I was recently in Kampala to attend Writivism, a literary festival where smart young people came to talk art, books and abstract ideas to their fellow smart young people.
To raise the average age and lower the smartness index, they’d invited your columnist in to have a conversation with John Nagenda on the role of the writer in politics. Although often acerbic in print, Mzee Nagenda is a great storyteller, a decent human being, even, in the flesh, and we had great fun jostling on stage.
Nagenda spoke at length about his contemporaries on the literary scene – Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, et al – and I was at once struck by a great sense of loss, reminded of how far today’s young people have to row across the river of life to get to the banks of greatness.
It is not just young writers, mind. Think of the politicians. When he was in his early 20s, Yoweri Museveni dreamt in the violent but progressive colours of revolution. Today, youths his age carry the manila paper of poverty placards with pride as tickets to the vanilla flavour of monetary reward.
But all is not lost and I come here today not to flog the dead horse of wasted youth but to reflect on some of the young people defying these stereotypes. There is Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire, a young, ambitious lawyer, author and one of the brains behind the festival. Where many young people think of setting up hair saloons or secretarial bureaus, he thought of setting up an ideas factory.
There is Celestino Babungi, unknown to me personally, but of whom many great things are said, running Umeme, one of the biggest companies in the country, well before his 40th birthday.
There is Gerald Karuhanga, Nicholas Opiyo and many more young lawyers earning their reputations not by the size of their mansions, but by the largeness of the progressive causes they stand for. Little-known Edward Sekyewa of the Hub for Investigative Journalism spends his days trying to knock down the walls of secrecy that government builds around information that should be in the public domain, while Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala, until recently, spent his days tracking attacks on journalists, especially the often-ignored village cousins who work upcountry.
Irene Ikomu was only 24 when she challenged President Barack Obama about the viability of aid, rather than trade, being at the heart of US foreign policy towards Africa. Today, she manages Parliament Watch Uganda, where she and her team work to increase public interaction with parliamentary debate one tweet at a time.
Of course, there are the university students – too numerous to list here – who were involved in the manufacture of the Kiira EV smart car at Makerere University a few years ago, and others involved in things, like robotics, that for a long time we only saw on television.
The first time I saw Esther Kalenzi, she looked so tiny, I worried a gust of wind could blow her away but I soon discovered that this young woman behind the 40 Days Over 40 Smiles charity was deep rooted and fairly unshakeable in her pursuit of a better life for those less privileged.
There are hundreds, maybe thousands, more young people across the country doing great things, or refusing to accept the mediocrity of our existence. It is a shame that we do not pay enough attention to those making a difference in their lives and the lives of those around them.
So this is to those young Ugandans who refuse to accept the “this is Uganda, deal with it” state of affairs, and who will one day attain greatness and hopefully carry the rest of us across the river in their wake.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. email@example.com &Twitter: @Kalinaki