Wednesday, 28 May 2008

"Two Whites and a Colonel" - Unnamed Observer During the COGS Swearing-in

Introducing Your New Foreign Minister

Okay, so it is only the Council of Graduate Students (COGS) at Makerere, and the election process was not exactly rigorous, but even so the title sounds good and it should be an opportunity to do some worthwhile work. My friend Abdul Muhiire (pictured right) is the newly elected President of COGS and he has the power to appoint his cabinet, hence as one of his campaign team he offered me the above position. It will basically involve forming more international partnerships between Makerere and other universities, and ensuring that international students have a enjoyable and trouble-free time here.

The swearing in ceremony took place last Thursday and was presided over by the Government Chief Whip, Hon. Kabakumba (over my left shoulder as I give the oath). The cabinet also contains a retired Colonel, Fred Mwesigye, who played an important role in the NRM bush war which brought Museveni to power in 1986 and who donated ten bulls to the victory party for the recently elected Students' Guild President, Robert Rutharo - the first NRM President for ten years. Also in the cabinet is James, the new Minister for Information (Mis-Information?). There is a possibility that a report about the new 'COGS' cabinet will appear in the New Vision shortly. If it does I will post the link here.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

View From My Window

I recently moved out of 'Dag' postgraduate hall on campus, and into a house down the road in Kamwokya where James has been living since last August. 'Dag' was good fun but it was beginning to feel claustrophobic and with most of my friends having left in the past few months it made sense to move. Having a fridge and a kitchen also means I am becoming slightly less reliant on take-aways in Wandegeya, much to the relief of my internal organs.

From my new window you can see the stark difference in the quality of housing in Kampala, which is easily identifiable by the type of roof a house has. New well-to-do houses tend to have expensively tiled roofs while a rusting iron number normally indicates a more modest home. Indeed, this is also the method the President uses to judge the development of rural areas as he flies over in his helicopter. In the rural areas, however, it is the iron roofs that are a sign of prosperity and the thatched mud huts that indicate greater poverty.

My window also overlooks our shared garden, complete with matooke (banana) plants and a towering paw-paw tree. The photo above is of two boys shinning up the tree to try and knock down the riper fruits.

Monday, 19 May 2008

I Know Times Are Hard But...

Much of our work in 'Food Rights' at Action Aid at the moment is concerned with the repercussions of rising food prices in Uganda. The President declared that this was a good thing for small-holder farmers. However, with the cost of essentials such as salt, sugar and soap also rising it seems that any benefit will be short-term and as always the main beneficiaries will be the middle men anyway. At the same time the urban poor can afford even less food and many are sleeping hungry.

One thing we did not investigate was the possible impact on that most maligned sector of society, students. It appears from the New Vision that the Dean has, though, beaten us to it. He has declared that campus canteens will be serving only posho and beans for the rest of the semester. Beef, chicken, rice, potatoes and matooke will be absent just as students enter the exam period, provoking the inevitable complaints from the Students' Guild. This coincides with the time in the year when most students are broke, having spent their termly allowances, and thus are unable to buy meals from elsewhere. Let's just hope the desire for chicken and chips in Wandegeya doesn't give the sugar daddies any more excuse to trawl around campus looking for prey.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Audio of Network Africa Interview

You can now listen to the 4 minute interview about Makerere that went out on the BBC World Service on Monday here.

