Black Canadian Profile: Opiyo Oloya
Opiyo Oloya is a Ugandan Canadian educator, journalist, and African music enthusiast and radio show host living in Toronto, Canada.
He is the subject of Voice of Freedom, a documentary in the series A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada about immigrants to Canada.
I first came across Opiyo Oloya when I was doing research about the Canadian-based organization GuluWalk.
Opiyo Oloya describes Gulu Walk as follows:
The Gulu Walk is organized by two young Canadians Adrian Bradbury, 35, and his friend Kieran Hayward, 30. The immediate objective of the walk is to highlight the plight of Acholi children who trek each night for personal security to town centers in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts in northern Uganda.
The children are afraid of staying in the villages less they become victims to abductions by Lord Resistance Army rebels (LRA), rapes and wanton murder by lawless individuals. To draw the attention of Canadians to the “night commuters”, Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Hayward will walk 13 km. every day in July.
Along with supporters, they don a bright orange t-shirt with the Guluwalk emblem at the front and stroll along the busy Danforth Avenue, to Yonge Street and finally to Nathan Philip Square in front of Toronto City Hall.
Every night they are joined by large groups including members of the Uganda community. The final goal is that the Guluwalk will become a worldwide event, putting pressure on the government of Uganda to seek permanent peace so that the children of northern Uganda will not have to walk to town any more in order to find security.
Gulu Walk has been key in raising Canadians’ awareness about the plight of children in the war-torn areas of Northern Uganda. It is no surprise that Oloya would be involved with the organization and try to promote its work to his fellow Ugandans. Oloya himself is an Acholi from Gulu Town.
Opiyo Oloya works as the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School, an elementary school in Vaughn, Ontario. To my knowledge, there are not many Black school principals in Ontario, so being able to become a school principal both as a Black man and a refugee is something of a feat in and of itself. He also writes a weekly column for New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspapers, is the founder of International Resources for Deaf and Blind Children as well as the Acholi Diaspora Association of Toronto. He started Karibuni, an African music show on CIUT 89.5 FM.
Oloya grew up on the savannah of Gulu where he played with cows and goats. It was also in Gulu that developed his love of music. He writes:
My interests in music started at an early age. In fact, I can’t remember a day when music was not a part of my life. I remember how we would wake up to one or the other of my brothers whistling in the brisk morning wind. Later in the day, as she pounded millet or grounded simsim paste, my mother would be humming a tune.
It was his student activism that eventually led to his decision to flee to Canada in exile. Oloya attended Makerere University from 1979 to 1981 as a political science student. This was a pivotal time in Uganda’s history. 1979 saw the exile of Idi Amin and the return to power of Obote. Ugandans had hoped that this would be the end of dictatorship but this was not to be. Opiyo Oloya was elected as the President of the Makerere University Students’ Guild. Although, one might not think of student politics as of any importance here in Canada (although this is a misconception as most student politicians I know have gone on to work for political parties) in many developing nations, student politics can be quite influential and therefore are seen as threatening to repressive political regimes. Oloya’s presidency was overruled by a veritable “coup” in 1981. He subsequently fled to Kenya from where he applied for refugee status in Canada. He states that among his many reasons for fleeing Uganda was a fear that the Obote government was trying to promote ethnic divisions in the country, something which Oloya deeply opposed having been raised by a father who, he states, “never saw Baganda or Acholi”. While in Canada, he continued his studies at Queen’s University, graduating with a political science degree in 1986. He went on to attain his Master’s of Education at the University of Ottawa.
Oloya has helped to bring African music to Canadian ears as host of Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM. This is fitting as it was the radio that exposed him to the beat of Africa. He writes:
African pop music first came to me through the radio, which we used to carry around everywhere, even when we working in the fields. Radio Kinshasha and Bunya (both in Zaire) were our favourite stations. This is how I first learned names like Zaiko Langa Langa, Empire Bakuba, Lipua Lipua and Bella Bella, all upstart groups in the 70s. Franco and Rochereau were already big in the 60s on Radio Uganda.
Opiyo Oloya came to Canada with the name Joseph, but decided to return to his Acholi first name while here. When asked why he gave up his “religious” name in a 2010 Interview, Oloya replied:
I am a Catholic and we go to church every Sunday. One of our children, Oceng, serves as an altar boy. We don’t use Christian names because we feel that it’s not important to be Christians with Christian names.
Oloya stumbled upon teaching as a career unintentionally. He states:
Making it as a teacher was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was a turning point because I never knew I was going to become a teacher. I was doing graduate work when I discovered that I am passionate about teaching.
I was a replacement teacher for a day at a school in Ottawa. I told the children a story with a sad part and pretended to be very sad. They all came and fell over me and I felt panic stricken because I thought I was going to suffocate under this mountain of kids. But I found that teaching is something I love doing and I was completely at home with.
