For those with long enough memories Uganda brings back memories of Idi Amin and the 1976 Entebbe Raid, in which crack Israeli forces liberated the passengers of a hijacked airliner. In the early 1990s a horrifying AIDS epidemic in Uganda again made the headlines, the result of years of war and attendant poverty. Otherwise, Uganda is a country that has rarely been on the front page.
Until 1860 what is now Uganda was a chunk of Africa entirely separated from the outside world, tucked into east central Africa and straddling the Equator. Around that time three separate kingdoms, the Bunyoro, the Buganda and the Karagwe were set up, probably by cattle owners who had come south from the Ethiopian highlands. The Buganda, now the largest group and the most progressive in many ways, made impressive strides forward. While much of central Africa remained as it had been for centuries, they quickly developed a more sophisticated way of life.
They constructed cane and reed dwellings that kept dry inside in the rain and cool in the heat; their music was played on harps, drums and trumpets; they made baskets so well that they could hold water. They rejected scars and tattoos, and wore long, graceful togas and sandals. Their cuisine was wide and varied, and their etiquette elaborate, especially in the presence of the Kabaka, or king, whose quasi-divinity personified the spirit of the race. In other ways they were less developed. They had no writing or means of counting or of measuring the months and years. They did not plough the land. Their only religion was superstition and witchcraft.
By 1914 Uganda became a protectorate of British-ruled Africa, which extended from the Mediterranean in an unbroken line to the Mountains of the Moon. During that short period Christian missionaries arrived and set to work. The Kabaka Mutesa played one group against the other. His successor, Mwanga, was only 18 when he came to throne. One of the early Scottish missionaries, Mackay, likened him to Nero for his fickleness, sadism and depravity. Between 1885 and 1887 he put to death a sizeable group of Catholic and Protestant boys, who would rather die for their newly-found faith than submit to his perverted ways. So deeply had the Christian faith sunk in just 40 years.
Even today Uganda is a country of violent contrasts. On the one hand, the people are often gentle, extremely hospitable, refined and cultured. Makerere, in Kampala, was the first university in the region. The red earth, the tropical birds and flowering shrubs of the jungle near Lake Victoria, and the charming people, endeared themselves so much to the young Winston Churchill that he referred to Uganda as the Pearl of Africa.
On the other hand there is a terrible war in the north in which thousands have been displaced and many hundreds of innocents have been killed or abducted and drafted as boy soldiers or child brides. Many people are deeply pious but there are instances of lunatic extremism, like the Lord’s Resistance Army or the mass suicide inside an isolated strange fundamentalist church in 2000.
Now Uganda is back in the news again, as a looming disaster for population controllers. A recent report from the US-based Population Reference Bureau forecasts that the current population of 27.7 million will double by 2025 if current birthrates persist. (1) Astonishingly, by 2050 Uganda could have the world’s 12th largest population at 130 million — more than Russia or Japan.
This happens because the average Ugandan woman gives birth to seven children –- and this rate has remained unchanged for the last 30 years. Half the population is under 15 and will soon move into child-bearing age. Family planning experts warn that efforts to cut poverty will come to naught unless urgent measures are taken. (What do they have in mind? The forced sterilisations of India, or the forced abortions and infanticides of China?)
Other African countries, from Mali to Malawi, are projected to triple their populations by 2050. Nigeria will become the fourth-biggest country in the world and Congo and Ethiopia will be in the top ten. By 2050 nearly one-fourth of the world’s population will be African, up from one-seventh.
The planners are pessimistic about this prospect. "What’s happening is alarming and depressing," said Jotham Musinguzi, director of the population secretariat in the Ugandan Ministry of Finance. "Are we really going to be able to give these extra people jobs, homes, health care and education?" (2)
However, the energy and vitality of the Ugandan people suggest that the answer to this question is Yes. The streets of the capital Kampala and all the towns are throbbing with open air business. On the long trip from Nairobi, as many as 20 people will appear with every imaginable type of homemade foodstuff when the bus stops for passengers to alight. People are not waiting to be given jobs.
To cope with the education explosion, hundreds of privately run schools, at primary and secondary level, have opened in recent years. And more people, especially more people with basic education, will mean more jobs: building homes, shops, schools and hospitals, and staffing them.
In fact, Uganda’s problem is too few people. With an area similar to Britain, it has less than half of Britain’s population. Most of the soil is very fertile and it is favoured by rain and constant warmth. Sow a seed in the morning and it flowers in the evening! Uganda could even export food if the agricultural sector were properly organised. This dismal report goes on to say that the consequences will be felt beyond Africa as the pressure to emigrate increases. So what? That is how England and Spain populated parts of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. Perhaps the Africans who move to the more developed countries, with their large families, will help bring the peoples of the West back to their senses, and help re-evangelise them in the process.
For the population control lobby, the "villains" of Uganda are President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet. First Lady Janet is carrying on an abstinence campaign. Her husband told the Ugandan parliament in July: "I am not one of those worried about the ‘population explosion’. This is a great resource." Unlike most Western journalists who write their stories about faraway places from the comfort of their offices, Museveni knows Uganda. He is a soldier and has moved around among his men and with them, and knows every corner of his country. He knows that there are very few pockets of dense population. He believes, the report goes on to say, that a bigger internal market and workforce will boost their economic prospects. That goes without saying. If the average family in Uganda has only two children, the drier parts of the country will become a dustbowl, and the fertile parts will revert to jungle.
Studies across Africa have shown that the desire for large families remains powerful, the report says. Thank God for that. One of the great joys of Africa is its children, everywhere. Not just because they are seen as a sign of security, not only for fear of infant mortality, as this report admits, but because a child is a blessing of God. Why do these reports always omit this essential truth?
The director-general of International Planned Parenthood Federation, Steven Sinding, says: "In sub-Saharan Africa population remains a very serious problem. Yet donors have completely shifted their focus to HIV/AIDS and nobody is talking about it any more." Mr Sinding is right, but for the wrong reason. Population is a problem because there is too little of it, not too much.
If the huge profits made in the developing world and enjoyed in the developed world, whether in banking, tourism or cash crops, were returned to the developing world, Africa would be able to build itself and deploy its people more usefully. If many African leaders were to give up their corrupt practices, stop serving themselves and start serving their own people, Africa could start to build itself. The solutions are to be found here, and not in the population policies cooked up in the Western corridors of power, and duly transmitted by the big international media houses.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.
(1) "Uganda’s population to hit 130m by 2050". East African (Kenya). Sept 4, 2006.
(2) "High birthrate threatens to trap Africa in cycle of poverty". Guardian (UK). Sept 4, 2006.