What? How can a soldier lose an election happily as in Gambia? A Ugandan answer

The events in The Gambia last week, surely, are a feast for thought. Yahya Jammeh, an eccentric, half-insane soldier who seized power 22 years ago, held an election. It was a free election

Wednesday December 7 2016

Incumbent Gambian president Yahya Jammeh (C)
Incumbent Gambian president Yahya Jammeh (C) leaves the polling booth after casting his marble for presidential election in a polling station, in Banjul on December 01, 2016. AFP photo
Gambia's President-elect Adama Barrow looking
Gambia's President-elect Adama Barrow looking on following his victory in the polls in Kololi on December 2, 2016. AFP PHOTO
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The events in The Gambia last week, surely, are a feast for thought. Yahya Jammeh, an eccentric, half-insane soldier who seized power 22 years ago, held an election. It was a free election, the first surprise. Then he lost it. No surprise there.

However, he didn’t, in Uganda fashion, arrest the winner, opposition candidate Adama Barrow, or muddle up the vote. In less than 18 hours after the polls closed, Jammeh had called the election commissioner to tell him he was conceding defeat, and to let Barrow know.

In the evening, he went on TV and conceded. Perhaps knowing how deep the distrust of him was, he called Adama and put him on the phone speaker on air.

It was totally unexpected, because ahead of the vote Jammeh had arrested, tortured, and even killed opposition figures. And, borrowing a trick popular in Uganda and increasingly in Africa, he shut down the Internet (CIPESA, a leading centre for research on ICT policies in Africa, cites revelations at the recent Forum for Internet Freedom in Africa 2016 that this year, Uganda Internet shutdowns could have cost the country $26 million).

Again, like some people who will remain unnamed in Uganda said of Museveni, Jammeh – who once said he could rule up for up to one billion years – said he had had an encounter with God, who had told him he was destined to win.
So when the vote-counting went freely, Gambians started smelling something unusual.

Even after it emerged that Jammeh had made some noises about accepting the result, it was only after the Internet shutdown was lifted that it became clear that he had embraced the will of the people.

There are a lot of as yet uncorroborated stories about other factors that were behind this unusual, and celebration-worthy, turn of conduct by Jammeh. Reports say the army, told him they would not accept a rigged vote.

If he won, fine, they said. But if he lost, he goes home.
Jammeh has been involved in a trade dispute with Senegal, and his already wobbly economy was hurting.

The Gambia, as one can see from the map, is a think strip of territory that cuts through Senegal from the Atlantic in much the same way Lake Kyoga does in northeast Uganda.
The shortest routes between north and south Senegal, therefore, are through The Gambia.

However, in February Gambia increased tariffs at two main ferry crossings.

The Senegalese decided to take the long way around The Gambia on a national highway. With its puny economy, the loss of business and blow to The Gambia was massive.

Word also has it that a bit of Senegalese pressure, and a menacing look from Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari himself became the first Besigye to win an election in the country, persuaded Jammeh that the regional atmosphere wasn’t conducive to election rigging.

But all this might be taking away credit from Jammeh. He might actually have had a political conversion on the road to Damascus.

In any event, two remarkable things happened. The Gambia became the first country in the world where the lifting of an Internet shutdown was a sign that a strongman was going to accept election defeat.

Secondly, Jammeh became the first president in Africa of recent times who came to power in a coup, who accepted an election defeat, conceded, and folded his robes peacefully and went home.

1/2 next

Massacre in Kasese, and what we can learn from the 1966 Buganda crisis

Before the slaughter in Kasese at the weekend, in which some reports allege that as many as 95 people could have been killed in clashes between security forces and Rwenzururu King Mumbere’s guards

Wednesday November 30 2016

1966 Crisis was a bubble bound to burst

Buganda royal regalia. Such centuries-old cultural treasures of Buganda were destroyed in 1966 following an attack on the palace by government troops commanded by Idi Amin. File Photo. 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Hours before the slaughter in Kasese at the weekend, in which some reports allege that as many as 95 people could have been killed in clashes between security forces and Rwenzururu King Mumbere’s guards, President Yoweri Museveni had just published an article on the meaning of foul-mouthed Donald Trump’s victory in the US election.

At one point, he wrote that: “Many of the [African] stooges or foreign oppressors spend a lot of time looking for foreign sponsors, rather than looking for ways of how to reconcile with their own people” (emphasis mine).

Whether, as the government says, it was the king’s royal guards who attacked the security forces first, or as Rwenzururu activists say, it was a premeditated “massacre” against the king’s palace staff, it was a dramatic and tragic failure of the local reconciliation process that Museveni wrote of.

The photographs of piled up bodies of half-naked men, who seemed to have been killed execution-style, conjured up shocking scenes from some medieval slaughter, or the closing battle in the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones.

For capturing some of that madness for posterity, journalist Joy Doreen Biira, was arrested and faces charges of “abetting terrorism”! Beyond the decades-old grievances with the politics of successive central governments in Uganda that have driven these conflicts in the Rwenzori region, something more disturbing is going on.

Mumbere is a king who, much like the rest of the “monarchs” in Uganda, got his kingdom back partly through the calculation that the would be vessel for channelling support to President Museveni.

These kingdoms are not financially autonomous, still dependent on the State for largesse and upkeep. Even in the face of sharp disagreements, it is hard to imagine that communication would have broken down so much that the weekend slaughter couldn’t have been prevented. The fact that there was a breakdown, therefore raises the question of how we got here. For decades now in Uganda, the preference has been to privilege violence. Ugandans who have chosen peaceful, non-violent – and played by the book – have been swatted away, beaten down, jailed, or even killed.

But those who took up arms quickly got an olive branch, and patronage. Without well-developed mechanisms to solve the political grievances that lead to violence, there was always a risk that psychopaths like the Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, who could not be won over by the usual blandishments and groceries would come along, and tip the cart. And that is exactly what happened. In its early years, the ruling NRM had many people who had the skills and understanding of how to do political conflict resolution.

But they fell by the roadside, because it is not a neutral activity. If there are adept political deal makers in a government, and the regime relies on them, it has to give them power to do deals, and accept that they will share in some of the glory. That glory in turn becomes political capital that they can leverage. Invariably, it means sharing a bit of power with the big man. Not surprisingly, that road was quickly closed.

Today, as the FDC people know better than anyone else, even an election in Uganda is a war. It would seem then that all claimants on the centre, are being driven to extremes. In 2009, a similar confrontation nearly developed between Buganda Kingdom and the government. It was averted not because there was an institutional safeguard, but in large part because of geography – Buganda is too central – and also Kabaka Ronald Mutebi had calm enough nerves not be pushed over the cliff by humiliation.

He learnt his lesson well, and has since pushed changes in the Lukiiko (parliament) and his cabinet, which have elevated moderates and sidelined hotheads. Not many men with some power easily understand that you don’t get to fight the next battle if you are dead.

King Mumbere, it would seem, doesn’t have the wits for this kind of long game – and thus either has lieutenants who didn’t weigh the risks of going on the offensive, or didn’t know how to surrender quickly or flee to avoid a bloodbath if it were the government forces that set upon the royal guards.

Whatever mistakes were made, we are where we are now. There were those scenes of fires burning in Mumbere’s palace. They are familiar. We first saw them in 1966, with Milton Obote and Gen Idi Amin standing over on a hill, looking at the Lubiri palace after it was attacked.

If that 1966 crisis taught us anything, it is that a people always outlast a regime. But our history also teaches us that wise men and women should not wait to find out what happens at that point. They prevent it.

Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3

Some bad ‘tribal days’, but the better side of Ugandans will still win out

The Directorate of Public Prosecutions has now murder charges against Matthew Kanyamunyu in connection with his alleged recent shooting of Kenneth Akena

Wednesday November 23 2016

L-R: Ms Cynthia Munwangari, Deceased Kenneth

L-R: Ms Cynthia Munwangari, Deceased Kenneth Akena (His death was portrayed in ethnic limes in the media) and Mr Matthew Kanyamunyu 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Directorate of Public Prosecutions has now murder charges against Matthew Kanyamunyu in connection with his alleged recent shooting of Kenneth Akena.
That is as it should be - that Akena’s suspected murderer gets tried in court.

This tragedy, however, was particularly depressing on many levels. First, that Kanyamunyu allegedly shot Akena for scratching his car in a parking lot!

Secondly, it was also one of the lowest moments in recent times for how it was portrayed in ethnic limes in the media (“Munyankore shoots Acholi”), and of course social media. The rage there was quite remarkable.

I didn’t expect that today, one private citizen’s crime against another would be so generalised to an ethnic group and even region. As a good friend in Uganda who knows a lot about the risks involved here used to tell me, “tribal gaming is very tempting, but it is the one genie that wise people should never let out of the bottle”.

