JOLLY GOOD TIME TO BE A UGANDAN, RIGHT?

(this article first run in the New Vision of December 14th, 2018)

If you are like me, you are probably tired of those people who are always posting stuff about how a small little country to our south west is doing just great. Psychologists probably have a term for it, and doubtless dissertations have been written about it, but it seems to be some kind of self-hate when one is always happy when someone else, not you or yours, is doing well.

But of recent things are happening in Uganda that if they were happening in said small country will be all over our Inboxes, but those self-haters are strangely quiet. Last weekend, of course, a Ugandan beat out all other African girls to become Miss World-Africa, and reach the final five of the Miss World beauty pageant.

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Quinn Abenakyo

The fact notwithstanding that said pageant has lost much of its glitter of late, the organisers have been accused of selling out to the Chinese (no surprises there), and feminists have sworn to drive into oblivion, a beautiful girl will always draw attention. So a very big up to 22-year old Quinn Abenakyo, and we can add ‘the land of beautiful girls’ to the ‘kindest people in the world’ to our country’s description.

Beauty queens, by their very nature, are supposed to be goodwill ambassadors, so it has always beaten me why, after they are declared winners, most just go back to their normal, many times dull lives. They should be out there endorsing products, selling government policies and programs, but in Uganda we have a Minister for Tourism posing for selfies with a one Zari Hassan, whose main claim to fame is how many men she has slept with.

There are rumours making the rounds that Abenakyo was not only tossed around by government officials, but hit for six and kicked into touch when she was searching for help as she prepared for the Miss World contest. No prises for guessing what department that might be (and a picture appears on social media of a heavily-made-up Zari, complete with heels, with a basket of green pepper on her heard).

In other trivia news, the name Quinn is apparently of Irish origin, and there are quite a number of colourful characters throughout history that have carried the name Quinn. Maybe all those Irish peeps will want to check out the Ugandan Quinn (some wag on social media asked where were the girls from that small country to the south-west during Miss World?).

Elsewhere, another Ugandan girl, Harriet Anena, won the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa for her book of poems A Nation in Labour. She shared the prize, chosen from a total of 110 submissions from 11 African nations, with Nigerian poet, Prof. Tanure Ojaide, for his piece Songs of Myself. The prize was established in 205 by the Lumina Foundation in honour of the Nobel Laurette, and carries a cash prize of $10,000 (about sh37m).

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Harriet Anena

Anena is no Johnny-come-lately, she won her first writing prize in 2003 for her poem The plight of the Acholi child, which helped her secure a bursary for A-Level education. She attended the 2013 Caine Prize workshop held in Uganda, her story Watchdog Games was published in the anthology A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing (2013); she was shortlisted for the Ghana Poetry prize for her poem We arise (2013), and made the shortlist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in May this year. (And Zari posts another selfie, dressed in jungle fatigues and surrounded by armed policemen).

Before that Joshua Cheptegei (remember him?) made the news by breaking a world record in the 15km run; a world record, ladies and gentlemen! The last time a Ugandan held a world record in anything (corruption doesn’t count here) was in 1972, go figure! (Zari is seen posing with goats in a typically rural Ugandan setting). Do our neighbours to the south-west hold any world records, does anyone know?

cheptegei

Then our own Stella Atal, who has continually held our national flag higher and higher every year for the last decade, participated in the 11th edition of the International Festival of African Fashion (FIMA “festival international de la mode en Afrique”) in Morocco. Before that she literally flew the flag at the UNESCO Africa Fashion Reception in Paris. Then she was off to Brussels for the DEVCO2018 Directorate General for international Cooperation, organised by the European Union. (Zari, probably bored with all this tourism ambassador thing, has reportedly gone back to her ‘home’ in South Africa).

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So it is a good time to be a Ugandan, even if the first official photograph of a new Uganda Airlines plane looked like it was made out of papier-mâché, and the figure of the crane on the tail looked it hadn’t eaten since the original Uganda Airlines was closed.

I know there are reports coming from Parliament that some local banks were closed and sold like mivumba in Owino Market; and that the chaps on the Committee refused to heed the President’s advice and have the hearings in private, so now the whole world knows that even the very well paid folks in the central bank have mivumba tendencies.

It is time to feel good about Uganda, c’mon y’all.

 

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WHEN LACK OF ‘LUGEZIGEZI’ CAN GET YOU KILLED IN UGANDA

(This article first run in the New Vision of Friday November 30th, 2018)

Amidst all the mourning and cries for ‘gavumenti etuyambe’ after the cruise boat tragedy last weekend, one thing struck out for me. While many folks on social media were pointing out how the ability to swim might have saved more people (the boat capsized less than 200m from shore), my good friend Daudi, a very good and champion swimmer, wrote that every time he tells people to learn to swim, they accuse him of having ‘lugezigezi’.

boat tragedy

That’s right, to some Ugandans owning up to be able to swim well, and asking others to take it up, is seen as trying to act like they are better than others, or ‘pretending’, as they put it. In a way those folks were telling Daudi that those ‘swimming things’ are for bazungu, and does he think he is a mzungu? Hence the accusation of having ‘lugezigezi’, which can be loosely translated as being a ‘wiseacre’.

