Giving my spirit voice: Interview with Helen Nyinakiiza
Helen Nyinakiiza (right), aside from being a digital security trainer, also works in an education project for orphans in Iganga district in Eastern Uganda.
After a series of missed messages and calls, two individuals - neither located in the ‘global North’ - found their way around ticking time zones to finally speak to each other. We had to drop trying to coordinate via UTC (Universal Time Converter which is basically the time in UK) and I had to learn what is EAT - East Africa Time, and Helen Nyinakiiza had to learn about Indian Standard Time. Finally when we spoke, Helen was perched on top of a jeep to get good connectivity on her phone, and I was at my desk, next to an open window in Bengaluru, India where we get lashes of rain every evening to cancel the heat of the day.
Helen Nyinakiiza has recently joined the network of members of Association for Progressive Communication as an individual member. She is a trainer of safety and security tools for human rights defenders, a consultant for Amnesty's Panic Button project and currently working on the USABLE workshop program by Internews. Helen is passionate about sharing knowledge on digital security and human rights. She is Ugandan and lives in the capital city, Kampala.
Namita Aavriti: Helen, we don’t know enough about you, so tell us more.
Helen Nyinakiiza: I love science and tech, and teaching about both. I am Ugandan, born and bred. I have this deep desire to show people how to understand their daily lives using simplified science. For the last 3 years I have been dedicated to providing a unique and relaxed training experience for amazing human rights defenders from around the world. In addition, I conduct pro bono science education workshops for kids between the ages of 9 to 18. I am a single mum, and a huge science nerd.
One of my recent trainings was conducted for South Sudanese journalists here in Kampala.
And soon I want do a workshop for techie females who double as hrds. I am developing fun sessions around mobile phone security. One of them is titled - "Hello there! I am a mobile phone and it’s nice to meet you".
NA: Tell us about how you started doing this work.
I started 5 years ago working for the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders, and this organisation was involved in activities about digital security. They were doing it for journalists, human rights defenders and those working for women’s rights - and the last is a huge part of my motivation. It was a natural transition to become part of these trainings for me. Because of how I grew up, I knew, more than most, how insecure people feel about their digital literacy. So I find it easy to tell people - Hey! Don’t be afraid of this thing - the internet, but at the same time that we should be careful.
Because of how I grew up, I knew, more than most, how insecure people feel about their digital literacy. So I find it easy to tell people - Hey! Don’t be afraid of this thing - the internet.
My first work in this field was with Amnesty for the Panic Button project. Let me describe it to you. Imagine if you were surrounded by a group of really angry people, and you had a phone with you. You can’t physically make a call, but there are people who care about you and would do something if they got a message from you. This app is designed to do this for you - at the press of a panic button, to send a message to people who would care for you and stand by you.
I often meet human rights defenders who say - we need more digital security. But I’ve also invested a lot of time in the aspect of physical security as well. I like working with DW Akademie and they do both physical and digital security. They also give funding for workshops with journalists, how to do basic reporting and be safe, trainings and workshops about security, including the physical aspect with fantastic trainers from Germany.
NA: It sounds like you like what you do a lot!
Helen: Yes. The participant is the most awesome aspect of anything. I like being part of holistic trainings - and to teach people to be physically and mentally secure. That way we approach digital security after having broken the barrier that “this technology stuff is too hard for me”.
I am trying to start a curriculum for digital security that has the human touch - easy to understand and enjoyable, to remind us of how we were as children and how we learn, creating memory and neural connections that can never be lost. I love to learn myself, so it's fun to teach as well.
am trying to start a curriculum for digital security that has the human touch - easy to understand and enjoyable, to remind us of how we were as children and how we learn, creating memory and neural connections that can never be lost.
NA: Do you remember the first time you used technology or encountered the internet. What from that moment on makes you passionate about this as a space?
Helen: Oh, I remember this well. I was about 12 years old when I first used a computer. I wanted to write in a word document in those old bad looking macintosh computers. It was a list of all the pop stars that I liked. I want you to fast forward from that to when I was 18. Basically I went 6 years without really touching a computer, because in my school we had no access, no computer classes or labs. So the next time I touched a computer was just before i went to college. It was then I found the internet -- and we have been good friends since then.
Of course the first thing I did was to open an email account. This is also what people who come to my trainings are interested in. Communication is an integral part of being human - and this is what the internet is about.
It was at 18 that I found the internet -- and we have been good friends since then.