Oloya went on to become the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School. One of his students, Hannah Godefa, an Ethiopian-Canadian, who while in Grade 4 decided to organize Pencil Mountain, a supply drive to collect 20,000 pencils to send to Ethiopian students. On a family visit to her homeland, Hannah had been shocked by the country’s poverty and the fact that many Ethiopian children did not have such basic school supplies as pencils. Hannah sought her principal’s help to bring her idea to fruition. Oloya was initially hesitant to support Hannah’s idea because of her young age and the fact that he wasn’t sure how serious she was. But Hannah’s persistence won him over. Hannah worked with local businesses in Vaughn to help with the “pencil-raising” and with her fellow Divine Mercy students to sort and package the pencils. She was able to raise 25,000 pencils which she delivered to students in Ethiopia. To learn more about Hannah Godefa’s activism visit her website.
Oloya had this to say about Hannah:
“I have never encountered anybody in Grade 4 who has come up with some idea to save the world,” he said. “She’s very committed and very focused.” Mr. Oloya describes Hannah as a smart girl whose understanding of poverty has a lot to do with her recent trip. “She saw the difference between the life she was leading here and the life of children her age there,” he said. “She realized she should be able to do something because she is a lot better off.”
Along with being an educator here in Canada, Oloya tries to educate his fellow Ugandans through his weekly column in New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspapers. I have always disagreed with the idea that immigrants to Canada should cut all ties with their homelands out of sense of loyalty to Canada. When people accuse immigrants of not “letting go of their baggage” because they try to raise awareness here in Canada about issues facing people in their countries of origin, people who could very well be their own family members, I am appalled. But I hear this quite frequently, even from immigrants themselves. I agree that one should not continue conflicts here in Canada but it would be a missed opportunity to not try to enlighten one’s fellow Canadians about these conflicts, even from a biased perspective. I feel this is doubly important for immigrants, and anyone of African descent. The image of Africa is so obscured here that it is important to have African voices trying to educate both Africans and non-Africans about what is going on. I have found Oloya’s articles, along written with a Ugandan audience in mind, very useful for me as a Canadian of African descent trying to understand what is going in on the continent.
Oloya’s articles discuss a variety of topics from genetically modified foods, to the use and abuse of Ugandan workers by Security corporations in Iraq, to Uganda’s involvement in Somalia’s civil war, to the Ugandan government’s treatment of homosexuals. It is on the last two subjects that I would like to discuss Oloya’s writing in some depth.
Uganda’s involvement in Somalia
Oloya actually went to Somalia this year to write about the conditions there and even had an opportunity to meet the current President. Uganda, along with Burundi, currently supply the bulk of the troops sustaining the US backed African Union’s Somali Mission. It is for this reason that Uganda was targeted by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab for retaliation on July 11, 2010. During a gathering of large crowds at a local restaurant and a local Rugby Club to watching the final match of the FIFA World Cup this year in Kampala, Uganda, three explosions went off killing over 74 Ugandans and injuring 70. Oloya had expressed his concern about such possible retaliation by Al Shabaab in earlier articles. He also has been quite to point out the following:
It would be counter intuitive to start clamping and harassing peaceful law-abiding locals of Somali heritage living within the country, say in Kampala or Bujumbura. They are the eyes and the ears to first alert authorities on suspicious individuals and events.
This is an important point as there are many Somali people living in diaspora in East African countries like Uganda. One would also hope to hear this from a Ugandan Canadian who is active in Toronto’s African communities seeing as the Somali make up the largest communities of African descent in Canada.
In his 2010 article, Miracle in Mogadishu, Oloya writes about the doctors working with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to treat women who suffer from obstetric fistula. He recounts the story of Fatumah Sheik Hassan as follows:
Hassan’s problem began with the birth of her first child, now 14 years old. The birth was difficult because the baby would not come out, and had to be coaxed out by the midwives. The baby lived, but Hassan began to have problem controlling her rectum. With each birth, the problem grew until became intolerable to those around her. Nobody wanted to talk about it because of the shame associated with it, and Hassan became a leper in her village, avoided by neighbours and laughed at by children.
As luck would have it, Hassan’s sister came to Mogadishu for a visit and heard rumours from other Somali women about the miracle “daktari Amisol” who could cure women. Although the sister could not believe it at first, she met a woman who claimed she had been cured.
She rushed back to Baidoah to tell Hassan who wanted to leave the very next day for Mogadishu except she did not have money for transport. She had to cool her heels for a month to raise funds which she did by selling four goats for about $100.
On July 20, 2010, Fatumah Sheik Hassan was “liberated” by AMISOM doctors who operated on her, and fixed the problem she had lived with for almost two decades. According to Commandant Dr. Evariste Nintunga, a surgeon with the Burundi contingent, and who operates alongside Col. Dr. Kiyengo on women with Fistula, Hassan will not have any side effect. “She should have a normal life when she returns to her village”, he said.
It appears that the purpose of articles like this is to reassure Ugandans that their involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia is welcomed by its people and actually proving successful.
