white man in kampala palais

“‘We have terrible problems with servants here. Stealing and so on. Let me know when you’re ready to get one and I’ll put out the word. Otherwise you’ll just get someone one of the other expats has sacked.’

‘I don’t know if I’ll really want one,’ I said, finishing my molten mouthful. ‘I think I’d rather look after myself.’

Merrit snorted […] ‘Everyone thinks that when they first arrive,’ he said. ‘You’ll change your mind soon enough, when you have to wash your clothes by hand.’

‘And in a way,’ she added, sniffily, ‘you’re doing them a favour. They’re very keen for the money, you know. They earn a lot more from us than they would on the plantations or going down to the tobacco estates in Rhodesia.'”

The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (Faber & Faber, London, 1998)

The only thing which is black and white in Uganda is the Zebras… and your skin colour. Everywhere you go outside Kampala, people shout “Muzungu!” which means “white man”. It’s not meant as good or bad, but just as a description of something out of the ordinary. One day we drove for 10 hours without seeing another white person. (Or person-with-whiteness if we want to get all retro-PC). No matter how “swarthy” you are, your whiteness marks you out as one of the privileged.

There seem to be about 4 reasons for white people to go to Uganda – religious duty, tourism, charity work, or capitalism.

After meeting some missionaries on the plane everyone else we met was pretty scathing about them for all the obvious reasons. There are some exceptions where missionary work crosses over into pastoral care, though – there are some amazing nuns who double up as surgeons and stuff. More about nuns later, but it’s an indication of the fucked-upness of the country that I will even countenance saying nice things about missionaries.

On the other hand there is nothing worse than walking through rural Uganda and seeing everyone trying to scrape a living together, living in huts, and then bumping into a massive gleaming church in the middle of it all.

The capitalists and the charity workers seem to have formed an uneasy expat alliance. Essentially they come from similar backgrounds and so get on great, but have constructed completely barking mad polarised arguments against each other’s positions. Before we get to that I should point out that I only found out how similar expat’s backgrounds are when I cracked a joke about ex-public schoolboys one evening. It fell pretty flat – which is hardly surprising given that it turned out I was the only male in the room who hadn’t been to public school. Ooops.

So, anyway, the NGO and charity workers feel like they have spurned big bucks in their homeland in favour of doing their bit to make the world a better place. And this is undeniably the case – we stayed with a lot of people who were doing work with some of the many ugandans suffering with HIV or AIDS. Taking a trip down to a ugandan AIDS clinic is maybe not on everyone’s list of things to do in Africa but it was certainly an eye opener.

Not much self-pitying going on as far as I could see, in fact we turned up while the patients’ drama group was practicing for a forthcoming tournament. Hearing them singing a nice gospel song touched the anti-missionary nerve in me again, until I realised that the lyrics were entirely secular and about preventing the spread of AIDS. Which is when all your cynicism is swept away and you get a bit choked up, really.

The NGO workers generally feel a bit awkward about hiring people to do their washing, cleaning, cooking, shopping and guarding their gates. Clearly by UK standards this is the mark of someone who is beyond the pale (well it is for people I know!). But again it’s not so clear cut in Uganda. Do you want to be the only white person in the street who doesn’t have a sleepy bloke with a rifle at your gate?

Similarly it’s a pittance to get someone local to manage your house, and virtually everyone I met seemed to be paying the going rate PLUS also paying at least one of the staff’s kids through school, which hopefully means they won’t have to clean white people’s toilets for a living when they grow up. The actual practicality of the situation overrides people’s comfy liberal morality.

The capitalists (and that is actually how some people described themselves to me) I guess have less qualms. Indeed I suppose some of the attraction of the lifestyle out there is that people will do all of your chores for you – and your money will go a lot further. Most Muzungus are on euro wages and pay not tax, so are doing pretty fine financially, even though there ain’t much to spend it on.

The entrepreneurial types we met had a fairly cogent criticism of the NGOs and their lack of joined up thinking – one example was money being poured into making a hospital but no provision being made for staff or ongoing costs, so it just stands to this day as an empty husk. Similarly the strings attached to aid are getting fucking ridiculous. For example it is well known that the US will now primarily fund AIDs work which promotes abstinence rather than condom use. Similar strings are attached to the general political climate – i.e. some european countries will only give aid while Uganda remains a democracy (which is wishful thinking – again, more of that in another post) – fortunately (or perhaps not) China is increasingly interested in the country and is less bothered by that…

The self-styled capitalists (and I should make it clear that some of them were really nice people, others less so) also made a number of points about the grants being given to businesses willy-nilly messing with the economy – which I had less sympathy with. Occasionally you would hear some stuff about how all the NGOs and charities should get out of Uganda and let the market take its natural course so that people who get out of dependency and become self-reliant. Which all sounds great in theory but would probably result in even more death in practice – and of course would, coincidentally, open up the field for good honest white ex-public school boy entrepreneurs to run their businesses in peace. I was reading Frances Wheen’s How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered The World during my trip, which includes a scathing and rigorous attack on the whole economic “trickle down” idea that seemed implicit in a lot of what was being said…

In some ways the ex-pat community is so small and incestuous that a bit of turbulence and disagreement is necessary and entertaining, but it did make me feel a bit wishy washy for feeling that both aid and investment is needed. Ah, along with the people of Uganda themselves – as agents of their own destiny, but more about them later.


  1. on the aid economy – read ‘lords of poverty’ ? by g hancock before he went all wierd

    … most looking fwd to next installment….


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