Pretoria, South Africa

Whenever I visit South Africa I eat far too much meat. It is a Braai, here, and a Braai there, and three or four different meat dishes at breakfast and lunch and dinner, so knowing I was going to be in Pretoria for a good three weeks this time I decided I was going to be a vegetarian for the entire time.  I announced my intention to the taxi driver bringing me from the airport at 2am in the morning and his response was: “ain’t gonna happen!”

Well, almost 7 days on I can safely say it has happened!

But I say, it has not been easy! And not that the difficulty came from me – once I made up my mind staying off the meat was fine; it is just that this place is simply not made for vegetarians. Despite the difficulties of finding food, a bonus for me, in the process, has been discovering a few things about South African Cuisine, and even in some ways South African society.

Day 1.

After hearing my request for only vegetarian dinners during my stay , the cook at the guest house I am staying at gave me a concerned look and almost made as if to give me a consolation hug.

“Why don’t you eat meat?”, she wanted to know?

“Well, I always eat too much meat when I am here”, I replied, “and because it is always so delicious and I have no self control I thought the best thing to do was to take it off the menu altogether.”

“Oh. But I can give you little, if you want!” She declared.

“Hahahaha, no, don’t worry about me – I will be fine”

On that first night she gave me some rice and pumpkin and I can’t remember what else, but I remember the pumpkin because it was strangely sweet, as though someone had added sugar. The next morning the tomatoes at breakfast also tasted too sweet, so I asked my South African breakfast companion what that was about and she said they generally added sugar to their veggies to make them sweeter.. I was later to observe the same phenomenon with carrots and peas – what? I had to ask the cook at the guesthouse to please not add any sugar to my food (she ignored me, but OK). Another day all I could eat off the breakfast buffet was beans because all the other dishes contained meat or fish, but what can I say – that’s being vegetarian in Pretoria for you!

And then one of those days I went out to the mall for some shopping (this I was forced to do because KQ misplaced my luggage – it is still missing 7 days later – but that is a story for another day), and to gather some energy for the shopping I decided to nip into a bookstore and bought a novel (the unbearable lightness of being), and a notebook, and sat down for lunch and a glass of wine at an Italian restaurant. Now I must tell you: between my egg allergy and now being vegetarian, I could hardly find any items on the menu to eat! Not even pasta which it turned out they made in-house – commendable but not helpful. Fortunately they make some “pasta” from thinly sliced baby marrow, so I settled for that in a creamy sauce and some “pepperdew” When the meal arrived, I say: I couldn’t even see the fake pasta at first for all the cream it was swimming in! The pepperdew was a revelation, though – it is essentially a preserved sweet pepper that was really quite delicious. A few days later I made the mistake of ordering a similar pasta at the university cafeteria (the choices being very limited); suspecting them of lower means I thought it wouldn’t be as creamy, but this time the pasta was thick with cheese as well; I ate it, but decided that was the last I was going to order that dish.

Come the weekend and I thought I ought to venture further afield in Pretoria, and leave the Eastern Pretoria Suburbs for downtown Pretoria. Chatting with my Uber driver about he fact that all my previous shopping had been at the Brooklyn and Menlyn Malls, he proceeded to tell me that unfortunately I had likely paid too much for everything, since everyone knows that even the Woolworths marks up their prices by a good 20 or 30% over thee downtown prices. I had therefore made the right decision to move my shopping downtown, where the blacks like me and him could get the very same items at far friendlier prices. According to him, those other malls that I had been frequenting were only good for whites; blacks only went there to take selfies to post on Facebook.


Well, downtown Pretoria was a revelation, in any case (the areas around Church and Mabiba streets, to be clear).

First of all, masses of black people in every direction – in the five hours I spent there I saw maybe three whites! And I was looking out for them so I doubt I missed any!

