The culture of shunning ideas rendered small could do us a lot of harm.
By Amanda Ngabirano
"I must confess the temptation to 'break' the Internet using the President (Yoweri Museveni) on a bicycle completely backfired ... it's very bad PR and doesn't even add up. He is on a tour for wealth creation. But then ... when u think of wealth creation does it resonate with 1. A bicycle and a jerrycan? 2. Bottle irrigation? (…)", lamented my Ugandan friend.
"Why can't I have this in my country? Museveni is the real African President; living normal life instead of copying the west. You are real sir, help talk to your colleagues," my Nigerian friend commented.
These are two different feelings aired via social media about the president's use of a bicycle and jerrycan for irrigation in Luwero. Some people are extremely upset that the president's gesture of irrigating that way was a clear insult to the poor.
What was the biggest issue of concern? That he used a simple old-looking bicycle? Or a jerrycan to fetch water? Or that he was just being absurdly political?
What was admirable about it? Was it because he is the President, and hence that portrayed him as humble? Or that not many sitting African Presidents can do such a thing?
And what if it had been our neighbor, Tanzania's President John Pombe Magufuli?
The President's gesture was indeed simple but pro-people, particularly the poor populace. There are many poor families that even own land, have access to water and fail to start with simple ideas due to just ignorance and lack of guidance. For H.E. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to practically illustrate to people in Luwero about how they can irrigate was a gesture good enough. But for him to choose a bicycle, not trucks, not irrigating pipes or any other modern and sophisticated methods, is even the most interesting bit of the story.
Have we heard of sustainability? Or small creative steps in growth? Would one prefer to starve than to strive not to? Haven't most of us been raised by parents who practically were living from hand to mouth, but managing through using their own local way? My mother, for instance, used to sell a lot of good passion fruit juice, yet she had no blender. She simply used a clean piece of cloth.
For the people of Luwero, the President was not only helping them to stop living miserably but change their attitude by doing it with them, in the simplest way possible. He was being realistic too; and is probably taking the first step to showing them their possibilities, even in other perspectives in life.
President Museveni and Musa Semumira Musoke in his tomato and maize garden during the national poverty alleviation door-to-door program in Luwero on Sunday. (Credit: Richard Sanya)
The president is also communicating that one can live comfortably, use little initial capital and grow with what they have. What if these families had started doing this 30 years ago? What if 200 households can now successfully use their bicycles to make a difference, and shift from being miserable beggars to independent and accomplished people? Given the physical energy needed to irrigate using bicycles, we can definitely expect a healthy population in those communities. And what if this was encouraged in other poverty-stricken areas of Africa?
The reactions about this story reminded me of a short documentary I watched on how bicycle transport was helping one Ssekyanzi David kick poverty out; something he was aware of.
In the documentary, the commercial bicycle rider whose main route was Bwaise-Wandegeya said one might have thought he was he was a poor man but he had been able to pay his children's school fees, and proudly said, one was yet to complete Primary Seven. He also stressed that he was not only making money to take care of his family but felt very healthy as a result of riding a lot. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inb9Xz804CU.
What if the president got out to encourage many unemployed youths to copy Ssenkyanzi, would that be an insult to them? We are reading a lot of worrisome news about how our economy is doing and how, for instance, Uganda Police was advised to run to the public for fuel. What if our president encouraged and supported us all to use bicycle transport whenever possible in order to cut down transport costs, would that be working against us?
Finally, whereas I agree that this is just a step in his wealth creation drive and that more sophisticated but sustainable methods of irrigation should be carefully planned for and adopted, the idea of irrigating with bicycles and jerrycans should not be unfairly shunned because of its simplicity but encouraged to enable people improve their livelihoods.
And I think the mindset shift in Uganda seems to require more investment than anything else for us to attain real development.
The culture of shunning ideas rendered small could do us a lot of harm. Without politicizing and criticizing them beyond healthy levels, we could each take up this challenge, initiate such creative, realistic, sustainable and simple ideas within our means to cause positive change in our country.
The writer is an urban planner in academia and practice
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