Monday, 12 May 2008

BBC Appearance

Listeners to Network Africa on the World Service this morning would have heard an interview with me conducted a couple of months ago by Uganda correspondent Sarah Grainger. It focused on what it is like to be a foreign (bazungu rather than other Africans) student studying at Makerere and the differences between here and Western universities. My Canadian classmate James was interviewed too and should be appearing on BBC World shortly. They also talked to our Ugandan classmates and I particularly like this quote from Daphne: "At first I thought he was crazy".
You can read a written version of the interview here:

And until tomorrow morning it should be possible to listen to it from here (23:50 onwards into the 30 minute programme):

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Cabinet Meets on Makerere Future

As exams approach on campus the atmosphere continues to one of near-open hostility between senior management and the academic staff, represented by the MUASA union. In recent days the union has threatened to stop teaching all evening classes for privately sponsored students (full disclosure: that's me) from next semester unless allowances of over 10 billion UG shillings are settled. Cabinet is now calling an emergency session to try and solve the financial mismanagement at Makerere, the root cause of the lecturers' strike earlier this year. The President has promised to chair cabinet on May 23rd to specifically address Makerere and its woes.

The missing 10 billion has apparently been channelled into infrastructure improvements but any visitor to campus would find that hard to believe. The roads are deteriorating at a rapid state and are currently in an embarrassing condition. When you hear people praising Kampala City Council roads in comparison, you know things have got bad.

The President's clout is now needed to solve the problem. With NRM-leaning candidates having taken both the Student's Guild and the Council of Graduate Studies, let's hope that the President no longer views Makerere as a bastion for the opposition and will direct some of his energy to bashing heads together to come up with a lasting settlement. What is sure is that the time for 'band-aid' solutions is over. We need radical ideas to break the impasse and stop the endless speculation which is harming both the students and the academics.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Why I Hope Boris Proves Us Wrong

There is a connection between London's new right-wing Mayor, Boris Johnson, and Uganda. It was here that he uttered one of his 'amusing' asides:

"Right, let's go and look at some more piccaninnies*." Reported remark, while visiting Uganda, to Swedish Unicef workers and their black driver, the Observer, 2003.

* Offensive, a small Black or Aboriginal child [perhaps from Portuguese pequenino tiny one]

The new Mayor is, though, one of the rare politicians who seems to be able to do and say anything he wants and get away with it due to his 'funny' hair and bumbling way of speaking. Contrast this with US politics where in the Democratic Primary race Obama's far less offensive 'bitter' remark was almost enough to knock him out the race, and Senator Allen's comparable 'macaca' comment lost him Virginia at the last election. For Teflon-Boris though, he is able to not only get away with slandering the whole of Liverpool and Portsmouth, but also registering in print his insulting, colonial-minded comments about Africans:

"No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird."· In 2002, on Tony Blair's visit to the Democratic of Republic of Congo, Daily Telegraph.

However, I think on balance Boris is probably not a racist. Lacking any understanding of London's multicultural mosaic, yes, stuck in the British upper-class mindset of Prince Phillip and co, yes, but racist, no. Furthermore it is clearly incorrect to label the million-odd people who voted for him racist either, especially considering the many flaws of the incumbent.

I also don't agree with the legions of Labour supporters who want to see him fail. The job is too important for that. Personally I hope Boris proves us wrong, works hard to remedy his pariah status amongst London's ethnic minority communities and does a competent job for London. That won't stop me being the first in the queue to boot him out in four years time though...

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Caning in Primary Schools

In my mind caning is a British institution. While I'm sure children were beaten, or 'disciplined', before the British arrived in East Africa, it was the British that formalised the practice in schools, and it has remained in Uganda long after dying out in the UK. As someone who counts themselves fairly liberal on these kind of social issues, I admit that I find the whole idea of caning school kids morally difficult. As a volunteer teacher four years ago I deliberately didn't inform the Deputy Headmaster about two boys I had caught swapping exam scripts, knowing what their punishment would be. Naively I thought that they might realise I had 'saved' them and that they would then be perfect students from then on. Somehow I doubt that was the case.

This story, a few weeks ago in New Vision, reminded me of that time. The veracity of the father's claims (that the caning directly killed his son) are impossible to prove, but it remains the fact that a boy in the fourth year of primary school was subjected to a caning shortly before he died. Surely at the very least in primary schools there must be alternative ways of correcting bad behaviour? Or is this just my liberal, squeamish tendencies running away with me?