Secondly, not a regular restaurant or cafe to be had anywhere (I had woken up too late for breakfast and needed to get a bite first)! I walked and walked and all I could find were fast food restaurants – KFC, Nandos, Wimpy’s, Steers, MacDonalds, name it! Walking through passages and up and down streets I also came across some nameless local food joints, but these too served heaps of pork and beef ribs and steaks, and vats of oxtail, with maybe some cabbage or shredded carrot here and there, and of course the ubiquitous pap (a maize meal dish). Mind you, these joints were already buzzing despite it’s being 10 O’clock in the morning – wishing for a brunch, at least, and desperate for a coffee in any case, these were not suitable options. Besides, I also wanted to read my book and savour my coffee, and these places were dimly lit, smoky with the cooking, and had at least two TVs in each corner blaring music and sports simultaneously.

Finally I settled on a Wimpy’s, which had a vegetarian brunch option of toast, mushrooms, tomatoes and hash browns, the latter of which I could not eat because they contain eggs, and which I swapped for a small bowl of potato fries. Their was coffee, at least, and the place received some natural light, although it was still a little noisy and smoky from the cooking.


Brunch was followed by a few hours of window shopping and trying on dozens of outfits; finally I purchased a pair of exercise pants and matching top, and knowing my lunch options were bleak at best I called an Uber and hot footed it out of there, back to my East Pretoria Malls. I settled myself down on the terrace of Greek restaurant (Mythos), and proceeded to order a mezze platter for one. Being as there were only three eggless and vegetarian mezze dishes, I ordered all of them: some delicious spinach and feta on black mushrooms, and a less impressive rice in vine leaves, and a rather inedible fried halloumi cheese. This was washed down by a melon G&T (which was too sweet and not alcoholic enough, but OK).

During my late lunch I was again struck by how many white people I saw around me – in my line of sight were a good couple of hundred sitting at nearby restaurants and walking by,  and I maybe saw 10 blacks altogether, including myself and a Rwandese family of 3 sitting at the next table. Among these whites was a good smattering of Indians, I must say, but it struck me that the South African Society was still pretty divided. I am aware, obviously, that things are not as black and white as they seem (excuse the pun), so I can only report what I saw as a casual – what this means is beyond me to say.

In any case: the point of this post was to express just how difficult it is to be a vegetarian in Pretoria – so difficult that when a friend invited me to Braai for later today, I decided on the spot that I would only be a vegetarian 6 days of the week, and abandon it every 7th day – so looking forward to it!! 😀

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The Great Zimbabwe/ Harare

Going to Zimbabwe turned out to be so epic it called for two blog posts. In a previous one I talked about my impressions of Zimbabweans in general, and about the quaint little town that I stayed in, Bulawayo. In this I will expand more on IMG_20180623_134346473 The Great Zimbabwe. Ever since I heard about it roughly a year prior (blame the paucity of my colonial education) I had made it my purpose to visit one day, and with two weeks in the country it was the one place I was going to visit lazima (come hell or high water). And it was worth every penny of the $400 that we paid for the transport and the $15 entry fee. I went along with my two Kenyan colleagues and one Nigerian colleague, and the site that greeted us almost defies description. First of all, these 4-5foot wide dry stone walled ruins date back to the 13th Century (if memory serves me right); and then part of them are located on top of a steep sheer rock formation some ___m high – I had to look this up – which one can access via a more leisurely winding “modern” path or the original dizzyingly steep “ancient” path – we went up the former and back down the latter and one of our party, who has a phobia for heights, had to stop every now and then to quell her shakes. For those who plan to ever visit these magnificent ruins, I really advise you go up the modern path – but if you are sure of your physical condition I would definitely recommend the ancient path as it offers a really nice challenge.

The whole complex is composed of various ruins, the most famous of which is the conical … (I had to look that up too). The walls here still stand at a height of 3 or 4 stories by my estimation, and the interior reveals an inner parallel wall (don’t know what it’s purpose was) and some kind of dome shaped like a water tower which is thought to have served as food storage (don’t ask me where I got this notion – we passed on the guide who would have cost us $2 per person). Nearby a traditional Shona (?) homestead has been re-enacted, and one sees how the typical well-off man would have lived in the past, with his five or so wives, each with their own hut, and each hut reducing in size with each additional wife.


