Friday, 6 December 2013

My two cents: What is Mandela’s legacy?

I admired him when I was younger, I had the opportunity to see him from a distance and waved my little flag when he came to Uganda. When I grew up, I began to realise that there is always two sides to the story, that our heroes have flaws, and that this is a game of smoke and mirrors. I am now keen on conspiracy theories as things are not always what they seem.

I had always wanted to write something about Nelson Mandela; it took me more than a year ruminating about how I would put my Mandela experience to pen and paper. This was published in Daily Monitor and I am blogging it on the announcement of his death last night.

On a particular day in July, the United Nations requests us to aside 67 minutes of the day to charity, volunteering in an activity or participating in a community event in honour of one of the most well known Africans, whose birthday falls on that date.

Since 2009, July 18 has become a day the world celebrates the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the values that he symbolises, the idea that each individual has the power to transform the world, the ability to make an impact. The day was officially declared Nelson Mandela International Day by the UN General Assembly in 2009 and the first marked in 2010.

A statement from the UN states, “The 67-minute campaign—“Take Action, Inspire Change”—is based on people devoting one minute of their time for every year that Nelson Mandela devoted to public service as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker and the first democratically elected President of South Africa.”

The UN declaration was a progression from the series of activities including music concerts that were being held in the previous years by some groups in different parts of the world to celebrate Mandela. This July, Nelson Mandela made 94 years. From New York to Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and hundreds of cities in between all across the globe, the activities included giving food to the hungry, donations of books and other scholastic materials to schools, musical performances, art and cultural exhibitions and road races to raise awareness for various causes.

In Kampala, the South African High Commission partnered with Always Be Tolerant (Abeto), a non-governmental organisation that promotes tolerance and values of humanity, to paint Wandegeya Primary School and distribute books to the pupils.

According to Moses Musana, the Abeto executive director, the school was chosen because its pupils are drawn from the less privileged neighbourhoods of Katanga and Kivulu and as far as Kalerwe. “Some of the pupils here come to school without shoes,” he said. “In the spirit of this day, I call upon pupils from better-off schools to donate their extra pairs of shoes to such pupils.”

Call to unite
At the occasion which was also attended by a number of MPs from his home country, South African High Commissioner, Jon Qwelane, remarked “There are few things that set us apart and many things that bring us together. We should discard those things that divide us.”

The power of the Mandela story that has been retold many times and mythicised is such that it is difficult to talk about him without referring to him as an icon, a great man or a visionary. The 2012 Mandela Day came amidst some controversy in South Africa, where Madiba as he is fondly called, is revered and placed beyond reproach. And though this did not drown the adulation, it nevertheless caused ripples.

That is why a scathing statement from the Azania Peoples’ Organisation (Azapo) released last month was shocking. It is one of the organisations that fought the apartheid regime together with similar groups like the African National Congress (ANC).

In the statement, Azapo Youth League president Amukelani Ngobeni, stated Mandela would not have peace should he die without apologising for “selling out black people’s struggle through the secret talks with the apartheid government”. He alleged that Mandela entered into talks with government and agreed on a compromised constitution which makes it difficult for the government to deliver in its duties to service the citizens. He added: “Mandela and his friends were excited and could not wait to occupy the global political space at the expense of the struggle for complete political, social and economic emancipation.”

It is true that there is growing discontent about ANC government not honouring some of the promises it made to the South African people in terms of service delivery, but Mandela left government in 1999 after serving one term as president. How then, could he blamed for all that has not gone right in the last 13 years?

Perhaps, the myth of Mandela has grown so much bigger than Mandela the man. Besides all the over 250 awards and honours he has received from all over the world, he is a human being like any other with a limit to what he can do.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that such criticism has been voiced. In 2010, Ms Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his ex-wife and an MP in South Africa, was quoted in a British newspaper as saying that Mandela had let Blacks down. “He agreed to a bad deal for the Blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside. The economy is very much ‘White. It has a few token Blacks, but so many who gave their life in the struggle have died unrewarded,” she said. Though she later denied having said, it is still a feeling that some people in and out of South Africa have about Mandela.

Ever the controversial politician, Ms Madikizela-Mandela was in the news last week over a leaked e-mail she sent to the ANC party headquarters. She complained about how her family was deeply hurt by ANC’s “shabby treatment through the years”. She wrote: “It is quite clear that we do not matter at all, we only do when we have to be used for some agenda.”

Legacy abused?
This begs the question: Is the Mandela name and image now being used to advance different agendas, even commercial ones by those who see it as an opportunity to make a buck? Has Mandela become a global brand on which anyone with some business acumen can cash in?

At Wandegeya Primary School where community service was carried out in honour of Mandela Day, it was hard not to notice subtle, though in most part overt, product placement and mentions—right from the T-Shirts and caps, books, biscuits and soft drinks that were distributed and the paint that was used on the school walls. When asked, Moses Musana, the Always Be Tolerant (Abeto) executive director defended the action as these profit-oriented companies using the event as part of the corporate social responsibility.

