a comedy of donations across Africa


I DON’T normally read the newspapers first thing on Monday morning and also avoid going to Twitter early on that day simply because there are rabbit holes that can derail one’s jump-start to a work week.

I am that guy who can scroll through the timeline for an hour straight simply because when I get to a negative troll post I must go and find an uplifting witty, positive and inspiring one to erase the first. It is not easy.

But this Monday I found myself cooling my heels outside of a government conference room waiting for a meeting to take off so I could contribute to a discussion of national importance. It didn’t happen.

Naturally, I ended up on Twitter to find news updates but mostly irritations and chuckles to distract me from saying rude things to the people within the room itself. Within minutes I found tweets about a donation made to the Republic of Malawi from the People’s Republic of China.

This happened. For real. And it went up onto the internet. In broad daylight.

I would have thought it to be a joke, hoax or meme, if the original tweet hadn’t been posted by @LiuHongyang4 whose Twitter Bio and Curriculum Vitae posted to an official website of the Chinese Diplomatic Service (http://mw.china-embassy.org/eng/dsxx/dsjl/t1578360.htm) both declared him to be China’s Ambassador to Malawi.

He was quite proud of the donation of two (2) motorcycles sent by 1.4billion people in China to 18million people in Malawi.

The motorcycles were, presumably, brand new items. I couldn’t be bothered over where they were manufactured because I was occupied by the photographs of Malawi government and Chinese Embassy officials seated at a high table with the two motorcycles in front of them.

They even had a large banner hoisted up on the building behind them.

The twitter abuse and ridicule brigade went at this halfheartedly and I moved on to more regular news, falling upon the page one call-out in The New Vision under ‘CHARITY’ that read, “Minister Builds Sh100m Church’.

“At least this is a sizeable chunk of money,” I immediately thought, then repented when I remembered the parable of the poor widow in Church.

I wasn’t sure about the story. Turning pages, the actual headline caused me worry: “Minister Namuyangu builds sh100m church, prays for rain.”

I read that and prayed that this story wouldn’t go the wrong way.

God wasn’t answering that prayer that day.

“Residents of Kibuku district have been urged to pray for rains so that they can be able to cultivate food…” the story started, before quoting the State Minister for Local Government, Jenipher Namuyangu, saying there had been no rains since June last year and the district was now facing a famine.

“Most families now have one meal per day and this is a worrying situation,” she said.

My forehead had become sweaty and was wrinkled by frowns of disbelief – just six paragraphs into this. The New Vision had given the story cheeky prominence, placing it on Page Six and filling almost half the page complete with four photographs!

The State Minister, a well-educated politician holding a Bachelor of Science in Forestry and Master of Science in Agroforestry, was probably using understatement as a tool of emphasis. Otherwise there was no way a famine and “most families” having one meal a day could be called just “a worrying situation”.

This would have been a matter for her colleague at Disaster Preparedness!

But she had taken it to a higher authority, apparently, by building a Church. The New Vision report, by the way, carried four photographs of the Church launch event. The tweet by the Chinese Ambassador to Malawi was also accompanied by four photographs.

That juxtaposition made me think that maybe Namuyangu’s church could have done with many more photographs – comparing the value of their respective donations in US dollars or Chinese Yuan. Two motorcycles versus a Ushs100million Church? Little contest there.

But let’s focus more: The Church official at the launch of the Minister’s donation reportedly “urged the youth to desist from politicking and instead engage in income-generating activities.”

My furrowed brow relaxed as mirth spread within me.

It was now obvious that the journalists AND the church official were in cahoots to deliver top-notch sarcasm and irony!

Surely this Church official wasn’t hinting that instead of building a Church the Minister could have used the Ushs100million to create an entrepreneurship or income-generating activity for the youth of Kibuku District?

A few paragraphs later, they were joined by a resident comrade-at-sarcasm, Steven Luwala, who “requested the minister to lobby for irrigation schemes to improve farming, which has been affected by the dry spell.”

