Kampala has never really been a city for walking, let alone running. The sweltering heat and stifling humidity, the steep hills, the gaping manholes hidden around every street corner, the missing pavement, the mad boda boda riders, loitering louts with long fingers, malicious matatu drivers, and a habit of eating food portions at each sitting large enough to feed a dozen refugees are all to blame.
Yet, over the last few years, a running culture has slowly emerged. I am not talking about the fitness freaks zipping and up down the hills training for marathons. Nor am I talking about the pot-bellied, big-bummed corporate pythons slithering up Kololo Summit trying to digest their lunch through their spandex.
The runners I am talking about often come out over the weekend, in varying stages of post-Friday-night recovery, to run for one charity or the other. Sometimes it is a walk – complete with a marching band and a ‘Chief Walker’ – to raise money for this, or awareness for that.
Need sanitary pads for the girl-child? Need a new cancer ward? Need boreholes for the hapless Karimojong? Need to save separate some villagers from their jiggers? Apparently there is nothing we can’t do, no obstacle too high for us to overcome if we are willing to turn up on a Saturday morning for a jog around the city. No weapon formed against us shall prosper if we turn out in our tracksuits and T-shirts, hold hands, sing ‘Kumbaya’ and jog into the morning dew.
But there is a problem. This culture, as well-intentioned and altruistic as it might be, is only encouraging us to run away from our problems, not to stand up and confront them. Take cancer, for example. The story of the breakdown of the only cancer treatment machine has been retold ad nauseum and we need not repeat it.
Procurement of a replacement, its installation in a new bunker and commissioning all seem to have missed their deadlines – but there is no national outrage, no running campaign, no crowds picketing the hospital fence. Running to create awareness for cancer testing, or for a cancer ward is nice and heart-warming, but it does not put a Cobalt-60 machine in place at Mulago. For that to happen, we need to put pressure on the government to do what we pay it to do.
Yet good men and women who are happy to donate their time and money to worthy causes are not willing to stand up and demand to know how their money is being spent and what is being done in their name. We have outsourced our citizen agency to our chequebooks and cell-phones. Prayer warriors, meet the mobile money militants!
Why do we remain silent when the government has more vehicles to ferry its officials to meetings than ambulances to carry the sick to hospital? When you call in a crime and are told the Police have no transport or fuel, don’t you wonder how they are able to find hundreds of patrol cars to escort every constipated dignitary running late for their flight or meeting?
There is a place for philanthropy and altruism in improving public services – but it can only complement, not substitute, citizen agency and demands for accountability for money already allocated.
Republican nation states are underpinned by a normative social contract: Citizens cede some aspects of their personal freedom (to rules) and income (to taxes) to the State so that it can more efficiently provide public goods (such as roads) and services (such as education and healthcare).
There should be consequences for non-compliance for both sides. Citizens who break the law are jailed; tax defaulters are fined. What of the State when it is non-compliant?
In more mature democracies, incompetent governments get voted out. In young, imperfect ones, such as ours, citizens must bring pressure to bear, on service delivery, and on the improvement of electoral processes, so that outcomes in both reflect the will of the people.
Paying taxes to the State for services it doesn’t deliver then spending what’s left of one’s income to pay for the same (private) services only encourages impunity and abuse by those in power. If Ugandans want good health, education, roads and better use of our taxes, we should stop running and start fighting for our rights.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist,