Democracy Lessons from Nairobi

It is a few minutes to 8 am and we are still stuck in this monstrous jam on Uhuru highway, a few kilometers before we enter the Nairobi central business district. I have been in this Rongai matatu since about 6:35 am. Traffic jams can get really messy in this Nairobi, am told. Forget Kampala where, truth be told, most of the jam is either because our roads are too narrow or potholed; the ones here (at least most them) are well paved and wide enough. So the problem is not potholes or narrow roads, Kenyans are buying cars faster than the government can build roads to accommodate them…or so it seems.

So it is in this jam that I chance on one of the several morning breakfast shows on Nairobi radio. The host of this particular show, Maina Kageni, in a mixture of Swahili and English (sheng, I later get to know), remarks to his listeners that he is surprised how it skipped his mind that yesterday (2nd September) was former president Arap Moi’s 91st birthday. So many Kenyans seem to have missed the day too.

How soon people forget!

In satirical style, Maina asks listeners to phone in and tell him what they remember most about the Baba Moi era in Kenya. There are many things: the milk for all schools policy, his speeches on (the very many indeed) public holidays. There was even a Moi day (10th October) marked every year until 2002. On this day the self-acclaimed “professor of politics” would enter Nyayo stadium, amidst pomp and fanfare, to a heroic welcome, inspect a guard of honour mounted by members of the armed forces and proceed to make one of his characteristic speeches laced with one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks in Swahili that pressmen enjoyed quoting. One of the callers also remembers his area DC who would be tasked with reading out Baba wa taifa’s speech to citizens who hadn’t made it to Nyayo stadium. All this crowned off with a series of songs by praise singers thanking Moi for bringing maendeleo – development, and chastising his opponents as adui wa maendeleo (enemies of development) and wachochezi (rubble rousers).

As a Ugandan I could not help but draw eerie comparisons between the Nyayo era in Kenya (1978-2002) and NRM’s last 29 years. We might not have hit such levels of raw sycophancy but there are signs–indeed there are people who’ll tell you–we are not very far.

Amazing however is how now, 13 years later, the old man whose mere mention of name was enough to elicit fear in most Kenyans not so long ago, presided over celebrations of his 91st birthday in front of a small crowd in Nakuru. The event, apart from two minute news coverage by K24 TV and KTN, was largely ignored by the Kenyan social media community.

Perhaps the same will happen with Museveni when, one day, he decides to quit the presidency. And life will continue with people carrying on with their businesses. For most Kenyans the end of KANU’s grip on power marked a new dawn which has seen the country stagger slowly towards democracy and new investments in infrastructure; highways, ports and the internet. Turns out the so called “enemies of development” that Moi’s court jesters sang about were anything but anti-development. They transformed the economy. And lyrics like hakuna kiongozi mwengine kama Baba (There’s no other leader like Baba) would make a good stand-up comedy script today.

It will be interesting to see a post-Museveni Uganda indeed. And no one else would love to be alive at such a time than Museveni himself. He could use a few lessons from the Moi experience. Two decades from now, stories that a youthful Ugandan minister approached the president, kneeling so he can stand again, will be the stuff that bestsellers are made of.

It is a conversation I had with friends am currently staying with as we fixed ourselves supper and reflected on life back home, whilst comparing the two countries–Uganda and Kenya. We all seemed to share this optimism that some day in the not-so-distant future we will have something else to counter Kenyan friends who ask how a country like ours can only produce one visionary leader–to which our reply, now hackneyed, has always been “but you tolerated Moi for 24 solid years!”. Maybe on a throwback Thursday like this one, years from now, we shall sit down over several tribes of drinks and reminisce about the good old days under the NRM.

And, as if to throw a jab at Ugandans, Maina would later remark that if Kenyans wanted to know how it feels living life under a benevolent leader like Moi these days, they should ask Ugandans, Zimbabweans or Rwandans as they would be better placed to explain.

My matatu had reached the station so I couldn’t pick up the rest of the conversation. I would have loved to hear the rest of it.

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Open Letter to All Freshers

Dear Fresher,

I am sorry but you’re going to have to get used to that label–for the next one year at least. Yes, most people will call you that. Fresher. The more refined ones, and they will be very few of them, will call you freshman. All mean the same thing: you’re fresh in this new business called life at the University. 

But that’s not the point of me writing to you anyway. You know when I turned 23 just the other day, I promised myself that I would dedicate these next few years to speaking to younger people and sharing with them my experience so far. Then I can move on to greater things. So here I am, I hate preaching and therefore expect nothing of the sort in this long-short piece. Neither do I intend to lecture you.

Drink, if you must

First, I know you must be excited you will be joining the university. Good enough. And you must also be bracing yourself for the unfettered freedom that university life provides. You wish. Well, yes, you’ll certainly have lots of freedom at the university. Not until those exams beckon. So if you’re the kind that has never been introduced to drinking–thanks to your folks, or the school–please feel free to have a taste of the bitter drink. Drink if you must. Drink if you can afford. And if it doesn’t work out for you, quit. It’s that simple and such is the freedom (of choice) that university provides.

University is so overrated. Get used to it!

If you are the bookish kind, high school is the busiest you will ever be–academic-wise. Do not expect to cover more stuff here than you already did at A’level. And if you are headed to any of the five public universities, what you have as a 17-week semester is actually 10 weeks or less of serious work. The rest of the time will be taken up by incessant strikes over anything from the quality of meals, graduation fees, lecturers’ pay, non-teaching staff pay, name it. Use this to your advantage. Also, prepare to lose lots of time in the first two weeks of the semester as everyone settles in. Personally, I preferred these “interruptions” as they gave me time to catch up with my reading. You could use this time to check out the library (these next three or four years, the library will be your best friend–if you’re the serious kind) and read around your subject as much as possible. Read History. Read Economics. Read Psychology. Read Zoology. Read everything. It doesn’t matter what course you’re doing. Such wide reading will come in handy (like I will show you later).

Let’s face it, the most time you are going to spend in a class is four hours in a day. So what will you do with the other twenty hours (less about six hours of sleep)?
Make friends. Date. Expand your social network. Those three things will be helpful, sometimes more helpful than the degree that you will carry with you from that University. And I should let you in on a secret many students at campus are not lucky enough to know–before it’s too late: there’s a lot of goodwill out there for someone at the university, if they exhibit a certain degree of seriousness. So many individuals and offices are willing to open their doors for you to ask questions, to seek advice and seek internships. The problem is most young people at campus are too busy being busy that they don’t look out for such opportunities. I have since lost count of the number of offices that opened their doors to me. How many editors, managers, lawyers, businessmen have volunteered their wise counsel to a young man like myself because I just asked.

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At KFM radio. Credit: Timothy Kalyegira/Kampala Express

If you are lucky enough to be offered an apprenticeship, please take it up. And at this stage payment should be the last thing on your mind. Anything monetary, you have your parents and, for a few of you, government to look to. I remember the first time Ivan (Rugambwa) and I, then second year students, walked into the KFM radio studios for the Friday Panel of journalists show. The first few weeks were not easy. Keeping up with a motor-mouthed, figure-spewing, and know-it-all like Andrew Mwenda was not easy. So we had to learn fast. And learn we did. I have since lost count of the number of shows I have done. How many events I have been asked to moderate. The same is true for my brief writing stint in the papers (The Independent and Daily Monitor). Non of this affected my grades at school meanwhile and never did I have to skip any class to attend to any of these other activities.