Yet, as Frederick Golooba-Mutebi argued in his column in The East African, it helps to understand where the anger is coming from. One source, he noted, is what many perceive as the rampant sectarianism in Uganda today.

One could also add that the Kanyamunyu-Akena incident also tapped into a potentially explosive factor that people from areas that went through a lot of pain, as the north did in nearly two decades of rebellion, feel when during peace time, one of their “survivors” is killed by what they see as a “representative” of their oppressors.

In post-conflict societies, such issues are always a time bomb and intelligent people would do well to be alive to them.

The good thing is that there is a powerful counter-narrative that showed that Uganda society, and elements of State policy, reveal a big-hearted country.

Since South Sudan went back to the killing fields in December 2013, it has resulted in another influx of refugees in the region, and a record number into Uganda.
Various reports have noted Uganda’s “unique and generous foreign policies”.

A long article on the refugee crisis by the Norwegian Refugee Council noted two elements. One, that those who flee to Uganda “automatically receive refugee status”.

In some countries, if you flee there with murderous soldiers or rebels on your heels, you still have to go through a process to qualify as a refugee, and you can be sent back where you ran from if you don’t.

Secondly, it spotlighted that most times “there are no typical refugee camps, but instead there are settlements where people can build houses and grow their own food”, adding that; “For example, since hostilities broke out in South Sudan in the beginning of July, the number of settlements has increased from 16 to 19 in Adjumani District”.

That number, according to the latest information, has gone up.

What makes this quite remarkable is that Uganda is relatively a tiny country, compared to Tanzania – which is nearly four times bigger.

In the past, especially in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, the combination of generous land size and progressive ideology made it a good country for refugees, with many being offered citizenship.

1/2 next

Trump has been on the way for 20 years. Let’s welcome him

As President Barack Obama said ahead of the US November 8 election, whatever the outcome, the sun would rise the next morning

Wednesday November 16 2016

Republican presidential elect Donald Trump speaks

Republican presidential elect Donald Trump speaks during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on November 9, 2016. AFP photo  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

As President Barack Obama said ahead of the US November 8 election, whatever the outcome, the sun would rise the next morning.

He probably wasn’t thinking that the amoral and unhinged Republican candidate Donald Trump would land an “unthinkable” win. Some commentators are arguing that even Trump himself didn’t expect to win.

But even as his victory’s roils the world, there are actually many good things about it.

I understand the idea of a “young” and “evolving” democracy, but was always disturbed by the concept of a “mature” democracy.

The US, after more than 200 years, was considered one of the oldest and most mature republican democracies in the world. It was one of the things that made a Trump victory unthinkable. A second grade fascist like him was not supposed to win in a grown up liberal democracy.

When the US lectured African countries about democracy, the retort from our strongmen and their henchmen and women was almost standard. “It took the US more than 200 years to get where it is, it should not expect us to be at the same stage after ‘just’ 50 years of independence”, they would say.

This notion of a mature democracy was reactionary in two ways. It denied human progress, because it suggested political development had reached a point beyond which it couldn’t progress.

In addition, by presenting liberal democracy as the omega, because it is essentially Western, it denied the possibility that non-Western civilisations could improve upon it. In that regard, it was also racist.

Secondly, it defied the laws of nature and history. To conceive of democracy as mature, and the apex, denied the reality that all human constructions that rise (empires and everything else) must also fall.

The Trumpian fall of American democracy, therefore affirms a truth about human society, more than a Hillary Clinton victory would have. Hopefully we will now have greater clarity in the scholarship on nations and the nature of power.

The other key issue is that along with nearly 30 years of modern globalisation, we had also seen a classic Marxist counter “glocalisation” movement.

In other words, as the world became one through a common pop culture, a neo-liberal intellectual orthodoxy, international finance, and so, blurring national borders, there has also been a resistance not to get to get lost in it. Local identities reasserted themselves, and in Uganda we saw that variously through things like “Ebyaffe” (the demand for and restoration of traditional kingdoms).

The glocalisation forces can be good and bad, but have unleashed creativity. They produced the Nigerian film industry Nollywood, and the unique brand of Uganda hip hop and its stars like Chameleone.

And because they happened during the “second wave” of democracy in Africa, when economies and media were being liberalised, it got to a point that in early 2000s, even without a law requiring it, FM radio stations in countries like Sierra Leone were playing nearly 100 per cent local music!