At this point I had to cross my legs tightly to maintain some self-control.

It came undone at the very next paragraph where another resident, Wilson Ganda, “said the entire village of over 1,000 people depends on one borehole. This, he said, has led to an increase in gender-based violence.”

Why and how?

“…because when women go to fetch water they return to homes late in the night and some husbands do not understand why.”

Another reason for why the Church built by the Minister makes a lot of sense – those husbands need prayers to sort out their significantly diminished mental strength.

And so do we, in general across this Continent, so that we learn to order our priorities for ourselves rather than have other people do so for us. It’s either that or we share a couple of motorcycles amongst millions as we ride past our solitary boreholes with the limited energy we get from one meal a day to pray for rains.

using social media to over-run poverty


The reason social media is important is because it is having a major impact on the way we live our lives – even here in Uganda.

Social media is not just Facebook and Twitter even though those are two of the most popularly known platforms in Uganda. It’s what we do with those platforms and many more, and how we use them to relate with each other.

Last weekend I interacted with some Rotarians over this, and one of them said quite resolutely that he simply did not have any time for or interest in Facebook. Two minutes later, after he heard that there were 1million Ugandans on Facebook alone today and that he could reach them in some way or another for his benefit, he changed his mind.

Another Rotarian perked up more when he heard about crowdsourcing – which is really an old concept that has just become much more powerful because of social media. It’s harnessing the power of numbers to achieve a goal or task quicker – and most Ugandans would recognise this through a fund-raiser.

A couple of months ago the Rotary Club organised a charity run to raise funds for the Cancer Institute. Lots of resources were expended over many weeks to get this done and eventually a good many people with big public names and heavy corporate and government jobs responded to the letters and newspaper ads, turned up and about Ushs100million was raised.

Good. That’s what Rotary is about – service about self, contributing to social causes and networking among well-heeled and influential people to do this.

A month after that, a small group of youths started mobilising amongst themselves for a charity to raise funds to build a dormitory for some school in Luwero. After a couple of weeks of tweeting and Facebooking about their event, code-named #Hoops4Grace4, the youths pitched a tent in a field on Lugogo By-Pass, sold home-made juice, t-shirts and wristbands, and played some basketball – all in all raising Ushs8million.

None of these youths is the usual big-name type and all of them threw a few shillings into the kitty to get to the Ushs8million.

I’m not following the lines of the Bible story about the donations by the rich man and the poor widow, instead, I was fascinated that a small group of little known youths with no corporate, church or political backing whatsoever had deviated from the path of consuming alcohol, partying hard and general recalcitrance, to collect money for some school in Luweero.

I rounded up the ringleaders and demanded an explanation, and they hit me with more shocking news – they all had ordinary jobs doing ordinary things, and this was just a side thing they had gotten into. Plus, they had identified a serious need at that Luweero school (the name doesn’t matter because there are many of these around us) and decided to address it themselves.

These kids had even mobilised their friends to go down to the school and physically do some work there, and all done via Twitter, Facebook and their mobile phones!

And while I was interrogating them, I was a bit dazzled by the sparkle in their faces as they said things like, “We felt that, surely WE can also do something” and “We thought that maybe we could make a small contribution”.

Their small contribution will certainly result in a dormitory building in Luweero because this week, as Uganda celebrates 51 years of Independence, these youths are mobilising again – campaigning among their friends and contacts to either buy a bag of cement (about Ushs30,000) or a brick (Ushs500) for the cause.

Just that – harnessing the power of the crowd by getting each of us to buy one bag of cement or one brick and turning that into a dormitory.

In 2011, the Arab Spring revolutions used Social Media to mobilise protests that eventually overran entire governments; here, today, if these efforts catch on perhaps some of our youths might be using Social Media to mobilise and…overrun poverty and shortfalls in social services?

We should certainly hope so.

And we should hope that the next generation of our societal managers is drawn from these types of eager, socially aware, and technologically networked Ugandan youths.