The (Im)possibilities of Ugandan patriotism

To say we are "allies" would be to delude ourselves into thinking that some of us are safe. We are not safe.

Kampala, Uganda (Oli Matthews via Flickr CC).

I am not patriotic. This country nauseates me. This country has not given me reasons to have or even express devotion. This country will kill me and walk over my body on its way out. This country has already killed me. So many times over. Without flinching. Without remorse. I was the target. I did not get caught in a crossfire.

A few days after moving to Entebbe, you realize that the road along which you stay has been in the news before. You do not watch the news. You deliberately avoid the news. You care for your mental health. But there’s news that finds you. You do not look for it. It finds you in the form of warnings. Women are getting killed in such chilling spectacles. We say their names. We try to remember them as more than just another dead woman. They deserve better. The news cycle, as it always does, eventually moves on.

Two months later, you find a cosy nook in a gated compound. You move to the clean air of Entebbe town. You are walking along the road from the house to catch the bus to work when it hits you. Nansubuga Gorreti. Kasowole Aisha. On some such morning in 2017, the residents of this area woke up to find bodies. Mutilated. Dead. Exactly five weeks apart. That’s what the news reported. Sometimes with grim images. The news, it is always an abstract concept, a far-off thing that you watch to know what is happening to the grand idea of the nation. That is, until it is right outside your door. It is not news then. It is a chilling reminder of helplessness, the senseless kind. You get a bottle of wine on your way back. If we die, we die.

Goretti and Aisha. You think about them every morning as you walk to the bus for work. Life seems normal here. Going on as it should with the man that sells roasted sausages outside the supermarket and the lady that sells fresh fruit right next to him. Everything seems normal. You wonder if you had been here on either of those mornings if everything would have been normal. You want to ask them, the people, if they remember, if it bothers them that whoever did that could be laughing with them at the boda boda stage, how long it took for the “normal” to return after those mornings.

In the Netflix series, Sex Education, when a photo of a teenager’s vagina is leaked to her classmates, the victim faces the threat of all the consequences that come with revenge porn. The photo, however, has no face and therefore the owner is being blackmailed to own up to it. She tells her friends about it and one of them owns up to it at the school assembly when the principal asks. To the principal’s surprise, one more person stands up and says, no, it is my vagina. Another person stands up and soon, the whole school is up saying, it is my vagina. Frustrated, the principal says, it cannot be all your vaginas!

The trick here is that one person can be shamed for the photo, the whole school cannot.

On a Saturday evening after grocery shopping at Millennium Supermarket located in the heart of Kisementi, the Kampala middle class hub, you order a Safe Boda to take you home. The rider calls and you ask him to find you in front of the supermarket. When he gets there, his bike is “arrested” by the other riders who work at the boda boda stage (where the boda bodas wait for customers). Only those who work at that stage are allowed into this area, and there is a sign at each end threatening a heavy fine. He is pleading with them to let him go, he did not know. The riders at the stage are very angry and are not giving him a chance to construct a full sentence.

They ask you to order another Safe Boda and leave them to finish this. They are threatening him with all sorts of things; including taking him to the police station. You know the violence that will happen as soon as you leave. You insist it was your fault and say you will not leave without him. Eventually, they let him go “for his customer’s sake.”

The trick here is that none of the threats can be followed through if you are taking the blame. Class privilege.

In June of 2018, there is a Women’s March to demand justice for the lives of Aisha and Gorretti and so many women like them that have lost their lives senselessly. It is impassioned, fearlessly fueled by Dr. Stella Nyanzi’s cheerleading skills. There is a lot of emotion caught in your throat. Here, in this Kampala, women, queer people, sex workers marching. It feels surreal. There are different signs about the importance of women’s lives (imagine that) as well as photos of Aisha and Gorretti and other women like them who have lost their lives senselessly. Yours says, fuck the patriarchy. There are some men, holding the same signs.

They are there for the women.

For the women.

Some are (obviously) lauded for showing up for the women.

My friend got arrested by the traffic police. They did not give him an explanation why. They were simply having a bad day and he happened to be the person who they could exercise their authority over for laughs. He was not allowed any calls and was not charged or whatever the law requires. He was, however, locked in a cell and his car impounded. He spent a night there before his worried father managed to track him down. His father is a high-ranking army general, unbeknownst to the officers who made the arrest. My friend was released with many apologies. Someone probably got fired.

My friend and people like him, people with that kind of privilege, are not the targets of the police. It is the people who can go missing for days with no one to look for them, or whose people have no access to the technology to track them down. It is the people who, if found in a cell, would need to beg to be released. These are the people the police target, people who would not need profuse apologies for unlawful arrest, people for whom, “we would not have arrested him if we knew he was your son” could never be an option.

In the book, Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin describes how “tools of social exclusion are not guaranteed to impact only those who are explicitly targeted to be disadvantaged.” They wonder if this knowledge is enough to rally more people against social structures that benefit some and work against others. Part of being an “ally” is an exercise in this.

In this country, however, the concept of being an ally is a laughable one.

High profile politicians with state security have been killed in broad daylight. You might die because you are queer. You might die because you are a woman. You might die because the healthcare is trash—we know a lot of those. You might die because you literally cannot afford to live. Not a physical death but a never-ending agonizing one where you are always hanging from the precipice, one push away from the final destination all the while hoping that what killed Aisha and Goretti is a news item, far-off and not at all connected.

I am hungry for a love that my country cannot afford … A love that has mapped out the possibilities of my existence and made room for each one of them. –H(Angry), Poetra Asantewa.

There is the popular proverb that talks about how first they came for the Jews, and the rest thought they were safe until eventually no one was safe. That is not the case for anyone living in this country. Women are experiencing physical, emotional, and psychological violence at the hands of men. Queer people are living under the threat of death. We are all in the firm grasp of a national security epidemic. This is the place to recognize that our struggles are connected. To say we are “allies” would be to delude ourselves into thinking that some of us are safe. We are not safe.

Further Reading