About four and a half years ago, I arrived in the sprawling Mbarara City, the heartbeat of Ankole land to reside there for the first time. I encountered an artist painting western-inspired cartoon images on wall-fence of a primary school – a fiery tale princes, a unicorn, the famed Tom and Jerry cartoon characters, and the like. There was no African or Ugandan representation. I recall asking the artist for an explanation.
“It is what the kids like and want.” was his answer.
In it, I found the reason for the rarity of black African dolls in Uganda’s supermarkets, which are flooded with white dolls everywhere you go. We are not facilitating our children to appreciate black African dolls. Instead, their wants have even hijacked a school’s capacity to guide them towards knowledge and appreciation of their African identity.
In these seemingly small matters are the building blocks of the bigger issues confronting us as a nation. They are signals that the things defining us are voluntarily being alienated and erased from minds and hearts by us right at the foundational level of learning. What future is this projecting for our children? We are paying a high price for self-stigmatization, lack of self-confidence, ignorance of what our needs are, and outright lack of commitment to who we are.
Of course, the world is more of a unit and accessible to anyone from almost anywhere now than ever before. Historical coincidence, error or conscious design has seen us adopt foreign values and discard our own. Cynics will tell you that Africans embrace anything and everything foreign without scanning and filtering what comes their way. We are almost fully attending at receiving end of the equation. Some will term it as our ideological weakness if not bankruptcy.
There is so much value that Uganda can obviously gain from the world and the other way round. However, the country needs to find a mechanism that can strike a balance without compromising the good that we possess. We then need to first nourish ourselves, especially our children, with values that we must collectively cherish, aspire for, and offer to the rest of world. In the same breath, we need to be consciously selective at picking the best from the world to enhance, enrich, strengthen, and perfect it as our own.
A prerequisite to being an influential nation is for her to possess and entrench strong values and identity which she can then project beyond her borders on her own terms. They are a peoples’ bargaining chips to becoming respected and a superpower.
The Ankole people, who are famous for their long-horned cattle in western Uganda possess wealth of heritage and values which up to now permeate the hills and valleys of their land. The fables, the legends, the celebrated elegance of the people and the undulating landscape. They are a few in a myriad of things that Uganda has so much to be proud of. It can be imbued in the Ugandan child to grow and live the distinctively best Ugandan that the rest of the world can draw from. We have seen pockets of individual accomplishments of Ugandans like the Ganda Boys who collaborated with musicians from the six continents to create and perform rendition of anthem of Buganda kingdom in a breath-taking world-class performance, yet still distinctively Buganda.
We were elated when Patricia, the five-year-old child of Ghetto Kids danced her way on to the stage of Britain has Got Talent 2023 with an African doll locally made of banana fiber strapped to her back. That the skill, confidence, charm, and over-all authentic Ugandan performance of the Ghetto Kids earned them a Golden Buzzer, a standing ovation and a place in the finals is a symbolic summation of what am grappling to explain here. For those five or so minutes, Ghetto Kids dominated the world, and were celebrated. It was a small, yet significant testament of what we can achieve as a nation if we get back to salvage and restore that which defines us and use it as our springboard in all spheres of human development: Engineering, medicine, economics, the arts, sports, legal matters, military, leadership, religion, name it. We need to honestly review, question and answer to what our binding philosophy and ideology is across the spectra. That which we cherish, protect, and even die for. It may well begin by interrogating and revising the quality and suitability of learning artifacts that our children are interacting with on walls of their schools. Or the array of toys available for them to choose from in supermarkets. It can’t be just what they want but also what they need for themselves and the country that they will inherit and steer in the future.
CREDITS: Paintings of Magara Richard on the wall of Mbarara Middle Primary School, Mbarara photographed by Chole Richard. Illustration design by Chole Richard.