By Kalungi Kabuye
The late President Godfrey Binaisa, just a few weeks into his 10-month reign, complained that people in Kampala, originally built on seven hills, generated at least seven rumours every day.
About three decades after the former President was deposed (apparently because of rumours making the rounds in town that he was going to shake up the government), Kampala is no longer a city of just seven hills.
Almost every other year another hill is added till it is very difficult to tell just how many hills make up Kampala. Correspondingly, it seems, the number of rumours generated in Kampala in a day have also exploded in numbers, to go with the new hills.
In the 1980s, we used to wake up to all kinds of rumours, mostly generated by what was referred to as Radio Katwe. In those days there was actually just one radio, Radio Uganda, and it broadcast mostly what the reigning President did or said, or maybe what he had for breakfast. Any other information was from Radio Katwe, especially if it did not toe the Government line.
January of 1986 found people in Kampala expecting the then National Resistance Army (NRA) to take the city any time, but for some reason they did not. So everyday some wag would start the rumour batuuse (they have arrived), referring to the NRA, and Kampala would empty in 30 minutes flat. Nobody wanted to be caught up in the middle of a war.
But we got used to that, so much that every time somebody yelled batuuse, a joker would ask, “who? The Afrigo?” (The song Afrigo batuuse was very popular around that time). Of course, the NRA would eventually enter Kampala, but they did it very early in the morning, and by the time we got up, they were in town. So that was the end of batuuse.
Kampala now has more radio stations than I care to count, and dozens of television stations, so we have several sources of news, not just Radio Uganda. But that has not stopped the rumours, if at all they are spreading more virulently than the ones which so irked President Binaisa.
Blame it mainly on social media. Anybody with a semi-smart phone can start a rumour, and they do so. Every minute somebody somewhere in Uganda is either starting a rumour, or spreading one.
In the past it was acceptable to dismiss any rumour or point view as emanating from a kafunda, those small pubs where Ugandans gather after hours to discuss and debate anything under the sky; but whose discussions and debate rarely had any basis in facts or logic. The more far-fetched or fantastic those debates became, the more support they garnered.
We used to ignore such, and even laugh at them, but now you find them all over facebook and twitter. And at times people you think are at least half-intelligent are the ones to propagate them.
One time somebody posted about an explosion, and what could it be? Most comments after that suggested that maybe it was an earthquake, and by the 35th comment, it had been confirmed that buildings had been destroyed and several people died.
The next morning we all learnt that there had been a fire at a transformer, causing a ‘small’ explosion, but no damage. But by then anxious folks from across the globe were calling frantically to make sure their people were ok. The chic that had started it all had by then moved on to something else.
Breaking news of people’s death is another popular habit on social media. I have failed to count the number of times Eddie Murphy is supposed to have died, the same way (ski accident), but from different places and times about three years apart.
One girl (no sexism here) found a three year-old-post of Murphy’s death and started circulating it anew. Within minutes friends of her friends and their friends had picked it up, and the rumour spread anew. It was not till somebody spotted the original posting as being three years old that the whole cycle ended.
And then last week we were woken up by posts, ‘confirmed by family’, that the First Deputy Prime Minister, Eriya Kategaya, had died. That almost went viral before it came out that, although he was in hospital, he actually had not died.
So, what makes otherwise intelligent folk repeat things they have no idea are true or not? Why do people spread rumours?
A quick Internet search gives some interesting results; apparently most people who spread rumours have no lives of their own, and are craving to feel important.
So being the source of a post that garners a lot of comments makes some small little fellow in a shadowy Internet café feel really important.
Politicians, of course, have not been very far behind in using social media to sow all kinds of disinformation and it is bound to get worse before it can get better.
In the ‘west’, posting lies about other people on social media gets one into real trouble, and very often in prison, but in Uganda the laws are not there yet. So we shall go to sleep and wake up to more rumours making the rounds, and everybody else repeating them.
Bet President Binaisa never imagined it would get this bad.
Catch KK on twitter at (@KalungiKabuye)