An old man’s neighbour in Kigyezi

The Old Man in Mparo, Kigyezi, Uganda struggles to get up from his bed. A constant backache has graduated to a serious pain only relieved by sleep. His Mukiga herbalist has tried his medicine for several months. Things are getting worse.

He remembers the words of a visiting friend, a doctor working in a distant land, who advised him last year to seek professional medical attention. It might be cancer you see.

The prostate, that naughty little organ that sits astride a man’s urinary passage, useful during one’s youth, is notorious for going wild, attacking bones like a guerrilla soldier – quietly, slowly, unremittingly, focused.

Men ignore its symptoms at their peril, the doctor told him. It is like politicians who ignore the protests and pain of their subjects. They may suppress them for a while, even kill a few, but the protestors will eventually win. It is the malignancy of dissent.

So it is with the prostate, the doctor friend had told the Old Man before giving him money to take him to Kampala to seek help from the specialists.

However, the Old Man had better and more urgent things to spend the money on. One had to eat. One had to support the orphans, his grandchildren whose parents had succumbed to the complications of HIV/AIDS. One had to give a tithe to the church, including arrears dating back more than 5 years.

That is why he likes the ritual that is called elections. He knows that his vote will mean zilch. The “winner” of the presidential contest is predetermined. The parliamentary race is a little more unpredictable. However, that does not matter. His interest is in the cash that these things bring every five years. The chance for the people to feel worth a few shillings.

He walks very slowly, opens the front door, squats on the verandah and shields his eyes with his hands. The sun is already high in a cloudless sky.

His neighbour brings him his copy of the day’s newspaper. He reads a letter that pretty much threatens citizens, coming from one who breathes the same air with the wretched of the Earth.

A knowing smile graces his face when he reads the president’s reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3:1-8 where the Teacher writes: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under Heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…..a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace”

“This is a rather angry letter,” he judges as he continues to read. Perhaps that is why the president has quoted a very narrow aspect of an important scripture.

“I wonder whether the president has read the entire Book of Ecclesiastes,” the Old Man says, without looking up from the paper. Has he read Chapter 4 of the same Book? Perhaps he has, but prefers to ignore it, for it seems to speak about the plight of Ugandans.

“Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun,” Solomon writes. “I saw the tears of the oppressed – and they have no comforter; power was on the side of the oppressors – and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

The Old Man knows Ecclesiastes by heart. It describes his experience and sentiments, shared by millions of men and women who live on the edge of society, desperate even as their rulers boast about the economic miracle and the wealth that has been enjoyed in the land during the last 30 years.

He squints into the distance. Shiny cables stretched across wooden poles carry electricity, one of the great developments in Mparo in recent years. This, together with the gravity water that used to flow through underground pipes, is a well-deserved credit to the government. Yes, used to flow, for it has stopped now. Neglect, you see. Stolen parts, of course. But there is hope that it will return.

Yet it means nothing to the Old Man. He is condemned to darkness in his home. He must continue to rely on water from a well, nearly a kilometer away, which he can no longer fetch himself. The modernization program eludes him. It is an illusion, present yet absent; tantalizing yet unreachable. Even the health centre down the road lacks reliable electricity. There is no money to pay for connecting the centre to the national power grid.

The Old Man, like the vast majority of his peers, cannot afford the cost of these things. No electricity, no water, no health care, no worthwhile education for his grandchildren, no pension, no real voice in national matters.

Is that what citizenship means? Is his role simply to vote – well, sort of – and legitimise people who will forget him till the next election?

He turns the newspaper pages, to more stories of corruption and the unimaginable lifestyles of the well connected, those self-styled patriots who are bleeding the country dry. Party label does not matter. Same appetite for the easy life, bought with the people’s votes.

Names flash through his head. He lifts up his eyes. His neighbour has been quietly studying his body language. “Oh how they have plundered this land!” the neighbour says.

The Old Man replies softly: “It says in Ecclesiastes that all man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. It also reminds us: ‘Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless’.”

“Yes,” his neighbor says. “How I wish they understood the reality of Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 9:1-3. There he reminds us that the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed ‘share a common destiny.’”

The old man reaches for his stick. “There is hope though,” he says. “That man in charge of Tanzania – Magufuli I think is his name – is a breath of fresh air. He has read and understood Ecclesiastes. Hope he doesn’t disappoint us, like those who once gave us hope, in this blessed land of ours.”

His neighbour agrees. After a long silence, the Old Man, staring in the far distance, speaks with an almost inaudible voice. “The wise person, whether president or peasant, is one who humbles himself before God and keeps his commandments.”

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