The bad blacks

2014-01-28 08:00

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In Uganda, where class boundaries are heavily policed, working class people with bourgeois aspirations have become an ongoing source of tension. Moses Serubiri explores cars, music and sex as the terrain where Kampala’s class wars play out

Ugandan musician Fred Sebatta became a “Bad Black” when he managed a crossover hit in 1996 with his song “Dole y’Omwana (Child’s Doll)”. The song was a vivid portrayal of Uganda’s middle class: housewife, husband with a car, living in a gated compound, with a few maids.

Sebatta sought to transform his old downtown sound into something with popular appeal among Uganda’s fast-growing uptown middle class audience.

He started making songs in the downtown clubs of Kampala during the late 1970s.

The tension between the urban and the rural, local and international, were embedded in this music from the beginning.

In a strange twist, the most-loved songs released in this genre during the late 1980s were all themed around HIV. This was, in part, the result of a nationwide, foreign donor-aided campaign against the epidemic. But it was also because the anti-HIV message gave artists access to digital production technology in donor countries. Songs by artists such as Philly Bongole Lutaaya and Paulo Kafeero were regularly produced in Sweden.

Sebatta knew that producer Steve Jean had gone to the US and brought back the digital equipment he needed to transform the music on his own terms. Sebatta and Jean sat down in front of the computer and scanned Jean’s imported digital sound effects until they found the racing of a car engine. It immediately sparked Sebatta’s imagination. He sat down and, drawing on his background of writing poetic Luganda monologues in the underground scene, penned the complex story that captured the dilemma of Uganda’s middle class.

Dole y’Omwana became 1996’s biggest radio hit. After it skyrocketed, Sebatta changed his name to Lord Fred Sebatta and disowned the downtown music scene. His new-found glory was short-lived. In adopting and adapting middle class subject matter and sounds, the “village musician” had overstepped an unwritten boundary in Ugandan society.

The song’s hook, a simple metaphor centred on a child’s doll, typical of the “village music” tradition, became his Achilles heel.

The roar of a car’s engine opens the track, followed by a woman’s voice (the wife) singing: “How did he start the car? I didn’t see him leave the house; the child is restless! How did he open the gate! I am not used to these sloppy maids. Now he’s carried the doll inside the car; my baby will cry all day.”

The media firestorm that followed united Uganda’s middle class against Sebatta. Acting on the growing sense of public outrage, Uganda’s media council accused Sebatta of writing pornographic content. Was it in the wife’s pleas for the child’s doll? Or the husband’s aggressive response to her pleas: “How can a man of power, such as I, play with a child’s doll?”

Certainly, Sebatta’s doll could be read as a metaphor for sex, but compared to the sexually explicit lyrics of popular US artists such as R Kelly and Usher, which regularly topped the charts at the time, Sebatta’s sex was sheathed, barely insinuated.

This discrepancy was seemingly lost on the media council, an organisation notorious for protecting elite interests. They went ahead with the ban, claiming it was to protect juvenile listeners.

Sebatta was stunned by the accusations. He had not anticipated the middle class backlash against him.

What territory has the middle class occupied in Uganda? After independence in 1962, the middle class consistently grew their wealth.

Milton Obote, Uganda’s president from 1966 to 1971, set the example by taking over the country homes and expensive cars of colonial officers. He famously renamed the Crested Crane Hotel room where Queen Elizabeth slept during her visit to Uganda in 1954 the “Presidential Suite”.

This perfectly illustrates Frantz Fanon’s view of the “native bourgeoisie ... who use class aggressiveness to corner the positions formerly kept for foreigners”. Nowhere is this more visible than in Obote’s love for luxurious cars, such as his cherished Mercedes-Benz Cross Country.

The myth of these cars endures. One day in a passenger taxi van, I listened to several minutes of praise by the taxi driver. He delivered a soliloquy on Obote’s Mercedes-Benz SUV: the flag on the bonnet and the personalised numberplate, among other details. I did not expect to hear details of Obote’s lifestyle in the taxi van, a predominantly working class space.

And yet, here was this taxi driver praising Obote’s lifestyle. Who was he? Why was he so supportive of the middle class lifestyle? Was he a secret member of the bourgeoisie masking his wealth behind the taxi wheel?

Since Yoweri Museveni’s regime came to power in 1986, economic policy adjustments have allowed the middle class’ wealth to grow rapidly as foreign investor money floods into Kampala. It has meant that the middle class has copied the nationalist, bourgeois tendencies of politicians like Obote and Idi Amin Dada: they have bought expensive cars, built large houses and bought vast tracts of land throughout the country.

But this flagrant display of wealth has also triggered working class aspirations to rise to meet the bourgeoisie. The “Bad Blacks”, as they are popularly known, have become a source of tension in Uganda, where class boundaries are actively enforced and heavily policed.

