Why Uganda is still the Pearl of Africa

A highway from Kampala to Entebbe. Notice the real estate boom. [XN Iraki, Standard]
It was Winston Churchill who labelled Uganda the pearl of Africa in 1907. The main reason could have been the source of River Nile and the country’s location among the many lakes, coupled with variety of vegetation and people.

But there could have been emotional reasons too. It is a country where one feels home away from home. It is not clear if Britons who lived in Uganda had the same  sentimentality like those who lived in Kenya and had to leave only after a protracted war with Mau Mau. Did Uganda have its Happy Valley?

Uganda and Tanzania did not fight for their freedom like Kenyans. Could that explain why Kenyans became such hard-nosed capitalists? Did they feel they were now like Britons after the liberation war? Or was it deliberate by Britain to create a future class of consumers?

Colonialism has been looked at through the wrong side of the telescope. Think again: Why did Britons ensure there was land consolidation in central Kenya, yet many other parts of the country are yet to be adjudicated?

It was an economic strategy to subdue the freedom agitators. By making individual land ownership part of central Kenya culture, the sense of community was muted. Ever wondered why land consolidation took place in the middle of Mau Mau war? What was so urgent about it?

SEE ALSO :Uganda economy up 11pc after rebasing

By ‘forcing’ individualism, the bedrock of Mau Mau was shaken. Echoes from that era still reverberate in this region.

Uganda and Tanzania did not go through such trauma, therefore they retained their sense of community and culture. They have to some extent kept at bay the extremes of capitalism. Maybe I am not keen enough but I haven’t seen Kibras and Mathares in Uganda.

I had not been to Uganda for about five years until last week when I attended a conference at the Makerere University Business School. The Operations Research Society of East Africa conference, in its 15th year, is co-hosted by three of East Africa‘s top universities - Nairobi, Makerere and Dar es Salaam. It is one the few initiatives that keep the spirit of East Africa alive.

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The East African Community, beyond occasional political meetings, is too quiet and more activities are needed. We probably talk more about the US, China or South Africa than about our neighbours. There should be more trade and student exchange among the countries.

Why can’t the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service include a few slots in other East African universities or for East Africans? Why do we find it right for a student to go all the way from primary to university in the same locality?

SEE ALSO :Uganda cracks whip on human trafficking

Does it surprise you that those men and women who went to University of East Africa - by then with campuses in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania - are still calling the shots in both public and private sectors? That exposure can’t get a substitute.

I found Uganda has built an expressway from Kampala to Entebbe but, curiously, I was told no matatus are allowed. Like Thika Road, lots of economic activities particularly real estate are doing well  along the road - which  appears Chinese built. We still have jams around Kampala but that is a step in the right direction. Beyond the expressway, our roads seem to be scoring fairy well.

Entebbe, which hosts the major airport, has another distinction; homes converted into hotels. I wonder why Kiambu can’t do the same. Why is Entebbe more vibrant than Kisumu, both on the shores of the same lake?

Homely place

Uganda is still welcoming, homely. Whether you are talking with Ugandans or sipping Waragi  or Nile Gold Lager, there is something alluring about Uganda. To prove that, I took a trip to Kampala though the conference was at Entebbe. With old friends, we sat and reminisced till midnight when I took Uber back to Entebbe.

SEE ALSO :Uganda cracks whip on trafficking

One attraction to Uganda is security; you feel safe wherever you are. Why can’t  we make our cities and towns as such? Would that not attract more investors  and tourists?  What happened to the 24-hour economy? And who told Kenyans that tourists want to stay in five-star hotels? They have better hotels in their home country. Why not give them something authentically Kenyan like sitting and cooking with ordinary Kenyans if they feel secure enough?

That is what makes Uganda a homely place with their cultures and traditions.  So much that lots of Kenyan men are seeking Ugandan women as wives. I had tried and failed - just like I did in Murang’a - and Ugandans revenged by marrying my sister.

Anytime I visit Uganda, I feel at home. When I see the vibrant economic activities, I keep wondering where that country would be if it had not gone through so many political upheavals.  My attachment to Uganda goes beyond marriage, I owe Ugandans a debt. They taught me  science in high school. My Physics teacher was Mwesigwa, my Chemistry teacher was Kamulegeya and Wambete taught me to write good English.

The number of Kenyans who had immigrated to Uganda during the golden days of East African Community is a clear indicator how attractive the country is. I saw Maina House in Entebbe and Mwaula road. Could it be Mwaura? Never mind the popular saying that beautiful women are another attraction to Uganda. Their beauty goes up as you go west, just as the horns of the cows become longer. Don’t ask me what happens when you go east.

Despite all the political upheavals since independence, Uganda is still the pearl of Africa. Though landlocked and now an oil producer, this country has the potential to become an economic powerhouse with its Vision 2040.

SEE ALSO :Uganda police detain journalists protesting rights violations

That vision could be achieved faster if the East Africans Community went back to its roots.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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