THE first time I visited South Africa (the Republic) was in 1999, and the guys at the airport were still heady with the end end of apartheid – and to be frank, so was I.
Unlike myself, they couldn’t help bringing up Idi Amin when they read my Passport, even though I felt I deserved better as a Ugandan.
That entire visit I found that most people, including some random Zambian I met atop of Table Mountain, only linked the word “Uganda” to “Idi Amin” even though on interrogation I found that the Zambian HAD been to Uganda and met with serious Ugandans in the medical profession with no link whatsoever to our former President.
This is not about Idi Amin.
For about five years I found South Africans using different icons to relate to Uganda, but this week I was met by a Customs chap who responded to my being Ugandan (seeing the t-shirt) with, “Matooke! Did you bring Matooke?!”
The excitement of his exclamation could have been linked to the expectation that he would catch me bringing in this agricultural contraband and therefore earn some commission or bonus, but after I calmly denied he slapped my suitcase and smiled.
“Matooke tastes good, braa!”
I smiled and went along my merry way since it was late in the night, but the memory came back to me the next morning.
Through the years these icons have included enseenene (delicious tasting fried grasshoppers), which a number of South Africans find entertaining even though they and their cousins in Zimbabwe eat stuff like mopane worms; and Anne Kansiime who came up last year, proving the power and reach of our continental media.
“She’s a funny one, that one! Tell her I said hi!” said the Immigration chap that night.
At one point the icon they recognised most was our President, and I was relieved when instead of “Idi Amin!” they’d go, “Museveni!” This was about the time they seemed to learn about Uganda’s contribution to the apartheid struggle in the past.
Most Ugandans don’t know about this even now. I recall meeting some young South Africans back in my much younger days in some dark place in Kyambogo. A few hours in we realised they were complicated characters when they introduced knives into an equation that involved liquids of a potent nature.
The night ended without too much mayhem, and we didn’t become friends. Years later, I woke up in a dormitory somewhere and found myself face-to-face with one of those South Africans. He was back in the country to continue receiving the type of support that eventually led to these exclamations of “Museveni!” from his compatriots when I introduce myself as Ugandan.
When I was leaving South Africa the last guy at the security checkpoint asked me about David Obua. I smiled and we chatted briefly about this Ugandan.
This week’s declaration of “Matooke!” pleased me, and along the way I asked a few other South Africans about their knowledge or liking of the foodstuff – at least three of them confirmed it.
This is not about Matooke.
It is about icons – our national icons, and how much more we can do to identify and use them for diplomacy, tourism, investment and even our individual self-esteem. An ‘icon’ is “a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.”
The fact that we have positive sounds about ordinary things like enseenene and Matooke means we have lots more to offer the world than we realise or make use of.
Our Ambassadors and Tourism afficionados could keep us notified what these icons are so we take advantage of them at every turn and corner. If Matooke is the big thing from Uganda in South Africa in 2017 then every Ugandan flying down there could go with a recipe book and a sample packet of matooke crisps or something even more innovative, and sell more Uganda out there.