For those of you who haven’t heard – and really, there’s no reason those of us who get Western media would have – Kampala, Uganda has erupted in rioting and violence. You can catch up with the action by reading the slightly-befuddled coverage of the New York Times here or the way-too-nuanced-for-us-Mzungu-to-understand Ugandan coverage here. While I considered writing a blog trying to make some sense of the violence – which I am reasonably sure relates to one ethnic group’s desire to have it’s traditional king be given federal recognition – I actually have no clue why, in a wider sense, this is happening. Which brings me back to blogging about an observation that I never had time to commit to writing during my trip: my entire time in Uganda, I felt like I had no idea what was going on.
There were, of course, the little things I didn’t understand – like why nothing worked or the myriad different local languages. Even when people spoke English, though, I still never understood what was going on, whether I was in a restaurant or doing research in the field. This situation most certainly did not improve over the course of the trip; in fact, it got worse. A perfect example involves my research team. While things were rocky at the beginning of enumeration, by the final few days of my stay I really felt like our team had “clicked.” We were working as a unit, everyone focused on one common goal (getting done before 7 p.m., that is.) Then, one of my team members approached Guy, my boss, to tell him that the Bugandans (who are from the center of the country, and are apparently the ones rioting on behalf of their traditional king) and the Runyankoles (who are from the west, a region that has been more ascendant of late thanks to the President being from the area) were not getting along. In fact, the team had divided into factions, each under one of the team leaders and refusing to tact direction from the others. This enumerator feared that once I left things were going to fall apart: a claim that was rather startling to me, since without even the slightest awareness that there were problems, I had done nothing to allieve them.
The ethnic divisiveness that I “experienced” (unwittingly) on a micro-level with my team is now blowing up on a macro-level in Kampala. And, just as with my team, I definitely didn’t see this coming. My first awareness of the dissention related to the Buganda kingdom came about a week into my trip. I was riding in the taxi, and the driver was playing what sounded like a news talk show in Luganda – except the people talking sounded really mad (so more like a cable-news talk show). I asked the driver what the fuss was about, and he said we were listening to a debate on whether the former Buganda kingdom should be given more autonomy and be allowed to operate as a federal state under their king. Over the next few weeks, I encountered signs of an ongoing debate in the newspapers, articles referencing terms like “the Kabaka” and “Mengo” that I knew were related, but didn’t fully understand. I certainly didn’t think anything like this – people dying, riot police, tear gas, media crackdowns – was on the immediate horizon.
My total ignorance is, I suppose, understandable. given how short my visit was. But it’s amazing how ignorant, too, were all the Mzungu around me. Among the expat community, Uganda’s stability is taken as gospel. “Yes, it’s poor, but it’s so safe.” “Sure, Museveni is becoming a bit of a strongman – but he’s brought so much stability!” Even Guy, whose knowledge and opinions I respect more and more, told me he thought the Buganda King was like the Queen of England: everyone claims they respect the monarch, but no one really cares. I can’t help but think that no one saw this coming – except, of course, the Ugandans, who no one ever seems to bother to ask. Even reading the New York Times article – submitted, naturally, from Kenya, not Uganda – I have no sense of who the rioters are. Are they genuinely interested in the devolution of national power, or are they angry, young, unemployed men “venting” through that timeless language of the dispossessed, violence?
I suppose as I head off to study International Development in England – a trip on which I embark in less than a week! – this is a good reminder. In the immortal words of Operation Ivy: “All I know is that I don’t know nothin’.”