Emmanuel Kavuma, a Ugandan artist who came a long way 

June 10, 2019

By Marion Dehier

Emmanuel Kavuma describes himself as a self-taught artist who started his life from zero. As he likes to joke about it, we could do a movie about his life. After seeking asylum in the Netherlands, Kavuma asked assistance to IOM to help him coming back to his country. IOM also supported him in his reintegration process by helping him start a piggery business.

Kavuma is from a small village in Masaka, central Uganda. His childhood was not easy. He lost his parents when he was four years old and was raised by his grand-father.

He made it through primary school thanks to an international organisation sponsorship programme. But secondary school was another story.

“I joined secondary school thanks to the support of my grand-father but also thanks to my sweat. I was doing construction and digging work to pay my school fees,” says Kavuma.

Despite being a brilliant student, it took Kavuma five years (instead of two) to complete A-level, as he did not have school fees. Later, he had to give up his school dreams to work in construction. He did not even sit for the final exams.

Like a lot of young Ugandans, Kavuma ended up going to Kampala in search of a better life.

“My first house was a 25,000 UGX house [USD 7 monthly rent], leaking like a basket”, jokes Kavuma.

But thanks to his unwavering will, he became a tour guide at the Kasubi Tombs (a burial site for traditional monarchs of the Buganda kingdom). He later landed the same role at the Lubiri (king’s palace), another of the few tourist attractions in Kampala, which he was also able to paint and put his talent on display.


Art has always been part of Kavuma’s life. Already, when he was young he was painting portraits to pay his school fees. Then, when he started working in construction, he was known for his colorful painting on buildings. But it is while working as a tourist guide that his artist career really took off.

This is also when he got international exposure and his will to travel the world.

“After few years working as a tour guide, I decided to start travelling.  People were telling me about all those exciting places. I wanted to see them and discover the art scene. It was not easy. I remember, my first ticket cost me seven months of work. But I kept working hard. I wanted to change my life,” he says.

His hard work and love for adventure paid off, and Kavuma was able to travel first in Africa, and then to Europe. He is today exhibiting and selling his paintings all around the world.

He was doing great and even managed to build a house for his family. But the conflicts started to increase in his community.

“Due to the fact that I am really young and I look like a weird dreadlocks man, I was hated by the community.  It became dangerous for me and my family. After the fourth attack, I decided to go to Europe to protect me and my family.”

Kavuma always had a special connection with the Netherlands, where he regularly travelled for his artist work. It was natural for him to seek asylum there.

He left Uganda alone and was hoping to quickly bring his family with him. But the asylum-seeking journey can be long and demanding. Even if he was doing well thanks to his art, he was badly missing home and was scared for his family. After more than one year living alone in a refugee camp, he decided to go back home.

“My son was one week old when I had to leave my country. It was really painful. I could not bear the thought of my family being alone and suffering. I saw myself going mad. This is when I went to IOM, the International Organization for Migration, and asked for help to go back home,” he explains. 

IOM Missions provide assistance to migrants, including failed asylum seekers, who voluntarily request assistance to return to their countries of origin. In Emmanuel’s case, IOM Netherlands and IOM Uganda organized his return travel and airport reception and supported him in his reintegration process by helping him start a piggery business.

Emmanuel recalls: “The first weeks were so hard. But the piggery helped me to get back on my feet. Local people saw that I could do something and earn money. I was able to pay my kids’ school fees and rent a nice house in a nice neighborhood where we are safe and happy now.”


Charity has also always been a big part of Kavuma’s life. He has worked with many schools, orphanages and hospitals, in Uganda and abroad, using his art to bring some joy to the most needy people.

His latest project is Uganda from A to Z, a children’s book with colorful illustrations explaining what Uganda is.

In this spirit, he is now constructing an art gallery right in the center of his new community. He is planning to exhibit his art and create a safe space for children in the neighborhood.

And of course, he is already dreaming of going back on the road to promote his art around the word!

Kavuma’s determination and passion is inspiring.  He has been able to rebuild a new life and successfully reintegrate socially and economically while having a positive impact on his community. 

When asked what advice he would like to give to Ugandans dreaming to go abroad, his answer is clear: “Get something to do here and use your brain to do something good with your life. Success starts with yourself.”

For more information, please contact IOM Uganda Public Information. Email: ugandapiu@iom.int Tel +256 312 263 210.  MOB: +256 772 709 917 / 700 646 403;