Volunteering at a rural school in Africa has become the defining image of ‘voluntourism’ – the trend of white travellers volunteering for charitable projects in the Global South. Schools set up or run as part of international development initiatives have often pulled on this source of financial and human capital, and have imported a Western industrial educational model to match the limited experience of their volunteer staff. This trend is not without its critics, many of whom have pointed to the dominance of privileged travellers in voluntourist roles who have vastly different socio-economic statuses to the communities they are working with, as well as the limited knowledge of the local histories, ways of life, and cultures that they hold, and the unhelpful presumptions of neediness and poverty in the local communities they serve. And this is to say nothing of the shortcomings of the industrial Western educational model, articulated so compellingly by Sir Ken Robinson.
However, a tonic to this educational approach can be found down the dusty backstreets of Kampala, Uganda, where a group of musicians and youth workers have been not-so-quietly developing an alternative to voluntourism’s shortcomings. Away from the dry heat, exhaust fumes and the spluttering of boda engines of central Kampala, lies the Sosolye Undugu Dance Academy in the heart of the chaotic Kabalagala slums. Founded in 2008, Sosolye is a culture, education and development NGO working with some of the most vulnerable young people in Kampala’s slums to provide them with free education and sanctuary.
Sosolye is the brainchild of youth worker Mark Mugwanya, who has provided support and entertainment for street kids in Kampala since the early nineties. Passionate about the social, psychological and emotional benefits of music and dance as well as Uganda’s endangered cultural heritage, Mark saw an opportunity to offer both cultural progression routes out the hostility of slum-life, as well as therapeutic and supportive activities for its victims. Through a holistic combination of music, dance, English and maths lessons, Sosolye Dance Academy has provided social, supportive and engaging opportunities to the young people of the area, and has achieved remarkable results. They now teach 121 children and youth aged 5-18, boasting 11 trained professionals, with new branches set up in Gulu and Entebbe as well. And their innovative curriculum offers diverse and proven progression routes: previous students have gone on to teach music and dance in Kampala, become regular paid performers for the Sosolye Undugu band, go to university and further education, and gain scholarships to travel to countries such as China on inter-cultural exchange programmes.
A progression route that has enabled the organisation’s sustainability most dramatically is its beneficiary scheme. A proud marker of the organisation’s success is that it is almost entirely run by beneficiaries of its work over the years, who now foster the next generation of beneficiaries voluntarily. “These are people some of which didn’t have any hope at some point, they didn’t have any hope. [Now] they lead us. They are working. They are going and coming back to give back, every day. [And] because we have succeeded with our beneficiaries, we don’t have any hope of stopping”, Mark proudly declares. “Whether there is someone helping us or none, we shall go on because our organisation was built with the mentality of self-sustainability, not dependency”.
This value put on local empowerment and self-sufficiency is crucial to Sosolye’s sustainability, and the legacy it leaves with those it teaches. They continue with their work independent of funding, the organisation driven by the passion and belief of its beneficiaries. Instead, funding comes largely from those that admire their work, and wish to contribute to a specific project Sosolye already have underway. Ultimately, this generational influx of new leaders has helped contribute new ideas, fresh enthusiasm, and continual momentum to the organisation, which has unmistakeably kept Sosolye dynamic and relevant.
Of fundamental importance however, is Sosolye Dance Academy’s function as a safe haven for the youth of the slums. Kabalagala is known to most muzongos (white people) as a district of cheap bars, night life, and raw local culture. “What is behind the bars on the street is very different”, Mark explains gravely. “Mothers selling themselves at 2,000 [roughly 50p] with a condom, 5,000 [roughly just over £1] without a condom… you’re buying death at 5,000. Then when children reach 13-14 and their breasts are coming out, Sometimes if the customer is paying enough, [it’s] ‘come on what are you waiting for? You either start working or go out of my house’. These are facts, and these are facts that most muzongos never know”. In this context Sosolye provides an invaluable and unassuming place to sleep for those that find themselves in danger, with no questions asked, and no-one turned away. The tall green walls of the compound have become symbolic of safety, with local residents appreciative of its reputation. And to wipe the slate clean, Mark adds warmly, “in the morning we do music and forget about all these problems that happen in the night”.
Mark speaks passionately of the power that music and dance has to momentarily transport its participants out of time and into alternate mental states, and of its unique ability to break down political, social, and cultural barriers between people. By identifying the needs of the local population through an understanding of the specific political, economic and cultural context in which they operate, Sosolye has been able to utilise a more holistic educational model to nurture Kampala’s vulnerable youth, and ultimately enable them to develop along positive progression routes to independence.
Mark and Sosolye have successfully circumvented what a lot of international development NGOs characteristically fall prey to: short-termism, lack of sustainability, and a lack of local knowledge and perspective, particularly in regards to voluntourism. Through Mark’s long history of working with vulnerable young people in some of Kampala’s most deprived and dangerous areas, he has developed an organisation from the ground up that taps directly into what young people need in Kabalagala and elsewhere. And through the sheer potency of the rhythms being revived for listeners and players alike, Sosolye and its evangelical ambassadors have developed a sustainable organisation that will ensure there are pathways out of Kampala’s slums for generations to come.