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A couple of months ago I began work on a project currently running at the Speke Resort Munyonyo – a summit called ‘Innovation Africa’.
This is NOT public relations for the event because, frankly, they don’t need it – they already have their participants in the rooms, the relevant transactions are being made left, right, centre, and I hope Uganda benefits from the event as other African countries have done previously.
Rwanda hosted last year’s summit and bagged a project assembling computers/laptops within their borders which will help supply their (and maybe ours, one day) ‘One Laptop Per Child’ project. The project came before the summit, but their hosting preparations helped.
What’s prompting me here are two things – my interaction in a small room with Education State Minister Sandy Stevens Tickodri-Togboa, and the nomenclature of education ministries across Africa.
Starting with Prof. Tickodri-Togboa, when he was appointed Minister we celebrated because we knew him to be technical and were aware of his involvement in the Kiira EV Project.
That project is not a white elephant, as some people scoffingly claimed when it was unveiled; whereas we do not produce steel and the other bits that make car manufacturing a short-term viability, the process of interrogating, researching and attempting this project helps boost local innovation.
Allowing and empowering students to think big enables them to aim high even though they might hit low – but if they aimed low then they would hit lower, so the better alternative is obvious.
Due to the Eid public holiday, Prof. Tickodri-Togboa found himself at the centre of the government Press Conference announcing this event and he read up on it quickly, and his blood got racing. In a meeting with a group of us shortly before the Conference he rallied gallantly about the importance of innovation in education, and our national skills development needs.
“As I was flying back last night from China I was thinking about how many toys we import from that continent into this country. Why are we not making our children here manufacture those toys? They are just bits of plastic and wiring that jump about and make noises…” he pondered, jet-lagged, rather irritated and frustrated.
I like it when a government official in a position of authority gets irritated and frustrated by something such as this – his boss is often to be found in this mood as well, which is why Prof. Tickodri-Togboa was appointed in the first place.
He told us, thereafter, how his own children spent so many hours taking apart toys and other pieces of equipment in their home that he was not surprised when they ended up studying advanced sciences in universities in South Africa and what not.
“I still haven’t cleaned up their bedrooms!”
Which made me think wistfully about some children in my neighbourhood who I found wheeling about toys fashioned from empty splash boxes and Safi bottles, with twigs for axles and chokolo (soda bottle tops) for wheels.
It made me sad to see that in 2015, when I had done the same back in the 1980s. But then it made me happy that they were as industrious today as we were back then. (Still, I hurried home and emptied a toybox on the verandah of their muzigo…but told them and their mother not to stop making toys of their own).
They were still pushing their makeshift toys at the start of this week, and I was pleased. And I thought about them that same night as I perused the list of African ministries of education, because that is where, perhaps, we should start our spurring of innovation on this continent.
When Prof. Tickodri-Togboa was appointed, the Ministry of Education and Sports was renamed Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Sports.
Considering how well we do at Sports these days, that docket should be made substantive and separated from the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which itself needs renaming – and I hope we append ‘Innovation’ to it.
Not that names mean anything, unless one does some research into what these countries actually produce by way of innovation and skills, but here are the words other African countries use:
Skills (Botswana), Literacy (Burkina Faso), Scientific Research (Burundi, Cameroon & Congo Republic), Technological Innovation (Congo Republic) Vocational Education (DRC), Science & Technology (different from Education – Ethiopia), Science, Technology & Research (Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania), Science & Technology (Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique & Sierra Leone), Technology, Communication & Innovation (Mauritius), Human Development (Mozambique), Higher Education, Training & Innovation (Namibia), Higher Education & Research (Senegal), Higher Education, Scientific Research & ICT (Tunisia), Education, Science & Vocational Training (Zambia).
Over, now, to Professor Tickodri-Togboa, the people in charge of naming ministries, the teachers, and parents who should encourage their children to take stuff apart and learn to rebuild it.
Education needs to be taken apart so that we can do some innovation.
Tragicomedy – a term that students of secondary school literature back in my day learnt with relish but linked to the likes of William Shakespeare and days medieval in England.
It is also a term that very aptly describes many situations we go through on a day to day basis here in the beloved Pearl of Africa, which situations have us rolling around in laughter enhanced by a hysterical relief that that thin line wasn’t crossed to engulf us in grief.
This latest one involved a public holiday, an eager, relocating-to-upcountry-so-I-must-go-to-check-every-chance-I-get old man, an array of silly employees of various kinds, a village mother, her son and their bystander neighbours, a pick up truck, and a bicycle.
