Africa changing — in some places

February 14, 2011

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“Africa has a long way to go before it reaches real revolutionary maturity.” —Che Guevara

KAMPALA, UGANDA We sit. We talk. He’s a Ugandan. We’re at a bar in front of wide televisions. They hover overhead, silent. No volume. No voice. Still, we hear it all, the screams from the Arab world.

It’s true. From the muted Arab world. They scream and scream from inside our televisions and our computers. From inside, they scream at us all now.

He and I watch. God, what do they want? Is this what “Moses” is asking? No, he knows. He knows too well. I call this Ugandan Moses because he doesn’t want his real name used. He’s afraid. That’s why he knows what the Arabs want. Because he’s angry. And afraid.

It’s the height of the Egyptian unrest, the Day of Departure protest. Cairo’s Tahrir Square is bursting. Faces and flags and despair jam these widescreens. Grab a stone, look up, get clubbed in the head by a horseman. That’s al Jazeera’s image of death. And life. Who wouldn’t scream?

CNN’s tickertape runs. It’s wild. It’s not just Egypt. Or Tunisia, where a young man set himself ablaze to start all this. It’s spreading.

“I lived in Yemen for four years,” I tell Moses.

Let us, yes us, now speak, say the Yemenis with their dry, burning voices. They wave their colours. We want change. Want hope. There’s a cyclone in Australia. To this, it’s nothing. Where, who, what regime is next?

“It will take time to come here,” Moses says. “But slowly, slowly. It will come.” In 10 years, he tells me. Later, he says, 15. “Maybe 25.”

It’s hard to know. What we can say with certainty is that change won’t come to this nation today. Or tomorrow. Or Feb. 18 when Ugandans vote their president-king back into office.

Yoweri Museveni once said no African leader should serve more than 10 years. He would end the “Until I die” motto, “Paka last.” That was then. This is now, or “now-now” as Ugandans call a particular moment in time. It’s 2011, 25 years since Museveni began his reign.

I open my computer and show Moses. An Economist report ranks Uganda 98th in global democracy. He talks.

He talks about rigged polls, how village votes are bought with a soda and a yellow government T-shirt, how hard it is to educate many Ugandans, how police hinder opposition gatherings. He talks about corruption, how money vanishes while city roads rot, schools fall apart, hospitals fill with sick Ugandans worse-off than animals, no medicine, no care. He talks about darkness.

I nod. I know it’s true. Everyone knows. Read the papers. Look out the windows. Go outside.

Moses tells me about his children, how his little girl can’t wear a new dress once without it falling apart. He laughs. “I buy shoes but can’t dance with them.”

The tickertape rolls. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak says he’s fed up. After keeping his foot on Egypt’s head for 29 years, he’s fed up. (On Friday, he stepped down.)

Are Ugandans fed up? Not so much. Maybe too many recall the 1970s and Idi Amin, when you might get a bullet shot down your throat. That was something to take your voice.

“Uganda needs prayer,” Moses says.

Doesn’t it. Africans now get fewer coups. From 1960 to ’80 five dozen leaders across this continent were killed or toppled. But today’s elections are largely shams. And real revolution isn’t galloping so fast in this direction, to so-called “Black Africa,” sub-Saharan Africa, home to 25 authoritative regimes, eight flawed democracies and, like Uganda, 10 hybrids.

“I hope you’re not upset.” I can’t remember when or why I once said this to a Ugandan. Just the response: “How can I be upset? I’m Ugandan.”

Enough said. Mobile tweets don’t bring revolutions. Cultural attitudes do.

I will see Moses again at this bar in front of these widescreens where I write. I’ll remember that he has a Grade 5 education and that he’s a bright, self-trained photographer taking pictures of smiling Ugandans. Maybe that’s his healing balm.

And I’ll remember he was born the same year I was, the year Che Guevara travelled to this region to spark an uprising … with great failure.

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February 14, 2011 • Posted in ,
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