Uganda’s Treatment of Homosexuals
Beginning in 2009, Uganda made international headlines not because of the plight of communities living in Northern Uganda but because of proposed legislation to sentence Ugandan homosexuals to life imprisonment, as well as sentences for people who rented to known homosexuals and knew homosexuals and didn’t report them to police. Although homophobia in Africa has been known to be prevalent this proposed bill appeared extreme to say the least. Oloya had written about the issue of treatment of homosexuals much earlier. In 2005, Oloya wrote a letter to the then Commissioner of Special Education, Guidance and Counseling, Martin Omagol, expressing his concern about Omagol’s urging of head teachers to do whatever it takes to stop the spread of homosexuality in Ugandan schools. Oloya presents a voice of reason, making two very important points. He writes:
Two issues arise from your statement. First, your statement suggests that homosexuality is like the common cold that is passed on from one person to another.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Though debate about the cause of homosexuality continues, scientists and social theorists tend to agree that nobody chooses to be homosexual. Available data from the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe tend to place the homosexual population between 3-8% of the total population. Here, in North America where gays live and work alongside heterosexuals, the gay population remains steady. You don’t see young people suddenly catching the “homosexual disease” simply by interacting with homosexuals. In other words, without data that suggest increase of homosexuality in Uganda schools, you are merely fanning homophobia.
Secondly, by crying that the sky is falling and we must do something about it, you are perpetuating the stereotypical notion of homosexuals as social deviants who must be stamped out.
In 2009, Oloya wrote a letter to Ugandan Parliamentarians, outlining his concerns about the proposed “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill. He makes a very important distinction between homosexuality and the rape of children by adults of the same sex, which is pedophilia. However, the bill considers pedophilia by members of the same sex as “aggravated homosexuality”. It appears clear that there has been and on-going panic in Uganda about the rape of children by homosexuals as well as their “recruitment” to homosexuality. However, Ugandans do not seem to be equally concerned about the rape of young girls by men. As Oloya writes:
….by using the term “aggravated homosexuality”, Bill 18 gives the appearance that a homosexual man raping a boy has committed a far more serious crime than a heterosexual man raping a little girl. In reality, whether a male pedophile rapes a girl or a boy, the consequences of these heinous crimes are the same; the child is scarred for life. The low life criminals in both cases are pedophiles who must be punished to the fullest extent of Uganda’s law.
First, look at rape as rape, and then look at homosexuality as a stand alone issue. Once you have separated the two issues, keep in mind that just as only a tiny minority of heterosexuals rape girls and women, only a tiny minority of homosexuals rape boys or adult men. Should you choose to make homosexual rape of a boy punishable by death, then you also have a duty to make heterosexual rape of a girl punishable by death. Both are victims of rape who deserve to see their molesters face the same justice. It is that simple.
Oloya is a practising Roman Catholic who is sensitive to African cultural and religious sensibilities towards homosexuality; however he time and again reminds those in government that Uganda is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He understands rightly that if you erode the human rights of one group it is only a matter of time before other groups will be attacked as well. In a country grappling with ethnic conflict and poverty as well as coming to terms with a history of dictatorships, opening the door to such stark violations of human rights could be opening a floodgate. I personally found Oloya’s articles on this subject comforting as my discussions with Africans and Ugandans in particular had been very unsettling due to the level of paranoia they expressed about a global “conspiracy” organized by human rights organizations and homosexuals to “recruit” African children to homosexuality. Who is telling them this?Many Africans I spoke to seemed more concerned and knowledgable about this “conspiracy” then they were about the conflicts in their region, the state of their country’s economy, or even their country’s literature. Focusing on such a half-baked conspiracy theory seems to be a distraction from addressing the real life and death issues affecting the continent.
Opiyo Oloya is both a committed Ugandan journalist and dedicated Canadian educator. One need not give up one identity in order to properly fulfill the other. I am sure that Oloya is performing both roles just fine.
Profile on Roots World available online
Profile from A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada Voice of Freedom Documentary available online
Interview (2010) with Opiyo Oloya by Elizabeth Namazzi available online
Webpage for Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM, this program is available to be listened to online
Oloya’s Articles on Ugandans working for Security Corporations in Iraq available online:
Others on the subject:
Hundreds Seek Work as Guards in Iraq by Daniel Wallis (2005 article from Reuters available online)
Oloya’s Articles in about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda available online:
Others on the subject:
The U.S. Christian Right and the Attack on Gays in Africa by Kapya Kaoma (article available online)
Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Uganda by Victor Mukasa (article available online)
Oloya’s Articles on genetically modified foods in Africa available online:
Monsanto Had Their Agenda (2003)
Others on the subject:
Uganda’s Position on GMOs: Whose Position? Reflections on Uganda’s Policy Making Process on GMOs by R. Naluwairo and G. Tumushabe (ACODE Policy Briefing Paper available online)
Interviews with African musicians by Oloya available online: