We must find a new language for morality in Uganda

There was a boy called Owino (not real name) in my primary school whose father subjected him to regular corporal punishment to cure his stubbornness. At school he stole, bullied other children, and flouted school rules. He was a trouble-maker.

The more his father and the teachers punished him, the worse he got. Eventually, he dropped out of school, ran away from home, and became a street child. The teachers used a Luganda word to describe his behaviour: kuguba (hardened) – likened to a cloth that cannot be washed clean anymore.

Owino’s story seems to be an appropriate parable of the ineffectiveness of the current moral exhortation directed at the youth by politicians, faith leaders, and sections of the media. Arguably, Uganda and Nigeria are the two most moralistic countries in Africa, and also the two African countries with the largest Christian populations.

Sociologists and other scholars studying the recent wave of Charismatic and Pentecostal churches in both countries have described their focus as the moral transformation of individuals and of public morality.

It is a matter for debate, the extent to which this objective has been achieved. What is not in doubt is that our national pride would be hurt if we were told that Uganda and Nigeria are among the most corrupt countries in Africa.

Many Ugandan-based moralisers rail against what they regard as the moral decadence of Western societies and seek to return the population, especially the youth, to our indigenous, African cultural and moral values.

The popular candidates for moral opprobrium are pornography, drugs, homosexuality, casual sex, teenage pregnancy, abortion, and prostitution. And yet, you are probably more likely to be defrauded of your money, land or house in Uganda and Nigeria than in supposedly morally decadent USA, Germany, Sweden or Canada.

An outside observer may be forgiven for concluding that the content of what constitutes moral discourse is sex-related or skewed on the subject of sexual morality. Moreover, what goes for moral debate in Uganda is often imbued with moral rhetoric, censure, and stigma rather than reason and open-mindedness.

Few debates focus on rampant homicide, domestic and other forms of violence or the condition of our prisons as subjects for moral discourse, and are perhaps viewed more as belonging to the arena of legality, criminality, and human rights.

Consequently, these and similar subjects occupy a small space in the public statements of religious leaders and the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity. The common good as a subject for moral debate is little discussed either.

If one accepts that the picture I have painted is a true representation of Uganda’s current moral landscape, one may begin to discern the moral crisis facing society today.

Taking the cue from the Owino example, I wish to suggest that the crisis of morality in Uganda today is a dual crisis of language and identity. And it is a crisis that is not unique to Uganda, but is a feature of post-colonial African societies.

The Owino case illustrates how a particular method used to instill discipline or inculcate morality may be ineffectual. We know, for instance, how repeated warnings of do’s and don’ts with regard to sexual morality often lose force.

When such a situation results, we are challenged to find a new language in which to inculcate moral values. Just repeating the lessons of the past won’t help. A revolution of language and concepts is called for language not only in terms of appropriate vocabulary, but of appropriate method.

The second prong of the crisis – identity – may help to clarify the first. Much is said about African moral and cultural values and the obligation to adhere to them if we are to maintain our cultural identity, and not disintegrate as a society.

But like culture, morality does not remain static.
The task facing Uganda is, therefore, not simply one of retrieval, but of reconstruction of what may constitute moral values today.

The Revd Kasibante is racial justice aiser, Diocese of Leeds (UK). amos.kasibante@virgin.net

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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