issue 180 - February 1988
One brother knew half a hundred words for cow, the other knew
double-entry book-keeping. But the third could quote Swinburne
and shoot on sight, and he knew what education was
really for. Julian Champkin tells their story.
I am the Kampala graduate in the bush. The Scholar Gypsy's got nothing on me. The Scholar Gypsy for you who are uneducated (excuse my arrogance - my upbringing has made me so), was a poem by Matthew Arnold. He left Oxford University for a roving life. I learned about him at Makerere University.
It is easiest to explain why I live as I do - away from books and learning, terrorizing people if you want to call it that - if you know what I have escaped from. Listen first to my two brothers, who did not escape:
The youngest brother
I was at school for two terms only, for the fees were expensive. After that my mothers and fathers taught me about the way that we live. Mothers and fathers, many; for in my village that is the way things are. My natural father has many wives; but even the women who are not his wives are my mothers. That also is why all the boys in my village are my brothers. Even the ones whose blood I do not share. I have heard that among others it is not so; but I do not fully understand.
Me, I know nothing; I am only a peasant! There is an old story of the way our people started. It seems that once upon a time ... but it is only a peasant tale, so you will not want to hear it.
An old man used to tell me these things at night. He would take me to a special rock, in the hills. There is a pool there, so deep that it has no bottom to it. When the moon is exactly overhead it shines into that pool and is swallowed by it. The old man told me that in the old days, before the white people came, the hero of our tribe whose name was Okol dived deep into that pool, deeper than anyone else could dive before or since. He was trying to catch the moon, but it got away. He stayed down there three days and everyone thought he had drowned. But he came out of the bottom of the pool, and the bottom of the pool was in Kakenga. Kakenga is a far away place; it is the place the founder of our tribe came from. He was the father of the father of Okol, and he left Kakenga after disobeying the elders there, and he came to this place and founded our people.
That old man is dead now, and I think I am the only one who knows some of his stories. Even I do not know all of them.
My older brother is educated. He completed Primary Seven and went to secondary school. He passed two of his exams there and now he has a job in the city. But there was not enough money to pay for both of us. So I only went to school for two terms.
Once he brought home a book to show me. It was called 'First Steps in Book-keeping'. But he said it was not about books at all. It was about how to make sure you are not cheated in the marketplace. I don't see how it can mean that - I am not educated, but I make sure no-one cheats me when I buy or sell a cow.
My life is more boring than his. Of course I know how to tend the cattle; the right time to dig and to plant and to hoe. I never learned these things; everyone knows them. Yet my brother sometimes seems to make mistakes when he visits us from the city - like asking if a barren cow has calved! Perhaps his responsibilities in the city make him a little absent-minded.
It is not a good life here. We live in fear all the time. There is a cattle-bandit out in the bush. He is a strong man and they say he is a graduate of Makerere University. It is better to live in the city where they cannot take your livelihood from you.
My brother has a fine job in the city, lie does interesting things like filling in forms and making telephone calls. That must be a good life. He sends us money. When he comes home we hold a feast for him, and kill a cow and drink plenty of sorghum beer. I hope he will pay for my son to go to secondary school.
The second brother
KAKENGA is 30 miles from my farm. I took my 0-levels there. That makes them respect me in my home village. I got Grade Five in English and Grade Four in Bookkeeping Stage One. I failed Mathematics and Biology and History (European and African). So I could not stay on for my A levels. But I got a job in the city. I am a filing clerk in the Ministry of Education.
The boss is tough. He insists that we are there on time. It is a crowded bus ride; people cling to the outside of the bus. It is not easy to arrive at work still smartly dressed: my shoes get muddy walking to the bus station, and sometimes my shirt is not dry from being washed overnight. I fear to lose my job.
One day I would like to be Chief Filing Clerk. He gets more money and a desk and an office. Also people who need their files have to pay him.
In the evenings I drink beer with my friends, but it is expensive. Or I go to the cinema - with a chick. Chicks are expensive too. Really it is only possible to get a wife back in the village.
Sometimes outside the office I stop and look at the pictures people make to sell to tourists. Some are painted; some are made from banana leaves. I like looking at the pictures. But some of them are spoiled because the subjects are treated for tourists, not in the proper way. Sometimes I think I could make better ones myself. I studied Art at school for one year, and it was my best subject. But then the teacher left so I could not continue.
I miss my home. But it is expensive going there. I have to take them presents and soon my brother's son will need school fees. They will expect me to pay for him, and he has four other sons following.
Still, at least I am not a peasant.
The graduate again
NOW you are back to me again, the graduate in the bush.
Originally I came from the same village as the other two. That is why I call them my brothers. But I escaped. I was lucky because I worked as a houseboy for a local priest when I was young. And he befriended me and put me through school. And when I showed I had a brain, he helped me through university as well.
Then my country collapsed. Some of my graduate friends stayed in their civil service jobs. Even though they were owed five years' back pay, they stayed and went on doing their jobs nonetheless. They had some crazy ideal of public responsibility - education had given them that, I suppose.
But I left through strength, not weakness. Now I am a cattle baron in the bush. I extract allegiance, and tributes in the form of cattle, from the people who live nearby.
You ask if I could have become a big man in the bush without the Makerere degree? Oh, sure. Anyone can be a thug; but I am an educated thug. (Incidentally, we don't call people like me 'thugs' round here; we are respected leaders, like the traditional ones were.) My wealth used to be learning. Now it is guns and cattle.
I know the half a hundred words for a cow and I know the poems of Matthew Arnold as well. My educated brother with his pathetic two O-levels knows neither of those things. He can just about get through a Mickey Spillane story in slow-speed English. He prefers the cinema. He is an artist, though he doesn't know it. And he will never find it out now.
His art has been killed in him. His education did that for him. My brothers had brains. But one was starved by no education. The other was stifled by education of the wrong kind. As. I say, I was lucky.
My cowherd brother, with the clan's history in his head and the peasant knowledge he undervalues, still lies out under the stars at night and wishes he was in an office. My educated brother, with his meaningless learning that he values too much, will never know the stars at night, nor the name of the cow with the crumpled horn. 'Nor know Love's ways, how sore they are, and steep.'
Lie under the stars, or work in an office: I can do either of those things. I can quote Swinburne at you or shoot you dead. I can do any damn thing that I like. I have choices. They don't.
Something will be gone from the world when there are no longer half a hundred words for a cow. Something will be gone from the world when no-one reads Matthew Arnold, too. But nothing at all will be gone from the world when my brother's double-entry bookkeeping goes down the sewer of forgotten things.
Which of us is happiest? God knows. It's a tough world, 'but to think is to be full of sorrow' (Keats, that one). They are afraid, like everyone out here. Afraid of me. Because whatever happens, I will find a way to survive.
That's education, man. That's one thing I taught myself.