observations and thoughts may not define a man, but they do help us define life
I'm officially out of the youth bracket and therefore need to hit the gym more often so I can impersonate myself a few years ago - the physical equivalent of why I started writing this blog.
I used to be more intellectual than I am now, so you might notice a lot of high-minded blabber herein. Forgive that on the understanding that to let my guard down will result in a lot of juvenile lurches to depths that would not be appreciated by either my parents or my children (for at least another five years...)
THIS week I received a generic invitation card by social media, inviting “All Ugandans” to the 2019 Independence Day celebrations, scheduled to take place in Sironko District.
I was impressed that the announcement, or invitation, had come so early. See, about three weeks ago I was remarking to a government official how ill-prepared the general public normally is for this predictably annual celebration.
My point, also predictably annual, was that the ordinary person on the street certainly appreciated the holiday that falls on October 9 every year in commemoration of Uganda being declared free of British control, but rarely spends time focused on that fact.
Besides Government officials and hard-set nationalists, there are many people in our towns and villages who spend the day watching the national celebrations on television and showing national colours in one way or another.
Reading the invitation card made me think of all these people – the combination of the ones who care a little about the reason for the day, and the ones that don’t.
The yellow card, in national colours and a Crested Crane, carried an image of President Yoweri Museveni in one of his signature shirts and the main hat, and that of the lady MP whose district is hosting the celebrations – Hon. Florence Nambozo – in a busuuti.
The one thing that stood out for me was what the card didn’t have – the theme of this year’s Independence Day celebrations.
That made me happy – not in the mistaken belief that there might not be a theme this year, but at the opportunity right before us.
If the theme of this year’s Independence Day celebrations has not yet been selected then let’s choose one along the lines of ‘Buy Uganda, Build Uganda’!
That would be the perfect way to underscore our Independence – along the lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s Swaraj movement! When he launched his campaign it began with events where the patriotic Indians set fire to British cloth and took up Indian garments (the dhoti and shawl he is most famously pictured in) – woven off a locally-manufactured machine.
On that day, or during Independence week, or perhaps the entire month of October, we should stick to this one theme that bolsters our Independence from imperialism of all sorts – ‘Buying Ugandan to Build Uganda’.
Sironko should feature local Sironkian dishes, prepared only using Ugandan ingredients. But an allowance should be made, of course, for dishes from other parts of the country to be brought in as well.
Dishes, by the way, include the snacks and refreshments the thousands of guests could buy en route to the celebration venue – things like gonja, matooke and cassava crisps, and roasted groundnuts with sim-sim, and sim-sim balls and so on and so forth till we get to nseenene.
I don’t even need to talk about how many Rolexes could be fried up between where you are and Sironko.
Dress code? Ugandan; which isn’t just traditional dress but allows those who wish to wear cotton and linen shirts, suits or frocks to ensure they are made out of Ugandan fabric.
It is apt that Sironko’s Hon. Nambozo is wearing a busuuti – though the material is imported – on the invitation card, and President Museveni’s shirt is made in Uganda from Ugandan cotton.
The decor at the venue itself? Forget rubber balloons and bunting imported from Asia – we have hundreds of bright young and creative people here who can create the stuff that we need to brighten the place up. And the money they would earn would certainly contribute to making them “Independent!”
The list of opportunities could go on and on and on. And it’s only important and useful if we can make a decision now and act upon it.
And we shouldn’t be acting upon it just so people can make money selling stuff on the day. This is the kind of national activity that could spur more industry within people and the economy.
If every national event followed this one simple rule, imagine how much personal investment would go into taking advantage of it?
And you know one other characteristic of the day that could be improved upon? Every government department that chooses to place a newspaper advert congratulating the government on 57 years of independence should be required to list the BUBU initiatives they are running.
If they have none then let’s have them list how and where they are spend taxpayer’s money procuring stuff made or grown in Uganda.
As they congratulate us through our leaders, this message will resonate much stronger in promoting this sacred theme represented by the catchphrase “Buy Uganda, Build Uganda”.
