Irene speaking at an event

Irene speaking at an event

Irene Ikomu is a young Ugandan lawyer who has for the last five years been working in governance and democracy in Uganda. She manages Parliament Watch Uganda, an initiative that that she started. It  monitors ongoing parliamentary processes and disseminates this information to the Ugandan public through various online platforms. She currently sits on USAID Uganda’s Democracy, Rights and Governance Advisory Board. In addition, Irene has been recognised as an outstanding young leader by the U.S. Embassy and selected to serve as a Generation Change Fellow representing youth perspectives at policy and political analysis dialogues. She was one of the Ugandan that received the YALI Mandela Washington foundation. Irene spoke with Youthhubafrica’s Ruth Aine about her YALI experience, see excerpts below

Q:  What’s your background? Your discipline and your socialization process as well?

A: I have been working in the non profit sector for the last five years with a focus on issues affecting youth participation and empowerment. I had to balance both work and school while pursuing my Law degree but early exposure to engagement made me realise I did not want to practice commercial law. Nonetheless, after school early this year, I worked in a law firm for three months before joining the Centre for Policy Analysis where we founded the Parliament Watch Uganda initiative which I currently head.

I was raised by a single mother for most of my life and much of my drive stemmed from her. I love learning new things, but even more teaching myself new things. If I do not know how to do something, I’m not going to ignore it if its important but teach myself; the internet has made access to learning a real possibility.

Irene at the YALI program in the US

Irene at the YALI program in the US

Q: What do you think made your application a strong one and how much time and commitment did you put into it?

A: You know written applications are really about the impression you give about yourself to a stranger; you have to make your entire application a story that is relatable. I was one of the applicants below the age criterion (25-35) to apply for the fellowship and while I was honestly afraid I would not be considered on that basis, I decided to use it to my advantage because I think I’ve been lucky enough to do things and be a part of processes, events and movements that so many people my age have not and so I focused on highlighting this to show why I should be selected for the fellowship; it was part of my essay and I really had to think through who would make a great referee. The application doesn’t specifically ask for a reference but leaves the option to upload any additional documents. I sent only one reference letter.

I think it also helps to have the work you do documented so that you can just share a link to something visual that people can see  and understand exactly what you are involved in. I shared the video documentary I had done with Uganda Youth Network to raise awareness on unemployment in Uganda:

and a link to the town hall with President Obama that I had participated in:
    which by then did not mean as much as it has since the US Africa Presidents Summit where President Obama mentioned it because at the time I asked the question, I thought he really skilfully dodged answering it and that the town hall was just another PR event with no real outcomes. I can safely say I was wrong.

The application was a bit long, so while I started early, I kept doing it in bits and ended up actually finishing and submitting it 40minutes to the time deadline.

Q: How were you informed that you were selected and how did you take the news?

A: Those people really took their time to get back to us, at some point I thought I hadn’t been selected. I eventually got an email and then a call from the YALI country coordinator who had flown in just to handle the process that I was among I think 80 or so who had been shortlisted for the face to face interview from the over 1,000 who had applied from Uganda.

I remember the only people I told then were my mom, sister and very few close friends and of course Jeremy at work because I did not want to jinx the interview.

After the interview, I first got a call and then an email. I was among the 19 from Uganda that were selected. We then had a reception at the US Ambassador’s residence and I got a mention in his speech, then the excitement started 🙂

Q:  How has the 6-weeks fellowship changed you/your life?

 A: I was placed under the Presidential Precinct which is a consortium of two universities and 3 Presidential homes-University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, and the homes of Thomas Jefferson, James Manroe and James Madison. We stayed and studied at all the six locations before going for the Presidential summit in DC so I got to travel a lot and see so many beautiful places.

10372896_655786724513237_9083570219695195560_oThere was a lot I learnt in those 6weeks. I learnt a lot in class about democracy, leadership, development, sustainability, media, fundraising, reporting and grant writing,..the list is long. But aside from the class experience, there were so many opportunities to visit organisations, businesses and even local government administrations to learn how they operate. There were so many receptions and cocktails where you met influential people and I learnt how to pitch and share about both myself and work. There was always media looking for an interview and you had to know the right thing to say and be confident. I truly appreciated that exposure.

Even more lessons for me were learnt, outside the official program, I met 24 other fellows that I got to build a relationship with, some have become close friends, others colleagues I want to work with. Its exciting to meet people doing things that just inspire you and we were so diverse in our beliefs, cultures, experience countries and areas of focus. All these were opportunities to grow and learn.