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Ivan Rugambwa and I. KweziPhotos©

Books vs Booze

I often joke to friends that I don’t regret the money I spent on books and booze while at Makerere–it was worth it. It might not be the case with most of you, but those who are lucky to have a government scholarship will have plenty of disposable income (I hope the system won’t have changed by the time you’re accepted into the university). As a first year student on state scholarship, tuition was the least of my worries, food was also catered for, so with a sizeable stipend from my parents I had quite a bit of money by any freshman’s standard. “Lucky bastard!,” you must be saying. But, hey, we worked our butts off for this–so we could enjoy life at campus. Joking.

So I drank a bit of that and, perhaps more importantly, spent some of that money on a few books. I have always loved books but being in high school I couldn’t afford all the books I wanted to read. And the school library provided plenty of reads, so I wasn’t really badly off. Nothing beats having your own collection of good books though. You don’t really have to spend a fortune. For those of you at Makerere, there are plenty of second-hand books (novels, biographies, etc) around Wandegeya and they are quite cheap. If you are the kind who wants serious titles or new releases there is the University bookshop next to the guild canteen.

I should be boring you with this already, but you came here to, above all else, read and make your parents proud. It matters less if you are an avid reader, intellectual-wanna-be, or none of that, you will have to do quite a bit of reading if you are to walk away with a good degree at the end of the day. So accept my apology…as you grab a book.

Another thing I learnt at campus, and hope I had earlier: you don’t have to attend all lectures. You heard me right. Forget the roll calls (if you’re (un)lucky to land such a fussy lecturer), anything above sixty percent attendance should be enough to get you on the safe side. I tell you this because, even with a small class of eight, there are some lectures I found boring and had to abandon them altogether. No one will cane you here. You’re old enough to know what is good for yourself. So please don’t hesitate to run out of any class that sucks the life out of you. Careful however that this doesn’t develop into a habit. It could easily do. And above all: try to always keep abreast with what is happening in class; copy the notes if needs be. Be ware of impromptu tests by some overzealous lecturers. If you’re the smart kind such shouldn’t worry you–otherwise why would a thought of flanking classes cross your mind if you’re not the brainy kind?

Menu: Chapatti, Rolex

Food prices around Kampala are not all that friendly, especially for a broke-ass campuser like yourself. Here is where Chapatti and Rolex (for the uninitiated: a Chapatti plus fried eggs, basically; Kampala folks are known to add lots of God-knows-what lately). Eggs and myself are not the best of buddies, so it’s surprising all the three years at Makerere a Rolex never appeared anywhere on my to-eat list. Yes, there were lots of chapattis, lots of mandazi and samosas to accompany that breakfast or evening tea. It was all great and saved me a few coins. It could save you a few more too.

The university (Makerere; sorry folks, that is the only University) no longer provides meals at the halls of residence these days. The service was out-sourced to private firms, meaning you will have to cater for your own meals…and part with quite a significant amount of money. Which makes my earlier proposition even more relevant: befriend that rolex guy, he will be of help.

In closing, no conversation about life at the university will ever be complete without reference to the.fairer sex. Yes, there will be plenty of beautiful young ladies at campus. And this time no one will report you to staff because you hit on them. It doesn’t get better than that, does it? You will have plenty of opportunities and time to flirt. To fall in and out of love. To fight. To make up, make out. Get laid and get dumped. Utilise them.

I had wonderful friends of the opposite sex. I tea-d many. Laughed with many of them. We exchanged contacts. Spent nights texting back-and-forth. I was a regular visitor to many a girls’ hostels and halls of residence. Got locked up, and spent a night, in Complex hall but that was just about it. I don’t regret anything now but, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish something more serious had developed out of the friendships. Maybe my expectations were too high, which I am not sorry for.

And that shouldn’t discourage you. Go forth, make friends. Fall in love. Be dumped. Suck it all in and move on. In the end it will be worth it.

You don’t have to spend the next three or four years living life the way I lived it. It would be very boring! But you can learn a thing or two from my experience and improve your stay here.

So come January, hopefully, I walk away from Makerere with a Bachelor of Science in Zoology (they will only be seven of us graduating with that qualification, I know, not many understand that, save yourself the trouble!). In the same time you will have walked half-way through your first year journey . A perfect time to revisit this letter.

Sincerely,
K.T

Nairobi: A Diary

It is a few minutes past 12 pm on a chilly Saturday afternoon in Nairobi. I am on Moi avenue waiting to catch a bus to Utawala, some 22 kilometres out of the city, to meet up with a friend. We had met earlier in the week and she was kind enough to suggest I visit her and get to try out the famed Kenyan delicacy – nyama choma. Now, I had never been to Utawala and, although am the kind that always finds their way around places, I still hadn’t gotten over an incident a week earlier when I jumped on the wrong bus to Eastlands…at 8 pm. Now those familiar with Nairobi will tell you Eastlands is not one of those places you want to get lost in after daylight. Then what saved me was a bodaboda that dropped me where I was staying, some minutes after 9 pm, scared like hell that I didn’t mind handing him a generous Kshs 300 note for the 10-minute ride.

But today was different. I had made sure I asked my host all the questions prior – where to take the bus, what bus to board and which stage to alight. So it wasn’t hard getting onto the KBS number 33 bus to Utawala (these folks in Nairobi are that organised!).

The bus to Utawala takes the Mombasa highway route out of town – an expansive six-lane highway lined by industrial parks and malls on either side. I had last been on this road earlier this year, on my way to Mombasa. Not much has changed except for the newly installed cameras, new pedestrian overhead bridges and a huge billboard with Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta standing side by side – probably erected for Obama’s state visit here only a few weeks ago.

Soon we branch off the Mombasa road and take the Eastern bypass that leads to Utawala. I text her to ask about the stage I will be alighting at. “St. Benedicta,” is her reply some minutes later. But the jam on this road is something to write home about–literally. It is an hour and a half later when I arrive at Utawala junction. And she’s there waiting.

In short, am back on the bus, three hours later, at 5 pm, after a delicious meal of nyama choma and ugali, crowned with small talk with Carol about, well, everything. I’m shocked she doesn’t speak her mother tongue, Kikuyu. But my shock is short-lived after I meet another young lady in the evening (Nairobi was that kind to me!). She’s born to a Nigerian Igbo expat father and Kikuyu mother. She speaks neither language. And you wondered why Nairobi is a melting pot for cultures on the continent?

Nairobi – Africa’s Silicon valley?

Nairobi by all measures is a city on the move. From the sprawling apartments that are coming up in the suburbs, to banks and company headquarters that dot the Nairobi skyline, to a series of tech start ups by young people, everything is on the move here.

