Conmen of Kampala: A lot of English, not enough Luganda

Thursday July 30 2020

Speaking or having “a lot of English” in Kampala today simply means being a conman. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG


Having spent 31 years (more than half of my life) earning a not-so-uncomfortable living by arranging English words, I am appalled by the bad name the Queen’s language has acquired in my country Uganda.

Speaking or having “a lot of English” in Kampala today simply means being a conman. Heaven knows how we got here.

It is possibly the growth of white-collar crime that has given English such a bad name. The way our neighbours say ‘uswahili’ to mean conmanship is how my people now say ‘English’ to mean the same thing.

Yes, “too much English” is in ways replacing Kiswahili as a language despised by Uganda’s downtrodden. You might know that Kiswahili had since colonial times been regarded as a language of oppression in Uganda because it was used by both the colonial and then the local dictatorial armed forces, and the thieves.

The people who voluntarily learnt Kiswahili in the past were pleasure women who needed to use it to negotiate with the oppressive clients.

Uganda’s other widely used language but which is also hated by many is Luganda, for old political reasons. (Baganda chiefs from central Uganda worked as agents of the colonial masters in the rest of the country and their language will for long continue being seen as the language of arrogancy — by many who use it.) I recently spent a week in Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region and my favourite hotel waitress was an Acholi who has never travelled southwards but she spoke comprehensible Luganda to me all the time!


Then how did English, which symbolised being well educated, polished, travelled end up where it is today in the eyes or ears of many? Admittedly, this had started in the 1970s during the rule of illiterate soldiers. Their regime coincided with high inflation that rendered the salaries of the educated virtually useless. So speaking English reflected material misery. The illiterate rich rulers and traders carried bags of money as the shilling lost value. But today what is the reason for despising English?

Blame white-collar crime, grand corruption, deceit and senseless looting.

Land grabbing starts by dispossessing masses of their ancestral land through manipulating documents using corrupt lawyers, in English.

Mind-boggling corruption that removes billions of shillings from service delivery into the smelly pits of a few corrupt stomachs is committed with documents drafted by evil minds, in English.

Even the wanton conmanship by criminals who have no political connection is mostly committed in English. One prominent conman rose through the con ranks by using a fake British accent that he rented out to other conmen who would put him on the phone to convince their victims that he was the ‘investor’ they were representing. When you hear someone in Kampala say, “There is a lot of English in this deal” know they have become suspicious of the other party’s propriety.

For three months of lockdown, we did not have the matatus – called taxis in Uganda – but now they are back operating under strict guidelines of face masks and social distance sitting.

Like before lockdown, they have one phrase which is used to disallow any questioning of increased fares: “Since when don’t enter,” the touts who call passengers at the bus stages say as they declare the high fare, adding the cruel phrase. Apparently, they loathe people who ask them in English since when new fares on the route were instituted. Mockingly, they refer to any passenger who speaks English as a ‘since when’. Previously, they used to call such people the ‘actually’ – a word whose use is a common mannerism by people who use English as they elaborate on something. Now they are the ‘since when’s’!

Even the honest artisans will use the word ‘English’ to admit failure to perform a task the client wants. Many Kampala mechanics today have a challenge with the electronics of modern vehicles.

“There is a lot of English in your car’s systems,” an honest mechanic will tell the client as he advises them to take the car to a better equipped garage.

In the foreseeable future, it is the mechanics who will be willing to learn the “English” of vehicles that will be powered more by electricity and less by internal combustion engines that will remain in vehicle servicing and repair.

Young people need to embrace the ‘English’ and should not be deterred by its current abuse to fleece the public. The current abuse of public resources ‘in English’ will not last forever. Nor will the present levels of industry and locomotion that rely on ‘dirty’ energy. The time for honesty, transparency and clean energy is around the corner.