” I DON’T HAVE A SINGLE MALE AFRICAN AMERICAN FRIEND,” DESPITE BEING MARRIED TO AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN WOMAN!
Dennis explores the not so brotherly relationship Africans have with their African-American brothers and being unimpressed with Africa’s development! He admits, ” I love the luxury of the West, but I’d like to kiss the ground of my country whenever I go home… this region of wasted opportunities!”
TALES FROM AFRICANS continues, as I meet and talk with fascinating Africans around the world…
DENNIS MATANDA IN THE IMMEDIATE PAST
Deep question… I turned 37. Two words: Spread-Thin. Extremely over-committed! I am a website designer, project manager, a policy analyst and editor. My wife usually expects to see my side of the bed dip at 4:00 a.m.
Rachel came up with Enrique, our imaginary gardener. He is very attractive and keeps her company. This private joke of ours, isn’t always funny. She insist I have to step up and pay better attention to my health, which didn’t get such a great bill from the doctor on my last visit. I’m busy, anxious, stressed, restless, and especially homesick. My body knows it’s been abroad 5 years too long.
Two very important things keep me in the US: My wife who is not ready to visit or consider moving to Africa; and of course, the three years it’s going to take to finish my doctorate.
I am part of a large family. In the U.S, I stay close to my wife’s family. My blood siblings are scattered between the US, the UK and eastern Africa. My father and I don’t communicate much on account of his being a troglodyte when it comes to mobile technology. My mother, on the other hand, Skype’s; loves Whitney Houston and CNN. I know she is OK because she lives close to her family.
WHAT MOST OCCUPIES YOUR THOUGHTS
I’m consumed with going back to Uganda and doing something about the country’s hospitals. I’d like to find companies who would donate old dialysis machines I could take to Uganda. I’m searching for cold storage facilities to build temporary mortuaries for the main referral hospitals while they construct more permanent solutions. When I am not poring over a policy document or design piece, I have the same fantasy where I win the lottery and dedicate 5 million dollars to ensure that women do not die while giving birth. That women and their children die during childbirth annoys me to high heavens! I will never forget the man walking ahead of his woman with a bag in his hands. The woman looked exhausted and the man had a taut face. They had just lost their child and had to take the body home for burial!
The sheer indignity of putting a child – even a dead one – in a traveling bag is simply unacceptable. It is indicative of so many things that I want to fix. Children should not die in hospitals. Mothers should not bleed to death and fathers should not have to bury their children.
I’m passionate about other things: A comprehensive US – Africa trade and investment policy I am helping craft. I’m also excited about moving from the condo to a full house with a basement.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP IN UGANDA
My earliest memory is, slowly falling down the stairs of the house after crawling to the edge. My older sister Doreen, tells the story that I did not squeal out in pain, but let out a slow bawl – nonchalant enough to worry my mother. The next memory is being about 3 years old and looking down at my shoulder and seeing pink. I still have the huge scars that tell the story of how bad my second degree burns were. Then there was a time when we walked for a long time and moved in with our grandparents. This was during the 1979 war for Uganda’s liberation; the same war that claimed my cousin’s father and gave us the opportunity to eat posho – mashed corn meal – with smuggled sugar.
There were good times too. Truth be told, we didn’t even realize there was nothing else for us to eat. For the whole lot of us cousins, brothers and sisters, it was a fun adventure to leave the city and live with country kids who treated us like little gods. At 16, I was Uganda’s Individual Medley record holder – a record I held till my till my last year at university in 1997.
LIVING OUTSIDE AFRICA
Agony. Before I moved to the US, I traveled the world for work. While I loved the glamor of the hotel rooms of Dubai and the glittering lights of Budapest, I could not wait to go home. I had seen Uganda’s former President, Milton Obote kiss the ground when he first stepped off the plane after almost 10 years in exile. That’s what I wanted to do each time I got off the plane in Entebbe…
On the other hand, there were a few things I couldn’t stand; the potholes and the traffic jams. I could not believe that people were never outraged when treated like cows at the British Embassy as they waited in line to receive visas. I longed to experience what the “West” offered.
