Tuesday, March 30, 2010


For the past five years I have been involved in Kampala Amateur Dramatic Society's annual pantomimes, staged at the National Theatre in or around the first week of December. Where else in the world could a bunch of amateurs stage their productions at the National Theatre?

Uganda's National Theatre is a marvellous place. Constructed in the late 1950s to a standard British theatre design, the stalls seat around 230, with a further 120 or so in the circle. It is blessed with great acoustics, but goes sadly under-used despite the Ugandan love for the performing arts (especially music and dance). It has also suffered from under-investment over the years, which manifests itself in outdated sound and lighting systems and dilapidated stage (and backstage) facilities. Nevertheless, when the lights go down and the curtain is lifted, it is still a great venue.

Pantomime is a peculiarly British theatre form. It contains a number of specific ingredients: slapstick, cross-dressing, songs, satire, vulgarity, romance, villainy and animals, woven into the fabric of a traditional children's story, with a requirement for plenty of audience participation. First-time panto audiences usually find the whole thing bewildering, but most (regardless of their background or culture) come to appreciate the mayhem, which makes it puzzling that, to the best of my knowledge, it remains such an exclusively English language theatre art form.
Three out of the last five Kampala pantomimes have been written and directed by the remarkable GP, Dr Dick Stockley, whose creative talents (some might say, not I) burn even brighter than his medical..... First was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, featuring a fiendish plot to swindle the Piper of his payment. Second came The Emperor's New Clothes, a satire based on Kampala's attempts to ready itself to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007. And most recently came a good-humoured reworking of Dick Whittington. Between these I directed TinTin Goes Bananas - in which the intrepid Belgian boy detective uncovers a wicked plan to export Uganda's gorillas - and Robin Hood of Mabira Forest, where the evil Sheriff of Kampalaham, in cahoots with the greedy sugar barons, plans the destruction of Mabira Forest, but is foiled by the noble Robin and his band of merry women.

This year - well, KADS' current plan is for a Shrek/Cinderella combo, Donkey, Prince Charming and all, provisionally entitled Shrekerella. I'm sure it will be riotous entertainment in the best tradition of Kampala panto. Too many competing professional and personal commitments mean that, for once, I shall not be involved, except as a first-time member of the audience.

Monday, March 29, 2010


In recent years, courtesy to Barack Obama, the Luo tribe has become well known. With homelands bordering on Lake Victoria, this Nilotic tribe – which has close relations in Uganda and South Sudan – is one of the largest and most prominent in Kenya, with a reputation for intellectual achievement, fishing and craftsmanship.

While working as a management consultant with Coopers & Lybrand in Nairobi, I became friendly with a Luo colleague, Denis Osano, whose pride in being Luo was matched only by his sublime confidence. Denis was more than willing to discuss all matters Luo and, one day, explained to me that Luo names (which almost exclusively begin with either As, for women, or Os for men) usually are derived from the circumstances of birth. For example, a boy born on a sunny day might be called Ochieng, or a girl born at night might be called Atieno.

We then established that my Luo name, in the absence of any special distinguishing features, would likely have been Omondi, signifying that I was born early in the morning. Happily, Tom is also a popular Christian name for Luo boys, I think because of the high regard still held for Tom Mboya, a charismatic union leader in post-independence Kenya, tragically assassinated in 1960s power struggles. I went on to ask Denis whether there was a Luo name that described being born on the roadside (as happened to my eldest child Alfred), and was glad that this infrequent event did indeed exist in the form of Oyoo (born on the way). From that moment, Denis habitually called me Omondi and would, occasionally, enquire how Oyoo was developing.

Armed with this knowledge, I wondered recently what the name Obama signified. Apparently, it means "crooked" (as in limbs rather than morality), which suggests that Barack Obama senior may have been born with some curvature in his legs. Barack itself means “blessings” in Kiswahili – and this is a much happier and more appropriate name for the American President.

