Friday, December 29, 2017

Uganda: the nation, the people, and the church. Is biblical Christianity succeeding? A recollection of my personal experiences in Uganda over the past ten years. Part1.

I want to admit the difficulty of writing these thoughts for a number of reasons. First of all, I never thought that I'd do such a thing when I first entered Uganda for studies. Secondly, it is impossible to write about my experience without evoking though-provoking feelings and thoughts, and without touching very difficult subjects requiring thorough and more specific research than just an experience. It is also important to realise that some of these thoughts and opinions could easily put any writer in trouble with political leaders in this region. Thirdly, I'd rather be a peace maker than a confrontational writer. However, although it is impossible to tell you about my life without talking about Christianity, and even harder to talk about Christianity without giving examples that will, in one way or another, displease many of the people I came into contact with --and who have tremendously contributed to my life, I realise that there is no other way but to pen my experiences down to celebrate the blessings I've received from various people, and most importantly to remember God's providential hand in my life.

Lastly, after ten years without living with my siblings and my parents, I was reminded by circumstances that after all is said and done, they are all that I have in this world. Since July 2016, a strange medical condition that doctors still haven't yet diagnosed one year later seriously affected my health. I could not find even the slightest help from the friends that I have lived with, worked for, and worked with in the past ten years, just when I need help the most from them (with the exception of very few seemingly unlikely, due to their own poverty). Therefore, I feel I owe it to my Dad and Mom (for their unwavering faith and tireless work in the church for decades), and my siblings (for their exemplary love, unity, and self sacrifice) to record my thoughts to celebrate their impact on my life this past decade. I am everything I am today because of you and I am thankful.

Leaving Kenya
In August 2007, exactly ten years ago, I set on a course to Uganda, having lived in Nairobi for eight years. I packed every thing I owned, gave away what I couldn't travel with, and quit my catering and hotel management course and a promising carrier. I don't think I understood what I was saying when I stood in front of the church at the Free Methodist Church, Karen, and said: “change is inevitable. A time comes when we must change...” you see, I was only thinking of the difficulties the worship team was likely to experience in my absence. I'd been their music director and main instrumentalist for over a year. Now I was leaving all my friends for Kampala to study the6ology at African Bible University. Now I know the statement was more for me than it was for the congregation.

A year before that, I'd started praying for an opportunity to go to a Bible school. In fact I'd prayed for that when I turned 20. I wanted to live my life for something very significant, say being the president of my country. I'd realised, however, that politics in the great lakes region are not something that a Christian should venture into for the simple reason of being patriotic. In this volatile region, especially in the 90's decade, terror, death, massacres, tribal wars and militarism, and pogroms dominated the political scene. Much has changed since then and the East African region has seen some level of stability. I told myself that if God was calling me into politics, then I needed to go to a Bible school first to have all my intellectual faculties and Christian living dominated by the Bible. I knew I needed more of the Bible for myself in order to step up for others in the leadership arena.

So when a friend of my father's told me about African Bible College in Malawi, I did not hesitate. I applied. During the same period of time, the ABC, inc. had recently opened a new campus in Uganda. I applied, travelled to Uganda for an interview in May 2007, then returned to Nairobi to prepare my exit. I was excited. Coming to Uganda was indeed the greatest change to happen in my short life on this planet. With a few challenges that I overcame, finally on 2nd Sept 2007 orientation at African Bible University began and opened for me a new era of surprises, shock, and lots of happy times in the Pearl of Africa.

Consistent studies have shown that Ugandans are the happiest people in Africa. There is no other place I'd rather go to in Africa to live a quiet and simplified life as in Uganda (outside Kampala of course) From beautiful natural endowment of touristic sites along the Nile and volcanic mountains to the endless celebratory concerts at the beaches of Lake Victoria while feasting on fresh deep-fried tilapia, Uganda truly is a nation full of beautiful life. Just like any other African nation, Uganda and Ugandans are praised for their hospitality and warmth. Almost every white person I've spoken to in Uganda says they love the Ugandan people and the beautiful nature. Having travelled to many tourist destinations all across Uganda and visited the famous Lake Bunyonyi islands where Winston Churchill landed during the second world war, it is hard not to agree with him that from that view that Uganda truly is the pearl of Africa. Uganda is a very rich nation insofar as it's natural beauty and agricultural resources are concerned. In fact it is said that the Israeli government imported Ugandan soil for its agricultural projects in the desert.

As a matter of fact, Uganda has made a name for being one of those countries that gave hope to America and Europe that a new dawn was coming in Africa not so long ago. We must praise Uganda for achieving some level of stability that many of its neighbours like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo can only dream about. I will write about a number of experiences that showed me different sides of the Uganda's economy, society, the political system, and of course the Church. However, rather than dwelling on the obvious facts that both foreigners and locals write about, the good things, I will speak especially about my many disappointments because that's what I experienced often. My objective is not to deny the obvious successes but to be as frank as possible about what I experienced in the past ten years, which, I believe is the reality that most ordinary people face daily at different levels.