Movies and fashion lines
Elsewhere in the world, many companies have definitely used the Mandela story to grow their pockets. A case in point is the films, documentaries and books that have been made and written about Mandela the freedom fighter or Mandela the visionary statesman. World famous stars Danny Glover, Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman and Terrence Howard have all acted as Nelson Mandela on film; the list is still growing. Idris Elba is the latest actor to land a role as Mandela in a film. Invictus which had Morgan Freeman in the lead role has grossed $122m (Shs299b) worldwide. This helps to show the commercial power of the Mandela story.

The world of fashion also cashed in. On July 18, a US-based company rolled out the 46664 fashion line of men’s, women’s and children’s wear in North America, and will launch the brand to other parts of the world including Africa later this year and in 2013. While he was incarcerated at Robben Island, Mandela’s prison number was 46664.

The same number thas been used for a number of benefit music concerts to support charity causes. They have attracted big name global stars such as Bono, BeyoncĂ©, Jimmy Cliff as well as African international stars Baaba Maal, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Though these have been tied in with commitment to benefit community projects, one cannot ignore the boost that the name association with Mandela gives in their professional careers. Some of the attempts to cash in have been grotesque or far removed from the ideas espoused by the man who owns the name. It has not spared even members of his family either.

Mandla Mandela, a grandson was accused by his first wife of having sold exclusive rights to film his grandfather’s funeral to South African Broadcasting Corporation for R3m (Shs898.5m). Though both parties denied the claim, it was yet another example of the kind of risks in protecting the name involves. Even when it is claimed that the name is not being used for gain like the reality television show about three grandchildren who return from US to South Africa. “This is about three women... breaking away from the [Mandela] legacy to find their own feet,” said the director Graeme Swanepoel.

In all, when Nelson Mandela has lived his life, will his legacy be one of a biblical Moses that showed his people to the Promised Land and fostered the ideals that they should look up to? Or has the myth grown bigger than the man, in the process attracting doves as well as vultures? Either way, his place in history is firmly set and we will continue to recount the story to generations that will follow.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Men, semen and toilets

This could all slip under the radar as hardly any one took note or made noise or even cared because men are involved. When men are in the mix, hardly anyone gives a shit. This is why we should pay more attention to November 19.

Since 1999, it has been marked as International Men’s Day. Initially inaugurated in Trinidad and Tobago, it is now celebrated in about 60 countries including our neighbours, Tanzania, and not-so-far-away Burundi. The official mumbo jumbo is that it is to “focus on men's and boy's health, improving gender relations, promoting gender equality, and highlighting positive male role models.”

Then, more clearly, it adds…“It is an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care while highlighting the discrimination against them.” In all, what caught my eye are these words—contribution and achievement. I will explain later.
International Men’s Day also falls on the same date as World Toilet Day. The latter is much bigger and, though started in 2001 by World Toilet Organisation, it has received UN recognition this year. The aim is to highlight sanitation as a development priority.

Besides the seriousness of these two “days” marked on the same day, on the flip side, this coincidence was bound to attract double entendre, puns and sarcasm. So, you can imagine my reaction when a female colleague remarked, “Men are toilets, anyway, they are full of crap” when this came into the conversation.

No, I was not angry about that remark like these feminists are wont to do at real or imagined sexism. In fact, I felt it was the most sexist compliment I have heard and did not even attempt to argue with her. I had cause to smile as the first UN recognised World Toilet Day was focused on women and girls.

Consider this: “Every hour, 70 women and girls will needlessly die from diseases directly linked to a lack of an adequate toilet and safe drinking water.” So, toilets are equally important to women just like men are, if men are toilets anyway. They are full of crap because everyone needs somewhere to put theirs.

But one billion people around the world do not have toilets and are at risk of disease and death. Similarly, there are women without men, which is not good for their mental health. It is men also produce semen, which ends up in women through ejaculation or disposed of, in a toilet, may be—if a condom was used.

A study by State University of New York found that women who had regular “unprotected” monogamous sex are less depressed and worked better because semen contains mood-altering chemicals. Along with spermatozoa, there is cortisol, known to increase affection, estrone and oxytocin, which elevate mood, and at least three anti-depressants
Therefore, to celebrate our contributions and achievements, just like semen and toilets, men are very important to not only women but to the whole of society.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Friends with benefits, toxic friends and frienemies

Any day in the last week of July and first Sunday in August is marked as Friendship Day, a day marked since the 1950s in some Latin American countries but only given the international profile by the United Nations just two years ago.

So, this Tuesday was International Day of Friendship. While the rhetoric is wrapped in high sounding ideals like promoting better understanding among peoples and cultures for world peace, individually we need to celebrate these “imperfect” friends who bring balance to our lives.

First on the list should be the friends-with-benefits. Contrary to popular belief, it is not always about sex with no strings attached. These are friends we keep for the benefits we derive from that relationship, for instance, a lawyer pal whom you can call for legal advice without paying for it, the accounts assistant who will update you when your cheque is signed, that messenger in a government office who will help you navigate the red tape. Looking at it, most of our friendships are with benefits, the only question is whether they are mutually beneficial.

