45 years in, many wait for a reason to celebrate

Posted: October 10, 2007 in Blog

Yesterday was Independence Day here in Uganda, and a national holiday for its citizens.

But you wouldn’t have known it was a holiday judging by the street scene here yesterday. Most shops were open, traffic was as busy as ever and even the newsroom here was nearly as bustling as usual despite it being a day most people were supposed to be off work.

I had an appointment to meet someone yesterday morning to discuss a story I’m doing next week that I need her help with since it involves me spending some time in the slums and I need someone who knows the people there (not to mention the languages) to accompany me. As we waited for our tea to arrive at the cafe, I asked her if she would be doing anything for Independence Day.

“Me? No, I do not celebrate such things. What is there to celebrate?” she said, dismissing the notion with a wave of her hand.

The newspapers have mostly been full of take-stock articles and analysis pieces, using the occasion of a 45th anniversary to assess just what Uganda has accomplished and where it is going. The tone (other than that which appeared in the state-run newspaper, which is awash in coverage of the president’s statements)? The leading piece on independence in today’s paper said Ugandans have been living in “a sea of ignorance” for 45 years. “There has been great disappointment, all from never having known what was what, who was who, and most of the 45 years are a wasted period in politics,” the piece went on to say.

The Monitor didn’t even cover the Independence Day festivities that were held with great fanfare yesterday.

Why such a tone on what, for many countries, is a day to celebrate and reflect on progress? Especially considering that among African countries Uganda has performed reasonably well given its tumultuous past and ongoing battles with rebels in the north.

There is a sense that Ugandans expect more from a country with a growing population, many natural resources and, finally, political stability. Here is a country preparing to host an international conference of Commonwealth heads of state next month. Millions are being spent to boost Kampala’s infrastructure, and yet a few weeks ago when I was in the worst of the flood-affected regions, the work crews there could not fix the roads because the government hadn’t given them money to put gas in their trucks.

Yesterday I glanced over the shoulder of a reporter in the newsroom who was writing an opinion piece about independence. “Here we are, 45 years later, with nothing to show for independence but a flag, a passport and a national anthem,” the piece read.

Many times since moving here, I have found myself in casual conversations and debates with Ugandans about the notion of progress here. More often then not it was I who was pointing out signs of progress, with the Ugandan(s) arguing that, progress aside, this country’s citizens should be able to expect more.

On my way into work this morning I was talking with my boda-boda driver. I asked him whether he celebrated Independence Day yesterday.

“No, I was in the village,” he said, referring to the village he grew up in about 16 kms outside Kampala. “And why should we celebrate, anyway? The only people who have something to celebrate are the president, his family and his friends.”

As though to prove his point, my driver pointed to the mall we were passing at the time. “You see this mall, this beautiful mall? That is a sign of progress but what is there to celebrate? It was built by a friend of the president’s and Ugandans get only the lowest jobs there,” he said. “Why should we celebrate that?”

He was getting more agitated as we drove.

“You see that hotel?” he said, pointing to an imposing hotel, one of the city’s nicest, visible in the distance. “All these big hotels and businesses run by outsiders and nothing but the low jobs for Ugandans. And this? This is what we’re supposed to celebrate on Independence Day?”

Though it is disheartening to see that this sentiment is felt so strongly that a country’s citizens don’t even bother to acknowledge a national holiday by taking the day off, at the same time it shows promise. People here generally feel this country has every reason to prosper, which gives hope that eventually it will.

But until then, celebrations that reach the broader population will have to be put on hold.

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