Douglas Sebamala: On Being Human

Douglas Sebamala is an Advocacy Filmmaker, Actor, Designer and Multimedia Journalist from Uganda, representing fresh new forces to embed higher consciousness in Uganda’s nascent film industry and foster capable people to co-create high quality entertainment. Douglas has also performed internationally on the stage and in films. In 2018, he won World Bank’s Blog for Development (Blog4Dev) for his essay “Uganda Can Use the Arts to End Gender Based Violence” based on his years of advocacy work that uses creative and performance arts to raise awareness on various issues affecting marginalized groups including women. He is currently producing films exploring gender equality like Black Glove and 7_Hills, through his company Sebamala Arts. Founded in 2019, Sebamala Arts creates critical theater and social change films in East and Central Africa as well as the United States. Crucial to Douglas’ work is transformation of narrative about Africa through artistic intervention for more qualitative, inclusive development. Douglas shares with LEFLI his life’ story and its impact on his work, as well as his vision for the film industry in Uganda and beyond.

LEFLI: You have come a long way and accomplished a lot at your age. Could you please share with us your experiences growing up in Uganda and what drives you as an advocacy artist?

Douglas: My parents separated when I was young. I did not see my mother for years and my father, who served in the military, was largely absent from my childhood. My aunt raised me. At the age of 13, when my aunt passed away, I went to live with my father who had already started a new family. I had difficulty fitting in, was never fully accepted and often felt unwanted. When I turned 16, I requested to rent close to avoid the daily commute to my high school, but it was an excuse to leave home that I did not belong. Luckily my father had the financial resources to rent a small apartment for me to live independently. This is also the time I started building a close relationship with my biological mother. Apart from being impoverished living in a slum in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, her life story was very emotionally traumatic and heartbreaking because years from prolonged domestic violence. On this journey of fully discovering my mother’s unbearable sufferings, I would at times walk for two hours to visit her and offer my support. I started writing my mother poems and short stories based on her story. She cried. We’d cry together, and this was the beginning of her great turnaround. I am proud to share that she now runs her own small business and enjoys her freedoms and financial stability – she has completely transformed her destiny!

In Uganda, mental health is not widely understood, acknowledged or addressed. The injustices committed against marginalized people and consequently impact on mental health and the difficulties of poverty in the slums, are deeply engraved in my heart, so gradually I developed the determination to contribute to rejuvenation and empowerment of vulnerable communities. In retrospect, by doing so, I was able to relieve my pains of growing up, thus creating hope in the midst of brokenness. As I’ve grown older, what was anger towards my father has gradually faded away and I’ve replaced it with empathy. My father was actually a teacher of Literature, but perhaps the years of military service changed him into the authoritarian he became, and blocked his true nature and his inherent creative pulse. Growing up, I channeled a lot of my energy into being the best at my studies and using the arts for expression. In 2007, I was selected to perform my poem “The Destitute” for Queen Elizabeth II on her CHOGM tour in Uganda. The poem depicted multiple challenges in Ugandan society but it was thoroughly edited by authorities to avoid being critical of British imperialism and a corrupted government. The experience offered me profound realization of how powerfully art can penetrate layers of camouflage to reach the essence of issues and bring people closer to the truth.

While I studied Journalism and Communication at Makerere University in my country, I started working to earn and save some money. My first job was in reservation at a large hotel where I got exposed to different customers and cultures. At the age of 18, I was awakened to my true identity as a global citizen and decided my life’s goal was to contribute to the global arena while supporting the development of Uganda. I bought myself my first smart phone and learned as much as possible from the Internet. People often asked me how I got into the film industry. I used to audition but it almost feels like most jobs in the industry found me as I refreshed my determination for my dream. Each job had its own challenges and each difficulty turned out to be self-growth opportunities to improve my skills, cultivate wisdom and polish my life condition. Eventually I found the courage and inner resolve to start my own business, to be the solutions to the challenges the industry and society face, but through the power of art.

LEFLI: Difficulty either destroys us or brings out our innate potential. Your story is true embodiment of life’s profound capacity. Thank you for being a great example. Much of your work has a focus on gender inequality in Uganda. Gender is such a dynamic multifaceted challenge affecting the progress of Africa and the humanity in general. What do you think is the deep-rooted cause in Uganda and what are your interventions through films?

Douglas: I believe gender equality conceives of prosperity in terms of deeper sources of durable human well-being. Women in my country have limited access to livelihood-enhancing opportunities and resources. Many also suffer from gender-based violence. Colonialism definitely left unhealed wounds in governance and a general sense of “inferiority” in the undercurrent of the society. There’s patriarchy embedded in the traditions. This still prevails in dowry culture especially in rural areas where the man (groom) brings tokens, money, livestock to the wife’s parents. While the original intention may be to offer appreciation for raising the daughter (his bride), the shadow of such practice is that marriage becomes transactional when parents marry girls off because for financial agreements decided on her behalf. Men (husbands) then value women as property, calculating the amount paid in exchange of a wife. Even though dowry and the intention can be genuinely from the heart, once women are objectified and dehumanized, their life is prone to manipulation and control. This ‘ownership’ diminishes their own agency and sovereignty. Globally, patriarchal systems are still ubiquitous - being in families, businesses or public administrations. There is no easy remedy and it requires collective cooperation to create an environment conducive to cherishing all people in a non-discriminatory way. The stories in productions I develop or write and produce are rooted in challenges of young people like myself, women and min