By Dr. Ian Clarke

Sometimes it seems that development on the continent of Africa lags far behind the world. When I was young, China, India and most countries in Africa were all developing countries. However, China has developed rapidly and is now a major world power, while India is an economic powerhouse, but, leaving aside South Africa and a few countries in North Africa, the economic development in the rest of Africa has lagged behind. On the other hand, Africa is currently seen as the continent with most potential, having vast mineral resources and a young population. I am no expert on Africa as a whole, but I have lived in Uganda for several decades, and we have not developed this country as fast as we would like.

Uganda was a protectorate until independence in 1962, so it has only 56 years of self-governance, but Uganda consists of several kingdoms: Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro and Ankole, which can trace their history back to the 14th century. Thus Uganda had a well organised traditional culture long before the colonialists arrived just over a century ago. It was not some group of primitive savages, but had a hierarchy, governance, culture and traditions for centuries. The colonialists built on what existed through developing the government administration and education systems, so why is Uganda not more developed today?

When I worked in Luweero after the 1982-1986 bush war, I found the normal way of life had been severely disrupted and that many of the local population had resorted to alcohol – because they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I worked with the church, since I was carrying out community health programs, and found a community that had not only suffered a devastating civil war, but was now in the midst of an epidemic of HIV. These people had probably lived in the traditional cultural manner until the early eighties when their way of life was completely disrupted by the bush war, followed by the devastation caused by HIV. Then they were told that HIV was spread through sex, which, along with alcohol, was pretty much the only pleasure they had left.

This traditional Ugandan society was bombarded by new norms, new values, and new instructions on how to behave. They dealt with this through syncretism, in the way that Ugandans have dealt with Christianity by grafting it onto existing beliefs rather than replacing them. So in the eighties Uganda became the crossroads for the meeting of old values and the new paradigms. And because this happened in the midst of war and HIV, the new norms became a mishmash of the best and the worst of modern and traditional culture. It was confusing for people to receive modern messages about how they should behave in areas such as sex and reproduction, since they had traditionally dealt successfully with marriage, polygamy and the family, and were now being told it was all wrong. Modern society did not arise in Uganda like the glorious sunrise of a new dawn; it was more like a bad thunderstorm.
Then another issue was added into the confusion: modern politics. This introduced another dimension to society – the African interpretation of western democracy. The whole society was disrupted through war and epidemics, introduction of the good, the bad and the ugly from western culture, reinterpretation of traditional Ugandan cultural practices, and the introduction of western politics.

If we compare this to a European or American culture that has not been disrupted by war for over seventy years, has a long continuous history, an established political system and a stable economy, we need not wonder why Uganda (and many other African countries) struggles to keep up in this new world order. Many of these cultures also have a tradition of a strong work ethic and competitive environment, a single accepted family structure (the nuclear family), good health and education services, and stable government, all of which have facilitated them in continuous economic development.

Let’s take one of the biggest challenges that Uganda faces today: the rapid population growth. In dealing with it we must take into account the mix of cultural values that exists; for example, it will be difficult to convince the average Ugandan peasant that it is bad to have many children, since that was the norm in traditional culture. Also, many Ugandan women are deeply suspicious of family planning methods, unlike their western counterparts for whom it is established practice. So one must take these values into account and use an appropriate approach when tackling the problem. It is not that traditional culture is wrong and western culture is right, and indeed many western cultural practices bring the worst of modernity, and certainly the worst of political practice is often taken as the norm in Africa. However, we must accept that Uganda is a mix of cultural values and try to cultivate the best of the traditional and the modern that will equip us for today’s global culture and spur our development.