Children of the Revolution, Education and Everything Else…29 Years Later

Today the National Resistance Movement (NRM) celebrates 29 years since they came to power. January 26 1986 is quite significant to a section of Ugandans, myself inclusive, for many reasons; for die-hard “Movement” supporters it is a time to celebrate the day the liberators took over Kampala. For many like myself, the day brings back eerie memories. It so happens that on that same day my, then, 21 year-old dad was part of the NRA rag-tag force that was marching on Kampala and searching every nook and cranny for pockets of resistance from the Tito Okello junta. In his battalion, I suppose, were many younger folks – some my age or even younger. They are commonly referred to as “kadogos”. Close to three decades later, all that we get to hear of the class of 1986 are commander tales. Indeed, books have been written by NRA/M commanders detailing the revolution through their own eyes. From the president to Pecos Kuteesa to Matayo Kyaligonza to Eriya Kategaya and finally to the latest account of the same revolution (some call it a biography) through the eyes of Kizza Besigye by Daniel Kalinaki. Little do we know of the fate of the “kadogos” – what became of their lives. Many of these would go on to fight numerous other wars, in Rwanda and the Zaire. Many also succumbed to HIV. Their story left untold. This is the question I put to Kalinaki when I met him over coffee with a couple of friends weeks ago . Apart from efforts by Daily Monitor (and then Managing Editor Don Wanyama) to trace the effects of the NRM/A revolution on a young generation of fighters’ children, aptly named Children of the Revolution, in a series than ran last year, much emphasis has been put on the stories of the commanders – those that have fallen out of the system, killed or been killed. Daniel’s answer was rather swift, “History is always written by the victors,” and commanders throughout history have tended to overshadow the foot soldiers. He was right. Well, that NRM of 1986 and the revolutionary zeitgeist that drove young folks like my dad to put their lives, careers and future at stake by picking up arms against government, have all but withered. Many folks my age have given to apathy, binge drinking, and sports betting. Employment prospects are next to non-existent. The wheels of the revolution have moved on and–it seems–trampled on the very future of its children. That great Kenyan writer and activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o would rightly remark in his controversial book, Devil on the Cross: “Happy is the traveller who is able to see the tree stumps in his way, for he can pull them up…so that they do not make him stumble,” he continues further in the book, “until you know where the rain drops started hitting you, you can never know where you dried“. Where the revolutionary train was de-railed is a question that has troubled many of us lately. It is a subject we shall return to later. In a book, maybe. Makerere graduation In the last week we saw the 65th graduation at Makerere. I happened to be at the University on the three days of the graduation (in the library, thanks to my research project and a cache of books delivered weeks earlier). Perusing through the dailies on Wednesday, I was delighted to see the names of one of my “tutors” and colleague from my almer mater listed among the best performing students at the college of Engineering. Back in high school we had this uncanny obsession with holiday classes and since the school would not allow it – they had passed a stern warning to any teacher who would be caught carrying out holiday classes – we had to resort to form six vacists. Ponsiano was very good at Mathematics and Physics (is it surprising he got a first class in Engineering?), and yours truly was limping in that area – or so I thought. By the end of his vacation we had covered two thirds of the A’level syllabus for Physics and Mathematics. I would ace the two subjects later at my A’levels and be ushered to Makerere on state sponsorship. Also graduating this week were two of my former teachers (with masters in Botany and Mathematics) and my own Chemistry lecturer – a very friendly lady – who bagged herself a Ph.D in Chemistry. Quite a feat, huh? For most of the graduates, no sooner will the dust have settled on the parties, and the last crumbs of graduation cake swept off the table, than the stark reality of unemployment will kick in. The number of graduates being churned out by our universities yearly seems to grow exponentially while that of the job opportunities is growing arithmetically, if not declining. There’s talk of today’s graduates not being up to task, unskilled and being “un-employable”. So many theories and explanations have been strung together to explain this… The closest I came to the answer was a book am currently reading; a memoir by world renowned biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins notes in a speech delivered to his former school, Oundle, in 2002, “What matters is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today’s assessment-mad exam culture.” To give context to the above, Dawkins’ class teacher had asked the class if any of them knew what ate Hydra. He went on, desk to desk, asking every kid. No one could tell the answer. After asking the same question to the last boy in the corner, the class turned to the teacher for the answer. He didn’t know the answer! At least that’s what he told them. Later on, it would occur to Dawkins that he had had the most important lesson: he was being taught to think and become inquisitive. It is such delivery that is lacking in our education today. Dawkins summarizes it well in the same book, “The purpose of a lecture should not be to impart information. There are books, libraries, nowadays the internet, for that. A lecture should inspire and provoke thought.”

