On October 9th, 2021 – Uganda turns 59. Yes, 59 years of Independence from Britain. 59 years of self-rule. 59 years of nation building.

Now a proud dual-citizen, I’m originally from Canada. Independence Day means something very different to me than it does to a natural born Ugandan. The best way to explain it is to say that growing up, I felt inherently Canadian (although on a practical level, after 17 years in Uganda, that’s not really the case anymore).

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colonialism reality bites

I am descended from the colonial power that ruled Canada for a couple hundred years, before handing over power to it’s non-indigenous population. We basically tweaked British rule and lifestyle and carried on. No huge leap for us and our collective history (much different story for Canada’s First Nations and French populations). And not at all comparable to the African colonial/independence experience (understatement of the year).

Every year, I ask my Ugandan friends and colleagues what independence means to them. Some just look at me sideways and laugh a bit, saying “I don’t really go in for that, it’s just another day”. Or, more caustically “Independence from what?”

For those not in the know, almost all countries in Africa were created not by their original inhabitants. Rather, the continent was carved up and named by non-African colonial powers, to suit those non-African colonial powers only. As each country became “independent”, it’s population found itself lumped together with some very disparate people. Further, colonial education and religious infrastructure actively de-valued local cultural practices and languages for hundreds of years.

So, yeah, it’s likely not so easy to whole-heartedly identify with a recent, foreign-created framework, like nationhood – when traditional clan and tribal structures served their members for many, many, many, (and I can’t stress this enough) many generations.

(This is not to take away from the fact that our current – western-dominated – global economic system continues to control and appropriate Ugandan – and African – resources with absolutely zero regard to actual value. How are we supposed to value what we have, when no one else does?)

TOO HEAVY? Let’s celebrate a Ugandan super food – Jackfruit!

children's drawing of Uganda flag

uganda in the making

Uganda’s government puts on a huge celebration every October 9th. In order to be inclusive, the celebrations are held in a different town each year. A move in the right direction for building national pride.

I am seeing other avenues building our sense of nationhood: Uganda figures well in international sport: We’ve got more than few famous runners (SO MANY medals in Japan’s 2020 Olympics!), boxers, and rowers to admire. Our football and netball teams (Go She Cranes!) also unite. Then there’s the alcohol – Uganda Waragi “The Spirit That Binds Us”, and Bell lager “Uganda’s Heritage”.

Our newest experiment in building national identity is actually a happy outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic: local tourism!

RELATED: The COVID-19 situation in Uganda

With international travel restrictions bringing Uganda’s tourism industry to its knees, our government and other tourism providers slashed rates and focused their energies on attracting Ugandan tourists (finally). My little dude and I even spent Christmas at Kidepo Valley National Park and spent less than $200, all in!

Rolling lockdowns, curfew, and bans on huge family gatherings, spectator events, bars, and churches left a number of Ugandans with A LOT of time on their hands. Time to examine their mortality, get reaquainted with immediate family, and get into shape. Enter: cycling!

Cycling in Uganda has grown immensely in the past 18 months. And it’s increasingly being paired with local tourism:

cyclists at kasumbi tombs in kampala uganda

Just look at all these Ugandans who rode their bikes to Kampala’s Kasubi tombs! Local tourism enthusiasts, Fun Cycling Uganda, meets for social rides every Sunday 7:30am at Independence Monument. In fact, they’re celebrating Uganda’s 2021 Independence Day with a weekend cycling trip to Lake Victoria’s Ssese Islands. Rad!

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parting questions

These may get the ball rolling, but are they meaningful enough to cement a national identity? How about enabling global travel opportunities for significantly more Ugandans? My friends who have lived and traveled abroad tend to appreciate what Uganda has to offer more than those who can’t compare it to other countries. (Let’s make some noise about unfair visa restrictions for Ugandan passport holders and crappy local wages and expand on this theory…)

Or does Uganda simply need more time to get to know itself, to independently build itself?

At 59 years young – we’re just getting started.

Ugandans! What does Independence Day mean to you? What does Uganda mean to you? Do you feel Ugandan?

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