I sit in traffic in Kampala on average for about 5 hours a week. Stationary. That’s not 5 hours a week driving, but sitting there, engine off, going nowhere. I consider myself quite an expert therefore on Kampala traffic. I have studied it closely, cursed it relentlessly, and thought about this blog for a long time:
So, here, are (in my opinion) the top 12 reasons for traffic in Kampala. In no particular order:
1. Preposterous speed bumps: If you ever watched the ‘Top Gear Special’ set in Uganda a few years back, this is one thing they focussed on. We seem to have some incredibly steep and sheer speed bumps in Kampala. There’s one road I know where an otherwise free-flowing section gets churned up for 20-30 minutes every morning solely (from what I can tell) because of a single speed bump, poorly and hurriedly constructed, which means everyone has to go down to about 1mph to get over it. Low-chassis cars frequently emit a grim scraping noise as they proceed over it! I’m surprised regular users of that road haven’t attacked it with a sledgehammer yet.
2. Traffic cops. I’m not as big a critic of the hundreds and hundreds of white-uniformed traffic cops on Uganda’s streets as some are. They sit at junctions and control with hand-movements and whistles who goes and who stays. They are some of the toughest people I’ve met here and I’ve learnt quickly that it never pays to cross them. They also do a wonderful job at keeping their uniforms pristinely white even in the choking dusty smog of Kampala life. There’s one junction on my school route where their presence normally means the difference between a 15min wait and a 45 minute wait. However there’s another junction later on which ran superbly in 2014 without any help. Now they’ve posted traffic cops there to control it, and it’s turned it into a quagmire which can often tailback for half an hour. I’m always tempted to ask them to back off when I drive past them there, but I’ve learnt, like everyone else, not to mess with these people…life only gets harder if you fall out with them.
3. Rain, and poor drainage. I know of several roads in Kampala which were built as 2-lane roads (i.e. two cars going opposite directions passing without a problem) but which have had the edges collapse and erode so significantly in heavy rains that they have become single-lane tracks (most roads here were built with open-air storm drains on either side, but many now have become so full of dust and rubbish that they have essentially disappeared which means excess rainwater destroys often poorly-constructed tarmac). This obviously slow down the cars enormously as one side has to wait for another to pass before they get their chance. NEVER expect anyone on the other side to give way out of kindness. You will wait 15 minutes unless you are willing to force the matter and pull out into the tiniest space and transfer the ball into your court. You can almost hear the applause of the people in the cars behind you, and feel the curses of the people on the other side as you take the upper-hand.
4. Lorries. I think, of all the things on my list, this one infuriates me the most. Kampala is absolute chock-full with extremely old, extremely decrepit lorries that are not even close to being road-worthy, which are grotesquely overloaded, and which clearly haven’t had a service in many years. Most cannot drive above 30kph, reducing to 10kph up a mild incline, and sometimes 3-4 kph on a steeper hill (of which Kampala has many). Normally they belch out thick, noxious, foul-smelling smoke that goes straight into your open-windows as the car behind, thus leaving you with the option of a car full of poison or a car with windows up and a temperature of 55degC (no joke). When you eventually get past one, you’ll almost certainly meet another within a minute and it starts again. I’m getting stressed even writing about these monsters, so I’ll stop there.
5. Queue-cutters. Because there are almost no pavements in Kampala, the side of the road is just a dusty area used by pedestrians, cyclists, motorbike-riders, and minibus taxis to pick and drop passengers. However if there is a queue of traffic on the road, you can guarantee that very quickly a mass of cars will storm past you sitting along these side-paths. They then, as they reach the junction, poke their nose in to the tiniest gap (sometimes just 20-30cm between you and the car in front). I get very grumpy at these people, and battle ferociously not to let them in. I believe strongly that if everyone made life very hard for them they’d have to stop, but not everyone is as annoyingly stubborn as I clearly am, and it’s probably to their credit. My most embarrassing moment in Uganda was when I battled with a car to prevent them from sneaking in after it raced past ten of cars behind me sitting in traffic. Because car windows are always open here I went to talk to the driver to express my views on their driving, only to find it was someone we knew well from our church. I don’t know who was more embarrassed. We’ve neither of us ever mentioned it once since.
6. Pot-holes. The Beatles famously once sang once of 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Times that by ten surely for Kampala. Things are improving and the authorities are trying to sort it out and are investing money accordingly, but a serious pot-hole can still be there for a year or more and cause havoc in an other-wise free-flowing road, partly because cars slow down to 1-2kph to get over it, and partly because they inevitably swerve onto the other side of the road to avoid it, thereby causing both sides to jam up.