A traditional game at the homestead

The granaries and goat pens tended to be located inside the huts, and a basket hanging from the eaves outside the house the eggs. When a sizeable group of tourists gathers within the homestead some traditional dancers might strike up a song and dance as they did in our case, and visitors are invited to join in – the dance that we witnessed was fairly uncomplicated and quite fun to join (I didn’t join in though).


One of Zimbabwe’s exports to the world

And now Harare: My earliest memory of this city was when as a child of 7 or 8 my Dad came back from a visit and brought my younger sister and I some really nice khaki-coloured dresses – easily the nicest dresses I’d owned in my short life, and I remember thinking: when will he be going back there again? My friend Dexter, who works at the Univeristy of Zimbabwe (who told me a rather nasty joke about there being only two universities in Zim: UZ and “the others”) luckily had a rather flexible day and could rescue me from 11 hours stuck at the airport or fending for myself in Harare. He picked me up rather promptly and proceeded to drive me over to his university to show off, I mean show me all their nice freshly refurbished, newly built and upcoming university buildings (he paid for the airport parking ticket by EcoCash – what?). I must say the UZ is a pretty impressive place. As anywhere else in Zim it is located on these extensive and beautiful grounds, part of which are complete bush, which he tells me they used to hide from the police and their teargas when he was a student in the early 90s (don’t ask me why the police were teargassing them).

Going around the university I was again acutely aware of how misinformed my view of Zim was! This university was faaaaar better kept and resourced than the great Makerere in Uganda (at least in the superficial sweep that I made)! And making my way into and around town I was struck, again, by the beauty of the country. Architecturaly diverse, broad streets, orderly and well behaved drivers (interspersed with that African staple, the crazy matatu/combi, weaving in and out of traffic filled to the brim with passengers, until the tout was travelling perched on a strip of metal attached to the backside of the vehicle! My host was determined to show me “downtown”, and so drove as close as possible to it, found packing, and off we went (this parking was paid for by EcoCash!). Walking downtown was definitely a familiar experience, only it was maybe 3 O’clock in the afternoon but almost the entire width of sidewalks, and part of the road, were already lined with traders of every kind. I noticed that these Zimbabweans had some pretty “refined” tastes – I have never seen chocolate chip cookies or pasta sold by the wayside, let alone yoghurt – I asked my host if these were at least long-life yoghurts and his answer was: “How? And Why? They’ll be gone by the end of the day!”

Getting back to our packed car I encountered another familiar occurrence – our car had been clamped, and the parking attendant told us it was because my host had overstayed his welcome on three separate occasions. The $5 fine was also sorted by Eco-cash and off we went.

Leaving the bustle of downtown Harare I re-enter the sedate neighbourhoods around the State House and the Botanical gardens, and we make our way back to the university to pick up my bags. On the way to the airport we stop by the Shona Art Gardens, which house really stunning pieces of Traditional Shona Stone carvings – we are taken around by Tago, himself one of the artists whose work is on display, and are treated to just a stunning display of beautiful, inventive and intricate stonework! We stay for a chat and exchange our shared opinion that there really is nowhere like the African continent, and express our optimism over our observations that we Africans are becoming ever more aware of the richness of our history, culture and diversity, and that we seem, at last, to be rejecting the deficit model through which we are viewed by the rest of the world to embrace our heritage and craft a new more powerful identity and appreciation of of what is quintessentially African (in all our diversity).

In closing I have this to say after my trip to Bulawayo, Great Zimbabwe and Harare: one really cannot know anything about a place until they spend some time in it. Obvious and near redundant, I know but it is simply the truth. Having been to Abuja, Nigeria earlier in the year and witnessed their rich culture and cuisine, and now in Zim to discover my misconceptions, are experiences that have left me deeply appreciative of our common heritage as the African People, and now propels me to continue to challenge the narratives that abound about me, us, and the continent at large.

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(Warning: this is a long post)

I must say that I was not quite sure what to expect from Zimbabwe.

No, I lie.

The impression that one gets is that although President Munangwaga has been going around the world saying that Zimbabwe is open for business the country is very much in complete economic coma. Compounding this preconception was a colleague of ours who had gone ahead of us reporting that it is impossible to get cash, and that we should bring along some. I must say that I slightly dis-believed her – I thought to myself: really? Reelly, really no cash to be had?? Like none whatsover from any ATM?? So in preparation I carried some cash and charged my debit card but was not 100% believing.

