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How Bobi Wine’s Carolina kept this girl in school

Shakirah Nakalema

Shakirah Nakalema

SHAKIRAH NAKALEMA, 27, is a businesswoman, accountant and debate enthusiast. She is the brains behind the coveted annual women’s debate championships. Quick Talk caught up with her.

Hello, Shakirah! Please tell Quick Talk about yourself

I am Shakirah Nakalema. I am the team leader at Elle Parle Women’s Organization. On the sidelines, I am also the founder and director of Princess Kids Collections. I was born 27 years ago in a staunch Muslim home to Badru Kateregga and Hawa Nabweteme.

Elle Parle! Good name...

Elle Parle is a French word that means “she speaks”. We are the organizers of the annual debate competition exclusively for female participants.

Instead of crying ourselves to sleep about the limited opportunities that women have, we are part of the solution. We are mentoring young ladies on how they can articulate themselves in public. The eloquent ladies that we see today are products of intentional mentorship.

As a young feminist movement, it also provides a linkage between young women still in school and prominent feminist role models who can act as mentors in life and civic space.

Debate is a necessary tool for advocacy. Through these peer mentorship sessions, we can train and build a generation of young women in debate, public speech and stakeholder engagement.

What are your hobbies?

Of course, debating [laughs]. I also love travelling and making new friends.

Which schools did you attend?

I completed P7 at Central PS. I proceeded to Princess Diana High School, Munyonyo where I did both my O and A-level exams. I then joined Kyambogo University where I graduated with a degree in accounting and finance.

How was life growing up?

It takes a village to raise a child. I am a product of that upbringing. Almost every relative of mine had a hand in my upbringing.

Although we were many children at home, my parents supported all my ideas. I grew up on Bobi Wine’s song Carolina. My mother reminded me to often stick to my books instead of flirting around with boys, like beautiful young Carolina who ended up pregnant and missed school.

How did the debate come about?

It started at home. I was encouraged to always stand my ground even if it required that I stood alone. I had to follow my dreams. High school presented me with a chance to hone my skills. I served as a Princess (Head girl) but lacked proper communication and leadership skills.

When I joined the debate club, I was trained to speak. I love it when women have the freedom to express themselves at any time. It adds to my interest in the debate championships. Young women should be provided with a platform to speak about issues that affect them in life. As men can speak about anything, women deserve the same freedom.

What is different about these debates?

Our debate sessions are unconventional. We are deconstructing the traditional structure of a formal debate format where teams are pitted against each other in a cutthroat competition for the best.

Our format is interactive. Participants are given case studies and are required to formulate policy recommendations with a feminist lens. We then have the audience and observers from civil society interrogate these cases, with the best cases emerging as winners.

Any achievements so far?

The biggest achievements so far have been increased participation in debate and public dialogue among young women
in universities and engagement with feminist ideology. Most of our debaters have been equipped to take up leadership positions in their institutions and also at the national level.

Is debate the only way to empower young women?

Not as such, but debates are more practical and bring about confidence and self-esteem. Debate develops critical and logical thinking, proper and effective communication, and ethical leadership, which are the best traits any leader would require to become eloquent.

This is a huge project! Where do you get the financing from?

Such projects are undertaken with like-minded partners. Some of our partners are Women Pro Bono Initiative, ActionAid, Akina Mama wa Afrika, Frauen Initiative and Smart Girls’ Foundation.

So, Shakirah, are you seeing someone?

I am married. I am the mother of a beautiful daughter, now eight months old.

And how did you meet your husband?

I was on a work assignment. I met this intelligent and hardworking teammate. We exchanged contacts and the rest, they say, is history.

Which book are you reading?

The Nnaabagereka. I have always been inspired by her enthusiasm to love and cherish young girls. She has used her position to improve the lives of marginalized and underdeveloped communities. Her journey as a queen of Buganda in the 21st century is very inspirational. Reforms in age-old civilizations require one to walk a tightrope. She has been good at the assignment.

Any life reflections?

I am the firstborn child of my mother. I am somehow a de-facto deputy parent to my other three siblings. This position comes naturally. It has groomed me into being responsible and caring for my siblings and those around me.

What happened to accountant Shakirah?

Ugandan life happened. Immediately after campus, my boss moved me from the accounts section to a program and inspection role. He recognized that I loved interacting with people more than being an accounting workaholic. Since then, my roles have revolved around dealing with people.

I am forever indebted to my first supervisor, who identified my abilities early.

Which superpower do you wish to have?

Persuasion! You might say I am already a debater, but I need it. I love persuading people to jointly serve the community. We have very few herdsmen, yet the flock is growing.

Any regrets?

I should have studied law [yeah; all that mathematics of accounting lost in debate!]. I have grown to realize that I am ardently interested in human rights.

I should be representing our underrepresented women through pro bono services. Access to legal services remains a distant dream for most women across the country. It is not late; I shall right that one day, insha Allah...


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