7. Cars! Kampala is incredibly wealthy compared to the rest of the country…even compared to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa to be honest. The rate of development is staggering, and a testimony to the remarkable resolve, enterprise, and financial ‘savvyness’ of the rapidly expanding Kampala middle-classes. Apparently there are an extra 200 cars a week added to Kampala roads. Net increase. That may not sound like much, but it’s over 50,000 new cars in the net 5 years, presumably almost all being driven every morning, added to a road-network that already feels saturated. Although we must celebrate this increase in wealth and what it means for Uganda’s future, you can imagine what it does to the morning commute!
8. Road-patterns. The best way to explain it is like this: UK urban roads are set-up like a spider-web. There are numerous ways from A to B. If you are in one place there will be a direct route there, but also several ‘rat-runs’- side-roads that you can weave around. Even if you don’t know where you are you can be guaranteed that, with a half-decent spatial awareness, that you’ll emerge somewhere near your destination. The traffic therefore disseminates and fluidly adapts to the gravity of the jams of the day, equalising out eventually across the road network. Kampala doesn’t work like that. Not a bit. The road network here is not so much like a spider-web but like a tree. If you turn off the main branches you won’t meet another one…you’ll just travel along smaller and smaller ‘twigs’ which eventually just peter out into nothing. There are precious few rat-runs in Kampala. Now in fairness the reason for that is not simply poor-design. It’s mainly because Kampala is built on tens of hills with wetlands (swampy flood areas) in between. It is extremely expensive and extremely environmentally-damaging to build on these wetlands, and so it becomes very difficult to connect all the city’s roads up to one another.
9. Bodas: To be honest, bodas in Kampala need a whole blog post to themselves. They are remarkable. Simply, they are motorbikes with riders that you can hire to take you around Kampala. They’re often used to transport stuff around too. I’ve seen a double bed on the back of a boda, a motorbike, and amazingly, I saw a picture once of a live, fully-grown cow on the back of a boda. Awesome. There are estimated to be over 80,000 bodas operating in Kampala (an extraordinary statistic when you think about it) and although you may think these guys surely reduce congestion (they certainly don’t sit in traffic, choosing instead to weave around it!) I’m not sure that’s true. They buzz around every single road in the city with little regard for their own, or anyone else’s, safety. They cut you up, turn suddenly, and generally behave erratically and unpredictably. You’re always on high alert for them. I’m convinced they slow everything down.
10. Poor driving discipline. This one is key. I hinted at it with the ‘queue-jumpers’ point above, but it’s more than that. At junctions that should work well (like a simple roundabout, for example) everything grinds down because many, many drivers do not want to follow basic traffic rules that would make jams less for them and everyone else. It’s the old problem, but without CCTV or police on the lookout, most get away with it scot-free. Recently at a simple T-junction the actions of a few selfish drivers cost us all about 30 mins of jam because by trying to cut it front, go round, poke in etc. they had blocked each other off in a way that could only be resolved by ten or twenty cars reversing to give them space to untangle the mess they’d got themselves in. It was chaos, and so easily avoidable. I was not amused. This is repeated tens of times a day across the city. The worst offenders on this front of the thousands of white minibuses that operate across the city as the main method of affordable transport for most. Again, these guys deserve a whole blog pot to themselves at one point.
11. No other way! There are no trains in Kampala (there is one train-line [single-track – only one train in one direction at a time] across one side of the city which the authorities are eventually planning to open as a passenger line), no double-decker buses, no tubes. The roads are the only way to move.
12. Crashes and breakdowns: The general chaos of the roads results in a lot of crashed. The terrible state of many cars and especially lorries results in many break-downs. When this happens 200 times a day across a relatively small city (as capitals go) it results in only one thing!
You get the idea. Things are bad. And getting worse. My school commute (identical route at the identical time) has increased from 45 minutes on average to 1h15m on average in under a year. The trajectory is terrifying to speak from a purely selfish, jam-hating perspective. (yes yes I DO know I, sitting in a car, am part of the problem with regards to point number 7 above). Massive investment is needed in the road network here or investment and development in Kampala is going to tail-off very rapidly. If people can’t move around in a city, it dies quickly. This is partly what is behind the World Bank’s warning that Kampala is going to turn into a ‘mega-slum’ without significant change. The same World Bank report (released recently) also predicted that Kampala will grow from 3.5million people to 10 million people in the next decade. Almost triple in size, in just 10 years. Think about that for a moment. It’s astonishing.
I feel at this point I should also be positive. There are some very smart people in KCCA (the Kampala city authority in charge of roads here) who do a superb a job and are trying hard to sort this out. These are serious people often doing a good job in awful circumstances (see also traffic cops). There are no simple solutions to this problem although, I must admit, my spirits aren’t raised too much when I see that the main focus at the moment seems to be on a plan to build cable-cars across Kampala (http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/655369-cabinet-approves-cable-cars-for-kampala.html) Maybe I’m overly-pessimistic, but this to me doesn’t seem to be the answer!