Well my friend Daudi, welcome to the world of lugezigezi, except that this time it is a positive thing. Basically, what the rest of these morons are saying is that you are trying to do the right thing, when everybody else is comfortable with doing the wrong thing.

Like that Uber driver in the middle of slow moving traffic, where the usual Ugandan driver wouldn’t think twice of trying to create an extra lane. You can tell when he has made up his mind to join the other nincompoops that are doing just that, and you tell him to stick with the lane he is in. That look he gives you has the accusation of lugezigezi all over it. It does not matter that you will have to pay for the extra time spent in the car anyway, he just wants to be Ugandan and do the wrong thing.

While most drivers and passengers in Uganda are now fastening their seat belts, they are still people who think you’re being a coward for doing so. Reminds me of the time we went upcountry for an event, and the company managing the media team hired this really tired, old ramshackle ‘taxi’ for us to travel in. I always took the front seat, but the seat belt was not working, so I refused to enter the van, removed my luggage and said they could go on without me. Some of the media people obviously thought I was making a big fuss for nothing, but I stuck to my guns.

Eventually the guy in charge of the media, who was obviously trying to make some ‘enjawulo’ on the trip, eventually abandoned that old taxi and got us a decent one. The conversation during that trip was about travelling with people who had lugezigezi, but I just smiled to myself in my comfortable seat up front, feeling safe with my seat belt fastened.

You know when you are on an aircraft and about to land? The captain always instructs everybody to switch off all electronic devices and prepare for landing. One time we were on this flight from London, and started the descent to Entebbe. The lights are off, seats are up, and everyone is bracing themselves for the landing. That is when this teenager across the aisle decides that is the right time for him to start listening to music from his phone. I indicate to him that he should switch off his phone, and he retorts, “Are you the captain?” I was not the captain, but I have lugezigezi, so I reached over and tore the headphones from his head, grabbed his phone and switched it off.

Of course he complained like crazy, but quietened down when I offered to sort out matters in the parking lot after we cleared customs and immigration. His travelling companion, probably a sister, later apologised and they got the phone back after the plane landed. Can phones actually cause a plane to have problems when landing or taking off? I don’t know, but that was not the time to find out.

It is an open secret on most boats traversing our national lakes that many don’t have life boats, and any attempt at asking for one brings accusation of either trying to bring bad luck to the boat or, you guessed it, having lugezigezi. And those chronically overloaded boats, canoes if you like, are often the only means of transport between islands (and politicians want to spend sh11bn talking about disagreeing, a small voice whispers in my ear). But with any luck, and a strong touch of lugezigezi, you might just survive.

After the hullabaloo of the tragic cruise boat accident has died down, and the rush for swimming lessons dies out, it will be business as usual for most Ugandans. But don’t worry too much Daudi, having a healthy dose of lugezigezi might be just what one needs to survive in this crazy Uganda of ours.

 

WHEN THE JUDICIARY FIGHTS ITSELF, AND OTHER TALES

(this article first run in the New Vision Friday November 9th, 2018)

Lady Justice Bamugemeire (bless her soul) fired the first salvo, when she declared that the judiciary was playing a big part in the rampant land grabbing that the  Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters, which she heads, was set up to investigate. She specifically condemned “bogus judgements and orders” in the eviction of bibanja holders, and warned that if the judiciary “does not rise to the occasion, it will be captured wholly by land grabbers and used as a catalyst of untold social distress arising from pressure on land”.

bamugemereire

The Judiciary also hit back, expressing concern with the mode in which the Lady Justice had chosen to express her frustration, and in effect declaring she should have used the ‘right forum’.

And what would that right forum be? A report to State House or the Judiciary Commission, which then would be tasked with investigation these accusations, and maybe in about 10 years or so issue another report about the initial report.

Two things here to note: first, State House must be choking to the rafters with reports, which somehow never make it to the public realm afterwards; and you want to add another one? And this thing about the ‘right forum’, it does nauseatingly sound familiar, doesn’t it?

Ugandans have this hang-up about the ‘right forum’, and it usually comes up after frustrated people take their cases to the public after being unsuccessful with the usual methods of solving issues. We all know about service providers who will ignore complaints about the service they provide, but a Tweet or Facebook post from a frustrated individual will make them run around like headless chickens trying to manage the fallout. And of course complain about not using the ‘right forum’ to funnel their complaints.

So I do feel for the good Justice, who has been out in the trenches, so to speak, seeing first-hand the tribulations and the misery caused by the decisions from the judiciary (incidentally her own sister, the Chief Magistrate of Nabweru, Rebecca Esther Nasambu, was accused of issuing an order that effectively evicted hundreds of families from their homes).

