It can be difficult to be optimistic about Uganda these days. The stories of corruption, Medieval cruelty by the police, rampant crime, and skyrocketing prices have left many in a bad way.
I just read something on minimum wages in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The contrasts were outrageous.
The minimum wage in Uganda is Shs6,000. In Tanzania it is equivalent to Shs166,284, and in Kenya Shs262,188.
Fortunately, no one in their right mind in Uganda would pay someone Sh6,000 a month. But the fact that it is still that low, tells a lot.
And then there is the politics... Which brings us back to a favourite theme: if the state/politics has failed us, where is hope?
Many people don’t think there is enough muscle and spirit in private society to build new spaces, or create capacities to build a civic society.
However, I believe, naye, know, that there are a lot of great things happening out there and we don’t have to despair.
We have written before on some private sources of innovation and industry that give great hope about this fair land. But sometimes, you think it can’t get better – until it does. So this is a story of friends, actually relatives if you take all family marriage links seriously as every good Ugandan should, into account.
It starts some years ago, when they go to rural Uganda and buy several acres of land.
There was a small forest on it, most of it having been eaten away by neighbouring villages that harvested it for wood.
It borders a lake, so the shores had been harvested heavily for sand.
Slowly, they started the battle to restore most of the forest and secured it and the strip of land along the lake, and stopped sand harvesting.
The communities around drifted into the next forest, which is state forest. Years later, if you search their estate on Google Earth, it is a dense green of forest, surrounded by largely barren land. The people around have finished the taxpayers’ forests.
They now have one of the healthiest 65 acres of forest that you will find in this republic. But it is what followed next that makes this story worth telling.
Seeing the forest as a living thing, and holding the secrets of our history and future, they decided they would document every plant in it. So for some years now they have got botanists who have done exactly that.
You can get misty-eyed reading the trove of records they have generated. They have listed all the common English, scientific, and Ugandan names of the trees. They have written their history. They have yielded the research on the stories of the trees, and what cultural purposes they were put to.
They photographed each tree from several angles. And to cap it, they have cut a specimen from each of the trees and saved them.
Even in the colonial days, where the occasional eccentric and mad scientist Briton would get up to these kinds of things, they rarely went to this depth.
Now you would think this would end there, but no. They have identified all the 110 species of birds in their forest, and now they are going through the same thing.
Photographing them, referencing them to their local and scientific names, and telling their stories.
And to put icing on the cake, when that is done, they will take on the most unAfrican part of the project.
They will identify all the snakes in the forest, photograph them, get their local and mzungu names, and map where they live.
I asked what they plan to do about the insects. Well, “you never know”, they said.
They didn’t allow me to say anything about the plans they have for the place, but they are alive to the fact that they can’t sustainably live in an ecological “oasis” when around them the communities have destroyed all forest and are struggling for fuelwood.
So they are planning to set up a nursery and push a reforestation and greening in the areas around them.
None of these people have ever stood for office, or seek it. They hide from the public eye, and outside of their circle of friends and family, few other Ugandans know them. Yet, they have a care for these lands, and its peoples, only few can muster.
I was having coffee with a leading global conservation figure when I told him about their work. I then said, half-seriously, “I don’t know of any other African who has taken it as far as they have”.He looked at me without saying anything for a few seconds, and said; “Actually I don’t know any private individuals in the world who have either.”
Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser
Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3