Rhythm of Life, Bringing Hope to the Red-Light District in Kampala
The first impression you would get of 24 year Harriet Kamashanyu is that of a high spirited and cheerful person. Harriet is the Founder and Executive Director of Rhythm of Life Kampala, an organization set out to provide health care services to sex-workers in the red-light district in Kampala and educated their daughters. We meet up with Harriet between sessions, you can sense an air of tiredness, probably another busy day at the Accelerator program, but that does not deter her optimism. I get the feeling that this is how she runs her venture, being optimists and never letting anything change her from her course.
I am a simple and jolly person who prefers to have a simple life
What does your company/organization do?
We are offering healthcare services to HIV/AIDS sex workers and educating their daughters to break the vicious circle of mother to daughter prostitution.
What is your role? Walk us through a typical day?
I am the Founder and Executive Director therefore I take the lead role in designing the organizations strategic plan and running programs that are implemented by fellow team members.
A typical day starts with me waking up at 5 and I immediately have my morning prayers for half an hour. Thereafter I look through my weekly and what I have scheduled for the day. I then have breakfast at 6 and out by 6.30. At the office I meet with team members who are to implement the days activities and everybody gives a brief on what they have lined up for the day. In addition to this, we have an evaluation of our activities assessing for instance what we could have done better. If it is a day where we have a night outreach activity, we set out to prepare for it and put together everything we would need such as female condoms, brochures, fliers, t-shirts, cameras and recorders and the team members are assigned different streets where they distribute the health and information kits. A day like this would typically end at 2am.
How come that you took exactly this path that you have chosen? How has your journey been so far?
Having grown up next to the red-light district in Kampala, I have witnessed the passing on of many sex-workers that has resulted into their children dropping out of school and following in their mothers’ footsteps. One of my friends dropped out of school after loosing her mother to HIV/AIDS who was also a sex-worker. Whilst working at Christian Women Concern, a Kampala based NGO that focuses on women empowerment, there were programs that focused on sex workers and in this program there were former classmates that had not completed high school and had opted t be sex workers, all their mothers were also sex workers. This triggered the eagerness to do something about and I therefore started assessing the needs of the sex workers. One thing that I found was that they lacked access to health care and I thought if I would be able to offer health services, this would be able to elongate their lives and also provide the daughters with education that would help them take another path and choose a different career.
It has been a long journey and difficult journey especially when it came to setting up the venture. There were and still are many societal issues that I had to deal with. It was difficult getting a team, it is still difficult to change attitudes and therefore difficult to get partners to work with since people need to believe in your cause in order for them to work with you. Getting a source of revenue to reduce donor dependence is difficult and we are trying to work with different revenue making models. When you have an idea in your head, it is difficult sometimes to be able to explain it in a believable manner.
What’s your next step? What’s your dream/vision?
My next step is to establish the first health café that is functional then we will be able to scale up. This will also make it easier to get partnerships.
I would like to see the number of girls accessing education and becoming better members of the society and not following in their mothers’ footsteps
Being a social entrepreneur is most often not to follow the straight wide road. Can you tell us about any road less travelled that you’ve taken and how it turned out?
This is definitely it, I resigned from my job and took on this venture.
The ability to stand out of the crowd and talk about a topic that people are ashamed/embarrassed to talk about I think counts as a road less travelled.
What impact do you aim to make? What impacts have you seen so far?
I have witnessed behavioral change in the last year. have seen ladies who have never used a condom adopting and using the female condom . I feel we have done something and empowered someone and we can see them sharing the knowledge with their friends, you know it is easier to believe your friend than Harriet who you do not know.
We have seen an increased concern in health, sex workers naturally prioritize money but we have seen a change in behaviours and people being concerned about their health realizing that living longer and being around for their families is important as well.
Today we have more sex workers turning up for the health seminars training so the increase in numbers shows that they appreciate the service and we are adding value to the group.
Tell us one thing about you that not too many people know about you. Any secret talents?
(laughing) I bite my nails, I dance but that is not a secret I guess.
Why are you participating in the SE Outreach Accelerator? What were/are your expectations? What are your needs? How has your experience been so far?
Being an Accelerator program, I was sure it would help my social venture “accelerate” to another level in terms of skills, partnerships, mentorship, organizational publicity, fundraising platforms and of course networking opportunities. With all this acquired, our strongest need is the investment to establish and efficiently run our first model health cafe in Kabalagala – Kampala, Uganda.
It has been a thrilling and overwhelming experience of taking in all the day-to-day information. The last couple of weeks have been focused on trying to beat deadlines resulting into a number of sleepless nights. I have to ensure I come up with a strategic plan for the next three years.
Any good tips you want to share with the outer world?
I will actually refer to a recent article i read – “How to change the World” that clearly stating…an idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for a lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behaviour.