Arriving in Bulawayo (via Harare) I was surprised to be met by a perfectly decent Holiday Inn Hotel, and a really nice double room with running hot water and DSTV (never mind that this had 6 sports channels that we were not allowed to touch if we got bored with BBC and CNN news – seriously! Golf on one, horse riding on another, cricket on a third, and world cup soccer on the rest!) The restaurant menu was fairly extensive, though populated almost exclusively by western-style dishes (and one lone traditional dish – the hot pot, which consists of either beef or chicken stew, sadsa (a maize meal dish) and pumpkin or other leafy green in peanut sauce as an accompaniment). But all that aside was the service! I don’t recall more attentive and responsive service – so much so that I was prompted to write was was possibly only my second Trip Advisor review  ever by day 2! (Below is a free packet of chilli corn that the maître d’ gave me when I asked for a snack, and he kept me supplied throughout my stay!)IMG_20180616_213930437

Bulawayo city itself is quite a quaint little city. Broad streets, colonial-style administrative and commercial buildings, and a small number of informal roadside stalls selling everything from shoes to fruit to shoes (familiar to anyone who lives in many African cities, I’m sure). But beyond all that I was struck by how clean and orderly it was. Straight streets, orderly traffic, generally un-crowded – it felt to me a city that I would like to live in, until I found that I couldn’t find a place to have a chilled glass of wine on the weekend afternoon that I went exploring, which immediately snuffed out any such daydreams.IMG_20180617_164559012

Two weeks in Bulawayo revealed a few things about Zimbabweans and Zimbabwe in general.

One: it really is a cashless society! I only got hold of two Zim 2-dollar notes my entire two week stay (officially 1 US dollar is equivalent to 1 Zim dollar although one discovers it is more like 1.25 Zim dollars when one tries to buy any US dollars), and otherwise kept being handed these really old 1-dollar bills along with 5, 10, and sometimes 20 dollar bills as change every time I paid cash for anything. That is if there wasn’t a Zimbabwean about, in which case they always offered to “swipe” or “EcoCash” (mobile money) for me if I would let them have the cash. I must admit that despite my doubts about really no cash from the ATM I did not try once to withdraw cash – my first few hours in the country put paid to those doubts.

Having accepted that as a fact I then proceeded to figure out how things worked without cash. Our hosts at the Natioanl University of Science and Technology (NUST) informed us they their salary went straight into their accounts, and that they could turn that into EcoCash quite easily. Thereafter they paid for everything by swiping or mobile money! The trick came when they had to leave the country and they could not turn this “money” of theirs into cash. Further, their debit cards did not work beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, so they often had to ask a relative from abroad to pay for stuff on their behalf or send them money by Western Union (which in some cases still gave them only half as cash and the other half as EcoCash. Or else they had to buy dollars on the black market, but that cost them 25% more than the official rate. My conclusion after all this was that in fact this “money”circulating in the banks and mobile money was in actual fact only promise of money! Which is why, I guess, they intervened whenever we went to pay anything by cash so they could exchange this promise for hard cash.

Two: Zimbabweans are simultaneousnesly the nicest, and honestly the most intelligent people I have ever met (or maybe I should say best educated) – everyone I met – whether driver or cashier or fellow hotel guest or the colleagues with whom I was there to collaborate on a project spoke faultless English and could carry on an intelligent conversation. This is a far cry from my usual experiences in Kampala, although I suppose these were a fairly select group of people. Nonetheless.

Three: Zimbabweans eat an awful lot of salt. At every single breakfast during our stay one thing or another was oversalted, and we frequently observed our fellow diners reaching for the salt shaker even before they had tasted their food. Our repeated requests for less salt were effective only for brief periods until some of my party just started asking for unsalted food altogether so they could salt it themselves. This was a pretty baffling observation. One evening we had dinner with a local and shared some chicken with him, which we almost sent back for being too salty, but upon asking him if he agreed he said: “no, it’s fine!” So there you are. Too much salt.