It is a conversation I pick up with a Kenyan writer friend, Oduor Jagero, while we are stuck in the monstrous Ngong road traffic. “I rarely come to town…I work from home,” he says, “…because of this jam.” His is a story shared by many Nairobians who, thanks to the tech revolution, now work from the comfort of their homes. Two hours later, I’m in his kitchen helping him fix supper as I update my phone applications, download a series of TED Talks and Librivox books – thanks to his fast internet. Later he tells me how he is able to stream live tv, watch Netflix without interruption. The Kampalan in me is awed. Not with these MTN ggonyas!

And this is precisely what most young people in Africa want: fast, cheap and reliable internet infrastructure so they can unleash their potential. They care less who is in charge of the affairs of the countries – whether they are septuagenerians or 30 year olds – as long as they can run an online business without leaving their home; if they can start and register a company without having to encounter government red tape and excessive paperwork. Many young people like my friend Oduor care less who is in charge of affairs in Kenya or Uganda as long as they can organise events across the border, book hotels and skype connect with clients.

Since I was staying over for the night, the discussion with Oduor would soon morph into my pet subject – books. He has a new book on Rwanda and the genocide that is coming up and we discussed the possibility of having it launched in Kampala or Kigali later this year. Occasionally each of us would retreat to their phones, to check that random notification; “All your apps updated!” Thanks to this fast internet! But soon we would pick up the conversation and start over…laughing. How did we meet? He was part of the Kenyan team of writers at the Writivism festival this year. So when I was sent to represent Writivism at this year’s JamaFest, all I had to do was text him once I got to Nairobi. The same can be said of other young people at Jalada and Story Moja that I met while here. And what is special about these initiatives? These young did not wait for governments to do something about strengthening regional ties, or marketing our countries on the continent. They just dug in and got stuff done. So here you have literary festivals like Story Moja, Writivism and Ake hosting big names on the African Arts scene; deepening and strengthening networks between young people in different countries…plus occasionally making fun of our governments.

Like this one time a Ugandan minister in company of his Kenyan counterpart walked up to me at the Writivism stall, was impressed by the work we were doing – or so it seemed, from his expression – and committed to government helping us in future since such events as the Writivism annual festival market Uganda. So it took the same minister a trip to the JamaFest in Kenya to learn about the existance of an initiative – three years old now – that is supposed to be under his docket?

While certain barriers might remain: trouble crossing borders, visas and excessive bureaucracy, conflicts, etc., many young Africans on the continent are increasingly forging ties with fellow young people across borders. By the time our governments wake up, we shall be miles ahead. Or like Daniel Kalinaki recently wrote of Ugandan youths, African governments might be wobbly at the knees but some of the kids will be all right – thanks to the power of the internet.

Letter to the Future

Kampala, Monday 6th January, 2025.

Dear Friend,

I hope you’re doing well. It has been a while. You know I came back to town the other day – doctorate in tow – from a neighbouring country.

I must say Kampala has changed a lot these last few years. Driving past Bwaise the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of the police mamba that used to park in the middle of the roundabout; same case with other roads leading into Kampala. What happened? And those machine gun-totting, mean-looking policemen at parliament avenue, where did they go? What happened to the barricades along most roads in Nakasero?

When you guys talked about “change”, nearly a decade ago (in 2015), I thought you were kidding. It couldn’t happen. How? I must say am in utter shock – for the right reasons though. You know, last week, I was at City Square – not a lot has changed since I was last there in 2015, except that now it is open to the public. Where did you people deploy the police officers who used to seal off this space? And Al Shabaab have not attacked Kampala – that was one of the reasons we were given for its closure to the public – since its opening? You must be kidding!

Anyways, I guess I should have smelled the coffee those many years ago…you know, a friend visiting from Kenya, back in 2013, once remarked that Kampala, with mambas at every junction, looked more of a military garrison than a capital city. “You’re wrong,” I retorted. “Kampala is one of the most secure cities in the world. Those policemen you see are here to guarantee your security – or you want to have another Westgate here?” He was disarmed. “And just so you know, Uganda is not Kenya!” I prodded him further. Now I know better: yes, you can have a secure city without necessarily having mountains of soldiers on the streets. The things that come with age!

Perhaps we should catch up this weekend so I can fully debrief you on the events of the last decade. A lot of water seems to have passed under this Uganda bridge since I was last here. One question lingers in my mind though: what really happened in 2016, that election?

You remember those lines we used to recite from Homer’s The Odyssey, “My word, how mortals take the gods to task?”

These last few months I have been going through my old notes on Greek mythology. The way these plays portray human frailty, pride and how these two lead to eventual downfall is nothing short of sobering. All the villains in the Greek tragedies are at one point or another, often so many times, warned by the gods about their fate; how, if they do things in a certain way, they will suffer the gods’ wrath. However all the Greek heroes – from Oedipus to Odysseus – blinded by hubris, seem to do ever so little to change their fate.

In the Odyssey Zeus, the father of all gods, invites the other gods to his hall at Olympos and tells them about Aigisthos who is advised by the gods; through their courier Hermes, not to kill Agamemnon, take his wife, lest he faces a reckoning with Agamemnon’s son Orestes. Friendly advice–but would Aigisthos take it? He went ahead and killed Agamemnon, married his wife and just like the gods had foretold, Aigisthos was killed by Orestes.

Revisiting these texts I can’t help but draw comparisons with Uganda.

But we predicted these things; that things would change someday. That normalcy and sanity would return. Didn’t we, my friend? But like the suitors of Penelope who couldn’t envisage Odysseus ever returning to Ithaca, let alone that his son, Telemachos, would drive them out of his father’s court, your people were incredulous. Hubris blinded them.

You know I could go on and on about this, my pet subject.

And by the way, I was just wondering…what became of the famous POMA? Eh. Still at it, who is the DPC Kampala or even the IGP of the Uganda Police? I don’t know those people’s names…yet, I swear. A week since I dropped in, there has not been a news item on the two police heads. Ten years ago, a bulletin without mention of these two breaking up rallies, interpreting political party rules was as rare as hair on this my balding head! How times change.

But your Kampala remains potholed, like those many years ago. Whoever dreamed up the idea of cable cars must have been in their wrong senses–what a waste of taxpayer money! That was in the past anyway. Where did the bodabodas go? I hear even Garden city…gone. Did you ever get to know the owner(s)? You people!

About Mzee–

I’ve got to go. Let’s catch up later this weekend. 6 pm sharp, at the Serena.

Your long lost friend,
K.T.

Sent from my I-Phone 10.

Global Inequality: Our Greatest Challenge Today

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter in his book Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis called it “the world’s greatest challenge in the new millennium”. World leaders, celebrities, the pope and clergy have also weighed in. It turns out the greatest challenge to humanity today is not terrorism (think Al Shabaab, ISIS, or Boko Haram); not global warming or increasing nuclear proliferation, it is the growing global income inequality and poverty.

Society is increasingly becoming divided, not necessarily between blacks, whites or moslems and christians, but primarily between the rich and poor. And this is a threat to the very future of humanity seeing that income inequality can be the catalyst to insecurity, terrorism and mayhem because an increasingly significant portion of the global population feels left out of the global economic system.

