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Choose; garbage town rat or clean city mouse?

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Mr Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Daily Monitor’s story “Garbage choking cities, towns as budgets dip” (May 27, 2024) was a depressing read about Kampala and other cities and towns in the country buried under filth, unable to collect and clean up after themselves.

Depressing, yes, except if you are paid to take an unsentimental look at society. One of the questions that presents is, what happens to people who live in a city as filthy and potholed as Kampala is? They become a product of the city’s squalor, and that product is sometimes very beautiful.

The middle class, especially its creative contingents that emerges from filthy cities like Kampala and Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos are very different from that produced by pristine ones like Rwanda’s capital Kigali, Namibia’s Windhoek, Botswana’s Gaborone, or Benin’s seat of government, Porto-Novo, and its commercial capital Cotonou.

In my categorisation, Kampala and Lagos produce a “Musk Middle Class”. Partly as a reaction to the filth, the Musk middle-class party big, their dress and style are controversial and out of this world (Sheila Gashumba’s Kampala Brunch is but one example), its painting vivid and imaginative (ever wonder why Nigerians are easily the world’s best hyperrealist artists), and their poetry flowery and abrasive (please give it up to Stella Nyanzi and “No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison”), and its prose explosive and adorned with thrones (I present to you Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and his “The Greedy Barbarian”).

You will have the contemporary stark art of Nigerian artist Olamilekan Abatan and the eerie and anguished material of Ugandan artist Ian Mwesiga. That kind of unsettling production is not coming out of Kigali, despite the history of the genocide against the Tutsi. The smell of the decomposing bodies is its past.

Within cities, we see a similar divide. In Nairobi, the innovative and edgy music, art, and colourful street language are from tough areas like Githurai and Africa’s largest slum Kibera. Not Westlands or Muthaiga.

For the longest time in Uganda, the most wildly revolutionary, creative, and musical parts of Kampala were Katwe, Kamwokya, Bwaise, Kawempe, and Kansanga, to name a few, not Nakasero or Muyenga.

The Kigalis, Gaborones, and Windhoeks, no matter how varied their political systems and economies are, produce a “Lavender Middle Class”. It’s milder in public manner, and dress.

The perfumes worn at the Musk middle-class parties are likely to be far stronger than those at the Lavender middle-class shindings. They have less foul air to respond to. You will have a Namibian National Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will perform in Gaborone, and you will have a Chorale De Kigali. None of that in Kampala.

In countries with dominant putrid garbage landscapes, we see subtle ways in which it impacts politics.

Dirty capitals and cities tend to cultivate national corruption. Here are the eight least corrupt African countries according to the latest rankings, in order of their honesty: Seychelles, Cabo Verde, Botswana, Rwanda, Mauritius, Namibia, and Benin.

We are not rushing to say less filth invariably produces less corrupt government. Only that if there was an Uncollected Garbage African Championships, those eight countries wouldn’t qualify to even sit in the stands and watch. Filth and foul smells tend to lead to a tolerance of corruption in government among a larger section of the elite, the working class, and voters. A knowledge industry rationalising corruption and that does a brilliant job placing graft in a global context also sprouts and thrives. The unintended, but happy outcome, of that is that corrupt countries usually have an elite that is more knowledgeable about world affairs.

If you want to know who won the Cold War; the geopolitical anxieties that informed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and the secrets and limits of the East Asian economic miracle, you go to the corrupt African countries. You don’t go looking for insights from Windhoek or Praia. If filth and potholes lead to a permissive public attitude toward official corruption, one should not be surprised if the greater incentive for the state is to leave the garbage uncollected, than to order skips and removal trucks.

The people in the clean and dirty cities also die differently. In the clean city, you might slip and break your neck on a slippery floor, or fall off your bike after losing concentration while riding in a bicycle lane and wrecking your spine. In the dirty, corrupt, and lawless city, you might likely die after downing a Johnnie Walker, smoking marijuana, filling your belly with nyama choma, then wrapping your sports car around a pole after careering off a potholed road at 180 kilometres an hour – mangled beyond recognition with your two best friends and three carefree rebellious women with false eyelashes in the back seat.

Many people have been known to say they prefer the latter ending. Garbage can do crazy things to your worldview.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”