Interview: Ali Kigongo



We meet Mr. Ali Kigongo near the main postoffice on Uganda road, Kampala. He takes us to an office of a former board member of the Waste Pickers Alliance, which now is in real estate. This person is no longer on the board, but would have liked to make available this space to enable the meeting with In2Afrika. This slightly resembles the situation where the Waste Pickers Alliance now finds itself. A lot of goodwill is absolutly there, but their situation is not optimal. Besides Ali, we find a lot of people at the table, who allow us to speak and answer our questions. Ronald and Janat are board members. Ali Bulega is a waste-picker and supervisor and Sula and Valenc are the real waste pickers that join us today. The air conditioning is turned-on and in this setting we start this interview. We speak with Ali and his entourage, about the riots that WPA brought about in its early years, about political games in the world of waste, and the opportunity that WPA can provide for HIV-infected people.


An interview with Ali Kigongo, Waste Pickers Alliance:

I General Information


a. Can you shortly describe the genesis / history of the Waste Pickers Alliance-project?

In the beginning, the waste pickers gathered waste individually, in order to gain some money for food. There was no such thing as official registration or collective rights. They were all people from the streets.

From 2004, the city of Kampala started to regulate the sector, and each collector had to work within a company. This meant that all collectors were now registered within a company, but that was all. They received no pay or help from this company, just money for the waste they collected.

At that time I began lobbying for the rights of these people, which were very poor. Long working hours, low wages, poor working conditions. And if you did not show up once, you'll find yourself fired! In 2008, we really started working collectively for our people. Along with Ronald I organized demonstrations and large waste companies had to give in. More and more things were organized, we functioned as a real union! In that time, WPA was also registered as a official organization, making things more official.


One thing you should know is that the sector of waste collectors in Uganda is filled with people who are, for example, HIV-infected. This is a real taboo in Uganda, these people are being snubbed. The waste bussiness is where they end up, but nobody gives a nothing about their rights. So I also wanted to fight with the WPA to get information about AIDS to a higher level among our people.


b. What has the impact of the project since then, on the target group, local community and surroundings?

The big companies were forced to give in more and more. Real salary had to be paid, there had to be scheduled working hours, no longer should our people be working day and night, just randomly being assigned. Moreover, prices of plastic went up, so that the income of the pickers rose as well.

The media played an important role in all this. They quickly picked up what the Waste Pickers Alliance was doing: improving the rights of Waste Pickers, as a real union!


A place where Waste Pickers could rest, could take a bath, and could wash their plastic. That was the original philosophy. We had a collection center for some time, but this could not be retained due to money problems. At this point, we should have already started with an income-generating project, to make the WPA self-sufficient. We noticed that a union like ours also needs income to do something sustainable. Funding from outside is also difficult, because organizations like putting money into projects that fall under the heading of 'human rights' or 'HIV / AIDS'. Setting up an income-generating project is often not directly one of these things. From this lack of means, we encounter a lot of problems.


At this time we are thus somewhat at a standstill. We want to and can mean a lot in Kampala, but at this point we do not have the resources. Because we have realized that income generation was so important at a very late point in time, our resources are dehydrated. You can not just be a union. We now need to find funding for setting up such a project see in one way or another.

For this project, we have a lot of plans already! We would like to set up an H-piroli - clinic a unique concept in Africa! H-piroli is a disease that is realatively unknown in the world, but very common among our workers. This allows us to treat and research a disease that is still quite unknown in Africa. With the development of this unique concept we could generate income for the work of the WPA.


c. What has motivated you, personally, to start your development project?

The personal motivation varies at the table, but some keep on coming back in the stories of the other board members and the pickers themselves.

