Oh Uganda… are you still the Pearl of Africa?
Every year on my birthday, I take a moment to reflect on my life so far and what I hope to have achieved by my next birthday.
As a lover of Uganda, I have written numerous musings and pieces on the various elements of the country, ranging from its wonderful landscape to its rich culture and hospitable people. It is more than the Pearl of Africa, more than the source of the Nile, more than the beauty of Kabale, more than the gorilla’s of Bwindi. It is a chaotic paradise of boda boda riders, potholed roads, power cuts and resilient communities.
It is home to people with the biggest hearts, the most welcoming attitude and a land so beautiful that when you go up to the Baha’i temple and look out at Kampala, when you take that night time drive to south west Uganda and see the moonlight hitting parts of Mbarara, you almost wonder whether, with all its imperfections, this isn’t the most beautiful place on earth.
However, over the four years, I have not failed to notice the various ways in which the country has changed. So as an outsider, I too am reflecting upon where the country is at on the verge of its fifty years of independence. Transparency International named Uganda as the most corrupt nation in the East African Community. I have seen firsthand the failing healthcare system and statistics create a morbid picture.
According to one study, 435 Ugandan mothers per 100,000 live births were dying of birth-related complications, even more worrying was the research carried out by UNICEF which stated ‘79% of health centres in Uganda were out of essential medicines in 2010’ and only ‘56% of jobs in the health sector are filled’, this despite the high rate of unemployment in the country. What is behind this? Are people unable to afford studying medicine or is it the lack of funding and low standards of living that may be leading to a brain drain?
Uganda was once hailed as a success story in the fight against Aids for many years. A new American-financed survey found that Uganda is one of only two African countries, along with Chad, where Aids is on the rise. The political situation of the country has also been a matter of discussion in the international media. My personal opinion is formed through my time in the country and interaction with its people.
Often I encountered people who do not believe in the vote, in democracy or in free speech because they feel it is an illusion and not really available to them. Indeed, the recent arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye has done little to change this opinion; the justification given around this arrest is so the police can focus on security for the Independence day celebrations rather than political rallies.
Uganda was named Lonely Planet’s 2012 destination of the year, this has barely been capitalised on. While train stations in London are plastered with posters of South African scenery, inviting people to visit the country and billboards announcing, ‘Incredible India’, ‘Morocco: the country that travels within you’ and ‘Nigeria: there’s more beneath the surface’, missing are the posters with images of the sun-setting on Lake Victoria or informing people of the glistening Pearl of Africa.
Almost as if Uganda is being robbed of the income and growth it could receive if it was marketed correctly. Of course it is always essential to look at where Uganda has come from; the country has much to celebrate, in its growth in the past fifty years, peace has finally been achieved in the North, there are striving hotels and businesses and banks are buzzing. However, at some point it is important to shed ‘where we have come from’ and look at where we are and ‘where we should or could be.’
A challenged healthcare system, HIV/Aids, bad roads, officials asking for bribes, unemployment, these things are present worldwide, and throughout my travels I have seen many places that are worse than Uganda. But the simple question to ask is whether the growth of the country is being stifled. Are all resources being used effectively; are the needs of the people being met?
Perhaps the celebration of independence does not need to solely focus upon the fifty years since the colonialists left, but to look at what the next fifty should bring, lest we are left with nothing to celebrate for at the hundred-year mark.
The author is a UK citizen who has lived and worked in Uganda
Samiraa3@hotmail.com / twitter.com/samirasawlani