A taxi “conductor” sticks his neck out of the window and announces the fare and destination to a waiting prospective female passenger. The fare is higher than usual, and more than she’s prepared to pay. She makes a counter offer.
With a sneer, and just before he tucks his head back inside the taxi, the conductor advises her to use her money to buy a bottle of cooking oil, pour it on the road and slide to her destination on her bums.
The apocryphal story is funnier in Luganda and one of many jokes – and entire genre in fact – made by taxi conductors in Kampala. Many are funny, I admit, but at the risk of raining on the parade, there is a lot more sadness and pain behind it all.
If your job involves sticking your head out of taxi for most of the day in 29-degree heat, fighting for fares and opening and closing a heavy door every two minutes you need a coping mechanism. Humour, even of the risqué type, helps. But what explains the insults to passengers, passers-by and other motorists?
Or the open hostility one finds almost everywhere, like in markets where women are openly groped and propositioned? Or on the roads where angry horns hoot seconds before the traffic light turns green, and where most motorists will speed up to cut off another motorist from joining the road instead of slowing down to let them through?
This is a country where you can be shot dead over a parking spot or a scratch on the bumper, where a bouncer can beat up a customer to the point of death, where a restaurant waiter can beat up a customer over a pack of tomato sauce.
How do we account for the open hostility and utter lack of civility in public debate? Or the fact that the more vacuous and violent a radio or television talk show is the more popular it is likely to be? Are there other countries or societies where first-responders to accident scenes routinely strangle survivors and cart off with their personal belongings?
The smart folks who study social anthropology and psychology might have answers, and some will correctly make correlations with the dog-eat-dog accumulative nature of emerging capitalist societies. To this it might be useful to add, by way of examination, the role of the breakdown of the family unit, and society by extension.
This breakdown is not new. It can be traced as far back, in recent times at least, to the Idi Amin days when thousands were killed or forced into exile, then into the Obote II years and the war that brought the NRA into power.
A Ugandan born at Independence in 1962 will, in their 58 years, have seen 34 years of violent political contestation or open war (basically from 1971 when Amin takes over, to 2005 when the active phase of the war against the LRA ends). They would have lived through the economic crisis of the late 70s and 80s, the Aids pandemic of the 90s, the painful dislocations of the structural adjustment programme, the war that effectively cut northern Uganda off the rest of the country, as well as the sporadic insecurity in West Nile, Teso and Karamoja.
To this one must add the brief but intense violence of Kasese and the Kayunga riots, as well as the sustained and on-going violence of poverty and exclusion that is the handmaiden of the neo-liberalised capitalist political-economic order.
This is no ordinary life, folks, and while the scars do not always show, many among us are the walking wounded. In the absence of mental health or psychosocial support this is a problem. In a society where wealth creation at all costs has been put above everything else, including nation building, it is a crisis.
Remember those orphan-headed homesteads in Aids-ravaged parts of the country? The NRA child-soldiers? The kids abducted by the LRA and forced to kill or be killed? Or the children born in Internally Displaced Peoples’ camps in northern Uganda? Well, they aren’t children any more.
They are the boda rider swinging you, helmet-less, into on-coming traffic; the barista spitting into your cappuccino; the health inspector passing counterfeit drugs. They are just the latest generation of Ugandans that has grown older without being raised or growing up. The taxi conductors got jokes, yes, but we are a nation of sad, mad, and angry people – and that’s no laughing matter.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.