Perhaps it is how we humans are prewired that without systems to consciously regulate our behaviour, we can mainly be drawn to action by either an actual or possibility of occurrence of a shock that threatens our lives and desires.
Thus, our responses are often in proportion to the level of threat or shock posed by an event. But this only goes as far as our memory/reason can remind us of the possibility of the threat/shock happening.
Accordingly, in his attempt to analytically trace the origin of government, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes says that without government, everyone lived in constant fear of a violent death. It was ‘each against all’, meaning there was no space for industry or any form of creativity – for anyone could lay claims over products of your labour. In short, life was ‘nasty, brutish, solitary, poor, and short’.
Coming up with government, to which individuals would have to surrender some of their liberties in exchange for protection, was, thus, a response to the threats posed by absolute natural freedom. Social psychology has also helped us understand circumstances under which people may respond to a threat, and when they may not.
One of such explanations is what is referred to as the ‘boiled frog syndrome’ according to which, when you put a frog in lukewarm water and gradually boil it, it might boil to death unless someone rescues it. But if you throw it into boiling water, it will immediately jump out. The point is that people tend to respond to sudden shocks than to those that build up over time.
Relating this to many of the uncomfortable issues we face in Uganda and the times we come out in rage to talk about them, one notices that often none of them is new to us. They are things we live and interact with on almost a daily basis, and which we somehow get used to until crisis or shock points. This is not only at government level; it starts with individual and family levels.
When HIV/Aids ravaged the country in the 1980s and 1990s, people swore to their sexual lives at the sight of a victim in his/her last stages. It was just a matter of time and ARVs for HIV/Aids to be feared less than pregnancy. Humanity’s ability to forget is of both negative and positive values.
That is how we are able to whistle while cleaning our parents’ tombs a few years after their death. Yet forgetting also sends us into repeating things that put us in trouble; worse if the memory is too short.
In Uganda, when does traffic police find it important to put up strict operations on highways? Operations like ‘fika salama’ often follow shocking accidents, especially where those ‘who matter’ are among the casualties. Then they will stage roadblocks every few kilometres checking for driving permits, third party insurance, seatbelt fastening, car mechanical conditions, and speed.
But soon, all is forgotten and it’s business as usual. There was a time when all taxis were required to install seatbelts and speed governors, and adherence was strictly monitored.
That became history. After the recent horrible Gaagaa bus accident, the police, like termites, again poured on roads with speed-monitoring gadgets. Just give them time; they will retreat until another gruesome accident.
The same is with our public hospitals. Their state only becomes an issue when some ‘big’ person gets hospitalised or dies there (which is quite rare, except when they suddenly collapse).
Having one radiotherapy machine (donated) in a country of 40 million people did not really matter. The state of cancer healthcare only picked attention when even that one machine broke down amidst so much noise. Being so used to disservice, only extreme disservice can bother us now.
Increasingly then, many are getting to learn that here you are hardly listened to until you cause a crisis. If there is one working old x-ray machine in a huge hospital, you may only see action if you break that one too. Then they could buy two, if there is adequate noise.
There is a certain huge faculty at Makerere University with only one functional toilet room for students; the rest have been dysfunctional for over a year. It may not be until the functional one is broken, too, that they see need for fixing them! Bad doesn’t prompt us; only the worst can touch our hearts and hands.
Why is it that it is only when lecturers, primary and secondary teachers, doctors, and medical interns strike that they can get some assurances on pay increments and better working conditions?
Why is it that in some institutions, student issues are only heard when they resort to strikes – even when their reasons are unreasonable! They have learnt the most effective negotiation tool in this land, just as institutions have learnt to wait until the tipping point.
As I noted earlier, it starts with our tendencies at individual level. Without functional institutional frameworks, it is these tendencies that are often projected onto the institutions we work with.
Even where resources are available, many of us often find need to visit the hospital only when ‘badly off’, at times when it is rather late. Maybe, it is a habit we have been raised into from backgrounds of deprivation. At times we may not repair our cars until they can’t move or fix leaking taps until the flow is overwhelming.
In such a context, and where we know that changing the mindsets behind our fire-brigade approach to things might be a long-term thing, in the meantime perhaps we should adaptively learn to create crises. Like making someone panic about the possibility of losing an election, they pump back our money into us, and we honestly speak back through the box.
The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University.