Happy 46th Independence Day Uganda!

The little white guy at yesterday's preschool gala is my Benjamin. He's 4 and loads of fun.

Today (October 9) we all got to take a day off to celebrate 46 years of Uganda's independence from British protectorate rule. Uganda was never actually any nation's colony, but the colonial powers put Britain in charge. The Brits pulled out 46 years ago today, but later helped Idi Amin get to power. That always kinda made me go hmmm.

This morning the president (who they say paid parliamentarians about $3,000 each to change the constitution so that he can stay in power for life) made a speech about how Uganda will be fine even though the rest of the world is falling apart. In the afternoon, we went to a barbecue with Ugandan friends... and talked about the rest of the world falling apart. I held a captive audience when someone asked me to try and explain how America's housing crisis came to be. They were stunned at the whole subprime mortgage story.

Keep in mind, Uganda is very much a cash economy. Here, when you build a house, you pay in cash. You might be able to get a loan if the property has commercial value as a high end rental, but the norm is to build a house in stages, as you amass the money to do it through other projects or salary savings. Maybe a microloan that you have to pay off within a year. Mortgages are just not that common.

Uganda also has a housing crisis right now, but it's different. There has been a building boom in Uganda over the 10 years that I've been here. Kampala and other major towns are sprawling out into suburbs with homes valuing in the $200,000 - $1,000,000+ range. Some people say there is a lot of dirty money here driving that boom that people have laundered through the construction industry. There is also a huge expat community of people working for embassies, international organizations and non-profits, who demand and will pay top dollar for homes that are well finished with indoor plumbing, built in closets and a fenced in garden. Anyone who has had big money to invest in real estate is investing to reach that high-end foreign market.

I have a feeling, however, that the foreign donor community may be cutting back in the years to come. Meanwhile, there is an urgent housing shortage for the urban poor. Nobody has been building houses for the average Ugandan, who earns $2-4 per day.

Something I find really ironic is that in many of the peri-urban neighborhoods where those gorgeous homes are, there is no infrastructure. Outside the gate of a wealthy Ugandan's million dollar homes in a neighborhood of million dollar homes, there are very often dirt tracks with deep ruts and potholes that require all terrain vehicles, plus bad water and electricity systems that are overstrained from urban expansion and unreliable. You have to have an alternative power supply to keep your fridge on when the power goes off (at least weekly for several hours at a time), and you have to have a water tank that will hold at least a 3 day supply of household water (though sometimes that's not enough, so it's also a good idea to have a borehole somewhere within a mile or so, so your housegirl can go and fetch some in a 20 litre container that she'll then carry back on her head.) So even though there are all these amazing houses in Uganda these days, the infrastructure to support the neighborhoods they are in is of the same quality as you find in Uganda's slums. I guess no one can say the government has favored the rich in that domain.

Property taxes are one of the few taxes that are regularly collected by the Ugandan government, but one thing the British did not leave well in place when they left Uganda was a good tax collection system. The British were the ones who introduced taxes, of course, but I guess it really didn't matter to them whether the Ugandan government would be able to collect taxes or not. Idi Amin used to collect them randomly - one time he kicked out all the people from India without letting them take any possessions with them. He then paid his army with the Indian community's abandoned stuff.

The current regime is not quite that bad, but corruption and fiscal impropriety are rampant. The president - who the Brits and the Americans (including me) used to love, btw - has entrenched himself for another one of Africa's long politcal hauls to get an aging megalomaniac out of power. He's got what I've heard described as the largest, best trained and best armed personal protection force of any president in Africa (rumor has it, many of the new traffic police on Kampala's streets are actually elite forces in duty disguise). He's making sure that nobody can throw him out, but after 22 years in power, the average Ugandan is still dirt poor, and even the wealthy ones are living in slum-like conditions. There's got to be someone who can do better than this.

People say that there wasn't as much poverty 50 years ago as there is now in Uganda. Maybe it's because the British were better administrators. Maybe it's because Africa has never really been independent, but has remained a battleground for foreign interests. Maybe it's because the Ugandan successors of the British decided to fill their own pockets with tax money instead of investing in things like public infrastructure.

So I don't know. 46 years later, was independence worth it?

My 4 year old and his friends sure thought so yesterday! I guess that's got to be good enough for me.