Then that de facto pressure group, the Uganda Law Society, also predictably stepped in, and effectively accused the Lady Justice of disrespecting her ‘learned friends’.  It also insisted that she should have issued a report instead of a press release. Duh! Wonder if they will move to issue a certificate of incompetence, remember that one?

The background to this of course is that the Judiciary and the Police are seen as the two most corrupt institutions in the country, and no amount of reports are going to change that. In fact a former President of the ULS, Francis Gimara, accused his learned friends of becoming increasingly unethical. We definitely have not seen the last of this.

The fight against corruption plods on, but in which direction?

Many recent surveys indicate that the biggest problem Ugandans see facing their country is corruption, and rightly so. Every so often the government comes up with a new initiative to fight this scourge, the latest being the so-called Zero Tolerance to Corruption policy.

But there is a catch, or a price, if you will, and it comes to almost sh120bn. Yes, that is what it will cost the tax payer to convince Ugandans to say no to corruption. But where will all this money go? Because before this policy came into existence, there are statutory bodies tasked with fighting corruption. Like the Inspectorate of Government, for one. Except it seems the government does not trust it anymore, and wants more people involved in the fight against corruption. You can almost feel the glee with which government officials are waiting for these billions to come across their desks. No prizes for guessing exactly what will happen to it, of course.

As an after note of sorts, do you all remember the ‘anti-corruption’ hotline established about a year ago? The special toll free (means one is not charged for calling it) telephone line, 0800100770, was put there so concerned citizens could call in and report any incidences of corruption.

Great innovation, you would say. Except that, according to the recently fired Chief Executive Office of the Uganda Investment Authority, Jolly Kaguhangire, that hotline did not receive a single call in the whole year since it was established. That is right folks, not a single person called in to report an incidence of corruption. Go figure!

 

ALL IN A WEEK’S WORK IN THE PEARL OF AFRICA

(this story first run in the New Vision of Friday November 2nd, 2018)

If you thought things would cool down when American rapper Kanye West and his $10,000-backside wife left Uganda, think again. Does anyone even remember all the hullaballoo when they were here? We have moved on, and it is never a dull moment in this country that is supposed to be the pearl in Africa’s crown.

The saga of the fake eggs

The news broke last week that some deviant Chinese guys were manufacturing fake eggs and selling them on the open market, albeit at a cheaper price. We first did a double take on reading that, fake eggs? Who would go to the trouble of manufacturing fake eggs? Did someone get the story wrong?

fake eggs

But a quick Internet search proved that, in actual fact, the Chinese have been up to it for quite a while. In fact fake food made in China is nothing new, and came to light as early as the 1990s. But the Chinese have no chills, as modern speak has it, and promptly sentenced to death anyone found producing fake food, which included poisonous baby formula, exploding watermelons, pork coloured to be sold as beef, pork that glowed blue, recycled steamed buns and tofu, a kind of East Asian yoghurt, fermented with sewage.

In 2005 the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that the production of fake eggs was prevalent all over China. It soon spread all over Asia and has been reported in neighbouring Kenya.

But while the media reported that the Ugandan police was pursuing some Chinese guys accused of manufacturing fake eggs somewhere in Kawempe, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) came out a day after the story broke and said the fake eggs were actually sweets, but labelled badly. No kidding? Had they actually carried out any tests? Had they even seen samples of the purported fake eggs? Someone please hold my glass of wine.

Government’s zero tolerance to corruption

While we were still trying to wrap our minds around the saga of the fake eggs and disappearing Chinese, reports came that the Cabinet had approved the, wait for it, ‘Zero Tolerance to Corruption Policy 2018’. Again, you’re kidding me? So all these years our government has been somewhat tolerant of corruption?

According to Wikipedia, corruption in Uganda ‘is characterized by grand-scale theft of public funds and petty corruption involving public officials at all levels of society, as well as widespread political patronage systems’. If you asked me, I would say ‘no comment’.

akki bua stadium

the ‘sh600m’ Akii-Bua stadium in Lira, Uganda

And this announcement came at a time when reports from Lira had it that officials were given sh600m to build the Akii-Bua memorial stadium, but had used all that money to put up a ‘shed’ and a pit latrine (now we know what ‘V.I.P’ latrines really means). And more people died from landslides in Bududa because officials supposed to have bought land to relocate them paid for wetlands instead, so of course the people could not be relocated.

But let us give the government the benefit of doubt, and accept that from now on it will be committed to ‘fight corruption, enforce anti-corruption measures, and inculcate a culture of integrity, accountability and patriotism’. Right? Right! Pass me some more wine please, this is going to be one very long night.

Uganda’s falling fertility rate

Other news came through that, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, the rate at which Ugandan women are giving birth has gone down. It was reported that it declined over the last 10 years from a very high 6.4 children born per woman, on average, to about 5.2. In places like Kampala, it was as low as 3.5.

Now this is good news, not least of all that it means our GDP per capita increased as a result, which should mean we are richer than we were 10 years ago. It also means maybe our young population, which is reckoned to be one of the highest in the world, won’t increase as fast as expected. Which also means that our country won’t be transforming into a population of boda boda riders, and probably will have fewer bored-with-nothing-to-do young people running around in red t-shirts.

