Sunday February 3 2013

On foot, from Kampala to Entebbe

A vehicle mechanic goes about his job in Kampala early this week.

A vehicle mechanic goes about his job in Kampala early this week. PHOTO BY STEPHEN OTAGE 

By Timothy Kalyegira

On Tuesday, January 29, I woke up early in the morning and set off on foot from Kampala to Entebbe, 35km away. The plan was to see if I could walk the 35km distance from Kampala City to Entebbe International Airport, non-stop, without sitting down to take some rest.

I set off at exactly 6:45am and arrived at the security check point and road toll station at the airport at exactly 2:15pm, exactly seven hours and 30 minutes later.

In total, I lost about three minutes along the way when I stopped to take photographs and when, upon arriving in Entebbe town, stopped by a supermarket to buy a bottle of drinking water.

The purpose of this gruelling trek to Entebbe was to test a new training routine I’m working on in the hope of thinking and working a way around the problem of our low productivity in Uganda and most of Africa.

We can start all the schools we want, have tens of thousands of our pupils and students sit PLE, O-Level and A-Level exams, give front page space to delighted “PLE stars” and their parents and teachers, take our children to international schools, but the end is always the same; we remain ordinary people incapable of achieving much beyond “surviving”.

Nothing can seem to get us out of this state of ordinariness. Universal Primary Education was introduced into Uganda by the UPC government in 1964 and re-introduced by the NRM government in 1998.

Ugandans win scholarships
Thousands of Ugandans have been awarded scholarships to Europe, Australia, North America and Asia since the 1960s, many of them at the world’s top universities.

Several dozen Ugandan army officers have undergone officer training at prestigious military academies from the United States Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to the Mons Officer Cadet School in Britain.

Ugandans have got jobs in the World Bank, United Nations, EEC-EU, Microsoft, 3M, Google, the US space agency NASA, and many of what are usually considered the world’s best corporations.

Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans currently and in the past have lived in or travelled through world class cities like Paris, Toronto, London, Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Geneva, Toronto, Johannesburg, Rome and Boston.

The Internet, with its ocean of instantly accessible information is right in our midst. But all this, at least to me, is that it does not work much. We remain more or less the same as we are, no matter what top-level international work, travel and educational training and exposure we receive.

Our typically adolescent personalities that revolve around working hard (or stealing) just so that we can buy “nice things” as the crowning achievement in life, do not get transformed.

From heads of state to cabinet ministers, ambassadors, academics, corporate executives, military officers, students, peasants, social workers and civil servants, the ultimate goal toward which the Black African, Black American and Black European works is nice shoes, nice flat, nice clothes, nice furniture, nice car, nice plasma flat screen TV, nice sofa set, nice dinner set.

“Nice things”, researched, designed, manufactured and imported from Europe, Asia and America. Our whole contemporary history, national and individual effort and aspiration in Africa is to “live well”, like the Whites we see on TV and in fashion magazines.

We grow from infancy into childhood and adolescence but from that point on, we generally remain thinking and acting like teenagers for the rest of our lives, attracted forever to and by flashy things and instant gratification, with little deep concern for much else.

Many of the early European explorers, missionaries and colonial administrators noted this trait in us and while their writings and descriptions of us seemed racist at the time, this continues to be our most distinct personality trait well into the 21st Century.

The normal semester-course work-exams-graduation academic training that works for other people does not seem to work for us Africans.
I’ve been trying to work out since I first observed the large bookshops in Beijing packed full of customers during the 2008 Summer Olympic Games whether China is rising at this astounding speed because its people are obsessive readers of books or whether, in the first place, minds, when they are productive, inventive and creative tend to be attracted to reading.

Reading and development
In other words, is reading a lot a cause of rapid economic development or a reflection, an outcome, of a mindset breaking new ground, of which fast-rising cities and economic output are an end result?
Last year, 2012, traditional print bookshops in China sold slightly over two billion books. (This does not include the figure for the new electronic or e-books.)

Since China’s population is just over 1.3 billion, it would mean that there were more print books sold in China than the country’s entire population.

Or put another way, the number of books sold in China last year were the equivalent of the whole population of China and sub-Saharan Africa combined.

I have noted and been writing about the problem of the lack of mental concentration among Africans for a few years now.
I’ve seen this in government ministries and departments as well as the private sector, at universities and schools and the State system.
I’ve sat down and watched artisans in Kampala who repair TVs, radios, watches, cameras, mobile phones and other electronics with small components.

I notice the untidiness of their surroundings and the difficulty of reassembling the gadgets without smudging them with grease or dirt after repairing them.

In corporate meetings all over Kampala, executives and staff lay out plans and for every sign is they are under pressure to meet targets and increase profit margins.

But somehow, even as they talk, they seem absent-minded as they scribble on office notepads, impatiently checking on the time or restlessly looking around the room.

In a few weeks’ time, most of the detail the meeting or workshop agreed to work toward will have been forgotten. Customer care officials at our water, power, mobile phone and other public utility firms have that problem too. Incoming calls get the better of them and they get overwhelmed, politely promise to “work on the problem and get back to you”, but that’s as far as it goes.

Damaged CDs
No matter what we want to achieve, our minds seem to start out on a project or procedure but then like a damaged CD or scratched DVD, start skipping over several patches of the track.

Our minds are easily distracted and overwhelmed by technical detail or simply run out of energy before much has been accomplished. That is what has had me thinking since last September about an alternative training technique to our classroom education.

It involves a combination of physical endurance training and especially a regimen to (try) and get the mind first to slow down and develop concentration, then speed up and turn into a dynamic force for creativity, mental energy and efficiency.

I’m trying to see if these damaged sections of the CDs and DVDs that store our memory can be repaired by a rigorous process that involves training in indexing, research, developing the ability to get the African mind to work through tedious and irritating detail without losing concentration or patience.

Whether it will work or not, I have no way of knowing.