The Irony of Independence

This weekend, nearly every American living and working in Uganda celebrated our motherland’s Independence Day. Leading up to their own festivities, the U.S. Embassy boasted last week that the United States government is the second largest employer in all of Uganda. To the embassy and USAID, this is an accomplishment, though I find it difficult to ignore the irony in the parallels with the very colonial rule from which both of our countries celebrate independence once a year.

The United States contributes over $750 million worth of foreign assistance to Uganda each year. It employs over 17,000 Ugandans and funds the work of NGOs all over the country to design and implement interventions combatting poverty in all of its forms. In Uganda, white foreigners are called mzungu, a word that connotes an outsider who wanders aimlessly in this land. As Americans, we are outsiders in this country – I could spend my whole life here and I would still be a mzungu, and I do not view that as unwarranted.

In 1884, following the expeditions of Stanley, Livingston, Speke, Burton and Grant, the “scramble for Africa” officially began in earnest. Sub-Saharan Africa, like so much of the global south, was forcibly pulled into a rapidly modernizing world, carved up along arbitrary lines into colonies and doled out to Western countries to preside over in whatever way they saw fit. The subsequent century brought incessant exploitation of natural resources and, worse, of human beings.

Here in the lush green lands north of Lake Victoria, the ever-expanding reach of colonial rule brought together disparate ethnic and religious affiliations together under one British protectorate in 1892, two years after the German East Africa Company handed the kingdom of Buganda over to British control. Decades of warfare and territorial expansion shook this land to its core, and by the 9 October, 1962 when Milton Obote led the new sovereign nation of Uganda to independence, the severe fragmentation along both ethnic and religious lines bred years of poor governance and outright brutality throughout the governments of Obote, Amin and Museveni. The often-devastating impacts of colonialism and outside influence have lingered ever since.

Colonizing powers were the first wave of mzungu in Uganda, but they were not the last.

Over the course of the last two centuries, those on the African continent who were not enslaved or killed were approached through the so-called “white man’s burden” or la mission civilisatrice, a mission to usher in a conceptualization of modern civilization to parts of the world that had no role in forming it. As Mahmood Mamdani points out, “the rationale for colonialism was always the need for tutelage, given that Africans were said to lack the capacity to build stable states and a durable law and order.” Western education, Western medicine, Western land management and beliefs about rights and justice were ostensibly imported to help peoples who would be better off with access to these aspects of modernity.

Sadly, when you look at the industry of development and international aid in Africa today, one would be hard pressed to find much of a change in the way the West engages with sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, foreign assistance and influence from another former British colony is seen everywhere in Uganda. The presence of the United States very much alive in nearly all reaches of the country. You see it in the Coca-Cola adverts and products at every shop. You see it in the Nike and Adidas logos on people’s shoes and the names of American universities and sports teams scrawled across T-shirts being worn in even the most remote Ugandan villages. You see it in fashion trends and hairstyles mimicking American pop icons from Michael Jackson to Beyoncé, and you see it in the very curricula taught in schools.

And of course, you see it in the public sector, everywhere you look.

American companies and American non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate in every corner of Uganda today. While many of these civil society organizations are increasingly relying on rigorous data collection and M&E to develop and contextualize interventions aimed at alleviating poverty and social injustice, there is still a striking number of programs that do not take context-specific programming to heart. They, like the colonial powers before them, import their beliefs, their attitudes and their idea of how life ought to be lived in African countries. They pay lip service to sustainability and instead foster a vicious cycle of dependence on aid programs that the United States regards as the best approach. They continue to exploit a perceived lack of knowledge in the local population to continue the exploitation of human beings. They still view local traditions and customs as backwards and make it their mission to change them.

So this weekend, Americans celebrated their independence from Britain at parties scattered all over another former British colony that currently exists in a neo-colonial paradigm perpetrated in large part by the Americans who live here today.

The irony was lost on most of us, though some of us truly used this often tactless (though wonderfully spirited) holiday to reflect on how far the United States has come since our independence 239 years ago, and how far we all still view Uganda as having to go since theirs just 53 years ago (as if we were that put together in 1829…).

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Photo credit to someone much cooler than me, 2015

I firmly believe in a lot of the work being done by Americans and other bazungu in this country to improve people’s health, to improve their access to quality education, to improve their ability to claim their rights as human beings to a life free of poverty and violence in all their incarnations. But I believe that such work cannot compromise on the need to develop only through an ongoing learning process.

This learning process is a two-way street. While the United States has not only long-since established our independence, but virtually dominated the global stage for nearly a century, Uganda is still relatively fresh off the heels of its independence from colonial institutions. As Americans working in this land, it is not our job to impose what we believe upon people here – otherwise we run the risk of solidifying colonialism as an unbreakable paradigm through the 21st Century and beyond. The people of this country need to be afforded the opportunity to innovate their own solutions to the complex problems that face them every day. In order to help, we need to learn to listen.

We are not here to civilize. We are not here to impose. We are not here to win over the “hearts and minds” of the inhabitants of other countries and cultures.

We are here to learn, and learn together, so that we may all work hand in hand to ensure that the innovations coming out of the minds of brilliant Ugandan women, men and youth are properly supported and implemented in the way that is most suited to the given context.

Burying the neo-colonial paradigm is challenging without a willingness to relinquish our sense of control over the world, but with a commitment to altruism free of ulterior motives, our economic strength does have a valuable role to play in truly improving lives. In this way, these two former colonies can engage in fruitful collaborations that redefine freedom altogether – freedom from poverty and violence, manifested through locally generated ideals and values.

Do not get me wrong: I love my country. I think that America is capable of so much good in this world. But we need to be responsible with the power that rests in our hands.

Cheers to those Americans working in this country and all over the world with humility, respect, and endless curiosity. To those of you who recognize that you are a mzungu, and your role as an outsider and guest in this country is a both a privilege and an honor. You are a rare breed, and you live your life by a globalized rendition of Kennedy’s famous words: ask not what your world can do for you…ask instead what you can do for your world.

Cheers to independence, liberation and freedom from all forms of control, all detriment of ego, and all types of exploitation. Cheers to a new world order that, hopefully, is on her way.

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