Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Polygamy, Christianity and the Royal Family of Buganda

The British are used to seeing shock/horror stories about their Royal Family in the national press. Over the last 20 years the media have spared us no detail about glamorous royal weddings or bitter royal divorces. Our red-tops publish heart-warming stories as if the Royal Family were our next-door neighbours or, at least, characters in Coronation Street (or, indeed, the Royle Family). Then suddenly the royals fall out of favour, the knives are sharpened and no reputation is left unshredded. Charles and Diana were a case in point.

Uganda has several kingdoms within its borders: one of the legacies of the crazy colonial carve-up. As you might expect, it has also had its fair share of quirky royal stories, several of them provided by the kingdom of Tooro. Revelations about its youthful Anglicised king's conflict with his own privy council, and its powerful Queen Mother’s longstanding friendship with the late Colonel Gadaffi may have provided more frissons than most, but they still do not elicit from Ugandan newspapers quite the same salacious tittle-tattle as such stories would do in Britain.

On the whole, Ugandans demonstrate a fair degree of respect for their cultural leaders. This is certainly true of the Kabaka, the king of Buganda, who, like his forebears, is treated with considerable reverence. The Kabaka is the personification of Buganda. He is a spiritual, not just a cultural, leader.  Political leadership is now considered to be firmly in the past, or so the government regularly asserts, despite a nasty stand off a couple of years ago which culminated in a score of deaths and the burning down of the royal Kasubi Tombs. This was followed by a Parliamentary Bill setting out the powers and responsibilities of ‘cultural leaders’, and the limits thereof. 

The Kasubi tombs, a World Heritage site, before they were burnt down.

Incidentally, when President Museveni reinstated the kingdoms abolished by Milton Obote, the one kingdom he did not reinstate was the one he came from himself: the Kingdom of Ankole. As one columnist put it, ‘In Ankole, there is room for only one bull in the kraal’. However, that is by the by.

The kingdom of Buganda at the heart of Uganda
includes the capital Kampala.

So what is the current story about the Royal House of Buganda and why has it set tongues wagging?

In 1999, the Kabaka, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the 36th of his line, was married in St Paul’s Cathedral Namirembe to a westernised, highly educated and attractive young woman. His bride, Lady Sylvia Nagginda, had given up a prestigious professional career in the USA to become the Nnabagerekka or queen. 

The Kabaka's wedding, the President on the left and
 the President's wife on the right.

It was something of a shock, therefore, when Ugandans opened their newspapers last week to discover that the Kabaka had sired a child outside marriage. Whereas in Britain such an event, not unknown in any royal (or other) family, would have been hushed up (and subsequently leaked), there on the front pages of all Ugandan newspapers were pictures of the Kabaka proudly holding his seven-month-old son.

Since then, debate has raged. The Kabaka’s family was ‘converted’ to Christianity in the 1880s. Having first embraced Islam and then roasted alive a couple of score Christian missionaries and their acolytes, they eventually succumbed to inevitability, were baptised and thus ensured the survival of their kingdom and of their line. 

Some people assert that the Kabaka underwent a Christian marriage and therefore for him to sire a child outside marriage is wrong. Some are angry at the way in which he has treated his wife. They accuse him of breaking his marriage vows and setting a bad example to his subjects. Others, however, have pointed out that within traditional Gganda culture, the Kabaka can do what he likes. Indeed, in Uganda, polygamy has always been the norm for every man who could afford it. Previous Kabakas have had many wives. The current Kabaka was the son of his father’s second wife, a love match following an arranged marriage with her older sister. There is absolutely no doubt that the Gganda culture embraces polygamy.

Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa II: father of the current king.
The whole issue of Christianity requiring monogamy is also rather more complex than it might appear. The Old Testament includes several examples of polygamous relationships, including Abraham himself.  Indeed, I am pretty sure that Christ himself made no decrees about marriage as an institution, although the abominable St Paul did not hold back from pronouncing on all manner of personal issues. It is the Church which has laid down the rules about marriage, rather than its Founder. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the marriage vows pronounced in church specifically refer to monogamy, and the Kabaka took those vows. No spokesman from the Church of Uganda (Anglican/Episcopalian) has been prepared to comment so far.