But just when you thought that was all good, it took a typically Ugandan angle, as narrated by a colleague of mine. Apparently there was this man whose wife had born him 5 girls, which no self-respecting Ugandan man will take lightly. He badly wanted a boy, and the pressure from his family was mounting, so he reluctantly, it was said, took a second wife.

To his delight she was soon pregnant, and he couldn’t wait for the birth of his son and heir to his name. So imagine what he is up to now when the second wife gave birth, not to a baby boy as eagerly anticipated, but to twin girls. You got to love this Pearl of Africa.

OF THIS SICK WORLD OF FAKE NEWS AND HOAX STORIES

(this story first run in the New Vision of Friday October 26th, 2018)

Last week a news item made the rounds, in which South African Deputy Minister of Transport Sindisiwe Lydia Chikunga was quoted as advising drivers that switching off one’s car headlamps when driving at night can save fuel. It was quickly picked up and almost became viral, with a lot of ridicule towards the Minister, and calls for her resignation. Although she denied saying anything like that, trolls were all over her and wondered what kind of people are in South Africa’s government.

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It was, of course, not true, and the source was traced to a fake-news website called News Updates South Africa, which bills itself as ‘South Africa’s number 1 news satire website’. A quick Internet search would have brought that up, but of course nobody bothered to do so, after all like one of the oldest newsroom jokes go, why let the truth or facts stand in the way of a juicy story?

Before the advent of social media, any mainstream media publishing false stories was in danger of being taken to the cleaners through court cases, and extreme care was taken to make sure whatever stories were published could be proven, or at least corroborated.

But then comes the smart phone, and social media was let loose on a world not really ready for it. All of a sudden everyone wanted to play at being a journalist, except they didn’t bother with the restrictions and at times self-censorship that should have come with it.

What did that guy in the taxi to town say? Must be breaking news, let’s share it with everyone we know. That Congolese-looking guy has a bad cold? Must be Ebola, spread the word. And if you added at the end that it was on BBC or CNN, it would make it sound really real.

WhatsApp just made the whole thing go into overdrive, and there are people (I’ll be kind and not call them bad names) who in the good old days would be referred to as ‘gossipmongers’, and rejected in society. Some even got driven away from their villages of abode, it was considered to be such a bad thing to be a gossipmonger.

Not any more. These days folks get up in the morning and the first thing they do is look around for juicy stories to spread on social media. Every WhastApp group has one or two or more people like this, it is what they do most of the time. They will not engage in debates, but just post 1,000-word posts from some dubious websites they searched for.

Some WhatsApp admins got tired of this and insisted that before anyone forwards or posts any other opinion other than their own, they should cite the sources or authorities. It stymied those who-used-to-be-called-gossipmongers for a while, but not for long. Because where they are people ready to spread gossip, they are those that are ready to create it.

Almost every day a supposedly new ‘news’ website is created, and Uganda is not different. They don’t need a license, or pay any overheads apart from maybe hosting of their websites, but their interest is to drive traffic to themselves, and maybe they will make some money from online adverts.

It used to be that a daily tabloid used to have a special corner of cooking up and spreading fake news, but now it is being driven out of business by these online sites. Any rumour that is started anywhere is instantly posted as ‘breaking news’, and those fellows-formerly-known-as-gossipmongers are quick to pick it up. You want a source? They will point to the link to that dubious news-site as their sources, and gleefully look for more stuff to share.

Some guy will wake up in the morning and create a new list of cabinet ministers, and those news-sites will pick it up, quote sources in Sate House, and post it as ‘breaking news’. Soon others will pick it up, and very soon even mainstream media houses could fall for the trick.

The once infallible BBC was a victim once, when a local artist claimed his song was banned by the government because it was deemed to be anti-establishment. The local BBC stringer picked it up, did not bother to cross check and it was soon on the BBC website page. There was serious egg on some editor’s face when it turned out to be false. Someone must have told his Dotardness about this incident, because he soon added the BBC to his ‘fake news’ media list.

The truth is, if a story sounds too fantastic to be true, it’s probably a hoax. And just as there are websites dedicated to just producing fake stories, there are web sites dedicated to exposing them as hoaxes.

Just like the old lady deep in the village that used to clean a gossipmonger’s mouth with rough lemon grass to teach them otherwise, there are folks dedicated to debunk any hoax.

They advise that before sharing that outlandish-sounding story, do a Google search on the topic. If a news story is real and significant, especially if it’s about a political leader or event, the death of a celebrity, or a major disaster or terrorist attack, many genuine news outlets will likely cover it. If there is no reference to it, chances are it’s just a hoax.

You can also check on other stories on that particular website, if they include stories like little green men are coming to take over earth, go back to bed or have a cup of coffee or something.

Can we all do this, before we call that old lady from the village to clean out your mouths with lemon grass, you fellows-that-used-to-be-called-gossipmongers?