When Kennedy Odede said those words at the start of our two-hour experience I had no idea how much I would burn with the thought that we – YOU and I – needed to change.
Recently I have revisited Tim Crothers’ “The Queen of Katwe”, thinking hard about his description of the life of people in that slum dwelling. It came to mind when we set off to see what Kennedy’s SHOFCO (Shining Hope For Communities) was doing in Africa’s largest urban slum dwelling – Kibera.
The leaders of the Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainability Department of Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Beverages Africa on this side of the continent chugged two buses down to the slum to see another way of supporting a community in need.
Before we set off we watched a brief video by SHOFCO explaining a little bit about what they do. I was close to tears at that, and knew the afternoon would be difficult.
We found Kennedy, well-spoken in an energetic way that belied his past, inside a little dark building obviously made permanent through evolution.
“Poverty makes you invisible,” started his story how, on that very spot as an early teenager, he and his friends would stand atop a pile of rubbish discussing how to make life better.
Their thought of “better” was a refusal to accept that life could be so bad and final. Kennedy described the same things in the “The Queen of Katwe”.
The details are disturbing, but not as disturbing as our realisation that many of us don’t see or know them. Poverty DOES MAKE PEOPLE INVISIBLE, and THAT is more disturbing.
For two hours after that, we speed-walked through the Kibera that SHOFCO has created. I was in anguish – not at the suffering and poverty of fellow human beings in slum conditions; but at how little WE purposefully do to change things.
Kennedy, at age fifteen (15), was fed up of the rape, disease, hunger, desperation and despair, and lack of hope – so he started up a project to improve life in his community.
Atop a hill we stopped at a rubbish heap to catch a bird’s eye view of Kibera. Standing at that spot we could see every slum cliche: the dog, the grandmother and child, the boy pushing a wooden bicycle, the other dog with fleas, the child with a baby…maybe a teenage mother. The list was long.
The non-cliche stood out – a couple of water tanks painted blue and marked ‘SHOFCO’, with pipes leading from them to small outcrop buildings.
Kennedy’s colleague, Mona Karingi – who was Coca-Cola’s top Marketing Honcho a short while back and left to be part of this change – explained the system. Water in the slum is rare and so valuable that when the government eventually piped water into Kibera a cartel emerged that would cut the pipes and force residents to buy ‘black market’ cartel water exorbitantly.
It was easy for the cartel because the rubber pipes had been laid very shallow under the ground that consists of garbage landfill. That’s what the slum is built on.
Anyway, residents who had no money had to walk many miles to find water – increasing their chances of being robbed or raped. If you live in the city or the suburbs in an ordinary setting you will not understand how confidently people in slums speak of rape.
Kennedy unknowingly gave us a perspective when he said: “It’s getting better. In the past people would rape and then just go away; but now when they rape they have to run away and hide otherwise the community goes for them.” Did you see that use of the word ‘people’ there? Or did you notice that perspective of “better”?
SHOFCO’s solution was to create large overhead water thanks with an aerial piping system that ran on gravity. The cartels can’t climb high enough to cut those pipes; plus, the water is safer to use since it isn’t running through the garbage that is land in Kibera.
The water gets piped – clean – to water selling points at very sensible rates.
So far, the SHOFCO system has half the residents covered – half of one million people! – in Kibera alone. SHOFCO also has projects in nine other slums in Kenya.
We shook our heads in disbelief.
Our next stop was a section of the disgusting river, before we got to the SHOFCO Computer Lab where children are given computer and presentation skills for three months at Kshs1,000 (Ushs30,000) for the duration.
One graduate told us her story with a confidence I wished for all University graduates I know. She owns her own modelling agency. Having first come to SHOFCO for help after sexual assault she found herself going through “The Employability Programme” which got her to Barclays Bank and then M-Kopa Solar on short-term contracts.
Seriously – she came to SHOFCO because she had been sexually assaulted. Her portal to a whole new life she could never have imagined was this organisation run by youth who chose not to focus on television dramas, the internet, money and other juxtaposingly embarrassing pursuits.