However I also know that Uganda as a country is incredibly resourceful, remarkably patient, and has endured suffering that would have crippled most nations a long time back and is emerging from that to shine. I really want to believe that somehow Kampala in 10 years will be a functioning city, full of incoming investment, growing sustainably. But the city needs to wake up and make massive changes now to avoid a genuine collapse in the years to come.
The alternative, and the current trajectory – a capital city in Sub-Saharan Africa that doesn’t work, is not going to be good for national development at all. Nor my blood pressure…
What do you think of when I say that?
I presume…it is Stanley’s famous ‘discovery’ of the good Doctor in 1871, with those famous words (which were probably never uttered, historically speaking).
For 100 years after Livingstone’s death in 1873, Livingstone was considered perhaps the closest thing possible to a Victorian-era Saint. A bundle of biographies had been released in that time, mostly written by sympathetic clergyman, that glossed over much of the available historical data concerning Livingstone’s career. Until 1973, no-one would have questioned the received wisdom over the previous 100 years. Livingstone was the greatest Victorian, and perhaps even the greatest missionary in history.
And then Tim Jeal wrote this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Livingstone-Yale-Nota-Bene-Jeal/dp/0300091028 And Livingstone’s saintly reputation was largely demolished in an instant.
Jeal reveals (not discovers, but reveals) a number of extraordinary realities from Livingstone’s life that simply does not tally with the reputation that he gained until the release of this book:
• Most shockingly, Livingstone was an appalling husband and father. I was almost in tears reading the troubles his wife (a missionary kid from Southern Africa) and 6 kids went through. Livingstone dragged them on dangerous journey’s (travelling hundreds of miles through almost waterless Southern Africa desert whilst heavily pregnant) that almost killed them. He sent them all back to England whilst he stayed in Africa for 4.5 years on his first (of three) Africa trips, then after 18 months back, left them again for 6 years. His firstborn son became a delinquent and died fighting (randomly) in the American civil war. His wife became an alcoholic and died a terrible death in Africa shortly after rejoining her husband there on his 2nd trip. It was utterly heartbreaking to read.
• Most surprisingly, Livingstone was, by any traditional evangelical perspective, a poor missionary. It is true that he only made one convert, who later apparently backslid (the evidence being that one of the wives that Livingstone insisted he leave when he converted became pregnant again by him). In the early years of his first African trip he proved unable to stay in one place and conduct the slow, long-term ministry that African evangelisation demanded at that time.
• Most startlingly, Livingstone was an extraordinarily difficult man to get on with, if you were a white Westerner at least. Harsh, inflexible, unkind, guiltlessly able to lie, unsympathetic, dangerously and obsessively driven, deeply stubborn. There are almost no examples of Westerners who he got on with for any sustained (a few months or more) length of time.
• Most disappointingly, and I say this as a passionate and committed geographer and wannabe cartographer, Livingstone failed mostly even in these tasks. He died whilst wandering around the malaria-ridden swamps of South-Central Africa searching for the source of the River Nile that actually lay hundreds of miles to the North (in Uganda). His second trip to Africa (a 6-year trip in the Zambezi region) was meant to be searching for safe places for mission stations. Out of pride, Livingstone claimed to have found the perfect site when clearly it was not. A universities mission team that soon travelled there lost several members through fever. Livingstone blamed them for being weak, instead of admitting that he had effectively sent them to their death by refusing to concede that his convictions about a ‘safe paradise’ in Central Africa had been wrong.
However…however….however…I still consider the guy one of my personal heroes. I know that sounds utterly bizarre considering what I wrote above (and believe me, that list could have been much longer and more shocking), but there is also so much to admire.
• Livingstone had a remarkable love for Africans. Whilst Stanley was beating and whipping his way through Africa with hundreds of porters, Livingstone at one point was left with just 4, an astonishingly low number. After Stanley (the last white man ever to see him alive, 2 years before Livingstone’s death in 1873) gave him some more, he ended up with 40 or so, all of whom risked their lives by spending 5 months bringing his body back from modern-day Zambia to Zanzibar. Their love for him reflected his love for them. At a time when Victorian ‘gentlemen’ thought nothing of indulging in horrible racial prejudice, Livingstone repeatedly went against his culture by regarding black African as (almost) equals.
