My Experience: Human Rights Advocates Program 2018 -Pepe Julian Onziema, Programs Director, SMUG

As I return to my work at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), I share some reflections on a 4-month long study leave. I spent the last quarter of 2018 in the dream filled New York City, undertaking the Human Rights Advocates Program (HRAP) Fellowship at Columbia University I am happy to be back to this land of sunshine and all the chaotic love this country gives and takes.

I have traveled several times and this is the second fellowship I have been part of in the United States, but there is no getting used to it. Being away was tough for me, this time partly because I was newly engaged. I however cannot say that I did not enjoy New York and Columbia University. I did.

Arriving in New York on a weekend gave me enough time to adjust from the 22 hours flight before beginning the program. I arrived and checked into a dorm-like room at the prestigious International House the university. I walked into this little room (quarter of the size of my living space in Kampala) and purposed to settle in and enjoy what would be my home for the next four months. Monday came: the day to officially plunge into the Program. The HRAP is a one semester (three and half months) fellowship where an Advocate takes 2 -3 non-credit academic classes. The HRAP curriculum comprises of academic coursework, skill-building workshops, mentoring, and networking with the human rights, academic, and donor communities primarily in New York and Washington, D.C.

Decision to participate

By the time I applied for the Program, I was simmering with fatigue, dilemma and exhaustion. The tedious application process was my way of getting away from it all. Not to say that I did not want to be part of the Program. I did and had wanted to be part of it for some time, but it was my personal crises that gave me the kick I needed. When the selection decision came and I had been selected, I thought about opting out since I was feeling better and had overcome my mental and emotional tensions. I however knew deep down that I still needed a change of environment and routine, and that the Program would enrich me immensely. I craved that typical school feel. When you are working for your freedom where your life is under daily threat; you become addicted to it, failing to know when to stop- a typical workaholic. Therefore, it is absolutely important to take time off. Respite is always the last thing on your mind and the least thing planned for by an individual or the organization. Pursuing things you love becomes distant. This definitely presented itself for me as that escape I needed and opportunity to experience school again.

How the program work and what I did there

After you have been selected, you get an online orientation and get assigned an Advocate, to be your Faculty Mentor for the duration of the Program. Mine was Dr. Theo Sandfort You have to take at least two academic classes and do coursework. I took Gender Justice with Professor Katherine Franke Gender and Sexuality in the History of Africa taught by Professor Rhiannon Stephens courses strengthened my knowledge and critical thought process on gender, masculinity, femininity, matriarchy, patriarchy and their role in deconstructing and reconstructing gender. Although both courses had heavy reading, it was all exciting and fun for me because I was witnessing the work I do unveil itself in theoretical form, in the classroom. In summary, I took 2 courses, did 12 presentations to a diverse audience, 27 network meetings and 10 skills workshops.


Do the skills in the fellowship apply to your past and current work?

Before going for the fellowship I had undertaken several skills trainings through workshops in Uganda, the continent and overseas. The skills training workshops provided by HRAP on leadership, public speaking, advocacy, media, research, documentation, fundraising, writing, stress management, storytelling and video advocacy were therefore more of a refresher for me, but definitely equipped me with newer techniques of thinking and planning strategies, trainings and campaigns. The knowledge from the courses was however very crucial, especially in terms of teaching me to be intentional about oppression and oppressive systems when doing my activism and in designing programs. I will share this knowledge and skills with SMUG staff and with the SMUG membership. Learning never ends and all we have to do is open ourselves to it. In the queer activist community, there are few professionals, yet the work has moved from our passion to serious boardroom engagements and dealing with government and donor bureaucracies. You need some level of skills and tenacity to deal with it all. In the last 5 years, we have seen members of the queer community graduate with Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees, Masters, PhDs and other very relevant professional skills in various fields such as philosophy, anthropology, medicine, law, engineering, hospitality, social work and more. However, formal education is not the only way to engage and get the much-needed skills.

Were there any challenges?

Challenges are inevitable I guess. Among other anxieties mentioned above, was also anxiety of being the first transgender person in HRAP. I wondered about my safety in the very period the US president was threatening to strip transgender persons out of existence. I had anxiety about being tokenized. For most part I was fine, until an incident during our trip to DC. I was assigned a shared room with 2 beds with 2 cis-gender men without either of our consent. I was in shock and so were my colleagues! I felt really vulnerable. I raised the issue with HRAP management and received an apology.  I raise this not to disparage the program, but to not set the precedent that it is okay for the program not to take extra steps to make trans-people feel safe at all time during the program.


It is absolutely important for professionals in the queer community to be at the center of skills and capacity strengthening for the community. I come home vibrant, knowledgeable and eager to share and support my workmates and community members. I am more articulate and firm in calling myself a Human Rights Advocate, Educator, Consultant and Mentor. It is my wish and mission to see that I use this set of skills to enlighten and uplift my own community, my LGBTIQ family. Nothing for us without us, it is a critical time to focus within.


I am deeply grateful to my organization that granted me the time to pursue my dreams and an extra thanks to the Research and Documentation Manager Mr. Richard Lusimbo who was the Acting Programs Director during this period. I am also grateful to Stephanie Grepo, Theo Sandfort, and my fellow advocates, all my NYC and Boston friends who made my time in USA bearable and memorable. Lastly to my fiancé Joaninne for reading through my writings, her encouragement and love that sustained me especially when I felt homesick; I am profoundly grateful.

I am honored to have participated in the 30thedition of the Human Rights Advocates Program and proudly a Columbia University HRAP Fellow of 2018. I look forward to amazing milestones for SMUG and the LGBTIQ movement this year 2019.


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