This journey started in 2011, at the National Archive in Entebbe. If I wasn’t patriotic, I would call it a dingy, murky-smelling basement, with a miserable collection of photos, rotting books and films that are never played, where the air is fouled by a stinky toilet at the entrance.
I am willing to bet, if you can find one in every five elite Ugandans who knows that such a place as a national archive exists. I should confess that before it became imperative for me to visit, I had only vaguely heard about it. My checking it out was to learn how much of Uganda’s history is actually kept there.
I was put off by the fact that whoever is in charge of the archive’s existence, which is overseen by the Public Service Ministry, relegated it to the basement of the National Agricultural Research Organization building.
Mr. Alex Okello, the Government Archivist, explained to me that the building served other purposes during the colonial era, during which the archive was established, and since the British administration stepped off Ugandan soil, nobody has cared about its contents to find them a decent home.
Despite his hideous work environment, he really does sound like he cares about preserving his country’s past. His is a job one would fittingly call a labour of love.
So during my visit, I inquired about a piece of cloth I thought vital to national pride; the Uganda Flag that was hoisted at Independence on October 9th, 1962. Okello, who had been showing me around the place with a serious and passionate air about him, turned to me and laughed. He has no idea where the flag is. He has heard it could be at the Uganda Museum, but it could also be at State House. Inquiries at the museum turned nothing up. I didn’t bother myself with the State House bureaucracy.
Rumor goes that the late President Idi Amin fled with it. But more rumor is that the one he fled with was a totally different piece. In a country where the past is burnt into nothingness by lousy archiving, most times all that one has to rely on is rumor, and people’s memory.
With the unenviable task of producing radio magazine series on the last 50 years of Uganda’s existence, you sometimes feel like a witch, digging up information graves to unearth just that one detail that might make your story compelling.
And yet you must have an edition every week for the next thirteen weeks.
Try finding the late president Milton Obote’s Independence Day speech and you will be directed to UBC, where without even making sure they have such a record, they will ask for an obscene amount of money, for a couple of minutes of an audio clip.
For the last couple of weeks I have tried to dig up the graves in Mulago National Referral hospital, which the current director describes as the Supreme Court of Medicine in Uganda. In one of the units, after the in-charge had shown me the complex technology now used to do laboratory tests, he sadly spoke half to himself, half to me; “I wish we could show you where we have come from.” Having worked in the unit for over thirty years, his unit has moved from working with a simple microscope to machines that analyze multiple blood samples in a matter of minutes. But where are the old microscopes that he could show to someone born more than three decades after Independence? “They were taken away. Probably thrown away,” he says
For every story we have to include in the series, it matters how many old men (it is almost always men) we can dig up across the country. Old men with good memory on what has transpired in different sectors of the Ugandan society in the last five decades. And so far their input has been invaluable.
Okello the archivist has been told that a modern building to host his beloved collection will be built soon. In Uganda, we have an idea how soon such plans come to fruition. Blame it on systems breaking down or on an oral archiving tradition, but in this country old things belong only where and when they happened. I have heard that it is dangerous to dwell on the past, especially if it is as painful as Uganda’s, but I have also heard it is more than dangerous to set fire to it.