• Livingstone had a remarkable, breath-taking toughness. His tenacity and hardiness are almost unparalleled in that or any generation since. The difficulties he went through, spending years at a time trekking through malaria and tsetse-ridden Southern and Eastern African scrubland, are utterly extraordinary. He was almost killed by a lion, butchered by leeches, wrecked by repeated bouts of horrendous malarial fever (been there, mildly, once. It’s awful), developed agonising ulcers on his feet, and basically died as a result of anal bleeding from untreated haemorrhoids. Yet he never, never gave up on anything. Partly that was pride, but partly it was simply a desperate desire to serve the Lord faithfully, as he felt called to do.
• Livingstone broke through some deeply entrenched social hierarchies to achieve what he did. He was not, as you might expect in this kind of man, born into wealth and privilege. He spent his early and teenage years not in school, but working 70-hour weeks in a mill. There he took every opportunity possible, in the few remaining hours he had, to educate himself and get himself out of the downward spiral of poverty that this sort of upbringing often produced.
• Finally, and crucially, although Jeal gives no outward indication of writing in any way as a man sympathetic to Christian faith, Livingstone’s faith shines out. He never stayed in one place long enough to make many explicit ‘converts’ (even the decades-long ministries of great missionaries like Robert Moffat in modern-day Botswana only produced converts in their tens, not hundreds or thousands) but did seek to speak of Christ everywhere he went, recognising that his work would lay the groundwork for those that came after him.
And come they did. Within 30 years of his death hundreds of missionaries had come to Africa as an almost direct result of his example, his letters, and his call to ‘heal this open sore of the world’ (a quote which now lies on his grave in Westminster Abbey. That’s now the next thing on my ‘whilst in the UK bucket-list)
Bizarrely, after writing an expertly researched biography, the last line threatens to scupper almost all Jeal’s good work. “Undoubtedly Livingstone’s greatest sorrow would have been that Africa never became a Christian continent”. I appreciate it was written in 1973 (although note that the line is retained in the 2001 revision), and I appreciate there are different definitions of such a concept, but given that almost 2/3 of Sub-Saharan Africa now claim to be followers of Christ (over 500million people), that seems a misleadingly negative way to finish.
I’m not sure, unless you are particularly into African history, or biographies, this is the book for everyone. It’s dense, aged, and traumatic to read. If you want a short article effectively summarising it from the author, look here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/9937770/Dr-Livingstone-and-the-cult-of-Victorian-celebrity.html
When I get back to Uganda, I will pick up and no doubt devour Jeal’s other major biography – about Henry Stanley himself. In this book he apparently does the reverse – takes a much-maligned man in history and revises his reputation to show how he has perhaps been unfairly portrayed. Watch this space or thoughts on that one….
Have I paid a bribe when here in Uganda? I don’t know.
I think most people reading this would agree that bribery is wrong. If you’re a Christian, you’d probably be quick to point out how bribery contradicts Biblical imperatives such as honesty, humility, care for the poor and love for one another. But even from a secular perspective, bribery is clearly not smart for the good of the country. It betrays any confidence outside investors might have in Uganda, it skews market economics, it slows down or reverses development, it breeds resentment and unhappiness in society and works against equality, fairness and justice.
Given how clearly unhelpful bribery is for Uganda, it still surprises me how many expats (i.e. people who can afford to not pay a bribe and still get on well in life) we’ve met who are happy to do so. These are otherwise good people – development workers, NGO operators, aid workers – people who have given their lives to trying to improvement Uganda, but who regularly take part in a culture of corruption that seems to undermine so much of what they normally stand for. We know many who don’t, but we’re surprised at how many do. We’ve heard different justifications for this – mostly that it just makes getting things done easier (that’s true), but even then it seems to me that you have no right to then complain about large-level mass corruption if you’re willing to encourage it on a small-scale.
We openly get asked to pay bribes regularly, usually by traffic policeman who catch you doing something (or sometimes nothing) wrong. Sometimes it’s open (“Give me some money and I’ll let you go”) and other times it’s slightly more coded (“What can you do for me?”, “I’m very hungry sitting out here all day” etc.)
We came here with high-minded ideals to never pay a bribe. And, fundamentally, we’ve tried to stick with that. What has surprised is though is what a large grey-area there is between what is a bribe and what isn’t. For example,
- If you want the police to come out for something to help you, even to collect a criminal you’ve caught in your own garden, they would expect to be paid “transport”…an unofficial cost in theory to cover their fuel to get to you but in practice much more than that. Most people say the police simply will not come unless you pay that, and it seems to be talked about quite openly. You’ll never get a receipt for it though. Is that a bribe? Some say yes, some say no. I’m not sure.
