Piece of Crap

Here is a short list of things in Uganda which suck:

Bread.
Cardboard boxes.
Pens.
Ketchup.

It’s not complete. There are a lot of things here that suck, actually. The fact that children here die of easily preventable diseases, for example, sucks. The predicament of adults who planted coffee because some Mzungu researcher told them that was how they could “develop” but are now starving because the price dropped and they didn’t plant food also sucks. So does living in a sham democracy.

The items I listed above, though, don’t suck in the moral sense; they just plain suck. It appears to be literally impossible to get a cardboard box here that does not fall apart as soon as you put something heavier than a stapler inside. I wasn’t aware that a cardboard box was really capable of exploding until this morning, when 500 questionnaires in a box burst out into freedom, leaving only a few scraps of cardboard wafting down to the ground. The bread here tastes stale practically by design, and crumbles instantly when taken out of the plastic bag in which it was previously sealed. As for the ketchup, well, don’t even get me started; who knew you could mess up tomatoes and salt so much?

My parents once joked to me that the U.S. won the Cold War because – as they discovered during their travels to the Soviet Union in 1989 – the U.S.S.R. couldn’t manufacture a ballpoint pen that worked. While I think there are better explanations for the collapse of communism, they have a point (or is it “nib”?). Pen-production may not be a mark of civilization, but it does suggest something about the level of advancement in a society when such basic items are so wanting.

The situation in Uganda is different, though, because none of these crappy items actually come from Uganda. It’s not that Ugandan’s can’t make a quality cardboard box; they just don’t make them at all. Practically everything here is imported. When I first came to Kampala, I figured that the perpetual haze over the city was the result of industry, a byproduct of the rush to modernize. I now know that the haze is natural, and that Uganda could – quite frankly – use a little pollution, because it would mean someone was producing something.

I can’t help but compare what I’ve observed in Uganda with what I’ve learned about the supposed place of the Third World in narratives about the globalized world. The simplistic, popularized view, articulated most obnoxiously by Thomas Friedman, is that globalization is all about interconnectivity and information, internet and technology. Thanks to the indomitable Professor Kelly, I know that this version of globalization puts a rose tint on the very real inequalities and exploitative situations created by globalization. A more accurate (if dangerously Marxist) characterization of globalization is as the process by which the means of production move from the first to the third world. Globalization isn’t so much about South Asians on cell-phones as it is South Asians working long hours in factories producing items once manufactured in the west.

I’ve learned very quickly that Africa seems to be the exception continent, and describing production in Uganda is, well, no exception: neither narrative really fits here. Take, for example, cell phones. Cell phone coverage in Uganda, while imperfect, is better than in most parts of Arizona, and assuredly better than anywhere on the Navajo Reservation. Cell phones are incredibly prevalent here; they are such a basic commodity that on every block there is a charging station, so that people without electricity can still have a cell phone. Moreover, Ugandan’s are serviced by five or six networks locked in fierce competition. The marketing is so intense that probably every third storefront in a given village is painted orange for Mango, yellow for MTN, or pink for Zain.

Thomas Friedman et al. would likely be convinced that this shows how quickly Ugandans are integrating themselves into the global economy, using information technology to leverage their comparative advantage and market Ugandan products to the rest of the world. This can’t be true, though, since no one here produces anything, and the owners of the cell phone companies – some of whom, strangely, I’ve met – are never Ugandan nationals. Uganda doesn’t fit into the poor producer / rich consumer relationship we see between countries like China and the U.S. because, fundamentally, Uganda is a consumer society. One thing that amazes me about Uganda is the amount of effort that goes into selling things to people who have nothing; billboards arrive in Ugandan villages long before running water. Those Ugandan’s that are employed, as far as I can tell, are involved in buying and selling (and re-selling, and re-selling, and re-selling, as the people hawking phenomenally random shit at every intersection attest).

Economists generally agree that it is better for a country to be exploited for its cheap labor and exports than to be cut out of the global economy entirely. While I tend to believe that this is bullocks, being in Africa makes me think that they have a point. Countries like Thailand or Mexico, where people busily manufacture goods for a pittance, are at least involved in a two-way relationship with the rich world. Uganda, on the other hand, is in an even worse place: literally the dumping ground for unwanted and useless crap. And, as far as I can tell, there’s no way out.

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