It is a long story, but I know how to cut things short.
The old man in question, eager to make full use of the Eid Aduha holiday, popped two manual labourers onto the back of his small 1200cc Datsun pickup and headed for Hoima early that morning. The labourers were fresh in from south-western Uganda, having arrived the night before at his home in Kampala, and were eager to get work in.
Somewhere before Kiboga, after a couple of hours of slow driving, the old man was certainly not at his most alert but aware enough of the road when a little boy on a rickety bicycle suddenly meandered onto the highway.
Swerving very quickly to avoid vehicular homicide, the old man was aghast to find that the the little chap on the bicycle was also making attempts to avoid being hit by the pickup truck. Their combination of effort, not being synchronised by way of a discussion or even simple gestures to agree which side either of them should go in order to share the road space in a manner that would guarantee safety of life, resulted in a loud crash.
The pick up truck came to a halt right in the middle of the road and the old man headed in the direction of the drainage trench where he believed he had seen the boy’s body fall, sans bicycle wreck.
A small bystander crowd began to gather, however, and called him back to first take his pick up out of the road in case other vehicles showed up. A brief debate occurred that the old man quickly realised would only end if he moved the damn pick up before going for the boy – which nobody else appeared to be doing.
Pick up truck by the side of the road, he ran back to where the boy was now sitting up and weeping. The chap could not have been more than nine years of age, but the old man could not account for the effects of his diet over time on his current body size. Suddenly, a boda-boda appeared and the bystanders strongly advised a hospital visit.
The old man attempted to offer his pick up truck as conveyance for the little chap but they were not having that – he had to go by boda-boda.
“Leeta sente za boda!” (Bring the boda money!) a fellow insisted, as the boy and an escort arranged themselves onto the thing.
As the old man walked to the pick up truck to follow the accident victim, he noticed another fellow seated by the side of the road with a large would at his elbow and a swollen shoulder. The fellow looked somewhat familiar, and as the old man slowed down to work out where he might possibly have seen him before, a bystander called out, “Take that one as well!”
He was one of the labourers, who had fallen off the pick up truck during the collision.
Off they went, following the boda-boda, but just before they left someone shouted out that he knew the boy’s mother and was going to fetch her to the hospital.
The boda-boda went right past the large Kiboga Hospital and straight to a clinic near the town. There, treatment ensued, focussing on the little boy who had now gathered his wits about him but still presented cuts and bruises from the fall.
Half an hour later, they heard his mother arrive with a couple of bystanders. After assessing the situation in the waiting room, she declared with confidence and much relief that the person sitting there was not her son.
She was correct.
It was the manual labourer who had fallen off the pick up and was still waiting for some medical attention as his shoulder went on swelling up.
The old man stepped out of the doctor’s office, called the boy’s mother inside and pointed her to the young fellow to confirm whether this victim, at least, was her son.
She turned onto her offspring with that sudden wrath that some mothers switch on for their children when they discover any wrongdoing. In Luganda, she unleashed a tirade of questions regarding: a) What the boy was doing riding the bicycle on the main highway b) Why he refused to listen c) Whether he was stupid or not d) His general level of stupidity e) Whether he knew what grief he could have caused the family if the accident had been worse…and so on and so forth.
All this, meanwhile, was as she charged at the boy in order to administer corporal punishment. If you don’t know how mothers tend to whip you when you turn up with a small injury, then check out #AfricanMothersBeLike and #AfricanParentsBeLike on Twitter.
The old man restrained her, quite painfully because he had injured his shoulder during the collision, and was joined by a bystander-cum-neighbour.
Eventually, she calmed down but continued seething with anger. This silly boy, she explained, has been knocked by a vehicle on that very highway before!
In fact, she said, he had been shown a different, presumably safer, road to use when running his errands!
And even then, she complained, he shouldn’t have been using THAT bicycle, but another one altogether!
Gwe. If I had been there I’d be thinking to myself that she was more angry and concerned about the mangled bicycle than the scarred chap.
The ‘Doctor’, meanwhile, carried on with dressing the little fellow’s wounds and at the end stated the cost.
As the boy began recuperating, the old man introduced the injured labourer into the room, and when the Doctor saw the state of his now-very-swollen shoulder, he declared that this was a more serious matter.
No. He would not handle it. No. He needed to go to a bigger hospital elsewhere – and not the Kiboga Hospital.
The fellow would need much more than what Kiboga could do, the Doctor decreed. He did, however, administer painkillers and then commence writing a report of some sort.
