Ugandans wait for the Queen

All the way from Entebbe Airport to Kampala there are billboards asking ‘Are you ready for CHOGM?’ and there are pictures of prominent Ugandan professionals and sportsman saying ‘We are ready for CHOGM’.

So, first, what does this ugly acronym mean? CHOGM is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Second, why are the Ugandans so concerned about it? It is because the CHOGM will be held there in this coming November.

Even without all the billboards, you would know that something quite significant is up. A surprising number of new hotels have been constructed – and the question about readiness is understandable given that, with only eight weeks left before November, there is obviously a lot of work left to be done. (And who will fill up all those additional rooms when CHOGM is over?)

All over Kampala potholes are being filled, pavements re-laid, kiosks demolished, buildings re-painted and central reservations re-planted. Yes, this is a beautification process on a grand scale.

At an enormous cost, it seems. The Daily Monitor the other day ran a story on how much the Uganda government will be spending on CHOGM – 153 billion shillings. Even when you reckon that you can get 25 Ugandan shilling for one Kenyan shilling – the CHOGM budget is sizable, isn’t it?

Somehow, the Monitor got hold of the document making the case for CHOGM budget increases that were agreed by a closed-door meeting of MPs. It makes interesting reading, especially in relation to the items less conspicuous than hotel development and road maintenance: Shs.590 million for flags and flagpoles; Shs.20 million for the purchase of umbrellas; Shs.90 million for composing a CHOGM theme song; Shs.40 million for the official photograph of the assembled Heads of State – (I would gladly snap them with my digital for just a quarter of that.)

No wonder, then, that the Ugandans I talked with are divided in their views about CHOGM. Some are critical that Shs.153 billion could be better spent on the majority poor – on needed developments in education, health care, water and sanitation.

Others argue the positive case: that CHOGM is something about which Ugandans can be proud; something out of which they can make money; and an opportunity for them to showcase their culture, natural heritage and tourist attractions.

‘But why do you make so much of the Queen coming here?’ I asked a Ugandan acquaintance, ex-Makerere student, ex-civil servant and now a business man. ‘You seem to have much more respect for her than the Brits themselves….’

‘Well, isn’t that very understandable?’ he said. ‘After all, she hasn’t been here for more than fifty years. So seeing her in Uganda is a once-in-a-generation thing. You know, when I was a youngster all our coins and notes still had the Queen’s head on them. Also, people like me remember how our parents rated things British…. Whether a suit, a suitcase or a teacup – if it didn’t have a “Made in Britain” label it wasn’t quality’.

Hasn’t there been a rumour that’ I teased, ‘because there’s a risk that accommodation won’t be ready in time, the Queen will actually be staying somewhere over the border in Kenya and coming to the conference by helicopter?’

‘Oh that can’t be true! That would be too, too shameful for Uganda!’

One thing, though, that is certainly ready – whether for CHOGM or not, I don’t know – is a statue in the middle of roundabout near the Grand Imperial Hotel. For months it has been tightly wrapped in black plastic.

‘Who is the statue of?’ I asked my friend.

‘We don’t know. Maybe it is the first King of Buganda. And maybe we are waiting for the Queen to unveil it.’

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

Photo: The East African