- It is something that runs very deep and folks who know about these things better than I do say it is important for poor people to find dignity in their circumstances.
- In December 1980, Uganda’s president Milton Obote, who had been deposed in a military coup by dictator Idi Amin in 1971, returned to power in a controversial election.
- For an Obama of a few decades ago in Africa would fully expect to see freshly planted grass and flowers when he came to your village.
By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
The Kenyan government has been spending millions of dollars sprucing up the roads and pavements of Nairobi ahead of [US President Barack] Obama’s visit.
Kenyans have dubbed the clean-up “Obamacare”, one report noted.
We have been greatly entertained by the jokes around the last-minute rush by the authorities to give the city a facelift.
However, as often happens, the really fascinating story in all these things is not always the one we immediately see.
Poor societies in Africa, and indeed other parts of the world, tend to behave this way. They only put on their best when an important visitor is coming to their home, town, or country.
It is the same reason we tend to wear our “best” to church on Sunday. It is why we bring out our best crockery when “important” visitors come to our homes and also the reason we feed them with prime beef fillet and not the boiled beans that we torment our children with every day.
It is something that runs very deep and folks who know about these things better than I do say it is important for poor people to find dignity in their circumstances. It is a way in which they signal that they have not surrendered when it comes to improving their lot, a powerful element of what makes us human.
So while, no doubt, there will be the crooked officials who will take advantage to cream off millions in this “Obamacare” binge, the surprising thing should not be that the Nairobi makeover is being done so late, but if it had not been done at all. It is that that would have been totally “un-African”.
Consider this. In December 1980, Uganda’s president Milton Obote, who had been deposed in a military coup by dictator Idi Amin in 1971, returned to power in a controversial election.
In early 1981 he toured the country, going to the strongholds of his Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) party.
Uganda’s economy had been ruined by Amin and poverty was rampant. At his rallies, however, Obote — a sharp chap when he was in his element and sober — noticed that the women were generally well dressed and did not look as poor as he had expected they would.
On further inquiry he found out that the women were attending his rallies in turns. A village had a few decent dresses, so one group of women would wear them, dash to the rally for a few minutes to see Obote, then go back and hand over the dresses to other women who were waiting to also go to the rally.
So though they were poor and had elected Obote in the (misplaced) hope that he would return the country to its past glory, they still did not want him to see them in their wretched state.
Ultimately, then, sometimes the more Africa changes, the more it stays the same. For this was the way the politics of old was.
For an Obama of a few decades ago in Africa would fully expect to see freshly planted grass and flowers when he came to your village.
And if the community had no way to “pimp up” their area, they planted banana trees along the road.
The big man, seeing the banana trees, felt honoured. This played a big role in determining who got what favours from the palace and courts.
Assume there are two villages, A and B. When the big man visited, village A planted banana trees along his path and laid on a welcoming party of well-washed and oiled traditional dancers. Village B did not, obliging the big man with a lone hangover drummer at the local chief’s home.
Now the big man goes back to the city and has to decide which village gets the borehole. There are no prizes for guessing that it would go to village A.
In the same way, imagine that an elder visited a home and they did not clean the courtyard. They honestly served him food on their old plastic plates.
Then he visited another home which cleaned up and borrowed China from the neighbour to serve him food.
Even if he knows that they borrowed the plates, he would still prefer that his daughter be married into the latter home. They might be a little dishonest, yes, but they displayed something that puts food on the table — ambition.
The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter@cobbo3