Erwin Wambi: How one student is using his difficult upbringing to foster change

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Erwin Wambi poses for a photo outside of Business Hall. - Photo via Erwin Wambi

Ever since coming to the United States last January, Erukana “Erwin” Wambi has been able to breathe a sigh of relief. After his home country of Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023, a bill containing some of the strictest anti-gay laws in the world, he has decided that he doesn’t want to return. With punishments like life imprisonment for anyone accused of homosexuality, and even the death penalty for people convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” Wambi, a queer man, has decided it’s best to put that chapter of his life behind him.

“I’m really scared of going back because ever since the bill was passed, it kind of puts me at a higher risk,” Wambi said. “So I’ll be honest, I don’t want to go back.”

The youngest of his five half-siblings, Wambi grew up in Jinja, a district in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala. As a child, he moved around often and stayed with multiple family members.

“I was raised by my parents, but more of a single parent. I don’t have a clear memory of my mom and she’s dead,” Wambi said.

With his mother dying when he was very young, he was raised by his father until he passed away when Wambi was 13. He then moved in with his grandmother until she died in an accident in 2018. After this, he moved in with his eldest sister.

Like most people in Uganda, he lived in a traditional Christian household.

“As for Uganda, it’s rooted into Christianity and culture,” said Wambi, “If you don’t believe in it, if you’re like, away from it in most cases they [The Ugandan People] see you as an outcast.”

This can also be said about his father. As a young boy, Wambi would often accompany his father when he would travel around Uganda to preach.

“I used to go with him to preach in prisons and I also preached with him on the radio, sometimes alone, or something of that sort,” Wambi said.

This lifestyle made Wambi’s childhood very hard for him, especially since he wasn’t the man his father expected him to be. 

 “You know, since I’m more feminine and all that, growing up with a family that’s more conservative, traditional, and religious was really difficult,” said Wambi. “So, my dad raised me to be more his own image, he raised me to be more of a man in his eyes. It was like, I was supposed to act in a certain way, you know, as most men did.”

Religion was also the thing that helped Wambi realize something about himself–his sexual identity. As he learned about homosexuality being a sin in church, one of the high points for Wambi growing up was when he began to embrace his identity, even though many believed he would be going to hell for it.

“I knew about sexuality in a weird, bad way,” Wambi said, “But I would say the one good memory from my childhood would be the moment I realized mine.”

However, his decisions to be more authentically himself didn’t sit well with his family, especially with the sister he moved in with.

“My sister and her husband were uncomfortable with me being around their kids, because, you know, I was feminine. So, eventually, I had to move on,” said Wambi.

After studying at institutions in Uganda, Wambi decided that he should start applying to schools in the United States in order to further his education and get his bachelor’s degree. With the help of his “dads” Thomas Wilson and John Whyte, a gay couple living in Philadelphia that support him financially, Wambi began researching colleges in the Philadelphia area including Drexel, St. Joseph’s, and Temple before they stumbled upon Rowan. The university’s academic programs, values, and priorities sold Wambi.

“I read about the environment being conducive to being inclusive,” Wambi said, “It was something I hoped for to help build my career.”

Wambi is an active member of the Rowan community. He is currently majoring in computer science with a minor in social change and social justice. He is a senator for ‘It’s on Us’, a club that focuses on addressing issues related to sexual assault and gender-based violence, as well as the social media chair for Rowan’s branch of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC,) which focuses on environmental campaigns, climate change, and activism. He also works as the undergraduate coordinator for the Office of Social Justice, Inclusion, and Conflict Resolution and is a peer mentor for STEM transfer students. Outside of school-related activities, Wambi is a content creator for an organization called Assorted Trends Africa. Based in Uganda, the youth-led group works toward community development and transformation.

His upbringing has taken a mental toll, but Wambi says he is going to therapy and is doing well. While it is a relief that he can finally be his true self, he says that he still finds it difficult when looking at how he was shunned in the past.

“I haven’t fully reached the comfort of fully expressing myself because I have that fear that was rooted in me since childhood, but I feel I express myself better here than Uganda,” Wambi said.

While it isn’t ideal to be unwanted in his own country, Wambi is grateful he is now calling New Jersey his home. While he may never understand the unpredictable weather and how curt people can be at times, Wambi is happy that Rowan has provided him with so many opportunities and new experiences that he wouldn’t have had if he never left Uganda. With a drive to help others like him, Wambi hopes that once his time as a Prof is finished, he can lend his voice to help foster social progress.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to graduate and have a standard profession where I’ll be using my own skills to help people that don’t have voices,” Wambi said. “That has always been my passion.”

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