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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The greatest show on earth is here


In a 1992 Collier’s Encyclopaedia article, Chris Wood says to forget soccer’s World Cup, baseball’s World Series, even the Super Bowl; that “Only one event truly fulfils the grandiose claim of being ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’: the Olympic Games!”

You cannot dispute his observation when you consider the mass of stars from different countries parading every four years and fortnightly battling for medals in dozens of sports as the rest of the world watches.

It’s only at the Olympic Games that national flags of hitherto struggling and unknown nations such as Ethiopia dance spectacularly in the sky; like when Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. Those who were in the stadium will never forget that delightful day in Rome in 1960, when they saw the small man running barefoot cross the finishing line of the Olympic marathon 200 yards ahead of his nearest competitor.

At the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, the first officially recognised female track and field star, Mildred “‘Babe” Didrikson of Texas, set a world record in the high jump and 80-meter hurdles, and won the gold medal in the javelin on her first throw.

How about that electrifying moment during the men’s 400meter semi-final in Barcelona in 1992 when British runner Derek Redmond got injured mid-race but limped on with determination, and fearing that his son might give up due to the terrible pain, his father jumped from the stands, evaded security and aided his weeping son to the finish line while the crowds ecstatically cheered themselves hoarse.

At the Olympics, emotions never before known gush when those who arrived with great expectations return home empty-handed and heartbroken while surprise medal scoopers become instant celebrities.

From early 1986 in Athens – Greece, the Olympic Games, previously largely a Greek affair, were given a facelift by successful French thinker and educator, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, into what is the modern Olympic Games.

A dark cloud has many times descended upon the Games but not overshadowed the euphoria surrounding them. In Germany in 1972, Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Olympic team members from Israel while 63 countries withdrew from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In South Korea in 1988, Canadian runner Ben Johnson set a new world record of 9.79secs in the finals of the 100-metre race.

Moments later, a drug test revealed his use of steroids. He was stripped of his gold medal and record and returned home disgraced. These are only a few of several stains but it’s better to dwell on the definitive moments.

These are best captured in the evolution of the competition. According to Encarta Encyclopaedia, the Olympic Games began in ancient Greece in 776 BC and were celebrated every four years at Olympia in the sanctuary of Zeus, the god of the skies and god of all Greek gods.

Only “honourable men of Greek descent” would come from all over and pay tribute to Zeus by vying with one another “in the splendour of their equipment and the proficiency of their athletic feats.”
The order of events is fuzzy but it’s said that the festival started with sacrifices and on the second day spectators packed into the stadium “enclosed by sloping banks of earth” to watch men wrestle and box each other.

“In the first of these sports, the object was to throw the antagonist to the ground three times” but with time the fights became violent as blows rained with fluid brutality until the vanquished acknowledged defeat.

Then there was horse racing - very popular but a preserve of the rich who could afford a good horse; and then pentathlon: a combination of wrestling, discus throwing, hurling the javelin, long jumping, and splinting. The closing sport was a “race run in armour.”

Unlike today, the winners would “live for the rest of their lives at public expense” after being decorated with wreaths from a sacred olive tree and marching around in glory while the crowd roared and sang the works of the great poets of the day.

After 1170 years, the adorable games were suppressed by the Roman emperor Theodosius until their revival in 1896. Greek millionaire George Averoff supported the cause with some fine Drachmas that helped erect an imposing arena on the foundations of the old Panathenaic Stadium.

That memorable day of the first modern games in 1896 started the popular marathon race, covering 26 miles 385 yards in honour of the ancient Greek splinter Pheidippides, who galloped from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory against the Persians.

The man behind the real revival, Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) wanted to promote friendship among nations; something connected to his famous statement: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part…the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”

Since that day in 1896 in Athens, Greece, when America’s James Connolly entered records for winning the first race of the modern games, the world has witnessed and continues to see sports personalities fighting well and ugly if that’s what it takes to win that little thing called medal.

It was the greatest honour for any Greek worth his salt to win at Olympia. And generally all Greeks loved contests and conquests and were consistently driven by one thing –to win. This mentality is now embedded in the psyche of every performer at wherever the Olympics are.

It explains why a 22-year-old African American, Jesse Owens, squashed a long-held Nazi racist ideology that whites are racially superior by winning four gold medals in track and field at the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany. An angry Hitler unwittingly cultivated him cult status when he refused to recognise Owens’s four gold medals because he was black.

