A time to fight

What does it mean to be a creative in Uganda today? To ask this is the same as to ponder the implications of self expression in an ever-narrowing space.

The detention of Makerere academic, Stella Nyanzi was watched with curiosity by many who might have a stake in the creative economy of Uganda.

A government that made an effort to pretend to be different from those for whose excesses it justified it’s emergence has thrown away all pretensions: it is Byron Kawadwa vs Idi Amin all over again some would say.

Nyanzi’s use of provocative langage has riled many in the past few years. Even many who would normally describe themselves as progressive, have criticized her “profane” attacks on personalities. 

Before Nyanzi’s “pair-of-buttocks” saga, before the drama that has followed her for the last few years, she was better known among the creative writing set for her expressive use of language. She was not known to shy away from the hot potatoes of the day, but she was still flying under the radar. At least publicly, it was not overt that the powers that be had any problem with her.

The argument that she could have crossed a line when she went after the president’s wife could be valid, but this too might be simplistic. A political family that has weathered insults for decades was incensed by the crude imagery spouted by an activist? The family that has ignored critics and/or eventually bought them off?

It is hard to imagine Nyanzi’s words were too horrible to even try to silence her in less public ways. Cue all the top critics who have mellowed over the years only to end up with corner offices in nondescript government-connected houses doubling as offices in Kololo. If your favourite columnist who says all manner of truth-telling to power has not stopped, chances are efforts have been underway to buy them into the NRM fold for some time now.

Yoweri Museveni famously ignored the innuendo in tabloids until some stories started hitting too close to home. To the truth, maybe?

This seeming use of a machine gun for a mosquito might be part of a bigger push, and it might be directed to creative’s in the country.

Revolutions are sustained by the willing masses, but the messaging has got to be right or else they will be stillbirths. The messaging is crafted by the artists, the singers, the wisemen; those with too much kerere.

And that’s the crux of the matter.

When the artists stop doing what the regime would rather have them do and turn their attention to the day’s pains, if you are a government analyst, it is time to earn your pay by pointing out that a hydra head is growing and it has to be cut off.

Museveni’s war had its own sound track. When the rag-tag revolutionaries stumbled hungry and wornout into Kampala in 1986, songs accompanied them. Videos on national TV gave us musical soldiers like Sgt. Kifulugunyu. Omoto Nawaka was a delightful ear worm. So one would say this government knows the power of the arts in revolution.

There was a time when creative people were just the entertainment. They provided the cheap thrills but nothing would come of their views.

It was a general African way of thinking. This is why when Gaetano Kaggwa, Uganda’s first Big Brother Africa housemate was believed to have had sex on TV with Abergail Plaatjes of South Africa, even when he was considered by many to have been the most popular housemate, he had already lost the prize. Columnist Timothy Kalyegira at the time predicted Kaggwa would lose because of this blunder.

But times changed. Government is not ignoring creative’s anymore. Right now, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) is running for political office. We have of course already elected a professional comedian to Parliament. We know that when nusicians marshal their armies on social media, things get done. The 40-40 organisation, without resorting to government patronage has taken on social issues, like building a dormitory for needy children. The creative’s are coming.

What it all means is that if you are going to be a creative person in Uganda today, you need to choose your weapons carefully. Because this is not child’s play anymore.

Everything you write, all the songs you compose; your audience just grew exponentially and your words carry weight. Are you ready to change your writing style so no one will be able to ignore you? Are you able to stand up to the government?

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The Anti Christ wears a golden halo

“Donald Trump is the Anti Christ!”

The woman screamed the words, as she woke up with a start. Her husband beside her stirred slowly awake. He did not know what the matter was, but he had been married to his wife long enough to have figured out what some of her more dramatic episodes might mean.

“What?” he asked. He had heard her fine the first time. He was only playing for time. He had been woken up many times before because his wife had had a vision, and she had to share it immediately.

“I just heard the Spirit tell me, Donald Trump is the Anti Christ,” she spat out with a little impatience.