Oh, and they like sandwiches. During our two week stay this was the unfailing offering at every tea break – piles of sandwiches of every description. Sometimes they forgot the coffee; they usually run out of milk, but not the sandwiches! I’m not a fan so I didn’t eat even one my entire stay.

Four: Zimbabwe is a land of stunning natural beauty, and mile upon mile of open, apparently uninhabited land. We were treated to these sights when we drove some 250+ km out of Bulawayo to visit the UNESCO heritage site “The Great Zimbabwe” (more on that in a follow-up post). Hardly any traffic on the roads, nearly zero people or houses by the side of the road, and one dead full-grown cow and one dead cat that appear to have been run over. About the dead cow, we were told that the owner would not dare to come claim it because they would be slapped with the bill to repair whatever car knocked it over as well as disposing of the carcass. To this end, all the land that is adjacent to the main road has a continuous barbed wire fence built by the state to prevent cars running into stray animals, and it was then left to the farmer to control their animals further. Surely enough we encountered this dead cow on our way out around 10am and found it still lying where we left it on our way back at dusk. Darkness found us still on the road back to Bulawayo and we had occasion to appreciate the caution exercised by the state in this matter: the road ahead of us being pitch black we suddenly came upon three donkeys in the middle of the road and only the quick reflexes of our drive enabled us to swerve out of the way in time – fortunately there wasn’t any oncoming traffic at the same moment otherwise we would have had to hit one thing or another. Donkeys are especially notorious because they respond to neither car horns nor even to actual physical nudging by car or human, so people just know to get around them however they can.

Five: Zimbabweans are the most resilient and adaptable people I have ever come across. They have adapted to conditions quite well, it seems to me (and now I am aware I sound like a clueless and condescending foreigner). I will say that they seem to just get on with it, and have come up with clever ways to survive. A friend of mine told me, for instance, that their university had a maize milling plant, and that staff members could get some maize meal on credit, and that when money was tight they took this credit and proceeded to sell the maize meal for some money until their salaries were “paid” and the money deducted at source. In all that you don’t hear any of them complain, and they continue to be peace loving and generous to a fault. Clear evidence of this is the bloodless coup that wasn’t a coup that might have been a coup and about which it is still not know what it was exactly (as my friend Dexter put it).Who on this African continent of ours does that???

And now I think this is a long enough post so I will follow up with more on two excursions: The Great Zimbabwe and the city of Harare (which I had the pleasure to tour during my 11-hour layover there – I arrived from Bulawayo at 9am and was meant to catch the connecting RwandaAir flight back to Entebbe at 20.00).

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Abuja (a sequel)

Sitting in one’s car as one waits for the traffic lights to change in an African city is a remarkably recognisable experience for many Africans.

One is most likely to be accosted by young men and women selling a variety of merchandise, from fresh fruit and veg to brooms; or car accessories like steering wheel covers; rat poison, “sweating” water bottles filled with lukewarm water; chewing gum; Music CDs, children’s shoes, sunglasses, the list goes on!

Nigerian write Chimamanda Ngozi has famously said that one can buy a puppy through their car window in Lagos, and another friend recounts how once his broken windscreen wiper was removed, repaired and replaced during a downpour in Ibadan.

In the midst of this are street doomsday preachers, children (sometimes carrying babies) begging and boys offering to clean your windscreen for you. In Johannesburg I have even seen entire dance troops put on a complicated dance routine  right in the middle of the road.

Look to the side and you will see colourful signs of different sizes and material mounted above and besides roadside shopfronts advertising what lies within, and at every corner airtime kiosks jostling with roadside fruit sellers, shoe shiners and all manner of other dealers and wheelers, the variety of which increases exponentially as night approaches and foot traffic increases.

And in the middle of all this are the motor bicycles weaving in and out of traffic, suddenly appearing in in your side mirror just as you are about to take a left or right turn, and people zig-zagging across the road trying to avoid everything.

Well, in Abuja, you had NONE of these!!

