Friday, November 28, 2008

Kampala amateur dramatics

Next week, we will be staging the annual pantomime at the National Theatre in Kampala. In an ill-advised moment of conceit and goodwill, I volunteered to write and direct this year’s offering, Robin Hood of Mabira Forest. In theory, this sort of venture, once or twice a year, should come as a welcome and refreshing diversion from the day-to-day pressures of work. In practice – and I have had enough experience to know – it is painful, stressful and frequently disappointing. This production is no exception.

With less than a week to go before opening night, the failures are numerous. As yet, we have been unable to assemble the whole cast for any one rehearsal. To some extent, with a cast of 23 amateurs, this is inevitable, but it is nevertheless hugely frustrating. The programme is not yet ready. The set is not yet ready. The props are yet to be assembled. The costumes are not yet ready. The orchestra has not yet rehearsed….. “Don’t worry – it’s always like this…” “It’ll all come together next week…” It probably will, but it is profoundly unsatisfactory and, perhaps because I have written the script, personally disappointing, as I hear my beautifully-crafted dialogue mangled in ways that I never imagined possible.

The show probably will come together at the last minute, once the adrenalin of being in the theatre kicks in. Robin Hood is a great story and it translates very well to Uganda. In brief, the story begins with King Richard (otherwise fondly known as Big King Dickie) departing for war and entrusting his Kingdom of Uganda to his weak and feeble brother, Prince John. John and the Sheriff of Kampalaham invent the system of taxation, designed to take from the poor in the name of investment and development but in fact aiming to enrich the ruling class. Robin Hood, together with his band of merry women, emerge as a force who take back from the rich and give to the poor. Mabira Forest, so recently under threat of partial destruction to create land for commercial sugar cane production, is their home. The story includes the obligatory romance between Robin Hood (the Principal Boy) and Maid Marion – and Maid Marion’s mother, the Widow Winterbottom, known to her friends as Booty, provides the role of the Dame. I am lucky enough to have some great performers in the cast: Dick Stockley as the Sheriff, Barbara Kasekende as Marion and David Griffiths as the Dame all spring to mind, but somehow the whole seems to be less, rather than more, than the sum of its parts.

Will I do it again? Never! Or at least until the memory has faded to create a sufficently warm and blurry mental picture. If history is anything to go by, I will be back in the theatre, tearing my hair out, in about nine months’ time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sir Roger and the Congo

Once again, the Congo is in the forefront of the media for all the wrong reasons. Civil war, displacement, rape, murder, ethnic cleansing, corruption.... a more talented writer than I described it as "Pandora's box without the hope" and it's hard to escape this conclusion.
I don't know Congo at all well: I have only made one visit, yet it is strangely fascinating. My first memory was of the Rumble in the Jungle, when Muhammed Ali defeated George Foreman in heavyweight boxing. My second was reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In the light of what has come afterwards, who can forget the following quote "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." Certainly Leopold's conquest of the Congo was, even by the standards of imperialism as a whole, not a pretty thing. The supposed Congo Free State in which Leopold and his mercenaries established a centralised government solely for the purpose of looting the country of its rubber, its ivory and its minerals. Adam Hochschild's wonderful book, King Leopold's Ghost, describes the numerous atrocities inflicted on the Congolese people - and first alerted me to the role played by Sir Roger Casement in exposing these atrocities to the outside world.
Sir Roger Casement (pictured above) is an intriguing character. Knighted for his humanitarian services first to the people of the Congo and then for carrying out a similar expose on the abuses and cruelty inflicted on Putumayo indians in the Amazon basin, he fell spectacularly from grace due to his support for the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein. Latterly tried, convicted and executed for treason - following his bungled attempt to further the Irish rebellion with German support during the first World War - his life story presents a mystery to biographers and historians. This mystery is not only in his public life, but also in his private life - publicised by his English accusers in the form of the infamous black diaries - which describe in some detail his homosexual escapades. But perhaps it is not so difficult: he was undoubtedly a sensitive and kind man, and the horrors of imperial exploitation first in Congo and then in the Amazon - must have led him to think about the English occupation of Ireland....
Sir Roger's other tragedy is that despite his intervention, and that of his friend and tireless human rights campaigner E D Morel, the legacy of Leopold's Congo has proved so strong. From the Belgian abandonment in 1960, to Patrice Lumumba's assassination, to the long and disastrous rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, to the accession (and assassination) of the brutal Laurent Kabila, to the "democratic" elections two years ago which presented Congolese with a choice between the inept Joseph Kabila and war criminal Jean-Pierre Bemba, to Laurent Nkunda's latest incursion ostensibly to protect Tutsi minorities in the East, so little has changed.
For me, Congo exemplifies three things. First, the wicked and enduring scar left by colonialism on Africa. Second, the curse of abundant natural resources in an environment where the biggest fists are all that matter. Third, the hideous impact of systematic corruption on justice and the rule of law. What next for the people of the Congo?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Amaranth and the history of crops

AAC has recently made an investment in a Kenyan business called Amaranth International. This business buys grain amaranth from small farmers in Kenya and Uganda, processes it into flour and popped cereal and markets it under the “Ama” brand throughout Kenya.

