Written in January 2013
I have spent the last week in Kigezi, the one place I am happier than anywhere else on Earth. The thick morning mist that gives way to glorious sunshine invariably triggers memories of a happy childhood spent exploring the mountains and valleys of Bushengyera, the southern part of Kigezi. Not even the familiarity of this, my homeland, has dimmed the joy of beholding the terraced hills and rugged mountains that give Kigezi a unique beauty shared with Rwanda, our neighbour to the south.
A visual and cultural treat awaits the tourist who seeks the best that nature has to offer. Kigezi is not only home to the famed gorillas of Bwindi, but also a terrain and waterways that are as fascinating as they are calming to one who enjoys quiet solitude. So my mind has plenty of opportunities to rewind to this regions’ past, the yardstick against which I tend to measure the present and the future that I desire for my people.
There was a time of palpable progress in Kigezi, with a people full of hope, their drive and industry rewarded with positive dividends. The natives of these highlands took pride in their rugged individualism, a quality that enabled them to live and thrive in what is one of the toughest places in Uganda.
Sadly, the famed Bakiga confidence has retired into the mists of history and legend, replaced by a beggar mentality that makes an encounter with one’s kinsmen a rather uncomfortable experience.
If I were to give a dollar to every person who accompanies their greeting with a request, nay, a demand for financial help I would go broke within days.
This weekend, I was in one hamlet in Rukiga County, where I ventured out of the car to buy a couple of items. Young men accosted me with demands for cash as though I was indebted to them. My quick retreat was assisted by their inebriated gait. All ended well.
This was not a rare incident at all. Upon sharing my experiences and observations with friends who live and work in Kigezi, they all tell me that I have not seen the worst of it. The massive unemployment of perfectly healthy people threatens the security of this region. Kigezi faces a crisis that threatens its soul. There is evident hopelessness among many citizens of Kigezi.
Oppressive poverty, widespread lack of access to healthcare, economic disability even for the employed, loss of confidence in the value of a Western education and reduced agricultural output are some of the reasons underlying the sense of resignation that is manifest within a few minutes of conversation.
Many people I have met speak of a sense of alienation from the rest of the country. It is as though Kigezi is not part of the much touted Vision 2020 and Vision 2040. To be sure, unless a major change occurs, when Uganda becomes a Middle Income Country in 2017 and a First World Country in 2050, Kigezi, left behind, will be in a worse crisis than it is today.
The tales of hopelessness by the current residents of these hills raise questions in my mind. Could the obvious disconnect between the people and their leaders be central to the crisis that is evident wherever I go?
Do the leaders of Uganda and of Kigezi know what is really happening to the youth and families that have resorted to alcohol as some sort of sedative in the wake of crushing poverty? And what underlies this poverty in a community of able-bodied people? Why has everyone become a beggar? What must be done to reverse the crisis that has this once prosperous region in its grip?
One theme that keeps popping up is the difference that Kigezi’s past leaders made to the fortunes of our people.Kigezi’s great civic leaders – Ngorogoza, Rukeribuga, Karegyesa, Mukombe, Kakwenza, Bikangaga, to name a few – were driven by the desire to advance the interests of Banyakigezi.
Our leaders in education, such as Constance Hornby, E.B. Musominali, John Bikangaga, Festo Karwemera and Ezra Rwendeire demonstrated a devotion to the success of their charges as though their lives literally depended on it.
The pioneers and other early practitioners of Western-style healthcare in Kigezi, for example Dr Leonard Sharp, Dr John Sharp, Dr Norman Kanyarutokye, Mr Kanwangari and Mr Ezra Mulera, did not simply treat disease but instilled a spirit of excellence through exemplary practice and advocacy.
Our leaders in the Church, such as Bishop Festo Kivengere, Reverends Abraham Zaribugire, Komunda, James Katarikawe and Samwiri Katuguugu, lived lives that were consistent with the gospel that they preached. They were not perfect people, of course. However, they were leaders who put Kigezi first and themselves last.
Whereas there are a few leaders of note in today’s Kigezi, what I hear from the people suggests that there is little regard and trust in those in charge. The crisis of leadership may well be at the centre of Kigezi’s despair. Those who wish to reverse Kigezi’s decline would be well advised to start by listening, really listening, to the people.