No roadside kiosks, no one trying to sell you anything, no one begging for money, no one preaching! All the roads had these neat empty grassy islands separating opposing traffic and almost all the roads I encountered in my five-day stay there were four lane roads (I didn’t get much of the centre of town, to be fair). Painted kerbs, wide empty pedestrian walkways – speaking of which: hardly any pedestrians!! – certainly no motorbikes, and altogether – unAfrican!

Even the drivers drove politely! And at every junction was this little wooden shelter to house the traffic policeman who gently guided traffic as though conducting a symphony.

What can I say? I have been to Nigeria but I didn’t really feel as though I had been to Nigeria – not even the fact that the food was as delicious and varied as I have been told, and the people are just as -erm – Nigerian as one hears, but this city of Abuja – very disorienting-oo!

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I expect Nigeria to be a feast for the senses (an assault on the senses? Either way I judge so maybe suspend judgement).

The airport is quite a clean and un-crowded. I was always told about the wall of people that would meet me at arrival in Nigeria, but I suppose they meant Lagos not Abuja.

Uniformed men (I see no women) occasionally snap at one passenger or another to “get back!” One calls across to his colleague: “Organise those people there!” Their job is clear. And they do it well. I get through immigration smoothly.

The promised wall of people turns out to be outside immigration. The baggage belt is hard to spot because it’s winding length is hugged by a winding wall 3 or 4 people deep. I crane my neck to see if I can find a free spot next to the belt so I can see my bag when it comes along. I am only able to find one right at the end of the belt (where the bags are swallowed back up) so I keep an eagle eye out for my suitcase lest I miss it.

A bag rolls around with a yellow rubber tag that says: “HANDS OFF IN JESUS’ NAME!” (OK, it only says “HANDS OFF!” but I fill in the blanks because I have also heard Nigerians are super-religious).

I spot my bag. God, is it tattered! I brought my biggest suitcase because I aim to buy every fabric that takes my fancy while I am here.

I successfully snatch my bag off the belt when it shows up and make my way out of the airport building, only to walk into another wall: of sweltering heat. Fortunately I see a placard with my name on it straight away and breath a sigh of relief. With 50 Naira in my pocket (which I had been told can buy nothing!), and unable to log on to airport WiFi I have no plan B.

The driver is friendly enough, and as we wind out of the crowded parking lot it suddenly hits me that I am finally in West Africa!! This is when I have the thought that this might be a feat for/assault on the senses. Barely is this thought completed than I spot someone’s bare feet peeping out of the co-driver’s seat of a parked car – is someone sleeping? We turn onto the highway out of the airport grounds and I see a sign that says: “Reduce your speed.” “Increase your thinking”

I reach for my notebook thinking: I better write this down.

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When we start changing systems to suit individuals, then those systems are bound to fail

As a leader in training, I recently learned a very valuable lesson.

Over lunch with a close friend I began to lament over the inflexibility of a merit-based scientific organisation that I belong to. My view was that we needed to raise the upper age limit because the requirements for membership were such that in Uganda’s context, only a few people could meet them by the current specified age; this meant that we would struggle to acquire enough quality new members. By raising the age, I argued, this would widen the applicant pool, and enable us to have greater choice.

I gave the example of a young man whose career growth had been hampered by a lack of mentorship, general lack of access to opportunities due to his location up country, and other such obstacles. On the other hand, he was qualified in every other way except for age (two years too old), and in addition very active in contributing to the causes dear to our organisation. Over all, I felt he represented many others that we might miss out on if we stuck to our current standard.

I was particularly sympathetic to this young man because I myself had had the opportunity to join another merit-based organisation though such consideration. This organisation had a clause which allowed the consideration of applications over the maximum age, but who had faced well-justified delays along their path that could explain why they were blooming a little later. Since becoming a member, I have not only derived a lot of personal satisfaction being part of this organisation, my contributions to it are well documented and greatly appreciated.

My friend looked across at me and said he was going to very gently point out an error in my reasoning: my entire argument rested on how the rules affected two people – in my case a special clause led to me becoming a valuable member, and I assumed that the same could be expected of my young colleague down the line if only the rules allowed it. He went on to say that this was precisely why many very well-thought out and well-meaning projects in Uganda fail, and that is because they are built around individuals, and not principles. Before enacting my own version of an age-limit proposal, I had to be clear that it was not being done to primarily to benefit my friend, but to address a genuine and more widespread problem.

