Teaching peace from a dictatorship

    To get around crackdowns on face-to-face trainings, organizers in Uganda decided to create an online course. Only a dilapidated IT infrastructure stood in their way.
    Screenshot from a video featured in Solidarity Uganda’s Nonviolent Action and Movement Building course.

    In 2013, I co-founded the nonviolent resistance organization Solidarity Uganda, which works amid President Yoweri Museveni’s 31-year military dictatorship. During one of our first trainings in a rural village, I was detained by a police commander and threatened with deportation. Things only got harder after that.

    If building a resistance movement is about anything, it is about not giving up. There are lulls in momentum, seemingly insurmountable cliffs and impassable trenches. Most of these obstacles, contrary to popular assumptions, are not caused by opponents. They are instead the result of internal rifts like in-fighting, poor coordination or lack of resources. In our case, a dilapidated IT infrastructure stood in our way.

    Although Uganda’s available bandwidth is sluggish and expensive — nearly $100 per month for speeds of 500 kilobits per second — we decided to create a free online class called Nonviolent Action And Movement Building, as part of an effort to decentralize training on strategic nonviolence and community organizing.

    Such an effort, we reasoned, would enable us to build a network of fellow activists around the world — something that could contribute to the struggles of allies we never knew we had, while also enriching our own knowledge of nonviolence. What’s more, we could reach more Ugandans without the arrests we had regularly experienced. After all, one can find free Internet services in universities, hotels and restaurants in various parts of the country, especially in the capital city of Kampala. While we weren’t sure the course would find an audience, we knew it couldn’t hurt to have a place to direct people we can’t reach in person with our trainings.

    In order to get our class online, we applied for a small grant from Udemy.com, a community of learner-educators. Anyone can develop — or even sell — a course on any topic using their platform, and anyone with access to the Internet can take a class. As we waited for Udemy’s response, police infiltrated one of our face-to-face trainings and confiscated thousands of dollars of equipment (which to date has not been returned).

    Udemy is used to working with technologically competent educators who have access to affordable high-quality equipment, fast Internet and quiet spaces they can use to record. This was one of their first grants for a course to be developed in the global south. When they distributed funds to us to begin building the class, we informed them about our property that was stolen by the state and offered to return the funds. But they were determined to push us toward the completion of the class, offering to mail new equipment and manage some of the technicalities from California, which we declined in light of the risks of shipping such expensive gadgets.

    The affirmation of our course content, however, did not mean Udemy wanted to compromise the quality of its production. They asked for test videos, and we tried several times on our own — using the modest equipment that had not been confiscated — to pass through their first quality approvals. But uploading these two-minute test videos took nearly three hours, and after several failed attempts to meet their standards ourselves, we decided to subcontract a filmmaker.

    Unfortunately, given that we could not afford a seasoned professional, we got what we paid for: an unreliable and temperamental freelancer. Eventually, though, he produced some usable videos — the only problem was they were too large to upload using our snail’s pace Internet. So, we copied them to a blank DVD and mailed it across the world to Udemy in California.

    This time-consuming, low-tech process angered us enough to join a pan-African campaign — known as #FastAfrica — against costly, slow Internet. In our town of Lira, we convened stakeholders like Internet cafes and NGOs with local political representatives to discuss tabling an Internet policy before parliament. Radio reporters — the heartbeat of mass communication in rural Africa — shared our cause across the region.

    While we won’t get tangible results from our campaigns for better IT infrastructure overnight — especially from a government unafraid to flip the switch on social media — we did manage to finish putting together the class.

    Screenshot of Solidarity Uganda’s Udemy.com page.

    Within the first two weeks of its release, over 500 students from 73 different countries registered — eight times more than the average Udemy class attracts in its first two weeks. The course has found interest among many current Udemy users, while also attracting a good number who have never used the platform before in such countries as the United States, Poland, India, Vietnam and Morocco. Student representation from Uganda is 38 times the average, and nearly five times the average for Kenya.

    Course content skims the surface of civil resistance fundamentals: power analysis, strategic nonviolent action, movement marketing and basic community organizing skills. Topics range from the relationship between tactics and campaigns to how to plan a one-on-one meeting.

    We condensed the classes due to limited resources and the aforementioned technical challenges. However, with so many activists engaging in social change with a limited grasp of the fundamentals, we think our introductory course provides foundational knowledge that can’t easily be learned on the fly.

    The class can be finished in a day or two for those with reliable Internet. Video lectures are delivered by the staff of Solidarity Uganda, as well as a number of activists who have gone through coaching from the organization.

    We faced both internal and external challenges in producing the class. Perhaps this is to be expected for an organization targeting activists working in repressive contexts. Although the process was much more of an adventure than we anticipated, we are grateful that students in repressive nations like Vietnam and Morocco are showing up in large numbers.

    Compared to the amount of studying for and about war, education on nonviolence is somewhat of a novelty. After all, there is still only one university program explicitly dedicated to the field of civil resistance. This course is just another step toward expanding the minimal content currently accessible to activists everywhere. But the fact that it comes from a small organization in Uganda is hopefully a sign that more is on the way from all corners of the globe.

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