Do You Know Your Neighbours?

When Grace Nansamba’s husband died in his sleep, she ran out through her gate calling neighbours for help.

The response she got was shockingly, coldly unAfrican. Some people even asked her to send them invitation cards. It was one of those situations when you realise that real help will come from working your phone, rather than talking to real people physically present. But there was a background to this.

You see, Nansamba had never been one to socialise with her neighbours. The only thing she knew about them was that she did not really know them. And they knew her as someone who neither knew nor needed them. When she organised parties at her house, she mostly invited friends who lived far away. Local children who tried to gate-crash were turned away at the gate because they were not invited.

In the mornings, Nansamba drove out to work with her car windows up. In the evenings, she hooted and drove straight into her compound. And so, in her moment of need, the neighbours could not bring themselves to help her beyond the perfunctory “sorry”.

Nansamba’s is a tale of what neighbours have become in Uganda, tucked away behind high-rise wall fences, minding their business. People barely ‘live’ anywhere they leave home at dawn and return at dusk.

Some even hardly know the family they share a fence with. They might know the make of their neighbour’s car they might know that the neighbours have a baby that cries at night or how the husband next door beats his wife and how she accuses him of having small genitalia – but not the names and profile of the neighbours.

All about me:

In a random survey, this writer asked people how well they knew their neighbours. The answers leave no doubt that as the city grows, the neighbourhoods are dying, especially among the educated, urban folks.

“I hear one works in Erickson. The others I have no idea. In fact if I met them on the street, I would not recognise them,” said Geoff – typical of today’s ‘self-contained’ neighbour.

Sumaya also confesses she had no idea where her neighbour or his wife worked: “They are indoors most of the time I only say hullo when they come out and I happen to be outside.”

This is not how it has always been. When many older and middle-aged Ugandans were growing up, one family knew almost every family on the street or in the village. If you got a problem, you raised an alarm and neighbours would run in to help you fight the enemy. Even women, who were not necessarily expected to fight, would at least amplify the alarm.

But today when you raise an alarm, your neighbour is more likely to react by asking his security guard if all the padlocks were ‘pressed’. J Kavuma Kaggwa, a historian and Muganda elder, says that when he was younger, neighbours knew each other better, and stood together in good and bad times. Because there was no system of fences, he says, your chicken, cow or goat would go looking for food in the neighbour’s home. So when you slaughtered your chicken, you would take a piece to your neighbour.

Today, you would raise more questions than gratitude if you went around distributing pieces of chicken or Turkey to your neighbours.

“Neighbours would greet each other in the morning you would be passing in their compound and they invite you to eat,” Kaggwa says.

Such simple things as exchanging a greeting helped communities to bond.

“But now you find somebody who does not understand why you are greeting them so you walk on without greeting anyone,” Kaggwa says.

Asked what is breaking up the neighbourhoods, Kaggwa blames it on the “money economy”. He may have put it differently, but he may well be right on the money. As the country develops, the old ‘community economy’, characterised by interdependence among neighbours, gives way to a more individualistic ‘capitalist’ community – everyone for himself and God for us all.

Because you cannot expect to run to your neighbours to bail you out every time you run out of groceries, you tend to sink your energies into ensuring your own supply system, meaning you have no time for your neighbours. Also, when Kavuma Kaggwa was a young man, most women stayed at home while their husbands went to work.

Those women knew and talked to one another often, something that kept the neighbourhoods going. As a country develops, more and more of its women – such as Grace Nansamba – also go to work to ensure their families can pay their bills. So the neighbourhoods are deprived of key pillars.

In fact, for Mariam Namukisa, who has lived in London, United Kingdom, for more than ten years, the question about neighbourhoods felt somewhat strange. Although most housing units for average Londoners are flats, only separated by brickwork, it is not common for neighbours to be friends.

Kavuma Kaggwa may be heartened that London neighbours often say “hi” or “cheers” as they pass, but that may be the most they go towards knowing one another.

Now, in some Kampala neighbourhoods, you are looked at suspiciously if you are so keen on your neighbours. Some may suspect you to be a conman – or conwoman, for that matter.

“I thought it was important to know them [neighbours] until one of them told me it was none of my business,” says Cathy, who lives in Namugongo, and who now minds her own business.

Urban problem:

Yet there is always a danger of overstating. Go a few kilometres outside Kampala city and you will find that neighbourhoods are alive and well. The problem of individualistic neighbourhoods seems to be an urban one and more common the fence-gate communities. It could be that the fences and gates exacerbate the problem – by giving people like Grace Nansamba the feeling of secure self-reliance.

But as Nansamba found out that night, the wall and gate will not console you when your husband can’t wake up. According to Ssenga Hamida Namatovu, it is mostly the urban areas, especially ‘rented’ neighbourhoods that have been most affected by this ‘indoor-neighbour syndrome’. She suggests that in places like Kololo, Naguru and Muyenga, where many people own their homes, they have good neighbourliness.

“In the earlier days, we took our neighbours as our relations like brothers and sisters because we needed them,” Namatovu says. “When you fell sick or someone died, it is the neighbour who informed everyone.”

She reckons that this spirit still survives, perhaps because most parts of Uganda retain much of the community purity of old. Only recently, Kavuma Kaggwa lost his wife. The burial was in Bugwe in Masaka, and what he found in this thriving village gave him hope.

“People were bringing Matooke and cooking they were helping with the burial. They are not like Kampala people are now taking funeral services to the villages to bury when that is the work of the neighbours,” Kaggwa says.

Innocent steps:

With mummy and daddy too busy taking care of the landlord, school bursar, doctor and supermarket cashier, the ‘campaign’ to save neighbourhoods has found the unlikeliest champions – children. People as young as four or five are somehow keeping friendships outside the wall fence.

As someone like Grace Nansamba drives home in the evening, she might hear a little voice say “bye Mama Ethan!” Because children somehow still steal out of the compound to play with other children, they are inaertently becoming the link between the households.

“My son made me know most of my neighbours because he hangs out with their kids,” says Namakula Grace, who lives in an enclosure with three other families, does not (yet) know where her neighbours work. Whatever little she knows is because of the children.

“The one to my right, I don’t even know her name. The ones to my left are Sharon and ‘Swili.’ My kids heard Sharon calling her husband ‘sweetie’ and think it’s his real name,” says Grace.

But children, on their own can hardly achieve much. People like Namakula, Geoff and Cathy need to get out of their way to take nascent steps to know their neighbours. Sooner or later, they may find that there is a lot that can be done at the community level. That, says Namatovu, would never happen if everyone is locked up behind their gate.

After the burial of her husband, Grace Nansamba felt so disappointed in her heartless neighbours that she could not stand them anymore. She moved to a new neighbourhood and started all over again, this time, making an effort to know her neighbours.

Source : The Observer

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