 

 

UGANDANS AND THE KIM KARDASHIAN CHALLENGE

(this story run in the New Vision of Friday October 19th, 2018)

Uganda2a

A week is a long time in the affairs of Uganda, but this one has to be right up there, what with all the stuff that has been happening. From a 17-year old girl that became a wold chess champion (but largely ignored by most), to the amazing news that the perennially under- performing soccer Cranes team got sh200m and a ride in a chartered plane, to the we-knew-it-was-coming-sooner-or-later but totally shocking news that Jennifer Musisi had finally given up playing ping pong with local politicians, it has been quite a week (and by the time I wrote this it hadn’t even ended).

But what really dominated the country’s collective conscious was the arrival of American rapper Kanye West and his reality TV show star Kim Kardashian. After his completely out-of-touch-with-reality-so-het-your-meds performance in the American White House, Kanye (also known as Ye) announced he was going to visit the place ‘known as Africa’.

Since he didn’t seem to know where he was going, we all thought Ye would get lost over the Atlantic, or end up in the Antarctic somewhere. So imagine our great surprise when he turned up not only actually in Africa, but at Uganda’s ‘luxury 5-star Chobe Lodge’ (typically, the Americans thought it was in Botswana).

Away from the silly jokes that he was actually hoping to find him some vibranium in the real Wakanda, and all the acidic comments from his fellow bi-polar Americans notwithstanding, Kanye and his family are a really big deal in the popular world. Between them (at least before Ye deleted his social media presence) they commanded almost 200 million followers on social media, which is more than the entire combined population of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. To all the men, women and children in East Africa, you would have to add our chickens, pigs and imported goats to make up the numbers. No wonder the fellows at the Ministry of Tourism and the Uganda Tourism Board feel like it’s an early Christmas for them, that much exposure is more than they dreamed about.

But to many Ugandans, who probably haven’t listened to Kanye’s music, what really caught their attention was something else – Kim Kardashian’s backside.  First of all it is a very famous backside, not least of all because when Kim started out being famous about 10 years ago, it was a very typical mzungu backside, which means there was hardly anything there. But it has evolved over the years, and has become so famous that if it was on Instagram account it would probably have 100 million followers on its own.

But Ugandans were not impressed much, and social media has been full of what has become known as ‘the Kardashian challenge’. Because what took Kim over ten years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop, Ugandan women grow it naturally (some wags claimed that was the real reason Kanye chose to come to Uganda, to see what a real, natural female backside actually looks like).

So Ugandan women took to social media to showcase what their mamas gave them, and it was quite a show. Individually, in pairs and in groups, they took pictures and posted them on social media. There were debates on who to take to Chobe to show the Wests the real thing – Zari? Nothing there, some argued. Fabiola? Not quite. What about Desire, or Winnie Nwagi?

Somebody posted on Facebook that the many Kampala arcades were where the really ‘endowed’ Ugandan ladies could be found, chilling in small shops and selling fake Chinese phones; so photographers invaded the arcades, each fighting to photograph and own the picture that would put Kim to shame.

For some reason white people have always been fascinated by the African backside, and it was around the 19th century that Europeans first got to see it was really like. But given the typical colonial mentality prevalent then, treated the women with big backside as freak shows. In fact several were taken from southern African and exhibited in circuses across Europe.

The most famous was one named Sarah Baartman, a Khoisan woman originally from what is now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, who was treated as a slave and as an object of pseudo-scientific curiosity. When she died her remains remained on show in a museum in Pars, France, till eventually after a long campaign the French agreed to repatriate her remains, and she was buried in her homeland in 2002, almost 200 years after her birth.

Sarah

a 19th century illustration of Sarah Baartman

But from being treated as a freak, the African backside has become a thing of serious envy all over the world. Before Kim’s backside became famous, another western celebrity, Jennifer Lopez, took advantage of her round behind to increase her stardom. It was so central to her claim to fame that at one time it was rumoured that she had insured it for a billion dollars.

Of course African men have always sworn by the big backside of their women, although it is not very typical even across Africa. The Kenyans, for example, have always been known to envy the generously endowed Ugandan women; so much so that one female Kenyan lawyer, who was similarly endowed, quit the bar and became rich and famous showing what her mama gave her.

So while it took Kim Kardashian thousands of dollars to get her backside, they are ten a penny around Kampala, or maybe even just a few beers away. Maybe our tourism officials should re-angle that ‘gifted by nature’ campaign, and this time tourists who want to see nature at its best will not be trekking in forests, but checking out the numerous Kampala arcades.

NOT QUITE ALL THAT JAZZ IN UGANDA

All that jazz is a song from the 1975 musical Chicago (and later the title of a film based on the musical), and is the opening act which sets the mood for the story set during the so-called jazz age. The musical is about a free living, some would say scandalous, behavior of the ‘roaring twenties’ of the United Sates. It paints a picture of people who live for the enjoyment of life, and have no care about the rest of us.