Tracing the roots of inequality

At the beginning of the 20th century the richest 10 countries were 9 times wealthier than the 10 poorest ones. By 1960 this ratio was 30:1, and by the turn of the 21st century the average person in the 20 richest nations earned 131 times more than the average person in the 20 poorest countries. The chasm, as a result of the global economic system; advances in technology, continues to grow. No where in the world has the impact of poverty and inequality been felt hardest than in developing nations in the global south–what economist Paul Collier calls the “bottom billion”.

Whereas Africa over the last twenty years has enjoyed rapid economic growth, an improvement in democracy and, as a result, increased foreign investment mainly directed towards it’s commodities and natural resources. It has also experienced an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a few elites–the nouveau riche–at the expense of the poor.

The average per capita income of an African today is actually lower than it was in 1970, this despite the continent having more than half of the world’s fastest growing economies. Countries like Angola despite enjoying rapid economic growth over the last decade still grapple with issues of governance, inadequate health care for the citizens and high levels of poverty. The Africa “rising” mantra seems to have failed to transit beyond the air conditioned offices in Luanda, Nairobi and Abidjan to the rural masses that make up the bulk of Africa’s population.

However, all is not lost for Africa. The continent has, in its young people, its greatest asset. The youthful potential of the continent’s young population is what will drive us and, hopefully, the rest of humanity to a fairer, just and equal world. I see this in the faces of many young Africans that I meet, at conferences, in discussions on social media and at Universities like Makerere.

However, for this youthful potential to be fully harnessed we need to do the following.

Increase development assistance to the world’s poorest regions

Philanthropists like former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, singers Bono and Bob Geldoff have argued for increased development assistance, forgiveness of debt for the poorest nations, etc, in the past. And they have received their own fair share of criticism from proponents of “Trade not Aid”, some of it deserved. I would argue, in addition to compassion, the rest of the ‘better off’ world should act in other ways to try and stem the problem of world poverty and inequality. We should see more efforts in the West to bring to book corporations which fuel conflict in the poor parts of the world, more stringent legislation against tax avoidance by multinationals, especially those in the extractive sector–which is the primary source of taxes for most African governments. According to a recent report Africa has lost at least $1 trillion in the last 50 years in illicit financial outflows, including tax avoidance, mainly by foreign multinationals.

Empower the citizen

Despite having 653 elections between 1960 and 2010, 354 of which were presidential, citizens in most African countries are not empowered enough to hold those entrusted with power to account. Leaders and their cabal of fortune-seekers are able to get away with unethical conduct, corruption and abuse of office without drawing public condemnation because the citizens have been brought up to settle for less. Such impunity is at the root of growing inequality in Africa. Jeffrey Sachs in his latest article for Project Syndicate puts it better, “the ability of those who wield great public and private power to flout the law and ethical norms for personal gain is one of the more glaring manifestations of inequality”. The result of all this–a very powerful minority and a dis-empowered citizen majority–is an “impunity trap” where even the smallest attempt at equality and social justice is sneered at by those it is most likely to help, the citizens, because they feel impunity is the new norm.

However, with an empowered, informed and determined young citizenry we can reverse this impunity trap. Social media has openned up new avenues through which the citizen can directly interact with those entrusted with authority and ask the hard questions. We have tried this at Makerere University with Vote Issues and we are quite sure the idea can be spread to other institutions, including government. Which is why am very excited for ideas like these ones to find a place like the Global Students’ Dialogue, where they can be discussed by the most enlightened of young minds from Uganda, the continent and the rest of the world. Today’s complex global challenges can only be solved through engagement of future leaders, now students in universities, to devise creative and actionable solutions that will result in a more prosperous, fairer and equal globe for posterity.

The above article is part of a discussion leading up to the forthcoming Global Students’ Dialogue on Inequality and Poverty to be hosted at Makerere University, Kampala on 4th July. The author will be a moderator at the same event.

Mwenda, Obbo; Old men, listen to your son

Listening to president Museveni during the recent state of the nation address, where he admitted he had made a mistake privatizing Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB), and how the government would re-capitalise the Uganda Development Bank (UDB), I couldn’t help but jump for joy. To borrow Onyango Obbo’s words in his letter to Andrew Mwenda (see The Independent May 31, 2015), albeit in a different context, I am glad Museveni is a like a prodigal son who is now coming home. For long, two decades, he has wandered in the rough seas of free market fundamentalism, with little or nothing to show for it. Finally he has learnt his lesson and is now flirting with the right ideas.

The debate over UCB’s privatization is one we have had with Andrew for months now, and I hope this article will put it to rest.

UCB: Good or bad deal?

Since it’s establishment as a government-owned retail bank in 1965 (initially founded as the “National Bank of India” in 1906), Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) was run profitably until 1985–in the same time we had 8 presidents, 4 coups and a two civil wars. Stories are told of how NRA rebels commanded by Salim Saleh raided the Fort Portal branch of UCB and made off with huge amounts of money. Nevertheless the bank limped on. After the NRA/M came to power in 1986, amidst the economic hardships and recovery, a Ugandan lawyer who had previously worked with the World Bank, Frank Mwine, was appointed to head UCB. Mwine would go on to expand the bank’s branches across the country in a bid to bring majority of Ugandans in the rural areas into the formal banking sector. However his attempts would later spell disaster for the bank since the money for opening new branches largely came from depositor savings. The short of it is UCB became insolvent and, riddled with corruption, insider lending, fraud, the bank had to be put under new management. Enter Ezra Suruma. Suruma’s main job was, with the help of experts from the World Bank and IMF, to return the bank to stability and, as was the policy of these two institutions, privatise it. Government sank $70m of tax payer money into this process and by 1996 the bank was returning to profitability. It would be sold two years later, amidst controversy, first to a Malaysian group allegedly fronted by Salim Saleh and  then later to Standard Bank Group (Stanbic) in 2002 for $19 million. Of interest though is the fact the bank would go on to make the same amount of money–$19m–in profit the very next year after its sale.

One of the major reasons fronted for the sale of UCB and indeed many other parastatals across the continent in the 80s and 90s was that the African state had failed to do business. Driving government out of business was the solution. Looking back with hindsight, it was not. In the specific case of UCB it was thought its privatisation would expand the bank’s reach, bring efficiency and as a result a decrease in the cost of borrowing. Thirteen years later, the number of Stanbic bank branches has only modestly increased (from 65 in 2002 to about 86 in 2014); the cost of loans has not reduced despite reduction in the central bank rate (CBR), decreased defaults on loans, and a low inflation rate. The CBR today stands at 12% while the average lending rate of commercial banks is 22%–the highest in the region. Only 20% of the Ugandan population today is interfaced with a bank despite the existence of over 20 banks in the country.

Of course proponents of privatization will claim that Stanbic bank today has a market capitalization of close to 2 trillion shillings; employs over 1,879 Ugandans; has total assets of about 3.5 trillion shillings; posted profits in excess of 135 billion shillings in 2014, etc. Their argument seems a valid until one gives it closer scrutiny. Where does the bulk of this profit come from? How accessible is Stanbic to farmers and SMEs–the very group of people UCB was started to provide cheap loans? The bulk of this profit is from government bonds, loans to importers and people in real estate.

