Readers of “Ear to the Ground”, Charles Onyango-Obbo’s long running weekly column, which first appeared in The Monitor newspaper in 1994, will love Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets. Carrot on the stick!
Onyango-Obbo is the guy who once mocked Africans for having entrusted their hopes for change of leadership to time and illness; that an African dictator can only be removed by either getting knocked down by old age, or being struck by a stingy illness.
Uganda’s Poorly Kept Secrets collects ten of his irreverent essays — exposing the small and big ironies, the everyday juxtapositions and the annoyingly benign simplicity of his compatriots, and the African people in general. The essays make gripping reading; Ugandans laugh at the grotesque, such as wife beating; they love the tragic, such the adultery of the politician; and can sit on their hands in the face of dishonesty, such as the endless deception of those in power.
Despite being written tongue-in-cheek, the essays make passionate criticisms of the mildness, and complacence of many Ugandans; most folks will not speak to your face, and would rather use fancy gestures that can only be inferred. Onyango-Obbo seems to imply that this has hampered progress in several ways.
Men who have gone without food for quite some time can’t complain directly, even at the funeral, where according to culture, mourners should be fed. At one such funeral, rather than voice his indignation, one man dramatically collapses to the ground— only deciding to speak when his antics are ignored.
Onyango-Obbo attempts to offer an interesting explanation to Uganda’s politics. Invoking his high school days (he went to St. Leo College, a catholic founded school in Fort Portal in south western Uganda), he compares the cultures that were imparted into his being with those of his brother, who went to a Nyaksura S.S.S., a non-Catholic school. St. Leo turns him into a mild and subtle character, soto voce, while Nyakasura turns his brother into this outgoing fellow “with a peculiar fire in his belly.” The same contrasts apply to Uganda’s President Museveni, a Nyakasura alumni, who had no qualms fighting his way to power, and former opposition politician and Democratic Party stalwart John Kawanga Semwogerere, who chose a non-violent path. The latter, partly due to his catholic school upbringing turned out to be an extremely modest person, demanding for reforms as ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.
The take on religious values and their impact is interesting, and to the extent that the argument holds, I don’t know what Onyango-Obbo would say for politicians from Muslim founded schools!