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.

“The worst mistake Idi Amin ever did was kick the Asians out,” the taxi driver eulogises “they only came back from England with more money than us and took over all the business”.

In the front windscreen of the taxi, where a tax disc normally sits in England, are two A5 size portraits. One depicts the Madonna. The other, in full dress uniform, self-bestowed medals included, is of General Idi Amin – Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular (NB. Abridged). I cast a glance to my Basoga friend in the backseat next to me. He shrugs, and smiling, tells me that the General is still popular amongst many, but not him personally. He is a fan of Amin’s erstwhile ally Colonel Gaddafi.

“Gaddafi stood up for Africa. He helped Mandela you know”. My companion keen to correct what I may have learned in London.

“Him and Amin were great men. It’s the Americans and the West that interfered and made things bad. They should leave Africa for Africans”. The taxi driver supports Gaddafi.

Britain and America helped get Amin into power. Tanzania removed him from it.

There is a tendency amongst Amin devotees to either gloss over his atrocities or frame them as the necessary actions of a strongman protecting his people. Whilst tempting, it is not appropriate to ascribe the present sense of grievance some Ugandans hold towards Asians as stemming from policy forty years previous. Nor should it be said, that all Ugandans share this prejudice. Many work in their businesses, share classrooms with them, and perhaps most importantly, drink with them. “You can tell they love Uganda. Who in their right mind would leave the first world for the third!” a local friend once joked.

“If Amin was still in charge he wouldn’t let them have the power and the money they have now. He’d share it with us, you know, proper Ugandans”. The taxi driver twists round. Looking me in the eye. Emphasising his point. I would prefer he focussed on the road, Kampalan traffic being what it is.

His remarks strike at the heart of the matter. For some, ensconced in the townships, too many children, too small a shack, too small an income – the economic and social disparity is a body blow. They project their anger and frustration at their disenfranchisement onto the Asian population, who typically enjoy higher education, wealth and opportunity. They find it easy to otherise the Asians with their largely separate places of worship and communities. Christianity and Islam versus Hinduism; slums against gated estates, so to speak. In general, people find it easier to demonise that which is outside of their own. They are the Others. That they are actually Ugandan is immaterial. It is not about the past but the present. A misdirected anguished cry against the contemporary.

“If they had any sense they’d get angry at the government. They’re the ones who don’t save us from the mess. But you know what they say. Museveni, he’s one of us. He pacified the north you know. Remember the Lord’s Resistance Army. He’s the good guy.” A Muslim friend from Kampala thought he had it all figured out. Then again it is not so long ago tear gas and live rounds pacified post-election protests outside his home.

“In general, people find it easier to demonise that which is outside of their own”

The veneer of unity is wafer thin. Many Ugandans distrust not only the Asians but people of other tribal groupings. Here, tribe and race are interchangeable terms. It is vital to note that the use of tribe is not a primitive concept harking back to noble savages or, indeed, a fundamentally toxic construct typified by the Rwandan Genocide. Better to understand it in the framework of identity politics, its importance waning and waxing with circumstance. Lineage is patrimonial, the children are of the father’s tribe and the tribe is crucial social currency. Marry amongst your own, preferably the same faith too. Men, women and children are judged by essentialised attributes conferred to their tribe by members of others. Typically language is the crucial signifier; you need to know which one to speak in which setting. Use a provincial language in central Kampala? They might think you are a bit of a bumpkin.  All this is not to say they are not proud of being Ugandan or African. When the national football team is playing, everyone is a Ugandan. It is rather, a question of fields. Daily life is localised in the town or the region so tribal identity takes priority. But as the field is scaled up, East Africa for example, then nationality is in the primacy. Whilst in a globalised world being an African means the safety and security of a sizeable bloc. Somewhat a case of different hats, same head.

Still, there is much to be optimistic about. Amongst my friends at the university they are largely disgusted by racism. They see it as holding back Uganda, preventing growth, halting a meritocracy. “The sooner they realise we should work together, the sooner we get a better life, it will not happen soon though,” they bemoan.

The taxi driver, sermon completed, cranks up Nutty Neithan’s Walk to Work on the radio and cheerily beats the rhythm on the wheel. I lean over to my friend and whisper “Is racism a problem here?”

“No, not really. Not like our neighbours, Rwanda, South Sudan, DRC. Now they have problems. We are much better,” he replies.

“Where we were the other day. Gulu in the North. Weren’t there massacres there based on tribe?”

“Yeah but,” he raises his hand in a dismissive sweep “no more than 100,000 maybe even 30,000. Poor record keeping. Much less than the 600,000 in Rwanda. So we’re better you see,” he laughs.

At least he has a sense of humour.

Julius L. Geertz

Image: ‘Untitled’ by Clare Clarke


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