Uganda: Virtues of Political Colour Blindness

18 December 2018

Dear Tingasiga;

The first time I had an opportunity to choose my own clothes was in 1966 when my mother took me to Bachu's, our favourite clothier's shop Omugabahindi (in the Indian section) in Kabale Town. I chose a red T-shirt that had clearly been made with me in mind. It was the beginning of an open love affair with the colour red that endures.

However, mine was not a monogamous attachment to red. I bought a yellow Ntunda Bikadde (second-hand) short-sleeved shirt in 1970/71 that became an instant favourite. My girlfriend, whom I first met at Makerere University in 1974, made a mental note of that shirt, for it remains a point of conversation, more than 40 years after we got married. According to her, I wore that yellow shirt more often than any others, a habit that challenged her tolerance, for she did not, and still does not, do well with monotony.

That yellow shirt alternated duties with a red, long-sleeved slim-fit one, also bought used, photos of which still bring me great amusement and mixed emotions. For my graduation, Mr Ponsiano Ruraara Mbire, my beloved uncle, gave me a shirt from his collection, red in colour, of course, with a patterned red tie to match. In the years since Makerere, I have bought dozens of shirts and ties, with many of them coloured red or yellow, and often a combination of both.

Colour choice is a personal thing. One person's choice may be another's repellant. Therefore, the colour of our clothes should be a source of celebration of human diversity. However, being who we are, even colour of clothing gives us opportunities to engage in battle.

We see this in France, where the yellow safety vest - gilet jaune - has become a calling card and uniform for those arrayed against President Emmanuel Macron. Now Egypt's military rulers have restricted the sale of yellow safety vests, except by a few vetted clients. They fear a copycat movement, similar to the Gilet Rouge - Red Vest - that has Tunisia on edge.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, one's choice of clothes, including ties and women's head gear, is scrutinised for political meaning and leaning. The yellow colour of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) is so pervasive that a gathering of the party faithful resembles a sunflower orchard. A presidential rally resembles the wild yellow flowers that cheerfully brightened the meadows in the valleys and mountainsides of my childhood.

The phrase "yellow girls" has become part of the national lexicon, a reference to female cheerleaders for President Museveni, who have a tendency to be more Catholic than the Pope.

Mr Museveni himself, who incidentally looks great in white shirts without a jacket, has lately preferred painfully bright yellow ones, perhaps a subconscious nod to Ibrahim Abiriga, our deceased compatriot who was a dizzying yellow-in-motion.

It does not hurt that MTN, an independent telecom company, has a large countrywide presence, with its yellow colour subliminally, but unintentionally, linking its products and success with the NRM.

Meanwhile, the colour red, which had almost vanished with the comatose state of the Uganda People's Congress, has been adopted as a symbol of protest against Mr. Museveni's life-presidency project.

Borrowed from South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters, a militant political party led by Julius Malema, the red shirts and headgear have now been personalised by Robert "Bobi Wine" Kyagulanyi and his youthful followers who are giving the yellow boys and girls some very sleepless nights. Red attire is now an invitation to police caning. (Incidentally, Julius Malema and his group also don yellow attire depending on the occasion.)

Where, to me, yellow and red are two beautiful colours of equal value, to others they are powerful weapons in a monumental political struggle that has little room for compromise.

Whereas yellow, the colour of sunshine, liberalism, happiness, honesty and energy, ought to bring joy to Ugandans, it is now the symbol of repression, corruption, fraudulent anti-democratic politics, and a feeling of being hostage to the personal desires of the current ruler. Interestingly, yellow is the colour of clothing for the inmates in Uganda's prisons.

On its own, the colour yellow can also be problematic. Some shades of yellow represent sickness and decay. Yellowing of the eyes can signify a dangerous, even fatal, disease. And psychologists report that besides its unstable characteristics, too much yellow can induce excessive crying in babies.

Whereas red, the colour of blood and fire, of energy and power, of courage and determination, and of love and desire, ought to give citizens a zest for life and a nation-building optimism, it symbolises defiance, pain, sadness, despair and bloodshed at the hands of a ruthless State that has been captured by the yellow brigade. And on its own, the colour red can represent danger, a direction best avoided.

Fortunately, the Ugandan flag gives equal space to yellow and red, an invitation to subscribers of both political colours to live side by side in peace, acknowledging that both tendencies have merit and value, with a shared interest that is represented by their union in the Crested Crane.

All of this leaves me wondering what colours the new party that is about to be launched by Gen Mugisha Muntu and his colleagues. One hopes that its colours will invite us to hold hands on a shared romance towards a moral rebirth, a shared ambition to join the honoured lands of justice and equal opportunity, a nobility of genuinely independent interdependence, a meritocracy that energises our best to do better than we know, and finds virtue in the ideas of those who don yellow, red, orange, blue or green as symbols of their chosen parties.

In a sense the new party ought to be anchored by achromatopsia - an inability to see colours. This political achromatopsia should be characterised by severe disinterest in partisan colours and noise, and an elevated focus on the common good, on fundamental principles and policies, on efforts towards transformative change, and an embrace of all citizens who seek justice and transparent governance.

Once afflicted with political achromatopsia, we shall be very comfortable in attire of any and all colours. We shall be a nation of white - the sum of all possible colours - bound together towards a destiny of which Governor Sir Andrew Cohen and many of our forebears dreamed.

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