In a training - I ask people if they have an email account. About 85% people know how to do basic stuff on the internet, but most or almost all are unaware of the risks they are taking. I ask them - do you know the terms and conditions of your account, and most of them don’t know that. I show them how it is like a post office, how your email goes from here to there and who can see it in the middle, besides you. So the participants can see for themselves how risky and tricky it can be. At the same time the internet is like a library, so I show them that as well, and also to use the internet to find out for themselves, including about security of using some programs. I tell them to use something other than Facebook or Instagram, like Telegram.
NA: You work a lot as a digital security trainer? What is the one thing you hope people take away from your trainings?
Helen: Honestly I hope what they take away is a reflection of the trainer. I want them to go home and say - she’s a normal girl from a poor family and a poor country, and if she can do it, so can I. The ability to use the internet and to do it safely is not that out of anyone’s reach. People can make smart decisions about how and who to communicate with, they just need to keep their head down. Because I’ve realised that the apps that we teach could change. But if we are able to communicate a healthy sense of paranoia to the participants (laughs).. then they will later also find out ways to be secure for themselves.
NA: What do you want to do as part of your work in the future and through APC?
Helen: Through APC I want to work especially with a younger generation of women, or generally with young people. I want APC to believe in my potential and point me to such projects. And I want to build my skills as a trainer, and my curriculum. I really enjoy working with women human rights defenders, and I feel proud to be part of that. But at the same time when I do a training and a participant enters the session, then it is about them and what they want out of the experience.
In an ideal scenario I would like to take a group which has basic digital literacy to an intermediate level. I know that these words or categories reveal a bias - but I’m sure you get what I mean. I want to see a group of people pick up skills of using the internet through gentle persuasion, and then to sit back and watch them fly.
NA: To change the topic a bit, what is your sense of whether technology is considered a viable career for women and girls in Uganda?
There is no prohibition or a law that prevents women from taking up education or pursuing jobs, but there are societal and cultural ideas that a woman should at some point put down her laptop and pick up a baby. The presence of women in these spaces is still wanting, Namita. Especially in East Africa. And this extends to digital security also - I constantly meet intelligent women, pure goddesses who manage successful projects at home or at work but unknowingly jeopardise their privacy and safety because...their antivirus is outdated or non existent. Women don’t seem to be that concerned sometimes. Even a leader of an organisation will delegate the task of security to someone else, usually the “techie boys”.I want to tell women to retain that power.
Aside from gender, what also plays a role is the urban-rural divide here in Uganda. WHRDs operating in rural areas are faced with discrimination and sometimes death threats, because they often contradict African cultural norms, for example that women ought to stay at home and look after the kids - and definitley NOT conduct tech 101 for the villagers. Imagine if we had systems that guarantee the safety of rural WHRD´s (secret windows of communication with people that can help).
I want to tell women to retain power.
I also find that often women need to be sensitized about online violence - women can be secure about their communications, and not everything they do needs to be put online, but also if someone does attack or troll them then they should know they can in fact fight back. Here, in Uganda, online violence is quite new. But still there are 20 year olds and even younger people, including girls, who are online, and they need to know that online violence is a real thing. And also that they can ‘win’ - men don’t always have to come out as the winners.
NA: So how is it that you joined APC? What’s the story there?
Helen: (laughs) Oh you want to know the story. Well, I first was with Internews who heard about my involvement in the Panic Button project, and they invited me to train a group of WHRDs from Syria. We all flew to Turkey, which was safe then, not so much now, and there I met Nadine. I learnt a lot from Nadz when we worked together.
Nadz called me about 4 months later and said - We would like you to come to South Africa to work on our curriculum. I went for that meeting, and then APC supported my visit to Brazil to the AWID conference.
It feels like I have been looking for an organisation like APC all my life. I don’t know if you can imagine growing up in a country like this with so many restrictions, where you are told don’t ask questions or don’t do certain things. And then finally I meet an organisation that says openly women are awesome, and that feminists are awesome.
This is what I needed to give my spirit voice. Being here gives me the strength to say what I want to say and to be fearless. It’s like a missing piece fell into place.
And its just awesome to meet so many different people. Even you - Namita, we would have been across the equator and never met.
NA: That is true. Thank you so much
I don’t know if you can imagine growing up in a country like this with so many restrictions. And then finally I meet an organisation that says openly women are awesome, and that feminists are awesome. This is what I needed to give my spirit voice.