Tuesday, August 6, 2013

LIVE FOR NOW



When I arrived excitedly in my hotel room again after a year’s absence, I rushed to the balcony to check out the wonderful view over the market below and beyond to the regional hospital, looking for changes in the landscape. My eyes alighted on a huge signboard by the side of Gulu’s main thoroughfare, telling us to LIVE FOR NOW. Only soft drink, alcohol, and phone companies can afford such mega-publicity, and in this case it was Pepsi.  Initially I was bothered by the fact that the faces in the advertisement were white and that the images of partying seemed out of place.  Then gradually I realized that it was the LIVE FOR NOW message that I found so objectionable.  For many people passing the signboard on foot or on boda-bodas or motorcycle taxis, the raw memories of an insecure existence in the camps or the bush during the conflict--when you didn’t know if you would make it through the day--put a very different spin on living in the present.

Now that there is peace in the region, the youth are trying to get back to school, go for further education or improve their vocational skills. The government vaunts its Peace, Recovery and Development Plan for Northern Uganda (PRDP).  Businesses are popping up and banks are urging their customers to save for the future. There is a rising middle class in Gulu (check out the new night clubs, bars and Internet caf├ęs), but the reality is that many more are eking out an existence hawking and doing menial work. As the hotel industry expands in the town, servicing the NGO community and company workshops, as well as people on their way to and from South Sudan, it creates jobs for the aspiring youth.  But the salaries are so low and the hours so long they can become trapped there, dreaming of ways to break out and move upwards. During the war (that ended in 2006), Gulu town was known as the largest unofficial IDP (internally displaced persons’) camp. Thatched huts still abound in many neighborhoods, offering low-cost rental accommodation, as well as places to live for those unwilling or unable to return to their villages.  

In the quest to “develop” and be part of the “Africa Rising” rather than the Africa-in-need narrative, some northern Ugandans look to faster ways of making money than traditional farming practices, such as (illicit) charcoal production. Born-again churches promising miracles and prosperity are on the increase. More worrying for many, notably the government, is the rising popularity with young males of drinking spots and sports betting shops.  A musician friend explained to me that such behavior is an expression of the newfound freedom of the youth in the “post-conflict” phase.  That notwithstanding, gambling or drinking away one’s limited earnings provides a telling example of how living for now, rather than tomorrow, might be because of the past.   

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