An installation of a disco-light edifice of a cow’s head – or somesuch – at a key roundabout in Mbarara Town has drawn howls of protest, and a social media campaign to return the original; a steel-and-concrete statue of a long-horned Ankole bull.
One ungovernable wag online said the new installation resembled fallopian tubes and supplied a picture montage for illustration. The resemblance is uncanny.
A phone company with a branded street clock in the middle of the roundabout said it had nothing to do with the disco-light-powered ‘tubes’.
Local officials jumped in and said the old concrete mass, which, in my humble opinion was the kind of thing that appealed to those who find a lump of fresh dung artistic, would soon be back as the only bull in the roundabout kraal.
It is not only in Mbarara. In Nairobi, residents sobbed into their warm beers after a statue – allegedly of a lion but which, with its faux fur and cartoonish features more resembled an overfed diabetic wild cat – was installed at a key city roundabout. Mercifully, it was just a dummy and a more realistic statue has since been installed.
What is going on? The most obvious is that people long conditioned to being described by others are increasingly keen to represent themselves, even in caricature.
This is but just the start. In both cases above, the discussion has been mostly about form, not substance. It was about how real the lion or the bull looked, not about whether either animal is a true and fitting representation – or what it is, exactly, it is supposed to represent.
This is where things get problematic, and interesting. A bull’s head in a cattle-keeping region and a resting lion a few kilometres away from a national park with plenty of prides are plain vanilla, even perhaps boring and stereotypical.
Yet if the Mayor of Mbarara had decided to erect a statue of a person, there are hardly any uncontroversial choices. Pick the President, as a son-of-the-soil, and the Opposition would be up in arms. Pick Winnie Byanyima as a flag-flying daughter-of-the-soil and her detractors would probably deface it. Put a bust of the last Ankole king on a plinth and the republicans will spit on it. It is easier to lionise lions.
We see this selective fight for identity and memory in many post-colonial societies, including in Uganda. Many of those engaged in the #BringBackOurCow campaign might have done so in Kampala, a city whose streets are a daily potholed reminder of victors’ justice.
It was unsurprising that the colonisers and occupiers would raise their flag and rename things, the way lions urinate on landmarks to mark territory. That is why Queen Victoria, Prince Philip, Princess Anne, Prince Charles, Col Ternan, Maj Owen, Maj Gen Colvile, the Rev Pilkington are all memorised in streets and public places across Uganda while there is no Kabalega Lane or Mwanga Drive in London – and only one or two nondescript roads in Kampala.
What is surprising – and interesting – is that more than half a century after independence we have been reluctant to revise this history. Dictator Idi Amin attempted to revise and rewrite some of this history and renamed the country’s largest national park after Kabalega, the king of Bunyoro whose resistance against colonial rule was fought in the area, his kingdom.
Amin also named a few things after himself and his fellow thugs like Mobutu and Bokassa and when he was ousted, these were renamed, but so was Kabalega National Park. Its ‘new’ name? The colonial ‘Murchison’, after the head of the Royal Geographical Society in Britain!
I have seen some interesting unpublished research, which shows that where we have attempted to change the way we see ourselves and our spaces through renaming, we have: (a) tended to keep the colonial names and legacy as the starting point, rather than the thing to challenge and change; (b) been quick to name and rename post-independence political actors as the political tide has ebbed and flowed; and (c) preferred to pick on uncontroversial external icons (think Mandela) or created new ones (think Lule, Luttamaguzi, Luwum, etc).
Thus the panic over the disco lights at the Mbarara roundabout is just interesting noise; abstract art of the steel-and-concrete type is easier than revising history and present-day geography to reinsert native agency. If we really want to critically re-examine our history and its present-day representation, we must move from form to substance: We must let go of the cow’s fallopian tubes and grab the bull by the horns.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org