February 13, 2011
Not long ago, I was riding home when my boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver swerved to avoid a mud-like heap in the road which soon gave way to the unmistakably sweet stench of cow shit.
Cars and bicycles plowed through it, churning up green-brown flakes in their wake. Passers-by barely turned if at all.
Must be common, I thought, but my driver assured me the sight was new to him. And yet he proved equally unconcerned.
The shit remained for three more days, remedied only by the constant thinning from tires until it, fittingly, blended into the choking dust and debris that have come to define this once-shining Pearl of Africa.
I’m reminded of that shit now, a day after Egyptians forced Hosni Mubarak from power; and a week before presidential elections here, in which the incumbent looks set to gain another five-year term amid rotting infrastructure, nagging poverty, and few job prospects for university graduates.
The metaphor is apt: Ugandans don’t give a shit.
Oh, they’ll tell you they do when pressed on the subject, and justifiably point out what their government doesn’t do. But that’s certain to be followed up with, “But there’s nothing we can do.”
To be fair, the last two presidential elections here were rigged, and neither public outrage nor two Supreme Court rulings reversed the outcome. Sham committees “investigate” big men. Corrupt administrators keep their jobs and are even promoted. Accountability is an elusive dream in Uganda.
But that doesn’t explain why Ugandans young and old litter everywhere, or tolerate boda-bodas cruising down the sidewalks, honking for pedestrians to step aside; or endure without question a water and electricity crisis that has deteriorated over the last three months to the point that power now cuts out several times a day and water doesn’t flow more than fifty percent of the time. (A few weeks ago the electricity shut off three times during a visit to the Ugandan Investment Authority, during which UIA’s director didn’t skip a beat in her rosy outlook of the country.)
It doesn’t explain why most Ugandans I’ve spoken with during the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings displayed little interest in the unprecedented calls for liberation and empowerment north of the Sahara – even when it was staring back at them on the TV in a salon or restaurant.
It doesn’t explain why with weeks before a presidential election, the worst water and electricity crisis here in years hasn’t become a campaign issue (opinion polls show Museveni with a commanding lead).
What does explain it is that Ugandans don’t really give a shit. “We’re used to it,” is how many Ugandans have put it to me. Which is why Museveni isn’t in a panic to explain his regime’s gross mishandling of basic services.
He is quite relieved to know that if you’re a mediocre incumbent (or worse), this is the country to be running in; Ugandans will come to your rallies and cheer on the same false promises you made five years ago. Hell, they’ll cheer on the same empty assurances they’ve been hearing since independence.
Does it all make me feel a bit superior? I’ll admit at times it does; that there are days I judge the common Ugandan and his country to be primitive and backwards. Some time later, I invariably retreat from that position to see that it would be insensitive not to take into account the poverty, the trauma, the abuse of power, colonial past and apathy that haunts the collective conscience. I go further to remind myself that not all is bleak, that much I find redeeming about the people and country, I have much to learn from them, and even where it is bleak, TIA – This Is Africa. I must adjust my expectations (and admire Africans for their handling of adversity).
But then I realize that it would be equally insensitive to make excuses for this pervasive unconcern (despite how politically correct and lighter on my heart it would be); to buy into the common refrain that the people here are helpless, afraid, or simply ignorant of what their government owes them. Some are. Many are not.
Such claims, despite often reflecting real obstacles, are too often used as an excuse to remain half-asleep and do nothing. And it’s an excuse that holds less water now that Egyptians – of all people, mercilessly held down as long as they were – reclaimed what is rightfully theirs.
Ugandans will be more deserving of respect, will indeed find greater self-respect, when they wake up and start giving a shit. Until then, they’ll mostly have themselves to blame for the mess they’re in.