Ali: "I think we realized that it is very important to coöperate, to speak with one voice. Many minorities are working in the waste-bussines, people who have not had education, and people who are HIV-infected for example. That last factor has much influence in Uganda. When Sula (Waste Picker table)'s former employer found out that he was zero-positive, he was fired immediately. All these people individually find themselves in a weak position, but collectively they can stand up for themselves! WPA offers them a platform to unite, so to actually speak with one voice. "


I myself also had my own motivation. I worked as a supervisor at a large waste company, when I was approached to be the voice for a large group of garbage collectors. And frankly I was hoping there would also be something in it for me. I was making peanuts compared to what the company earned. At first I was hesitant, afraid to lose my job. At one point I was also fired. That is when I put everything I had in it.


d. What is, according to you, the strongest point of the project?

I think the strong point is that there was really created a movement. There was media attention, people were uniting, came prosting. In this way, something could be done, that was very difficult at the individual level!


e. What is, according to you, the biggest challenge / point of improvement for the project?

As I told you, we cannot trust on money from donors from outside. So need to have a real income-generating project to make the Alliance sustainable. The fact that we have realized this too late, now makes that the WPA is a standing at a difficult point.



II. Development (aid) - north / south relations

a. What is your idea on development?

Development can take place only if, in our opinion, certain basic conditions are created. We talked about the H-piroli- disease for example. If someone has it, this causes all income should be spent on the disease. No money can be spend on food, on education. No development in ones life can happen. We as WPA want to eliminate certain problems by setting a certain standard, a standard of living. Once you reach this standard (health, income) you can begin life as a human being and start developing yourself. That is development for us, this is what we want to contribute to


b. There is a lot of Western organizations starting development projects in Africa. What is your general vision on this development-aid?

There is much need for hulp. And I will tell you this; in Uganda there is a lot of outside help, really. Uganda is in that respect a lucky country. But the corrupt government makes that a lot of people do not get that help, ot does not reach the right people. It would be better if we receive immediate help! Find local organizations here, go for immediate help. That is what I would recommend the Western organizations. All of these funds could be spent so much better.


c. The In2Afrika Foundation takes the civil society as main principles, in which small scale and local practice are the two most important principles. What is your opinion on our startingpoint?

I think we can get behind this idea of yours. As mentioned, Western development should in my opinion be more directly, by finding and supporting local organizations, in stead of governments. In this way you'll be much more direct with the local people. If you go through government (widely so), those ties are much looser, much less personal. That leaves a lot of room for matters as corruption.



III. Image of Africa

a. What is, according to you, the current prevailing Western image of the African continent?


People still think that Africa is poor. People in Europe and the US see us as just a bunch of poor people. But there are a lot of rich people here, trust me. The only problem is that the money is unevenly distributed, the money is with the wrong people. It lacks these people spirit to really change anything. Africa is not poor, the money is only with the wrong people. And the West contributes to this!


b. What's your opinion on these images?

We once worked with a Danish organization. This organisation was called Great Wastes. During a visit to Kampala, an old man from Denmark said to me: In your country, it must be very dark, lots of wildlife and you all live in shacks, am I right? When I told him where I lived and how we live, he was really surprised. This also shows a certain indifference, especially in the time we live in. Indifference, and a missing urge to directly learn something about the continent yourself. These to things make a very bad mixture.


c. How should this image be changed?

It is extremely important that people in the West come here, direct contact. The Danish man I mentioned, I could tell him how Uganda really was, could tell about how we really lived here. He did come here to see Uganda is. That is so important.

And I'll tell you: the continent is a rich continent, more and more people make money, and there is an awful lot of money for development from abroad. But it just does not flow to the good people. That is a very big problem. But this happens just because people do not know how things work here in Africa, people form the West that just give money. Ignorance. That needs to be changed.


d. What does the Waste Pickers Alliance-project do to create an image of the project and of the African continent in general?

That is the cH-piroli clinic we want to set up. This can really be a great thing if we can organize it. We can be a large research center in east-africa. This allows us to show how much potential there is, how many people are trying to get a step ahead. That is our dream for the future.