Welcome to our series of introductions to African Leadership Academy’s 2018 cohort – and meet ALA’s award-winning young writer and photographer from Jinja, Uganda – who is set to wing her way to the Winter Olympics …
‘Take every chance that comes your way; try for everything – I entered about 30 competitions and programs, and won about 10… you get better each time you try… and the more you try, the more you will win.‘
Of Aidah’s many distinctions and achievements is one she has yet to experience: that of being the first African selected to participate in the World Curling Federation’s Media Trainee Program. It’s one she nearly missed out on, too. “I was looking online for summer programs and stumbled upon the WCF media training program, two days before the deadline,” she says. She hesitated at the tight time frame – “I thought: do I have the time to complete all the necessary paperwork?” – but grabbed the opportunity and wrote the required essays, including a letter of recommendation from Omang teacher Jeremy Keen.
“A week later I got a call from them saying I’d been accepted into the program, with all expenses paid to the Winter Olympics in Norway.” The opportunity for this proactive young student holds various positive spinoffs. “I’ve never been outside of Africa, and I’m very excited because many trainees go on to work for them, or turn professional,” she notes.
More importantly, it’s an affirmation of the fact that her background poses no limitations. “Now I feel like I can compete on a global stage – I always felt that being a Ugandan put me at a disadvantage with the rest of the world in general because our education and resources are not at that level. It means a lot to me because this would not happen to others in my town – it’s huge blessing and an inspiration to keep on working, and keep on trying to achieve,” she says.
On the fast track to fame
Aidah is no stranger to having her goals fast-tracked. At 16, she won the Uganda Press Photo Award in the Creative category, despite being under age for the competition, which was open to over-18s. It’s a win she still regards as a highlight: “I was competing with Ugandans of all ages, most of them professionals, and I was shocked when I won, especially as it was the most simple photograph of the three I had entered,” she recalls. “It was a very reaffirming moment for me, and for my mom as well, as she understood that there were real opportunities for me with my photography. And from that, I got to attend so many training different training programs,” she adds.
Aidah’s love for photography got a kickstart at age 12, when her best friend was given an underwater camera. “We took millions of pics with it, and I used the most basic editing programs on Windows. Then I kidnapped my mom’s camera, and used that for years until she gave me my own DSLR camera for my 15th birthday,” she explains.
She started a blogpost, Super Sensitive Sheroine, to add colourful descriptions to her pictures – and found her writing taking off, too. “I started entering different photography and writing competitions, and this led to a scholarship to do A-Levels at one of top schools in my country. They had a photography team coming to do events and I started talking to the photographers, who were mostly from studios.” Encouraged, Aidah contacted one of the top local studios, and asked for an internship. After receiving intensive training for two months, she started getting professional commissions, for weddings, graduations and more – purely by word of mouth advertising.
Challenging the norm
With a future as a professional photographer and writer seemingly assured, why then did she choose to extend her schooling at ALA? “I felt I could accomplish more before going to university by coming here – I had been in very small international schools before – primarily British in terms of teachers and student body – and I wanted to connect more to my continent. I wanted to have a diverse experience while still in a secondary school setting so I could understand my continent better,” she proclaims.
Aidah was introduced to ALA while attending a Yale Young African Scholars Program in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2017, before her senior year. “Before that, I barely knew anyting about Africa – I didn’t even know that North Africans existed, and thought that all Africans were dark; it was life-changing for me – and then recruiters from ALA came along, and I thought I’d apply too.”
Three months into her first year, it’s a decision she doesn’t regret, despite the challenges it has raised. “I definitely have felt much more connected to the continent. African music is played, we have an African dance club, the halls carry the theme… and I love Omang especially; when in this class, it’s a reminder that this is the reason why I came. Every day I get to talk to somebody new, which is amazing… I’ve had to let go of a lot of freedom – it’s a big sacrifice, being a 19-year-old with limited freedom, and I’ve had to work harder than I have ever had to work before – I’m definitely being challenged and pushed like never before, for sure, and it gets exhausting, but I’m learning new things all the time, and I feel supported and inspired daily.”
Her message to other aspiring young Africans with a dream to achieve? “Take every chance that comes your way; try for everything – I entered about 30 competitions and programs, and won about 10… you get better each time you try… and the more you try, the more you will win.”
A wealth of achievements
Aidah’s writing and photography work has been featured in national magazines and exhibitions, including the National Gallery as part of the Ugandan Arts Trust. She has also been recognized at various national competitions such as BANFF film festival junior award (winner), the Daily Monitor writing competition (3rd place) and honourable mention in the Ugandan Press Photo award of 2015. She was the winner of the Young Photographer of the Year (2016) for Uganda Expats magazine and has entered the World Photography Competition in 2018.
A passionate and talented debater, her team placed first at the Olympic Debate in 2015. She won Overall Best Scholar at the World Scholar’s Cup in 2016 (among other placements like Best Essay and Best Debater), and 1st runner-up essay at the 2017 WSC.
As a young social activist with a strong interest in educational development, Aidah also served as a teaching assistant whilst at school, teaching literacy and numeracy skills to children who had received no formal education.
She also founded Girl Up, a junior youth group aimed at empowering and improving the lives of young girls. This enterprising club received a $500 grant grant from the United Nations for its work in girls’ sex education – which in turn led to the formation of Bliss, a social enterprise that trains women in impoverished communities to make reusable cloth sanitary pads that are sold to schools in bulk as part of the school uniforms. This enterprise is being run by her mom, Judith – a farmer – and her older sister, Solo.