- Another grey area is whether the asking comes before or after they do you a favour. When I’m caught doing some wrong driving by the police, 9 times out of 10 a bit of humility and lots of talking can get you out of it. But on several occasions when they’ve ‘forgiven’ me, they then ask for something as a thanks for forgiving them, and when you suggest you can’t do that, they look very upset and annoyed that you’re not fulfilling your part of the bargain. Is that a bribe?
- This week I had to go to our local town council to start the long and arduous process of trying to get a birth certificate for Chloe. It was accepted by all that, to get the signature for this would be 5,000 shillings. I didn’t even ask for a receipt – that would be embarrassing for them as it clearly was an unofficial payment, albeit a commonly accepted and societally-entrenched one with a set-price each time and paid by absolutely everyone. Is that a bribe?
- There’s another incident I’m slightly less proud of: to get Danny’s birth certificate was about 100,000 (a clearly publicised price list on the wall of the government registrar’s office) but I was asked to pay 120,000. He gave me this long and elaborate reasoning (about saving me the hassle of going to another office blah blah blah) why it was more than the advertised price, and why he was unable to receipt the extra. I knew what was going on, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to get anywhere without this. He had the potential to make it incredibly difficult, and he was the senior person in the office! I capitulated. Was that a bribe, even though the word was never mentioned? Yeah, probably.
So. What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure. Maybe that being moral in Uganda is not always simple, clear or easy. There’s a common saying here: “There’s nothing free in Uganda”. If you do a favour for someone the expectation is that you’ll be paid for it. Even if you’re wearing a suit or a policeman’s uniform. So if bribery just a natural part of culture here that keeps things moving? I think that would be charitable, but undoubtedly there are grey areas.
Have a black and white day, wont you?
After a lecture this week, I asked a student to pray. Bless him, he said this…”We thank you that Mr Chris has taught us today. He has tried.” I silently raised my eyebrows, grateful that this wasn’t two years ago, when I would have been mortified to hear such a thing. But we understand better now. You see, in Ugandan English (Uganglish) ‘trying’ isn’t meant in that slightly patronising ‘at least you tried’ kinda way. It’s meant as a compliment. You tried. That’s the right thing to do.
This was a lesson I learn when I drove past a school once. Schools here apparently cannot exist without having some sort of tagline to catch the eye and advertise for pupils. Things like ‘For a complete person’ or ‘Building a better future together’ or something wonderfully vacuous and cheesy like that.
This one school I noticed had the logo, and underneath in big, bold letters ”We try our best…”
As an aside, my favourite school tagline which I saw once, painted in massive letters on the wall of the compound was
“We strive for excellent”
If Josh’s current school fails to work out, then THAT’S where he’s going…
The church here, and in particular the Anglican church here, is MASSIVE. Our own church, as far as I can tell, very rarely if ever speaks about evangelism. And yet most weeks it is standing room only, even after they added an extra service. Nice problem to have, hey?!
I know this annoys secularists entirely, but Christianity here is so, so popular. I’m not saying the church as a whole is utterly committed to Christ through thick and thin, nor am I saying that it will remain like this for generations to come. But, right now, Christianity (as a religion) is big.
I read this report recently about the consecration of a new bishop over in the Western side of Uganda. Most of you are reading from the UK and if you part of an Anglican Church, there is a decent chance you don’t even know who your bishop is. Well get a load of this…
“Mammoth crowds today the 17th January 2014 gathered along Kabale – Mbarara road and on the slopes of the beautiful hills of Kabale to receive the next bishop of Kigezi, The Rev. Canon Eng. George Bagamuhunda. The Bishop elect was received by enthusiastic Christians at Muhanga which is the entry point from South Ankole Diocese. A four kilometer convey of vehicles bumper to bumper wound up the winding road up then descending to Kabale town and eventually climbing to St. Peter’s Cathedral Rugarama. The jam and crowds in Kabale town were enormous and excitement was deafening as people waived and ululated seeing their coming bishop. Business came to a standstill except for the traffic officers, as people thronged the mainstreet to welcome the coming bishop. The population who gathered to welcome the Bishop elect filled the Cathedral to capacity and overflowed.”
I can’t think of anyone, politician, monarch, pop star or movie star, anyone who could get a reception like that in the UK. And CERTAINLY not an Anglican bishop!
I would imagine that most of you are pretty familiar with the so-called ‘Anti-homosexuality Bill’ that is currently on the table in the Ugandan parliament. It is basically a law, that will get passed at some point or other, that seeks to effectively eradicate public homosexuality in Uganda. It has a wide media coverage, was featured on a recent Stephen Fry BBC documentary, and has its own Wikipedia site! It’s everywhere. I think it’s interesting that, as far as I can see, this bill is fast becoming the most famous thing about Uganda. It used to be Idi Amin. But I reckon now ‘gay-hating’ is the first thing many Westerners think about when they hear the word ‘Uganda’. This is largely thanks to a media campaign waged in the West against this bill.