The young lady pointed out that, sadly, there are not many companies offering to take up these graduates; most of the few that do are indigenous Kenyan companies. But the massive companies from all around the world? Ha!
See, these graduates from the slum are invisible. Poverty makes them invisible.
When we went up the stairs from the Computer Lab we found a room full of very silent youngsters. So silent that they were almost invisible.
We were in the SHOFCO Community Library, and we went silent ourselves. We were humbled. The work conditions here would shame you every time you complained about your stapler at the office not working properly.
It was full of children studying under the watchful eye of 29-year old David Otieno. Standing silently behind the counter, he didn’t project. He turned up at SHOFCO eager to help at age 19. Today he has a degree in Library Sciences and manages seven (7) community libraries across Kenya – five in Kibera, one in Nakuru and one in Mathare.
But get this – last year the library served 27,000 people! How can he be so sure? He showed us the records on the Library computer – using software we know as Salesforce – a cloud computing Customer Relationship Management App used by major global corporations!
Plus, SHOFCO issues the children with plastic membership cards that hold their info and that give them access to the Libraries (not just in Kibera). The level of organisation here is breath-taking. It is also quite significant because of the self-esteem involved, and the way it prepares these children for the wider world out there.
That day we found David managing a shift of 60 students – but sometimes they are as many as a hundred and he drags in more chairs so they can study. Most of them can’t study back in their little homes. At three shifts a day, he is clearly a superhero in supporting education in Kenya, from the most unlikely location in the country.
And no – he isn’t earning big bucks. He is giving back to a community that gave to him, so that young people like him can have the chance that he had. He didn’t go to a telecom or beverage or financial company. He joined SHOFCO.
We left, humbled.
Next stop, walking past more cliches of a slum…or simply, through the slum, was a water selling point.
Past many little buildings and hovels we got to a relatively large building flanked by even larger ones under construction. An old lady was filling her jerry-can and engaged in conversation with the young man managing the point.
He was expecting us. Endekwa Eutychus, 25, confidently showed us how water is dispensed at the point…using plastic cash cards and tokens. The system isn’t yet integrated so it links water units to the Library Cards, but that will happen soon.
Residents load money onto their Water Cards and simply use the card and a plastic token that gets tapped onto the wall to release a relevant number of water units.
“Those cards are important. Residents stand a lower risk of being robbed,” Endekwa tells us. Again, many of us don’t find this to be normal.
It was insane to see the entire system in operation – all the way to the infiltration system managed by Johnstone Mutua, 32. All these ‘kids’, meanwhile, grew up in Kibera, went away to study – University DEGREES – and came back like Kennedy.
The story is much, much longer. There are other big projects – like the 24/7 Safe Havens for victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), and the unbelievably clean, organized Kibera School for Girls.
GBV cases won’t make sense to you – an ‘ordinary’ person. They are depressing to hear about here. Your imagination won’t suffice. But Kennedy is upbeat about the changes. Remember: In the past people would rape and just move on. But today a rapist has to run and hide. Society has improved. But the rapist still exists.
SHOFCO has established safe shelters for women and children and young boys. They work 24/7. This is the only department doing so – and I’m not not (deliberate) talking about the Police. They help victims get help and push the police to solve crimes then push the courts to adjudicate cases. They even keep copies of all paperwork in box files so that no government authority can use the excuse of “the file is missing”.
On the wall are lists tracking the different cases, number of rescues and pending actions. 15 GBV cases have been moved to life sentences this year alone.
Few of us were dry-eyed during this visit. We were uplifted, too. Even more when we got to the Kibera School for Girls – and that’s a whole book waiting to be written on its own.
There are no entry fees, and no hassle – but the girls only get in after passing an assessment proving that they are actually residents in need and capable of studying. And they study so well that they excel when they get to the national setting.
Imagine – if you can – slum girls in Kibera whose parents own nothing, studying the piano and ‘STEM’ then breezing into high schools in the United States.
You can’t. You can’t understand how family-embedded the school system is – so much so that the girls’ parents clean the school and wash dishes and generally do work with their children as part of the system.