Kenya’s KCB, the biggest bank by assets in East Africa, operating in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, is now 20% owned by the Kenyan government. The remaining shares are owned by institutional and private investors after the government sold majority of its shares on the open market. The same has happened in Uganda with the New Vision where government owns 53.3% stake and the rest by Ugandans through buying shares. The company posted profits of 3 billion shillings last year, the biggest for any media company in Uganda. How come in the same country that couldn’t manage UCB, you have a thriving New Vision? National Water and Sewerage Corporation (it was recently voted the best utility company in Africa) is also government owned. How come the same malaise that we claim is rampant in the Ugandan state hasn’t afflicted New Vision or NWSC?

We can look across the continent for glowing examples of government entities that are being run profitably. We shall start with tiny Botswana which, with 3 million heads of cattle, is the leading exporter of beef on the continent. Uganda, despite having 13 million heads of cattle (4 times Botswana’s), and several incentives to private investors by government, including provision of free land in Nakasongola to one, is not even among the top 10 beef exporters in Africa. The diamond trading company in Botswana (DTC Botswana) is a 50/50 venture between the government and the De Beers Group. You could also add Ethiopia whose military owns most of the industries. All cars driven in Ethiopia are assembled in that country.

So where do we get this idea that (African) governments cannot run business?

I think this all stems from the dominant narrative by western scholars and the media over the last 30 years. In the wake of Africa’s “lost decade”–the 1980s–when many an African government were unable to maintain their balance of payments, to pay civil servants in a bloated civil service, and had to resort to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) for rescue, the idea that through radical reforms that reduced the size of government and a market oriented development approach, you would “solve” the African problem gained currency. Since then you’ve had close to $900 billion pumped into the continent, the IMF and world bank have become Africa’s de facto economic advisers, competing for the best talent with African governments and as a result destroying governments’ incentive structures. Incompetent governments are kept alive thanks to the financial “oxygen” that the IMF and world bank are. Andrew you used to argue these things at TED, what happened?

Where the private sector was meant to reduce corruption, inefficiency and patronage it has replicated the same. Privatization of state entities became the launch pad for crony capitalism. What happened to the saviour–the free market?

Africa, rising?

Having followed you two gentlemen for close to a decade now, I cannot help but notice your optimism for Africa. Andrew, you have waxed grand about Africa’s growing middle class–about how Kenya’s new airport road still has monstrous traffic jam despite its expansion to six lanes; how Uganda Revenue Authority now clears 13,000 cars on a monthly basis, never mind that most of these are second (even third!) hand vehicles from Japan. On the other hand Charles has waxed poetic about East Africa being the next big prize, how the recent oil and gas finds in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania could re-draw the geopolitical map in this part of the world. I wish I could see things the way you older people do–I guess that gift comes with age.

But to me Africa hasn’t changed much for us to pop the champagne. Real per capita income is actually lower today than it was in the 1970s after the commodities boom. A recent UN report predicted that by 2015 sub-saharan Africa will account for one third of world poverty, up from one fifth in 1990. Africa’s entire economic output is still less than 2% of the world GDP. Its share in world trade is just under 3%. So what do we have to show for the impressive growth figures?

I think one thing can explain this disparity: investment in agriculture. And for that you need a state that puts its money where its mouth is; a state that deliberately channels a significant portion of capital to the farmers so they can produce more, and this ties in with my main argument about the need to revamp state enterprises (banks, cooperatives, etc). We can learn from our (recent?) close friends, the Chinese. The Agricultural bank in China is the third largest company in the world today, with profits of up to $29.1 billion and $2.6 trillion in assets. The bank was until it’s 2010 flotation owned by the Chinese government.

A 2010 report shows that while global food production since 1970 has risen nearly 150%, in Africa food production since 1960 has fallen by 10%. The same continent that has the fastest population growth has a declining food production. All these young people in Kampala, Nairobi, Kinshasa and Abidjan, on top of looking for jobs, even more importantly, need food. But where is it going to come from? Obbo writing in the Monitor last year summed it up well: that these young people, short of opportunity,  will eat us. Indeed they will. If we do not rethink investment in agriculture.

Charles, you also talk about Uganda being a nice warm country in your concluding remarks in the letter–how this has made us “comfortable” and “lazy”. Not really. Uganda’s soils are less fertile today; the only warming here is global, and it is causing long dry spells, mosquitoes and malaria in places like Kabale (it used to be the Switzerland of Uganda am told); we are not at peace with neighbours. We have no exit strategy in South Sudan. We can only pray Machar doesn’t win. Our adventurism in the region was wrought problems in Al Shabaab. Kampala, that party-till-dawn city, is now teeming with gun-totting, mean-looking counter terrorism police at every government office. Malls are less safe today than Gulu was a few years ago. But the economy is growing.

All said and done, Africa has to do a bit of soul searching and find a solution to the political question: how do we nurture effective and honest government? And who better to start that conversation than you two old men? Otherwise, keeping blood away from Dracula in the blood bank will not solve the problem. In any case the same blood risks getting spoilt in the hands of you the cautious handlers. Find a way of removing Dracula from the blood bank and everyone else can be happy.

Your caring son.

State of my Agnosticism

“Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them… His name was Charles Darwin,” writes biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. “Today the theory of evolution is about as much open to doubt as the theory that the earth moves around the sun, but the full implications of Darwin’s revolution have yet to be widely realised…no doubt this will change in time”. One can sense a degree of hesitancy in Dawkins’ introduction above. Of course, this was ages before he became the now famous rock-the-boat atheist. The ultimate and proximate causation questions of our existence on this planet have occupied great minds throughout human history. From philosophers to preachers to potters.

In this strive to find out why and how we got here, human cultures had to find an ‘explanation’–and religion came in handy. It gave them consolation and comfort; fostered togetherness and (for the time being) satisfied their yearning to understand the reason for their existence. So you find religion ubiquitous in all human societies, from hunter-gatherer communities in the Amazon to bank executives in America. But religion does not really answer the ultimate and proximate questions of our existence; it is a time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking venture. So why do we stick to it?

How and Why are we here

For the past three or so months I have been involved in an SMS exchange over this topic with veteran journalist and founder of the Kampala Express online newspaper, Timothy Kalyegira. Kalyegira thinks Intelligent Design (I.D) gives a “more logically and scientifically clear picture than evolution” And goes on to conclude,

As far as I’m able to see, at least as of February 2015, I believe that 1) the universe came about by intelligent design 2) there are certain mutations within species or life forms, but that mutation does not explain the origin of species, life, the material universe and the laws that hold it together.”

Thank God (#pun) for empirical science it is easy to tear apart Kalyegira’s argument so effortlessly.

One, that the universe came into existence by intelligent design: of course if there was an intelligent being who created all this universe and its complexity, then he himself would have to be even more complex–which would beg the question how he himself came into existence. The second point about mutations leading to the emergence of news species (speciation) might be harder to explain but it can equally be easily debunked. For this we resort to a very important tool in science–the scientific method. In empirical sciences, a scientist constructs hypotheses or theories and tests their validity against experience by observation and experiment.

