Readers older than 30 probably remember a time when bus journeys were incomplete without snake oil salesmen. As soon as the bus was nearly full, they emerged, almost out of nowhere, lugging heavy bags down the aisle and, in an unmistakable singsong whine, advertised charms, oils and all manner of concoctions.
These, they promised, could cure anything from syphilis to gingivitis, bring back lost lovers, and boost the balance sheets of struggling businesses. For men of a certain age worn down by many years of spending their energy on pursuing money, the vendors promised powders and assorted aphrodisiacs that could jumpstart their power plants and bridge the gap between installed capacity and actual power output.
For some reason, every customer claimed to buy something for toothache or ulcers. No one seemed to suffer from syphilis and no power plants appeared to be shut for long-term maintenance – although the transactions were usually done quietly and a few power dams could have been refinanced that way.
From what I gather, the snake oil salesmen have since moved on to street posters, social media platforms, and, notably, to radio stations off which the authorities are working very hard to kick them.
It is not clear whether the snake oil salesmen are being chased away for selling goods that are dangerous to humans, or for taking money off unsuspecting members of the public by offering them sawdust or other harmless substances. I have the greatest sympathy towards the former but, as regards the latter, have always held the view that in a free market, every fool with money has a right to be punished.
But there is a bit more to this. In the late ‘80s, Yowerina Nanyonga, a hitherto unknown woman in Sembabule, burst onto the national scene claiming she had received a vision and could treat HIV and Aids-related illnesses using soil from near her home. She became an overnight sensation as thousands poured into her backyard. They ate tractor load after tractor load of murram but it did not work, of course, and most if not all of them bit the dust.
Around the same time, a local association – Uganda N’edagalalyaayo or ‘Uganda and its medicine’, if you may, – came into prominence offering medicines to people living with HIV/Aids. Some of them overstated the power of their herbs, and the clear scam of the likes of Nanyonga didn’t help, but amidst all the noise, it eventually became clear that while these herbalists did not and couldn’t cure HIV or Aids, they could treat some of the symptoms.
So here were two homegrown solutions: One was a scam, one had some benefits. Because both were local, it was easy to dismiss them collectively not because of their efficacy, but because of their provenance.
Sadly, this disdain for the local and blind support of the foreign continues daily, regardless of the quality of the product. You need to imagine it to believe it. Imagine a bark cloth-clad fella with a string of cowrie shells around his neck and ostrich feathers in his hair turning up on your television screen and promising you good fortunes if you send his way a few odd-coloured livestock; would you do it?
Now imagine if he was replaced by a fella in a slim-fit suit, shiny boots and an expensive watch; more folks would be more likely to write a cheque or send mobile money, even if they were paying for a jerrycan of tap water. Throw in an accent and time abroad and some could double their tithes!
The difference is that although both men are selling a commodity called hope, we have been socialised and conditioned to respect men in suits, not those in loincloths.
This is why the waiter in the restaurant is more likely to give the bill to the man after a meal without asking, or attend to more affluent-looking customers, even if they came in later.
It is why schools continue to punish pupils for speaking their mother tongue instead of English. It is also why a hotel in a city, deep in the heart of Africa will advertise a manager’s position and ask for Caucasian applicants, then specify that it wanted someone with international experience.
Expecting only people of a certain skin colour to have international experience is the problem, not the explanation. Mental slavery is real, as are local and exotic snake oil salesmen.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org