Wednesday the 16th of February was a public holiday in Uganda, in memory of Archbishop Janan Luwum, who was executed in 1977 with two Cabinet ministers and a stage-managed road accident was presented as the cause of death.
The military officer who was reportedly driving the ill-fated car explained to a battery of international journalists that the reason he got out of the wreckage alive unlike his passengers was God’s decision to punish them for plotting against the state.
Exactly 45 years later last week, I confirmed that our trust in God is still as strong as that of our compatriot army major who addressed foreign journalists in our beautiful city of Kampala.
Being a public holiday when life is expected to be relaxed in the city, I decided to use public transport for the first time this year that Wednesday and jumped onto the taxi minibus that carries 16 people, including driver and conductor. I looked out of place, as nobody else was wearing a facemask. I felt stigmatised and naked in a busful of dressed people — a foreigner in my country.
Thus “In God We Trust” maybe Uganda should swap mottos with the United States and they take our “For God and My Country,” after all, both invoke God.
A month ago, the Ugandan economy was fully opened up after two years of almost full and then partial lockdown. The government said that preventive measures against the spread of the coronavirus must continue. In fact, access to public offices was supposed to be on production of proof of vaccination. But who cares? The few careful people who have masks mostly hang them around their chins, for in God they trust.
This exclusive trust in God at the expense of common sense did not start with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is as old as the modern epidemics. When HIV/Aids hit the country in the early 1980s, Ugandans thought it was witchcraft from Tanzania at a time when we had intense interaction with Tanzanians in war and love. So we prayed to God until He provided scientific explanations and precautions in the mid-80s. But for many years until now, many Ugandans will refuse to use a condom with a partner whose sero status they don’t know, arguing that a sweet cannot be eaten with a wrapper on. Anyway, now God has worked through scientists to bring pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). In God we trust.
Eating with a wrapper is now invoked to ridicule those cautious about the coronavirus in Uganda. On inter-city buses, there are those snack stops where passengers buy roast chicken, beef or goat, all served with that devilishly sweet type of banana called gonja, also roasted. Passengers who have been keeping on their masks during the journey are stigmatised, being asked how they will eat the roasts through their masks. Everyone is expected to trust in God.
The stigma worsens in the food markets. Go wearing a mask and they charge you double. The market women believe mask-wearers are either foreigners or rich nationals, who should pay more. In cars, safety belts are often fastened when a policeman is spotted. We trust God, not belts.
Fortunately, our transport planners don’t prioritise water transport in this country, a fifth of whose surface is open water. If they did, millions would be at risk of drowning every day in the waters because those who sail never use life jackets. On our overloaded, ill-maintained marine vessels, the crew regale passengers with stories of sinking boats and drowning, but neither use the available life jackets nor encourage passengers to. They trust in God, not jackets.
Every year during national budget debates, there is a brief ritual of members of parliament mouthing something about a national health insurance scheme. A minister comes up to complete the annual ritual by mouthing something about monetary constraints, and everybody waits for the next year for the brief ritual. This month, several VIPs fell sick and some died. The little matter of national health insurance came up on social media, but not so much in parliament.
Forget about insurance, masks and condoms, for in God we trust.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]