Sunday January 4 2015

The tragedy with not being mediocre in Uganda

By Timothy Kalyegira

In his long-running “Ear to the Ground” column in the Daily Monitor, a column now entering its twenty-third year, former Monitor founding Editor Charles Onyango-Obbo made mention of the new book by Daniel Kalinaki on Dr Kizza Besigye’s political career.

Onyango-Obbo also stated that the Kampala Express page on the social media network Facebook was “the best proof of this drift” in 2014 “away from the shouting and talking to more dispassionate scholarship, research, documentation, and tinkering in Uganda.”

The Kampala Express, which the columnist called a “photo page” is actually a “newspaper” which I founded in early September 2014 and which has news, commentary, music reviews and photographs. For the time being, it leans a little more heavily toward photos and for the time being it is published only on Facebook.

It was nice to have one’s creation get such a ringing endorsement from one who is held in high regard in Uganda and across much of the eastern Africa region.

However, Onyango-Obbo’s review left a taste of the bittersweet in my mouth because of some of the accompanying observations. Ever since I set foot on the public stage in the early 1990s with my first articles in the news media and later in the radio industry, I have experienced nothing but utter frustration.

I am always slapped with the label “controversial” or difficult to deal with or work with. It is these latter descriptions and impressions that have made my life one of continuous weariness, struggle and endless setbacks.

I have never been permitted to be myself or explain myself. That label “controversial”, the details of which are never explained, has stalked me, denied me many opportunities that are given to so many other people. I have had to think much harder, struggle much harder, work abnormally hard just to get a few crumbs that many colleagues easily get.

So it felt like a let-down that after so many years of knowing me, traveling around the world, including to sophisticated countries and cities where people slightly out of the mainstream are both tolerated and even admired, Onyango-Obbo, who himself has written and stated many a controversial view, still cannot shake off that label of me as “controversial”.

I am a stickler for detail, I generally live and work honestly and the worst part of it, which is my undoing, is I generally tend to speak my mind at all times. It is this latter trait, rather than anything “controversial” or lazy or criminal about me, that has made me suffer many years of setback.

Even to speak for and explain myself in this column in response to Charles Onyango-Obbo I know for a fact is going to come back and haunt or work against me one day. I am never allowed by society to be a person called Timothy Kalyegira.

It started in my A-Level years at Namasagali College where I was always disapproved off, although I never got up to any teenage mischief all my school and university years.

If I had not been the breakdancing champion at Namasagali College during the years when to be a good dancer was a great social status symbol, I would have been hounded out of the school for being too different from the mainstream.

How being “too different”? Thinking too much, thinking too differently, being too contrarian in my views and after university in my 20s, for being too unafraid of authority to be employable.

To rise and rise and succeed in Ugandan and most other African societies, the cardinal rule one must always have in mind is never, ever to be above average. Never make the mistake of rising and standing too high above average. Not that these societies want to deal with out-and-out failures and fools. It has no time for those.

What I’m referring to is the safe middle between 40 per cent and 65 per cent where one should always endeavour to lie. If you start to fall below 40 per cent in your skills, knowledge, competence and integrity, work on it, get further studies or training or polish.

But above all, if you start to rise above the 65 per cent mark, then by all means start to tone down, start to act the plain kind, be the crowd pleaser, but do not under any circumstances rise above 65 per cent.

Once you start showing tendencies to be at 70 per cent or even 80 per cent, your troubles will have started and you will never know peace in society. Never, ever make the mistake of being excellent at what you do or know if you hope to succeed in an African country or if you simply want to fit into an African society.

That is the one lesson I can give anyone who might wish to seek my advice. In fact, between slipping below the 40 per cent mark in one’s abilities, knowledge and personality and rising above the 65 per cent mark, it might be much better and safer to fall below 40 per cent. Society will sympathise with you, tease you but ultimately accommodate you.

Once you rise above 65 per cent, you will unsettle too many people, too many companies, too many politicians, too many centres of power. You cannot afford to be an above 65 per cent person if you want to succeed in Africa. In Silicon Valley in the United States, in parts of British, French, and other European societies, you can register percentages of 80 to 90 per cent.

Elite European/White society will admire and immortalise you and the general, mainstream, average society will buy your products, creative ideas or simply follow you.

In Africa if you start to show signs of being an 80 per cent grade person, your own family will find it hard to deal with or understand you, society will always complain about your “lugezi-gezi” and you will always feel like a reject.

The Kampala Express Facebook page, with its rabid obsession with correct writing and grammar, its emphasis on high photo quality and its attention to detail and fine point, is starting to worry me. It has already managed to offend many of its readers by this “high-handed” emphasis on fine quality.