Inside the man’s head, regretful thoughts chased each other. It was 3am and he had only two more hours. Soon he would hit the road to beat the Entebbe Road traffic jam into Kampala City for another day of toil.

But voicing these thoughts was fruitless, he knew. It would lead into many micro-arguments about faith and the end times and the man’s failure to work on his faith.

Outside, dogs barked. Distant drones of boda bodas rode the night like surfers.

It was hot in the tiny room. The house being situated close to the cool Lake Victoria did not seem to have any effect on the heat.

It was close to Christmas 2016. Life in Entebbe was close to normal again. The couple, as had the rest of their neighbours with busy lives of toil were expected to have forgotten about politics, and concentrated on work.

Except this was far from the truth.

The upheaval had started midway 2015. The campaigns for president were heating up. Kizza Besigye was showing such strength, most people thought even after failing to unseat the current president, Yoweri Museveni three previous times, he had a real chance this time.

The crescendo of campaign rhetoric increased as February 2016 approached. Then Museveni won, and a morose blanket seemed to cover sections of Uganda. Those with internet connection, anyway. Because it was not easy to know if the people in the rural areas even cared.

The couple were not totally devastated. From their small house in Nakiwogo, they were following the American campaigns.

Surely this was going to be a win. It was the stuff of wild imagination: the first Black president of the USA would hand over to the first female president.

On election night, already Wednesday morning in Nakiwogo, there was a festive mood in the house. The husband, though he had to be at work, was in the living room watching TV.

It was a clear done deal. The polls said so. The respected newspapers said so. Donald Trump had made so many goofs, the American voter was going to show him who was boss.

Trump was loud, leud, bigoted, a braggart and sexist. He had has refused to release his tax returns, had made suggestions he wanted to sleep with his daughter and had said he’s win even if stood in the middle of the street and shot people dead.

The wife, though she was not interested enough to kill her morning, knew that this was a big deal. She had not had any messages from God about it, but she felt it deep in her heart.

Then Clinton lost so spectacularly.

The fallout from the November loss of Hillary Clinton will probably be studied for a long time.

For the couple, everything just felt wrong. There must be something supernatural about this.

The wife had not been following the news as closely as her husband, so she only knew what he told her. So in her head, there was no way this man could have convinced America to choose him over Clinton.

The husband, long a student of his wife’s histrionics, had neglected to point out to her that Trump won on the strength of the Christian vote. Bible-thumping, spirit-filled, demon-chasing Christians had decided this was their candidate. Not all of them, but a decidedly big enough number to push him over, it seemed.

It had been an interesting start of December.

This close to Chrismas, the husband was not sure he had the energy to get back into that whole drama. He started to tell his wife it was not possible Trump is the Anti-Christ because he’s not done the three-and-a-half years preceding the rupture. Those three and a half years should have given us a Trump with almost magical powers: where was the wound that should have killed him, but did not? where was the world peace?(many Evangelicals say the dude who achieves peace in the Middle East will be the One).

Trump had rode on an improbable bet and it had paid off. But all this was to expend energy he could not afford.

So he asked the one thing he could think of. “Should I get you some ice cream from the fridge?”

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Three little monsters

My girls are always thirsting for me when get back home from work, and they are always talking fast, non-stop. They realise there’s just too little time for us to interact. And the time is flying.

I have to endure breathless shouted reports about their day, each doing their best to get their story out before they are told it’s time to go to the bathroom, or something. They are much like journalists trying to scoop each other.

The times they mis-speak or interrupt each other feel like what happens when journos rush to tweet so they can write better stories later with the satisfaction of having broken the story in the first place.

Most days, I am also just tired, wanting to just relax. I am a private person, as I’ve rediscovered lately, but these apples have fallen way off from the tree.

I know. Soon, there’ll be nothing to tell me. I wonder if that will be as lonely as most people in books make it sound. Something tells me I am so much like Mr. Bennett in Jane Eyre. That man perfected the art of being aloof.

Bennett’s house was like mine in a number of ways. Only that his daughters were much older (at least at the time we were introduced to him), but of course there were years when he had just three and they were as young as mine.

Life goals, Mr Bennett.

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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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