Only one child is taken in per home. That way the girls can go home and be actual change agents – which is what OUR own education should have been like. People who claim to be elites but do nothing much to change where they came from.
In fact, the SHOFCO Adult Literacy Programme started because the school would write letters to parents but the parents couldn’t read, let alone understand, them.
Kennedy moved out of Kibera to live elsewhere, but had to come back home to keep making it better.
“In my new home I had a wall and I didn’t know my neighbours. Here we have no walls and we help each other. I realised that getting this urban wealth is nothing. And even if Poverty makes us invisible, this material wealth makes people BLIND.”
That saddened me – Material Wealth Makes US Blind.
So, walking into the Nakasero building last Friday I was pleased it was open for public use as the Employment Services Bureau of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA). On the notice board were job adverts for members of the public to access – including one from Airtel.
I was there to attend a graduation ceremony for young students in their senior six vacation who had undergone a nine-week training and mentorship programme designed to make them volunteer to serve others and develop skills.
The skills they were made to develop included those they already had and some they would discover within themselves in the process.
While it was uplifting to spend time with the youth there it was also saddening to think of how many years we lost, as a nation, NOT putting this facility to its proper use.
If in my time as a child I had been given this mentorship and direction from others besides my own family, how far would I have come by now and by extension, how far would this country be?
We may hope that the selfishness of the people who denied us these opportunities will be punished one day somehow, but that’s a waste of energy.
Instead, I was propelled by the energy of the young people there and grew my own aspirations about the potential we have to make a brighter future in Uganda.
The founder, Benjamin ‘Benjy’ Rukwengye, is a relative youngster himself and has already achieved a lot of positive impact through an organisation I have talked about often before – the ’40 Days Over 40 Smiles Foundation’ where I first met him.
He has taken part in a number of mentorship initiatives as a recipient and found the impact so great that he has dedicated himself to giving back in this way – hence the organisation ‘Boundless Minds’.
From what I’ve noticed, it’s difficult for traditional educationists to comprehend at first but when they meet the children who participate in programmes of this nature they will be better convinced.
That’s not to say that traditional education isn’t useful – it certainly is, especially if it is delivered correctly and complemented by a certain method of upbringing.
The cohort I met that day – all of them under twenty (20) years of age – made this obvious in their presence and presentations that day, and I proved it by reading their application forms.
One of them, Immy, designed and made the t-shirts and photo collage backdrop in the marque; another, Pearl, baked some beautiful cakes for the reception; Laban, from a previous cohort, was the event caterer; and Patricia had done the email communication leading up to the event in an impeccable fashion that made me think Benjy had hired a high-level Assistant for his office!
All of them, in their senior six vacation, had become entrepreneurs and were already suppliers of a registered company paying for professional services.
They didn’t necessarily learn how to design stuff, bake, write and cook while on the mentorship programme – they were given experiences that built their confidence to do things they already had an interest in and a passion for.
After the event I read their application forms for the programme – NOT application letters like job applicants have been made to write for decades – and was impressed by their clarity of purpose.
The forms were designed to elicit their passions, interests and latent skills, so that the programme could build on those.
Again, if all our twenty-year-olds went through this experience early on in life, imagine what they would be like at age thirty (30)?
An emotional Benjy told us, on the day that when young people are given a chance to prove themselves it gives them confidence to do what they believe they can and creates the opportunity for them to try harder to initiate more.
He revealed that these children, in their WhatsApp group, tended to hold unguided discussions about news items in a manner that not many adults do – and don’t challenge this lest you are found guilty.
During the reception I spoke to a few of them and was blown away even more. One soft-spoken young lady told me how she makes sandals so she can earn money to support her forthcoming university tuition, while another earnestly held me in a conversation about digital media and robotics even though his next step is a complicated science degree he can’t find in Uganda.
What was I doing at nineteen years of age? A very different type of hustle. A hustle I won’t complain about now.
Still, I imagine how that hustle could have been further complemented by someone like Benjy opening my mental boundaries with the deliberate support of authorities thinking about my positive role in making the future of Uganda brighter.
