All writing has been in conjunction with local sources on the ground in Uganda. They are satisfied with the result and it has been anonymised at their request.

Kireka Township at night feels more energised than at day. No drop in the traffic, nor the business, nor the bustle. The heat is softer. There is more to do outside of the home. Oil drum fires deputise for the erratic lighting. The limited power is diverted to PlayStations outside bars and shops. It is the right choice. The delight of the group watching a game of FIFA 15 unfold is obvious. Children shriek at each goal and near miss; youths drink Club beer and curse their two friends playing for their lack of skill. They would have done better of course. A young entrepreneur has a book running for anybody up for a flutter. Unable to resist I join the group, basking in the boisterous fun. Leicester lead Tottenham two goals to one. Football shirts from the Premier League are the mode here.

“Msungu, Msungu! Are you English?” A small boy, eyes lit up, wants to know. I let him know that I am.

“Vardy! I want to be him. He’s a good player.” His friends cheer in agreement. The youths nod in agreement.

I wonder if Vardy knows that he is a hero here. Globalisation is not all bad. Running late for a meeting, I drag myself away.

The meeting is taking place in the function room of a guest house across the market on the railway track. There is a brisk trade in beer at the bar. Men and women unwinding after work; the odd cigarette here and there. Smoking is beyond the means of most Ugandans. The new public spaces smoking ban choking off whatever market was left. High-tempo music blares from the entrance to the function room. The introductory dance is underway as I enter.

All present are up in front of the semi-circle of chairs, the Society President acting as dance leader, the rest behind him, mimicking his movement a split second later. Fun aside, communal song and dance serves a cohesive purpose that permeates through all of society. The Ugandan People’s Defence Forces fighting in Somalia start each day in a similar way. Its function is to bind people through a common, synchronous activity – a team building activity. There is still a hierarchy, whoever is leading the dance, be it Society President or Sergeant Major, is in control. Perhaps only symbolically, everyone knows the choreography. Still, the sense of belonging usually fosters a commonality for whatever business is to follow. A transitionary event: individuals transforming into a group. Though the music and dance moves have changed, the basic template has not altered much from the past. Similar practises are reported across the previous century when ethnologists first arrived. The sense of tradition is noted by the young people performing, but it is their interpretation of the rite. The tool has ably served successive generations so is not fundamentally changed. Each inheritor just gives it a new colour scheme. The music dies amongst cheering and clicking; they all return to their seats. I take mine next to a friend. Curious, I ask her about what just occurred.

“It’s called dancing,” she replies deadpan.

A moment.

She laughs.

“Most things start like that. It’s just what we do” she says.

The meeting runs smoothly. It exemplifies all that is best in modern Uganda. The Society, which focusses on development, is a diverse bunch. Christian and Muslim, male and female, rich and poor, representing tribes from North, South, East, and West. The developmental aims are geared towards individual action and a growing self-sufficiency amongst communities. This is unsurprising. In a state with poor infrastructure, endemic corruption, and little sign of fundamental change, people are delivering their own. The country topped the Approved Index ranking of most entrepreneurs proportionally: 28% of the adult population. This can be coloured as an inevitable survival reflex. You need to eat, you need money to eat, and you need to make money. There is not employment? Make your own. The flipside is that it is genuine entrepreneur endeavour and industry. Individuals choosing goals and following them. In a place where people have not been overly dependent on any form of the state, present or past, then the latter may account for more decision making than expected. It is people, like my university friends around me, who are helping to drive this. Their motives are varied.

For some, there is the self-expressed religious intent. Help thy neighbour. Given the power of religion within the societal superstructure, there is little to doubt their sincerity. Others, so they will have better job prospects and futures. Doing it for the CV. No sense in begrudging them, economic pressures are dominant in most aspects of decision making here. Some raise semi-formed notions of African or Tribal socialism. That it is political duty to help others, in a manner similar to the tribe or family. In a place with such entrepreneurial spirit their outlook is neither socialist nor capitalist. More like a third way: communal support of individualist endeavour. Still as is usually the case, it is a merging of these motives for most and ultimately it has led to exuberant development work.

Sitting amongst this palpable enthusiasm and good will it is hard not to be optimistic about the future of Uganda. Through varied causes, communal spirit can be strong and positively focused. It is the counterbalance to corruption. I want to enjoy this side of Uganda for as long as I can.

Julius L. Geertz


Image: ‘Untitled’ by Ekin Gecergil

One thought on “Essays from Uganda: Communities of Individuals

  1. Yours is an authentic voice that offers insightful observations. You challenge the applicability of so-called “British values” in a different culture and, thereby, bring back recollections of several moral dilemmas I myself faced when in East Africa. Thank you for your writing and I eagerly look forward to your subsequent postings.

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