Sunday, October 9, 2011

Happy Independence Day, Uganda!

Today is the 49th Anniversary of Uganda's independence from Great Britain.

The national celebrations are being held today in Lira, Northern Uganda, and across the country.

I thought you might appreciate a quick burst of Uganda's national anthem.

Oh Uganda, Land of Beauty!

Oh Uganda! may God uphold thee,
We lay our future in thy hand.
United, free,
For liberty
Together we'll always stand.

Oh Uganda! the land of freedom.
Our love and labour we give,
And with neighbours all
At our country's call
In peace and friendship we'll live.

Oh Uganda! the land that feeds us
By sun and fertile soil grown.
For our own dear land,
We'll always stand:
The Pearl of Africa's Crown.

I like this national anthem. Atheists may object to the references to God, but, to me, the sentiments are exactly what you would want a national anthem to express. In the context of Uganda, forty-nine years on from independence, those sentiments are now as important as they have ever been. 'United, free, for liberty': how stirring are these words. They both bring together the people of a disparate country with many tribes, scores of languages and various religions and energise them as the citizens of a united country. Uganda has to use its natural resources well, as the last stanza reminds us. This anthem is about the present and the future. The words leave the past behind with no resentment, bitterness, nostalgia or sentimentality. It is an anthem about building a country together.

I have always felt rather uncomfortable about the British national anthem. I have never quite known why we are singing about the country's Queen and not its people. This discomfort goes back many years. When I was a child growing up not long after the end of the war, my parents, both conscientious objectors, always pointedly sat down during the national anthem. The anthem used to be sung on an amazing number of occasions in those days: in cinemas, at concerts and in church. I was both proud of, and embarrassed by the public nature of my parents' action (or non-action). Fortunately, they didn't require us children to sit down, being surprisingly sensitive to the potential for excruciating embarrassment and bullying of one sort or another. To this day, however, I have never sung the British national anthem, although I am now less concerned about its militaristic and royalist overtones, which just seem laughable, and more concerned about its complete irrelevance to the country I have grown up in and still live in - most of the time. I think I would sing an anthem with genuine enthusiasm if it were about the real concerns of the people who live in it. To me, Uganda's anthem fits the bill.

As with many such anthems, you have to hear the Ugandan national anthem actually being sung to appreciate its full meaning. Nevertheless, it does quite well in my international line up of national anthems or national songs, many of which, when you hear them sung at football games or the Olympics, seem designed to send one to sleep rather than rouse one to action.

The Ugandan national anthem, I admit, is not as rousing as the Marseillaise (my all-time favourite) or Men of Harlech (of which my English version has the wonderful repetition of 'Saxon spearmen, Saxon bowmen'); but then, Uganda has had more than enough fighting and is calling its people to build 'peace and friendship', not war. The Star-Spangled Banner is unashamedly militaristic, although it does have the resounding line 'the land of the free and the land of the brave'. I can never forget the wonderful chapter in one of the stories about Ramona the Pest, when she wonders what the 'dawnzer lee light' is, the words she has been singing ever since she went to kindergarten, and gets laughed at by her older sister, much to her chagrin.

The Ugandan anthem doesn't have the arrogance of Rule Britannia or the lugubrious chip-on-the-shoulder tribalism of Flower of Scotland. Land of our Fathers, although it has the right sentiments and a lovely tune, is a little too romantic and backward looking for my taste. The tune of Highland Cathedral is wonderful, even if it was written by a pair of Australians. About the words I am a little vague although I know they were written later. Having tracked down some words on the internet, I do find that they refer rather too often to 'victory', as if no one ever actually had to live in a country, just fight other people. Still, it would do pretty well as a Scottish national anthem.  The Irish national anthem, which is quite stirring, is entitled A Soldier's Song in English, and, as you might guess, is all about fighting. Danny Boy seems to be sung anywhere where the Irish gather. It certainly has a great tune, but you want to slit your throat by the time you get to the end. Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles has one of the best tunes of all but, for me, cannot shake off its unfortunate associations. 

Nkosi sikelel 'iAfrika (God bless Africa), South Africa's national anthem, is one of the most moving anthems of all in terms of its tune and its resonance. It has an interesting history, combining new words with extracts of the mission hymn Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika and the former anthem Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa). Different lines employ different languages: the five most widely spoken of South Africa's eleven official languages - Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. Still, the references are quite limited, being almost entirely religious and about the need to end conflict, rather than focusing on what the country needs in the future.

On the whole, I think Uganda's anthem does very well. It is down to earth and emphasises the things that really matter to its people's present and future wellbeing and prosperity. So...

Happy Independence Day, Uganda!

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