Today, things are much different. If my wife weren’t so sensitive about things, I’d talk about how much I preferred to dwell amongst the potholes than be in the order of the West. Yes … I like that we buy our chicken in packages and do not see the blood and feathers; but still… here, I live in a neighborhood where Rachel and I are the minority. There are days when I do not see a single other person of color. Deny it as I try, this gets to me. I catch myself staring at each and every black person I see in New York. I do not want to feel racist or against other people – but the fact is, I receive such intense pleasure from seeing another black person that I am almost embarrassed and ashamed – and yet somewhat deliriously happy at the same time.
UGANDA AND THE SUB REGION
I am more frustrated at the wasted opportunities than anything else. I stridently disagree with anyone who says Africa has problems! If the Sahara desert is not a problem, why should Uganda claim to have problems?
MANAGING A COUNTRY’S AFFAIRS, PEOPLE AND ECONOMY IS ONLY A PROBLEM IF AND WHEN YOU HAVE EITHER INCOMPETENT PEOPLE MANAGING IT OR A LEADER WHO JUST DOES NOT SEEM TO UNDERSTAND THE ESSENCE OF INSTITUTIONS.
I know, for a fact, that some Ministries are staffed by some of Uganda’s finest bureaucrats and technocrats. But why isn’t the economy quite as stellar? Why has the National Planning Authority not had an official sanctioning of the economy all these years? WHY DOES ANTI GAY LEGISLATION TAKE PRIORITY OVER EDUCATION SYSTEMS AND HEALTHCARE PLANS? Why are there potholes in the roads and why are the roads to Kampala’s industrial area impassable? WHY DOES THE PRESIDENT’S OFFICE RECEIVE A BIGGER BUDGET THAN THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE? Why do children die in hospitals? Why do more children drop out of school than get retained? Surely, these are NOT inherent to Africa. Besides, nothing and no one is as powerful as an African leader. In 1997 and in 2004, Uganda’s president single-handedly sanctioned that there would be universal primary education in the former and universal secondary education in the latter.
This is why I call Uganda and the region one of ‘wasted opportunities.’ But closely associated with this is the fact that we deserve the leaders we get if peasants – people who have never held down a proper job or understand institutions and infrastructure – continue to take the reins of African economies. This is what differentiates Ghana from Uganda.
Perhaps the best way to explain Africa’s leadership problems is to illustrate them from the law of diminishing marginal returns. Basically, the productivity of a presidency declines as more is used to achieve political ends – ceteris paribus. Thus, if we want development in Africa, we should advocate for a new leader every 5 years. Extreme as this may sound, the progress a leader makes in the first 2 and half years of their leadership is enough momentum to run through the last 2 of his reign – even if they subsequently mess things up. The next leader’s momentum will pick things up. This is the secret to Zambia’s success; to Ghana’s recent favor with the rest of the world, and is at the heart of the US’ vibrant political system. Change is good – and NO CHANGE is Africa’s biggest problem.
UGANDA’S UNIQUE PLACE AND STRENGTH
There are two major roles Uganda could play for Africa:
First, a peninsula in an area called Entebbe uniquely gifts Uganda and creates the potential for the country to become a special economic zone [SEZ] in the model of Dubai. Entebbe is also home of the national airport, which is also surrounded by Lake Victoria, which connects all three East African countries. Ferries with wagons of produce, commodities and goods can get into Uganda through Kenya’s Busia and Tanzania’s Mwanza after making the railway journey from both Mombasa and Dare salaam. Basically, if the facilities at Entebbe were turned into a world class duty free export zone, businessmen from Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and even as far as Liberia and Sierra Leone would not have to go to Dubai or to Japan to bring their equipment or cars. There is enough land in that part of the country to hold goods for the whole of Africa. My estimation is that a $ 2.5 billion investment will build an internal clearing port, excellent clearing and forwarding services, additional terminals for airplanes – and Uganda would help the rest of the region to grow.
The second and even more important role Uganda can play is to advocate for a road network between Congo Brazzaville and Mombasa. This road would effectively cut across Africa, connect the Atlantic with the Pacific and products from the US and South America won’t have to go round the Cape of Good Hope to get to most of central Africa. This road will open up Africa and especially the Congo in ways that airports, mining contracts and donor aid can never do. Uganda can facilitate this – but here again…
WHAT DO YOU BRING TO THE TABLE
Apart from my world-class education and vast experience in a whole range of practical industry, the most invaluable thing about me is that I am part of a group of Ugandans who were institutionalized. We understand what it means to do our jobs or suffer the consequences being the weak link. We have suffered through bad roads and the smell of a malfunctioning medical system. Thus, we have a decency standard we fight for. If I were President, while I also appreciate that absolute power can corrupt, I’d at least ensure that the roads did not have potholes, that hospital functioned, and the law of the land was respected. These three things would have far reaching benefits for our people, more than any 100 million cash infusion would.
