Wednesday, February 23, 2011

uganda rocks the vote

This past Friday, Uganda held its Presidential elections, with results Sunday declaring Yoweri Museveni the winner. Again. The next five years will mark his sixth term in office. Despite over a year of buildup, which for me started the first day I set foot in country, the elections passed with very little incident. The fairness of the vote may have been called into question by the opposition, but despite the failed candidates’ call for public outrage, nothing has materialized.

Some people will probably find it quite surprising that Museveni could peacefully win a sixth term. After all, consider the fact that Uganda sits near the top of nearly all global corruption statistics. Even the Ambassador of one their biggest allies was leaked in a memo stating the man had autocratic tendencies. Also consider the fact the claims of fraud and bribery of voters was substantiated by European overseers. Place all of this against the backdrop of the wave of political turmoil sweeping North Africa and the Middle East and serious, credible terror threats from al-Shabob and al-Qaeda, and it really does seem incredible that things went as well as they did. Although I am by no means an expert on the politics of Uganda, I do have some theories as to why.

The first reason is the Ugandans themselves. Uganda is a country, like much of Sub-Saharan, that was formerly under European colonial rule. Borders were drawn with little regard to the identity of its inhabitants, and as a result, the country is made up of dozens of different tribes and multiple ethnicities, all with their own cultures and many with their own languages. The disconnect and rivalry between these groups makes it very unlikely that a large enough band of tribes would stand together to oppose much of anything. The last time such an alliance did form, Museveni himself was leading it on his way to seizing the Presidency. Similarly, if Ugandans have a difficult time identifying with rivaling tribesmen, they have no connection whatsoever to Tunisians and Egyptians, whom most would claim aren’t Africans. The stories of protesters taking to the streets and toppling regimes is certainly news, but it does little in the way of inspiring the people to stand up themselves.

The opposition itself is probably another reason for the lack of unrest. Many Ugandans nd even the leaked Ambassador cited earlier have said that the opposition candidates did little to set themselves apart from Museveni. I heard more than a few people claim that almost all of the opposition was just as corrupt as anyone else already in office, so why vote for a change that could possibly destabilize the country? Furthermore, there were eight opposition candidates. Eight! I can’t imagine trying to defeat an entrenched incumbent with eight people splitting the opposition vote.

The final reason that I think prevented the riots and protests seen elsewhere in the region was the Mzee (old man), Museveni himself. First of all, he promised to crush any political uprising. After his brutal handling of riots in the Central region of the country in 2009, I think most people were inclined to take him at his word. Secondly, and probably the most important of all, people still like Museveni. Even in the freest, fairest elections known to man, I still think Museveni would have won easily. He is wildly popular in the West and Southwest of the country, and also amongst the elderly. I have talked to a few people who are old enough to remember what this country was like before Museveni came to power. I even met a few who fought alongside Museveni and his National Resistance Army (now the political party National Resistance Movement). I won’t go into a history lesson here, but the stories of life then are truly horrific. They still idolize their President for taking them into a time of relative stability and freedom, even if some admit that he has overstayed a bit.

There's certainly a lot of disappointment out there for people who wanted a change. This is even true amongst some Volunteers. I don’t really know enough about the political issues here to be able to comment what five more years will mean for this country. I am just relieved that things remained safe and calm in a volatile environment.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

ahead of the election

Tomorrow marks Uganda's presidential election. It's a monumental day, not just for Uganda, but beyond as the international world looks to this nation as a pillar of democratic stability in an often turbulent region. I sat down to write something about the build-up leading to the election, however I realized that my friend had already written something that said everything I would have. I promise that after the election I will write out some thoughts and insights of my own, but if you are interested now, check Joe's blog out. He's not only a very good friend, but a great writer.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

after a year

Before I set off for Uganda, I was pretty much running the emotional gauntlet. Of course, I was excited to start a new chapter and a new adventure in life, but I also felt uncertain, scared, guilty, and pretty much any other adjective you might think of. With all of these things swimming through me, I remember one of the overwhelming feelings that I couldn’t shake was a sense of loss. I imagined that I was leaving my life completely behind for the two plus years. Even though I was resolute in my decision to come, I was afraid that I was diverging. Stepping away from the path that I was on with everyone and everything I knew, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get back to that when I returned.

In a way, my concerns were right. I did leave behind the only way of life that I had ever known. Cultures and norms are different here. I no longer have so many of the amenities I happily took for granted in the states. Ugandans don’t eat the same food as Americans. They don’t communicate in the same way as Americans. Nothing runs the same way it did back home. Not knowing a single person on the entire continent when I arrived, I met new people and made new friends. I even had to change the way I communicate with my old friends and family. I have had more triumphs and frustrations in this single year than I can ever remember having before. With time, I have learned to adapt to these things, sometimes consciously, and sometimes without noticing it at all.

In the same way, I know that things at home have gone on in my absence. My friends’ and family’s lives have taken on exciting new changes as well. Some have struck out on their own adventures to exotic places, but all of them are in different places, figuratively and/or literally, from the time I last saw them. I continue to read about the pessimism regarding the economy. There’s apparently a new political movement in America. The iPad (which looks phenomenal, by the way) was unveiled. New music, movies, books, and trends are undoubtedly sweeping the nation. The Cleveland Cavaliers can’t win a game… Life has changed.

I have accepted all of this as true. There would be no point in denying it. The difference now, I suppose, is only in the way I view these changes. Before, I was afraid that the differences between my life now and my life before I left would create a barrier between me and everyone and everything I loved, but now I know that that is not the case. I have changed and so has everything else, but that doesn’t mean it is the end of anything. Change does not necessarily mean that things have diverged, as I once feared. They have just grown. Sure, everything will be a little different, but, to me, that’s exciting!

Exactly a year ago today I set out from Columbus, Ohio, bound for Uganda. Being so close to everything, it can be difficult to tell, but looking back now I can see that so much has happened in that year. I have had four homes in four different communities, I have been on safaris, climbed volcanoes, been immersed in new cultures, worked on countless different projects in different roles, eaten hundreds of plates of rice and beans, been through thousands of bananas, and I have met so many new people, not just from Uganda, but all over the world. Many of the experiences have been incredible, and more than a few have been considerably less than that. People often ask me what’s the biggest way that I have changed since I have been here, and, a year in, I still find it hard to answer that question. The one thing I can say with certainty, however, is that I have definitely changed. But really, who hasn’t?