Let’s imagine all your life you’ve grown up seeing white swans (indeed, most swans are white) and one day you set out to find if indeed your observation (that all swans are white) is true. You move around counting, for several hours or even days and all the swans you see are white. You conclude therefore that all swans are white. But your inference is only true to the extent that you have not yet found a black swan. So if this was your theory, it would be probable but not definitive. This is the problem with induction as a scientific method.

Karl Popper in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery introduces a more fool-proof method–deductive logic. “It must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience,” he says. In otherwords, we have to set up our theories or hypotheses for falsification just to prove their validity. By continuously exposing scientific theories to possible falsification we are able to ascertain the consistency of particular observations (e.g. the example given prior of the white swans) so as to allow for generalised inferences–what you might call laws. All scientific theories, including Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, have gone through this rigorous process. Darwin’s theory in this case has stood the test of time for 150 years now. It still remains the most credible, simple, and conclusive, at least as far as evolution is concerned. Indeed Theodosius Dobzhansky, another prominent biologist, would once remark that “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in light of evolution”.

Going back to our “problem” number two raised by Kalyegira, about mutations not explaining the origin of species: of course ‘mutations’ on their own wouldn’t explain the origin and diversity of species; Darwin’s theory can and, I am afraid, his (Kalyegira’s) intelligent design theory can’t because it fails the jump the first huddle–it cannot be falsified. And here is one place where all such religious arguments grind to a halt.

But that is not to say that religion is an entirely bad thing, it is not. Many religious organisations have built hospitals, donated food items to the starving, mediated conflicts, etc. I happen to have been born in a Catholic-run hospital (on Christmas day 23 years ago…it’s a very long story we shall return to later!); have received my education in schools established by the church…I could go on. But equally so we could find 1,001 evils caused (and advocated for) by religion.

The recent trekking of pilgrims (up to a million of them in number) from across Uganda and neighbouring countries to attend the martyrs day celebrations at Namugungo alongside the proposal by the church to construct a bottling plant for ‘holy’ water at the site where the martyrs were killed speaks of the Janus-headedness of religiosity. Why are people willing to march hundreds of miles, through the scorching sun, in the cold freezing night, amidst the rain, just to visit a site where 22 youthful rebels were killed for disobeying the king? Why not channel this time, effort and dedication to, say, agriculture? The way church lawns are kept neat in this country, you would be shocked it’s the same Uganda where KCCA flower beds are trampled day and night–despite the presence of sanctions against the same. Religion, therefore, seems to offer more to these believers than any other authority, including government. Otherwise, without obvious sanctions (you won’t go to jail if you didn’t pay your tithe!), why would people so religiously contribute to each and every church cause? Here is where religious zealots will invoke the “…man is incomplete and burdened with the Original sin” that his only salvation lies in belief in a deity. Which is of course barely half-true. Rather the answer seems to lie in evolutionary psychology, for a behaviour to survive and be passed on from one generation to another the genes for that behaviour must be favoured by the behaviour itself. So for religion to exist, despite it’s overwhelming costs (prayer can drain lots of time that would be put to better use in farming or siring children), the genes for proclivity to religiosity should benefit from their religious carrier’s way of life. And there’s examples that lay credence to this. If you had two hunter-gatherer groups fighting 5,000 years ago and one group’s deity promises them ‘eternal’ life if they died fighting for a just cause while the other group have no such deity, members of the first group are going to be more brazen in their attack and will be willing to take greater risks–which increases their chances of victory. Group two, with nothing (heavenly) to fight for will easily be decimated. In other words, you could conclude it is group selection that seems to favour a proclivity to religion.

Finally, I know religious debates are a fairly emotive subject in this country, and anything that borders on skepticism of one’s beliefs is termed as ‘sin’. However I bring up the subject because am increasingly getting worried. Worried by a trend that is happening in this part of the world, and on the African continent as a whole. There’s a growing pentecostal wind that has swept across the continent carrying with it a new brand of conservativism and excessive materialism cloaked in the new ‘prosperity’ gospel. You can see it in the vast number of University students and middle class Ugandans who flock to most of these churches on Sunday. Joining them are destitutes, the unemployed and others who believe, if only they prayed so hard and ‘sowed’ enough tithe, they can escape the shackles of unemployment, get visas to go to Europe or Asia for menial jobs. A recent Pew study shows that the population of the different religious groups will increase at a faster rate in sub-saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, partly on account of our fast growing population. This increases potential for religious conflicts especially in places like Nigeria, amongst the predominantly Moslem north and Christian south. Uganda, although far from Nigeria’s religious boiling point, has lately seen pieces of legislation that are aimed at “entrenching morals” in society. Religious leaders are known to have openly advocated for the anti-homosexuality Act, the anti-pornography Act (under which a young woman was recently jailed for a racy music video). The minister for Ethics Simon Lokodo, a Catholic father, has been at the forefront of this morality campaign. Worse still, the parliament and executive have also, for political expediency or other reasons, jumped onto this morality train. Uganda, slowly but surely, seems to be turning into a theocracy, or so it seems. And this threatens our relatively secular life style and could be a hinderance towards scientific advancement. A recent publication showed that amongst minority students in the U.S. one of the major factors determining whether they took up studies in branches of science like evolutionary biology was religion. Minority communities had some of the lowest number of students taking up the subject. The communities were also the most religious. Science has suffered from an overreaching Catholic church before in the Middle Ages, curtailing its progress and keeping humanity in darkness for so long. We hope the same doesn’t happen in Africa today. Sadly, evidence points to the contrary.

Makerere, Agnosticism and Other Stories

The clock had struck midnight as I prepared to write this. It is the end of yet another long and hectic week–something I have gotten used to. Until last night, I had not slept for more than 4 hours in one night, since last Sunday. Why?

Like that traveller rushing to check out at the departures; checking one’s passport, their luggage and boarding tickets, I’m also frantically checking for my “possessions” as I prepare to fly out of this country. I have been resident here all my life; been through a lot and all I can say, it has been a worthwhile experience. But I’ve got to move on. My next destination? Well, I have heard a lot about the new country am headed to–it’s unfettered freedom; how it’s people are less rigid than folks here; the country’s exciting prospects for travellers like me. This country has it’s own lingua franca–money. There’s also new things like “rent”, “bills” and “landlords” that I have not been used in my part of the world. The residents of that country have told me a lot about their experiences with these three. Not a rosy one.

But the prospect of freedom itself is assuring enough that am willing to put up with the rest. However, before I “checkout”, there’s a few papers to sit. And for that exactly I haven’t had chance to rest long enough these days.

University is so overrated

In case you still haven’t caught my “drift”, you’ll have to read on. Some time in 2012 as I prepared to pick my admission letter from Makerere, walking into the gates of this historical university, I was elated that finally I had made it. I had heard a lot about the university growing up, even though recently there had been talk that it’s quality was going down the drain. I had read about Mamdani, Prof. Nsibambi, and other prominent folks at Makerere–“intellectuals” they were reffered to then. I wanted a taste of this “intellectualism”. I wanted to re-live the fiery debates I’d heard about between the late Noble Mayombo and Nobert Mao in the nineties; then Mwenda and co. later on. I wanted to have a feel of the Lumumba solidarity (I was to be attached to the same hall, although as a non-resident) and see the famous blue-and-white main building.

