‘The Wretched of Uhuru’ by Mwenda Mbatiah


Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. Photograph by Gunnar Ries

From Words Without Borders:

After Uhuru, a new scramble began. A race for wealth and riches. As one member of parliament who cared about the country’s future put it: with Uhuru had come, sadly, a new contest for lucre. In an ordinary race, runners start together from a single spot. But this mad scramble for riches did not keep to the rules. When this contest began, some runners were already well ahead of others. Gathered at the front were the few who had benefited from colonial rule. In return for helping the Colonizer keep their fellow Africans down, they had been rewarded. Those who say “One who dances on the home-ground is very well looked after” aren’t mistaken.  These ”dancers” were the first in line to explain away the emerging class divisions. Their voices rang out in the streets, in villages, and even in government offices: “Equality is a dream. Human beings can’t be equal. There must be the short and the tall; the fat, the thin. There must be rich and poor.”

These harebrained views predisposed the people to make peace with their own wretchedness. They accepted the idea that they were destined to be poor. It was like this in the village of Gituge. Here, indeed, misery’s enclosure grew broader with each daybreak. Gituge was in a part of the country where no cash crops could thrive. The land’s character and soil could support neither coffee nor pyrethrum, tobacco, sugarcane or tea. The small farmers of Gituge—all of whom were terribly poor—grew only what they could eat. Beans, maize, plantains, and potatoes.

It was in these difficult environs that Riuki was born and raised. Though his real name was Muriuki, it was quickly shortened, affectionately, to “Riuki.” People grew so used to calling him “Riuki” that the full name was thoroughly, irretrievably, forgotten. Riukui was well-liked by other boys his age. He was pure of spirit, capable and lively, and (in a place where soccer is beloved) he was steady on the field. But it was in the classroom that his talents shone most brightly. Riuki sailed through his exams at Ugene Mission School, passing every test with the very highest marks. Father M’Arache, the mathematics teacher, awarded him the victor’s prize: a wristwatch.

The peak of scholarly achievement in those days was admission to Makerere University. Riuki set his sights on that bright summit (for the university sat atop one of Kampala’s hills) and, in the end, he reached it. When he got to Makarere, Riuki became the hero of Gituge. No student before him had ever gone so far.

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