What would you do?

There is a family that takes care of our compound in Kampala. David* and his wife, Susan*, take care of cleaning our flat, washing our clothes and letting us in and out of the compound gate. They have three children, two boys and one girl, aged 10, 7 and 5. They had two other children, but they died when they were very young.

Recently, David has not been around, and I assumed he had gone to the village as usual to visit relatives and take care of family issues. I discovered only yesterday that he has actually been extremely sick, unable to get out of bed, and that one of his aunts was now living with him and taking care of him.

Today I went in his house to talk to him. He said he had gone to a hospital (not Mulago) several times and was told he has ulcers and cancer that is causing pressure in his abdomen, leaving him in excruciating pain and urinating blood. He needed more money to go back to the hospital, but this morning his mother called, and told him that the family had wasted enough money, that he should come back to the village and they would find another solution. She told him to get on the next available bus, and come to Soroti, in eastern Uganda. The bus ride takes, I believe, somewhere between 6 and 8 hours.

David’s brother had died some time ago, and David had to carry him back to their home. He has been having nightmares every night, and his family seems to believe that his illness is due in part to this traumatic experience. Hence the search for an alternative solution.

I could not tell from his description what exactly he was diagnosed with or how he was diagnosed, and his aunt did not know the name of the treatment he was given. At first he said he wanted to drive back to the hospital, but then at his family’s insistence it was decided that he would get on a bus to Soroti today. He said he was confused, that he didn’t know now what was causing his pain and didn’t know what to do. I wanted to take him back to the hospital, get more medicine, and figure out what was really wrong. I can’t imagine how he will survive the bus ride. He can barely sit up on his own and cannot walk without assistance.

But it is not my decision, however sure I am that going to the hospital in Kampala is a much better idea than getting on a long, hot and bumpy bus ride to Soroti for some alternative treatment. As a student of human biology (my first degree anyway) I of course have much faith in so-called “western” medicine. I know that it will not solve everything or save everyone, but I want to know that he has gotten the best treatment possible and been properly diagnosed at the very least. And I am not sure that he has been.

I am so afraid for him, and for his young family here, but it is not up to me to decide what is best for him. There was nothing I could do but drive David and his aunt to the bus park and hope for the best.

*for privacy’s sake I have changed their names

First Ladies Galore

Is it just me, are are there an awful lot of first ladies in the news these days? There are Michelle’s biceps (which you too can get with the help of CNN!), former Zambian first lady Regina Chiluba convicted/imprisoned on corruption charges, former Nigerian first lady Oluremi Obasanjo kissing and telling in her new book “Bitter-Sweet: My Life with Obasanjo”, Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni adding Minister of State for Karamoja to her portfolio…who’s next?

In any case, this is the book I want to get my hands on. I hope Mrs. Obasanjo inspires more women to tell the real story of the “Big Men” they love and hate.

So you think you can tell a Muganda from a Munyoro?

Tribalism is the hot topic of the day, from who has which land rights to who controls the budget. Is Museveni favoring Westerners? Have Northerners or Easterners been left with mere crumbs of the national cake? One’s ethnicity may play a role in determining one’s opportunities for advancement or economic prosperity, but do you really know who is from where and belongs to which tribe?
It is often assumed, both on the street and in the Ivory Towers of academia, that ethnicity is clear-cut and ethnic groups are easily identifiable. But how true is this assumption? If you see a man on the street, with how much certainty could you guess which “tribe” or ethnic group he is from? What if he spoke a sentence in Luganda? A sentence in his native tongue? Told you his family name? Would you be able to correctly identify the part of the country from which he originated? If he were pretending to be from another group, would you be able to call his bluff? These are precisely the sorts of questions a team of political scientists from universities across the U.S. set out to answer here in Kampala in 2005.
The study, carried out by Professors James Habyarimana, Macartan Humphreys, Daniel Posner, and Jeremy Weinstein, involved 300 subjects from the Mulago-Kyebando area of Kampala. The demographic distribution of the subjects roughly mirrored the distribution found in the population of Mulago-Kyebando, with the largest groups represented being the Baganda, Banyankole, and Bafumira. Subjects participating in the study were shown either a photo or a video of another subject and provided with varying levels of information about the person. At the lowest level of information, only a headshot was provided; at the highest level, the person greeted the camera in their primary language and also revealed their family name. The subject then tried to correctly identify the ethnic group from the individual came. In some cases, the subjects being filmed were asked to pretend to “pass” as a member of another group.
What were the results? It seems identifying one’s tribe may not be as simple as it seems. On the whole, subjects from a given ethnic group would miscategorize someone from their same ethnic group 33 percent of the time. They would miscategorize someone from a different group 65 percent of the time. Additionally, those from certain groups, such as the Baganda, were nearly always correctly identified while others, such as the Bakiga, were frequently confused with another group (namely the Banyankole in this case). There were varying levels of the extent of errors of exclusion across groups, with Baganda subjects failing to identify fellow Baganda 30 percent of the time, while Banyarwanda failed to recognize fellow Banyarwanda 76 percent of the time. There were also significant errors of inclusion – Banyankole subjects thought Bakiga were actually fellow Banyankole 44 percent of the time, and Baganda subjects thought Bunyoro were fellow Baganda 35 percent of the time.
The authors note that the variation of people in ability to correctly identify or “pass” as someone from a different ethnic group “has substantive implications for collective action within and between groups. It suggests one reason why collective action may be easier for some ethnic groups than for others. If identifiability is imperfect, then the ability of groups to police their members will be weakened and the advantage that ethnic groups have for collective action…will disappear.” Could this partly explain why some groups have coalesced and succeeded in promoting their own interests while others have failed?
In any case, the study calls into question the meaning of ethnicity. What role does ethnicity or “tribalism” play in society if one cannot reliably identify the ethnic background of others? What does it mean for a society if some groups can more readily identify their own members than can other groups? Could the failure of minority groups to identify co-ethnics place them at an even greater disadvantage than they already face by limiting their possibilities for collective action? The answers to these questions, while elusive, may prove enlightening in explaining the development and predicting the future of Ugandan society. In the meantime, think twice before you are sure you can tell a Muganda from a Munyoro.

Melina Platas
The Independent

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