The plan was seriously considered and got to the point where calculations showed the iceberg would get to Cape Town but not much further, so they did more scientific calculations to fix that. It hasn’t happened yet but was certainly very clever.
A short while ago, seated in a whole different desert, I heard about the Saudis again but this time pursuing something different from icebergs and water.
Discussing fields of corn we had driven past in the desert, my friend – Jether Lubandi – mentioned that agriculture was so heavy in Arizona that there were even foreign countries involved.
I initially thought we had a communication problem because of the blistering heat and our attention to thirst-quenching activities which could have reasonably meant he wasn’t talking clearly and I wasn’t hearing properly.
Later on, I checked up on the story and shook my head.
The clever Saudis were at it again, and their level of strategic thinking had me applauding.
Some large Saudi-owned food companies have been quietly but steadily buying up farmland in both Arizona and California, and planting alfalfa hay there which they export to their countries to feed their cows.
Pause for a minute and think about that in some detail.
While doing so, please remember that Arizona and California are not only dry – they have in recent years been struck by severe drought.
One story in 2016 told how a Saudi-based company, Fondomonte Farms, had bought up 1,790 acres of farmland in California for US$32million – that’s (today) US$17,900 per acre or Ushs68million an acre. Try and compare that with prices of land from Arua to Zirobwe, then return to the main point here.
Their strategy, the Americans complained after working it out, was to use American water sources to grow hay which they export to feed Saudi cows in their own desert. That way, they are preserving their own water for use on other things while using American water to grow the hay to feed their cows.
Clever. VERY clever.
The Saudis had clearly worked it out. Go out there and buy land but ensure it is good for agriculture, and then use up the water growing stuff that you need. Then transport it back to your home using fuel whose most likely origin means YOU are earning from the transportation – while preserving your own water for other things you will need into the long term.
The internet says the company leading the onslaught is Almarai (the Arabic word for ‘green pastures’) which is the mother company of Fondomonte.
As far back as 2012 Almarai bought 30,000 acres of land in Argentina for the same purpose and this year is said to own more than 15,000 acres in California and Arizona – all under alfalfa.
Almarai, says the reports, has 93,000 cows that eat all this alfalfa to produce milk that goes into products sold in the Middle East, Africa (check your local supermarket and duuka) and…in the United States of America!
Yo! These guys understand business!
Now, where could we come in here and why should we care?
It takes Fondomonte about a month to move containers of alfalfa from the United States to the Gulf of Arabia. So, let’s ask ourselves – how long would it take that alfalfa to go from Uganda to the feeding troughs in the Arabian desert, if the alfalfa were grown here instead?
If all that hay can grow in the deserts of California and Arizona, how much would grow in lush, tropical Uganda kweli? Don’t we have land that’s cheaper than Ushs68million per acre that we can avail to our Saudi friends, and access to more water than the people in American deserts?
If lush, tropical Uganda is being used to grow even more high value things then perhaps we should irrigate the dry parts of the country and immediately bring the value of that land up to Ushs68million per acre (four years ago) or grow alfalfa there.
Should we be averse to exporting grass for foreign cows then lazima we should study their model and make it work here.
93,000 cows? I know of WhatsApp groups where ten percent of the members claim to have more than that combined.
Why are they not becoming Africa’s largest dairy and food processing company to match Almarai in the Middle East so we keep the alfalfa for ourselves?
The Saudis are very clever. That’s not to highlight other people who, clearly, ARE NOT!
I’VE SPENT two weeks in the desert and I am still unsure how to be useful to Uganda with what I’ve learnt here.
This isn’t the first time I’ve made these observations or put them down in writing to share them. I’m certainly not as influential as a Lee Kwan Yew or Yoweri Kaguta Museveni but even these gentlemen have told us sensible things that we simply have refused to do.
The first time I visited a desert country – not just an arid area of a country, but a Country or State that consists entirely of desert land and that hot, hard weather that defines the desert – was more than twenty years ago.
I was in Israel and didn’t realise it was a proper desert till late in the first week when I started paying full attention during the excursions we went on every day and some nights.