It’s the same craving for victory associated with the Olympics that saw “underdog” Nigeria upset “super” Brazil in the semi-final before going on to win gold in the final against Argentina. Viewers will never forget the thrilling exploits of then young Nwanko Kanu with his little figure and sharp ‘French cut’ hairstyle.

The year was 1996 that the first 100 years of international modern Olympic Games were celebrated during which a couple of new sports, such as softball and women’s soccer, were introduced.

This day honoured the ancient Greek games and slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The man who in his best days was known to dance like a butterfly in the ring and sting like a bee, oh yes, Olympic gold medallist and former heavy weight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, lit the Olympic torch.

For the 29th edition of the prestigious Olympic Games which kicked off in Beijing, China on Friday, the same torch was lit in Olympia in March and after being received in Beijing, began on its trip through six continents covering 137,000 km. This is the longest distance of any Olympic torch relay, according to, since this ritual started at the 1936 Olympics in Germany.

China has done everything including putting up appearances to make sure the games go well. The New York Times reported in July that in the west gate of the Temple of Heaven and along the Olympic marathon in Beijing, the government built “a 10-foot-tall brick wall” to hide ugly buildings. For a developed and technology-suave country like China, it was laughable and worse than the quick and quack road patch-ups in the name of Kampala city beautification shortly before Chogm.

Truly, Chris Wood was right when he called the Olympic Games the greatest show on earth. However faint the hope, Ugandans will be watching to see if one of our boys in China achieves or come closer to achieving what John Akii-Bua famously did at the 1972 “Olympics of serenity” in Munich, Germany.

--Sunday Monitor, August 10, 2008

Story book on the future of East Africa launched


Bow your head and close your eyes for a moment and look ahead into East Africa. What do you see? A dark menace, a beautiful woman or are you afraid to stare into uncertainty?

In that case don’t worry because the ‘clairvoyants’ from Society for International Development (SID) peered for you into the East Africa up to 2040 and came up with triple stories otherwise known as the East Africa Scenarios Stories.

The stories come under three titles: I want to be a Star, I Want a Visa and Usiniharakishe (Don’t rush me).
In the first, E.A. is a woman named Cea whose magnificent beauty draws endless admirers. When the heroine, overwhelmed, succumbs because of the bright promises from these men, she’s raped and all her dreams shattered.

I Want a Visa is captured fantastically by a comic strip of poor citizens flocking to a new land with a beautiful thought on their minds: “Welcome to the new life…” but blind to a roadside signpost that reads, “Welcome to the shity!”

The last story describes “the struggle of the ordinary East Africans to retain and reclaim control over their most local assets and who learn that success is not guaranteed.”

These “fables of the future” are explored at length in a book, What do we want? What might we become? Imagining the future of East Africa, that was launched alongside the State of East Africa 2007 report at Kampala Golf Hotel a few weeks back and officiated by the Minister for East African Community affairs, Eriya Kategeya.

It remains for Timothy Kalyegira’s maverick seer to emerge from his hidden lair and tell us what he makes of the stories! Seriously though, the fables are a result of a three-year research on the region intended to stir our minds to the challenges East Africa is facing and what the future might look like.

Among more interesting revelations, the symbolic stories show that by 2013, more natives from the five East African countries will still be struggling to accept the regional bloc and the region will not have found jobs for its fast growing population.

Overall, the scenario stories dramatically provoke the leader and policy maker to study the forces shaping East Africa and also show ways through which these dynamics can be made to swing in favour of the people of East Africa and for the future.

