On The Road (In East Africa)
The following are personal observations and anecdotes, not meant to be definitive of the places described, as exceptions to my characterizations do of course exist. But I hope some general and underlying truths about the different social realities in these 2 countries can be glimpsed from the passing impressions.
8pm on a Friday night in Kampala, at a roundabout near city center, there is an ocean of boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) and other vehicles stuck in total immobility, with dozens competing for paths large enough for only 1, which suddenly open and close again. Behind the drivers sit up to 3 youths on a single bike, entire families with chickens, fabulously dressed young women in high heels sitting sideways talking on the phone while checking makeup. I sense listlessness, and see a few people roll their eyes, but the strange thing was that a feeling of tense frustration was entirely absent in a claustrophobically tense and frustrating situation.
Having lived in both the US and Europe for decades, i know that in many places around the world drivers under similar circumstances would be cursing and yelling at each other or worse. But Ugandan boda drivers are cool as ice, poker faced but polite, calm but alert, steady and relaxed but ready to move at any second. Driving on unpaved small roads, and poorly maintained larger ones with pot holes big enough for small goats to fall into, these motorcycle drivers are solid as granite under much less than perfect conditions, and keep an impressive level of professionalism in a chaotic place constantly in a process of collapse.
Me and friends come out of a party at 6am visibly inebriated, the boda driver, instead of dropping us off at the entrance of the Matatu (mini-van taxi) station, takes the extra time to find the exact one out of many dozens to take us the long distance to our neighborhood. When Ugandan boda drivers disagree with the amount received after arriving, they typically react by casting eyes toward the ground while shaking their heads, and with a quiet voice say: “You are not serious…” Needless to say, very different from the angry curses one would likely receive in other parts of the world.
The only thing i asked the young (no more than 25), hiply dressed taxi driver was which part of Uganda he was from, and this is what he said to me:
“I am from Western Uganda, the 2nd largest tribe besides Buganda, with more than 5 million members. We have never had a king, only local chiefs who are wise, respected, but who have not much more power or wealth than the average person. Everyone contributes to decision making process, and everyone are well informed of what goes on in our society. Unlike some of the other tribes which are kingdoms and who regularly engage in warfare over land, resources, with other tribes and even amongst themselves, the history of my people have been nearly completely peaceful. The central values of our culture is community and cooperation, not money and profit. Everyone works together, helps each other, and takes care of each other. Today even the poorest members of my tribe are living happy lives, being loved by their communities. For these reasons people from my tribe have an easier time with even things like getting office jobs in the city: companies want to hire us because we are not selfish, jealous, and quarrelsome like some people from other tribes!”
The average Ugandan earns less than $1 a day, but there is a humanity there generally not found in “developed” nations. The soft spoken voice and smile in the eyes of the girl who sells avocados at a ramshackle stall in the candle-lit street market at night; complete strangers sharing laughs at 4am for 15 minutes straight while waiting for the bus to continue on its journey; the innocent questions of the night guard at the hotel about the world beyond Uganda, who is not able to travel on his own continent and who offered us a Jack Fruit without mentioning money… In the many months i have spent in Kampala, i sense all around me a sense of casual trust, common empathy, a lack of fear, a friendliness and general good will toward others. There is a gentleness, a sweetness, a kindness that one can take for granted: this is a society truly, relatively, thus far un-infected by the disease of power, of domination, of subjugation, of selfishness and of meanness.
6am at a truck stop cafe in the middle of nowhere between Kampala and Nairobi, there are smiles all around, and the vibe is jovial, warm, and pleasant. Waitresses joke around with customers, laughing. Travelers drink their coffees and visit each other: “and how are things in your village?” “Did your daughter end up marrying that trouble maker boy?” (I imagine their words to mean). Compare this to any such rest-area cafe off of an interstate highway in the US, or anywhere in Northern Europe, at 6am: refrigerator cold vibes, as people sit isolated with mean and miserable looks on their faces. The chasm of difference is so unimaginably huge that an alien from outer space would surely think that these are 2 entirely different mammalian species.
There is of course truth behind the very problematic caricature and stereotype of Africans being happy and worry-free: but it is not due to any absurd geneticism. The underlying reason is the existence of relatively cohesive and equal societies, with tight kinship and friendship bonds, where communities have been much less affected by capitalist isolation, fragmentation, alienation, competition, and greed. This is made perfectly clear by the very different social realities one encounters in other parts of Africa. In this case, only a few hundred kilometers away.
After crossing the border to Kenya on the bus ride, the streets are nice and paved, and people have suspicious and spiteful looks in their eyes. We have lunch at a Western style cafe (mistakenly, because we didn’t see the local food shacks on the other side of the street) where everything, furniture, food, down to the little tin thing which holds the milk for coffee is exactly the same as any cafe in Berlin, while watching people in fabulous clothes and expensive cars. Kenya also features the worlds’ largest slum, where many live in shacks literally made from garbage, which makes Soweto, with its paved roads and running water, seem positively middle class.
