I used to be frustrated, depressed, by the state of affairs in Uganda: The hospitals without drugs, the traffic disorganisation on the roads, the poor quality of the school products, the haphazard planning of Kampala and other towns, the incompetence, negligence and cluelessness in government.Much of this frustration was reflected in my articles in various editions of Daily Monitor, Saturday Monitor, and Sunday Monitor.Ten years ago, in 2012 and 2013, I started coming across old books and reports on Uganda from the British colonial era.Suddenly, my eyes were opened. For the first time in my life, I began to see Uganda through the eyes of the colonial government officials, the pioneering Christian missionaries, and European explorers.
It is a very different Uganda that can be seen through European colonial eyes.Since then, I have been collecting every book or government report published by these Europeans before 1962.What strikes me first and foremost in European books written about Uganda or Tanganyika, Kenya, and other African countries during the colonial era or shortly into the independence era is the calm, unflinching, undaunted tone that runs through them.Problems, challenges, setbacks, plans, policies and other matters of state that frustrate, annoy and depress us today, these Europeans tackle with a factual, analytical, warm, business-like tone.
From the obstacles faced during the building of the Uganda Railway in the 1890s to the outbreak of the Tsetse fly in Busoga in 1902, from setting up the future Makerere University in 1922 to the surveying that preceded the building of the Owen Falls Dam, from the mobilisation of King’s African Rifles troops from Uganda during the Second World War to the journeys in search of the source of the River Nile, nothing seems like a problem to the Europeans and there is even a hint of dry humour in the reports they write about their experiences.
I have observed the same calm, matter-of-fact mood at different sites by the Chinese companies as they go about building Ugandan roads, bridges, airports, and hydropower dams.Lorries, cranes, earth-moving equipment, all busy with the projects and standing nearby, in straw hats and often scrolling through their smartphones, the Chinese engineers and site supervisors day by day make progress without fuss, frustration, or drama.The reason I’ve brought this up is from reflecting on the new school year in Uganda and what students need to learn most.Is it classroom knowledge? Skills for the job market? Making friends and future contacts?
We have done all this since independence, so why is Uganda and almost all other African countries dependent on Western financial aid and Chinese construction?Why are we unable to run our own affairs without foreign help?It comes down to attitude, or what a 1965 Oxford University book on the history of East Africa termed our lack of a “high, ultimate purpose”.Put differently, the highest purpose of most Africans is quite small and ordinary — getting money to fend for one’s family, relatives, and escape poverty.Just that.No higher ambition, no real, serious, high purpose in life.President Museveni was honest enough a few years ago to openly admit this limited African mental scope even in himself, when he said he is working for himself, his children, and grandchildren.
Pupils in a classroom.
Even after 15 years of highly risky guerrilla warfare from 1971 to 1986 and three decades in power, all this comes down to feeding his children and grandchildren, just like any other ordinary Ugandan family, in towns or villages.When all our speeches and mission statements about national development and government programmes, corporate goals and business targets are put aside, from President to CEO, Member of Parliament to sales representative, university professor to magistrate, army brigade commanders to directors of intelligence agencies, church pastors to athletes, the core goal of the African is like Museveni’s — my family, my relatives, my grandchildren.Nothing more.That’s why we generally don’t care much about the public space. Everyone works for their little private space, the farm in the village, the apartment in Kampala, the house in Mbale or Jinja, and that’s it.The rampant corruption is also an offshoot of this.
The bribes, kickbacks, tax evasion, praise-singing of politicians, appearance at workshops in order to earn a “transport refund”, meaningless foreign and domestic travel in order to get per diem — all this has, as its final goal that of the bird flying back to its nest to feed its hungry chicks.Feeding our offspring in the nest is as big as most of us can think as life’s purpose.So, as a first step in truly developing Uganda, if it were within my powers, I would orient the Ugandan student and indeed Ugandan society in general into having the sense of purpose we see in Europeans and Chinese.I’m not talking about the government Patriotic Clubs. They have been tried and, unsurprisingly, failed. You can’t just tell people to love their countries.Most Africans broadly (if vaguely) love their countries, especially when they study, live or travel abroad and get exposed to the racism and aloofness in those countries.What we lack is an inner sense of purpose. High, heavy purpose, the one that develops societies and not just buying cars, plots of land, and builds houses.
The Israelis explained that the main cause of their lightning-fast victory over their Arab adversaries in the June 1967 Six-Day War was not their superiority of their air force, battle tanks and naval craft, but a sense of purpose that the Arabs lacked.Israeli commanders said this sense of purpose and thinking as one moral, logistical, and philosophical force and unit was inculcated in them by British army strategists.Those who watched the state funeral for Queen Elizabeth II last September no doubt observed this about the British.All institutions of state, from the various armed services to the Church of England rituals, the processions, the funeral cortege, every action, location, every ceremonial costume from 500 years ago, everything choreographed to the letter of detail.
A people with a sense of high purpose.I think somebody needs to invite back the British to sit us down at their feet and put in us, give us as Ugandans, a sense of purpose in life that goes far beyond and way higher than economic survival.All these millions of shillings and thousands of dollars that families sink in school fees for their children won’t cut it, until we find a sense of purpose to guide and shape our actions and thoughts.