Every time I travel outside Africa, and sometimes within, two nagging feelings preoccupy me.
First, there are many things one may easily take for granted about this small country that can only be appreciated while away. The wide variety of natural foods that are relatively easy to access turn out to be among the most expensive in Europe and America!
You enter a special food store and look at the tiny wrinkled avocados and low-taste bananas with price tags that would fetch a full truck of jackfruit back home. All these grow unplanted and un-watered in many parts of Uganda!
You start flashing back to the fruit stalls that beautifully line our highways all year through; meanwhile, you are eating bread after bread, with leaves in-between. It’s partly a matter of cultural difference that should be appreciated; but even with the relativism of taste, what beats natural foods?
Except the occasional excesses of heat, Uganda’s weather that is bearable with little extra effort all year through also becomes an object of emotion when winter sets in. No need to warm houses at any time of the year, and also possible to survive comfortably without air conditioning. We are nature’s pampered children.
One theory of underdevelopment holds that perhaps the excessive favour that we were given by nature sent us into relaxing and using less of our brains – call them temptations of abundance. Just like a child from a rich family may not learn to toil, for they will still eat, anyway. In the logic of this geographical determinism, we are not pushed to deeply exercise our minds to innovate, because we can survive at nature’s minimum, anyway.
For those that found themselves in harsh places, innovation was not an option. As is the evolutionary principle (survival for the fittest), you either adapt or nature flushes you out. But in the process of thinking hard to survive, the mind gradually acquires more innovative abilities and grows even sharper. In such a society, innovation becomes a way of life.
One of the uncomfortable implications of this theory is its inherent suggestion that geographies determine intellectual abilities, which could as well be extended to race (as by Timothy Kalyegira). The theory is also not helped by the fact that some peoples living in very hard conditions haven’t similarly innovated to overcome them. Exceptions?
In line of the spatial differences in innovations to make people’s lives better, this is where my second feeling is located. In admiration of the hosts’ social services and obvious commitment to selflessly making their people’s lives better, you wonder what is wrong with us.
That we often resort to projecting nature’s gifts to showcase what is great about Uganda is a sign that we don’t have much human achievement to tell. There is credit in conserving the foods, wildlife, hot springs, falls, lakes, rivers, and the mountains we boast about. But all this loses meaning where the lives of millions of people remain of poor quality. This is the unpolished side of the ‘Pearl of Africa’.
One would argue that it is lack of exposure that in turn limits our imagination. Maybe that too. But that might only apply to the people ‘below’ in the sense that their expectations are so low because they may not only lack knowledge of their entitlements but have also not seen better. Their only experience for comparison is Uganda’s past. Hence statements like: “let them steal, at least we can sleep”. This way, having an environment permissive of sleeping became one of our key development indicators for three decades – until we wake up to realise that we were robbed while we slept.
Our leaders have seen much better; theirs is not lack of exposure. On our money, they are always traveling to better-managed countries. They have seen health systems that work, and prefer to be treated there. They have seen effective education systems, and prefer to send their children there. They have seen justice systems that work. They have seen civilised police services. They have walked organized streets. They have gone to visit tourist attractions in countries that care to meticulously conserve and memorialise their heritage.
Yet still, they return to business as usual in this boda boda chaos, a broken healthcare system, corruption, rule by might, a UPE mess, a loose Constitution, presidentialism, and the like! Sometimes you are desperately pushed into agreeing with biological determinists that perhaps there is something inherently wrong with us. Yet this view wouldn’t account for places in Africa where significant progress and commitment have been recorded.
The lived realisation that we have been cheated for so long is partly the reason why many diaspora people are bitter and often eager to join any strong anti-government initiative. It is also the reason why on some occasions government officials have suffered embarrassing hostility from Africans abroad. Where do they even get the boldness to introduce themselves while enjoying others’ functional systems!
All societies have evolved from lower stages (or the reverse), some without good examples to emulate but only having to dream and forge their destiny through hard lessons, experiments, and sacrifices. Generations that have had a chance to know better should do better; not seeking for a chance to make their own mistakes.
The idea is not that Uganda should be like European countries or at the technological and services level of America. But, notwithstanding the fact that we are a much younger country with a complicated history, we should be far ahead of where we are. That is not debatable. It is also true that certain imperialistic barriers remain in our way, but the contribution of our own greed, myopia, selfishness, lack of integrity, and incompetence is evidently a much bigger factor for our underdevelopment.
Do these questions ever concern our leaders when they travel?