Business and Politics
I think Uganda is the best example of both the success and the failure of Africanism. It's a success because the nation has forged a unique way of organising its economy in a model that is neither western, nor eastern. Uganda is singnitory to most international trities including being a member of the Organisation of Islamic States. Traditional kings were reinstated and they command more loyalty than the president. Everyone, everything, anyone, and anything from anywhere and everywhere in the world is welcomed. It is simply a functioning economy for everybody and everything that can be sold to the people. Both rich and poor can fit in, example being the iconic street food industry (Rolex, chappati, mchomo, katogo, tea). So I call it the best success of the postcolonial Africanism in all its multifaceted realities. It is a failure because it has not solved the poverty that is rather obvious everywhere, but instead created a pseudocolonial mafia-like class of rich aristocrats and businessmen who can do anything to get rich and get away with it. There is so much to praise Uganda's leadership for, but there is still so much to pay attention to urgently.

As in other African states, I feel our leaders have set wrong priorities and they have blinded people with alcohol and false peace, for there can never be true peace, human rights, and dignified living where poverty and mismanagement of resources are the bread on which the ruling technocrats and greedy carrier politicians thrive. Uganda exhibits a form of success achieved by letting everyone do whatever they want to survive as opposed to an economy where the rule of law, proper management and structured growth are more likely to translate a nation's economic prosperity into proper infrastructure and functioning institutions. Just as the streets are chaotic, so are nearly every sector of the economy and politics.

Uganda’s president is remembered to have said (in response to criticism from Rwanda) that if one pocesses many cattle, then their home is unsurprisingly dirtied with dung. If one is poor, however, their home is always clean. Indeed Uganda's booming business in agricultural produce and all kinds of merchandize from China and second hand imports is evidenced by the great amount of trash spread almost everywhere. In fact, it only seems fair to say that in Uganda the beauty is in the details because very little of it is seen at first sight (besides the amazing natural attractions).  The chaotic scenes on the mostly dirty streets of Kampala are the first memory you make. the few paved roads in the only city, Kampala, and in other towns are dusty and dirty. When it rains all the soil ends up in the drainage if ever any canalisation was done by the constructors. Floods are a common occurrence as though there were no road engineers to design proper bridges and reliable canalization. When it’s sunny the wind, people, and cars wake the sand and dust to cover rooftops and everything around. Coupled with an absolutely chaotic and totally unplanned housing everywhere in the country, I was discouraged by my first sight of the physical Kampala.

The real estate business is booming but it is far from solving housing issues for the middle class. It is very hard to find a good house, almost impossible to find one without a broker. It is even lucky to find a reliable broker, not a trickster. When you find one, you’re never sure that he will show you the house you want before showing you five more of lower standards to increase on his commission. When he finally shows you a good house, it is either expensive in the rich estates or it is in a slummy neighbourhood (the general state of human habitat in urban areas). If you’re luck to find one in a good place with a tolerable road, there is no running water or you have to rely on water tanks and. It’s a blessing if you find a house with plumbing, and better yet, to find it where there is a latrine besides proper plumbing. I do not know the official figures, but it is rather obvious that proper sanitation is but a dream to ordinary Ugandans. Although Uganda boasts of vast quantities of water from its numerous sources, even the capital Kampala is terribly plagued by lack of running water all year around. Electricity too is as unreliable as anything else although Uganda produces so much electricity and has tremendous potential for hydropower projects.

Manufacturing is growing but so much is left to desire. Most products sold on the Ugandan market are fakes or very poor quality. It is better to buy imported second hand than new products from china particularly. There is a common joke, a friend told me, that when Ugandan businessmen go to Dubai and China to buy products, they order for grades 4 and 5 or much lower standards instead of grades 1 and 2 which are left for Europe and America. Many years of mismanagement and political intrigue based on regionalism, militarism, and tribalism have seen most parastatals close doors or they were sold by government to proxy companies. During independence era, Uganda was known for its cotton exports. Now the country imports nearly 100% of its cotton based products. Anything you buy in Uganda is, in one way or another not worthy the money you spent on it, unless your bargaining skills are excellent. Value is in the objective for which you buy stuff, not the stuff you buy. “I am a Christian" is the passcode for interaction, particularly for those who want to blind you to their schemes. Names like “JESUS LOVES ME SUPERMARKET" are all too common a feature just as is the paganism practiced by the owners of many such enterprises. A Christian name does not translate to Christian living and trustworthiness by any means. It is also said that most business buildings in  Kampala are owned by Muslims who charge Christians double the rent they charge fellow Muslims.

The markets are a jungle that you better adapt to or get rich enough to afford supermarket shopping. Interestingly enough, the best quality of anything apart from few is found in the second hand imported goods markets. However, every time you plan to buy anything, prepare yourself to the fact that you will be cheated or given fake products. Battering is the system. Although battering is common all around the world, I find that in Uganda it is on a level of its own. Prices are shot to as far as three or four times the actual price of an item. It is impossible in many cases to know the real monetary value of what you buy outside the supermarket. Sometimes even the supermarkets and stores manipulate the prices dubiously.

