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Saturday, 28 July 2007

The ABSW and its African twin

The twinning arrangement between the ABSW and its Ugandan equivalent is beginning to take shape, says Lionel Milgrom
I was asked to represent the ABSW as twinning monitor with the Ugandan Science Journalists’ Association (USJA) at the 5th WFSJ Conference held in Melbourne this year. I met William Odinga Balikuddembe, my Ugandan counterpart, several timea and, quite simply, we got on famously.Although he is only 28, I found William bright, intelligent, insightful, and totally switched onto the problems of living and working in Uganda and the region: a very wise head on such young shoulders.

During one of these meetings, I conducted a more formal interview. This report outlines my findings and offers some suggestions for how this twinning arrangement might continue into the future.

The USJA is still a young “organisation of friends” with no formal constitution. It has 27 members, including scientists as well as science journalists. Meetings and events consist largely of training sessions in science reporting and provision of a forum for scientists and journalists to meet and exchange ideas. Members fund this activity out of the own pockets.

The USJA will at some stage go for NGO status so it can apply for government grants in Uganda. Under Ugandan law that means having a member of the Internal Security Agency sitting on the governing board (commissar?). Although this law is in place in Uganda, it has yet to be properly implemented, according to William. Still, it does raise some interesting questions about the existence or otherwise of a free press, and possible limitations on the freedom of speech/action of USJA members.

Scientific activity in Uganda is quite broad according to William. It revolves around the environment, resource-management, health, and IT.

The four main state universities are Makarere (the biggest) and Kyambogo in Kampala, then Mbarara science university in the western part of the country, and Gulu University of Agriculture in the north. There are other private universities in Uganda. Science stories typically might be about:
  • Sustainability of fish stocks in Lake Victoria: Uganda has the lion’s share of this vast inland fresh-water lake, but poaching by fishermen from neighbouring countries increasingly pose problems.
  • Effects of falling water levels: Lake Victoria is also the source of the river Nile, so falling water levels (from excessive use or draught) impacts directly on water usage in the countries downstream (e.g., Sudan and Egypt). Thus Uganda and its environment might be seen as a microcosm of the global effects of local environmental problems. “We either live together or die together: it’s that simple”, says William; a fairly obvious but nevertheless compelling sentiment especially when expressed by someone better placed to comment on certain of life’s realities than most of us experience here.
  • Retroviral AIDS drugs: These certainly are extending the life-span of those suffering with the disease, but in so doing leads to its further spread; as does US (Neocon/religious-Right-influenced) funding policies that currently encourage the Uganda population to forgo condoms in favour of sexual abstinence.
  • AIDS research: In Uganda, as in other African countries, this includes active programmes looking into the development of cheaper approaches based on herbal medicine, to controlling the disease.
What can the USJA offer the ABSW? Like most similar organisations in the region, the USJA is cash-poor and likely to remain so until such time as it is recognised as an NGO, with possible attendant Internal Security intervention, by the Ugandan Government. Nevertheless, the USJA offers valuable knowledge and experience of living and working in Africa, with on-the-spot insights into AIDS and environmental problems.

What could the ABSW provide the USJA? Essentially, experience and professionalism, especially now that the WFSJ has published Barbie’s new blockbuster "How to Run a Science Journalists’ Association". (The book rightly earning rave reviews at the Melbourne conference.) Advice on the USJA’s draft constitution might be provided by both the ABSW and the USJA. The ABSW might also like to consider the acquisition/provision of bursaries for visiting USJA science journalists, for example, for workshops and conferences over here, especially the 2008 BA festival, and the 2009 6th WFSJ Conference to be held in London; and perhaps help with internships for USJA members.

It was also suggested that when the USJA sets up a proper website, then we could ensure it is linked to the ABSW and EUSJA web-sites. A piece on William for The Science Reporter would not go amiss. We could also regularly send the USJA our Science Reporter and minutes of ABSW Board meetings to the USJA (and vice versa). Perhaps a regular column from a USJA member might be included in The Science Reporter?

Any other ideas, or offers to help with those already on the table, to me please.

Lionel Milgrom

Ugandan Representative: William Odinga Balikuddembe; acting chair of the nascent USJA, usjamedia@hotmail.com.