Towards the end of our time there we were driving to a kibbutz and as we were weaving up a mountain road a light patter of rain started dropping onto our bus.
Our guide – an old, friendly Colonel – broke into excited chatter with the driver and they sang a song and said a prayer. They were excited because this was the first sign of rain they had seen in three years! (And besides thanking God they were also praying that the rain wouldn’t cause a landslide to sweep us off the side of that hill they called a mountain!)
I was confused and we discussed it a little bit. And then quite a lot. See, we had heard how Israel had exported something like US$70m (it was more than that) worth of agricultural crops that year. Uganda, tropical, lush and “80% agricultural” hadn’t even recorded a tenth of that in exports.
How were they doing it without rain?!
I was even more beaten when we got to the kibbutz and found vegetables sized more than ten times their cousins I had left back home.
“Irrigation and technology,” said the kibbutz guide, taking us around and showing us everything without bragging.
A few years later I chanced upon an energetic Israeli fellow who had just set up an operation in Kampala establishing greenhouses for people while also exporting tomatoes, bell peppers and other vegetables.
One day, in the middle of a casual discussion, he expressed his dismay at how little agriculture we were doing in Kampala with our fantastic soils and weather. He just stopped short of confessing that the greenhouses he was selling might be unnecessary.
Fast forward to a few days ago when I ventured into the back garden of my host in the desert of Arizona and was stopped short by it.
I spent some time complimenting my host, Jether Lubandi, on his gardening skills. But he protested vehemently because he believes he hasn’t put lots of effort into it.
In fact, he said he had put no effort into it besides buying seedlings, putting them into the ground and then installing a fairly regular irrigation system.
At the sight of bright orange fruits hanging off a small shrub I was nonplussed!
I went right up to them and checked to ensure they weren’t made of rubber.
Even as I was inspecting them I saw different fruits on the other shrubs.
It didn’t make a lot of sense, yet the irrigation piping was clearly visible to my naked eyes. The desert heat delayed my reasoning and suggested it was all a mirage but the next day I went back out and this time plucked one of the fruits then ate right through it. In the desert.
I have not eaten tangerines like that in a very long time.
The other trees presented green lemons that would be fat and yellow within three weeks, pomegranates bulging like mine at home in Kampala, and oranges preparing to flourish. Besides that my hosts have a small patch of biringannya and tomatoes. In the desert.
No – for real!
In another home we visited there was even a thick patch of lemongrass! In the desert.
We have talked about this for years, and here we still are – waiting for the President himself, no less, to tell us about simple drip irrigation yet we have purportedly gone to school and STILL don’t implement that.
It is embarrassing in many ways. My face was burning thinking about it – more than from the harsh desert heat.
To think that my plumber just two months ago was pushing me to instal a “booster pump” at Ushs500,000 so that I could take showers under water at a higher pressure…
I hesitated over his suggestion and then refused flat out, but wasn’t sure why the idea didn’t sit comfortably with me besides the cost. Thinking about that decision while in the desert surrounded by flourishing fruit trees made me ashamed of myself.
I should have rejected his suggestion for the right reasons – that I’d rather spend that money on a booster pump on a farm somewhere so I could get more crops out of it during the hot season.
Which makes me certain that there are people doing this in Uganda – spending money on pumps so they can have stronger showers and NOT spending it on pumps to irrigate gardens so we can make us of our oft-spoken about agricultural potential.
I AM guilty, I confess, of running a small irrigation project in my compound to keep it green and flowery but have also taken advantage of it so I decrease on my vegetable, herb and spice expenses.
But that’s not compensation for what I could and should have done long ago in tropical, lush Uganda where we boast about being agricultural and holding more arable land than any other country in East Africa.
Arizona, the desert I was eating tangerine out of a few days ago, has an agricultural industry worth US$23.2billion, accounting for 138,000 jobs. That desert State is the 3rd largest producer of fresh market vegetables in the United States and the 4th in the country in acres of organic vegetables. In the desert.
What about you and I and this beloved, lush, tropical Uganda?