Politically, these anti-globalisation forces expressed themselves in the rise of secessionist and separatist movements (Eritrea and South Sudan), or return-to-the-motherland campaigns (the Rwanda Patriotic Front war).

1/2 next

The crisis of knowledge in Uganda, precious secrets Museveni is hoarding

While Museveni sees himself as Uganda’s saviour before he “can control the army” and so forth, the most important knowledge he has for the future of the country is locked away, unexploited

Wednesday November 9 2016

President Museveni

President Museveni  

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I laughed until I keeled when I read last week that Uganda’s High Court had ordered the closure of all 63 Bridge International schools in Uganda because they “provided unsanitary learning conditions, used unqualified teachers and were not properly licensed”.

That describes easily 60 per cent of private and government schools in Uganda. This is a country where children still study under mango trees, with heroic teachers wearing trousers with their dusty knees peeping through. Yet, all those will continue.

Bridge International Academies has been having a hard time elsewhere in Africa, partly for good reasons – but the real, noble reason, is the fear of allowing foreign firms muscling into the education sector. That has created a related less noble problem—the fear of local investors in private education of being out-competed.

You mix the two, and you have a potent force.

Bridge International should be pushed to improve, sure, but it shouldn’t be singled out.

But even then, all that is a sideshow. The problem with our education is not the quality of teachers, hygiene, or classrooms. It is the big how and why of it.

A good friend, who shall remain unnamed, runs a ‘university’ without buildings. Basically the teachers and students spend all their time roaming the forests and bushes, and talking to people to communities to learn what they know and codify their findings.

As we have written in this column before, some call this “indigenous knowledge systems”. I read recently that the South African government spends millions on dollars funding this kind of research.

Before you snigger, remember Jill Farrant, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town? She made word headlines last year with her work on “resurrection plants”.

She is unlocking the genetic codes of drought-tolerant plants could help farmers toiling in increasingly hot and dry conditions, like those in Isingiro.

Resurrection plants can survive extreme water shortages for years.
During a drought, they act like a seed, becoming so dry it appears dead.

But when the skies finally open and the rain pours down, as one report noted, the shrivelled plant bursts “back to life”, turning green and robust in just a few hours.

This is important, because the UN estimates that climate change could reduce maize yields alone across parts of Africa by as much as 30 per cent by 2030.

To survive, we need systems that can recover from a drastic change in climate.
In our villages, there are many plants like that and the peasants know them. Nothing is more valuable than; first, getting to them and having them tell you.

Farrant, herself a farmer’s daughter, would tell you the only way to do that is walk the bushes and village paths, first. She said she stumbled upon a resurrection plant as a nine-year-old and was blown away by its seemingly ‘immortal’ properties.

1/2 next

How much trouble is Nakumatt’s Uganda operation in? Here’s hope

Nakumatt has its fair share of critics, and has made many missteps, but it has also been a very clever business, and as a devotee of the start-up culture, I admire that.

Wednesday November 2 2016

Nakumatt Supermarket

Nakumatt Supermarket 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In Uganda, where lines of empty shelves are the order of the day, the Nakumatt Supermarket Empire seems to be going through very testing times.

Nakumatt has its fair share of critics, and has made many missteps, but it has also been a very clever business, and as a devotee of the start-up culture, I admire that.

It’s only the non-airline business in East Africa that has made the loyalty card work. With it has been able to learn the behaviour of consumers in East Africa like few others.
Its relatively new international card has been a boon for start-up entrepreneurs. The downside with credit and debit cards is also their advantage.

If you have a limit of $20,000 and someone hits you, they can clean it all out. With your debit card, if it is hacked, the cyber criminals will not just rob you, but also get access to the vast range of your financial information.
There is little risk if your Nakumatt card is hacked, and you can top it with $50 if you want to make an online purchase for exactly that amount a short while later. For buying software, coupling to PayPal, inexpensive subscriptions, and such things, the introduction of the card looked like a stroke of genius.

So why do companies like Nakumatt still stumble? Beyond the business decisions its management will have made, in common businesses fail and struggle because they are not able to understand how the societies they operate in have changed.

Take an example of media, which I understand quite well. In recent years, you will have read or seen stories about layoffs and difficult economic times in Kenyan media, a bigger advertising market than all the other East African countries combined.

People blame the “death of a reading culture”, greedy owners, and especially the rise of digital media for the problems newspapers are facing.

