A seven-year-old musician, Fresh Kid, has found the kind of publicity upcoming artistes like Vampino, Zuena, Qute Kaye and my friend KS Alpha would kill for. A lot of it is down to his age, streetwise lingo and ability to deliver a sharp political barb with porridge-on-the-upper lip innocence.
In video clips of his interviews, Fresh Kid does not float like a butterfly – he is closer to the caterpillar end of the locomotion spectrum, strutting around in wannabe hip-hop paraphernalia – but some of his lyrics sting like bees in a ghetto-anthem style.
He caught the eye of Child Affairs minister Nakiwala Kiyingi who convened a meeting with her top brass and the kid’s entourage to lay down the law. In response to pleas by the lad’s father to let him work longer hours, including some weekdays, to support the family instead of being in school, the minister was unequivocal.
“As the custodian of the law I cannot allow that to happen,” she reportedly said. “The child must not be given the burden of looking after the family.”
Many, pointing to thousands of same-age kids begging in the streets, have accused the minister of cherry picking. Others, of classism: would we have the same reaction if Fresh Kid was missing school to play the violin at the Cape Town waterfront or the Victoria and Albert? Clearly not. Your columnist is inclined to give the minister the benefit of the doubt, adjusting for every politician’s penchant for populism, but there is a lot more going on here.
Around 1998, your columnist spent many weeks traversing the country looking at the after-shocks of the HIV epidemic. Anti-retroviral treatment was expensive and out of reach; thus villages were riddled with mounds of freshly dug graves.
Then there was the sight of young boys and girls, some no bigger than this young boy, forced into early adulthood by the premature death of parents and guardians. I saw small prepubescent girls turn into mothers, comforting siblings over parents who would never return, or wandering out in search for the next family meal.
At least two revolutionary forces at play in the 90s would have far-reaching consequences: The structural adjustment programmes dislocated many families and, in the absence of social safety nets, fed fuel to the corruption fire that continues to this day. The HIV epidemic wiped out, in the worst-hit areas, an entire generation of guardians. Often the former stoked the embers of the latter.
By the early 2000s, Uganda had one of the highest number of orphans and orphan-headed households in the world. Official data from the time showed almost a quarter of a million children in marriages; more than 150,000 girls aged 12 to 17 with babies; and a one-in-four chance of becoming a mother by the age of 17.
As a result, almost 90,000 children lived in child-headed households; 1.8 million in homes headed by elderly people and 2.75 million in female-headed households. Twenty somethings who grew up in two-parent households where hands were held and grace said at dinner please clap for yourselves.
This generation has since come of age and is now having its own children, including those ghetto kids dreaming of becoming the next big thing. Depending on many factors, some are grateful for the opportunities they made the most of – poor but free education, basic primary healthcare, security, et cetera; others are resentful of the things they did not have then (including hugs from their parents) and the things they do not have now.
Nevertheless, this generation shares at least two realities. One, it has a wider world view than that before it; the promise of ‘go to school, read hard, get a good job and retire to the village’ makes no sense to people who see university graduates working as night guards while talented people make millions, or to people with no villages to retire to, for that matter.
Secondly, those in this generation – contrary to what minister Kiyingi says – already have the burden of looking after their families. In fact, with only a few exceptional cases of old money and nouveau riche types, this is the generation that has to look after itself, its parents, its children and its extended families – regardless of whether one works in an air-conditioned office or pushes handcarts in the sweltering heat.
Parents who send their kids out to perform in dingy bars in Nansana on weekday nights do not do so out of a dereliction of duty, but out of a mixture of hope and desperation. They’ve never heard of ‘net present value’ but they know they’d better have the rent when the landlord comes a-knocking ina de yard ina da morning!
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org