Of Dogs and Fleas, Or a Letter to an Old Comrade

Ituri, 21 January, 2018.

Dear M.B.,

It has been a while since we exchanged correspondence, I hope all is well.

My reason for writing to you is, last night I had a strange dream that I need you to help me make sense of. I know Banyoro are good at interpreting dreams and you make good mediums between us mortals and the spirits of our ancestors.

It was the most strange of dreams. In it I saw a big dog, a Rukamba,  the biggest I had ever seen. The dog’s body was in an awkward twist as it tried to bite at its own tail. It kept straining its neck to reach the tail but it couldn’t. It seemed the more it strained, the shorter the tail grew, and the more the frustration on the dog’s face.

There was another strange occurrence. The dog could talk, you know, like humans. Like you and I.

Amidst its twists and turns, the big dog let out a cry: “If only I could bite off this tail! It is the cause of my flea infestation!”

It doubled-down on its effort to bite its own tail, this time twisting its spine into a near coil, but the dog’s teeth could barely touch the last hairs of the tail.

Frustrated, the dog gave up. Momentarily.

Then something even stranger happened: the dog’s tail grew a mouth and started to speak too. I kid you not!

Chaos, I tell you.

In its defense the tail retorted, “but I have always worked diligently to ward off many fleas…”

“My flexibility, strength, and length and ability to reach every part of the body, except the head, has kept many fleas at bay,” continued the tail.

Visibly angry, the rest of the dog merely shook its head and paused a few seconds, or minutes, I don’t really recall the exact duration.

Then the big dog started the strange twist-dance with its tail again. It spun the whole of its body, anti clockwise then clockwise, in a bizarre twist that must have left its insides hurting! Still, it could not reach or bite the tail.

Now weary, the voice of the big dog grew hoarse. Where it used to bark, it now growled and grumbled. It grew restless. The tail meanwhile also shrunk in size before my very eyes. It’s hairs grew thin. It grew shorter. It wagged slower than before.

The only thing that seemed to grow in size were the fleas. From small microscopic beings to the size of a well-fed housefly!

The giant fleas now sucked at the big dog with reckless abandon. The tail, too short to reach the rest of the body, preferred to keep in the war of words with the head of the dog.

Their growls now became even more intense. The big dog spun like a whirlwind. Left. Right. Then back. It was a sight to behold.

Then without warning, a big storm blew low and hard, taking with it the big dog in my dream.

Taken. Caput. No more.

The big dog was gone. In its place was left a litter of beautiful puppies—big-eyed and with moist snouts, they were the most beautiful puppies I have ever seen.

Then I awoke to blinding light coming through my bedroom window. Someone had drawn the curtains, and turned up the radio volume.

My heart was racing. I had a cold sweat. My head hurt. I was confused. I was scared.

And playing on the radio was Jimmy Cliff’s 1993 rendition of John Nash’s famous “I Can See Clearly Now” song. You remember it from the movie Cool Runnings?

(Ooh…)
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sun-shining day …

Such a strange dream, don’t you think?

As soon as I regained some of my cool, I sat up in my bed and penned you this letter. As you read it, I am still in my pyjamas. I may not leave my bedroom today until I know the meaning of this strange dream.

Sincerely yours,

K.T.

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Uganda: The Kids are Disruptive, And It’s a Good Thing

What do two young men, barely in their mid twenties, have to do with the authorities in Kampala being in a very foul mood lately? So much so that, in a space of four years, the two would be arrested a combined forty times – ten arrests shy of Opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s own record! Meet Uganda’s self-acclaimed political activists, Wabulembo Robin and Brian Atuhaire.

Brian has been in and out of the police cells so often that when I call him for this article, I joke about which cell he is currently being held in. He is a free man, for now. Wabulembo, too, has been out for a while after he had been picked up for unleashing yellow pigs onto the Kampala’s streets.

And they are not about to give up.

In September last year, as the sun set down on chilly Nairobi’s Westlands suburb, I sat down with a Nairobi-based Ugandan journalist to pick up on a conversation we had had months earlier about Uganda’s youthful population. Kalinaki, in a Daily Monitor article, had expressed disappointment at Uganda’s youths who “carry the manila paper of poverty placards with pride as tickets to the vanilla flavour of monetary reward”. This, while comparing them to the out-going  Septuagenarian generation who in their twenties “dreamt in the violent but progressive colours of revolution.” Now, Kalinaki can be quite acerbic and embellishing in his writings, but here he had a point: young people today seem to have lost some of that revolutionary fervour that characterized the generations that preceded them.

