From my favorite East African journalist, Charles Onyango-Obbo:
It will be a long time before we forget Kristian Von Hornsleth, the Danish artist who persuaded the villagers of Buteyongera to adopt his name in exchange for a pig or goat.
Ethics minister Nsaba Buturo and many “patriotic” Ugandans have denounced Hornsleth, saying his idea is “demeaning”, and his actions “racist”.
The critics of Hornsleth say he exploited the poverty of the villagers.
In response to Buturo’s criticism, Hornsleth said when he went to Buteyongera, the villagers had no pigs – let alone those given to them by Buturo. He gave them pigs and goats. And, well, months and years to come, Buturo and his ilk will still not have sent them a single pig.
However, that is not our concern today. Of more interest are what Ugandans, and Africans, have sold to the world over the ages, and on what terms.
After the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) came to power, it became standard to criticise our forefathers for having exchanged valuable goods like salt, gold, and land for useless things like trinkets, mirrors and, some would add, guns.The NRA/M folks did not mention guns, of course, because they thought those were “useful”.
Some of the earliest “exchanges between Africa and the west were slaves. To be sure, the slave traders captured most of their victims, but a good number were sold by African chiefs and warriors – for, yes, trinkets. And, again, guns. After independence, things didn’t change much. In Uganda here, our various governments got all the money from coffee, tea, cotton, fish and everything else and bought modern trinkets: Fancy cars, whisky, perfume, presidential jets, designer clothes. And, again, guns.
Milton Obote did the same. Idi Amin did the same. And President Yoweri Museveni’s government has done the same. Things have changed a little bit these days, in keeping with the times, so we have added a few more items like junk helicopters to the list.
For the things the country really needs, like roads, schools, universal primary education funds, and medicine we leave that to the donors. Which is why the government had rather close Makerere University than pay university lecturers the living wage they are asking for – there are more important things like a $90 billion State House refurbishment and limousines for the heads of government who are coming to the Commonwealth summit next year.
Against this background, Hornsleth’s goats and pigs aren’t much different. And there are two good things about them, though. First, they remind us that Ugandans are a great trading people. I admire this capitalist spirit.
The reason we have done so badly out of it is that we don’t know how to value and price our resources. For example, while an argument can be made for moving Shimoni Demonstration School, the whole argument falls apart when the site is given up to the construction of a hotel. This is possible because the government people behind this saw Shimoni as a set of colonial-era buildings, and not representing a far more precious commodity – education.
Therefore, problem with the Hornsleth deal is not that people shouldn’t change their name for a pig or goat, but that they did so for so few of them. If Hornsleth were offering 100,000 goats for each name change, there would have been a rush. The villagers would have been chased from Buteyongera, and the Big People would have resettled their relatives, and even themselves, there to “tap” the pigs.
If the African chiefs who sold their subjects into slavery had, nevertheless, got “good value” from the shameful episode and built powerful states that were ruling the world today, I swear the history of that period would have been rewritten differently. What compounds the crime of slavery is that Africa was left the worse off for it.
Anyhow, the second good thing from the Hornsleth pigs’ saga is that while we have a long history of lousy pricing, there’s something different about the Buteyongera villagers. They are better than any group of past leaders, and far ahead of the NRM government.
These people are not stealing tax-payers’ money; dishing out public forests to sugarcane growers; or doing fishy deals over national oil finds. They are selling their names, which is private property.
So, what would be the right price in terms of pigs and goats for changing a name? Our research reveals that there are more than 1,000,000,000 pigs in the world. Half of them live in China, and about 60 million live in the USA.
One formula would be to get Uganda’s population of nearly 30 million, and divide that by one billion pigs. That means that each name change is worth 33 pigs. Our earlier offer of 100,000 goats would therefore be pricing ourselves out of the market (it’s important to get this right).
Our research also reveals that there are 500,000,000 goats in the world. That’s about 16 goats for a name change. Given this, I think that what the folks of Buteyongera need are not lessons in pride and patriotism, but classes in basic maths.