Back to the future

1938. Eastern Uganda. The lithe 30-year-old mother of five is stranded. She just cried her eyes out. She looks over at her children ranging from 10 to two years old,all sitting quietly. They are dazed.

The mother suddenly stops sniffing. She has sight in only the right eye. That doesn’t matter now. The only person whose opinion on that mattered has logged out. Her husband is laid out in the big family house.

The women wail. The men speak in hushed tones. The January rains have been particularly brutal this year. The banana plantation at the back of the home has been hit. There are only a few matooke in there and even feeding the mourners, who will continue to come for the next six days is still a puzzle.

The widow has no time for self pity. She grabs her gomesi around her and stands up. She snakes through the throng on her left and right, her feet leaving marks in the red Busoga dirt. She heads to the Chief’s home.

The nuns from the Catholic church, who have been given lodgings by the chief, will surely help. They are always talking about the merits of a Mzungu education. She doesn’t know it it then, but this trip will culminate in her children all leaving home to learn at the feet of the White man.

She knows what the villagers say behind her back. They think she’s crazy. Some say she killed her husband. Many do not understand her obsession with education. She is ready to do anything to get education for her children.

1930s Uganda is still too virgin for many to look that far in the future, but this newly widowed mother knows it will be the educated that will take over the country. The British empire has grown too big to survive. One day the White man will hand Uganda back to Ugandans.

The twins will live long but they’ll die decades apart. The youngest will become a sought-after economist. Gideon, the second, will die young. Ignatius will travel far off and live in a cold country.

The 30-year-old widow has no time to explain all this to her detractors. They think she has a nut loose, anyway. She has seen the future and she’s going to grab it with two hands.

One good eye and five children to raise, it is time to harness the future.

 

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Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. As a constant student of my new society, I am fast learning that this might be the one holiday in America where genuine kindness abounds. Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Halloween and all the others are really about the money. The merchandising that’s done every year on these diverse holidays could make you weep. Not so with Thanksgiving.

Employers give their workers the day off where they’d be hard-pressed on other holidays. Everything slows down, even at the local Wal-Mart.

So today, another Turkey gets pardoned. The news will get that little bit lighter. The big bad world will take the back seat for a moment. American families will attempt to have a normal conversation.

It is still a strange celebration for me though. It seems obvious that one needs to give thanks like everyday. You do not need a holiday for that. But it also goes to show the often difficult relationship between new residents trying to make sense of a fast new brave world, and those who have been here longer.

So, to fit in, I will be at the Thanksgiving table where I’ve been invited and I guess I will have to answer when I am asked what I am thankful for.

I am thankful for family. I am nothing without them. Funny how my view has changed over the last short decade regarding family. There was a time when it could go do whatever in the bathroom if it wanted; I didn’t care.

The families that took our hands and showed us the ropes when we first came to the USA, that I am thankful for. I had my preset beliefs, moulded by the media I consumed for years about White Republican Christians. Let’s just say that card house came crumbling down in the last two years.

The people who’ve been most helpful with information and material help have been in the reddest state, certified, bible-lifting, hallelujah-singing, gun-owning, Jesus-loving Americans. Beat that.

I am thankful that even when I am far from home, I can easily get on a plane and visit when the heart strings have been pulled to breaking point.

I am thankful for Thanksgiving day. Beyond the turkey and warm conversation around that table later today, I know I have an opportunity to put that thankfulness into words.

 

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A Kampala childhood

Growing up in Kampala was one of the greatest experiences of my life, though with hindsight this should sound like a no-brainer. Kampala kids were not brought up to believe they were special, even if the media and the people in the villages said so. Not this Kampala kid anyway.

Children who grew up with increasing restrictions, walls pressing in from all directions because urbanization was swallowing up all types of free space was the stuff of children’s lives. Kids can be discerning. They know when their lives are just one big con.

Nevertheless, my experience was everything I would have wanted it to be. Parents who believed I was God’s answer to all their prayers (really,that was my mom) could make virtually anything happen. Two semi-retired middle aged people found a way to give their precocious wee child a sheltered  childhood.

Childhood is made of experiences that serve to shape how one will view their world. If you survive all the falls and the broken bones and the poison (“Don’t drink this.” “Oh but I just did.” “What!? That’s paraffin!”) and all other indignities that are by nature visited upon those who have to walk through the shadow of childhood, you earn the right to face the world with super powers.

Mine was at the end of the Okellos junta through the early Museveni years. I had learnt along with thousands of other children the anthems of the post-Idi Amin euphoria.