While the twenty-something-year-old Museveni was reading Franz Fanon and frothing at both sides of the mouth with Marxist ideals, the only froth most young people will get to see today is that out of a glass of beer!

But this should be a cause for celebration, not worry, I will explain.

You see, while most observers firmly fixed their eyes on Uganda’s (and indeed Africa’s) growing youth unemployment and disenchantment with government, they missed a very interesting mini-revolution that has been taking place for a while now – birthed by the expanding broadband connectivity and social media. For years, away from the incompetence that defines the public sector in most of Uganda, a few smart young people, ensconced in innovation hubs funded by tech-philanthropists, hit away at their computers as they sought to  create the next “app”. And, boy, did we see them; from an Uber-esque service for your laundry, to one that would detect malaria – without the need to have yourself pricked.

All these groundbreaking innovations were birthed on a single floor in a small storied building located in Kampala’s Kamwokya suburb.

For a while government was too busy clobbering its opponents to realise the groundswell of optimism and creative freedom places like HiveColab had brought.

Not until social media became an important tool in the recently concluded elections.

Most of these tech-prenuers, terrified by the teargas and violence being meted out on opposition sympathizers, joined the campaign from the safety of their smartphones – through platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Most of the applications that they were building found use in the political campaigns – as interactive platforms for the different candidates (popularly known as “bots”) to “populate” their social media pages and drive traffic; online radio stations for candidates; and databases where candidates could keep track of their agents at polling stations.

Technology had at last emerged as the closest attempt at a “leveled” playing field for the incumbent’s opponents. In fact, according to a fly on the wall, the decision by government to block access to social media and mobile banking services was partly due to concerns by authorities that an opposition party had planned to use the mobile money platform to send facilitation for its poll agents across the country. The party had also built an elaborate online platform where voters would in real time be able to report electoral malpractices and incidents, if any, of violence.

At the heart of this “disruptive” innovation are young people like my friend Samson Tusiime: young, ingenuitive, ambitious and with the smarts to match! Meeting a few days before the elections, he mused about the role technology would play in the upcoming polls; how he had built a platform that would track in real time incidents of election violence from across the country.

“I wonder how you guys are going to steal the election this time,” he quipped to a friend standing besides us at the bar. The fellow sipped the last of his beer and left. Almost in a hurry!

It wasn’t to be though as the idea was successfully nipped in the bud by government, to its credit.

So when I read yesterday that Samwyri – as we fondly refer to him – had been picked up from his home by plain clothed officers, on charges of planning a demonstration in Jinja, my heart sank. A line had been crossed, I felt.

A cursory look at Uganda’s body politic reveals a growing trend of intolerance – peppered by dogmatism and religious zealotry.

“This creeping intolerance has also slipped into our political sphere,” I narrate to another friend on the eve of the president’s swearing-in; social media sites such as Facebook and Whatsapp had been blocked again. I tell him how I have had to install a VPN to get around the government imposed “firewall”. The professorial type always, he argues that what we are seeing is in fact a product of the shrinking political space within the NRM – after they expelled their long-serving Secretary General and de facto number two, Amama Mbabazi – and that the ruling party’s irritability and paranoia can only get worse with time.

But my own reading of the tea leaves paints a rather more optimistic picture from this fight over internet freedoms. The country is on the verge of a generational and cultural shift. So what we are seeing as anarchy, growing government censoriousness and radicalness is a reaction to new cultural forces that are sweeping hard, low and fast enough to threaten the very foundations of what is considered “tradition” – servitude, religiosity and obedience to authority. In short, “tradition” represents the status quo, a coterie that, according to Rajat Neogy, “spells out the don’ts in large capitals and is vigorously intent on the things that cannot or must not be done”. Yet for all the effort in preserving itself, a don’t-culture is always indicative of the dying phase of any culture, a culture at its last gasp fighting for dear life. Uganda today would seem to perfectly fit that description.

If there is anything you should be praying for, it is that the kids – Samwyri, Wabulembo, Atuhaire, even Sheba Karungi! – continue shaking that tree that Uganda’s don’t-culture is. While they risk falling off the branches and breaking their arms, the fruits from their shaking are more important for Uganda. Pray still, that many more join them, until the tree can take it no more…and gives way.

Go kids!

 

 

 

Letter to a Kampala Friend

Nairobi, 20 September, 2015.

