Travel: Uganda Forever

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Dr. Ghislaine Lewis, LC Communication Studies Professor~

In the midst of the Black Panther and Wakanda hype, I went to Kampala, Uganda for an Internet Policy in Africa workshop.

Africa is the sixth continent I have had the privilege of experiencing . Travel is my happiness, but as a person of African ancestry no one ever truly prepares you for the feelings that assail you when you land on the continent.

Growing up in the Caribbean, Marcus Garvey and the UNIA back to Africa movement were part of our high school curriculum and the lyrics of Bob Marley’s “War” are inscribed on my heart. While I think education and travel have exposed me to cultural nuances around the globe,  one cannot dispute that the media portrayal of Africa is dominated by images of corruption, poverty and tribal wars.

Landing at the Entebbe International Airport was a pivotal moment for me. I thought about my grandparents and the generations before them who would have relished the opportunity to return to the motherland.

Uganda is so much more than the stain of Idi Amin we hear about in the West.  Uganda is beautiful! It is more developed than any Google image you can view on your desktop.   As with any country, including the United States, poverty is part of the national reality but, the country appears on the cusp of drastic change.

With a population of 40 million, it is a multiracial, multiethnic society that currently hosts over 1 million refugees from South Sudan on its northern border. Ugandans are a warm, vibrant and welcoming people, resilient, enterprising and industrious. There are small businesses on every corner, curry appears to be a national staple, motorcycles or boda bodas transport everything from children to goats and Kampala is a city that seemingly never sleeps.

As much as the city beckoned, I was there for work. As I sat through the six-day workshop, I listened to activists, journalists, lawyers and academics from 25 countries on the continent and the policy challenges became clear.

The population on the continent is just over 1.2 billion, while internet penetration is 21.8% according to the Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) .  The penetration disparities vary according to the infrastructure capabilities in each country; in Kenya it is 85 percent, in South Africa it is 40 percent, in Uganda it is 31.3 percent while in Liberia  penetration is 8.1 percent. When you consider that penetration in the United States is at 88.5 percent, this puts the imparity in perspective.

There are serious concerns around access to internet and the gendered disparities in that equation. In addition, government shutdowns and censorship continue to prevail as a means of curtailing dissent. Despite these hurdles around the continent, mobile money and micro-businesses are exploding.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2030, one in five people will be African and mobile phone access is set to surpass access to piped water and electricity. With these statistics in mind, Uganda is a country ripe with possibility. It boasts a young population, vast natural resources, a rapidly expanding infrastructure grid and an enviable education system.

In recent years the global developmental focus has been on Asia.  But, Africa is fast developing, ironically with massive infusions of aid and infrastructure support from the Chinese government. With these investments, Uganda and the rest of the continent is poised to be the new frontier.

The workshop highlighted the tireless work being done on the ground to ensure access, and equity. It also exposed the participants to cutting edge information gathering software, research methods techniques, new sources of funding and enthusiastic collaborators.

While I have yet to see Black Panther, as my plane left Entebbe, I reflected on my trip. I thought about the exploitation of the continent, the scourge of colonization, the ethnic and socioeconomic disparities and the widespread corruption.

I also thought  about the quiet beauty of the landscape, my encounter with a wild rhino,   the vibrancy of the fashion and the diverse faces of my people. I thought about the promise of the future and what Uganda would look like the next time I visited.

I was thankful. I had come home to the motherland and fallen under its spell. This was my legacy.

I couldn’t help but agree with John McKenna of the World Economic Forum, the future is African.