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What has dogged our education system is the continued “spoon-feeding” of students and lack of emphasis on wholesome intellectual growth. Most of our graduates today a secondarily ignorant – apart from their fields of study, they know next to nothing in the other fields. Reading is for passing exams and reading materials, library cards are thrown outside the window as soon as they graduate. Oh, and finally, it’s liberation day. I did not go to Soroti. The last such celebrations I attended must have been close to 15 years ago, I was a kid then. I might catch the celebrations on TV – for the march past ceremony and the band. Their tunes and well-rehearsed moves invoke a nostalgic feeling–there was a country! Back then when celebrations like these were truly national and not about a bunch of dry-banana-leaves-clad folks dressed in yellow head to toe, trying to out do each other in singing praises of the president like the court dancers of old. Old men fall over themselves (literally) to show their “undying” support for the sole candidate. I do not have the gall for such, so I’ll tune in close to the march past, reminisce in the good old liberation songs. A beer or coffee do with friends later in the evening, and that will be just about it. Aluta Continua!

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Je Suis Scientist

While out with friends last evening, the unfortunate case of the family who lost a kid at Mulago last week came up. It turns out the family will have to wait longer for DNA results from the Government Analytical Lab. Reason: there are not enough reagents and therefore samples have to be accumulated so they can be run once.

I would remark to the same group of friends about my frustration with a couple of folks at the council for science and technology over a research project am working on. The truth is, no one pays attention to science in this country. Save for lip service by the president and his technocrats, little is being done to “promote” science education. So we watch as the government lab is run down (that structure, formerly a hospital for the colonial government officers, was built in the 1920s and hasn’t seen a coat of paint since); it’s sister laboratory, the chemotherapeutics research institute (NCRI), is in ruins and both are perennially under funded.
Meanwhile, it will take the sudden death of another prominent peasant-cum-politician for us to suspect foul play and have samples hastily sent to these two labs. Then we’ll realise they cannot do the tests (the machnines are broken, reagents expired, and the staff not motivated); we will rush to South Africa or the U.K – all that confusion. Yet it would have been easier to build local capacity.

Our universities are grossly underfunded, R&D funding is next to nothing and professors are at the mercy of Bill & Melinda Gates project funds. We continue to treat our intelligencia as serfs and expect better.

Futurist Juan Enriquez would remark in his TEDGlobal talk “The Life Code” that: the difference between the richest and poorest in an agricultural society was 5:1 – if you had a large family, woke up early and worked hard enough, you could make 5 times more wealth than your neighbour. In today’s knowledge economy the ratio is 427:1. No wonder there’s growing inequality amongst nations.

Why?

It matters not how big your household is or how early you raise. Not anymore. All that matters is your knowledge of things like Microsoft, Linux, Programming and knowledge of the life code.

The wealth of nations today is no longer premised on agricultural productivity and archaic, tried-and-failed 4-acre agriculture production models. It’s a false paradigm that all but one leader has stuck to for 30 years.

The more we treat our scientists as serfs  and not shareholders in a greater project, the more we shall continue wallowing in misery, ignorance and disease. Silicon valley, the ivy-leagues and China will come along; pick the best brains, train and make the most of them.

And we shall not be to blame.

2015: On the Road.

To all my fervent followers, I take this opportunity to welcome you into the new year. Happy New Year – however trite that might sound, I know. It is the first time I am writing in 2015. I could have written earlier… but for my hectic travel schedule recently.

By the first week of January, this last one, I had racked up close to 2500 kilometers on the road.

I have loved every second of the journeys for they have been eye opening in many ways. If I were to sum up 2015 (Eh, not this early in the year!) I would surely pick on two or three things:

Music

I have never been an ardent follower of music and my choice of the same has always been, to say the least, horrible. Arguments have often ensued amongst close friends over my taste of music. I still think Congolese music of the nineties is more interesting and “deeper” than the cocktail we are being served by local artistes today. I think Elly Wamala, John Kahwa (Oh, that crooner! Know him?), and Maddox Ssematimba are some of the greatest talents Uganda has produced. Afrigo band is great. And that all these tribes of animals; Chameleons, Weasles, Tigers, Elephants, etc are no where close to the previous list. Yes, I said that.