Dear D.A,

I hope you are doing well my brother. It’s been a while since we last talked…oh, am sorry I changed numbers. But my old number should be back on some time next week. The last time I met you in your magnificent office at the imposing twin towers, I didn’t get time to talk to you at length about your party. You seemed to be busy handling complaints on behalf of Mzee–did the other man from Mbale/Sironko secure the RDC position?

And that is what I admire about you my brother: your ability to tolerate BS. The world, my world, is not generously sprinkled with such characters. Perhaps it’s something that has rubbed off your boss. How do (seemingly) intelligent people like you and, before you, my good friend Morris manage in an atmosphere so hostile to logic and understanding?

Anyways, it is a question I think will better be answered in person. How about tea next week when I come back?

I have been off the Ugandan news scene for a couple of weeks now but I endeavour to follow the on-goings. However, I couldn’t quite believe my ears when I heard that you people (excuse my plurality here; but you are still NRM, non?) sat and decided to spread the “gift” of sole candidature to the rest of the CEC executive, dropping young people like Hakeem Lukenge and Odrek. I have been following the latter’s writings and campaign in the press for quite a while now. I must say I saw this coming. Do you young people still think they’ll come a time when the old guard will simply pack up and leave office for you? That cabal?

I would like to disabuse you of that notion my brother.

And I hope in the future you will remember the words of small men (in size, and nothing else) like us who attempted to prevail over you while you were hounding out your party Secretary General last year, and claiming that it was a step towards “sweeping out” the old guard. Well, tell you what, we are having the last laugh. Aren’t we?

That party you claim to serve my brother is an exclusive club of old folks brought together by different circumstances almost forty years ago. Some were naive young people from the university, others were running from the law while many just enjoyed the others’ company. But now they are joined at the hip by a singular desire to stay. You are marginal players…if players at all, in that organization’s running. The ideology you so claim to profess you know very little about. Which is why the old guard must have enjoyed the exchanges between your two young turks – Morrison and Odrek – in the papers. Talk to Kajabago Ka’Rusoke,he seems to understand these things better than anyone else.

I don’t know why you people are so worried about succession in that your party. Your old folks seem to think the laws of biology do not apply to them, like, indeed, most national laws. But like my friend Hakeem (I have met him a couple of times. Knowledgeable fella that one!) said on the news last evening, this river cannot be stopped. No amount of bunking of the river banks will stop the river from bursting.

But you are not alone.

On March 15, 44 BC, Gaius Julius Ceaser lay dying from 23 stab wounds at Pompeii’s theater in Rome. In his will he asked his grandnephew Octavian to succeed him, overlooking his wife Cleopatra (with whom he had a son) and friend Marc Antony. Octavian (who would later be called Augustus, the first emperor of Rome) was clearly an underdog but he quickly re-organized Julius Ceaser’s private army to defeat Antony and Cleopatra by 42 BC. He went on to win favour with the Roman Senate, ruling as emperor for two decades.

However, for all his achievements, Augustus failed to do one thing: handle succession. After Augustus, the empire hurtled to decline; (mis)managed by erratic and semi-deranged rulers like Nero and Caligula.

The Roman case therefore provides us with some of the earliest examples of what can happen to a country/institution if the process of succession is not managed well. Often if leaders leave it too late, or keep postponing the decision, the inevitable – problematic succession – happens. And if the same affected mighty Rome, we can only wonder what will befall your beloved party…and country.

These are debates you young people should be involved in. Not hopping from State House to Kololo and carting away groceries from both camps.

And before I put this to rest, my brother, I must say I am enjoying my stay here. It is amazing the pace a country can move at when reform happens, when new constitutions guaranteeing individual freedoms are passed and there’s change (or semblance of change) at the top. Mzee Kibaki, whom Moi chastised as “adui wa maendeleo”, might have had his shortcomings but he set this country on the correct path. He made these two boys’ work a little easier. Turns out even people who’ve been previously in bed with government, given opportunity, can cause tremendous change.

I can’t help but draw eerie comparisons with Uganda and the fight between your party and it’s former SG.

Often I catch my cynical self imagining that maybe the former PM could do a Kibaki and upset some people who have long thought they were the very best we could have, and what we haven’t achieved under them we will never have achieved anyway. The strange thoughts that my mind is always conjuring!

I have got to go. That tea-do should be coming next week–and don’t stand me up this time. Plus, I could have carried you a few reads from Nairobi (I know you love Castro) but the way our shilling is being battered here, my tiny stipend is almost done. And people here are saying your election is to blame for the Shilling’s woes. They are wrong, aren’t they?

Sincerely,
KT.

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

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.

