The Ugandan Paradox: A rich country of poor people

Joachim Buwembo claims that he wrote The Ugandan Paradox to be able take part in the bonanza of cash squandering sure to ensue as government heads the celebrations of Uganda marking 50 years of Independence.

Written Iwaya Mataachi

Probably Buwembo’s idea is that some government functionary in the heroes medals ministry will come up with the idea of the a ministry buying thousands of copies of The Ugandan Paradox at an inflated price (the book costs …. at Aristoc Booklex, Amazon…) and distributing them for free to the VIP guests who will be at Kololo Independence grounds to mark the big day.

That would be Buwembo’s big pay off. It seems plausible. After all, the accepted “view” is that you can’t make money from books in Uganda. Buwembo himself has admitted as much on a previous occasion. In fact at some point, University of Juba lecturer once declared Uganda a literary desert.

Be that as it may, don’t believe Buwembo. The old man with a twinkle in his eye is a notorious prankster. The Ugandan Paradox is about more than making a quick buck off an anniversary.

The problem of trabalism

The most intriguing bit about The Ugandan Paradox is how Buwembo approaches the “problem” of tribalism. The national unspoken elephant in the room. It is not a “new problem” as Buwembo illustrates in other sections of the book. At various times the army and certain government positions and ministries have been regarded as belonging to “those people who are eating.” In current Kampala street slang, “abali mukintu” (those who are in things-power).

The Uganda Army which evolved from the Kings African Rifles to become the country’s first national army after the 1962 independence was largely regarded as a northerners’ army. Split squarely between the Acholi and Langi. That was the public perception though Buwembo remembers he had relatives serving in it and they were certainly not northerners.

Buwembo is a Muganda from central Uganda. The Amin army, after he overthrew the Milton Obote government in 1971, was often looked at as a West Nilers and Nubian army because it was believed that Amin’s staunchest allies were the Nubians who had settled in Uganda from Sudan.

The Post Amin armies were so sharply divided that when the UNLA took power and army vehicles had number plates with LA, some sarcastically alleged that it stood for Lango Army. The emergence of the UPDF from the victorious National Resistance Army in 1986 led by current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has not quietened the tribal rumblings.

The UPDF is often looked at as the westerners’ army because many of the top leaders of the army hail from western Uganda. Once again though, Buwembo notes that a closer examination reveals the file and rank is actually more diverse.

No sector supposed to serve the country escapes this “from which tribe do you come?” scrutiny.

Buwembo chooses not to look at tribalism and obsession with it in Uganda as a bad “thing.” If anything, he celebrates how tribes and their hold on Ugandans have endured in spite of sustained efforts, first by the British colonial invaders, and then later Ugandan political actors.

Buwembo calls tribes nations within a larger geographical nation that have not got their due recognition.

Part history, part autobiography

Buwembo’s many years as a columnist show not just in the style of the writing. It is also evident in the short chapters arrangement of the book. The Ugandan Paradox being an informal part history, part autobiography, it is actually a brilliant arrangement.

Unconsciously, I found myself listing out, as I read from chapter to chapter, what I did not know about Uganda before reading Buwembo’s more than 50 years experience of being born, living and working in and outside Uganda over a career with as many high moments as low moments as the country he is from.

(Some) Things I did not know before reading The Ugandan Paradox

  • Fish was once cheaper than beef or any other kind of edible meat in Uganda. Hard to believe to day when fish is regarded as a luxurious meal. In fact “Mugende mulye rmputta” (Go and eat Nile Perch) meant you were too poor to afford anything but fish. Chicken being regarded as meat for the wealthy.
  • Until former Vice President Dr. Gilbert Bukenya and his attempts to promote rice farming, I had always thought of vice presidents as pliant seat warmers. More than Bukenya, Buwembo credits another Vice President as having contributed to changing Ugandan agriculture. In Buwembo’s estimation, the Nile Perch would not be the most dominant fish specie in our waters were it not for Obote 1 government Vice President John Babiiha. All the cattle that were looted in the wars of the 1980s were the patient husbanding of this veterinary doctor whose name many Ugandans only recongise on a road side sign.
  • I know, I know but I was not really aware of how devastating was the 1982 attempted expulsion of all ‘Banyarwanda’ from Uganda. In school we learned about Amin’s “infamous” 1972 Asian expulsion. I don’t remember learning about this other expulsion which was messier, more violent and ultimately was responsible for the fall in 1994 of the sitting Rwanda government and genocide. It is a shameful episode in our history we seem to have tried our best to ignore in the hope it is forgotten. Thanks to Buwembo, the memory lingers.
  • I had heard, from time to time, about the terrors of ‘panda gari’. Those dreaded words barked in hoarse Swahili  by agents of the state when they were arresting an “enemy of the state” from the 1970s through the 1980s. The unfortunate souls stuffed inside the boots of cars. Yet nothing brings it all the more vividly to life than Buwembo mentioning the nickname Ugandans gave to those closed black army trucks that would be sent to “sweep off the street” a whole town center, Bakuntumye (I’ve been sent to pick you). The surprise though was to learn that it was the Police doing the arresting most of the time. All along I thought it must have been rogue army elements and intelligence service agents.
  • Ugandans were once proud to pay taxes. For real. Paying graduated tax was regarded a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. Distinguished members of society actually competed to pay more taxes. Not even retirement dented their zeal. I can’t believe it but Buwembo asserts that not being able to pay your annual tax to the state was regarded as discarding the person who failed into the disreputable society of drug users, drunkards and thieves. Men who could not look after their own homes and did not deserve to be part of their community. Tell that to a Ugandan today!
  • The police, like the army, have never really been a people’s force. The so-called militarization of the police going on under IGP Lt. General Kale Kayihura is nothing new as Buwembo demonstrates in the Ugandan Paradox. President Amin tried to tinker with the Police to his liking and subsequent Ugandan leaders have never stopped trying either. Oh yeah, that nursery rhyme we used to sing, “Okelloooo, talina mpaleee, namu’eyangeee…ta ta t anta la”, was inspired by crowd pleasing goose stepping aplomb and charisma of Police bandmaster Venansio Okello.

Hungering for more

Not for the first time, Buwembo calls Uganda “a rich country of poor people”. The Ugandan Paradox is about a Uganda in decay, with a hero scarcity. All the people Joachim Buwembo meets know something is going wrong, and Buwembo himself understands this more than others. But no one seems to believe they can do anything to stem the tide. Should be the ones to do anything.

If Buwembo was one of those who stood by like a spectator in his own land, he isn’t one anymore.

The Ugandan Paradox could have been a bigger book. Instead it leaves us, like a thin slice of bread, hungering for more. It’s no accident.

Ugandan Paradox is an exhortation to Ugandans to desire more, to achieve more, to strive harder; for look, 50 years are past and how little we have done.

Should the next 50 years be more of the same?

Iwaya Mataachi is a writer, blogger and photographer passionate about new media. Other creative endeavours include