Many Ugandan jazz aficionados will tell you about visiting outside countries where, typically in small clubs, a bunch of guys without a care what you thought of them get together to play jazz, and have a roaring good time. New Orleans (where it all begun), New York, Washington, all over Europe, and others are places where folks just want to be free to listen to their music.

What about Kampala, you may ask? For a time, it seemed we had joined that international group of free-spirited people and lived for all that jazz. But just for a time, because word going round is that Jazz FM, a station ostensibly dedicated to the preservation and spreading of jazz in Uganda, was sold off. It must be true, because last time I tried to tune in, it was Nigerian music being played.

What is it with Uganda and jazz? It’s like a tale of star-crossed lovers, whose every attempt to make things work somehow always ends in tragedy. Shakespeare would have loved the story lines that make up the tale of jazz in Uganda.

The earliest mention I can find of jazz in Uganda is a poster from 1960 somebody shared on Facebook, announcing that Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong would be performing in Nakivubo Stadium. Louis Armstrong in Kampala? Seems like the stuff of dreams.

In more recent times, the only public jazz performances were mostly when visiting American artists, brought by the USAID, performed in Kampala. Then sometime in the mid-noughties the late DJ Bangirana decided to organize a jazz night at the then Viper Room discotheque (which would later become the Basement before eventually closing its doors).

What must have been the biggest group then of self-acclaimed jazz aficionados (addicts, fans, enthusiasts, buffs) to ever get together in Uganda found their way there, as did many great instrumentalists. It was really going well, but Bangi had other plans, which included a break for karaoke. That broke the spell, almost everyone left, and did not return to a jazz get together for years to come.

There were several attempts after that at regular jazz gigs but they did not last very long, although Alex Ndawula tried to keep the fire burning with a weekly jazz night at the Rock Gardens. But that soon came to naught, as did the Tusker Jazz Night at Sabrina’s hosted by Harry Lwanga.

In the meantime Tshaka Mayanja started the Jazz Safari, but it was more of a social event where folks were more interested in being seen than to what was going on stage. And Ugandans actually dressed up to go for a jazz concert! Wonder what the folks on New Orleans would think about that? But credit must be given to Tshaka’s persistence in that the Jazz safari still takes place, and is currently in its 11th year.

performers at the Jazz Collective at Copper Bar in 2013

Performing at the Jazz Collective in 2013 

But the biggest effort to introduce regular jazz in Kampala was when the Jazz Collective was started at the Grand Imperial’s Copper Bar by a group of determined people. From May 2013 lovers of jazz gathered there every last Friday of the month to play their favourite jazz songs, and live acts soon followed. The word spread far and wide, and many visitors timed their tours of Kampala to include that last Friday, and for a time it seemed the tragic tale of jazz in Uganda was to have a happy ending, after all.

But it was not to be and after about a year, without any explanation or evident cause, the Jazz Collective stopped happening, and the Copper Bar became, first a forex bureau, and now a casino.

What was jazz lovers to do? At least we had Jazz FM, and if we couldn’t paint the town and go into a club where the ‘gin was cold and the piano’s hot’, we could chill out wherever we were and listen to some cool jazz.

But now that is not happening anymore, and the tragedy rolls on. A new spot in Ntinda, the Old Timerz, had planned to have a jazz night, tried it a few times, but it was not thought out very well, and that too came to an end.

So sadly, we are not going to paint the town red, and all that jazz.

 

A NEW DAWN FOR UGANDA FILMMAKERS, SMELL THE COFFEE

(this article run in the New Vision Friday October 5th, 2018)

pearl

What came first, the chicken or the egg? That seemed to be the question at Monday’s launch of Pearl Magic, a DStv channel dedicated solely to Ugandan content. While everyone agreed it was a good move, long overdue actually, the debate was whether Uganda had sufficient quality content to be aired, or whether the content was not there because there were no platforms to air it; and all this was within just 30 minutes of the channel being launched.

The biggest point of contention was the inclusion on the line-up of an Indian soap, with the audio dubbed into Luganda. Many film makers and producers at the launch took exception to having an Indian soap on a channel supposed to be dedicated to Ugandan content, and explained how they had fought long and hard to have a platform for their content (some complained why it was in Luganda, and not other languages?).

Efforts by Multichoice management to explain that the content line-up was as a result of a lot of market research, and that it was just the beginning and could change in the future, did not seem to go down very well.

The Uganda film industry has come a long way (and I’m not talking about the folks in Wakaliga), and it has been largely a labour of love. It is rare that a Ugandan film has been shown in cinemas in Kampala, most go straight to DVDs and are very quickly pirated and sold for as low as sh1,000 on the streets.

Film making is an expensive endeavour, and funding in Uganda is notoriously difficult to get. For example the Maisha Film Lab was established in 2005 by Hollywood Director Mira Nair to train Ugandans in all aspects of filmmaking, including production, screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, editing, sound recording, and acting.

Since then dozens have graduated from Maisha, including Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o, who went on to win an Oscar Award. But dozens more litter the streets of Kampala, their dreams of making feature films held back by the lack of funding for their projects. And if no one is going to see your film anyway, why would anybody give you money to make it?

