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Content Starts Shyaka // Story of Courage and Fairness

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People are being beaten by their minds, they are trying to survive and don’t have time to save themselves.

Shyaka was born into a Muslim Ugandan refugee family. He spent the first part of his life in Kampala alongside mostly Somali, Rwandan and Eritrean refugees.

He explained his living circumstance as shack after shack that were made from anything that could be found to hold the walls up. Muds, reeds, cardboard, parts of cars and any wood that was available. His mother started off as a teacher and his father was a drummer and an actor in the theatre. Soon though, they needed to find other jobs and his mother started to sell food on the streets and his father found work as a car mechanic, neither had any formal education.

When he was very young Shyaka would go to school and was known as one of the smartest students in his grade. He loved to learn and was very proud to wear his school uniform around the area that he lived in to show that off.

When he was only seven or eight his father disappeared and was never seen again. At 11 Shyaka wrote him a letter to ask where he was and to tell him how angry he was at him. This was only the first of many disappointments that Shyaka would feel living a life on the margins and having no control over the identity that he was born with and would stick with him through all possibilities in his country.

Shyaka was one of the lucky ones in some ways as he had the opportunity to attend a private school due to his high academic performance. He was chosen solely on his grades and only because that would help the school to market themselves to richer parents and other wealthy regions.

He would come back during his school holidays and wear this uniform because it showed a higher class. Whilst home he would help his mother with the fire, sell tea and help her to cook. His elder brother would wake up early every day and wait for the trucks to come into the market. He would gather any food that they dropped so their family had a mixture of things to eat each day.

Shyaka remembers the first part of his life as a happy time. He didn’t really consider himself poor and didn’t really have much to compare his circumstances  to. His mother emphasised being kind and honest and Shyaka  has never forgotten how to do this – especially with his mother.

Shyaka was notorious for playing with rocks. Throwing them at anything he could and using them as a way to cause damage and protect himself. This was partly because he was very short as he didn’t start to grow until he was 17 years old. This meant that he needed to find other ways to get what he wanted and use manipulation to get out of serious incidents and situations. This behaviour of using his wits stayed with him his whole life and was the difference between a life in the slums and finding a way to build  out of poverty and help others along the way.

In his neighbourhood, you had to be strong and have no fear. There were only two ways to be sure you would survive:

  • You had to be part of a group
  • You had to understand what you could do in specific areas of the slums. Do the wrong thing in a certain part of town and you were sure to meet serious consequences.

His mother was scared of what could happen to her children, but enforced kindness and honesty. Shyaka and his brothers would get hungry and this would lead to serious trouble. Finding a way to survive meant having trust and looking up to the elder boys that would lead the groups in illegal and violent behaviour. Shyaka looked up to them because they were his protectors and were only behaving this way in support of their group, to help everyone live as well as they could.

He only realised it later, but he caused a lot of trouble when he was at home. When he had an interest in something there was nothing that could stop him from doing it.

Shyaka remembers clearly one time he was playing with fire and set one of his pillows alight. He ended up burning much of the shack and his brother was burnt quite badly. He ran away from home for the day and came back at dusk. To his surprise no one was angry and he wandered off to bed pleased that he had got away with it. The next morning  his family put him straight in the car and shipped him back to school. Leaving home always made him angry and sad – feelings that he took back into his classrooms.

Shyaka’s biggest disappointment in his life came at the time of the national exams. At the end of primary everyone takes final exams and these scores dictate what high school you are able to attend. He achieved one of the highest grades possible and ordinarily, this would mean the pick of the schools to attend.

He was very happy with his scores and started to consider which schools to pick. Once he was sent out his options, to his surprise, he was not offered a place at  any of the schools that he had chosen. He didn’t have any opportunities that would support the progression into the fields he was most interested in studying. He also found out people who performed worse were provided with the places in the schools he wanted. This was when he found out that because he was from a certain tribe he was overlooked for people that were from tribes that had a national preference. He was so angry because others were provided privilege because of where they were born because of the last name that they carried.

Every 40kms you find a different language.

All of the hope that Shyaka had carried up until this point was based on receiving an education. It was the only thing that he thought would allow him a different life, a life outside of poverty and struggle.

This was the end of the love of school, he hated school. Interestingly enough this didn’t affect his performance, he maintained his high grades and never fell behind in his work.

During the six years of high school he attended 11 different schools, expelled each time for various reasons (mainly surrounding the way that he used these street smarts and general intellect make the teachers and school administration scared of what he would do next). Had no regard for rules.

At 15, he became very close with the parents of one of his friends and each time he was expelled they would work with him to find a new school right away. They also helped him to find an apartment at one of his new schools and he found work to pay for the rent. Shyaka knew a friend that was a DJ and started to work with him at a local club. This was the start of his independence and he worked out quite quickly that he would be able to support himself and learn things very quickly in order to make a living.

Back at school, he became very close to his English teacher. He loved literature and soon was digesting book after book. This led him to build up an understanding of the history of his country. His newfound knowledge  made him very angry as he studied the history of racism and tribalism that he was experiencing first-hand. He dedicated the next few years to figure out what oppression was and how he could be part of a revolution.

At school, he was turning into quite the entrepreneur. He was selling alcohol and cigarettes to all of the privileged kids who had achieved everything in life so far because of their last names but had no street smarts or understanding of how to live an independent life. They would talk about all of the things that they wanted to do and have and Shyaka was the only one that knew how to get it.

He would end up leading a group of six other boys and he saw himself as the commander. They would follow him everywhere and want to be around him because he could get anything he wanted. Shyaka had a phone by now and was selling weed, alcohol, cigarettes and getting other boys into any place they wanted. This was about the time where his want for rebellion and justice went too far.

The groups conspired to do something that would mean that they didn’t have to sit their final exams, they planned to burn down the school.

They planned to get fuel from the delivery trucks and Shyaka orchestrated the team of boys to situate themselves in six  key areas of the school so that they would inflict maximum damage without hurting anyone. Shyaka gave the signal and everything went exactly as planned. The school store burnt down and many classrooms were damaged beyond repair. That year over 300 kids had to repeat their grades.

Shyaka was the first suspect, even though he and his friends were the ones that helped put out the fire.

They took them to the Police and sat them in a room to confess. Sitting there for days investigators worked on them, but no one budged and everyone stood firm.

The only person that Shyaka told the truth to was his mother. The only thing she said was that she was glad that he didn’t own up as that would  have put the whole family into a very difficult position.

Another one – called Physics teacher and got him in a lot of trouble and in the physics lesson and had a tom gain- physical book

After this incident Shyaka got admitted to a Christian school for troubled rich kids, with his friend’s parents paying for his tuition fees. After starting at his new school he saw the thinking was wrong and got in trouble for everything he did. During this time he was giving himself tattoos and the only refuge he enjoyed was when they’d have a holy fire and he could sit quietly and smoke cigarettes. 

Shyaka finished high school and after living with the middle class he wanted to somehow show younger kids there was a cure to the poverty he had experienced. He started university, but like school, hated it and started to drink heavily. He was angry at the way his life had turned out as he watched other kids go on and start jobs that were the social norm.

Growing up as a Ugandan refugee the label followed Shyaka in all aspects in life. In school they had names for the kids that were refugees and everyone called him a ‘genie’. Even outside of school when he visited his grandparents people would call him that and tell him that he didn’t belong. 

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