“VIPs” a public nuisance

Sometimes you imagine your problems are yours alone. Writing is at its best when giving voice to observations you never thought to say aloud, or drawing parallels you didn’t know existed. So I’m constantly fascinated while reading an account of Indian politics and society by Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. To give a small example, the following passage will be immediately recognizable to any of Kampala’s road users.

I once had a long conversation with the head of police for New Delhi about the number of cars that evaded normal traffic restrictions by putting a red or blue light on the roof. New Delhi suffers from a permanent epidemic of VIPs. He told me that a majority of car owners were not authorized to use VIP flashing lights. But his police, who are invariably junior in social status to the occupants of the car, felt unable to prevent it. The same discrimination can be observed at the dozens of road security checkpoints surrounding the capital. It is always the rickshaws, motorbikes, and freight trucks that get stopped by police. The expensive cars are waved through.

The abuse of hazards, lights, sirens, and even government number plates to forge a path through nerve-fraying traffic is a constant public nuisance in Kampala, and on the road to Entebbe. But all I can do is mutter to myself.

The similarities between the workings and paralysis of government in India and Uganda is striking, although India seems more extreme in both its successes and failures. Definitely worth a read.

keeping cool

So I just arrived back in the states after a 30+ hour journey through Addis Ababa and Dubai. The flight wasn’t bad, but upon arrival in SFO we were so jetlagged that I managed to leave my laptop in the luggage cart and did not remember it until several hours later….I have not been able to locate it since. I am still holding out some hope that it will turn up in the SFO lost and found by some kind soul, but I am now putting my energies toward trying to recover what I can through email. Needless to say it is a great loss, with work, data, data analysis, papers, and photos that are not easily (or possibly ever) recoverable. Good thing I’ve shared most of my data and at least a few photos over email on this blog. SIGH!! But this has been a great exercise in keeping my cool (even in this 90+ degree heat) and keeping perspective on the loss of a laptop in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, more soon. Oh yeah, and back up your stuff. Seriously.

free and fair elections…or else?

“Uganda’s past elections have been marred by reports of fraud, intimidation, and politically motivated prosecutions of opposition candidates. If these upcoming elections follow that same pattern or worse, it will put the United States and our relationship with Kampala in a very difficult position. We might have to consider restrictions to our assistance and limiting our engagement with Uganda’s security forces.”

That is U.S. Senator Russ Feingold writing in today’s Daily Monitor. While the political process is by no means completely free or fair, and while journalists regularly report to the Orwellian titled Media Crimes Department of CID (Criminal Investigations Department), I find Mr. Feingold’s op-ed pretentious.

“Divisions and upheaval surrounding February’s elections could undermine the country’s unity and potentially its stability. It could also weaken the government’s international reputation and partnerships. Therefore, it is critical that the government take steps now to build public trust in the election process and the country’s democratic institutions. As a true friend to Uganda, [USA] should press them to take these steps and provide support as appropriate. The stakes are too high to ignore these issues.”

I think many Ugandans are quite aware of the high stakes. Living through decades of political upheaval and violence, which occasionally still rears its ugly head, leaves memories and losses that are not easily forgotten. In any case, people certainly do not need a U.S. senator to tell them how high the stakes are in their own country. Feingold’s thinly veiled threat to pull back U.S. military support of the UPDF is more likely to annoy the country’s leaders than send them running for political reforms. I do not disagree with the substantive points he raises, but his words come across as those of a parent warning his rebellious teenager that bad behavior will result in an a reduction of pocket money. And that’s annoying.

this is madness

Ugh. Bukenya’s son is lost to yet another fatal car crash, Gen. Kazini is allegedly killed by his mistress (“reckless living” according to M7), another bus overturns killing seven people (including two who could not even be identified), a Uganda-bound plane crashes into the Kigali airport, all amongst a number of more personal losses. I am sad, but mostly angry. Almost all of the deaths and tragedies I have witnessed in the past few weeks were far from inevitable. Rosebell started a conversation that mirrors my frustration and anger. The deaths of Uganda’s elite are no less tragic than the deaths of those who perish on a bus, or plane, or languish in the country’s understaffed and undersupplied clinics and hospitals, but I wouldn’t mind so much who got more news coverage if only something was done to prevent these needless deaths in the future! Arg! How long must we mourn and suffer and cry out before something gets done? What would it take to get a high quality hospital so that we don’t have to fly abroad when we need serious medical attention? What would it take to properly police roads and public transportation? The buses will not stop overturning and cars will not stop crashing on their own. It is only people who can prevent these tragedies. They need not happen. This is madness.

Friday rant on good intentions

I hate to harp on this, but the whole LRA/Northern Uganda/Invisible Children issue is still grating on my nerves (is that the phrase?). I just came across an article by Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy in the Huffington Post on Invisible Children’s “Abduct Yourself” event tomorrow. I don’t especially want to get into another debate on IC and the work they do/have done, but I want to say that how you approach and write about an issue or situation matters. For example, someone who did not know anything about Northern Uganda would have every reason to believe that the LRA was still active in this country after reading Wentz’ article.

He writes:

I watched the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut a while back, about kids sleeping in the streets in Northern Uganda — hundreds of them — because they feared being abducted by rebel leader Joseph Kony and forced to fight in his rebel militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). They’re kids. Except no one told them they were, so they carry AK-47s, kill their parents and murder, rape and terrorize their own people on command. In the past two decades, 30,000 of them have been abducted. This is a reality neither you nor I could ever begin to understand. It was one of those times in my life where I was given a choice — continue ignoring the issue because it wasn’t in front of me, or forget about myself and do something. I was losing sleep, I had to go to Africa. My band Fall Out Boy traveled to Northern Uganda to film our music video “Me and You” to see it for ourselves and my experiences have forever changed me.

Everyone I met, everywhere I walked, with every step, the hardwiring in my brain began to change. I was quiet. Every time I wanted to complain, I made sure to bite my tongue instead. One day, we were stopped by some local men holding machetes; they wouldn’t let us pass. The fear I felt was paralyzing, but I looked into the eyes of these men and all could see was desperation. A pervasive hopelessness. These men stood at the mercy of a twenty-three year war.

Of course, the LRA are still active and wreaking havoc in the region (namely in Congo). They are continuing to abduct and kill with impunity, there are still many children whom they have taken captive, and whom they have forced to do terrible things. This is unacceptable, outrageous and terrible. It must be stopped. But I am not at all sure that Wentz himself knows that there is no longer a war going on in Northern Uganda.

There are many issues in Northern Uganda that may be publicized, but war is not one of them, and it doesn’t really do anyone any service to suggest that the war is still ongoing there. If anything, it continues to make the country sound like a scary and dangerous place (the whole “heart of darkness” thing, a line I wish had never been written). We are working on recovery and redevelopment, people are returning home and trying to begin their lives afresh.

I am more than happy to pressure government to get on with the promised PRDP already, to demand more from a Prime Minister who had never even been to the north until last year. But I am so sick of hearing self reflections and misrepresentation of the many challenges there actually are in the region, especially from people who come for a week or two and leave thinking they understand the whole of the situation. You had to go to “Africa” because you were losing sleep? Give me a break.

Anyway, I’m glad if this publicity will help people find Uganda on a map. I’m glad lots of young Americans want to make their world a better place. I’m even glad if Mr. Wentz’ trip has made him appreciate his own life a little more, or to think a little less about himself. Nevertheless, what you write and how you present yourself and your “cause”, whatever it may be, matters. Good intentions do not always save the day.

End rant.