On the long trip from Nairobi to Mombasa (damn! 14 hours on four wheels will leave every each of your body tired, run-down and…well, tired!) I would chance on two songs that brought back memories.

Tide is High – Atomic Kitten

Originally written in 1967, the song was popularized in 2002 by British girl group Atomic Kitten. I should have listened to it, first, in 2004 or thereabouts. The lyrics are about a girl who is determined to keep “holding on” even in the high tide. Now that was me; after 12 hours of a treacherous journey from Kampala to Nairobi, getting ready for another 14 hours on the road. I shall return to the trip later.

Barbie girl – Aqua

The year is 2001(?). All the kids are sitted awaiting what was, then, Uganda’s pre-cursor to the now ubiquitous soaps – The Ebonies’ TV drama. Ekitoobero Ala Carte on UTV. And this song, released in 1997 Danish-Norwegian pop group Aqua, was playing. Up to now I can’t tell what drew me to the song. It must have been the opening line “Hi Barbie/Hi Ken/Do you wanna go.for a ride/ Sure Ken/ Jump in” that playful, fantasy-ish manner in which the two look at life. They then jump into a car and sing together… My younger self would imagine how life must be easy for teenagers and 20-somethings – fancy cars, partying and fun. Unfortunately, it is not.

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Mombasa

In both my lower and higher invertebrate biology classes at University, we encountered interesting organisms (Sea urchins, crabs, polyps, fishes, brittle stars, etc) which, unfortunately, we had never got chance to see in real life. Of course we had samples of these preserved in the museum but there were not great to look at. There’s a huge difference between lab preserved specimens and the real thing, every biologist will tell you.

Considering this, and after another class on Marine biology in third year, the Zoology department would announce that we shall be having a field trip to Mombasa. You can only guess the excitement that filled the class – of seven – that day.

When we arrived in the coastal city last week, a friend would remark – in reference to Atomic Kitten’s The tide is High single, “The tide in Mombasa is high, so are our spirits!”

Mombasa’s cuisine, great scenery and marine life did not disappoint either. Too soon our over 1000 kilometer treacherous journey (and the fatigue it came with) were forgotten. Space had to be made for life on the roaring shores, in the pool and coral garden gathering samples.

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In the evenings we would take to walks on the shores, some riding bicycles or buying memorabilia from locals who were “strategically” positioned next to our hotel.
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It is no wonder Mombasa is a top-notch tourist destination in East Africa. During our brief stay I would encounter hordes of tourists walking in the city. Speaking of which, the city’s unique architectural style in contrast to Nairobi or Kampala is another sight to behold. However, all is not rosy in Mombasa; security concern is high with groups like the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a separatist movement, kidnapping tourists for ransom. A scheduled visit to the historic Fort Jesus would also be cancelled for the same reason.

Thinking Out Loud – Ed Sheeran

Since the British boy band craze of the nineties, with bands like Take that and Backstreet Boys, I had not taken keen interest in British music. Amy Winehouse nearly struck a chord, but she died too soon. Taio Cruz, Katty Perry and One Direction? Not quite.

And then came that 23 year-old sensation Ed Sheeran. His second studio album “x” has every music critic dumbfounded and suffering one eargasm after another. The boy is good. Looks aside. His “Thinking Out Loud” single raked up over 3 million views on YouTube in the first 24 hours and yours truly has been a significant contributor to that statistic – cannot remember how many times I have watched the video on YouTube.

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Finally (and this, I hope, none of my Kenyan friends is reading), it is bad in Africa here to rejoice in a neighbor’s mischief or misery. Only witches do that. And so, at the risk of being called a witch, I ask Uganda to take advantage of the security concerns in Kenya that have hurt their tourism sector. Traveling around Kenya, you could see Uganda has nearly the same to offer in terms of wildlife (the big five, safari, camping, etc) as Kenya. In fact, in the 1960s Uganda was the prime safari destination in East Africa – beating Kenya and Tanzania. That was until we slipped into civil strife in the 70s and 80s. Here we have chance to revive our status as a tourist destination. Kenya benefitted from our mischief before – and made good of it. It is our turn to… err return the favour. I hope someone at UWA is reading.

To my Kenyan friend, I was only “thinking out loud”!