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Kenya and Uganda could as well be one country, or maybe not

By Ted Malanda | May 17th 2021
Culturally, our people are so in sync. [Courtesy]

In 2009, I had the honour of masquerading as President Mwai Kibaki’s son, and in a foreign country to boot. But before Mlolongo Police detectives barrel into cars and head to my residence at breakneck speed, guns and handcuffs ready, let me explain.

I was working for an international NGO then and we were on a trip to Uganda to, uh, inspect development projects. Our host, a State agency chief, detailed one of his deputies to chaperon our delegation which made us feel like conmen because VIPs we certainly were not.

Worse, our chaperon kept us strictly within the posh ends of Kampala where we sipped choice drinks and burped on English cuisine, a huge bore because our intention was to forage into the sleazier parts of town, which, as you know, are more alive and exciting if you are into bird watching. And being young wildlife professionals then, bird watching, especially of the nocturnal type, was firmly embedded in our DNA.

Fortunately, when we were about to die of boredom, we were shunted off to northern Uganda to, uh, discover the source of the Nile. That’s how we found ourselves on a long picturesque bridge across the Nile. Two of my mates excitedly popped out of the car – cameras ready. But having hammered the biggest fish you have ever seen, I was in python state and had no wish to disrupt the enzymatic processes that were chugging in my stomach with the slow, lazy charge of an old steam engine.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed a suspiciously out of place mud hut sitting perilously close to the river bank. But before I could shout a warning to my mates who were already snapping away, two men armed in jungle fatigues and gumboots ambled out. In a flash, my colleagues were under arrest – for photographing a bloody bridge!

Our chaperon, a seasoned bureaucrat, cursed and stepped out of the car. From a distance, I watched him engage the solders in an animated discussion punctuated with gestures and shrugs. After three tense minutes, he freed the “dissidents”.

“How did you do it, Sir?” I asked.

He grinned. “I told them you are Kibaki’s children and that I have orders from above to take you whence you please. Why else would a senior government official be escorting three foreign youngsters all over Uganda?”  We all had a jolly good laugh because the closest we had ever seen the President was on television.

But think about it. No sign prohibiting photography. An endless bridge across one of the longest rivers in Africa; a tourist attraction that must never be photographed for “security reasons”. And a hidden mud hut where armed soldiers lurk in camouflage, ready to pounce. Sounds familiar?

Most things about Uganda are eerily familiar to a Kenyan. Chaotic elections where journalists, opposition leaders and their supporters are arrested and beaten like dogs. Power blackouts and traffic jams. Corruption (oh yes, their tenderpreneurs also sucked Covid-19 funds like nectar) and a policing system where “orders from above” can get one into or out of deep trouble. And, of course, a noisy parliament where the opposition shrieks like a weaverbird while the tyranny of numbers dozes on the front bench.

Culturally, our people are so in sync that even before our presidents signed memoranda, we have always traversed either country – trading, loving, conning and occasionally killing each other without either government resorting to burning chicken. Heck, it is safer for our pastoralists to graze their cattle in Uganda than venture into the neighbouring tribe’s pasture in their own country.

We only differ in two ways. Ugandan barmaids, at least those in Kenya, speak better English than the patrons (here). Also, chances of police charging into Opoda Farm to beat Opposition leader Raila Odinga and smear pepper in his eyes are zero.

Not because our politics is more decent. It’s just that the powers that be know that if they attempted a Besigye on The Right Honourable, that choice would attract very severe consequences. But if, on the other hand, a nondescript governor or senator got too big for his boots and insulted the President, they wouldn’t know what hit them!

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