At the time of Uganda’s 50th independence anniversary last year, I had wanted to write a series of articles looking back at 50 years of the country through personal recollections and through the music we grew up listening to.
The idea of being a political commentator for the Daily Monitor was pushed down my throat by the then managing director of Monitor Publications Limited, Conrad Nkutu in 2005. Before then, I used to write mostly about arts and entertainment and the then emerging FM radio stations.
It is a major concern to me that young Ugandans or those who lived for a while outside the country get an idea of just what Uganda has been like for most of our lives. When we think of African countries, it is usually and mostly in terms of political events. The reports and history are dominated by the stories involving the “Big Men”: Milton Obote vs. Edward Mutesa, Idi Amin, David Oyite-Ojok, Yoweri Museveni, Godfrey Binaisa, Ignatius Musaazi, Paulo Muwanga and Tito Okello.
They shaped or were at the centre of national events over the last 50 years. But how about us?
How about ordinary Ugandans who over these 50 years got married, got promoted, got arrested, got drunk, partied, dated, broke up, enjoyed sports, danced at “transnight” discos, tried on the latest fashions, travelled abroad or dreamt of travelling abroad, attended school, watched TV, listened to radio, wrote aerograms and mailed them?
It is my regret that to this day, we have neglected our very collective consciousness and memory called history. It is unfortunate that there has never been any book written about the history of Radio Uganda, Uganda Airlines, Coffee Marketing Board, Express Football Club, St. Mary’s College Kisubi, Gayaza High School, the Uganda Army, Uganda Television, Namasagali College, news papers, Kilembe Mines Boxing Club, Hodari Football Club, Ange Noir Discotheque, Susanna Nightclub, Afrigo Band, Chez Joseph, Sailing Club Jinja, Uganda Railways, Kings College Budo, the Namasagali College dance-musical productions, Radio Sanyu, KFM, Capital FM, Foods and Beverages, Jimmy Katumba and the Ebonies, Bakayimbira Dramactors, AfriTalent and so many other institutions, companies, entertainment venues and sporting venues and names that shaped Uganda’s social history.
If I get to write this series, I shall start with some of my earliest childhood memories, when we lived in Mbarara Town in 1972 and I having just broken one of my legs in a bicycle accident, and my father being transferred from Mbarara to Entebbe that year.
I will then work through the 1970s decade in Entebbe, the Idi Amin years, the 1979 war, the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe, the Organisation of African Union summit of 1975, the Uganda National Liberation Front period after the fall of Amin, the 1980 general elections and the first years of the second Obote government.
In 1983, we left Entebbe for Kampala, and I will write about the mid 1980s when the main social interest for young people was dancing and dancing competitions and for older Ugandans, drinking.
In came the Tito Okello junta in 1985 and the NRM in 1986 and what life has been like ever since.
This period will cover the rather dull early years of the NRM government, how the mid 1990s, however, became exciting as radio stations and nightclubs opened and Uganda seemed like a place of fun to many people. But toward the end of the 1990s, the national mood of optimism had reached its peak and the country entered a period of growing frustration, grumbling and today, extreme cynicism over everything and anything called government.
Looking back over the years through music and ordinary entertainment, social and sporting events, I feel, is a better way for the new generation to develop a mental picture of their country’s total history and political events.
It also helps the country compare broadly the different eras and for many Ugandans, discover that there once was a Uganda before a government called the NRM came to power. It is not as if Ugandans alive before 1986 spent all their time hiding under their beds, afraid of soldiers and gunfire. There was plenty of happiness, fun, good times, humour, partying and drinking even during what have over the last 25 years been termed the “dark days” of Ugandan history.
In her memoirs, the First Lady Janet Museveni portrayed her late brother Henry as a young man in the early 1970s who seemed to spend half his time dancing away. And this was during the “dark days” of Idi Amin.
One of my sources tells me that even Janet Kataha herself, as a student and airline ground hostess, did her fair share of partying (although of course she kept that out of her book!) before she got married to the austere communist in 1973. The Ugandan national character has never changed and is not likely to change at any time in our lifetimes.
Life before smartphones
It is at heart leisurely, laidback, naïve, easily deceived, earnest, lazy, slow, gossipy, social, friendly, religious, looks to leaders for everything, loves formal official titles and the bearing of offices, is still rooted in the rural areas at Christmas time, fears God and fears witchcraft even more. Before there were smartphones, cell phones, tablet computers, email, social media, shopping malls and digital pay TV, there still was life in Uganda and many older Ugandans insist that whoever did not experience the 1960s has no right to claim they enjoyed life.
Last year, I calculated that, for example, in 1968, the year I was born, the wages earned by the lowest-paid government employee like an office tea girl would be the equivalent of about Shs495,000 in today’s money. Shs500,000 a month is what many of today’s university graduates earn in respected and leading corporations.
That means that a government office tea girl in the 1960s earned more than today’s university graduates. Even with 27 years of western aid being poured into Uganda, foreign investment said to be increasing non-stop and the economy growing every year since 1986, Uganda has not yet got back to where it was in 1968.