Charles Onyango Obbo
Uganda doesn’t smell too good after 50 years, but it is alive and kicking
Posted Wednesday, October 9 2013 at 01:00
We have become a country where the sweetest smells most people know are perfume and air freshener.
Today is the 51st anniversary of Uganda’s independence. Coming a year after the hype of the 50th anniversary, the Golden Jubilee, last year, this is different. Why? Because the 50th anniversary is usually the big one. If your birthday is emotionally important to you, then you have a big party on the 50th. After that, if you are a sensible man or woman, you should stop making too much fuss about your birthday.
If your marriage has survived 50 years, a golden jubilee makes sense. It would be silly, after having the 50th anniversary of your wedding, to try and squeeze in a celebration on the 51st. For this reason, this October 9 should be a national holiday, yes, but there should be no parades.
Today, however, is the right time to ask the question we didn’t ask last year; “what kind of country had we become after 50 years?”Our family spent many years near Fort Portal, in Tooro where the old man worked. So we travelled from Tororo/Mbale to Fort Portal for very many years. Those days you would know when you were approaching a town by the sweet smell of baking. You could be blindfolded from Mbale and know you were approaching Tororo by the sweet smell of bakeries, or mandazi and samosa parlours. You would smell Iganga, you would smell Kakira, you would smell Jinja, you would smell Kampala, and you would smell Mityana, Mubende, Kyenjojo, Butiiti, and Fort Portal.
More than anything, what has changed about Uganda is how our capital and towns smell – terrible. The bakeries are still there, but the filth – the uncollected garbage, the smelly abattoirs, the flowing sewage, the pollution – have blanketed out the sweet smells.
We have become a country where the sweetest smells most people know are perfume and air freshener. What my nose knew as a child, it no longer knows today as middle age approaches. That is one of the big changes – our country no longer smells nice.
It is also no longer a green paradise. That journey from Mbale to Fort Portal used to be very hard on the eyes. This our motherland was so green, it would pain your eyes (reminds me of a roguish Ugandan friend who once told me that American actress Halle Berry was so beautiful, it pained his eyes looking at her on screen or in photos).
The early years of independence were also the period of great state-founded institutions. Schools had fabulous running tracks, marching bands, wonderful school buildings, and laboratories. Mulago hospital was imposing and intimidating in its majesty. Once public libraries were a big affair.
Today, nearly all these things have gone to the dogs. Most children don’t know what a public library is. You might say the government of the day has a “dead” hand. The early ones, mostly Obote 1, had a “living hand”.
However, some other things have come alive – the people. That trip from eastern Uganda to the west, would take you through towns where “our” people were mostly workers, labourers, and a few managers. There was not a single building of note with an indigenous Ugandan name in any town.
Today, the towns are ours. There are gleaming towers owned by indigenous Ugandans. More of them are also behind steering wheels – with disastrous consequences in this case. For all the abuses against independent media that the country endures, there are more voices with independent newspapers, radio stations and television channels. Some things haven’t changed. The women of the 60s wore Afro wigs. Today they wear massive weaves and braids (natural hair has been oppressed for very long). At that time, they wore mini skirts. So do they today. They wore high shoes. So do they today.
The men used to wear khaki shorts. They do so today though, they are cargo shorts. The hairstyles have changed though. First, they used to part their hair. They no longer do. I notice though, that the 1970s Afro hair do is back. Then they never used to do the clean-shaven head that is in vogue today. There were no African-owned banks then. There are hardly any today either.
So now we have a picture of Uganda after 50, which answers what kind of country we have become. We are like a once lush land, that has become a desert but with a few flourishing oases left. We have all gathered in these oases, and increasingly fighting over them. Maybe, like the Israelis, crisis will force us to conquer the desert and grow out of the oases. Or, over the next 50 years, the desert shall continue its march and the few oases left shall perish, and us along with them.
Being a Ugandan optimist is to believe that the oases shall roll back the desert. Being a pessimistic is to believe that the desert shall triumph.