Or even merely for the convenience. That is where the category of friends-with-benefits known as fuck buddies comes in. As adults, there are those times when we just need to be physical without the encumbrances of relationships, getting into one or in transition from one and society expectations. And it works whether one is married or not. No strings attached, no unrealistic expectations, and the need satisfied.

Some have argued that there are some people we consider friends are not worth keeping and should be dropped faster than hot potato. These are the toxic friends. One scenario that we have probably heard about is a woman upon getting married is advised to let go of her single friends. Really? I think this is the worst advice in marriage counselling. How will a single one appreciate joys of marriage if she does not have a married friend to look up to? Or the other way round, how will a married one appreciate her husband if she is only surrounded by people who have and not by some who do not have.

Toxic friends also include those who always asking us for something or the other, those who criticise or put us down, those who only sing our praises—fan friends as well as fun friends—who only make it seem like the good times will last forever. Instead of cutting them off, we should hug them harder; they add the balance in our lives. Who will we be generous if we do not help out a friend in need? Who will be aware of our ordinary selves if there is no one to burst that bubble? Who will we understand achievement if there is no one to pat us on the back or enjoy life if there is no one to bring the party into it?

Talking of life, with its twists and turns, we find ourselves in different situations all the time. Friends come and go, some remain and others change. It is not to say they become enemies but just former friends. We need these ones in our orbit to remain us of how things change.

But like life is unpredictable, some situations are a bit of both. Just like there are crossbreeds, the frienemy is the cross pollination of friendship and enmity. One who smiles in face of your face and laughs behind your back. In life, many things are not what they seem; the frienemy brings that reality to our doorsteps.

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. On the next Friendship Day, we should reach out to all friends and thank them for making our lives complete.

An edited version was published in Sunday Monitor, read it here

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Plastic pen and wet paper: My tribute to James Mulwana

As it happens when a man of such stature in our society dies, we are wont to use words like “icon”, “genius”, “great”, “pillar” and those glowing terms. While deaths and funerals are sad events, they are occasions where our hypocrisies are on a grand display. However, in case of Prof James Mulwana, there is a description that I have hardly heard in eulogies of other ‘big men’, that is humility.
And this time, unlike other funerals I have attended, it seemed to be the common description used by whoever got chance to say something about Mulwana. It was easy to see that they meant it.

I had always heard and read of James Mulwana in connection with manufacturing, industry and big business. So, you may understand why the first time I saw him in person was quite underwhelming for me. It was way back in late 2006 when Makerere University decided to award honorary professorships to a few prominent citizens in recognition of their contribution to society.

He was one of those recognised that December morning more than six years ago. I was then a public relations officer at the university; that is how I came to attend this ‘star studded’ affair. I think it was best move Makerere University made with its initiative to link academics, research and industry.

I don’t remember what Prof Mulwana said in the speech upon receiving this honour. But what I remember is that he did not take it as a crowning moment like many ‘big men’ in our society would take it. He gladly and humbly (oh, that word, I am trying to avoid it but with Mulwana you cannot) received the title and was focused on the ‘what next?’ How can this be used to advance the cause of the university in a mutually beneficial way.

The ‘what next?’ came after that. I, together with a Students’ Guild minister, worked on getting him (going through the relevant channels, definitely) to come for a students’ exhibition where a number of innovations were on display. Then, we run into ‘roadblocks’ in trying to get in touch with him. Some of those officials whom we had to go through to reach him, in not so subtle ways, discouraged us from even thinking that he would honour the invite and come to the event.

Eventually, someone advised us that the best way to get him in person (among the many places, we could reach him) was the office he used as Honorary Consul of Thailand. Indeed, we met him there and he said “Yes” straight away.

On the appointed day, he arrived at Freedom Square on time and he was led on a tour of the different stalls. Two things happened here that showed me why he was such a great entrepreneur.

First, when he was presented with the visitor’s book, he refused to sign it with the pen he had been given. Instead, from the breast pocket of his suit, he pulled out a Nice pen and used that.

The second was when, while on the tour of the exhibition, he met this young student making various products from waste paper, which was very available at the university, using rudimentary means: a bucket, water, ash and a sieve. He was so impressed that he gave this young man Shs500,000 (about $200) on the spot to further his innovation. On top of that, Mulwana gave him an appointment to meet him and they discuss ways of how he can be supported in this.

I clearly understood the second incident, he had a keen business sense and he clearly saw the opportunity ahead of this young man if he could be guided in the right direction. But on the first one, I was lost. So, after officiating at the closing ceremony of the exhibition, as he was going back to his car, I approached him and asked him about his refusal to use the other pen.

He asked me: “Where is the other pen made?” “I don’t know, probably India,” I replied. He said, “Imagine if we used our own products, how far we would be?” With that, he got the pen from his pocket and gave it to me.

Indeed, if we all used Nice pens, he would make much more money. But more importantly, by us using those plastic pens, we would help support an industrial base upon which our economy would grow, and all the benefits that would accrue to our country and its people.

While there was a self interest in using that plastic pen, there was a selflessness in supporting that student to turn wet paper into a variety of products.