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Happy stories of self-reliance and community empowerment in Uganda

Happy stories of self-reliance and community empowerment in Uganda

Ugandan politicians are readying themselves for another orgy of vote-buying. As usual, the next election season will witness enhanced cash infusions to individuals, churches, youth, women, elders’ organizations and other vote-rich groups. 


The people will gladly receive the bribes, affirming a symbiotic parasitic relationship between the governors and the governed. For the most part, the bribe per person will be small, with many perfectly happy to sell their votes in exchange for a bottle of alcohol or Sh. 2,000 ($0.54). 


We do not know whether or not the majority of the recipients of these handouts link them to their perennial social and economic disadvantages. However, I have an indelible memory of a man in my parliamentary constituency in Kigyezi whom my wife and I met nearly one year after the 2011 presidential elections.


Kabunga (not his real name) and his son had brought their lone cow for watering at the river that passes along the edge of our property. Kabunga’s attire, consisting of a tattered dirty T-shirt with a portrait of a smiling Yoweri K. Museveni, and a pair of shorts whose multiple holes and loose threads were not intentional, was a summary of the Ugandan paradox. 


A man who is cut off from the national feast is a walking advertisement for his ruler. His T-shirt, once yellow but now mostly a very dirty brown, is an essential part of his limited wardrobe. On the other hand, the elite beneficiaries of great economic opportunities and other presidential patronage that have become millionaires rarely don the ruler’s portraits or other partisan identifiers. They may be passionate partisans, but they prefer their designer threads from the best tailors in London, New York, Paris, Rome and Toronto. They don the yellow stuff only when invited to some party event with the president. 


Kabunga’s bare feet and torn hat were bookends of the struggling man’s story. Living in poverty at the edge of a society whose rulers he had blest with his votes, Kabunga was pleased to beg me for a gift of cash. When I asked why he did not have money, he gave me a moving account of his financial responsibilities, the near-absence of paying jobs in our community, the poor yield from his small plots of land and the overall neglect by the government. 


“But I see you voted for Museveni,” I observed. “Why don’t you ask him for help?”  Kabunga let off a hearty laughter, amused by my silly question and evident ignorance about the realities of Ugandan politics. “Dokita!”, he exclaimed. “Oragirashi ngu areijuka abantu nkaitwe? (Do you think he remembers people like us?” Kabunga asked. He told me that he had received no help from the government since the election and he did not expect any more handouts until the next election. He knew that even then it would be a gift of booze and a small amount of cash.


“Now, Kabunga, do you see what a great investor our president is?” I asked him. “For Sh. 1,000 and a very cheap T-shirt, Museveni got your vote and the right to continue to control trillions of shillings that are supposedly yours as a citizen. His perks include free accommodation in a palace and multiple luxury houses across the land, a fleet of high-end cars and a Gulfstream jet.” 


Kabunga laughed again. “Esente zoonashi teeze? Nyowe nimusiima akuyampaire.” (Isn’t all the money his? I thank him for the small amount he gave me.)  His son laughed. His was not a laughter of amusement but, I suspect, a realization that they had been had. 


Monetary handouts, whether from politicians or from normal donors like you and me do not make a positive difference to recipients’ lives. They may meet their immediate temporary needs, but they amplify a dependency syndrome that saps the energy out of able-bodied men and women, deepening their acquired helplessness. The handouts may buy politicians’ votes and they may assuage the financially privileged classes’ sense of guilt, but they do not develop our communities.


It bears repeating that the best form of support for our people is to invest in them and with them. This means avoidance of the patronizing approach of telling individuals and communities what they should do to develop themselves. It means not doing things or offering free funding for projects without the communities’ active contribution and participation.


We have been deeply gratified by two successful examples of communities leading the way in development projects in which we have become co-investors. Our neighbours in Mparo, Rukiga District are some of the most hardworking people I know. They are a family of dignified individuals who work their land to support themselves.


When my wife and I asked them how best we could work together to enhance the economic fortunes of our two families, our neighbours came up with a project that persuaded us to make a modest capital investment in it. The family heads invested money in this, their own project, which they have managed so well that we are now small-scale cuniculturists (rabbit breeders) and producers of cash-generating food crops. Their pride in their achievement is very inspiring.


Meanwhile, at a 2012 gathering of my Bakonjo clansmen in my ancestral home of Kahondo ka Byamarembo, we discussed an opportunity to engage in a profitable community development project. My people decided to start a Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO), capitalized, managed and supervised by themselves. Within five years, the SACCO had grown into a formidable facility that had built its own beautiful bank building, enabling independence from landlords. Like in many parts of the country, this SACCO has helped many of our people in Kahondo to access funds for personal and business improvement, without depending on either the government or the limited number of financially strong clansmen.


I have no hesitation supporting the efforts of my people in Mparo and Kahondo who have demonstrated the drive and ability to move towards wealth generation through self-reliance. I am eager to see colleagues with expertise in agriculture, finance, marketing and other avenues of human development getting involved with our modest efforts. They will find us eager to learn from them and to implement our acquired knowledge to uplift ourselves as a people who are proud to work, not to be passive recipients of freebies. 


Whereas the government has a major role and responsibility in the economic growth of our communities, I do not spend sleepless nights waiting to be remembered in the national budget. I believe that you and I can make have an impact by  investing our treasure, time or talent in our respective communities.


It takes enhanced personal economic capacity for one to have the strength and pride to reject electoral bribes and their exploitative purveyors. This is part of the mindset change that will help in the positive transformation of Uganda.



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