Uganda; the country that we don’t know we don’t know

Wednesday October 2 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

In the last few years, I have been doing a project to study and write about Uganda as the country I left more than 10 years ago, and how different it is from the one I will return to in the not-too-distant future as a full-time resident citizen.

A lot of it has been done quietly away from Kampala, involving trips to many places I haven’t been. Though I have put in a lot of kilometres, there are still a few years to go on this, as I have done most of western Uganda, parts of Busoga, and several places in the south.

I set myself what is turning out to be a very difficult task, and I might well fail. But the work has been and will continue to be worth the pain. For how do you describe not so much how a country, but a people have changed? When you stop at a roadside market, why will vendors in the north and northeast often not rush to your car window to sell you things? Which are the wonderful places in this country that are invisible in the popular Ugandan imagination, and what does it say about us?

I asked one of my researchers, a young Ugandan with an open mind whose imagination hasn’t been dulled by the familiar, to find some of the most marginalised groups, and if any of them are not listed in official documents. I thought he would come up empty-handed.
How wrong I was. He came up with a list. I hadn’t heard or read anywhere before about five of them, all numbering less than 3,000.

Recently, I went to a place not too far from Tororo–Majanji, in Busia District. You’d probably not read of Majanji in the papers or heard anything about it on TV until the government started building the Musita–Mayuge–Lumino–Majanji–Busia road. I had never been there.
I looked in amazement, standing on the pristine shores of Lake Victoria there. I tweeted about it, and I got many puzzled inquiries in my message box, with some wondering how Lake Victoria can have shores in Busia District!

Totally understandable if you don’t study the Uganda map closely – I mean, Uganda has the shortest national anthem in the world, but most of us can’t sing it in full, why should we spend long hours studying the Uganda map?
Then some of it has to do with the hold of the old, stereotypes, and the flippant, on our sense of our country. Many Ugandans still don’t know that the north is green and fertile.


Because of the wars in the late 1980s in parts of the northeast, and through to about 2006 in the north, the image of regions laid to waste took hold in our minds. Even though I knew better, and was aware the region had enjoyed a boom as a bread basket for South Sudan, nothing prepared me for what I saw recently in Lira. Nothing. If there is an Eldorado in Uganda, Lira is it. The same is in Teso, not so much in Soroti, but in the towns on the Mbale-Soroti road like Bukedea and Kumi.

These places still suffer from the trauma of war, make no mistake. But those are the wounds we don’t see, buried deep in collective social pain, contorting the structures of family and community in ways that are not visible on the street. You wonder, how do they negotiate these dualities? How can we be part of a country which we are also not part of in very many ways?

In my exploration, I was told of the failure of the government housing projects in Karamoja, built to end nomadism. The houses were built, alright, but only a few Karimojong came. Kampala was puzzled. “Who in this country refuses a free house?” it asked.
The problem, it turns out, was the toilet arrangements.
If you live in House A, and use Toilet A, then your enemies will know that your poop is in Toilet A. They can “capture” it, and cast an evil spell on it, and your cattle will die.

If you scatter it in the bushes, those who wish you ill will not identify it.
Might seem retrogressive, but it goes deep into the cultural beliefs in Karamoja about how private or public one’s poop should be, and its implications for personal security.

“Listen Charles,” my expert said, “if that single insight had informed the design of the housing project, it would have been a success---you’d think after 56 years of independence, someone in Kampala would know that”.
But then again, as a friend from northern Uganda told me “we don’t want you fellows in the rest of the country to know how fertile our lands are, we are safer that way.”

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3