Amaranth is a grain that didn’t feature on my childhood dinner table, but it’s becoming more and more popular. In Europe, it is being used increasingly as an ingredient in breads and breakfast cereals. Known as “Terere” in Kenya, it is gaining market share due to its nutritional qualities. It’s gluten-free, a significant source of protein, and has high levels of lysine (an amino acid rare in other grains). It’s also high in iron, with a 1/4 cup containing 60% of an adult’s recommended daily allowance.
Here’s a picture of the plant.

Quite apart from its nutritional qualities, it is also relatively easy to cultivate. In Kenya, farmers can produce three or even four crops annually. It is drought-resistant and currently sells at the farm gate for prices much higher than for maize (the principal staple food). Perhaps most importantly, from a business perspective, it also tastes good!

There are numerous different varieties of Amaranth around the world, many of which have been historically important as staple crops. Most famously, it was grown by the Aztecs in central America, where it formed a staple part of the Aztec diet. As a key part of Aztec religious ceremonies, it was banned by the Conquistadores, but luckily survived in the wild. It is now making a comeback in Latin America. At this point, I have a confession to make. Ever since I read a wonderful book called “Seeds of Change” by Henry Hobhouse, I have found the history of food crops incredibly interesting. This book, which sadly I think is now out of print, discusses five crops which changed the world: cotton, potatoes, tea, quinine and sugar. Each history is fascinating. Maybe some day, a scholar will tell the story of amaranth.

Monday, November 10, 2008


There have been huge celebrations in Kenya, Uganda and (I'm sure) the rest of Africa following the election of Barack Obama. That a son of a Kenyan immigrant should have risen from humble beginnings to the most powerful position in the world is a remarkable achievement, and will undoubtedly be a source of great pride and inspiration to people everywhere, but most specially in Africa. Following two long campaigns, in which he first defeated the redoubtable Hilary Clinton and then the doughty John McCain, no-one can dispute his credentials.

For me, however, the most interesting thing about the election will be its reverberations across Africa in the next four years. For how much longer will Africans accept ageing leaders who cling to power through profoundly undemocratic systems? When will the simple message for change, embodied in the three words "yes we can", start to spread through Africa? Until recently, poor communications have stifled political campaigning by opposition groups, but the internet and the cell phone are changing that, and fast. The instruments of mass communication are no longer under government control. In winning the election, Obama may be the catalyst for change in Africa and for the transfer of political power to the new generation. Even more than elsewhere, support by the young in Africa is critical for change to take place. Population growth and demographics mean that the overwhelming majority of the African electorate is under 40 years of age. Leaders who are able to win and harness their support will create the future.

Many people I meet harbour negative perceptions about Africa. They complain about corruption and bemoan conflict. My response to this is to point to the remarkable tenacity and determination of most African people, who achieve great things in spite of all the obstacles placed in their path. Barack Obama is a shining example of this tenacity and determination, but there are many others like him in Africa, in commerce, in industry, in education and even in politics, who will shape the future of this young continent. Make no mistake, Africa's future is bright.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Tree planting at AAC/Kilimo Trust

Having talked about the importance of tree planting, I came across this photo of a happy Financial Controller planting an avocado tree at the AAC/Kilimo Trust offices about 2 months ago. Edward Isingoma Matsiko is usually deskbound, but that day at least we managed to get his hands dirty.
We all planted trees and then followed up our work with a short office party (goat muchomo for those of you interested). I have just been to visit my orange tree and I am glad to report that it is growing well, though in need of some early side shoot pruning.

Trees and Honey

Very few days go by in this job wthout learning something new and interesting. A few years ago, when I was working for CDC, I learnt a lot about the cultivation and export of fresh vegetables. Subsequently, my colleagues found my extensive knowledge of vegetables a source of great amusement, though I could never see the joke.....

Over the past two months, two more areas have caught my interest and attention. Trees and honey. Trees - and more specifically the lack of them - is a fairly obvious one. Here are a few facts: East Africa's trees produce about 80% of the population's energy requirements (who ever said biofuels were something new?); population growth - and land pressure - is rising at about 4% per annum. To put this in context, that means the population of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania will double within 20 years! Forest cover is diminishing: in Kenya, forests now cover less than 2% of the area. Tanzania and Uganda are slightly better, but the trend is sharply down... Timber prices are increasing all the time....

Now, I knew all this before. What I didn't know, until attending an excellent presentation by Eric Bettelheim of Sustainable Forestry Management last week in Kigali, was that Africa had been unable to benefit from the official market in carbon trading established under the Kyoto Protocol a few years ago. If, therefore, a government or a private individual or business plants trees in Africa, s/he is ineligible for carbon credits - which are available to European and North American growers! The result - deforestation continues apace in the developing world but afforestation is on the increase in Europe and the USA. And I thought it was a global problem....... Fortunately, however, the business case for planting forests in East Africa is becoming very persuasive, even without the carrot of carbon trading opportunities, and, if Mr Bettelheim gets his way, the economics may look even better in the near future. Buy land and plant some trees - in today's fragile economic environment, that advice could be a great long term pension investment, besides doing something small to save the planet.

And if you plant some trees, why not invest in some beehives? The bees do all the work and you collect the income. Furthermore, the global honey price is increasing, due mostly to the impact of bee disease in USA & Europe and the consequent reduction in bee colonies. Beeswax, propolis and royal jelly, alongside the honey, and cross-pollination for your tree crops to boot.

If you want to learn some more, visit Think about it.