I think this is what Ugandan filmmakers have not internalised properly, as yet. As explained at the launch, Multichoice is going to pay for any content aired on the Pearl Magic channel. It was not revealed just how much that pay is (we will surely know soon enough), but it is definitely much better than that sh1,000 for a DVD on Kampala streets.

When I interviewed Ugandan filmmaker Joseph Ken Ssebaggala in 2016 after his film House Arrest did not win anything at the Africa Magic Viewers Choice Awards, in spite of having four nominations, he said he would henceforth just make films and sell them to Multichoice, and that it was the only venue Ugandan filmmakers had a chance of making any money for their work.

Guess what, the gift horse has come to Uganda, and the filmmakers did not have to look for it after all. But is it going to work, or even last? Several channels that were introduced on Africa’s largest pay TV network have quietly gone off air, for different reasons.

Whether the Pearl Magic channel does work out depends a lot on our filmmakers, methinks. First of all, Ugandans are not known for just consuming something because it is Ugandan, all the calls for patriotism notwithstanding. For example, instead of visiting the various tourism destinations the county has to offer, which foreigners pay thousands of dollars to come and visit, a typical Ugandan with a few loose shillings will probably choose to go to Dubai, or South Africa. So calling on Ugandans to watch local content just because it is made by Ugandans will not wash, I’m afraid.

Secondly, Multichoice is going to demand top quality work from our artists, whether videos, series or feature films. That will definitely push the industry forward, to an extent where Ugandans will inevitably and willingly choose our local content over that of foreigners.

It is a new dawn, Ugandan filmmakers have to stop crying wolf and, to paraphrase a popular quote, when the day breaks they better start running, or they will starve and dry away.

MOMBASA AHOY! NOW I’M TRYING TO FIND MY KNEES

The view from my window at the Reef Hotel, Mombasa

view from my window at the Reef Hotel, Mombasa

The last time I was in Mombasa was as part of a crowd of college kids going away for the weekend, and it went by in a blur fuelled by a lot of alcohol. As students from the United States International University, we took the night train to Mombasa, and it was very different from what happened about a month ago when I went with a bunch of families from the My Uganda Forum.

Then, the train had sleeping bunks, and most important of all, a bar. We were determined to make sure the bar was empty by the time we got to Mombasa the next morning (it was a whole night’s journey, so whoever succumbed to the booze took a nap, woke up later and continued to contribute to that group effort). I don’t remember if we actually succeeded in emptying the bar, it was a blurry morning after all, but we gave it our best shots.

This time we took the SGR morning train from Nairobi, it was sitting room only, and alcohol was prohibited on board. But this was Kenya, where a little ‘kitu kidogo’ goes a long way, so our group was well stocked. These were no college kids but many middle-aged men and women, but they did a good job of exhausting whatever was in stock.

We were booked at the 3-star Reef Hotel on Nyali beach, which is on the northern coast of Mombasa. It was a nice and quaint place, and reminded me much of the Uganda Hotels of old, and a big sign in the lobby reading ‘Reef hotel 1972’  confirmed the old time charm. I really prefer such hotels to multi-storeyed, modern monsters.

Many of the rooms had large French windows which opened up to an immaculate lawn facing the beach, and that first night I was woken up by the sound of the tide coming in. Whenever I go to Ssese I stay at the Kimbugwe’s place, which has wooden cabins right up next to the beach, and the sound of the water coming on to the beach is what memories are made of. But these tides are dozens of times bigger, so I got up in the middle of the night and went to watch the tide come in. It was only spoilt by the loud typically Nigerian music coming from the nightclub at the beach, but even those folks closed up after a while and went to sleep, and I remained alone with the ocean.

There had been a program of things to do, but many of those were cancelled, since it meant going back on a bus, and not many folks were eager for that, especially the kids. I have also never understood folks that fill up their holiday times with things to do, while they should just be chilling and taking it easy.

On Day Two we did have a tour of Mombasa, took in the sights of the old city, and a must-do visit to Fort Jesus. The last time I was in Mombasa we did not bother much with sightseeing, and concentrated on the several bars at the hotel we stayed at. But this time we did make time to take in the sights, including watching the multitudes of people running off the ferry from the island to the mainland. Apparently accommodation on the island is at a premium, so many of the folks just work there but live on the mainland.

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus is a major tourist attraction, is a UNICEF heritage site, so I did not understand why folks sitting around it drinking tea took exception to my taking pictures. I was tempted to give them the bird, but decided it was not worth the bother; so I ignored them, took whatever pictures I wanted, and moved on.

It was altogether a very enjoyable trip, although many of us made the mistake of, every time we paid for something in Kenya shillings to mentally convert the value into Uganda shillings. If you do that, Kenya is a very expensive place indeed compared to Uganda. Even the fuel was relatively more expensive, and that was before they added on a 16% VAT the day after we left.