One of the most famous (or infamous) Bad Blacks broke into bourgeois territory in 2009, after striking gold by gaining access to a foreign investor’s bank account. It was the Ugandan tabloids that first brought this Bad Black into the national consciousness, reporting anecdotes about a 25-year-old woman who bought everyone drinks in clubs and paid strictly cash.

This Bad Black wasn’t always bad or rich. She was born Shanita Namuyimbwa and raised in a working class Muslim family in Kampala during the 1980s. She had barely finished her first year of high school when she joined the city’s street-smart academy.

On the streets, Namuyimbwa would have learnt the phrase “Kampala si kibuga kya ba falla; bwooba falla ofa oli yala (Kampala is not a city for fools; if you’re a fool, you die hungry)”. She would have quickly realised that at this school, you had to have real ambition.

Opportunity finally knocked for the young streetwalker on an ordinary working day, on Speke Road. There she met David Greenhalgh, a wealthy English investor looking for a good time.

She later told the Uganda high court that it was the sexual relationship between them that birthed the Daveshan Development, the real estate company of which she would eventually become a co-director. It was also what made her the sole signatory of a $3.5?million (R38.5 million) “love account”.

Namuyimbwa was seemingly living every street girl’s dream. Despite her newly acquired wealth, however, she was unable to gain access to the guest lists of Kampala’s bourgeoisie. Excluded from the society she courted, she returned to the territory she knew best: the streets.

There she acted out her frustration through spontaneous public displays of her new-found wealth. On one particular afternoon, at one of Kampala’s major intersections, Namu–yimbwa jumped out of her Mercedes-Benz SUV and “made it rain” with 50?000 Ugandan shilling (R200) bills.

Bad Black’s behaviour might have appeared bizarre, but it was deeply rooted in Uganda’s fraught class history. It’s impossible to listen to stories of her cruising the club scene in a motorcade led by her black Mercedes-Benz M-Class sporting the custom numberplate “BLACK GAL”, without recalling Milton Obote, who cruised through Kampala followed by a fleet of black Benzes, sirens wailing. These historic references secured her mythic status.

If Bad Black hoped to gain the elite’s attention with her antics, she certainly succeeded. It wasn’t long before the upper echelons of Ugandan society began to question where she got her money. The Ugandan Anti-Corruption Court started asking the same question. A subsequent commissioned inquisition into her bank account landed Bad Black in the high court of Uganda, where she faced embezzlement charges.

Catherine Bamugemereire, the judge in the anti-corruption court case, did not find Bad Black’s access to the account illegal. Daveshan Company documents clearly showed that she was a signatory on the account.

However, in a typical display of post-colonial class aggression, the judge painted the foreign investor, David Greenhalgh, as the victim in the case.

The court charged Bad Black, along with her boyfriend Meddie Sentongo, with conspiracy to defraud David Greenhalgh of a reported $9 million, and sentenced them to four years in jail.

In a society where corruption is rampant, and where it is facilitated by close, symbiotic relationships between government bureaucrats and businessmen, the aggression with which both the Ugandan media and the legal establishment pursued Bad Black raises questions.

That Bad Black’s relationship with Greenhalgh was opportunistic is hard to dispute – she herself provided explicit evidence of how their sexual relationship sparked off the opening of the Daveshan company account. But was Greenhalgh really just a passive victim of a conniving street girl?

The company’s name, Daveshan (David and Shanita) offers one answer. Greenhalgh was a co-signatory of the company’s account and clearly aware of how Bad Black was spending the cash. This discrepancy was indirectly raised by the court, when the judge asked Greenhalgh why he would give an “uneducated” village woman access to so much money. The judge’s framing of the question speaks for itself.

Were Bad Black’s actions on trial or was it her background and lack of education that we deemed suspect? Was it that she spent the money, or rather how she spent the money?

What is certain is that in Ugandan society, Bad Black was guilty before she entered the court. She became a Bad Black when she aspired to cross class boundaries. She became the baddest Bad Black when she indiscriminately flaunted her success.

Bad Black had one final fling with the high life when she jumped bail within a few months of starting her sentence, after she appealed to the court to be released to have her breast implants removed.

Many have stressed the judge’s tomfoolery in that decision. One comment on New Vision’s website reads: “Even a four-year-old African child knew she would never come back ...” After jumping bail, Bad Black partied in Malaysia, but was finally caught in transit at an airport in Rwanda by Interpol in October last year.

The story of Fred Sebatta and the banning of his 1996 hit “Dole y’Omwana” and the trial of Namuyimbwa (Bad Black) are generations apart, but they share a common theme: when the working class downtown musician or the uptown prostitute rises to a level of countrywide acclaim, they are always at the mercy of an African middle class, intent on aggressively policing its territory.

»?This piece first appeared in Chimurenga Chronic, a quarterly Pan-African gazette published by Chimurenga. The new edition is available in bookstores, or for order or download, at

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