By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:
President Museveni says Ugandans, and Africans generally, fail to tap opportunities that would transform their lives and the economy because they are in deep slumber. According to the Daily Monitor of Feb 26, 2015, the President, while commissioning the $15m Tirupati Business Park, said the African continent continues to lag behind the rest of the world in terms of growth, development and almost all aspects of life because African people are asleep. He reportedly said: “Mr. Tirupati came here about 20 years ago, sleeping in temples because he had nowhere to sleep but see what he has built today. Africans do not have spectacles for opportunities. But he had spectacles to see opportunities.” The president has previously said that we, Ugandans, are thieves, and we will shortly argue that the alleged theft and the alleged slumber are interlinked.
But, first, let's acknowledge the truth of his recent remarks. It's true that, as a continent, “we lag behind the rest of the world in terms of growth, development and almost all aspects of life”. It's true that Mr. Tirupati came to Uganda 20 years ago with nothing, and has just added a $15m park to his chain of investments. It's true that Tirupati's story is representative of the stories of hundreds, even thousands, of Indians who come to the country with little besides the clothes on their backs and soon rise to the ranks of the country's millionaires merely by harnessing local opportunities. It's true that almost every Indian immigrant successfully exploits the seemingly bountiful opportunities in our country, whereas, with indigenous Ugandans, for every one hundred thousand people, only about one manages to do likewise. In so far as the president was using sleep as a metaphor for failure to see and exploit opportunities, he told the truth – bitter truth, but truth all the same. His words are reminiscent of the terrible words of the explorer John Speke, who observed in his 1863 book, Discovering the Source of The Nile, that: “How the Negro has lived so many ages without advancing, seems marvelous, when all the countries surrounding Africa are so forward in comparison; and judging from the progressive state of the world, one is led to suppose that the African must soon either step out from his darkness, or be superseded by a being superior to himself.”
Has the African failed to step out of darkness since the days of John Speke, and is the contemporary Indian the superior being of the explorer's prediction? My belief is that it's a cultural issue. It's the African cultures, and the norms ingrained therein, that let us down, and if the Indian is superior, the superiority is of cultural DNA, not biological DNA. Often when the word culture is mentioned, some people's minds drift centuries backwards; they contemplate the lifestyles of long-gone ancestors and the relics of those lifestyles. But I am talking about the contemporary African culture, about our contemporary norms and languages and world views. So far as I can see, it's a culture that treasures consumption and disdains production, where wedding receptions, graduation parties and myriad other social functions must be expensive affairs, and yet where workplace effort must be the minimum that one can get away with. Our ancestors had their ridiculous myths, and one of the ridiculous myths of our time is that we can sustainably spend beyond our earnings, and earn beyond our efforts. It's a myth that confounds logic – that denies everything we learnt in Mathematics class.
How did this myth – which I called Miracle Money in The Chwezi Code – creep into our minds? It was borne on the waves of corruption. The thing is, there are countless people with money they have not worked for; countless millionaires who, to attain wealth, haven't had to rack their brains but to sign dubious papers. They are our ministers, our legislators, our bosses, our tycoons, our 'role models'. The media is always throwing them in our faces, one day telling us about the functions at which they have officiated, and the next day telling us about the scandals they have been involved in. The long term effect of rampant corruption has been to plant and nurture the myth of miracle money, and it's this myth that makes us poor competitors against the Indians who know that, to get money, you have to invest mental and physical effort, and that it's unfeasible to spend more than you earn.
Museveni is right when he says we are thieves, and he is right when he says we are asleep. He has the power to stop the theft, and if he stops it, we will begin to wake up.
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