The first thing to point out is that, and I dearly wish the British media would read the bill before they speak about it (as I have done) there is no mention at all of a death sentence. So automatically, when you find articles that talk about killing gays, you should discount them as uninformed and hyperbolic (Yes, you, The Guardian, and The New York Times and Washington Post).
At the risk of being misunderstood, allow me to say straight up, as if it were necessary, that of course I’m not in favour of the bill. I find it bigoted and prejudiced. But that’s not what this blog post is about. I want to draw attention to the thoughtless and unmerited narrative surrounding the bill as it is being increasingly portrayed in the Western secular media. And what is that? Well, it’s that this bill is the fault of Christianity. And more specifically, the result of foreign Christian missionaries to Uganda.
The argument basically goes like this (and this is only mildly exaggerated and paraphrased): Before Christian missionaries came, Uganda was a peaceable and safe country, tolerant and respectful. However Christian missionaries, having lost the ‘culture-wars’ in the secular West, subsequently chose Uganda to be the base of what they hope to be a worldwide spread of a massive anti-homosexual movement. Therefore missionaries are flooding into Uganda to preach their gospel of hate, using their vast material wealth to coax and coerce naïve Ugandan Christians into persecuting homosexuals. Uganda is therefore now, as a direct consequence of this, a bigoted and hateful society (regularly killing homosexuals) because of Christian missionaries. Another example of how Christianity is very, very bad for the world. And Africa in particular (where of course secularists are starting to notice that Christianity is in fact rather popular).
Now this narrative is spreading fast through print media. And it’s about to become a lot more widespread. There is a new feature-length documentary that’s just come out in cinema’s, called ‘God Loves Uganda’. Although it has a fairly limited showing in the UK, that may change soon. After all, It’s made the Oscars shortlist. Now I’m not able to view the film here. You may not be surprised to hear that it’s not common in Uganda! However I can view the trailer, and also can watch online the 8-minute film the director previously that basically acts as the precursor to the new feature-length film (and, presuming that the full movie is simply an extension of the shorter version, then it is going to contain some worryingly poor documentary-making. You can read some of my thoughts in discussion with Mark Meynell and Eddie Arthur, in the comments section here ) And sure enough, it would appear that the film very much supports the assumed narrative I outlined above. (By the way, if you want to read a long but interesting rebuttal, almost blow-by-blow, of this film, John Stackhouse has written for Christianity Today magazine here)
So, what is the West doing? Well, putting a lot of pressure on Uganda to immediately drop this bill! Facebook groups, governments threatening to cut aid, President Obama has spoken out, huge petitions, and even Amnesty International has got involved.
However I think it is worth pointing out (and living in Uganda for the past 2 years puts me in a good position to do this) that, ironically, much of this Western pressure on the Ugandan parliament and Uganda and in general is actually having the opposite affect that what they intend. Even in the time we’ve lived here, we’ve seen the anti-colonial narrative strengthen and strengthen in his country. Uganda, rightly so, is loosing the shackles of dependency on the West in many ways (financial, political, spiritual, and moral). No longer is West always best. Absolutely right, of course. And therefore Uganda is actually very, very proud of defiantly ‘standing up to’ Western moralistic bullying against it. And I use the word ‘bullying’ carefully here. Look at this recent story from the BBC news: The University of Buckinghamshire is now officially refusing to accredit any courses in Uganda, and has cut off its entire links with one of Kampala’s top private universities, Victoria University, SIMPLY because Victoria University is, well, in Uganda, and Uganda is the home of this bill. Note that Victoria University didn’t at any point explicitly support this bill, or deny any rights to homosexual students, or do or say anything about the bill. They are simply Ugandan. And that’s enough for them to have to find a new accreditor (actually, just recently, they failed to do this and have now shut down all operations, with hundreds of students having lost all their tuition fees). Note also that this bill isn’t even law! Just the fact that it’s been proposed is enough for the University of Buckinghamshire to abandon its partner. The point is that they, and many other Western donors and charities, and trying to frighten, threaten, and yes, bully, Uganda into changing its direction. However it really, really isn’t working. From where I’m standing, the louder the West shouts, the deeper Uganda digs in. And Uganda has dug in.
