Monthly Archive for September, 2008

Guest Blog: Clive’s Impressions

You should never base your first impressions of a country or its people after a tortuous and stressful series of flights of over 24 hours. But first impressions are literally what they are. So I will.

After coming through customs at Entebbe it was a delight and a relief to meet Daniel and then Frank the taxi driver. Malibu storks – what are they all about? So ubiquitous that for all their size they were obviously the feathered product of the mind of H G Wells. Why do they need bills that size to scavenge the tiniest urban scraps?

Along with enormous birds we were immediately faced with enormous holes in the “road” that throughout the weeks became even deeper and more numerous. In your early and blissful ignorance you begin to mouth the obvious question, “Wh…?” But you’re too tired, so there’s no point.

Early on the road to Kampala you become struck with the heavy roadside focus on mobile phone technology. This is clearly a poor country with a low per capita head income. How & why has it become the norm for young Ugandan males to have to have three or four mobiles? The advertising to sell phones and airtime is everywhere. The radio ads sell it blatantly as a product that can liberate you and make you truly free. The way to heaven and paradise all in one! How can anyone be taken in by such rubbish I ask facetiously. As if we in Europe have not been!

Ugandans are also besotted with education. Primary schools abound along every thoroughfare. There are so many children everywhere! Private secondary schools and academies are a growth industry with palatial edifices being erected in urban areas and in the countryside and seedy little buildings claiming to be the height of educational excellence down every backstreet! I cannot but doubt the quality of what’s on offer and the motives of some of the entrepreneurial providers. But what right have I got to doubt and what is the alternative when there are so many to teach.

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Big bums! These are difficult to get your head round. Whilst we in the west are suffering from the inherent contradiction of overeating because we can afford it and hating ourselves because we’re so weak-willed and image-obsessed, the Ugandans have adopted a simpler and less destructive commitment – get a big bum! Big bums are desirable, and if you eat specially designed dietary fats you can enhance your bum in no time. Enrol now for big bum classes! I believe that it’s catching on in Harrowgate.

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Less controversial than Andy Murray is the issue in Uganda of cross-generational sex. On the outskirts of Kampala and in the city there are very large and effective posters attempting to deter middle aged men from sexual liaison with young women, on the clever hypothesis that it could be your own daughter and another middle aged man. I wonder how this idea would go down in the USA where it is institutionalised?

Second Impressions – these are clearly dangerous as you can’t just claim the excuse of first impression prejudice. So they are supposed to be more balanced, thoughtful and incise. Let’s change all that then.

I noticed consistently that Ugandans like to fix things, short term mending is a way of life. Of course, this is understandable in a country whose economy is not a throw-away one like ours, but I suspect it goes further than that. In the UK I have known people, especially car & clock repair enthusiasts, who insist on fiddling with things often making them worse as a part of their hobby. Sometimes I think that I’m a bit like that (come to think of it, my dad and my granddad were both these types!) But it seems universal to Ugandans. Their attitude to building seems the same – let’s have a go, don’t worry if we don’t have a plan, we probably won’t finish it anyhow. It’s a bit like my attitude to decorating – I subconsciously have to leave lots of bits unfinished – GCSE Psychology exam question – explain this tendenc in som peopl .

Ugandans of both gender and all ages have to spend an inordinate amount of daily time fetching water. Water is reasonably plentiful but there is not the infrastructure to carry it to domestic users. As a result there are literally thousands of yellow plastic water carriers (“jerry cans”) going backwards and forwards along every road in Uganda. Methods of transporting them are varied and extremely innovative yet seem to be a perfectly natural part of life and is carried out with good grace and humour.

Visitors could be excused for thinking that Ugandans should be angry and resentful of this waste of their time, as well as glad that we have removed that chore from our daily To Do list. Perhaps it is symptomatic of fundamental differences between our two cultures. Yet, reconsidering this with Jackie in Cornwall just a few days after our return from Uganda it might be that we are not so different after all. When many of us chose a camping holiday, which for some primeval reasons we do, we revert to our basic need to transport water. Every holiday campsite has its equivalent of the yellow carriers moving backwards and forwards every day – out of choice! It would be easy to pursue the connection even further if one considers other essential camping activities.

One of the most striking things about Ugandans, which was a bit of a revelation, was their politeness and quietness of speech. Daniel explained this to us very early on in terms of language and polite forms of address but I did not expect so many people that we came into contact with to be so respectful, friendly and welcoming. It was as if the entire population had undergone customer service training! No, that’s not really it – that’s a cynical westerner speaking. It was not training, it was far too natural – there was just no extrinsic motive behind it. Coming from a working life in teaching in east London – where there is so much loudness as a norm in behaviour – I found myself having to be especially attentive in order not to be thought rude.

Third Impressions – more thoughtful but not necessarily more accurate. Whilst travelling through Uganda it seems like the population is massive and that most of them are a. young and b. visible from the main roads. It does seem that the population has doubled in the last twenty years and it is true that 51% of the population is under 15 years of age. Thus the great demand for schools. The population shows every sign of increasing by the same amount in the next twenty years. The people quite clearly work hard, usually in farming their own smallholdings, yet the average income per head per year is less than £500. Virtually all the land that you see, including hills and mountains, are cultivated.

Only the National Parks are excluded and there are clear lines (fences and walls) separating village farmlands and the parks.

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This has caused the significant clash of interests that we witnessed, i.e. elephants moving out of their apportioned areas into farmlands causing havoc. With all of this pressure on economic resources caused by a large and growing population, there seems to be no argument being made for birth control. At the same time all the major religious groups are vying with each other for membership (which is why they are so active in the education sector). The Catholic Church has the largest numbers but is being caught by the evangelicals (painful) and Islam. Why do I bother to state all this when it is such a common Third World problem? Well, having lived in Uganda for just a few days and met a few people I somehow want things to be better for them. At the very least I would like to have the view that there is some brighter view for the future because the people deserve it. However, I cannot be this optimist. The causes of all major social and economic problems can quickly be analysed and theoretical remedies put forward. But issues of religion, tribalism, economic & social class take centuries to sort out, even with benevolent government. Uganda, although moved forwards from the Amin days, does not have democratic or representative government. A quick search of the internet regarding this objectively reveals a picture of a government not that dissimilar from that of Mugabe. Not that this is publicised around the world – not at all strange! This again, I feel is a great shame because such a wonderful people deserve better.

Our visit to Uganda was a wonderful experience in all respects, one that I will remember forever. Thank you Daniel & Grania and thank you Uganda.

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