All kids sang Golongolo Pippa Kawung’ayidde, and Sipolingi. For many children during those years, it was a heady period because the adults were singing songs of revolution after Amin had been deposed. Like it happens everywhere in the world, music came in forcefully to remind the traumatized populace of the eight brutal years.

By the time my friends and I were going through those critical formative years, the songs had already evolved; nobody thought to find out what the actual lyrics were. To be honest, nobody really cared.

So we lived through the tail-end of the Obote years, the Okellos and then the NRA.

Childhood memories from the mid-1980s include dirty apartment blocks in many parts of the city, pock-marked by the madness of war. Buganda  Road flats, Wandegeya, Makerere…

My family moved from Buganda Road to Bakuli, near Blue Room. As a child, I either was too naive to see the strain my parents were enduring, or maybe in my mind, that’s just the way the cookie crumbled.

The truth is many parents were suffering. Jobs were scarce; the bad years were supposedly behind us, but the new regime had to science the shit out of the sorrow and angst pretty fast seeing as the economy was in shambles. Fathers had vanished, families had been torn apart, the banks had been looted.

I had been to  Buganda Road Primary School, flying my on my own, but boarding school came in at just the right time. I survived St. Kayasi (Mwiri Primary), Makonzi Boarding and Budo Junior.

Childhood was really fast flashing lights of the city. The few times I went to the countryside, I always felt like a fish out of water. The village kids didn’t quite know what to make of this strange thing that spoke a foreign language and scarred easily.

There’s no denying childhood colors our worldview. Where a village kid grew up with the quiet of the hills, drums on a Sunday morning, birdsong clearly distinguishable and fireside stories told at 7pm because there was no electric power to watch TV, a city child had so much going on in their heads. There’s no way the two could see eye to eye on all issues.

 

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Burning bridges

Bridges. We all have to cross them one day or other. It makes no sense to hang onto the rails, refusing to move your feet in the deluded belief you’ll be the first to avoid crossing the bridge.

The thing about bridges though is that you are always told not to burn them. This is old thinking. The same world that tells you to think outside the box tells you to avoid burning your bridges. I say burn away!

In human dealings, he who would succeed must discern where the winners go and how they behave. You must identify the qualities that will make you stand out. If 90% of the world is dragging their feet, refusing to strike the match, you must take advantage of this slowness.

Burn your bridges because you do not want to do things half-heartedly. If some part of you goes into a battle with the assurance of a backup position, your goal just moved that much out of your reach.

Do not go into your marriage with promises to distressed damsels on the side that you’ll come around and see the candle they’ll leave at the window for you. That makes you lazy; it makes you a jackass.

These loose strings, especially when they are many in your life, will only serve to drown you. Talk about waterboarding.

Every step you make forward will be cut away by some old mistake you allowed to fester because you didn’t have the wherewithal to do what’s right. You needed to have burnt all times to your past mistakes.

When your bridges are cinders, reduced to the least potent form, it frees you. It gives you the impetus you need to go out and take what’s rightfully yours.

 

 

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Seeing stars

The dust should be settling in America. Maybe it is just a plea from people like me, for sanity to return. The sanity that I believed ruled in America long before I set foot on this continent.

Donald Trump, against all predictions that mattered, went on to win “biggly” as he often said he would. It would seem he delivered the crushing victory that ultra-conservatives yearned for for many years. It would also seem he delivered another such victory for the alt-right, which embraced him even when he half-heartedly denounced them. So many things that seem.

For me, as a new immigrant, I appreciate my work is cut out for me, especially because I have to calm nerves of little girls who hear scary rhetoric at school and come home with puzzled looks. I have had to explain that sometimes people say mean things, not because they are true, but because that’s how they will win in a campaign. I don’t think the explanation is good enough, but then again, ask the millions of parents around the country how they are dealing with the avalanche of questions.

I was firmly in the Hillary Clinton corner for more than a year. I did not believe the country that voted for Barack Obama would swing so violently away from everything that he represents. Didn’t see the real issues that the election was about.

America went out and chose a person who tried so hard to fail. They chose somebody who it seems saw the real anger and fear of middle America and went into the campaign to help raise the issues, not that he thought he would actually win.

Maybe he believes he can change the situation. Maybe he saw something many did not see. Or maybe many people saw this ugly underbelly of the real America and tried so hard to cover it. Like the ostrich, maybe the establishment (the media) saw it all but tried to force a different result because of what an alternative to Clinton represents. Sure, old form politics would return to Washington, but along with it would come bigotry and denial of facts, denial of science, denial of racism, denial of police brutality. A post-truth future stared them in the face.