What can you do for your country? So much, if…

Writing in his The Last Word column last week, Andrew Mwenda did touch an area that has been a subject of debate recently – whether citizens or government should be to blame for the apparent mess that this country is. From his Nightly news segment, “News Night,” to the Friday KFM hot seat programme Mwenda has found every opportunity to blame the citizenry and dismiss their (sometimes genuine) complaints as mere heckling and frustration. I disagree with the old man.

Firstly, the title of the article (“What can you do for your country?”), paraphrasing John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 inaugural speech, could not have been any more inapt. The speech, delivered on a chilly January day, by a youthful president who had just won an election by the closest of margins, in a country at the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, was meant to both inspire and capture the imagination of America and the rest of the world in what was then the nuclear age. The same, am afraid, cannot be said of Andrew’s attempt. 

I have always been an advocate of local agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices towards managing (sometimes locally originated) problems. Whether it is gay activists fighting for recognition, political parties seeking more democratic space, I have always argued the drive for change should be driven, first, from within. However, “agency” is a function of something else, “structure” – those factors that influence, determine or limit agency. If we focus so much on the few trees that individual efforts (however well-intended they may be) are, we risk missing the forest that the structural bottlenecks to these efforts are.

Individual effort and agency has it’s own limits. Two weeks ago when Andrew raised the example of Mr Silver Mwesigwa after the Friday Hot seat show, another panelist, Charles Odongth’o, shared with us an anecdote from his village about a group of youths who came together, bought solar panels and connected tens of homes to solar power. Next they knew, UMEME deployed it’s officials to disconnect the residents because, apparently, it is supposed to be the “sole” supplier of power. Clearly these young men were reacting to an immediate need – power – as a result of state inefficiency but found their efforts limited by “structure”. Going by Andrew’s statement, these shouldn’t express their discontent rather they should “organize” and “do something” about their plight without waiting for government. But how?

Andrew finds easy meat in members of Uganda’s social media community whom he labels as idle and having “a lot of time on their hands”. Well, here I will give a personal story. For the last one year a group of friends and I have been part of a social media charity drive, #Iam4040, the brain child of one of the most passionate and inspiring young people this country has seen, Esther Kalenzi. Through their efforts on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter the group has raised funds to construct dormitories, repaint orphanages and address a wide range of social problems that are, directly or indirectly, the result of state dysfunction. Clearly someone on social media is doing something to change the situation.

At one of the #Iam4040 events last year, we visited a home for cancer patients (mostly children) run by another amazing young man using his own personal savings, repainted the premises and donated a few items to the children and their parents. It was while at this home that an interaction with one parent from Kween district whose daughter was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system common in children) left me perplexed. He narrated to us the trouble he went through at the (only) national cancer institute in Mulago; having to wait days before he could see the doctors, and on seeing the doctor, being told that the facility does not have enough beds to accommodate them and that they had to seek accommodation elsewhere in Kampala (this is a father who had just travelled from Kween to Kampala for the first time). Luckily the Akiba children’s home came to his rescue – and to the rescue of many such stranded tax-paying Ugandans who have been turned away from the national referral hospital.

Sincerely, old man Mwenda, in your wisdom, what could a bunch of mostly unemployed University students do to salvage such a situation? Crowd-fund to build a national cancer institute, since government has failed?

In the same speech president J. F. Kennedy would remark, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. If we cannot help the poor in society, and try to assuage government responsibility towards their plight, we are assembling the firewood that will burn the very tenets that a government should be built on, i.e service to its citizens. For citizens in the Leviathan, according to Hobbes, agree among themselves to submit to some man, or assembly of men, voluntarily, on confidence to be protected by him against all others. If the Leviathan (state) cannot serve its cardinal purpose it ceases being one and then we will be left to the mercy of nature.

In the same vein I’ll say, yes, neither Muntu, Besigye, Mao and certainly not Museveni are going to change Uganda single-handedly without an organized citizenry. But the same should not be used to assuage their responsibility towards doing something. Like Andrew has always argued, you can only make a pot with the clay you have…well, how come previous “potters” like Obote made better pots (viz. health care, education, etc) using the same clay? It might not be the clay that is the problem after all.

In as much as disagree with Andrew, I acknowledge the importance of active citizen involvement  towards bettering this country for posterity. Again, to quote Kennedy in that inaugural speech, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this [NRM] administration, nor even in our lifetime…” But let us start somewhere; by recognising the limits of personal initiative (agency) in the face of a wider systemic dysfunction.

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”!