When I was growing up in the 1970s, Uganda was experiencing extreme shortages due to Idi Amin’s mismanagement of the economy and poor regional relations.
My mother worked for the East African Examinations Council and therefore used to make regular trips to its headquarters in Nairobi. These trips were an opportunity for my mother to stock up on regular household supplies such as sugar, powdered milk, soap, toothpaste and the like. It is hard to imagine now, but back then, these commodities were so precious that my mother had to regulate their consumption very closely so as to ensure that they lasted until her next trip.
The alternative was to go without because the parastatal Foods & Beverages never had stock or had to pay several times more for the same commodities on Kampala’s thriving black market. In order to achieve the closest possible control of consumption in a household of over 10 people, my mother used to keep these precious commodities in the wardrobe of her bedroom – where ladies keep their several hundred pairs of shoes these days.
Now, being six or seven years old, I didn’t quite understand why there had to be very tight rationing of the commodities such as sugar and powdered milk. I had a great fondness for Safariland powdered milk and used to love licking it out of the palm of my hand. On every occasion that I could sneak into my mother’s bedroom, I would always test the wardrobe door to see if it was unlocked.
On the few occasions that my mother’s security system was lax, I would prize open the green and gold Safariland tin, scoop a spoonful of powdered milk, lick it as quickly as I could, replace the cover and then run away from the scene of the crime. This behaviour soon stopped because of, what I shall euphemistically call, the “drastic negative consequences” that my mother unleashed every time I did it.
At the time I came to believe that my mother had supernatural powers because although she never ever caught me in the wardrobe, she always knew when I had been licking the milk powder. It wasn’t until I grew older that I realised how my mother had always been able to catch me.
My petty criminal modus operandi had two fundamental flaws. First of all, I used to run away from the scene of the crime. We lived in a small house and it was impossible for me to conceal my movements as I ran down the corridor. So why was I running away from my mother’s bedroom if I hadn’t been up to something naughty? It was this hunch which used to cause my mother to call me to wherever she was for interrogation – “Ovva wa? Obadde okolayo ki?”
The second, and perhaps more fundamental, flaw was the fact that whilst I always remembered to replace the cover of the tin, it never dawned on me that licking powdered milk always left traces of powder on my little chin, shirt and grubby little hands. No lie could get me past that evidence. It never dawned on me to run to the bathroom first to wash my face and hands.
The inevitable detection and the stern penal consequences made me stop the bad habit of stealing powdered milk. It was also easier to be well behaved and then ask for a spoonful, which favour would be granted once in a while in the same way that good children may be rewarded with a chocolate these days.
I was also taught the lesson that this was a commodity which was for all of us and that my mother did not keep it in her wardrobe because she was cruel, but rather because she loved us very much and wanted it to last us for as long as possible.
This is a lesson in life that the looters and base thieves who masquerade as leaders and public servants in Uganda today obviously did not learn or internalise. The proceeds of their looting are invested in large mansions, posh cars, commercial buildings and offensively opulent lifestyles that they obviously cannot afford on their regular salaries. But like six-year-old children, they do not realise that we can see the clear traces of stolen milk powder on their faces. They think we are so foolish.
Sadly for the looters, we are not foolish. We can see you. We know where you have been and we know what you have been up to. We may seem so stupid to you right now that you think we shall fall for any explanation that you put up for your gross violation of the public trust. In the alternative, you may know that we can see through the thin tissue of lies that you use to cover up your gross crimes against the people of Uganda but think that we are powerless to do anything about it.
But,in fact, it is you, the looters, who are foolish. This state of affairs cannot last any length of time. We know the truth and the time for you to make full accountability is coming.
Mr Mpanga is an advocate