Those who have lived here for longer probably understand the real workings of the system. I lived in middle America for two years and I saw this broke America, the world that Hollywood never shows us. I saw broken houses that a Ugandan would not even expect to find in Katanga. We are now told this is the America that voted for Trump.

It is probably too soon to know exactly how this is going to play out. Heck, the only example we can look at, Brexit, is still unspooling. All we’ve got on it so far is a lot of conjecture.

But Trump’s triumph is another example that change, when it has to happen, will happen. It’s Murphy’s Law, stupid. It helps to soothe the nerves of those in Uganda who think nothing will change in the country.

A lot has been said about the ineffectiveness of the Ugandan opposition. Or even the failure of Ugandans to stand up to oppressors because the are too timid. The backlash of middle America, in so doing unleashing a seemingly unhinged demagogue into the White House, is evidence enough that every event has a tipping point.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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10 years, yipee!

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New day, new decade

In the last 10 years, I have learned many lessons. You live and learn, as they say. But because we are obsessed with landmarks and stuff, I thought about 10 lessons. I have surely come a long way since that day at KPC. Heck, it  was so long ago, the church has long since changed names.

But this is not to trivialize the experiences of others who’ve done the decade. Every marriage is unique. Some people have discovered they are not meant to be together and they’ve called it quits before the 10th. There are those who did the decade and broke up immediately after.

So, in no particular order…

Roles are fluid. Some chores can only be done by one person. If you are better at some things, or enjoy doing certain chores more than the other person, go ahead and do them. It saves a lot time. And grief. There was a time when I would sit around expecting things to be done “because I did it yesterday” but I learned through the years that doesn’t fly.

Fess up. When you mess up – and you will mess up big by the time you make 10 – it only makes things worse if you cover up. It will go away quicker if you admit you’ve been a bad boy. You’ve spent a long time with your partner and she’s seen worse. She’s endured all your issues; surely she’ll survive this one too.

Fights and make-ups. Two people in closed spaces for a few days will blow up sooner or later. Try 10 years. Arguments will break out, that’s a given. With time, it is important to learn the language and patterns that show this is imminent. It is also important to have strategies for dousing the flames. With the foreknowledge that you’ll have these episodes, you’ll be greatly served to always ask yourself what’s important and what’s not. Being recalcitrant only makes the situation impossible to mend. Be the willow in the gale, not the oak.

Dance. Not literally if you’re not the dancing type. But there’s always a new song in the soundtrack of your marriage in the different seasons. Enjoy your life and sing along. Sometimes it is a dirge but there are many up-tempo tunes in there and you should enjoy them. You might not notice the music when you are still only a couple of years in. But you will notice it gradually. Some have a whole KadongoKamu soundtrack and others have a 1980s Soul selection at any one point in their lives. Notice it and listen to the message therein.

Nobody left on the battle field. Two people from different backgrounds sticking it out even when their very beings are against it are like soldiers on a battle field. The order is to go into the fight and not to retreat or surrender. Forget the fairy tale weddings, when the marriage has been on for a few years, the reality sets in. The wedding is not the marriage. Not glitz and smiles all around. As you navigate the sometimes rough waters, you’ll realize you cannot afford to leave your partner in the lurch. If they are not feeling up to doing something they need to do, it is up to you to encourage them. Sacrifice your time, be late, call in sick but deal with the issue at hand.

The learning curve. Getting to 10 years and looking around only confirms what you’ve suspected for the last few years; you are still green about so many things. People who’ve been married for 40, 50, 60 years start popping up all around you and you will feel a little foolish even mentioning it. In those years, you’ve failed to muster some basics of human nature that newbies to the institution are acing like a breeze. At least that’s what they say. So yeah, it is a never-ending life as a student.

Sprightly no more. So its been 10 years and you are not super hot any more. You might have gained a few kilograms along the way and also become a parent if you were lucky. You have slowly come to the realization that you are not Superman. Things are sagging in some places and receding in others. But that’s okay. You are too busy dispensing knowledge to the next generation to care even a bit. Besides, what’s a few kilos more?

Achievements. In recent years you’ve probably heard and read from a number of people who sneer that marriage is not an achievement. Well, to each their own. It is an achievement to reach a decade, in my opinion. Especially if it was an improbable match-up in the first place. In an era where it is very easy to just throw in the towel and pick up where you left off with any number of ex-potentials without society punishing you as it would have 50 years ago, it is an achievement. To say you will stand against the elements as long as the both of you have a shared goal that calls for the union is remarkable.

