This week I looked up the word ‘Context’, because I had attended an event at which President Yoweri Museveni said: “Rich people produce stupid children. This is a problem in Uganda.”
Even if I were not sitting in that audience at the Acacia Mall launch to hear him say this first hand, the parabolic nature of the phrase would have been clear to me because he has been talking this way, in parables and using metaphor, imagery, nuance and other tactics, for close to thirty years.
Context, according to my iMac dictionary, means: “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement or idea and in terms of which it can be fully understood; the parts of something written or spoken that immediately precede and follow a word or passage and clarify its meaning.”
So here was the context:
The launch was organised by the Mall owners, the Mukwano Group, under Group Managing Director Alykhan Karmali, who sat with his father Amirali Mukwano.
The President told us how when he met Mukwano back in 1986 the now-old man expressed a need for US$800,000 in order to produce enough soap to meet Uganda’s needs.
The government provided the money and the company thrived. Later, Mukwano revealed to the President that Mukwano Industries’ annual turnover after that was US$10million. At the event itself, 28 years later, Alykhan had told the President that annual turnover was now US$500million.
On that note, the President said, among other things, “You know, rich people produce stupid children. This is a problem in Uganda. But Mukwano there produced that boy and now you can see what he has done.”
And then he went on to say that some families only learn two of the mathematical operations in BODMAS – subtraction and division – whereas in serious families they focus on multiplication and addition; of wealth, we understood him to mean, and laughed heartily.
People like Alykhan had mastered formulae of multiplying their wealth and adding onto their riches, as evidenced by that day’s event; while many others, on acquiring wealth, title or property, only knew how to divide it, sometimes acrimoniously, and subtract it to zero. And somewhere during the speech the President talked about land fragmentation being another major problem to which a solution could be found in fruit growing, as fruit could be grown valuably on small pieces of land.
For some of us, #RichPeopleStupidKids was the take-home from the entire speech.
It was not surprising to see some taking the literal meaning of that one part of the President’s statement out of the context in which he made it, and responding as if he had taken to the podium to utter just that one sentence.
But it was disappointing.
As disappointing, some argued, as it was to hear the President use that word “stupid”. But those arguments reminded me of a childhood lesson in ‘How to read the Bible’: Don’t flip pages open and read the first thing you see otherwise you might chance upon the verses, “…Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him…” followed closely by, “…go ye forth and do likewise…”!
Context is important. As one cabinet minister in the 90s explained after the press published a photograph of him slumped over a bar stool in alcoholic mayhem, “Yes, that was me in a Casino late in the night. Now if that photo had been taken in a church early on a Sunday morning…”
Context is important. For full understanding. For clarity. And in order for us not to miss the forest for the trees, as the idiom goes.
Rich people producing stupid children who only subtract and divide is a problem, and if we don’t reverse that then there will be very few indigenous business and enterprises to speak of a few generations from now.
We need to groom the generations after us; the next generation should take up their responsibilities with seriousness; those with wealth and resource, such as the ‘elite’ must not squander it; and so on and so forth.
With his family money, Alykhan Karmali could have been a playboy on the international stage and partied up a few thousand times more than all the people that keep featuring in the gossip and tabloid pages here and get called ’tycoons’ and ‘celebs’.
Instead, he expanded his father’s business into a real empire in real estate and any currency you choose.
Maybe because of the benefit of having been there, I heard the President’s #RichParentsStupidKids comment with a different ear; as he walked round the Mall touring the individual shops and meeting the tenants, he paid special attention to the younger entrepreneurs and kept asking them who their parents were.
He stopped quite deliberately at each young Ugandan he met at their shops to enquire after their backgrounds, as he laid up his speech.
Two of these young Ugandans stood out as they have done for most of their generation for the last few years. Olga and Nunu Mugyenyi have captivated the imaginations, aspirations and expectations of most Ugandans who have come into contact with them since they opened up Definition Africa and Bold.
The smile on the President’s face when he met them both, separately, was a good backdrop for his speech later on that morning. Their father, Dr. Joshua Mugyenyi – now departed – wasn’t a rich industrialist or tycoon in the casual sense, but was a prolific intellectual and highly celebrated technocrat; and their mother, Mary Mugyenyi, a colourful politician with a Parliamentary and Ministerial seat now behind her, and some successful businesses and farming around and ahead of her too.
The girls are still deeply rooted at home, but have also created their own way.
Definition Africa is “Changing perception of local production. Redefining the market with 100% African made products.” and produces some intriguing and highly entertaining designs that make one look at our ordinary Ugandan materials and quirks in a different, positive light.
In Olga’s own words, the brand offering is “products of an international standard that are indigenous to the region in both subject matter and materials used.”
Bold, is also into fashion, but not only their own – they are a clearing house or showroom for a wide range of other indigenous Ugandan fashions (including Definition) that could hold their own in any part of the world.
The brand names Nunu and her partners carry also include Gloria Wavamunno, Kiroto, Kwesh, Kunda, Qulture, Umuringa Jewellery, Zanaa, Amagara, Ndagire, Kaya Shoes, and more. Nunu and her partners say they “recognized the need for a platform to increase awareness and showcase their products in an affordable and accessible way”, but more importantly, they reacted to that opportunity.
The girls themselves might not realise it but walking through both their outlets and talking with them gives you a feel of the intellectualism and idealism of their father – put into practice rather than just written down on paper.
I watched both girls keenly as the President made the #RichPeopleStupidKids comment and was amused by their bemusement, but comforted that they did not flinch as if they were targets. Far from it.
During the arguments after the speech I recalled how at the age of twelve I had heard the remark that the success of parents is in seeing their children do better than them; this covered the idea that the next generation had a role to take over and go further, and the current generation had a role in equipping and guiding them.
Let’s get rich, and ensure our children are not stupid.