Friday, February 10, 2012


Many of us spent years in Uganda, our brother to the east. Parties, laughter, debate, and flamboyance mark the joys our eastern brother. Yet another marker of our eastern brother is the roads. In fact, roads are usually the first item of conversation our eastern brothers raise when they visit Kiga­li. Something is horribly wrong with Kampala. It is the roads. Something is right with Kigali. It is the roads.

Metaphors are dangerous com­munication devices. They turn the profound and complex into a simple symbol. Yet they resonate. The trag­edies of our Great Lake’s history can be obviously seen in our roads.

Two weeks ago, I compared Nairo­bi’s roads to Kigali’s and concluded the fatal flaw of Nairobi’s roads was poor colonial vision. Nairobi would have been a perfect city with perfect roads if only Nairobi had remained a city of no more than 250,000 making the life of British administrators com­fortable. Nairobi refused to be con­tained by such a short-sighted vision.

A journey to Kampala easily sees the same problem. The best tradi­tional neighborhoods of Kololo and Nakasero would have been perfect if not for Uganda’s Independence. Yet, I propose another reason that Kam­pala’s roads are so disastrous – Far too few fathers play with their chil­dren in sandboxes.

My earliest childhood memories are of my mom and me following my dad’s labor. He was a road build­er. The profession literally required, “Life on the road.” When we would enter a new city mom sought a park where we could play. Thus my first habit in a new town is always ask­ing, “Where can my children play?” When we moved to Kigali we found the Kimihurura roundabout by the Prime Minister’s Office, and knew we were at home. As I became school age, dad continued to travel while mom kept me in school. My second question in a new town is “Where will my children go to school?” Thus I’m a fervent believer in education.

During down time my dad had a sandbox for us. Into the sand came a few toy replicas of the construc­tion equipment my father mastered – trucks, dozers, and graders. We played together and my father taught me the basics of civil engineering. Enduring roads require drainage. You must have a good ditch. If not, water will rapidly erode the roads.

During the winter construction stopped. However, for there to be work in the summer my dad submit­ted bids to tendering boards. When there were school breaks I went with him to the reading of bids. We had breakfast before the bids were opened with old friends of his who worked for other construction com­panies.

As my brothers and I were in school dad was away and only home on the weekends. He labored hard and sometimes work was frustrat­ing. Mom heard his frustrations on the difficult weeks. Once I overheard him say, “I don’t care whether a man is black, white, purple, or polka dot. I want to work with men who tell the truth.” I noticed he no longer consid­ered his old friends to be his friends.

A few years later I overheard a ru­mor. My dad’s old friends had been caught in a bid rigging scheme. The scheme involved brief case construc­tion companies that manipulated racial quotas. My dad’s old friends went to prison.

During my secondary years my dad came to every football and bas­ketball game I played. Whenever he was not working he gathered my brothers and me for excursions in the lakes and forests of our home village. My dad’s old friends were in prison. He didn’t know that I knew.

He visited me once while we lived in Uganda. He never could under­stand Uganda’s roads. They were of­fensive to everything my dad consid­ered right, good, and true. They were full of potholes, no drainage, nothing straight, and worst of all abundant evidence of poor workmanship and “eaten” resources. His mind never stopped trying to find a way to fix Uganda’s roads. Finally, he came to a conclusion, “Start over.” Tear up ev­ery road, relay the foundation, install drainage, then put on a good thick layer of tarmac. Only in a complete start over was there hope.

A few years ago, I was at my par­ent’s retirement home in the village. We had a quiet morning’s breakfast. I started asking questions about my dad’s labor and childhood memo­ries. He did not know I knew his old friends had gone to prison for bid rigging. Children learn things from their parents without them knowing.

I know why Uganda’s roads are such a disaster. No sandboxes. Little boys are not playing with their fa­thers who model to them the satisfac­tion of an honest day’s labor. In those sandboxes come pragmatic lessons. Drainage is essential for a good road. Also, in those sandboxes are more philosophic lessons taught. Truth is more important than profit. Honor is more important than relationship. Not every action of truth and honor is immediately rewarded. Yet, over time truth and honor build enduring infrastructure and institutions.

I studied theology in university. I built roads with my dad to pay for my tuition. I’m not a civil engineer, but I know the basics of road build­ing with honor.

I like engineering students in Kiga­li. I lecture for many reasons. One is my dad played with me in a sandbox between building enduring roads. I hope my students have similar peo­ple in their lives.

Something is horribly wrong with Kampala. It is the roads. Something is right with Kigali. It is the roads. We thank God for older generations who taught us to play, study, and labor with truth and honor.

1 comment:

  1. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but other than that, this is magnificent blog. A fantastic read. I'll certainly be back.
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