It was while he was doing so, very slowly, that the old man realised that the woman, her injured son, and probably half their neighbourhood were still in the ante room.
There was the matter of reparations.
And the exchange of phone numbers. Not for the purpose of claiming insurance or whatever they do it for in movies, and certainly not to enable a hookup later on, knowing this old man and imagining the sudden, unprepared presentation of the boy’s Kiboga mother that morning.
Off the pick-up went, to the hospital in Hoima, with the moaning labourer, his colleague, the old man and a lot of relief that the situation had been resolved fairly quickly. At Hoima Hospital, having disembarked at the first building, they were told very abruptly that they should take the fellow to the casualty section.
So they walked over to the casualty section.
At the casualty section they were asked where their admission papers were. They had none.
“You need to go back to that first building and get admission papers,” they were told.
So they walked back to the first building, saw the very same person they had seen when they first arrived there, and got the admission papers they needed. Then they walked back to the casualty ward, and commenced the treatment process – which very shortly thereafter meant they had to take the poor, injured fellow for an X-ray.
Not in the hospital, because it was a public holiday and the person in charge of conducting the X-ray was not available.
But, someone explained, there was an option available at a private clinic not far away.
The old man considered the agony the labourer was in, especially since the painkiller was fast wearing off, and rushed off to the private clinic.
The injured labourer was processed and taken into the X-ray room, and after a few minutes of waiting the old man asked the nurse how long it would take before they got the results.
He thought about it a little bit, calling on memories built over many years, and was a little puzzled – why would it take so long?
Okay, she responded, forty minutes.
He considered negotiating further but could not find logical ground for doing so, and could not envision where the discussion would end.
Eventually, they did get the X-ray done, and rushed back to the hospital to get treatment.
But it was a public holiday, remember, and there was no Physician or professional present with the qualifications or mandate to analyse the image or handle the case.
But if they went to a private clinic nearby…
As I said before, I know how to cut a long story short, so I will do so here just so you don’t experience the mental pain and agony of thinking of the physical pain and agony the old man and his more injured labourer were feeling by the time they got the right level of treatment the next day.
I’ll also leave out the part where, that evening as they arrived at the private clinic, a phonecall came through from the mother of the bicycle riding boy…the reparations were not enough to replace the bicycle, and could the old man send Ushs100,000 more?
A CHANCE meeting at the start of this week has re-focussed my attention onto agriculture as an economic activity and one day, a few years from now, I will share stories of my successes perhaps even in in one of those newspaper pullouts that inspire us weekly to till the earth.
My chance encounter was with an old friend, Gerald Owachi, whose story shocked me on so many levels there is no way a newspaper article can do it justice.
He will write a book about it all one day, since he is a journalist by training and a well studied one at that, having attended classes at Harvard and Tufts in the United States.
After those classes, he joined various high end organisations doing public policy, conflict resolution and what not, earning money in foreign currencies, but one day dropped everything to do agriculture. Teaming up with two other friends – Harry Hakiza and J.J. Onen – they went into northern Uganda.
The story is rather long and I have since moved on from the incredulity I felt when they shared their plans many years ago, so by Monday morning I was asking for a simple update only for Gerry to tell me they had 240 acres of cassava full grown!
Cassava is one of my favourite foods right now, because my domestic arrangements have involved training people up to fry cassava sticks to a point that we are soon entering the dish into cooking competitions for local foods – another story coming soon somewhere near you.
Every time I find there is a shortage of cassava in the markets near my home I marvel at how silly our agricultural marketing is – but that is nothing compared to Gerry’s experiences in the fields of cassava.
With 240 acres, for instance, their cassava project is probably the biggest single one of that crop in Uganda but, for some reason, they are not one of the major suppliers of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS). They are one of the suppliers, but only got listed after a hilarious story that must go into Gerry’s book.
It involved having their ‘project’ inspected by a superior, imperious NAADS fellow who had the bearing of a small god simply because he has the power to determine whether or not the results of the sweat and investment of people like Gerry, Harry, J.J. and their thousand-odd workers, should be placed onto a list of suppliers.
See, there are these well-intentioned projects that governments around the world implement but in doing so they employ small-minded chaps who take their representation of the government to such heights that if they don’t like your attitude they can reject (or frustrate) your project into oblivion.
So this big cassava project was off the supply list but they insisted their way onto it and eventually got allocated some bags – meaning they were assigned the privilege of supplying bags of cassava cuttings to the NAADS project.
Off their 240 acres they were assigned 663 bags. Or, let’s say they were assigned 6,000 bags. Cuttings are just that – you get a cassava stem then cut it into segments of about 30 centimetres.
I interrupted the conversation to call up my pal, the Executive Director of NAADS, and left him with that information to deal with – which he undoubtedly will.
Anyway, what madness had possessed these three young men to plant so much cassava?
Cassava has hundreds of uses besides being fried, salted and put on a side plate next to my cup of tea. Uganda Breweries uses cassava as a local raw material in brewing beer; CIPLA, the multinational pharmaceutical firm, is buying up 51% of Quality Chemicals and one of the major ingredients in pharmaceuticals is…cassava; it is used in making glues and one hundred other things industries rely on.
“You know Uganda is the Centre of Excellence for Cassava growing…?” Gerry began, making me choke on my coffee as I spluttered a ‘What The…?’
It is true.
The internet even says stuff like, “The Cassava Regional Centre of Excellence is based in Uganda, taking advantage of Uganda’s proven track record of success in providing leadership in cassava research, training and dissemination of technologies and information…”
Go and ask the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations for more.
Another website declares that six years ago Uganda was the sixth largest producer of cassava in Africa, and the crop is our second most important after bananas.
It would be – it basically grows anywhere under even arid conditions. Which is why the three chaps’ project was so important – because on their 240 acres they focussed on one, consistent breed or strain of cassava, rather than the very many funny ones in existence elsewhere.
As they were starting up, they tried to get the right cuttings and couldn’t find any that were consistent for a while. They went to the National Crops Resources Research Institute at Namulonge and eventually set up a partnership that ensured they had a sensible strain of cassava.
That’s another reason NAADS should be interested in them, and them in NAADS, because if one of the odd strains gets into their 240 acres they could lose their entire crop. You see, a short while ago someone said they had found Cassava Brown Streak disease in Western Uganda…
No – crisis meetings have not been called, even if Ugandan Brown Streak disease is ranked among the top seven biological threats to global food security.
All in all, their book will be an interesting read – wait for the section on ACF – the Agricultural Credit Facility under Bank of Uganda, an abbreviation few of us can recognise as quickly as TDA today, yet it’s been there since 2009. Under the ACF you and I can get up to Ushs2.1billion (or even Ushs5billion if the project is good enough), at 10% per annum.
They got one of far less than that, and because of bureaucracy found themselves paying a commercial bank loan at a much higher interest rate a couple of months into planting and…they are now in court minus the tractor they purchased with the loan, and the 80% they had paid for it in cash.
But they have their 240 acres of cassava sitting intact, for now, and they’re aiming at 3,500 planted by 2017.
As a resident of the Cassava Centre of Excellence, how many patches of your own cassava will you have by then?
The evening of the day I heard that General Aronda Nyakairima had passed on my eyes were wet as I joined family and friends to pray for the soul of an angelic boy called Daniel Babara.
There is not enough space for us to delve fully into the thoughts I had as I thought about the lives of both the General and the young man I had known so well for the short time he lived.
Besides their early, regrettable passing, both men made me think deeply about humility and gentleness.
Humility because Danielson (that’s what we called him) was a superstar within his peers and yet carried himself quite ordinarily amongst them and within the family.
The same humility has been used in every eulogy and message about General Aronda, with as much consistency as we remarked about this quality in him when he was alive.
All through his army and official life he held various positions of serious responsibility and high authority but never did you hear tales of arrogance, high handedness or bullying linked to him.
Most recently, when he took office at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and asked staff to put in extra time at work in order to create a much-needed acceleration of their duties, very few responded positively.
It was amazing how defiant some people could be in the face of such power and authority, as presented by an Army General, former Army Commander, and substantive, sworn-in Cabinet Minister in charge.
But what was more amazing was his response – which was to turn up at work every day and on Saturdays and on Sundays, with the few who did show up.
On many mornings, he would smile in amusement and kick aside the odd bits of witchcraft charms that some characters would litter about his office, and then go about his work as normal – and the results were unquestionably impactful across the entire country.
After bumping into him one day at the Kampala Serena and watching him petting a bevy of frolicking children as we chatted briefly, the words ‘gentle giant’ came to mind as I considered that this man had overseen an Army that pacified the North, changed our view of the Karimojong warrior, and gave new meaning to the processes governing our Internal Affairs.
That gentleness of manner made me look up the word ‘gentility’, defined quickly as ‘social superiority as demonstrated by polite and respectable manners, behaviour, or appearances’.
One more lengthy definition, though, contained the phrase, “gentility is that rare kind of graciousness that is handed down from one elegant generation to the next.” which made me look more closely at the other gentle giant I was mourning last Saturday.
Danielson, a tall, noble prince, was Captain of his basketball team, the UMU Flames, by the time his life was snuffed out by an errant security guard firing off his gun during a scuffle.
Danielson was not part of that scuffle – ever the leader amongst his peers, he had stepped in to try and break up the fracas but took a bullet in the process – which is painful to think about right to this day, but in a twisted way made him even more respected amongst his friends. See, he took a bullet for them.
So respected was he that all through this past year, his team has continued to honour his memory; his mother, Phyllis, is now called ‘Mama Flames’, and is invited to grace their games as oft she can.
His friends have stuck together for him so tightly that on his birthday, they turned up at his home to cut cake with her.
The boy clearly had a strong impact as a leader!
At one point in his short life, young Danielson thought about joining the armed forces, which but for God’s plans would have certainly led to his being a General some day rather than the Angel in heaven that his family tearfully but gladly knows him to be today.
I honestly think that if he had taken up the uniform, he would have led with the same gentle but efficient strength that General Aronda displayed through his service.
In his short life and General Aronda’s longer one we see evidence that we don’t have to be brash and confrontational to get things done, as many so-called leaders around us seem to think.
Sadly, both gentle giants left us in questionable ways that will have us looking to God alone for answers. Till we meet again. May their Souls Rest In Peace.
A FEW weeks ago I received an email from an acquaintance in Uganda’s ICT world, seeking help.
Reading through the appeal confused me for a while, and I put it aside till I was fresh in the morning so I could understand it properly. You see, it was too simple to make sense to me and the amounts involved seemed to be missing a few commas and zeroes – or other digits.
The letterhead (as you see from the above) read “Lira Town College” and the appeal was for a grant to assist the school’s Science and Technology Innovations Club (STIC) activities.
I remembered this organisation clearly as I read the letter detailing that the Club had participated in various ICT events, including the Annual Communications Innovations Awards (ACIA).
Their need, as I stated, was simple – a new Robotics Kit for the club, which would enable them to participate in another challenge event this month.
What further bamboozled me was the cost of the kit they needed – Ushs602,000 only (sent to 0783125905 by Mobile Money).
I did my part and also sent word round even further, and was only mildly surprised after a few weeks to discover that there had been only one (1 – emu – moja) contribution to their cause.
This, meanwhile, during a time where we participate in marathons and runs, wedding fundraisers, political fundraisers and the like, that raise billions at a pop.
Our ongoing fundraisers take place mostly in Kampala for the benefit of causes and activities that are mostly visible in Kampala.
Not only that, most of the money we collect here in the capital city gets spent in the capital city – which concentrates economic and development activity further here in the capital city rather than spreading it out nationwide.
Of course, it makes sense to pursue the fundraising activities in Kampala because most of the big money is in Kampala. But if we could do that and send the funds outside of the city then we would certainly see a lot more development taking place out there in places like Lira.
Six hundred thousand shillings, for instance, could be the difference between those eager, intelligent, high potential children in Lira developing some ground breaking innovation that could change the world in one way or another.
If we (the people reading this and resident in Kampala) got together in groups of twenty (20) and each contributed Ushs1,000 a day for a month, then we could probably equip every high school in the country with a Robotics kit and enhance innovative science in the minds of all our children.
The amounts involved in upcountry locations are always surprisingly low – which defies economics, since the point of logistics entry and clearance into Uganda is normally through Kampala, and therefore things going upcountry should be more expensive.
Let’s not correct that anomaly yet; instead, perhaps we should fund raise less for things happening in Kampala and more for things taking place in remote, upcountry places.
The impact will certainly be much larger, and the story even more compelling when scientists emerge on the global scene and tell of their humble beginnings from Lira Town College.
And for you, the benefactor in small amounts, the fulfilment will be even that much greater when you find that a humble contribution of Ushs1,000 a day over a couple of months has resulted in nationally – even globally – acknowledged innovations.
Ushs1,000 a day – less than the cost of an average Rolex; perhaps two breakfast sumbusas; a bottle of water; airtime spent downloading WhatsApp photographs every hour…
Meanwhile, the Lira Town College Science and Innovations Club has an event to participate in next month and needs this Robotics kit of Ushs602,000.
Think about that as you buy your next drink, or a concert ticket, or that additional toy for your rather over-indulged infant.