After I’d been in Kampala for a few months I went to the famous Owino market where you find almost any household items supposedly at cheaper prices. Before the recent attempts by government to develop the market into storey buildings, it was a sea of people packed into a maze of timber and plastic shades in no more than perhaps four acre of land, with barely any space for the clients, and of course very poor sanitation. Every little inch was used either to hang cloths on some makeshift wooden structures, or to pile everything on a table kind of structure, or simply on the ground. Rain was unwelcome anytime. It is believed that about a million people walked through it each day. It is hard to choose whom to buy from because everyone is calling you, others pulling you by your hand insisting that you buy from them. I was bothered by the strange practices but eventually I got used to holding my anger inside my belly, not on my tongue.

After my friend Collins Kayongo had helped me to do my first ever shopping in Uganda, a couple of shirts and a tie, now I needed football boots. I went very early as I was advised, so as to buy while the sellers are still opening their huge bales and piles. I found one that I liked and tried to bargain to my best ability. Later that evening I showed up at the football pitch to try it out. No sooner than had I begun to play one shoe’s studs sunk inside the sole. The end of the shoes had come much sooner than I’d hoped for. As it turns out, I was only showed the good shoe while the pair was hidden so I had very little time to inspect it. At that very moment, Uganda lost my heart.

Many similar situations happened in every thing that I bought. From old ladies tricking me and selling me bad vegetables, to young men and a restaurant selling to me grilled tough beef chunks in the name of grilled goat meat (skewed grilled goad meat is a favourite street food). From mechanics stealing my car’s AC pulley pump to a young man selling to me a fake Nivea roll-on; From taxi operators refusing to give me my due balance, to landlords refusing to refund me my money twice. And the police could do nothing about it, let alone the courts. Of course these things can happen anywhere in the world, but this is about my experience in Uganda. My most favourite and most unbelievable trick was my experiences with the butchers.

I find it intolerable and inexcusable that in this century, Ugandan butcheries still hang meat in the windows while cars and pedestrians paint them with dust from the famously dusty roads. Infact one of the things that attracted me to Kenya the first time I set foot there was its clean and innovative butcheries. Three times I asked different butchers to give me boneless meat, which is not a common ask, and each time they accepted, and even charged me a extra shillings. As a chef, I buy meat according to the cuts I intend to get. Most Ugandans don’t because the most common dishes are stews. The first time I was puzzled as to why and how the butcher still managed to hide a bone in the meat. Eventually I learnt. While the butcher has very attractive boneless cuts, he also keeps near the weighing scale bones and small chunks of fats. So I observed as he was about to put the good one on the tray, fixing my eyes on his hand. As his left hand picks the meat to weight it, he gestures to me with the right hand pointing to another not-so-attractive steak. “what about this one?” He asks me. As I turn to look at it, he picks the fatty chunks with his fingers, hiding them under the choice steak. After balancing out the scale, he then slides the meat into a plastic bag, still keeping the nice peace on top for your eyes. Three times I discarded no less than a quarter of what I had bought at an extra charge hoping it was a good deal.

Ten years after my first real experiences of the ugandan life, I still haven't understood why such thievery is rampant and tolerated among butchers and the society is seemingly ok. Sadly, I’ve come to understand that this “man eat man" view of business is representative of a wide section of businesses in Uganda. Whichever way you look at it, the philosophy seems to be: “invest as little as possible to maximise as much as possible”. Apart from the upper-end malls and businesses targeting white people and the very rich, much of the rest leaves so much to desire. One time I bought a phone charger which never worked at all. The market is flooded with fake cables, fake phones, fake pens, substandard clothes apart from second hand and the very expensive ones. Fake bottled water, fake processed foods, fake spare parts for all machinery, etc. On one hand these products sell because that is what people can afford. On the other, it is because such are the only products they are given. But worst of all, it is unbelievable that the government pays a blind eye (or is incapable of doing anything) while fake products are imported and sold in the name of genuine ones.

I am afraid that our African leaders have made our people to believe in wrong priorities. Coffee, sugarcane, and cocoa instead of turning locally grown and traditionally consumed food crops into cash crops; Borrowing money for roads instead of for water, electricity, sanitation infrustructue, and environmental planning and management (infrustructure almost always refers to roads and barely hydropower but never the most basic infructure in the health sector and sanitation); Spending billions on controversial elections while there are no hospitals and the few existing ones are barely equipped; paying billions to ever bulging cabinets (ministers and technocrats) and states houses' budgets while school teachers go for months without receiving their meagre salaries; depending on the so called expats and countless NGO while the very children we educate run away from their homeland to be once again enslaved by arabs, to be despised and killed in India, China, and Thailand, to bow down to and enrich the colonials, for lack of opportunities or for being undervalued (and therefore undermining our labour force). Uganda is the best example of this African conundrum because it is also known for the exodus of nurses and doctors to other countries although it needs them most.

To be continued