Much has been written about President Obama's extraordinary achievements. That the son of a Kenyan immigrant student (who then abandoned his American wife leaving her to bring up the young Barack in relative poverty, albeit with the staunch support of her parents) should rise to the Presidency is the stuff of fantasy. It also bears witness to the mobility that American society still permits – and redeems the constitutional American promise of equality of opportunity. There is a word in Luganda, biyinzika (coincidentally the name of one of AAC’s Ugandan investee businesses) which literally translates as "everything is possible". What better example is there of the spirit of biyinzika at work? Sadly, at least at present, it is impossible to imagine that a young African could rise from a similarly humble background to aspire to the presidency, such is the dominance of the post-colonial elite in African politics.

What impact, then, will Obama’s election have in his father’s continent of birth? My hope is that Obama will be an inspiration to Africa's young generation, to transform the corrupt and unrepresentative gerontocracies which dominate African governments on this most youthful of continents into a new and vibrant meritocracy. Goodness only knows, transformation is needed. We can but hope. Biyinzika!
Tom "Omondi" Adlam
March 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010


In February 1998, I was working in CDC's offices in Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, awaiting my transfer to Tanganyika Wattle Company (affectionately known as Tanwat) in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania. I had taken a long lunch hour in order to do some shopping on Oxford Street. On returning to the office, I announced my realisation of the remoteness of CDC's offices from Central London, whereupon a colleague invited me to have a look at a map of East Africa.

"That's what I call remote" he said, pointing at Njombe.

A few weeks later, on the 720 km drive from Dar es Salaam to Njombe, I was in no doubt that he was right. Tanzania is a big country. The journey was a full day's drive through Morogoro and Mikumi national park and the Ruaha gorge with its forest of baobab trees, up the Iringa escarpment through the pine and eucalypt plantations of Sao Hill before a left turn at Makambako and the final 60 km to Njombe.

The visitor to Tanwat is greeted by a wall of black wattle trees (acacia mearnsii), first planted on a 10 year rotation in 1950s colonial Tanganyika. The bark of this Australian import to East & Southern Africa has a very high tannin content which, when extracted from the bark through a simple boiling process, coagulates into a black solid which is now primarily used in tanneries in South Asia. Next was the tea estate, Kibena Tea: a bright green monoculture of neat tea bushes (camellia sinensis) carefully pruned to waist height for ease of plucking. And then, a turn on to the management housing crescent, with its jacaranda trees and colonial-syle bungalows, complete with well-worn furniture and wood-burning stoves. Even Tanwat's address was redolent of step back in time: Private Bag, Njombe, Tanzania.

Since Tanwat's early days, the tea estate, pine and eucalypt plantations and, latterly, a wood-fired power station were added to the wattle estates to create an integrated agro-forestry business which, at its zenith, employed upwards of 2,000 people. Because of its relative remoteness, Tanwat also developed staff housing, a company infirmary, primary schools, mechanical and vehicle workshops. It was, as my first MD Tom Lupton said to CDC's then-Chairman during a short visit, an example of social best practice, an example of the positive power of business activities and investment to build economic communities, not simply through foreign exchange generation, employment and tax collection and payment, but also through the training and skills development of its employees - perhaps its greatest legacy of its almost 60-year life - along with the development of the tiny settlement of Njombe into an urban centre in the region. Tanwat is by no means unique in this regard: there are many plantation towns in East Africa - Mumias, Webuye and Kericho in Kenya all come to mind - but it is nevertheless a fine example in the best tradition of Saltaire, Bourneville and the industrial model villages of the early Victorian era.

There's always a "but" however, and Tanwat is no exception. Every silver lining has a cloud - and Tanwat's cloud was the importation of the Black Wattle tree acacia mearnsii to East Africa. Wattle is now categorised as among the worst Invasive Alien Species. Here's the wikipedia comment:

The invasiveness of this species is partly due to its ability to produce large numbers of long-lived seeds (which may be triggered to germinate en masse following bush fires), and the development of a large crown which shades other vegetation. A. mearnsii competes with and replaces indigenous vegetation. It may replace grass communities to the detriment of the grazing industry and grazing wildlife. By causing an increase in the height and biomass of vegetation A. mearnsii infestations increase rainfall interception and transpiration, which causes a decrease in streamflow. Soil under A. mearnsii becomes desiccated more quickly (than it does under grass). A. mearnsii stands also destabilise stream banks and support a lower diversity of species

So, like almost everything, Tanwat's legacy to Njombe is a mixed blessing.