Virginia Postrel, an American political and cultural writer, observed that “rich people in poor places want to show off their wealth. And their less-affluent counterparts feel pressure to fake it, at least in public. Nobody wants the stigma of being thought poor”.
So, don’t be surprised to see many poor or less-endowed people living as if they are already ‘up there’. In Uganda, at every opportunity, one feels pressured to parade this facade and feel good about the momentary class jump it provides.
In poor societies like ours, one has to learn by all means that showing off is expected. Many of our people come from backgrounds of squalor and deprivation. So, when they finally acquire what they never imagined possible in their lifetime, their euphoria sends them into splashing it all over for all to see and acknowledge their arrival into wellness.
Whereas it might seem normal to others who are ‘already there’ and used, for these arrivers, it’s news worth proclamation. So, they will take photos with elbow out of the window of a sometimes borrowed car and caption it: “Finally!”
With the aid of social media now, showing off has been rendered easier and more attractive. Some will even share photos with toothpick in mouth, for all to know that they have finally eaten some meat.
The beauty of social media is that it effortlessly allows us a glimpse into people’s minds and personalities, no matter what efforts at faking. Quite often, you get shocked by the petty bravado of a seemingly exposed fella.
On social media, many seem to be struggling to give an impression that they are living a high life. It’s in those pictures taken at restaurants perceived to be high-class: “I am here at KFC chilling”!
The photos taken standing against parked cars whose owners we don’t know. Selfies on the plane. Pictures in our new clothes in every imaginable angle! Yes, we need to feel good about ourselves and get social endorsement. No one should miss knowing that I, too, finally got that bag.
In this exhibitionistic drama, we are bound to witness all sorts of fakes: fake skins, fake profiles, fake journeys, plagiarised wise words, fake assets, fake happiness, fake relationships, fake hips, posturing to be close to famous people...
An arriver who has just acquired something phenomenal in their estimation is very easy to spot. If it’s a car, goodness! Those fellas hoot! They will even hoot at a butterfly!
And they often pimp up their cars with string coloured led lights – to get the look of a Christmas tree. When they park, they first move around to inspect the car for any scratches. They never stop shaking their keys!
Introduction and wedding ceremonies have offered incredible space for posturing and unreasonable grandiosity. As though in competition, many budget for things they can’t afford and then put friends and relatives on tenterhooks of exploitative meetings.
They want to hold the wedding at a posh place, a band to play, a popular artiste to perform, each table with wine, ... A wedding is budgeted at Shs 35 million; meanwhile, the couple doesn’t even own a piece of land – sometimes not even a job! It is all about keeping up appearance. Even the fundraising itself is turning into competitive grandstanding, as though to gauge who contributes more than the other!
Ironically, the contributors can easily and unquestioningly fundraise for such an extravagant wedding, but not for a business idea. Just like we more readily contribute to condolences than to treatment costs. A cash-strapped person that died of a disease treatable with Shs 70,000 gets Shs 3m in condolences from people who knew about his sickness and deprivation! And they all want it announced at the funeral.
How about people showing off with phones, tabs, and iPads at funerals and other events? It has become an incredible nuisance – taking pictures and shooting videos that they are going to delete soon after to create space for more.
Some may genuinely be taking photos they really need, but I am apt to imagine that many block others from view for exhibition’s sake. Let alone those who feel they are too well-dressed to take a seat, inconveniently moving about every other minute!
And oh, the English! I am afraid we sometimes get more of it than we need. Even when privately addressing people of the same mother-tongue, we find need to throw in English words here and there to showcase ‘modernity’. It is absurd that some of us carry these primitive manners to our villages, thereby alienating our semi/illiterate locals and relatives.
Attendant to the show-off culture, we have adopted lifestyles far above our means. A person without a job (sometimes still at school) feels the pressure to change their hairstyle every month (to a tune sometimes above Shs 100,000), to buy a new dress for each of the several parties they attend, to throw birthday parties, to give gifts at their long list of friends’ birthdays and all sorts of competitive ‘showers’ (bridal, baby...), and to drink like a retiree! We don’t need to guess the consequences.
Being well-off/rich has acquired a self-deceptive social meaning that is ironically an impediment to real wealth. Many of our people carry an illusion that if one holds an iPhone, wears Gucci, Channel, or Louise Vuitton, an expensive weave/wig or thick make-up, they automatically look rich. Our wealth is in perishables, with little or no investment in sustainable livelihoods.
It is not surprising then that the likes of Bryan White and SK Mbuga become our role models and splashing money becomes a praiseworthy lifestyle. Showy spending of fishy cash is increasingly glorified more than hard work and frugality!
I hope this lifestyle leads us to the desired middle-income status by 2090.
The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.