Pen pal takes Pennridge alum on journey in support of African arts

Posted January 29, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Charity ~ 3,495 views


By Erin DuBois ~ Associate Editor | Montgomery Media | The letter that changed Michael Kirkpatrick’s life came from out of the blue on an ordinary day. It had been airmailed from Malawi, even though Kirkpatrick did not know a soul on the African continent. The writer did not ask for money but simply stated that he wanted to hear about Kirkpatrick’s life.

Kirkpatrick wrote back, sparking a correspondence that lasted for two years. Eventually he learned that his new friend had discovered Kirkpatrick’s employment identification badge in the pocket of a shirt Kirkpatrick had donated to the Salvation Army. The shirt had ended up at the man’s retail enterprise in Malawi.

Kirkpatrick, who was raised in Sellersville and graduated from Pennridge High School in 1985, has traveled to Africa seven times since 1998.

While Kirkpatrick’s interest in Africa had been awakened by his pen pal, he was skeptical about the work of international agencies and charity organizations.

Through friends at Calvary Church, Souderton, he met Richard Kabazzi, a Ugandan who was raising support for an organization he had established in his village to care for AIDS orphans.

“How do I know you’re really using this money for the kids?” Kirkpatrick grilled Kabazzi over dinner one evening.

Kabazzi replied by opening a calendar and pointing to a date.

“He said that for every question I answer of yours, you have 20 more questions,” Kirkpatrick said, “and the best way I can get you to understand is to invite you to come to Uganda.”

Kirkpatrick arrived in Uganda on the day in June 1998 that Kabazzi had pointed to on the calendar.

The trip exposed him to a new side of Africa.

“There’s things that we’re fed in the media that are an incredibly small percentage of what Africa is really about,” Kirkpatrick said.

With the right video footage, America could also be made to look like a desperate place, but people would protest that that is not the whole story, according to Kirkpatrick.

Instead of seeing only misery, Kirkpatrick also observed an abundance of talent in Africa.

“Here I see incredibly talented people who are trying to just scrape by and I’m like, whoa, you deserve attention, you deserve for people to know about your creativity,” Kirkpatrick said.

As Kirkpatrick continued his travels to Africa, he began to build friendships with some of these individuals.

Artist Fred Mutebi crafts mutlicolor woodcuts that portray both the social and natural environment of Uganda. While some people might say Mutebi’s work is reminiscent of Picasso’s, the situation is actually the reverse, since Picasso delved into cubism after attending an exhibition of African art, according to Kirkpatrick.

“Picasso was influenced by Africa; it wasn’t the other way around,” Kirkpatrick said.

Although Africa represents an enormous percentage of the global population, Kirkpatrick said that when he studies auction reports he finds that not one African is listed among the top-selling artists.

Kirkpatrick is motivated to change that, using social networking tools to provide global exposure for Mutebi and others. By designing a website and Facebook page, Kirkpatrick has helped Mutebi gain a presence in cyberspace, but he has also worked with him to secure magazine interviews and gallery exhibitions.

Another friend of Kirkpatrick’s is musician Maurice Kirya, who was named the 2010 winner of the Radio France International Discovery Prize for the Best New African Artist. He is also the winner of Uganda’s Young Achievers Award.

Kirya made his American debut at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, March 2010. He was featured on The Africa Channel’s “Soundtracks at Red Kiva” program, which is taped live at the Red Kiva nightclub, Chicago.

Maurice returned to the United States for a mini-tour last October, and Kirkpatrick again realized the power of social networking when young people began downloading Kirya’s songs from iTunes onto their phones during a concert in Phoenixville.

Kirkpatrick said he became Kirya’s promotional manager out “of sheer necessity.” Although he is not a musician himself, he said that he has a passion for getting his friends’ creativity heard and seen.

“I figured let me help out my friends who need marketing, branding and promotion, and we make an awesome team,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick remains skeptical of humanitarian efforts in Africa that are fueled by celebrity hype and emotional appeals to people’s purse strings. Instead, the way to truly make an impact is by building sincere relationships with Africans, he said.

When well-intentioned young people say that they “have a heart for Africa,” Kirkpatrick wants to check the friends list on their Facebook page to see if there are any people of color, he said.

“How can you say you care about them when you haven’t bothered to know anything about them?” Kirkpatrick said, adding that there are people from Uganda, Sudan and Nigeria living in the local community.

Kirkpatrick advises people going on short term mission trips to Africa to focus not on their tasks but on building sustainable relationships, since inevitably some of their tasks will not get accomplished.

“American culture is focused on task and time over relationships,” Kirkpatrick said. “Unless you can compare and contrast that with another culture, you’ll never understand what the difference is, and that made a huge impact on me.”

For more information about Mutebi and Kirya’s work, visit Kirkpatrick’s website at

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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