But this can only be part of the story. Some economists claim, controversially, that in the years of former president Mwai Kibaki’s rule (2003-2013), Kenya witnessed its biggest infrastructure expansion, with more money spent in those 10 years in real terms than the previous post-independence 38 years.

In any event, the big investment in roads dramatically changed the make-up of Nairobi and surrounding areas, with new suburbs and housing being built dozens of kilometres out, and a string of overhead traffic bridges and freeways.
The middle class began to move to live further out. In addition, office complexes were also built far out of town, so assume Naalya was three times further out, many of the people who live there would be working in offices nearby, and never have to come anywhere near central Kampala. With overhead bridges and highways where vendors couldn’t sell newspapers, the old distribution system started to fall apart and sales to suffer.

It’s easy and tempting to blame media managers and editors, and even “unserious” readers, but something counter-intuitive happened. The reason newspapers are suffering is because good things took place – urban infrastructure and the middle class grew! It’s just not “normal” to plan to see good things as a potential problem, so we get caught out.
Now take Kampala: It has since grown from seven hills, to over 20.

Its roads have become gridlocked with traffic, and boda bodas have made driving a nightmare.

Few people living in Naalya, will endure traffic and drive on a Saturday to shop in Nakumatt at Oasis mall, therefore, it was right for Nakumatt to set up an outlet in Naalya. Its mistake was to see Naalya as a linear suburb.
Apart from the old suburbs (Kololo, Nakasero, Bugolobi), Kampala’s expansion is not planned.
Therefore, rich middle class homes exist alongside villages. You drive by a Sh500,000 muddle and wattle house to go to visit a friend who has a Shs500 million mansion opposite it.

The rise of new suburbs in Kampala, don’t necessarily mean the growth of a market. Instead of a large supermarket, something the size of the mini-markets attached to petrol stations might have been enough, who knows?
But then Nakumatt is not into running grocery shops, it is into supermarkets. In Uganda, they have become like the woman who married the wrong man – or vice versa.

In places like South Africa, there are solutions to these things…think tanks and specialist organisations that study such trends.

Uganda is ripe for one. Not the type of think tanks that study what will happen to Uganda if the South Sudan conflict continues for five years, but what kind of consumer market shall come to be when Entebbe and Kampala become one, and Entebbe Road turns into nothing more than the longest street in Uganda.
Perhaps its time for Nakumatt and others in that business, out of self-interest, to benefit such a think tank at Makerere University.
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3

In 2035, a Crane Bank-type crisis will not be possible

Once your employer pays you in a digital currency, and everyone is connected and has a digital device, you require bank notes, and therefore you won’t need a bank

Wednesday October 26 2016

A Crane Bank branch in Gulu. The bank is now

A Crane Bank branch in Gulu. The bank is now under the control of BoU. file photo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last week, Bank of Uganda appointed what they hope will be a more competent manager to run the affairs of troubled Crane Bank, kicking out the old leaders and its Board of Directors.

The story of Crane Bank has already been well told in the last few days, so there is no need to repeat it. But its troubles, and that of other banks in Kenya in recent times, only got me thinking about the future of banking in Africa. It is bleak.

Not because our banks tend to be badly run, although that it is an issue, but rather because banks are actually primitive things that should not have survived into the 21st Century.

Economist and Sunrise newspaper columnist Ramathan Ggoobi who has been writing his fingers off on this matter, and commenting on interest rates recently, noted the absurdity of the fact that the bank pays for your hard-earned money interest of three per cent, but then lends someone who borrows it at 23 per cent.

Ggoobi’s point was that there is something wrong with the interest rate regime. But I reached a different conclusion. I believe banks should charge the interest rates they choose, but I thought it was so outdated to have such a business at all.

Modern money and banks were born in a backward time when we couldn’t travel far.

If I were travelling to Fort Portal from Tororo 150 years ago, and planned on buying something from there, and given that there were no proper roads and cars then, I couldn’t carry my goats on the head to Andrew Mwenda’s great great grandfather in exchange for beans.

A currency, with an agreed value, and a bank acting as a middleman, solved all those and other problems.
The thing is that today, with a very connected world, banks and currencies still operate much like 120 years ago. The result, as one report noted, is that globally, we pay nearly $2 trillion in transaction to banks for our own money every year.

Now, in our corruption-infested Uganda, the country has a growing army of very smart citizens who are doing wonderful things in the world quietly, hoping the crooks in Kampala don’t notice and shake them down.