As a result of my life abroad, I am actually a professional cultural broker – one able to speak the language of foreigners and also able to intercede on behalf of my people. Uganda loses out on investment because of small things like language barriers, late coming, delays in getting documents ready or even worse, spelling errors. WHY WOULD I WANT TO DO BUSINESS WITH A LEADER WHO WEARS A $ 30,000 WATCH, BUT I’D HAVE TO DRIVE THROUGH A SLUM TO MEET?
MARRIED TO AN AFRICAN AMERICAN
I am always amazed that someone who looks like me and shares my skin color does not know anything about my culture or about my continent. This is my biggest challenge: Each time I broach the subject of visiting home, all I get is a deluge of trepidation – about the mosquitoes, the ‘red dust,’ the potholes and the chance that someone is going to kill you to take your car. She’s bought into the American meme that Africa is the land of children with flies all over them. This image is so powerful that my wife goes apoplectic if she finds that I have ashy feet!
THE AFRICAN – AFRICAN AMERICAN DYNAMIC
The best way to illustrate the reality is on two levels: I DO NOT HAVE A SINGLE MALE AFRICAN AMERICAN FRIEND. All the black men I’m friendly with are either immigrants from Africa, or from one of the islands. If I want to see a real African American, I have to go to parts of Philadelphia and Baltimore where I am sure they will consider me weird. I speak proper and funny, they will say. Trying to appear like I am better than them.
But on the other hand, African Americans are simply a huge blight on America’s consciousness. THE WHITE MAJORITY DOESN’T KNOW WHAT DO WITH THE BLACK POPULATION AND SO THEY IMPRISON THEM, LEAVE THEM UNEMPLOYED AND FEAR THEM – projecting them on television as the worst of society. If Barack Obama’s election is to do anything, it will allow blacks to emerge as more acceptable in society. There are now more black people appearing in print, display and television adverts than before. The number of intermarriages between black and other skin colors is going to continue to grow – and this is what might rescue the African America population. Until more whites have a positive experience with blacks and until more blacks leave their comfort zones – whether it is working in the inner city or never leaving their ‘homes’ the American dream will continue to elude them.
2011 – 2012 HAS BEEN LAND MARK YEARS FOR DEMOCRACY OR THE LACK THEREOF IN AFRICA-
I don’t think I’d use the word ‘landmark.’ Yes – Egypt went down and Libya became different. Southern Sudan became a country and Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast plus Ghana and Malawi had peaceful transitions. We even had a second female president. But on the whole, Nigeria still had major political issues that are frustratingly easy to solve. Rwanda seemed to be the shining star that was caught with its pants down in Congo. South Africa is bursting at the seams; I am basically saying that I am not impressed yet…
THE PLACE OF AFRICA IN WORLD DYNAMIC
You have to, unfortunately, look at Africa as the next superpower battleground. China and the US are going to compete for Africa. Fortunately, Africa will benefit from the balance of China’s infrastructural development and the US’ caution with being viewed as exploitative or in the mold of a colonial master. The ideology will be capitalism and because the US has been moral leader for a long time – and with Barack Obama as US President for the next four years – the US will win ‘the war for hearts and minds in Africa.’
On the other hand, while many will benefit, many will, undoubtedly lose out. Until Africa is able to negotiate as one trading block or common market, and until divide and conquer is no more on the continent, the current fast growing nations like Ethiopia, Malawi and Botswana will eventually slow down and be replaced by others. Ultimately, economic disparity will continue and progress will happen towards the richer country just like is happening between Uganda and Kenya.
Guilty as charged. I am getting too soft and enjoying these luxuries instead of going home and really developing my people. Two of my good friends – both medical doctors with MPH degrees, work in nursing homes. They could be in Uganda right now – saving another life. If the country does not make things as palatable for people like this, it is responsible for its own bad fate.
THE WORLD IN 2020
1. North Korea will have been open for business and China will flood this country with its influence
2. The Commonwealth Community will dissipate as Britain’s influence dwindles
3. China will surpass the US as the world’s largest economy but continue to crumble from corruption
4. The Republicans will, once again, fail to take the White House – for the 4th time in a row