--Daily Monitor, Saturday August 9, 2008

Struggling with memories of torture and murder


It was evidently shot at night – that picture of a woman with the expressionless stare, in a red-blood shirt, alone by the hearth from which hungry fire tongues lick a small pan that is seemingly empty like the plate in front of her.
This is the symbolic cover page of Today You Will Understand – a collection of 16 first-person accounts of women affected by war in northern Uganda.
The title stems from the story of Mildred, a widow who heard those words shouted by rebels in command to her children to get back into the hut before it was set ablaze. She jumped over dead bodies and sustained terrible injuries while extricating her six children from the flames.
The book captures the reality of living under strife. There is weeping for the dead. Widowed mothers struggle to raise their children. Young girls say they were forced to marry rough old commanders.
The race is too hard to win. Those who were desperate to see home again clung to the rope of hope and made it through the valley of the shadow of death and see it as a miracle. They have endured life’s hard knocks; shared caves with cobras and survived the jungle and rumble of gunfire.
Eunice saw a little boy put in a very big mortar and pounded to death. For Hellen, “They [rebels] cut my buttocks and breast.” These women don’t know happiness.
They see this world as a paradox. They are haunted by what they saw and did in the bush; the rape, the starvation, the homicide. And after a narrow escape, instead of liberty, they were confronted by the perils of living in internally displaced people’s camps.
As Mildred starkly puts it, “This business of putting people in one place has brought diseases of different natures but HIV/Aids has finished many…” After distilling their experiences and finding no answer to why the innocent suffer this much, some have pardoned the grotesque misdeeds of Kony but others cannot forget the horror.
“Even at night when I go to bed and try to recall what happened to us, I feel that Kony should not be alive,” says Lily. It has taken Lucy over two decades to accept and compose a song about her plight: “It is called Why Do I Face Problems Yet I’m Still Young. When I sing it, it relieves me of pain.”
Uganda Women Writers Association (Femrite) collaborated with Integrated Regional Information Networks (Irin) to document these heartrending stories.
“Through these stories, the women reflect on their true value; they re-identify themselves and reconstruct themselves anew,” writes Femrite coordinator Hilda Twongyeirwe.
As is indispensable for any reader interested in how war has crushed but not silenced the indomitable spirit of the displaced woman of northern Uganda, Today You Will Understand equally shows how they grapple on with finding love and acceptance.

“A person tells a story that is closest to their hearts”

Femrite – the Uganda women writers association celebrated their ninth edition of the annual week of literary activities in Kampala. Femrite coordinator Ms Hilda Twongereirwe talked to Dennis D. Muhumuza about the event and the woman writer’s story.

The focus of this year’s event is, writing the unfamiliar story. What is an unfamiliar story?
That statement has different dimensions. It can be an unfamiliar story because it has been unread; or because people think that it’s not important. So we are looking at the woman’s story; when we write, people say we write women stuff but women stuff is a familiar story to the woman but we want it to be a familiar story to the man as well.

Why did you choose “Harnessing Uganda’s Literary Heritage” as the first discussion of the literary event?
Because other countries respect their literary heritage; they have literary festivals, they encourage the teaching of their home-grown literature in their schools but for Uganda, it has not been the case at all. So we are advocating that a section of Ugandan literature is created on the national school curriculum.

But how is that going to work if school-goers are not inspired enough to love works from their home writers?
We’ve been doing that. We have a programme where we visit schools and encourage children to write and read, and especially read their own literature because we think we are facing a lot of challenges because children are reading what comes from the outside before they read what is their own. Perhaps if you allowed people to borrow Femrite books, it could help more.

We’ve a resource centre and if you are a member of Femrite or Femrite readers/writers’ club you can access books. We don’t lend to the public because it would be difficult to follow up and we may lose the books but the public is welcome, people come and read from the resource centre but they are not allowed to take the books away.

Do you have a programme that targets rural women who want to write in indigenous languages?
We have outreach programmes but we don’t have branches in villages. We have a programme where we go out to collect women stories – the women who can’t read and write but can tell the stories.

What do you think has been the most outstanding achievement registered by Femrite?
It comes from our training programme in creative writing where we have 22 publications now; we have our women who have gone through those skills training workshops who have won international awards. We are very known, we’ve students from outside who have come to Uganda and they have looked out for Femrite to do dissertations on our work. The other day at office, an American lady came looking for the author of Where do I belong and that is one of the short stories I wrote. Out there, they are teaching our literature and Femrite is now a name to reckon with.

But then the country’s reading culture is still down, one of the reasons being that many can’t afford books.
In that case you need to join us in pressuring the government to make the printing materials cheaper by removing taxes levied on paper and other materials. Besides, the highest priced book at Femrite is Shs10,000, how many beers of bottles are those? A beer costs Shs2,500, so a book is one seating of beer. So it’s about choice.

Some say Femrite demonises men…
Maybe they think so because you’ll find that most of the male characters in our books are so harsh, they are killing their wives, but a person tells a story that is closest to their hearts. So the women are telling the stories that are closest to their heart. Really, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

What has been the greatest challenge to the women’s literary journey?
I think the biggest challenge is support from development partners, because culture where literature falls is one of the areas where you don’t get a lot of support. Most of the development partners are interested in good governance, politics and you know what they forget is that you can use literature to cut across all these areas.

--Daily Monitor, Saturday, August 2, 2008