“The Real Uganda”

By David Tumusiime – I have been a blogger for close to five years.

Spirit of Uganda

To be a blogger was not always my dream. I wanted to be a writer. A published writer of novels and short stories, best selling in their career, and one day be invited to sit on a panel with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, the ghost of Okot P’Bitek winking at me. I spent most of my twenties trying to achieve that. I failed. Now I’m a blogger.

I was going to say only a blogger. Then I caught myself from falling into a state of mind I think infected me, when I was still striving to be ‘real’ writer. When I still had those dreams of traditional literary glory, I was continually told, “There is no money in writing. No one reads in Africa. You see even Achebe has to teach for a living.” They knew I couldn’t bear the thought of being a teacher.

Teachers in Uganda are poor; teachers in Uganda can barely make a living. They are a grade just above the traffic policeman on the street who sleeps in a unipot (metal shack) in the barracks compound. Teachers in Uganda cannot afford to buy a new shoe every three months, have to dash like headless chicken, secretly tutoring and teaching in five schools at the same time, to be able to make the same amount of money an executive in a corporate company collects as his allowance for travel and entertainment. And I didn’t want to be poor, they knew. Plus I hated the whole experience of formal schooling.

I became a journalist, because at the time, it seemed like a natural step of getting a foot in the door to become a ‘real’ writer. I was an avid reader of writers’ biographies and knew some of the writers I adored in my youth had had some brush with journalism. Guy de Maupassant, the French short story master, had been a journalist before his frowning mentor disabused him of it. Émile Zola, poor and hungry in Paris with no family wealth to fall back on, had started in journalism, even elevated it to a human rights defending tool with a famous essay J’Accuse! that in its way played a big part in condemning anti Semitism. Albert Camus, that Frenchman whose The Stranger (how many different titles does this book carry?) had never sneered at journalism, Algiers coming African. I thought journalism would be a good place to start.

Seven years of Ugandan journalism later, I’m not so sure. Perhaps that’s why in my second year of active practice I began to look for a way out. Considered quitting the practice for good. The invention of blogs and blogging saved me. Stopped me, like a good friend and a great poet I know, from finally stepping out and going to do something else entirely. He became a banker, I have stayed. Blogging showed me that a space still existed where artistic expression could flourish in Kampala, Uganda, and there were people who wanted to read some of those things. Blogging exposed me to how limited had been my understanding of what is ‘writing’ and ‘literature.’ That I had been as close minded to the infinite possibilities of expression as those ‘friends’ who could see no way a writer, artist, could make a living in Uganda, because Ugandans have no time or money to spend on any art form.

Blogging showed me that that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman? author Laurence Sterne, more than ever, was a supreme genius ahead of his time, when he insisted that the side doodles he made on his manuscript, the blank speaking pages, the obscene street slang jokes, could all be considered art, a part of the living masterwork he was creating. Because blogging could let you make video skits of a street scene of two squabbling cats and get more comments than any insightful post you had ever posted. A randomly taken photograph out of your taxi window could expose a private human tragedy happening in a side street and begin a momentum for change you had not anticipated. Blogging brought high art, literature back into the everyday, where it should be, needs to be, if it is going to remain relevant and growing healthily. So I became a blogger. In love with blogging. Called Iwaya. Sometimes Mataachi. Five years ago.

I have not made the money I wanted. I have not become rich, like I wanted. A friend will request for a pittance of a loan and I still have to scramble around to be able to help. At Crucial times I have been unable to. But I’m still here blogging, and by extension, writing journalism. One keeps my interest in the other. I know though if I had to choose, I would keep the blogging and drop the journalism. In those five years, in the unchecked freedoms of my blog to pursue whatever interests were paramount and put them down, I have come to believe, no, have total faith that blogging, at least for me, in Kampala, Uganda, right now, maybe the ‘real’ writing I always thought I would do in the ‘future.’ That blogging is the pathfinder, the archiver simultaneously, of Kampala, Uganda now. Who we are, are becoming, in the best Ugandan blogs, you find intimations of it, which is why a blogger will post and that post will release a torrent of comments of shared feeling, readers who rarely ever speak up, shouting, ‘Yes, I know what you mean! I have felt it too. I have experienced it. You are so right!

Once upon a time the ‘real’ Uganda was in newspapers (the Ugandans who live in Uganda recognise as their own) when The Daily Monitor was The Monitor with its famous red headmast, and there were hundreds of downtown Photostatted newsletters like the radical green banner headed The Shariat that insisted that there was another take on an event we were being told had happened one way. Then the ‘real’ Uganda was in live talk radio, when the elevated Radio One Spectrum show hosted by Kalundi Serumaga competed for listeners with raucous barely controlled Saturday Mambo Bado LC style meeting shows aired live on….

The newspapers are more sleekly designed today than they ever were and many radio stations have studios of such a standard that commercial work has begun to come to them from across the country’s borders. But we all know they are much less free than they were ten years and most of their best talent is not their senior management today, it is either out of the business or even out of the country, because often they were presented with a choice-sacrifice that personnel or sacrifice the business. Or sometimes, the remuneration they were giving them was scandalously low. The ‘real’ Uganda is no longer there, it has moved online. To blogs, online forums, social networking sites, e-zines that travel in tightly secretive circles. This is where the ‘real’ Uganda is. The Uganda I care about.

Five years after I started blogging, I find that, unlike with the journalism, unlike with the traditional ‘real’ writing career, I have more faith in blogging. It tells me something: time to get more ambitious with this blogging thing. A whole world is reading, watching, listening.