One of the things Africans take great pride in, especially in comparison to other societies, is being communitarian.
Traditional African society is projected as one where there was/is care for the wellbeing of every member. The dictum ‘I am because we are’, which the late Kenyan theologian, John S. Mbiti, coined in the shadows of the French philosopher Rene Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, has often been presented as a summary of our African bond.
It is as well the bedrock of Ubuntu philosophy, which in many circles is considered to be an embodiment of traditional African values – even beyond Bantu groups.
Looking at present-day Uganda though, there is a phenomenon that reflects the contrary. Selfishness, jealousy, malice and greed are part and parcel of our everyday life. While they may not be generalised to the entire society, they can be seen to be in active competition with the communitarian elements – especially in urban areas.
We can talk of two explanatory possibilities here: One, that the communitarianism image of African society could be exaggerated or, as Kwame Nkrumah called it, some sort of fetish nostalgia. Two, that the above vices are setting in as part and parcel of the global triumph of capitalism whose dynamics often involve unfair competition and maximisation of benefit for the strongest.
In the first possibility, rural life helps us appreciate traditional society since it is less affected by capitalism. In many of our rural communities, one still notices less greed and many of the communitarian aspects. These can be seen in use of community resources like wells and roads; even in smaller everyday sharing of things like salt, grinding stones and mortars, etc.
However, the selfishness and malice can as well be noticed. They are not totally alien to our societies. In some communities, you will find witchcraft targeted at their successful members.
A few years ago, I conducted research in some rural part of Uganda where housing was generally poor. I asked some of my respondents why those who were relatively well-off did not build decent houses. All said that they feared being bewitched. That those who had tried it before eventually had to flee the village.
Where the best explanation for the vices is capitalism, one still wonders why capitalism had to take that shape when it reached Uganda. We often characterise Western societies (Europe, America…) as individualistic. While this selfishness has been vividly reflected in the history of their relationship with other societies, internally, the picture is generally different.
You don’t see much malice, jealousy and greed amongst themselves. Though their societies manifest inequalities too, they tend to share with their needy and may not be seen maliciously trying to pull down one of their own that succeeds.
Certainly, there are many exceptions to all the assertions I am making here. The distinctions are not in black and white. My concern is with the extent to which these tendencies are pervasive in the said communities. Let me hazard some illustration.
The word ‘hater’ is one of the most commonly used in Uganda. You get shocked at an upcoming artiste beginning their song by sending regards to their ‘haters’. Another person posts his /her pictures or achievements on social media dedicating them to their haters. Church testimonies are awash with cries of being taunted by ‘enemies’.
That is why some church in Kawaala has strategically made a kill by capitalising on promises of casting witchcraft back to its senders. The narrative sells, because many of us easily believe that someone is out there to harm us. Even if this is sheer paranoia, where does it come from?
There is a strong relationship between ignorance, poverty and superstition. This could be part of our common suspicion of witchcraft and evil spirits, but it can only work where in the first place people think that some members of their community are evil-hearted.
For instance, Baganda often wonder where one is constantly unlucky: ani amuloga? (who is bewitching him/her?). This is not sheer jest. Why would we explain much of what befalls us in terms of foul play?
Often, when you are planning for something that can be failed by others, people will urge you not to tell anyone – even when it involves no loss for others. People applying for visas are advised to keep it to themselves until they have acquired the visa and reached their destination. Those seeking for promotion at their workplaces might only want to talk about it after succeeding.
The fear is not only for witchcraft, but also that one could do anything possible to frustrate your efforts – drawing happiness from your failure. At some workplaces, those at higher ranks ensure that no one gets there to become equal to them, even if they lose nothing by the other’s raise. If you are at the same rank, they may make sure you don’t rise before they do.
Workers’ conflicts involving accounts/claims of witchcraft are very common at our workplaces, even in religious institutions and other least-expected high places. I have also heard of many cases of business competitors accusing each other of planting charms at the other’s premises.
Whether these accusations are simply based on paranoid perceptions or reality, their socio-economic implications are vast. They are often the reason one will have an idea of doing something but won’t seek others’ views in fear of being backstabbed. This, in turn, increases risks of failure and impedes excellence.
By the time we know that the idea we were holding tightly on our chests was not viable, it is already crushing. People who would have helped each other to grow get sucked into mutually destructive competition.
Some communities stagnate as those with progressive ideas can only have them fulfilled there by as well investing in pushing back to the negative energy. Development can hardly be achieved where everyone is in constant suspicion of others.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.