It was in this way that I met with a Ugandan who is doing some work with Barclays internationally. He explained to me the decisions by Barclays Africa to get out of Africa.

Both African and international media wrote that it was indicative of “the end of the Africa rising” story.
He told me that was an over-simplified view. On the contrary, depending on how you looked at it, Barclays’ action was a kind of vote of confidence in Africa.

Its move, he said, was considerably influenced by the belief that mortar and brick banking would be in big trouble or largely over in Africa in 10 years.

If mobile money had taught us anything, it is that Africa is perhaps the continent that is most ripe for banking disruption.

And he convinced me to take an interest in “blockchain” technology and crypto currencies like Bitcoin. Blockchain and crypto currencies will allow us to do something ancient in new ways – to sleep with our money under the mattress. Except that the money, and even mattresses for that matter, will be digital.

Which brings us to the question, what is blockchain? Blockchain, which is what Bitcoin runs on, allows buyers, sellers, consumers and suppliers to connect directly, removing the need for a third party like a bank.

It uses encryption to keep exchanges secure, providing a decentralised database, that some describe it as a “digital ledger”, of transactions that everyone on the network can see. This network is a chain of computers that all must approve an exchange before it can be verified and recorded.

1/2 next

'Queen of Katwe’ and its roots in a 100-years-old Ugandan history

How much would the film try to “internationalise”, and how much would it be truly Ugandan and force the rest of the world to come to terms with that. Even I who is philosophically prepared to deal

Wednesday October 19 2016

Left to right: Queen of Katwe actors Madina

Left to right: Queen of Katwe actors Madina Nalwanga, Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo in one of the movie scenes. Courtesy photo 

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

So finally, I got to watch Mira Naira’s much-anticipated film “Queen of Katwe”.
Because it is based on Tim Crothers’ book “The Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion”, for many such films are about how truthful they remain to the book.

For me, once I have read the book, I find it boring when a filmmaker stays faithful to it, so I always look for the new nuance, the creative licences, and the risks a director takes because that is what reveals their guts.
Straight out of the gate, a friend said, it was the first time she had watched a big Hollywood film – especially one set in a slum as Queen of Katwe is – “without a white saviour”.

Not only does it go against the dominant narrative where it’s the international charities that fight poverty in the desperate places in Africa, but it’s a big risk with the commercial success of the film in the Western markets, though Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo are probably meaty enough in their own right to deliver many eyeballs.

So we tick that box. Lots of guts.
The next test was one of authenticity. How much would the film try to “internationalise”, and how much would it be truly Ugandan and force the rest of the world to come to terms with that. Even I who is philosophically prepared to deal with “Ugandan English”, was surprised how much of it made its way into the film.

Usually, the fear that it might come across as “too local” has led many filmmakers to scrub out the “native fingerprints”.

Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo totally ace the Ugandan accents and Ugandan mannerisms.
So we tick that box too. No scrubbing.

Third, and most difficult I thought, was how to avoid it being either a pity story or another stereotypical tale of African squalor.

The poverty, and dreariness were all there, yet somehow they didn’t get in the way.

“Queen of Katwe” is a story of 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and her family. Her world changes one day when she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), a missionary who teaches children how to play chess. Phiona becomes taken by the game and soon becomes a top player under Katende’s tutelage. Her success in local competitions and tournaments opens the door to a bright future and an escape for her family from a life of poverty.

But would it be a linear story, or take some surprising turns? Lupita Nyong’o (Harriet Nakku) is a strong woman, yet she battles with the moral dilemma presented to her by her older daughter Night, who brings money home that she got from a man she slept with.

She refuses it from her, but like the proverbial pragmatic Catholic bishop, accepts it when it is Phiona who passes it to her. Genius!

And while Phiona is a chess prodigy, luck also plays a large part in her fortunes. Coach Katende was just one such person in one slum, Katwe, married to the kind of big-hearted wife not everyone is married to.

In the process, Mira works in a subtle caveat on the “Phiona model” – it’s not the way in which the thousands of children in the slums and other desperate places will get of poverty. Where does the film come short? To me, it is in a part that perhaps would not have improved it to most viewers.

It could have used a greater sense of history. The triumph of Phiona, was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Katwe as an important symbol of modern Uganda’s political life.

Katwe was the birthplace of insurgent ideas. On the margins of the colonial state, it is in Katwe that Ugandan nationalism was born.

1/2 next