I wasn’t prepared for the disappointment.

Apart from long hours spent in the main library (the open section, Africana, Extension), Saturdays spent reading up J. Z. Young’s The Life of Vertebrates and other materials for my Zoology class, little is there to mention of my first year. I was young. Naive. Disappointed. One day I wanted to change course. The next I didn’t want. Life was boring. All I wanted was to get good grades and move onto my masters. Indeed, I got the grades that first semester.

And then everything changed.

It started with an innocent question in class. Someone asked…I don’t remember the exact question. But the lecturer while going through the answer would make cursory remark of the FDA–the Food and Drug Administration of America. Only that he said, and insisted despite my clarification, that it the “F” stood for “Federal”. How could he? That’s a Google-able fact for crying out loud! One by one, my beliefs in the infallibility of my lecturers started waning. They didn’t have all the answers to my questions. And most were frank enough to say so to our class of 7. That that was what University was about anyway, I would later find out in my own readings.

From then on I “dropped out” of my undergraduate class. I only attended class to know which topic we were covering; if there was coursework to be done. To ask questions. Classes that I deemed “unnecessary” were skipped. I started reading only that which interested me, whether it was Zoology, Chemistry, History or Economics. My modest allowances as a government sponsored student would go into second hand books at Wandegeya. Those I couldn’t find I’d buy from around town or, lately, order through friends abroad. At last I was happier. My grades have not improved since the first semester, neither have they declined. They don’t matter anymore.

” Chemistry is that branch of natural philosophy in which the greatest improvements have been made and may be made; it is on that account that I have made it my peculiar study, but at the same time I have not neglected the other branches of science. A man would make but a sorry chemist if they attended to that department of human knowledge alone.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

The timid, naive and conformist student who entered Makerere in late 2012 had now, in second year, turned into an academic rebel : classes were being skipped, I was always the last to submit coursework and assignments. Yet my friends who aattended all classes, did course work on time did not fare any better. I had learnt one important lesson: at the University, it’s not so much what you’re taught in class but how you can integrate knowledge from different backgrounds.

I sense my lecturers have since realised this and we occasionally joke about my “unseriousness”. Lucky enough I have made good friends of them and they almost certainly know that whenever am not in class am attending to something “more” important at that time. For as long as I did their courseworks in (should say “on time”!) time, I had no problems with them. Most are now ardent followers of the radio show am hosted to weekly and it is uncommon to find us debating politics on the sidelines of a lecture or in their offices.

What have I learnt?

Universities exist to grant you freedom to explore and discover your own self. If you go to the University to get good grades you’ll get them. If you go there to party and drink you’ll pretty much get that. And for the academic rebels, if you play within the rules, you have the freedom to learn and unlearn whatever you plan to. In secondary school you will be spanked for commiting even the most innocent of misdemeanors. Outside school, breaking the rules carries an even greater cost. Only here can you break the rules and get away with it! Which worries me: how will I handle in the next world? Are there spaces for “rebels” like myself out there? I can’t stay here forever, I want to taste the freedom on the other side, but am I ready to sacrifice my rebellious ideals so I can be granted citizenship in that country?

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As a Zoology student I have had chance to travel to some of the most picturesque places in this country

State of my Agnosticism

As young as 15 I had started questioning my very beliefs in a personal god. While in primary school I had landed upon a children’s bible donated by the Samaritans Purse to my younger sister. I read it cover to cover–all the stories from Noah and the Ark, to Jonah and the giant fish, to King David and the rest. All this while, I never really looked at the bible as being any different from other story books I was reading at the time. The stories started getting boring after they were told over and over again. In Sunday school, during church service and on TV. Then I read The Secret Terrorists about 11 years ago, at the height of the Iraq war. It was a collection of a bunch of conspiracy theories about 9/11, Waco bombing, the Catholic church’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how Jesuits run the world. The author would describe world leaders as “alter boys of the Papacy”. A seed of doubt had been planted in my mind. My trips to church would reduce. I occasionally “forgot” to pray before bed and this deity who, we were told, punished those who didn’t follow his ten or so commandments did not “punish” me. My grades in school were as good as before. Nothing had really changed.

At the University my agnosticism would take on a new dimension. I read about religion–it’s origins and how it is a tool for totalitarianism. My encounter with Evolutionary theory in class only served to buttress (this time with solid logical reasoning) the possibility of the existence of life and the world without necessarily invoking a deity. At last my skepticism had been vindicated. I took interest in Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, Stephen Hawking and found myself watching and listening to countless hours of their speeches and debates online. Even today, I have a couple of Dawkins TED talks on my phone which I listen to once in a while.

Being agnostic has in a way released me from the countless dogmas that I had grown up, especially around morality. My take on several topics is now premised mostly on logic and empirical evidence as opposed to “vague” societal constructs like morality. The same has however won me apprehension from the fairer sex. One was bold enough to tell me she couldn’t put up with a non-religious fella. And so we parted ways.

On another day, in a different forum, I will expound on my “struggle” with theism.

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Christopher Hitchen's last book (published posthumously), "Mortality". Chris has influenced my thinking lately

Reading re-Kindled

There are so many tales (the funniest I have left out) I would love to narrate here but space (and time) will not allow. If I wrote them in a book (spoiler: no, I won’t!), I would be hard pressed deciding in which format I would love to have the book published and, may be, read. The debate within literary circles recently has been whether electronic reading devices (e-readers) will one day replace physical books. In Europe and America the debate has been whether Amazon will replace the local bookstore and library. In fact, there’s a growing movement of folks rooting for “Indie” bookstores and libraries within the community that retain the belief that books, reading and libraries are are a “communal” affair. Not sure if such a debate would take root in Uganda today. Don’t tempt me to ask you whether you’ve been to the (only) “national” library, run-down and in dire need of a new coat of paint, on Buganda road.

Anyways, before I digressed, we were talking about the debate in literary circles: e-readers or physical books. I (used to?) belong to the latter cohort. I like the smell of paper books. I love the feel of paper and the euphoria that consumes one when, a few dog ears later, you close the last page of a really good book. Who wouldn’t want to brag about a stack of books in their room? I occasionally brag to friends about where they spend their money–if not in books. Alcohol?

Clearly, you don’t get the same bragging rights swinging around a Kindle with about 200 books, but still weighing the same. I used to think so. So a few weeks ago a friend offered to lend me their Kindle for a trip upcountry. I didn’t want to move around with a 400-pager in a bus, so his proposition was hard to turn down. I took the device. And two books later, I swear it’s the best experience ever! Plus, these things are really cheap. $100 for one on Amazon–I spent that on hard covers in the last year alone. Would I buy one then? No.

The Kindle is an amazing device, easy to use, great screen design and a really good lighting, but that is not enough to woo those of us who belong to the “old-school”. The promise that these devices save on paper and help conserve the environment does not sway me either. So the choice between a Kindle and a paper book is an easy one. I choose the latter.

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Kindle vs. Paper books: I would still go for paper books, although the Kindle is a great device

It will be a while before I return to these streets; I have got to get through emigration (getting into the new country is that hard!). So I’ll see you on the other side. Soon.