As far as I can tell, there are very few Christians in the West who are really challenging this prevailing and presumed narrative which says Christianity and Christian missionaries are very bad for Uganda and Africa. In fact, sometimes there are good and decent Christians propagating this narrative too, seemingly wanting to apologise to the world for what the world tells us that our own people are doing. I’m guessing that they hope, by agreeing with all this, that the world will differentiate between the crazies and the normal Christians. And it seems to me that much of that is borne of a desperation to be liked by the world. Of course that’s not what happens. All that happens is that, with the tacit approval and acceptance of the narrative by many Christians, the whole faith (including us) is allowed to be denigrated and ridiculed. And when it comes to this issue, please believe me, it really is. Look at some of the comment articles in the above news articles. The level of disgust and venom is extraordinary. People who outwardly wish to adhere to tolerant secular views are, seemingly without any sense of irony or humour, suggesting that all Christian missionaries in Uganda should be shot. Or at least banned. Most of the expat community in Kampala is secular, and as people who naturally take an interest in what the Western media is saying about Uganda, they are starting to get very angry with people like me, who they are told are preaching hate, and it seems to be getting worse and worse. Seriously, this is not a good time to be a missionary in Uganda if you want the world to think well of you.
So, now that I’ve explained what’s going on, let me try and explain why I think this popular narrative in the West concerning this bill is nonsense. And let me explain that by telling a quick story…
Last month, Ros went a church event. I’m purposely being coy about the details on a public blog. At this event, organised by and attended by many Christians and Christian leaders in Kampala, the speaker held up a small stick. They then explained that, if you put this stick in a pot of goat stew (must be goat – the speaker was most clear about that) and leave it for several minutes, then feed the stew to your family, then your family that had previously been argumentative and disunited will, immediately, be of one mind in a happy, peaceful harmony. The speaker told stories of how well this trick had worked in their own family. They was happy to admit that this advice came from African traditional witch doctors, but the speaker ‘Christianised’ it by suggesting you should put the stick into the stew ‘in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.
Now that’s syncretism. That’s taking old religion, witch-doctery, dressing it up in a desperately thin veneer of Christianity, and bringing slap bang into the heart of the church. And sadly this kind of thing happens up and down this country every week, in churches. We heard this week of an active church-goer who, when annoyed by someone, went to the local witch-doctor, got some charms and curses etc. and hid them in the room of the one they were annoyed with. I could tell you story after story like this.
My point is that, the more time we spend here, the more we realise that Christianity here has barely scratched the surface of many people’s worldview, morality, and belief system. Of course that’s not true for everyone. But it’s true for many (and significantly, the amazing and wonderful people that it’s not true for, those folk here who we love and admire and learn so much from, unbelievably good people, would be very quick to admit it is true for many). When you see and hear some of what goes on here, by people who outwardly are the most faithful of church-goers, it feels impossible to reconcile that with some of the statistics that show Uganda to be one of the most evangelised and ‘Christian’ countries on earth.
And yet article after article and film after film is telling us to believe that Christianity has not only penetrated so deeply into so many people’s deepest belief systems that it affects their sexual attitudes, but that it has done it so significantly that this has been translated into national laws in parliament!. No way. Seriously. No way. On a purely anecdotal level, I am continually shocked by the levels of wife-beating, rape, child-abuse, polygamy, adultery, and sexual immorality in many churches here. And yet these journalists want us to believe that this same faith, that is inwardly rejected and ignored by so many in churches, is held to so passionately as to change the laws of the whole country. Have these people ever even been to Uganda I wonder?
So what is behind this bill, you ask? Simple. Traditional Ugandan views about sexuality. Uganda, with or without Christianity, is not a place that is readily tolerant of homosexual activity. This is true in the Christian community, the Muslim community, and the ‘traditional ethno-religious’ community (unaffected by any Western missionary work or imposition of ‘outside’ religion). In fact, in that latter community, I would imagine that the support of this law, and vehement and angry opposition to homosexuality, is even greater. To put it simply, this law comes from Ugandan culture. Not Ugandan Christianity. Christianity has barely impacted upon culture here.
For example, take a look at this article from the main newspaper in Uganda, entitled “Homosexuality: Is it a normal or sick lifestyle”. Without any suggestion of religious argument or influence, the author concludes that homosexuality is “at best a result of severe developmental problems” and therefore “a normal person, that is, a heterosexual, should under ordinary circumstances find the very idea of homosexuality repugnant.”
Now it is certainly true to say that many Ugandans, nominally within the Christian community, would use Christianity as a rhetorically-useful ‘peg’ to hang this law on. That much is well documented. There are a few clips going around of preachers and church leaders supporting this bill. But that’s all it is – a peg. Many Christians here argue passionately that women should never wear trousers. That is their traditional culture. When Christianity came to Uganda new converts worked hard to justify that practice using their new religion, and although they have tried hard to find a few OT-law verses to justify it, they really can’t. Does their belief change? No (or not yet anyway for many) Traditional culture just gets brought into the new religion instead of allowing the new to shape and interpret and renew and transform the old.
