I SWUNG across two extreme ends of a reputation spectrum last week during a couple of days spent in Botswana.
The first end was at the very top of the Tswana society at a reception hosted by the Honorary Consul of Finland to Botswana, but the compliment itself came from the humblest man present, a very old, wizened, soft-spoken gentleman manning the bar.
I’d introduced myself to a few people at the Reception, and every time I declared my country of origin the response was the same, excited exclamation, accompanied by the summons of the nearest Mtswana, followed by an anecdote.
I managed about four self-introductions then realised the night would end without my having said much else other than name and country.
So I took a small break away from everybody else, and this old waiter hobbled over to me obsequious like and positioned himself at my left shoulder.
Before I could politely turn him away, he said quite clearly,
“Sir. I heard you say you are from Uganda. As you can see I am a very old man, and I have been working for very many years and seeing these very educated people. In Botswana everywhere you go, for all these years, we have always heard of Makerere in Uganda. Thank you – Thank you very much.”
And he hobbled off.
Uncanny? You have no idea. The local guests were mostly contemporaries of the Honorary Consul, Ambassador Samuel Mpuchane, so they were distinguished career diplomats, retired civil servants and high level businessmen, and had said the same thing when I declared myself to be from Uganda: “Eeeeh – Uganda! Makerere! (I/So-and-so/My brother/relative) went to Makerere…”
They were so extremely excited to be linked to Makerere University and were keen to know how it is faring these days.
Luckily, the excited discussion never went beyond their own anecdotes around Makerere otherwise I would have had to say something about the University and how it is performing today – which would have led them to work out why the University was so popular back in their days of study in the 50s and 60s, but may not be taking in any of their children right now.
Still, I was quite tickled that I had also been to Makerere and could bask in its glory in a place as far away as Gaborone, with the richest man in the room and the humblest both singing praises.
I rode high on the crest of this good national reputation the whole night through, and the next day until somebody in my group – the Suomi-Africa Network of journalists from African countries, Finland, the UK and the US, picked up a newspaper called ‘The Voice‘ because of the salacious headline: “He Should Fix My Private Parts” under which I was horrified to read: “Woman claims no man wants her after Ugandan man disfigured her.”
I swung to the other end of the spectrum as my mates silently read the story in a little astonishment because their experience of Ugandan men thus far had been spending time with me, so they had hitherto held the country in fairly good esteem. A couple of them who had heard the furore the night before over Makerere had nodded their heads silently, and now stole glances at me as they read the story of the Ugandan fellow who had disfigured his girlfriend to the point of getting to Page One.
The story had to be true, since it was on the front page, and told of how a one “Issah Batambuze, 50-year-pld Gaborone based businessman, admitted to having a flight with Tebogo Motihabani, 41, but vehemently refuted allegations that he…(tampered with her private parts in a manner that I cannot describe under my own by-line)”
The lady, said the story, was a security guard at Oriental Plaza where Batambuze’s IT business is located.
The story went into incredible detail about the goings-on between this Ugandan and his girlfriend the askari, all of which threatened to dent my standing with the people I was travelling with, but I kept head high and did all the right things to maintain the reputation we had grown over time from the days when Makerere was the greatest institution of learning on the continent.
All the while, I was keenly aware how suddenly one’s reputation can be deeply affected by people one may have never met before but to whom we have that one inalienable connection – we are all Ugandans; the people who made Makerere such a great place so many years ago that old men in Botswana emotionally sing its praises today, and fellows like Batambuze.
Luckily for me, my group wasn’t going to judge me loosely on the basis of the businessman and his sexual arrangements. But for the rest of my trip I worried: “Did that old bartender at Ambassador Mpuchane’s residence read The Voice or were we, as a nation, going to lose him to the shenanigans of this IT businessman and his askari girlfriend?