As he stood before his country and delivered his inaugural speech in January 1961, president John F. Kennedy told Americans thus: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
President Kennedy made that speech a year and some months before Uganda earned its independence from Britain; our country was not yet born.
Maybe that is why we missed that memo, for in this country, we are experts at asking what the country can and should do for us, and while we are at it, complaining why the country is not doing it.
Hash tag TGE (#TGE), stands for tusaba gavumenti etuyambe. It is a Luganda expression meaning (we call upon the government to help. It is the latest in a line of online memes that Ugandan elite have coined, largely as attempts at creating comic and stress relief, in comment to a particular situation.
As one tries to understand this phenomenon, and why it has gathered such traction, one finds themselves having to study the practice of journalism in this country, and chiefly, the relationship that large swathes of society perceive to hold with the media.
A typical scenario will run like this. A story breaks out in the suburbs and a journalist is dispatched to cover it. It could be a fire, an accident or anything that needs fixing.
And in the interview process, when the reporter seeks to find a solution to the problem, they will get an answer, universally constant – we call upon the government to help us.
Later that day, as the elite sit back at home and watch prime–time news on TV, they will hear the phrase repeated in nearly every single news item. The result has been Uganda’s elite turning the phrase into a toy for comical tittle-tattle online.
From their experiences, Esther Oluka, a journalist with the Daily Monitor and David Tash Lumu, a journalist with Vision Group, agree that, #TGE is the default societal response to a journalist’s question, on a solution to a crisis.
It is informed, they say, by what people see as government’s responsibility over their lives, and, the proximity they think the media has with government.
“I once interviewed an elderly woman, a roadside florist, in Nakawa,” Ms Oluka says. “She told me that KCCA wanted her to vacate the land she used for her flowering work. “Oh my daughter,” she told me, “Please help me. Can’t you at least go and speak to those authorities, at least someone in government, who can help people like us? We are voiceless. At least, use your platform as a journalist to talk to government to help us. Otherwise, I will lose my business.”
#TGE is derived from Luganda. But it is a reflection of a countrywide mentality.
Ms Oluka explains how she got the same responses from women she found in an Amuria hospital ward, who called upon government to help and provide money and drugs.
It is an altogether different ballgame, understanding what help government should provide in a particular situation.
“When you ask what sort of help they want government to give, Ms Oluka says, “They say, ‘They should give us money.’ You wonder how that money would be given when they want a road. Some things are not so practical. Some will say, “Let government help us and give us money or build for us homes.”
Ms Oluka says the people who usually enlist #TGE are “desperate, very vulnerable people. Many are women doing small jobs; struggling with careers.”
Mr Lumu says: “As you see on Bukedde TV’s Agataliko Nfufu, it penetrates the riffraff of society, the wananchi down there.”
And yet it is not only the lower classes. A news item about why regulators of medical practice cannot carry out their full mandate will see its chairperson say it is because there is no funding. And right after that, add, “We call upon the government to increase funding.”
Every Ugandan seems to be calling upon the government to do something; an entrepreneur will call upon government to provide start-up capital, the teacher will call upon government to raise salaries. “It is a Ugandan thing,” Mr Lumu says.
But why is it a Uganda thing?
“I think Africans (Ugandans) have been conditioned (to think) that any challenge will be solved by the big powers in government. They do not look around themselves to solve those challenges. The philosophy has always been government will provide, or help remove people from poverty, bonna baggagawale, bonna basome,” he says.
It is easy to judge the mentality that comes up with #TGE as downright lazy, coming from a people who want to benefit without contributing to the common good.
But that would not be the entirely accurate picture, because it is true after all, that government collects taxes from us, at near gun-point seriousness, so it can provide necessary amenities for its people. Surely, the people are not asking for too much when they ask for a road.
On the internet, #TGE continues to do the rounds and make people laugh. But it does little to solve or explain our situation.
Maybe if president Kennedy were alive, he would give us a customised Ugandan edition, of asking not what your country can do for you.