I can’t lie: as gently as he put it I still bristled at this “accusation”; but him being a person that I trusted, and also striving always to be self-reflective, I decided to stop and really take in what he was saying. And of course it was true: I was trying to bend the rules to benefit an individual that I knew. My lunch companion went on to say that if this individual is as exceptional as I say he is, then I can draw his attention to other avenues through which he can contribute, and he would surely not fail to make his mark.

Like many moments in my life when an undesirable truth about myself is revealed, I was mortified and flabbergasted in equal measure. I was especially reminded of that parable in the Bible, about being concerned about the speck in my fellow believer’s eye, and failing to notice the log in mine: I have been totally up in arms over the current age-limit debate, and yet all along I had no moral authority to stand on.

That said, as a leader in training, I learnt an important lesson: when I think I can bend the rules to suit an individual, no matter how well intentioned, I communicate to those that I lead that they can also do this, and in the end the broader goals of the organisation suffer. On the other hand, if I demonstrate that the principles set down in service to these goals are inviolable (because they were well thought out from the beginning), then I increase the chances of that organisation continuing to function successfully even after my tenure is over.

We Ugandans feel fortunate that we have flexible systems – one can negotiate oneself into or out of anything; unfortunately this flexibility is the very cause of our own downfall. If, on the other hand, we set a standard and stick to it, then everyone would have no choice but to rise to it. I have done my best to stick to principles for most of life, but clearly I still need to learn a few more lessons!

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Learning to ask “but how come”?

I am attending a conference in Dar Es Salaam this week, and I had a heated argument with a delegate at lunchtime.

“This rice is so delicious!” she said, “Lucky for you Tanzanians that Magufuli banned the importation of rice! All the rice in Uganda is plastic!” she declared.

Wait, what?

What plastic rice?

Haven’t you seen that video showing Chineese people making plastic rice?

Yes I have but even if it was true, how do you know that this rice is sold in Uganda?

Oh, it is! Believe me!

Right. Well, I buy this rice myself. How come when I cook it it becomes soft and I can eat it – plastic wouldn’t do that.

Well, it is plastic. It is also the way that they make pasta.

(insert wide-eyed emoticon)

Pasta is made from wheat.

No, it is made from plastic. They pour it in moulds and make pasta. The same way they make rice.

Now, readers, this woman is not an uneducated person – she is attending the conference in her own right as a successful and influential woman, but she is totally convinced that the rice in Uganda, and that all pasta in the world is made from plastic.

At this point another woman chimed in to back up the first with more evidence.

Haven’t you seen the video about the woman who bought rice from Nakumatt and cooked it and rolled it in a ball and was bouncing like a ball

(Seriously, who makes these videos!!??!?)

Have you gone to Nakumatt and bought this rice and checked this information for yourself, I ask?

Well, there are very many brands of rice and I don’t know which it was.

Well, if I were you I would go to Nakumat and buy some rice and test this for myself. To her credit she admitted this was a fair point.

I am telling you, though, it is all plastic. This was the first woman again.

Plastic, I say. I hold up my delegate’s badge and I ask do you mean plastic like this? But she felt she had suitably made her point and had moved on.

Well, anyway, this started me thinking: why are we so prone to taking stuff wholesale? Why don’t we take the trouble to verify information?

I have recently read the book The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Jacques Rancière (fantastic book!), where he points out that the education system in which the teacher reigns supreme produces individuals who are conditioned to receive everything they are told, without further requirement to think about it or ask why or how. Our propensity for swallowing what we are told wholesale, therefore, is likely due to this conditioning!

As if on cue, I saw the results of this mis-education in the question of one young man on an internet forum discussing how to teach/learn a data-processing programme called R: he wanted to know the following:


Need I say more?

I am only left with asking: how then can we turn this around?

One of the outcomes of the first session of this conference was that in this the second liberation, we Africans needed to re-imagine and re-engineer our education systems. Further, rather than agonise over the situation, we should organise ourselves and come up with a concrete proposal for a replacement!

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