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What is Uganda: A crisis of national identity?

By Ella Rychlewski

At the age of 27, I have been to every continent except Antarctica, visited over 30 countries and lived in five. Extensive travel as a tourist has given me a broad overview of the cultural diversity Planet Earth offers. I have learned what makes a country memorable, seen what brings a country’s nationals together and experienced a wide range of cultures.

Travel, for me, is not about beaches and entertainment so much as a search for culture and an opportunity to meet people. As a result, quite naturally, part of my first African experience living here in Uganda was to ask the Ugandans I met ,what is Uganda? By that, I meant: what is your identity? What makes your country unique? Before I came, like most foreigners, the only things I associated with Uganda were war and Idi Amin. However, that was a long time ago and I soon realised I was doing this beautiful country an injustice, so I was determined to find out more.

Bafflingly, Ugandans themselves have not been very helpful in answering the question and I guess that is my first clue. I ask and there is silence, hesitation and then, invariably, a smile, followed by the answer: the Pearl of Africa! This is like saying that France equals the Eiffel Tower or the sun is hot. After the few months I have spent in Uganda, I think the title is certainly justified but it does not tell me much.

Clearly, there is a lot more to say about a country with so much potential. A recent article, internationally published, stated that Uganda had the biggest young population in Africa, which is pretty much the same as saying in the world. That makes this country’s future. The question is, what future can its youth have if they do not know who they are? How do you build and represent a country you cannot describe and a nation of which you have no ownership?

I worked with an education NGO here and spent some time with senior classes, Five and Six, those students who are about to head out into the big world. As routine, we asked them to introduce themselves and, invariably, the first concept they used to qualify themselves was their clan. There seems to be real shame for those who cannot identify with a specific clan and I have yet to hear anyone start with a proud “I am a Ugandan!”

Don’t get me wrong, cultural diversity is a beautiful thing: traditions, languages and so on should be preserved and kept alive. But what defines Uganda in the absence of a strong cultural identity and a national sense of unity? A collection of borders, memories of old rivalries, and badly-healed battle scars.

With what many are calling a decisive election up ahead, it’s time to also think about those young people’s legacy. The tide is slowly turning in the education system as the realisation dawns that you cannot fit students into a mould that does not prepare them for the realities of today’s job market. As adjustments are made to teach them leadership, entrepreneurship and self-reliance, the curriculum should also encourage them to answer the question “what is Uganda?”

They should learn what their country is and what makes them Ugandan. Since the campaigning has started, I have heard calls for less corruption and more accountability; I have heard comparisons with neighbouring countries and criticisms of those in power, but no calls for cohesion, no constructive suggestions for a positive way forward. I hear a lot of noise but no voices.

Why does Uganda need a national identity? you may ask. Why the need for sustainable solutions when each day seems the same as the previous one? what does Uganda want for its future?

I recently attended a dinner for the Ugandan Global Leadership Summit and the topic was Uganda’s future and, more specifically, the country’s development. The guest speaker made a great presentation on countries like Korea and Malaysia that have built themselves up to become industrial forces and suggested Uganda learns from that. This brought to mind a picture of an industrialised nation full of factories and the death of the Pearl of Africa. There is a dangerous tendency to go for the obvious and take the path of least resistance, often with irreversibly disastrous consequences.

If, instead, you build up the national cultural identity, you get a strong proud nation that relies on more than badly manufactured cheap goods to run its economy. Just look at the French, they are a world force mainly because of their headstrong cultural identity and Gallic “I don’t take no for an answer” attitude.

Developing a Ugandan individuality will also clarify the country’s economic potential. The starting point should be “what do we have?” and not “what are others doing?” or “what do others have that we can copy?” From what I have seen, Uganda has a lot to offer but this has, mostly, been overlooked or badly marketed, often by foreigners who have no interest in building up the country’s identity. A cultural distinctiveness is essential to develop a strong tourism market. In so many places I have visited, despite the rich Ugandan heritage, the crafts on sale come from everywhere but Uganda.

I heard of the main attractions in Uganda by word of mouth, only once I got here, and internet searches for further information have proved unfruitful. There are quite a few undiscovered gems that could really put the Pearl of Africa on the map!

Do I have all the answers? No. Have I really been here long enough to acquire the confidence I display in this article? Debatable. However, I know that I have yet to meet a Ugandan who can answer the question”what is Uganda?” and help me understand this country, which I am learning to call home. My upbringing in nations with strong cultural identities and my extensive travels have shown me the importance of cultural identity to the development of a nation.

The pieces of the puzzle are there: the National Contemporary Ballet performs every month; cultural troops dance, sing and play music at functions and events; Ugandan artists are making unique Ugandan products using materials like bark cloth; new cultural centres are being built and the environment features breathtaking landscapes, natural wonders, and spectacular wildlife. Uganda has so much going for it. The trick is now to package it, for its own people and for the world.

Socially, economically and even politically, countrywide unity and pride will enable Uganda to build a strong future for its young people. It will give the future generations pride and a sense of belonging to a cohesive nation. Building and consolidating the strong foundation that is already there can only make the construction more secure. I see the potential – I see the benefits: do you?

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