One of my favourite scholars, Mahmood Mamdani; wrote a rather candid assessment of the struggle for development in Uganda, and there were some very insightful comments in “The fire does not always beget ash.”
He talked of how the patriotic ambitions for national development can be sacrificed for personal goals; these goals are simple – personal enrichment. He talks of a generation of Makerere’s finest who just aspired for the 1234 – 1 wife, 2 kids, 3 bedrooms, 4 wheels.
Those were the benchmarks for success, and to tick these off was to have made it, it is the same in Rwanda today. Sociologists talk of commodity fetishism; this is where an unexposed culture is exposed to a western lifestyle and develops a fetish for the symbols of western culture and not the core benefits.
When the Europeans first came, some Africans sold their soul for beads, mirrors, guns and ammunition; today it is Blackberry’s, Prado’s, jewellery and clothes.
The 1234 is in play in Rwanda, but some people are getting it wrong; to get the wife, which is step 1, you have to complete step 4 first – 4 wheels.
Then you need a respectable house to impress the family of said prospective wife, so you do step 3 – three bedrooms. Eventually, the means becomes the end, and potential is squandered, but as long as you can tick off the 1234 then you are judged a success.
The old 1234 was illustrative of the times then, young couples started with nothing and slowly built their way up to middle-class normality but today’s young couple is saddled with debt from day one.
The worst thing about this debt is that it is for depreciating assets that mean nothing.
In every African country, a certain car become symptomatic of a nation’s culture being eroded; in Kenya it was the Benz, hence “Wabenzi” and in Uganda I remember the Pajero being the emblem of bad investment. In Rwanda it is the Prado, it has come to symbolise all our shallowness; one can take a loan for a $50,000 car and pay back $80,000 for a piece of junk.
A story will illustrate this – a friend of mine wanted to start a chicken farm here; he bought expensive equipment like incubators and had his own capital.
All he needed was money to cover his running expenses, he tried to secure a loan of $20,000 but the bank laughed him out of the office.
He later came back asking for a Prado and the bank couldn’t sign it quick enough, he asked the bank manager “why do you accept this car loan but not a viable project?” the bank manager swaggered in his Armani suit and was candid “at least if you default on your loan we can confiscate the car and resell it; who’s gonna look through your chicken dung for profits?”
So the symbols of wealth become the actual wealth in our eyes, most Rwandans are smart but some are caught in the matrix of collecting tokens.
On liberation day, an old soldier shook his head and sighed to me “when we were in the bush, some of us were patriotic, but others were motivated by greed.” The ironic thing was that the war was won, even with these dubious characters in the mix.
And that is the modern world – people want to earn money to buy goods, so they work hard and in so doing the economy develops.
There was to be an element of personal gain to motivate people but the greater good must always come first. The former so
ldier was enraged “is this why we fought? So some can just enjoy themselves and think the struggle is over?
I wish I could show young Rwandan children this scene, they should see their fathers getting drunk every night, sleeping with prostitutes, eating nyama choma and getting gout, is this what we fought for?”