And its similar with attitudes to homosexuality. The vast majority of Christians in this country have never met or spoken with a Western missionary. And nor have their leaders. Many of these attitudes about homosexuality come direct from traditional Ugandan culture. Of course these attitudes may change in the future. But if they do, much as the secularists would scoff at this, it will most likely be because of Christianity, as churches preach a message of godly love and kindness towards active homosexuals here, thereby opposing the culturally-driven anger and violence towards homosexuals we too-often see. The sad reality for Western secularists is that their worldview has little to say to change Ugandan attitudes to homosexuality. They can go on about ‘human rights’ as much as they want, but the more they shout, the more they get ignored. The best hope for a Uganda that is safe for homosexuals is, of course, the gospel. The gospel that shows us that all people are created in God’s image and loved by him, the gospel that shows us how much God truly wants to rescue and redeem his people The gospel that promotes humble, gracious, non-violent love towards all people. The gospel that welcomes all people to confess that Jesus is Lord and unite together in a broken but re-built community of Christ (Ephesians 2:17-22)
And so, for the sake of Ugandan homosexuals, Ugandan Christians, and missionaries in Uganda, please don’t let this nasty, secularist, hate-filled narrative of Christianity in Uganda go unchallenged. Your future heavenly Ugandan co-worshippers around the throne will be grateful that you didn’t.
I began it over a year ago, but finally this week I finished it: (it’s been a busy year, and it’s a fat book) “The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith.
I’m not big into writing book reviews. So let me simply quote (am I allowed to do this?) from one Amazon review:
“The book is a litany of incompetent government, of insatiable greed and exploitation on the part of leaders and their cronies, of unbelievable power lust and the resulting repression, of megalomaniac leaders with delusions of grandeur, of ludicrous levels of corruption and of the suffering of millions of ordinary people.”
It’s an overview of post-independence Africa, dealing principally with the leaders, politics, governments and big-picture narratives, as opposed to say a real people’s history from the ground. It’s horrific. It’s absolutely horrific.
You know things are bad when you move beyond tears and just feel emotionally unable to care anymore about real-life tragedy you’re reading. 800,000 Tutsi corpses here, a few hundred thousand amputees there, a war here, a death camp there, child soldiers here, mass starvation and internal displacement there. The tragic history flows so fast and so furiously at you it’s impossible to keep your head above the water. The only other books I’ve ever read that caused me to read about thousands of murders without a flicker of emotion was this one – http://www.amazon.co.uk/War-World-Historys-Age-Hatred/dp/0141013826
There’s so many desperate stats in the book that blow your mind I’m not even going to go into them. As I say, it starts to become just numbers after a while. However one stat was particularly fascinating. in 2001, an African leader voluntarily left office after an election defeat for only the 4th time (it first happened in 1993). 40 years of independence, 50 countries, well over 300 leaders, but only 4 had ever held an election, lost, and walked away.
Every book you ever read about Africa always ends on a note of hope. It has to in today’s world. Not necessarily because its true (although who am I to comment on that) but because it seems to negative, too depressing, too awful to do anything else.
After 700 pages in this book, I was waiting for that final note of hope to come. It never did. This is the final paragraph:
“Time and time again, Africa’s potential for economic development has been disrupted by the predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain, often precipitating violence for their own ends. The problem is not so much that development has failed, but that it was never really on the agenda in the first place. After decades of mismanagement and corruption, most African states have become hollowed out. They are no longer instruments capable of serving the public good. Indeed, far from being able to provide aid and protection to their citizens, African governments and the vampire-like politicians who run them are regarded by the population they rule as yet another burden they have to bear in the struggle for survival.“
700 pages, and that’s the conclusion. How’s that for a hollow way to finish an epic? And yet there was no other conclusion he could come to. It’s too often true. In the past and in the present.
Note he’s not suggesting that Africans, or Africa, have/has no hope, but just that it doesn’t appear to be coming through the state, through government. Although Uganda is better than most, you don’t have to follow me on Twitter for long, and to see the stats I quote from the newspapers, to see that even here things aren’t radically different.
And that’s why it’s so good to do what I do. The gospel, and people’s relationships with Christ, is perhaps the one thing in Africa that cannot be stolen, torn apart, shot at, bribed away, abused or annihilated. It’s safe, secure, guaranteed, and eternal. And in a continent so full of terrible, terrible tragedy, it’s so real. I tweeted recently about a mother who’d buried 9 of her own kids, but clung on to Christ.
And so let me repeat what I said in earlier blog post about visiting David’s poverty stricken village: “There’s nothing more beautiful than true, Christian hope” And perhaps it’s in the darkest places where we see it shining most brightly.