The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
At first, the Ugandan capital of Kampala seems like a mirage of endless slums. Most of the city is made up of row upon row of temporary houses and huts. Looking closer, though, you’ll see the occasional mansion scattered on the surrounding hills. Those who can afford it guard their houses with towering walls and barbed wire. But not many can afford it.
Although he’s only 26 years old, Julius Kazungu, who lives in Kampala, has managed to escape poverty and move into the upper echelons of society. He grew up in a village in the Kampala district and was one of 15 children. His father, said Kazungu, “would have had a thousand children if he could.” But he died when Kazungu was only five. His death brought about a vicious fight among the relatives for his assets, which continues to this day. At the age of nine, Kazungu took on whatever work he could find: collecting and selling trash, going from house to house peddling bottles of water, stocking shelves at a supermarket, and working in retail. Scars decorate the young man's head, hinting at a more difficult past than he, with his carefree smile, lets on. Some are from stray dogs that bit him as a child. Another—it begins behind his ear, but Kazungu says it ends somewhere down his back—is from a beating he got from a youth gang when he was only 13.
But at the age of ten, Kazungu began playing rugby and showed an exceptional talent for it, enabling him to attend one of Kampala’s more prestigious high schools. There, one of his teachers introduced him to lacrosse. Kazungu had a talent for this sport, too. He eventually played for the national team and became one of the best defenders in the country. Now Kazungu, scars and all, works as a lacrosse coach to the children of foreigners and the Ugandan upper class.
In spite of his rise, Kazungu’s mind remains fixed on resolving the country’s endemic poverty. “I show my friends in Europe pictures from my home city and they ask me what village this is,” he said. “‘No, it's not a village,’ I tell them.” It is Kampala, and, as he said, “it's not how Kampala is supposed to be.” Although it is home to a population of 1.3 million, Kampala is more like a collection of small towns. Kazungu’s vision is to turn the city into a proper urban center by introducing mass transit—in the form of a streetcar system. It would be the only one in all of sub-Saharan Africa. (There are remnants of streetcars throughout Africa from colonial times, but they are no longer operating.)
Uganda does not have mass transit. The country’s only railway consists of a single track that goes to Mombasa in Kenya, delivering goods to and from the city. It’s not open to passengers, though some ride it illegally. To get around, Ugandans either walk from villages or take a minibus called a matatu, which never runs on schedule since it does not depart until it is filled beyond its capacity. Other options are impromptu boda-bodas, a hitchhiking service for hire, where riders jump onto the back of a bike, car, or freight truck. It’s a dangerous way to travel. Most injuries treated in the hospital are related to boda-boda accidents. Then again, this haphazard mode of traveling is sometimes the only way to get to a hospital. Several studies have shown that using boda-bodas can improve access to health services, increase the likelihood of getting a good education, and enhance the wealth of the connected villages. However, not all communities can benefit from boda-bodas, since the country’s streets remain largely unpaved, if there are any at all. Local farmers can't get their produce to the market or are exploited by middlemen who charge too much for transporting the goods. The local economy of the northeastern Ugandan district of Soroti completely collapsed after the roads deteriorated. In other areas, the streets turn into small rivers during the rainy season.
To fix these problems and build his tram system, Kazungu needs outside investors, which is typical in his country. It is difficult for local businesses to set up shop because of the rampant corruption, barriers to obtaining loans, and confusing laws. And so business is often foreign rather than local and Uganda feels unexpectedly Asian at times. Chinese enterprises built the streets (they still do) and also invest in other construction sectors. They are rivaled by Indian companies, which are doing the same thing. The cars are largely direct imports from Japan and, as such, play a recorded voice-over in Japanese when reversing: “Attention, this car is backing up. Be careful.” Kazungu wants foreign help from Western countries and international organizations to design the tram and for Ugandan workers to build it. A tram would create jobs, improve access to education, and reduce traffic and air pollution. “But most of all,” Kazungu told me, “it would stand as an example that someone from Uganda can create and improve something here.”
Around 75 percent of Ugandans are under 30, just like Kazungu. Around 83 percent of those between 15 and 24 are unemployed. But Kazungu believes that the lack of jobs is really about the mentality of his fellow countrymen. “People in Kampala work towards no common goal,” he said. “Everybody just thinks about himself.” Many people among the upper class of Uganda, those who are highly educated and who have been abroad and returned, all share a common criticism: people here have learned to take, not to create. The country is largely dependent on foreign aid. Most if not all notions such as Kazungu’s come from foreigners or those who have traveled abroad.
Kazungu is one of those who has traveled abroad. That is how he got the idea for a streetcar. He rode his first one in Ghent, a canal-filled town in Belgium not far from Brussels. Kazungu went there in the fall of last year to study, he told me, but quickly added that he wasn't enrolled in a university. He said he was there to study life, and he did. He studied the garbage disposal system, learned how to start a business, and surprised a train engineer at the Ghent public transportation office by showing up one day to ask how the streetcar system worked.
"Africans should go to Europe,” Kazungu told me, “but then they should come back, to use what they have learned there.” While in Europe, he met plenty of African refugees and immigrants. They were working in low-paying jobs or illegally, if at all. He argued that instead of staying and laboring for the Belgian economy, they should come back to their friends and families and help to improve their nation. By staying, they create a false image of an idyllic life in Europe. They post pictures on Facebook, boasting about their wealth when they are really just scraping by, said Kazungu.
Kazungu has not yet drawn up blueprints for the tram. He hasn’t even thought of a name for it. But he has spoken to ambassadors and foreign business executives about his plans. And he hopes to get the International Monetary Fund on board as well.
In the end, the construction of the streetcar is less important than introducing the concept to Uganda, Kazungu told me. When he was just nine, he came across a description in his science textbook of a biogas digester—a simple airtight box, usually concrete, that allows waste to decompose anaerobically, a process that produces methane, a fuel. “It blew my mind,” he said, and although he was still in primary school, he managed to help his village build one. Kazungu said his biofuel system is still working today to heat homes and provide cooking gas, and it has cut down on the labor-intensive process of collecting wood. As for his tram, even if he doesn’t succeed this time around, the idea of it is out there, and his hope is that even if he doesn’t finish the tram now, it will inspire the next generation to continue where he left off.