In my experience the boda drivers in Kenya are very different. Many of them drive aggressively, without concern for the safety of passengers. After being intentionally almost run over by a crazy driver, a random fellow traveller from Uganda explains: “There is so much anger, tension, and conflict in Kenyan society because of the large gap between rich and poor; and the primary reason for this is that the land has been taken from the people by elites and foreigners. In Uganda if my business fails i can go back to my extended family and my ancestral land, where i can work on the farm and feed my children, and be part of a community. In Nairobi people have no land, they are forced to work in factories, or if their business fails they end up alone on the streets or in the slums.” Later an Uber driver told me: “many here live in luxurious mansions, mostly white inheritors of colonial holdings, while millions who do back breaking labor do not know what they will have for dinner tonight.”
“Nairobi is large, soulless, and corrupt. But it is not Nairobi alone that is afflicted in this way. The same is true of all the cities in every country that has recently slipped the noose of colonialism. These countries are finding it difficult to stave off poverty for the simple reason that they have taken it upon themselves to learn how to run their economies from American experts. So they have been taught the principle and system of self-interest and have been told to forget the ancient songs that glorify the notion of collective good. They have been taught new songs, new hymns that celebrates the acquisition of money:
Crookedness to the upright,
Meanness to the kind,
Hatred to the loving,
Evil to the good.
— Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Devil on the Cross”, 1982
The injustices of class is expressed in identical ways all over the world, but things are seen more clearly when traveling, while observing a foreign place. I think to myself, “Oh my god this is unbelievably hideous and insane”, before realizing that it is simply the same thing, to various degrees, as what goes on in the many other places i have lived, where it goes largely unnoticed due to familiarity. The extreme unequal distribution of wealth in Kenya, with million dollar houses built next to ghettos in which people are killed for a smart phone, is exactly no different than in Los Angeles, Chicago, London, or Paris.
The lamentable deceit, of which most seems convinced, is that the comforts and luxuries of modernization necessarily comes at the price of exploitation, of inequality, of inhumanity. So the false choice is between dog-eat-dog development and empathic under-development/poverty — while better, and more viable, options are entirely left off of the menu. But there is no conceivable reason why we can not have both paved roads and equal, cohesive, and egalitarian societies. We desperately need to put those other options back on the menu, because the big lie that in order for some to win, many others must lose, is the artificial deadlock that is literally strangling the life out of us. But there are structures of power preventing a better world for all.
I do not blame people for their class position, which none of them chose to be born into; nor even, to a degree, their complicity in the unjust and exploitative global economic system which benefits them. For how can anyone be faulted for living their individual lives in the best way possible, for taking the most advantage of their particular situation? But the problem is that privilege/wealth and ignorance/arrogance is almost always inextricably linked, and the rich so often spew the most disgusting opinions while exhibiting shameful and revolting behavior. Out of the many lovely and amazing experiences during my last trip in East Africa as a traveling DJ, there was one horrific episode.
The place is a beautiful large ranch style estate with a luxurious indoor/outdoor restaurant/bar/club surrounded by lush fields and gardens, complete with large private tables in several garden pagodas. This is the primary hang-out of the “Kenyan Cowboys” (KCs for short): the children and grand children of former British elites, the inheritors of colonial wealth. Most of the conversations around us were about business and finance, as land holders, owners of companies such as Kenyan airlines, and proprietors of illustrious and illegal diamond and mineral businesses discussed investments over giant plates of BBQ.
After dinner, 1 hour into my set, a man in probably his 50s, who was part of a large group of other white men like him smoking cigars and having drinks at a center table, which i was told included the owner of the place himself, walked over to me. In an aggressive and slurring growl which made it clear that he had been drinking for some time, he said to me: “Play Let’er Go!” I replied “Um… Sorry? Is that a song? or an artist?” He repeated: “Play Let’er Go!!” I said “If that is a song i don’t have it in my set.” “You can download it!” At which point i said “Sorry, I don’t know who that song is by, and I have a set that i prepared for this evening. I’m not going to play a random song that i don’t even know.” He repeated, even more aggressively: “PLAY LET’ER GO!!” And i answered “Sir, no offense, but please allow me to do my job in peace” And he got closer to me, now turning red in the face, pumping out his chest, body language says he is ready to get physical: “DON’T TALK TO ME LIKE THAT YOU FUCKING JAPANESE WE DON’T NEED YOUR KIND HERE!!!” This guy was really about to throw a punch, and at that moment my girlfriend (who is German and blonde) came back from the bathroom, and he backed off… I was truly stunned by this unbelievable encounter, and all i could think was, if these people treat me, a Chinese man, like that, just imagine how they treat Africans.
But that wasn’t the end. Not long after, a group of a dozen or so teenagers, the children of these rich white men, came up to give me a list of mainstream EDM from UK charts to play. When i said that i neither have these songs nor play this kind of music, they told me that i was finished, to pack up and get off the decks. I went to get a beer, while they put on their iphone playlist, and danced to their Disney-Rave music for about 15 minutes before getting bored, and vanishing. The bar/club was silent after that; the time was just after midnight.
But these assholes can not kill our invincible vibes. Here is some of the music i played on this tour, including many different Ugandan and Kenyan flavors: