Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Dangers of Forgetting in Uganda

The following article, written by Andrew Green, was originally posted on the ThinkAfrica Press website on 14th November 2011 (link to original story). I am reproducing it here, with full permission, as the first of a number of interesting articles from other sources related to my promotion of Uganda's Jubilee this year.

October 9 may have been Independence Day in Uganda, but it could have been any other sleepy Sunday in Kampala. Disappointment from the previous night’s football match against Kenya – a 0-0 draw that denied Uganda a spot in the Africa Cup of Nations – dulled any impulse for celebration. There were rumours of a ceremony at the Kololo Airstrip, where British colonial administrators had handed power to Milton Obote 49 years previously, but the grassy field stayed empty even after the morning drizzle finally cleared.

The lack of pageantry was apace with the scepticism and dismissiveness that marks Uganda’s approach to historical discussion and celebration. It is a country where the national archives cannot accept new material because it does not have the space and because the government tried to tear down the national museum to turn it into offices last year.

Uganda has the world’s second youngest population, but the lessons of its past are being lost to its children, leaving no national identity to overcome commonly held ethnic stereotypes. The USdecision this week to join an ongoing conflict in northern Uganda highlights a division some scholars believe a more complete teaching of history could help resolve.

How soon is now?

Ugandans have “made a lot of mistakes in the past and we still make mistakes,” explains Edwin Paratra, who works at the Uganda Museum. “I look at the children we groom and they’re docile … many are just passing through the time.

"It’s important to make them be critical, but how can they criticize when they don’t really know [about the past]?”

Paratra joined the museum in 2007, part of a wave of new hires ahead of that year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala. He was a student at Makerere University then, and he clearly still delights in getting the opportunity to work at the museum. As he walked through its halls, he stopped to point out a temporary exhibition on transportation he helped set up.

For the last five years, part of his job has been giving tours to the busloads of students who show up each school day.

“It’s good that the young ones know where they come from,” he says, with a hall of displays on traditional Ugandan customs as his backdrop. But their interests are limited to the things they are taught in school, he continues. So they marvel over the country’s first car and its first typewriter – both legacies of the colonial era – but they rarely ask why there is no mention of the country’s post-independence leaders anywhere in the museum. History textbooks in this country end where the post-colonial era begins.

Reading, writing and remembering

“Anyone who comes in power doesn’t want the others’ history to be put anywhere,” Paratra explains. Not in textbooks, not in memorials, and not in the national museum. According to Mwambutsya Ndebesa, a senior history lecturer at Makerere, the decline in historical preservation is partly an attempt by the country’s leadership to control the national narrative.

More broadly, the history of history in Uganda is one of neglect. In a poor country with limited resources, doctors, engineers and even teachers provide the kind of results that look good on international donor reports and campaign billboards: lives saved, buildings constructed and students educated. The work of historians, archivists and curators does not deliver those kinds of statistics, so does not get the same kind of attention and support.

But, overlooked in a results-driven society, are the uncountable benefits of a citizenship with a robust sense of its own history. Uganda must, according to Ndebesa, create “motivation for society, incentives for work, motivation for nationalism and patriotism…We want to create the soul of a nation. We have no soul in this nation”.

In the absence of a national identity that the teaching of history would help create, Uganda is running the risk, he claims, of becoming a country where ethnic divisions dominate individual perspectives. He repeats several times that in his classes “I don’t take people into the past to leave them there”. One of the most important things he does in his history of Uganda class, he says, is to trace historical migration patterns to show people that contemporary ethnic prejudices have no basis in historical fact. That many of Uganda’s tribes are steeped in intermarriage. And that divisions within society, which sometimes erupt into conflict, are not necessary.

“The prejudices are there… but there is no systematic way of ‘de-teaching’ to remove those prejudices,”  he says, adding that, “[I am] aiming at doing that. But I don’t have big audience. These are very few students. Uganda is 32 million. If I teach 200 people, it’s a drop in the ocean.”

The dangers of forgetting

Ndebesa will soon be getting some support. Next year the state-of-the-art, fully digital Kitgum Peace Documentation Centre in northern Ugandan will be operational. Part memorial, part research centre, its goal is to encourage national reconciliation in a region subject to massive violence for more than 20 years.

The conflict in northern Uganda has variously been described as a guerrilla campaign by the Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) or as a civil war between the country’s north and south. Through both force and persuasion, Kony drew troop supplies from his own Acholi tribe in the north, while simultaneously waging a terrorist campaign against the Acholi and their neighbours.

People in the north maintain that the government’s slow response to the LRA is, in part, out of ethnic retribution. The National Resistance Movement party of President Yoweri Museveni has never enjoyed much support in the north. And Uganda’s former leaders Obote and Idi Amin, who are vilified by the current leadership, traced their lineage to the northern part of the country. Even as the conflict has waned, thousands of Acholi are still displaced from their homes, breeding further resentment. Obama’s decision to send US troops to clear out what remains of the LRA underscores the fact that the conflict – and the ethnic divisions it has exacerbated – is still not fully resolved.

“The more we looked into the conflict in northern Uganda, the more it became clear that the problem is a manifestation of those historical problems [between north and south],” says Moses Okello, a senior research and advocacy advisor at the Refugee Law Project, the group setting up the centre. The violence “is a product of a blinkered way of teaching history”.

The new museum will build on oral histories and documents to “create a complete picture”, Okello says. But ultimately, the bigger goal is to force the country to reconsider how it teaches history.

“History, and particularly its cultural dimensions, creates a sense of identity as individuals and as a nation,” Okello argues.

“The average Ugandan kid is ignorant of other ethnic groups. The average Ugandan adult doesn’t know so much about other parts of the country. What they know is mostly stereotypical. By and large many of the problems of conflict come from this teaching of history.”

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