We took the afternoon SGR train back, which thankfully was express so we got to Nairobi in good time. But I could not help thinking how it would work if the SGR ever made it to Uganda. The coaches (sixteen of them) all seemed full of people travelling between Nairobi and Mombasa; would there be enough people from say, Busia to Kampala? Will it continue on to Entebbe, where the traffic is really heavy?

From Nairobi we took a private bus to Kampala, travelled through the night, and got here in the morning. I felt refreshed, though it took me a few days to find my knees again.

An after note of sorts is that the guy at the Uganda immigration desk at Busia wanted a selfie with me, said he likes my column. Oh well, I’ll take a bow…

 

ONWARD TO THE KENYAN SGR

It is almost a decade and a half that I last took a road trip around East African roads. In the year 2004, I travelled by bus from Uganda, through Kenya to the north western town of Mwanza, and finally to Dar es Salaam. My body took a real beating that time, and I have travelled by air since then every time I visited our neighbours.

But there is something magical about travelling by road, and when a group of friends and their families planned a road trip to Mombasa, I decided to give it one final go. The My Uganda Forum organises an annual Family Day Out (FDO), a getaway meant to bond the different families, and also as an opportunity to get away from the stress of ordinary life. This was the first time an FDO was to happen outside Uganda, and the plan was to go by private bus to Nairobi, and then take the much vaunted SGR train on to Mombasa. It sounded too good a chance to miss, so I signed on to find out how much the region has changed since 2004.

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Our bus to Nairobi

We took off from Kampala on Wednesday morning, and since we had paid for the bus, it was our rules in place. So when the bus driver tried to get into a speed argument with a double trailer even before we got to Nakawa, we demanded a change, and that driver was left behind near the Nakawa market. His pleas that it was the trailer driver in the wrong, not him, just made us realise how bus accidents happen so frequently on Kampala roads.

There was no incident after that, the replacement driver was very receptive to our suggestions, the roads were smooth, and we got to the Busia border post in good time. I was last in Busia about 20 years ago, and then it was like a Wild West town full of hustlers trying to make a quick score. Not this time, the one-stop post was very smooth, and we didn’t have to fill in those annoying entry/departure forms.

SGR_2

There was also no incident till we were past Kisumu, when the Kenya traffic police pulled us over, ostensibly for speeding. This was a surprise because I was seated near the front, could see the drivers speedometer quite clearly and he rarely even made 80kph; so much that some in the bus complained he was driving too slowly. But the Kenyan policemen were not having any of it, held us up for more than an hour, and I understand it was not till ‘kitu kidogo’ had changed hands were we allowed to proceed.

That was unfortunate because part of the attraction of travelling to Nairobi by road is a chance to see the Great Rift Valley, but thanks to the Kenya police that was not to be because it was dark by the time we got there. I had also wanted to see what changes a decade and more had brought to Kenya, but it was not to be.

After a night in a Nairobi hotel, it was time to get to the Nairobi Terminus of the SGR, very near to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and we couldn’t wait to get there. Many in our group had never travelled by train before, so the excitement was almost tangible. I have travelled by train before, including traversing the US from the East coast to the West coast, and the luxurious Blue Train in South Africa, so I was curious what the much hyped SGR was all about.

First thing I noticed is that we had to carry our luggage a long way to the train, almost 800m, and trolleys can only be used for about only 20m. The SGR is a long haul train, and takes about six hours to traverse the almost 500km between Nairobi and Mombasa. Travellers are probably not just commuting, so they all had a lot of luggage. In addition the few escalators are very narrow, so it takes a long time for passengers to make their way to the train.

Entrance to the Nairobi Terminus of the Kenyan SGR PHOTO BY KALUNGI KABUYE

The Nairobi SGR station 

The security was adequate (it had to be, what with Al Shabbab just next door in Somalia), but you are not allowed to take any alcohol beverages on board (a little kitu kidogo soon took care of that, though). We were a big group, about 100 people, so we had booked a whole coach to ourselves. An economy class ticket costs Ksh1,000 (Ush38,000) one way, and a First class Ksh4,000 (Ush152,000).

We were booked in Economy class, which turned out to be little more than a glorified ‘kayoola’. The seats are narrow and hard, although clean, and any plans to have a nap over the 6 hours travel time soon literally went out of the window.

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Inside the SGR train, Economy class

The area between Nairobi and Mombasa is largely semi-arid, so there was little to see, in fact it reminded me very much of the pictures we saw of the planet Mars. The only distraction was when we passed through the Tsavo National Park and spotted herds of elephants in the distance, although what they were doing in such an arid place beat me.

There are nine passenger stations between Nairobi and Mombasa, and the train stops an average of 5 minutes at each, although the Sunday afternoon Mombasa to Nairobi was express.

The train reached speeds of up to 110kph, so it was obviously an improvement on road transport, and because we were a group we had our own entertainment. Only light snacks are sold on board, so I noticed many people carried packed food, which added to the amount of luggage one had to carry on board.

We left Nairobi at about 8:30am, and got to Mombasa at around 3pm in the afternoon. What happened after that, though, is a story for another day…