Unmasking Charles Odongtho

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Charles Odongtho sits hunched over his small laptop computer, scratching his head in deep thought as he occasionally glances into his notebook and proceeds to type, or to scribble quick notes. He is a sturdy and well-built gentleman. Born on 12th December 1974 at Lacor hospital in Gulu, he is the third child in a family of eight children. With a soldier for a father, it was not surprising that as a little boy, Odongtho was very inquisitive. He was always seeking to learn something new. He was particularly close to his father. At the tender age of five, life as he knew it was no more. There was a change of regime and his father was forced to flee to exile with his young family. The mistreatment meted on his father by virtue of his position left an indelible mark on the youngster. The few months he spent in exile shaped his perception of the world around him. Initially, he was very close to his father but he soon developed a strong bond with his mother as well.

Odongtho started his early education at Parombo Primary School in Nebbi, West Nile. He later joined Angal Secondary School, a Catholic school established by the Verona Sisters. After completing Senior Four, Odongtho immersed himself into business. Diligent in his trade, at the age of 17, he became a millionaire. With this influx of money, he decided that he did not want to go back to school. The allure of business was irresistible and the sum of money he was raking in was insane, especially for one so young. 2 to 3 years later, he was still in the trading business and a bonafide school drop-out. This did not bode well with his parents. They had several verbal altercations with him in this regard. They intimated to him the need to attain an education- at least up to a diploma level. Heeding their advice, he left business after those two years and went back to school. Odongtho thoughtfully points out that most of his peers with whom he joined the business world are now billionaires. Many of them, he says, are some of the richest men in Northern Uganda. In spite of the bitter sweet emotions he endured from watching his colleagues progress on financially as he ventured back into the world of academia, Odongtho braved the disappointments and soldiered on as an A-Level student. He enrolled first at Arua Academy where he studied briefly before transferring to Alliance High School in Kampala from where he sat for his Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education exams. After his A-Levels, Odongtho contemplated his next career move. His dream was to become a lawyer, soldier or journalist. He joined the army briefly but his mother was in such a furore about it that she came for him after only two weeks. Thus, his dream of being a soldier was abruptly nipped in the bud. He applied for and was admitted into the journalism program at UMCAT. Upon graduation, he was employed at Radio Paidha where he was a news reporter.

Afterwards, he applied and was admitted for a diploma program at Uganda Management Institute (UMI). UMI had the best journalism school in the region. The school would only admit people that were already working. Admitted into UMI in 2000, he completed the course in 2001 and joined The New Vision newspaper. He started off in the New Vision newsroom as an intern and then ended up working there for a year. In 2003, he went to the Netherlands to study a diploma in International Broadcast training where he learnt newspaper reporting, online reporting and broadcast reporting. Upon his return, Radio Paidha called him to be manager from June 2003 to August 2004. He then enrolled at Makerere University for a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication degree. During this time, he got a job with Uganda Radio Network as he concurrently pursued his studies. He completed in 2007 and graduated in 2008 with a second class upper degree. Although his dream was to attain a first class degree, balancing work and study had been a tough call thus making that dream unattainable.

After graduation, he was employed as the first news editor at Vision Voice radio. Later, he became the features Editor.  Thereafter, he was engaged in political programming for “Vision Parliament.” In 2008, while at The New Vision, he was the only journalist chosen from Uganda to cover the U.S presidential elections in which the incumbent President Barack Obama was contesting. He did this for a period of two months. Out of the more than 60 people who applied for the opportunity, he was the sole victor. This has arguably been the highlight of his career.

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He continued working with Vision Group until 2010. When he left Vision Group, he went to Ethiopia for a training of one and a half months. In the same year, he got a call for a job at Panos as Commissioning Editor for Rural Radio debate. Panos is an organisation that carries out research and publishes books. While there, he received another invitation to join Uganda Radio Network in late 2011. At his new workplace, he was at the helm of the National Perspective Program. This program focused on development, reproductive health, infrastructural development and social life issues. He was the Commissioning Editor.

In 2011 after the elections, he partnered with Paul Kavuma and started the program “Our Parliament.” It was an idea he had pitched to his colleagues at Vision Group but they had not grasped the concept well in its entirety. However with Kavuma, he was able to bring it to life. Our Parliament is a show that brings topical issues discussed on the floor of Parliament into the public arena. At Wizarts Media, Odongtho is the Content Manager. He is responsible for coming up with ideas and what angles of stories should be followed. He comes up with topics, discusses the angles it should take in editorial meetings and he gets the news sources. A veteran journalist, he is involved in a number of discussion fora especially on NTV as a panellist and on KFM on Fridays from 7-8 p.m. On top of his heavy workload, he is back at school again. Now a third year student of law at Makerere University, Odongtho made the move to spruce up his academic credentials in 2012. His major highlight at Wizarts Media has been turning an idea into a monumental program that has stirred up national conversation. He is also ecstatic that it has been able to create employment for many journalists. Odongtho reiterates that he is proud to generate debate across the country.

His lowest points emanate from situations when he is seeing the potential of an idea or concept and the people he is working with are taking long to see it. Another snag for him is corruption. By virtue of his involvement in the program, he has discovered that there is more widespread corruption in Uganda than people actually believe it to be. Odongtho is disappointed that Ugandans don’t realize that corruption is causing them huge problems. Health care systems, infrastructural development, poverty reduction, education and many other necessary activities are hampered due to this vice. This greatly perturbs Odongtho. Furthermore, he is saddened by the fact that indigenous companies do not see “Our Parliament” as a program that they should fund. It is usually donors that fund the program and when financial resources dry up, the program folds.

In spite of the challenges he experiences in his day-to-day work, Odongtho relishes his time outside of work. He refers to himself as “double faced.” He says that he is a consummate people person who loves debate and engages people in issues of development. He loves making friends. Interestingly, when he is at home, he is a very quiet individual. While in his personal space at home, he loves watching news, documentaries, international debates, and having quiet time. He reads anything-from articles on traffic to technology to fashion fads- whatever literary material catches his eye is wont to be gobbled up in a spate of fervent reading. Sadly, he hardly has time to indulge himself in his passions. He does not have a family yet. As much as it is something he has thought about, he has decided not to rush into anything. He says that God’s timing is best. However, he hopes to be married in the near future. Currently, he supports his younger siblings as he pays for their tuition at university. A devout Catholic, he has been a regular youth leader at his church. He has served on the building committee of his church from April 2009 till now. He has published three magazines for the church to get publicity for their fundraising efforts. Usually, he organizes career talks for the church youth. To add to his already weighty portfolio, Odongtho is engaged on the CARITAS justice and peace committee. They reach out to poor, needy people afflicted by problems. They teach people to know their rights, to stand up against corruption; basically they provide platforms for empowerment. His committee is also tasked with mobilizing resources to help the less fortunate.

Odongtho is a man who has witnessed the passing of times and seasons in Uganda’s media landscape. As such, he offers invaluable advice to young people. He states that young people should focus, read a lot, read widely and almost about anything, develop an enduring spirit and be patient. He also stresses the need for people to be consistent. He asserts that one should develop credibility and trust. Let people believe in you. He continues by adding that the media is not there for journalists to amass wealth. It is a public service. The money will eventually come but one has to make sure they earn money in the journalism field in a clean, honest way. Odongtho advises aspiring journalists to create as many potential sources as possible. “They are your gateway to greatness,” he concludes.

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