. Nalubega

“You can make it to the top”

RWAMWANJA, Uganda/ GENEVA, 2 February 2017 (LWI) - For months, teenage and youth refugees in Rwamwanja settlement have been practicing their singing, drama, dance, art and fashion routines. On 1 February, they reaped the reward: as contestants and winners in the talent show “Rwamwanja’s got talent”, organized by The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the United States Bureau of Population, refugees and Migration (BPRM), feelings of joy and  stardom came to the refugee settlement in west Uganda.

The talent search was attended by guests from the local government, humanitarian agencies, refugees and host community. Guest of honor was the Member of Parliament district woman Dorothy Nshaija, together with Kamwenge Residential District Commissioner Elijah Biryabarema, local council chair people, as well as the Youth Minister of the Tooro Kingdom.

A sense of stardom: winners on the stage.

“Someone to make them smile”

The contest showcased a wide selection of artistic performances from Michael Jackson-like dance moves, beautiful singing voices and stand-up comedy. Fashion, music, dance, drama and art were the colours and language of the day. “I love to dance, which motivates me to practice daily so that I get even better,’’ Felix Elie, an 18-year-old refugee and talent show contestant says. He often performs for other refugees in the settlement once in a while and enjoys putting a smile on the faces of his audience.

Rwamwanja refugee settlement hosts more than 70,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other neighbouring states. ‘’We have found a home in Rwamwanja,” Elie says. “We have grown together like a family and get what we need for everyday life from LWF. However, this place gets boring sometimes. What my people need is someone to make them smile and forget about the worries of being away from our home land,’’ Elie, who fled the Congo three years back, adds.

Dance group performing on the stage in Rwamwanja refugee camp, western Uganda.

The young man expresses exactly the sense of responsibility that LWF aims for with the talent show. “Rwamwanja’s got talent” means to encourage young people to develop skills and talents, to broaden their horizons and to take responsibility for their own lives even though they are in a refugee camp.

“The talent search and competition was established to keep the youth occupied with positive activities and to also counter the post-primary education gap,” Simon Drilozia, LWF project manager at Rwamwanja settlement says. Only seven percent of the refugees in Uganda are enrolled in post-primary education, partly because only one secondary school is available for the students in Rwamwanja. “The rest remain idle, which puts them at a high risk of drug and alcohol abuse as well as early pregnancies,” Drilozia explains. 

Training and a studio recording

The talent search, while facilitated by LWF, encourages young people to take initiative. It’s meant to nurture talent and to channel their energy in a way that creates a sense of belonging and participation in the community.

The 10 finalists were identified from various pre-competitions. Out of these 10, the best six will receive further artistic training. ‘’They will travel to Kampala for more talent development by Utu Africa, a talent and skills’ development firm in Ntinda, Kampala,’’ William Onen, LWF Rwamwanja sub-program manager says.

Eddy Kenzo performing in front of Rwamwanja youth. “You can make it to the top!” he encouraged them.

A very special recognition was offered by Eddy Kenzo, award winning dancehall and African popular musician. After performing all his songs, the Ugandan legendary artist and BET (Black Entertainment Television) Award winner offered to record and produce the music for Rambo, one of the contestants.

We have found a home in Rwamwanja. We have grown together like a family and get what we need for everyday life from LWF. However, this place gets boring sometimes. What my people need is someone to make them smile and forget about their worries of being away from our home land.
Felix Elie, 18, refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Promise to expand the contest

“To you people, I can give my all,’’ Kenzo, who grew up as a street child, said. He encouraged the young people to be creative, seek knowledge and work towards developing their talents saying that from these gifts, they might earn a living and even become celebrities.

LWF country representative Jesse Kamstra hands the award to James Rafiki, the winner of the contest.

‘From the street I have managed to rise and win countless national and international awards from my music talent,’’ he adds. “’Don’t lose hope, you can still make it to the top.”

Just like Kenzo, LWF country representative Jesse Kamstra advised the young people in Rwamwanja to keep working on developing their talents. ”LWF in partnership with UNHCR will continue organising and funding the talent search and competition,” Kamstra promised. LWF plans to introduce similar contests also in Nyumanzi and Palorinya settlements in northern Uganda, where the organization supports refugees from South Sudan.

LWF in Rwamwanja assists the predominantly DR Congolese refugees in livelihoods, water and sanitation, protection, shelter/construction, community services, protection of the environment and reception center management.

With contribution by Shamim Nalubega, LWF Uganda