Confidence. A decade will give you this sense of confidence that some how, you will triumph over the dragons that lie in your path. When you step out of the home, there will be uncertainty in everything around you. You wont be able to control many of them, but back at home, you’ll be free to close your eyes without worrying that the person seated next to you will pick your phone and disappear.

Dream. Probably you have hit a few milestones together to realize this could be a great partnership. You’ve assessed each others’ strengths and weaknesses and a pattern has started to emerge: the both of you could do anything if you tag-teamed. Apart, you might not be able to achieve the different goals that might be in your head. Together, you are given the license to dream big.

 

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Because of the writers

The last day of October, tomorrow, will come on a momentous note for me. For one, it’s been 11 years since I started to blog. There’s memories in there. So many.

In 2005, I was new at Daily Monitor having been recruited from The Sunrise.  My friend Moses Serugo had called me up recently while I sat at this big ol’ computer editing the week’s magazine. He had been tossing out the theme in recent times then that generally went like, “oh, you need to move to a bigger newspaper.”

Moses asked if I wanted to get a foot in the door by going to The Monitor where there was a new project starting. It was a purely marketing project that many real journos disagreed with: get questions and answers into the paper and watch the parents stampede to buy the paper in hopes they’ll help their students do well in their final UNEB exams.

It sounded easy: all I had to do was go in there, contact teachers and get them to commit to supply questions and answers every week for the candidates.

It would of course involve a little bit of fact checking on my part and editing for grammar and the newspaper house style, but that was easy. I wasn’t expected to remember all about centrifugal force. Plus the teachers were thorough, especially since they realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to attract coaching shillings.

It was not how I would have wanted to join the paper, you know, doing something I didn’t really believe should be done. Only a few months prior, I had refused to join The Red Pepper, a new outfit that seemed to specialize in all things risque.

Del Wilbert Omwony, who’d also worked at The Sunrise, had made the jump to the new paper and he said the pay was more than good, and that I should also jump. But I refused to go even when the pay at The Sunrise was sketchy.

Leaving the Sunrise was bitter-sweet for me. I had joined the paper two years prior to September 2005 like a joke. My friend, E. Senkwale and I walked into the tiny office of the paper at the National Theatre and somehow, in a weird turn of events, I got a job. It went something like a blur: Hadijah Nakitende was sitting at that huge computer laying pages and throwing wise cracks as she still does. She’d worked with E’s mom together with the major shareholder of The Sunrise at the defunct Uganda Airlines.

When Hadijah was told I was a writer (wrote in grade school, wrote for the school paper in high school, edited it, wrote a bit for The New Vision while at college), she said, well come on and join us. And we’ll pay you for your trouble.

That was like really cool. I had just dropped out of uni and I was feeling rotten. Here was a bunch of people who thought I was good for something. Of course I was excited.

Anyway, two years of working here and contributing to building one of the more interesting newspaper magazines on the Ugandan market, I guess I was ready to move on.

In October of 2005, I discovered blogging. That season, the campaigns for the 2006 elections were on and Besigye was being hunted everyday. Kampala was in the brink. And there was a lot to write about, gripe about.

A whole new world was opened up for me. I think it was David Tumusiime who introduced me to it. He and I were Sunrise vets and we’d shared many a stroll on those amazing Kampala roads to cut the cost of taking taxis to our different homes. Many deep conversations those walks wrought.

My blogging family had superstars like Nyana Kakoma, Angela Rwabose nee Kintu, Denis Muhumuza, Shifa Mwesigye, Dorene Namanya, Phoebe Mutetsi, Nathan Magoola, Solomon Benge, Michael Akiyo, Ernest Bazanye, Rev Kalibwani, Chantal Ochola, Rachel Mugarura, and Collin Asiimwe.

There were many others , trust me.

It was an eclectic group with diverse interests and daily revelations that sometimes led all of us on wild tangents. Sometimes the posts were deep and they led to soul searching. Other times, many times, they were just irreverent.

We wrote about Kampala, about hair, bitched about crooked politicians and silly musicians, hit on each other…Sometimes we saw real pairings with some of the bloggers getting married.

Life got in the way for many. I admit, life got in the way for me. I stopped seeing writing as fun, a way to just bask in the awesome of all these individuals. So I stopped.

Still, it is amazing looking back. Eleven years of great writing from so many people. Eleven years!

To all the great artists of the written word: thanks for the memories. October is ending but it’s given me this opportunity to look back and dream.

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