Late last month I had a brief assignment to accomplish in just a few days in Germany’s wealthy, conservative province of Bavaria. But I prevailed on my host to allow me time to visit the 1972 Olympics complex. For Ugandans born around Independence or before, this can be as inspirational a pilgrimage as a trip to holy lands.
In 1972, I was still in Primary school and, suddenly, in September of that year, the most pronounced words or name in my country became John Akii-Bua. The previous month, the military government had ordered Indians, who constituted one percent of our population, out of the country, and there was anxiety over the economy, which had been mostly in their hands.
During the time of anxiety, this 22-year-old Uganda Police constable goes to Munich and makes history as the first African to break a world record in a “technical race” — the short 100, 200 and 400 metres that require the highest level of technical proficiency, unlike the longer 800 metres upwards, which require more endurance and power.
Akii-Bua also became the first man to do 400 metres hurdles under 48 seconds. Earlier, he had shattered the African record during trials in Kampala, but the athletically superior Kenyans dismissed the claim saying the timing had been measured using an alarm clock (not even a stopwatch)!
So Akii-Bua’s victory in Munich was simply the most inspirational event for the citizens of the then 10-year-old independent state of Uganda.
But last month the historical track in Munich looked rather small to me, compared to my high school one, but that happens to our mind with the passage of time. Visit your primary school and you won’t believe how tiny it looks! Anyway, as our parents worried about the Indians’ expulsion 51 years ago, we youngsters were obsessed with Akii-Bua’s feat and name which, for years, rewrote Kampala lingo to mean speed, running, escape, power — name it.
He inspired athletes and many of us non-athletic types to excel in different fields, having realised that we could take on the world.
Returning to Kampala last week, the first big news I got on November 30 was the of 70-year-old Safina Namukwaya being delivered of twins at a local fertility clinic by local medics trained by a local medical doctor who founded the Kampala Women’s Hospital & Fertility Centre. Even as our media gets saturated with bad news of politicians, civil servants and religious leaders “eating” money, there are world-class achievements being registered by our people that make (some of) our hearts swell with pride.
As these were happening, the Conference of Parties for climate change was taking shape in Dubai. And, yes, back home, serious scientific stuff relevant to climate change tackling and mitigation is happening, even without getting due space and airtime in the media.
There are, for example, serious efforts the Kingdom (officially cultural institution) of Buganda the growing of perennial, hardy food plants like yams and "original"cassava that remain “stored” in the garden for seasons and years, only growing bigger in the soil as time passes, starting in the southern Masaka area. How about that for boosting food security without expensive artificial preservatives!
Then there is the Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) plant for electric vehicles coming up in Jinja, about 100km east of Kampala, which is preparing the country for transitioning to green mobility energy.
Columnist Elsie Eyakuze the other day on these pages described the technophobia that grips our people when a new scientific era unfolds — like her people in Tanzania, who used to fear using electric cookers and plat irons. They have company in Uganda, where many educated people still fear being electrocuted if they enter an electric vehicle.
Unaware that modern manufacturing leverages global comparative advantages to order diverse parts from different countries, sceptics even dismiss their countries’ locally based OEM design and building capability as “mere assembling”.
If 51 years ago Akii-Bua had allowed sceptical graduates to think for him, the primary school leaver wouldn’t have shattered the world record of the most technical race dubbed “the man killer” in sports circles — the 400m hurdles.
Sceptics are for ignoring as Nairobi gets firmly established as the continent’s Silicon Valley, and Jinja takes a shot at becoming the Green Energy Valley.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]