Mukoma Wa Ngugi's Article on Political activism (Pambazuka News, Thursday 2 August 2007), which I very much enjoyed reading, reminded me to put my fingers down and share observations from my recent visit to Uganda. In fact it fits very well into Wa Ngugi's observations about the struggle to communicate and realize Pan Africanism for peoples of Africa. I agree for the most part with his argument, that Pan Africanism cannot be left to the elites but should be a people's struggle. However, the case he cites of Cuba and another not mentioned of Tanzania, shows that the elite took the high road of forging national unity among their people higher success. Therefore, I believe the same strategy should be adopted for most of Africa and particularly, my country-Uganda.
First, my disclaimer is that not all African political leaders and elites are doing enough to promote the spirit of Pan Africanism and national unity similar to Fidel Castro or Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. Many of our leaders are in political leadership for their own ideology or their satisfaction, and that partly explains why none of the 53 heads of states could agree to United States of Africa at the recent Accra Summit. However, nor are Africa “people organizations” and ordinary people doing a lot to realize the dream of African unity. In fact there are more Afro-pessimists about African unity than are Afro-optimists, as if this is a new invention. Many Africans move further away from Pan Africanism once they become richer and more exposed to the world outside their own.
In Uganda where I am from, success is measured in terms of who has the most exposure to foreign (read western) culture, material goods or lifestyle. Value is placed on who can purchase the latest Germany Mercedes Benz, the latest Swedish Nokia phone, American jeans, Japanese electronic or who speaks with an American, British accent or French. It is not uncommon to listen to newsreaders imitating a “British Accent” on Uganda airwaves. Little is celebrated of those people in the local manufacturing industries who produce cooking ware, car engines, household equipment, storage containers and farm tools. Little is celebrated of national sports, as most Ugandans associate with European sports clubs. For instance, there are more supporters of England's Manchester United football team in Uganda than are supporters of the national football team, the Uganda Cranes. In fact many Ugandans are quick to purchase Manchester United T-shirts but would not donate a shilling to promote national sports. If you quickly surveyed the Uganda public on their favourite football team, very few people would claim the Uganda Cranes as their favourite team. Ugandans love to consume what they do not produce, and despair what they produce. I returned to Uganda recently after seven years when I left to work and study in South Africa and the United States. Throughout this time, people have told me of the changes in Kampala, and many said I would not recognize the city when I returned. That was partly true because there were more new and celebrated Ugandan musicians, actors and fashion designers than seven years ago. I was amazed that Uganda music has replaced Congolese music as the dominant entertainment on national airwaves, clubs and discotheques. I saw more shops selling African fabric and more Ugandans (particularly women) wearing African clothes, as opposed to the pre-dominant European attire. Of course the European suit and tie is still very popular among men and European skirt and jacket for young professional women. Indeed, there were more designers of African fashion, more enterprising young people in business and more positive outlook on life. However, many of these new developments lack an element of originality or indigeneity and/or are carbon copies of foreign products. For instance, many of the Uganda musicians tend to copy the dressing, dancing and singing style of African American. I am not saying there is anything wrong with African Americans. I am wondering why Ugandans musicians do not promote a “Uganda brand” as a national identity, and strategy for global marketing and competition? It is more likely to find Ugandan entrepreneurs branding their businesses with Europeans names or Europeans cities. For instances, there is an enterprising Ugandan who is one of the pioneers of world-class private boarding secondary schools in the country. His school has branches established across the central region with names such as London College and Paris Campus. One wonders why he didn't continue with the initial naming of branches based on location, such as Kabaka's Lake Campus? Of course the other concern that comes to mind is the kind of identity this school principal is trying to create in these students. Is high-class education only comparable to London or Paris not Uganda? Should these students look toward further education in London or Paris, instead of investing in a higher education in Uganda and participate in national building?
Even Uganda fashion designers feel that tagging western labels onto their products would increase their sales? I went into a store owned by one of the most celebrated Uganda fashion designer to see her “Ugandan brand”. Instead, what I saw were clothes familiar to me from New York City stores and on European fashion runways. I wondered if the 'designer' had not sewed on her own logo on clothes purchased in New York? If not, why did she have to copy New York and European fashion? I am being too hard on her, when it is possible that New York and Europe copied her creations? It was hard for me to buy that reasoning because when I went to another store selling African prints with my mother to buy an African print shirt for my brother, the tailor had sewed on “Calvin Klein” labels. I asked her if Calvin Klein would sew on his clothes “Ugandan” or “Nalwoga” (a random name for a Muganda). She felt that I was insulting her while my mother said I was so “Westernized” in my behaviour. Personally, I thought that I was carrying my Pan African torch by questioning the mentality in Uganda that tends to assume that everything Europeans (read white) is what sells.
Around the same time, I attended another event that made me mad about Ugandans obsessions with the Western hemisphere. It was the unveiling of contestants for the 2007 Miss Uganda beauty pageant contestants at the Kampala Serena International Conference Centre. Contestants were asked questions regarding their dreams, hobbies and their role models. Out of the 27 girls, only two or three mentioned Uganda role models. The rest mentioned personalities mainly in the United States, such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson. One contestant went as far to state that her dream was to become that first female president of the United States! Did she know it was Ms. Uganda beauty pageant!
Then again, one cannot blame the entrepreneurs, artists or beauty queens from despising the Uganda brand when the heads of state do not serve by example. When our President's family wants to give birth, a presidential jet flies her to Germany because they do not trust Uganda hospitals. The President does not trust Uganda doctors, even though Uganda-trained medical professionals are sought after the world over. The rich send their children Europe or North America for higher education, instead of investing in Uganda's cheaper and world-class public universities. These destinations are also favoured for shopping and vacation by many “well-to-do” Ugandans, even before they visit a neighbouring African country. Now there is a new trend of Ugandan women flying to the United States to have their babies, so that their children become US Citizens and benefit of the riches of this world”! This behaviour does not convince me that our first priority as Ugandans and Africans is pan-Africanism. We do not invest in the beauty of ourselves, exploring our own surroundings and building our continent before we enrich those economies that we worked so hard to build as slaves. We cannot put our roads, garbage disposal and utilities to proper public consumption yet we are quick to feed the pockets of European and American markets. Uganda's President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is a highly known public proponent of regionalism, yet the main trade route between Uganda and Kenya via Busia border is full of potholes on either side. In the US, which we Ugandans love to imitate so much, “the-haves” rich do not make a name by consuming Ugandan products. They donate to their Alma meters or to non-profit institutions where they can have their names erected on building and held in memorabilia. Conversely, Ugandans prefer to make a name by spending holidays in the west (even in winter), imitating western accents or clamouring for US passports. Should I be surprised that I am despised at most African immigration points I go through with my Ugandan passport while holders of Europeans or North Americans passports go through with ease, most often without visa? So, Wa Ngugi needs to convince me that surely, the people will lead the Pan African struggle and we do not need strong political leaders to steer the wheel.
* Doreen Lwanga is African Scholar, Researcher and Activist working in the areas of Pan-Africanism, African security, and Higher education in Africa.
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