Q: What is the biggest take home from this fellowship and how will you apply it to what you do?

A: Two things 1) creating opportunity for others to grow. I think sometimes we struggle and feel like we have no idea what we are doing and are worried that people can see us as fraudsters. But in the end, everyone is figuring life out as they go, its a learning experience, we learn by doing. But because we have had people try to create a softer landing for us, we should also pay it forward, help other young people trying to make a difference because its not easy to effect change and we can all use all the help we can get. I am definitely going to mentor as many young people as I can.

 2) Loving who I am. On 4th of July, which is America’s independence day, I got the opportunity to attend a naturalisation ceremony and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The ceremony is an induction for new citizens and its a beautiful process, many people from all over the world became citizens on that day and new citizens have to DENOUNCE their previous citizenship completely. That shocked me, cut off ties like that? People are so proud to be American, why aren’t we in Uganda proud to be Ugandan? Many of us don’t even know the national anthem. I’ve definitely come back wanting to see more love for my country and I’m still trying to figure out how to make other people in my country build the pride that  comes with being Ugandan.

Q:  Do you have any plans to share some of the things you have learnt during the fellowship with your contemporaries back at home in some structured form? what does the fellowship also expect of you in that regard?

A: As the fellows from Uganda, we are formulating a structure to use to reach out to people. So far it has been through the Embassy but we are still coming up with ideas of not only sharing what we learnt but also trying to extend the experience and help other Ugandans that may never have access to such a fellowship benefit from what the skills we acquired. Its still in the pipeline.

The fellowship has created virtual networks for us to stay in touch with each other and plans to keep engaging fellows beyond just the fellowship. I know there are YALI centres that are going to be set up across the continent with the East Africa centre being in Nairobi and through this keep engaging the fellows

Q: One of the highlights about you has been Obama referring to your TownHall Meeting Question last year, which basically talks about more Trade & not Aid for Africa. Tell us about that.

A: When President Obama visited Africa, a few of us had a chance to participate in the Town hall meeting he held, though virtually. We were a team of ten from Uganda.  I was actually randomly picked to ask him a question.

The 10 of us sat down and tried to zero in on a question, we wanted to focus on on issue that affected young people.  I had a day to think about it as well so I asked a lot of people: “If you had 45 seconds to ask the President of the United States a question, any question, what would it be?”  and thats how the issue of aid vs business partnership came up.

We have so many young entrepreneurs coming up, not just in Uganda, but in Africa as a whole, so why should US foreign policy only focus on things like developmental aid when young people are struggling to find markets, capital funding and growth opportunities for their business ventures.

I’m really glad that President Obama and his administration have decided to look at Africa as an opportunity for investment. I’m glad that a question I asked can be associated with it.

I however worry that the people we had at the back of our minds when in asked the question, may be left out of this new partnership. The focus of US investment seems to be locked on energy so far, but its such a capital intensive and technical sector, how will young people benefit from it? Also, AGOA is going to be renewed, which is great for young entrepreneurs who can export goods tax free to the US, but AGOA in Uganda has had so many challenges that it is hard to find any beneficiaries. Yes, we are getting increased investment, but I hope the youth will optimally also get to be a part of this process and benefit from it.



Q:  Looking forward : what next?

A: For now, I’m focusing on Parliament Watch Uganda.  I think its important for governments to be transparent to its citizens and for most people, access to government is through their Parliament. So I hope more people will start to take interest in what happens in that institution, especially young people. We’ve diversified the way we share information including the use of social media about what is happening to make the information more consumable for those that don’t like to read long committee reports.

I also hope to continue to work around advocacy for increased focus on youth issues. With the youngest population in the world, we need to be planning not just for young people today but young people 20,50 years from now.

I want to do my Masters at some point too.

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Rotimi Olawale, co-founder of is a youth development expert. For more than six years he has been involved in leading youth advocacy efforts mainly around the Millennium Development Goals. In 2006, he represented Nigeria as a youth ambassador at the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit held at the UN Headquarters in New York. Rotimi has held several global leadership positions including; member, UNFPA Global Youth Advisory Panel for 2 years; member, African Youth Panel. Rotimi is currently involved in shaping local, national and global policies to benefit youth and also leverage opportunities for young people. He was listed by the Nigerian government as one of 15 Nigerian youth on the world stage in 2008.