Still, I would recommend the Tororo-Mbale road to the courts. Instead of sentencing someone to life imprisonment, the judges should condemn them to travel on the Tororo-Mbale road.
For a death sentence, they should get them to travel on some of those horrible roads in northeastern, West Nile, and western Uganda. More seriously though, something odd about this once admirable eastern town of Mbale struck me (it used to be the cleanest and most beautiful in Uganda in the 1960s and early 70s). I was there last Sunday afternoon, and the town was as busy as the last time I was there on a Saturday afternoon. The shops, the workshops, the washing bays, everyone was applying themselves frenetically.
I will speak about three other Ugandans towns/cities that I have experienced on Sunday afternoon – Jinja, Tororo, and our great capital Kampala. My sense is that the chaps in Mbale hustle more on Sunday than in all the other three places.
Interesting, because for a town that has been half cut off by bad roads, why would the people there seem to work even harder? The road from Mbale to Soroti further northeastward, is worse than the one to Tororo. And the one to Kapchorwa, is like a moonscape. Only Tirinyi Road remains in prim form.
If we follow classical incentive theory, with the bad road disrupting Mbale’s access to market – and increasing the cost of business – people should work less.
However, my mind went back to early this year. I travelled to the Tanzanian town of Mwanza, and I was quite surprised by how neat and orderly it was. I wrote about it and separately two fellow journalists, Bernard Tabaire (who writes a column in this paper) and The Independent publisher Andrew Mwenda, got in touch and said I should go and see Fort Portal – the town where I spent most of my youth.
Fort Portal, they said, had “broken out” and was very different than all other Ugandan up-country towns – even Kampala – in its orderliness and neatness.
So what does well-mowed and clean-swept Fort Portal, and strangled-by-bad-roads-but-hustling Mbale have in common? My reading is that because the government is hopeless at leading in making our towns and capital conform to a uniform high standard, over time each town is developing a separate culture, identity, and work ethic.
Thus because it is difficult to get goods and services to many towns quickly and at low cost, it seems a town like Mbale has become more self-sufficient. Several of the things it used to get from other towns in Uganda, it is probably making itself. Consider, for example, that transporting bread over these bad roads wipes away the slim margins from the commodity. As a result, more and more Ugandan towns now have their own bakeries.
It must be so much more expensive to ferry milk in a cooler from Mbarara, Uganda’s dairy capital, to Mbale over these bad roads. If it is not already happening, you can fully expect that before long Mbale will meet its milk demands from local dairy farmers. Watch the numbers closely.
For these sub-cultures to emerge, they needed more than bad roads. The game changing facility has been local FMs that have driven local differentiation and adaptation, and even music now. I helped my old man move his car and noticed he had a series of CDs. I slotted one in, and it was a whole CD of Japadhola rhythm and blues!!!
The last time I was in Tororo, another relative had a funky CD of Japadhola rap. I am a Jap, and some traditionalists worry that we are a fast-dwindling community because we intermarry and emigrate too much. I had never imagined that in this context of “decline”, and with our pulsating drum and dance traditions, anyone bred in the society could graduate to rap, let alone R&B. Musician Keko, the “queen” of Ugandan rap, is a child of Japadhola parents. Though she is more a product of Kampala social angst, a part of her that represents this new breakout narrative.
This “new” music plays a lot on local FMs, and has set off the slow rise of local pop music flavours. I listened to a Mbale FM, same story.
A similar infrastructure-imposed isolation partly explains the growth of several strains of Soukous and Rumba music in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the corrupt rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Uganda is not as bad as DRC then, but Mobutu didn’t build roads in order to allow him control the country by keeping the regions isolated from each other, and thus unable to build a national movement to topple him.
Now, you can see that this argument is leading us to very strange conclusions; i.e. the incompetence and corruption of the central government in Kampala, has given rise to local creativity and clever improvisation to overcome the isolation from a wider national economic and cultural market.
If you are a big-picture nationalist, this is tragic. If you a regional autonomy champion, this is wonderful. I will just sit on the fence on this one.
•A slightly shorter version of this article was also published in Daily Monitor, Kampala, Uganda: http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/OpEdColumnists/CharlesOnyangoObbo/-/878504/1426228/-/item/1/-/yenlla/-/index.html
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