Heroes: Pepe Julian Onziema

Meet Pepe Julian Onziema.

I met the Ugandan in Kampala in 2010 when I was writing about the anti homosexuality bill that basically wants people killed for being gay. Pepe is an activist and agreed to be featured in my story. When we sat down one afternoon in Kampla’s pink district smoking Dunhills, I thought I would get a story and move on.

By the end of the interview, I had a story and most importantly a hero. Pepe is passionate about Human Rights. He’s intelligent, articulate and humble. I have met many people of significance; few have left the mark the Pepe has on me.  He is consistent in his dedication. I have known him for two years.  I am yet to spot a hint of ego. More than anything, I respect this man because he lives his words. “I am prepared to die for this cause,” he said in 2010 when I asked why he is fighting homosexuality in a country and continent where being gay can and does get people killed.

His fearlessness, conviction and tireless work against hate in Uganda and around the continent are an inspiration. I hope through his story you will be inspired to purse your just cause and remember that no voice for justice is too small to not be heard.

I hope you will also be reminded that Africa is a great continent because it raises great minds with compassionate hearts. The great Mr Onziema makes me proud to be African.

Here is he in his own words.

Your biography please:

I am a 31 year old Transgender male. I work as the Programme Director and Advocacy Officer at Sexual Minorities Uganda – SMUG. I have worked at SMUG since 2007. My focus area of human rights work is advocacy for sexual orientation and gender identity rights in Uganda and Africa. I am a Pan African Human Rights Defender. I am the LGBTI Focal person on the Steering Committee of the Pan African Human Rights Defenders-Network. I am a Spokesperson for SMUG and also for the LGBT movement in Uganda. I speak out on LGBTI issues at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council. I have been arrested, detained, named and shamed in local media. I continue to coordinate and mobilize LGBTI persons to file lawsuits of discrimination in order to promote non-discrimination.

What made become an activist?

I think I have been an activist all my life. As a small child, I knew I wanted to change the world. By Uganda’s standard, one would say I was privileged; my family knows and supports me as an LGBTI person, therefore I wanted to reach out to those who didn’t have this form of protection and sanity. In 2006 I made a pledge to myself to fight injustice; hence  making it easy to take up a job at SMUG in 2007.

What keeps you motivated?

The many closeted community members ironically motivate me to make sure I do what I can for them to one day live as they are in peace. Being able to wake up in the morning to a new day is the simplest motivation to carrying on from where I stopped the day before.

Who are your heroes and why?

People who inspire me are those people who look at oppression straight in the face and do all it takes to end it; people like the Dalai Lama, Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi, Madiba and Angelique Kidjo.

You once said you are prepared to die for your just cause. Are you crazy? And are you aware of the weight of your words?

Well, I found out along the way that sometimes it takes a little crazy for dreams to come true. The weight of my words reminds me of the murder of David Kato my colleague at SMUG. When David was murdered, I wondered if I’d be next. So instead of retreating, I spoke out more so that if it were my last day to speak at least my community would feel the positive impact of my contribution to their/our liberty. I realize the pressure it puts on me, and yes I stand by my word.

(David was founded smashed to death at his  house last year)

What has the biggest challenge and victory for you?

Biggest challenge is religion; too much revolves around it. Mostly oppression. Victory; my personal victory is when I talk a queer person out of killing themselves and being able to follow up and be part of their life.

What is your measure of greatness?

Wow! My measure of greatness is humility, integrity and kindness. (Pepe lives these values)

It’s a long walk to freedom. What makes you believe that you’ll eventually get to victory?

Are you kidding! I am a believer. Besides, we have made some strides so far. In less than 10 years we have won court cases, we have held successful campaigns, the Anti homosexuality bill has forced dialogue on homosexuality, we have had a pride march, we have won international recognition and solidarity, we have a tireless movement that continues to dare the system in quest for justice.

Receiving the Clinton Global Citizen Award in the category of Commitment to Leadership in Civil Society 2012.


About leratomogoatlhe

I fell in love with traveling Africa on a four day trip to Accra in 2006. I started my journeys around the continent in 2008, when I went to Senegal, and around West Africa to launch my dream of knowing Africa through all my senses. I have been to 24 countries (and counting) over five years of stopping everything in my life to focus on one phenomenal continent. #AfricaRocks.
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One Response to Heroes: Pepe Julian Onziema

  1. This is a great story. We commend all the work of activists in Uganda, Africa and the world at large. Quite many have gone through experiences that defy reason to keep on persisting. In ensuring dignity for the minorities and less privileged they face all forms of threats, ridicule and demoralisation. But, they keep on keeping on.

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