Random Ramblings on Uganda

Veteran Monitor journalist, and now Editor at Mail and Guardian Africa, Charles Onyango-Obbo, in his 1997 Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets posits:

“You would say Ugandans have survived [tyranny, suffering, etc] because they are schizophrenic. Able to do a lot of evil in the morning, and to be human and do good in the afternoon”

I would add: Ugandans are some of the most virtuous folks you’ll ever find, if they choose to be. Again, allowed enough time, they can be the most nefarious, vile human beings. The good of it is such traits have helped us to live (and let live) in this mosaic of tribes that Uganda is.

Two or three rather sad events this month are the basis of my conclusion. At the beginning of the month we lost to cancer one of the most gifted news anchors the country has seen, Bbale Francis. The immediate outpouring in the local media, on social media platforms, chat rooms around town, even amongst ordinary folks said a lot about the character of the man. Veteran columnist John Nagenda would spare the last few lines in his Saturday 11 April column to this fallen colossus, who preferred his surname pronounced “Barley”, describing an incident whilst reading the evening news when a snake entered the studios and Bbale, slightly shaken, was calm enough to sign out thus, “Good God! Goodnight.” Such was his graciousness.

A week prior to his demise, a crowd-funding campaign had been started to source funds for Bbale’s treatment abroad. Too bad he didn’t live to see this happen.

Then a week later, whilst on a sojourn up country, I received the unpleasant news of the passing of yet another journalist–the affable Rosemary Nankabirwa, formerly with NTV Uganda. In many ways, her’s was a similar story to Bbale’s. Prior to her death, a campaign on social media (#HelpRosemary) had raised about shs 100m towards covering her medical expenses in Nairobi. Yes, not Mulago but the Aga Khan hospital, Nairobi. That hospital which some have (rather jokingly) said is now Uganda’s national “referral” hospital. In all this we see Ugandans stepping in to help those that are in dire need, something their government has failed at miserably. But then you are forced to ask, why not use this goodwill to fundraise for a fully equipped cancer unit at Mulago?

Every weekend, a family or two in Kampala is meeting to put together funds to send one of their own to India, South Africa or Kenya for specialist medical attention. Many more appeal to the wider public on TV and radio, even the news papers. At every request Ugandans heed to the call and make the contribution. And herein lies the problem.

Societies like ours on the verge of modernising tend to be communalistic. Across the world, those societies that are poor and impoverished have tended to have strong community bonds. With increasing wealth we’ve tended to see a resort to individualism and state socialism for the downtrodden through things like unemployed benefits, food stamps, etc. It is therefore not surprising that family and friends here are quick to step in when one is sick or in dire need of help. This however disincentivises government from doing its job–providing services to its taxpayer population. Where government has not built a hospital or where the drugs in that hospital have been stolen, the family and social network comes in and foots the bill for treatment at a private health facility. In short, our social support structures, whilst providing a safety net, are a hinderance to accountable government.

The indignity that Ugandans have to go through begging the public to help them is the worst thing that can happen to one. You could read it in the speech by Nankabirwa’s mother at the requiem mass today; the family had initially wanted to keep the late news anchor’s health problem out of the public eye, until they couldn’t anymore. A people stripped of dignity are the worst citizens any country will have. Which brings me to a subject raised by the former minister of Finance and academic, Ezra Suruma, in his book Advancing Uganda’s Economy. We need to clear up the mess that our pension sector is and look at ways of ensuring that those who devote their energies towards bettering this country have their future savings secured and thus saved from the indignation of having to watch as their funds are swindled by folks at public service. A vibrant pensions sector, Suruma argues, could in fact stem corruption tendencies by public servants because most embezzle public funds to secure themselves a future after retirement, unsure if their savings will materialise or be enough.

As if to crown an already darkened week, David Ojok, a recent graduate of computer science at Makerere university, was lynched by a mob of fellow students at Nkrumah hall. The story itself bears the horrors of a society that is increasingly resorting to barbarism and seems to have lost all respect for human life. Many have been quick to pass judgement, especially on social media, decrying such savagery by “intellectuals” at Makerere of all places! But am afraid such conclusion is rather shallow. To elevate Makerere to a pedestal, removed from the wider Ugandan society, and use this as basis to judge the acts of a few rogue students is to miss the point. Mob justice is not the preserve of Makerere, it’s a wider societal problem in this country. Everyday on the daily news we’re served a cocktail of grisly images of citizens burning to death suspected robbers; boda boda riders lynching folks they think have stolen their bikes; taxi drivers wanting to lynch a KCCA official for evicting them from a stage, etc. Why should we expect Makerere to act differently?

For David’s parents I reserve my greatest sympathies; to the police and perpetrators, my greatest contempt. It is sad to lose a child, more so if they are David’s age, even worse if they’ve just graduated from the University and have their entire future before them. No amount of explanation will lessen their pain but I hope the police and University can provide some answers.

However, what should occupy the rest of us moving forward is trying to understand the rationality of such seemingly irrational acts. What would drive a bunch of educated, soon-to-graduate university students to such savagery? Does this education really change lives and make civilized men of brutes? If not, are we better off without any at all?

All in all, it is hard to define Ugandan society today. We are the only people, it seems, who can swing between nefariousness and virtuosity with such relative ease that we’ll have forgotten about it the very next morning–we’re schizophrenic, and that exactly is what has kept this motley of tribes together…and one leader in power for so long!

My Country Africa

Today, I’ll take my foot off the pedal and write about something different; something interesting — poetry, and a young lady who, I think, is headed for bigger things.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Lynette. Check out her poem, My Country Africa.

My country Africa

You seem to be known as a country,
Yet you are a home to many,
Signified and dignified by the boundaries drawn by them.
You hold all race,black,white, Indian,
All shades of brown,
You hold all of them on your bed,
As lovingly as a mother.
You are the richest in color,
Plants,animals,water life,
All give you a fresh vibrance,
Yet they seem to know that you,
You are only green and black.

You are the source of food and water,
Human beings exist largely on your bed,
They are the strongest,most intelligent and creative,
You are endowed with natural beauty and resources,
Yet your children cry of hunger,thirst and poverty,
They cry of inflation,no income,unemployment,
They weep of extortion,exploitation and importation
Mummy, what is the matter, children what is wrong?

You are gifted with life,oh you shine,
From the five babies a mother in the West gives birth to,
The old man and his wife hunting in the South,
The gashing white falls you extraordinarily embrace,
To the little boy that admires the aging president in the East,
“I will be like him one day”, he says, now he is 40 years, the president 80,
Yet he still admires,
All this beauty mother,yet we run through terror and sadness,
We exclaim war in our green mama,
We preach the gospel of bad news, bad bad news,
Yet we have and own it all,
Why dear Africa,why?

But we still live on,
We still raise our shapeful heads high,
With the scars on our bodies and faces,
Our dry pockets and empty stomachs,
Our green darkened by black disease,
Full of imports and aid,as we seem not to work,
We are still proud and i love you my country, Africa.

— Lynette Eileen Rugunda (shared with permission).

And here, folks, I have asked this poet friend that we exchange places for a month–I try out my hand at poetry while she delves into my musings. She’s yet to accept the challenge. I hope she does…some day.