Two visions of Uganda frame a future blighted by unmet past promise

Greetings from the hill of the impala, present-day Kampala, which is enwrapped in mist as I write. It’s raining, even though no one has promised El-Nino flooding here. I have a panoramic view of the city, so I have dispatched postcard vistas to all and sundry, eliciting a resounding affirmation of Kampala as well-designed and orderly. My response: It’s a façade; what you see is not what you get…

My tourist’s lenses, of course, are too blinded to offer a solid assessment of Sseboland. Since my early Tuesday morning KQ flight, which means I had to rouse at the hour I’d typically retire from my nocturnal forays, all I dreamt of was a nice, hour-long nap on the flight.

It wasn’t to be. I was ensconced between an elderly woman who was napping, just as I dreamt of doing, and a youthful man of Asian descent. This is important as his family stayed through Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972.

Both the woman and the young man were Ugandan, both were returning home—one from business in India, and the other from Britain, where she was pushed into exile in the aftermath of Amin’s pogrom.

The young man gushed about the superhighways that now link Kampala (just like Nairobi, he smiled), because more and more people have more money and are buying newer cars than the roads can bear…

I responded, in that respectfully moderated tone—to ensure you don’t spit in each other’s face— that the measure of progress should be through the eyes of those who have the least, not those who have the most.

We had been animated for a while when the elderly woman stirred from sleep and said quietly: “I have been listening to what you two have been talking about. I think things are getting worse in Uganda, not better.”

Now, now, when I took the early morning KQ flight, I didn’t anticipate to moderate, gratis, a difficult conversation loosely titled: Uganda after Amin: A Retrospect. All I needed was to catch some winks and dream on. But alas!

I turned to the woman. “How old are you, ma’am?” She hesitated. I suppressed a chuckle, violating a moderator’s code by displaying personal emotion. Who thought elderly women would think it sensitive to reveal their age?

My younger interlocutor came to the rescue. “Let’s say,” he said, smiling, “She’s 60.”

“Sixty-plus,” the woman responded. We were getting somewhere…

My intent was to place the woman’s autobiography within the larger Ugandan history. And since I ask questions for a living, I received an extensive biography of the woman’s history and how their fortunes rose and fell with those of the Ugandan state.

“In our time, we had government schools that provided education for everyone,” the woman said. “Now all have been privatised. Can you imagine they charge Ush1m per term per child? Only the rich can afford to go to school…”

I challenged the woman to return from exile and be part of the solution. A dainty smile played on her lips. “I wish I could return,” she offered. “My mother was a prominent politician…”

What’s stopping her, I probed. Her brow furrowed. She had tried to re-establish herself, she said. Family members squandered monies remitted to build her a house to rebuild her life. Now she has no place to return to. And her father’s house was sold by her uncle in their absence.

Is there anything going right in Uganda? “They are very good at making business for themselves and making music,” she said of the M7 administration. “Making music is very important in this country,” she said.

It’s a perfect distraction, I said. Want another rap!