One commendable aspect of Ugandan culture is the fact that no distinction is made between legitimate and illegitimate children. All children are acknowledged by their fathers. In fact, Ugandan men often have several children with a range of partners, before and even after marriage. In the past they would probably have made formal arrangements within a polygamous union. However, the coming of Christianity has meant that, except for Muslims and those who openly follow traditional religion, polygamy has increasingly gone underground. Not always, of course: there are plenty of Christians who openly keep several wives. However, that is becoming less common. So, perhaps the Kabaka is really just behaving according to cultural norms and should be commended for his openness and honesty.

However, some people have begun to question the appropriateness of polygamy in a society with an unsustainable birthrate. Some wonder why African women are not allowed the same freedom to have multiple relationships as African men. I think that there may be more protection for Ugandan women within open and formal polygamous unions than in pre- or extra-marital liaisons. Many informal unions are regarded as ‘marriages’ despite the lack of any vows, or, more importantly, documentation which would protect women’s financial and property rights. It is so easy for Ugandan men to walk out of relationships or, more commonly, turn their ‘wife’ out of the house. Women usually leave with nothing. Men almost always retain custody of any children. They are members of the father's clan, not their mother's.

Back to our royal story: a further twist is the fact that it looks as if baby Prince Richard SSemakokiro is likely to inherit the throne. The Kabaka has another son, Prince Jjunja, who automatically takes the title Kiweera (eldest son) but in Gganda culture, the eldest son never inherits the throne. a tradition designed to avoid intrigue, internecine strife and fratricide. Also, the heir has to be from a Muganda mother. Whether the new prince will actually inherit the throne may depend on whether another prince is born, within or outside marriage. However, the heir can be chosen from among any of the descendents of Kabaka Muteesa I (1856-1884). A special council will help the Kabaka to decide who will be his heir, a decision kept secret until his death.

Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II
In the Royal Family, unlike in the rest of Buganda, boys traditionally take on their mother’s clan so that the kingship circulates among all the 56 clans within the tribe.  (It is taboo for any Muganda to marry within his or her own clan.) Indeed, traditionally, the Kabaka has had the right to have sexual relations with any woman he chooses, unless she is from his mother's clan. He is expected to continue the royal line, one which goes back to about 1300 AD. So another argument is that the Kabaka was duty bound to seek an heir once it was clear that one was unlikely to emerge from within his own marriage.

It seems to me that the furore about the Kabaka’s domestic life is just another example of the unresolved tensions between traditional culture and the Christian structure built over it. Many Ugandans resolve the tensions by subscribing simultaneously to two belief systems: traditional religion and Christianity. Baganda often have two funerals, one in church followed by a traditional ceremony. Traditional religion is basically pantheistic.  The Kabaka does not die; he ‘withdraws his hand from the shield’ and passes into the forest (symbolised in royal tombs by the bark cloth curtain).

Bark cloth curtain at the Wamala tombs, Kampala

Inside the Wamala tombs, complete with holes in the roof.

So, the new prince ensures the survival of the royal line. The media story has casualties, of course. I have already mentioned the Kabaka’s wife who, in the language of the press, has ‘maintained a dignified silence’. One other casualty is an unfortunate young woman whom the newspapers incorrectly fingered as the mother of the new prince. Not only has this caused her major problems with her family, but her intended husband with whom she was about to hold an ‘introduction’ (engagement) ceremony has now rejected her.

And the new Prince SSemakokiro, is he a victim of the current controversy? That is unlikely. Firstly, like elsewhere, newspapers have a short shelf life, and tomorrow will be used to wrap muchomo. However, more importantly, Ugandan culture – or, indeed, Baganda culture - is very tolerant of sexual peccadilloes. Ugandans welcome children. If there is one thing they love it is having lots and lots of babies. 

So, where the royal baby has come from is a relatively minor issue.The big issue for all Baganda is which comes first, their Christian faith or their Gganda culture? I think we may see the answer to that question changing as time goes on. The Kabaka may be leading the way.

The exterior of the rather dilapidated Wamala tombs on a rainy day


VS Naipaul, who once worked at Makerere University, writes interestingly about the religion of Buganda in his book The Masques of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.

See the Epilogue of Richard Dowden’s fascinating book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles for a moving description of the bringing together of Christian and Kiganda belief during his old headmaster’s funeral rites.

The recent Nigerian novel by Lola Shoneyin The secret lives of Baba Segi's wives is a wonderful account of life in a polygamous household.

You may also be interested in the post Let the people speak, which outlines some of the ethnic and political issues in Uganda.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Letting children down: PLE results 2011

At the end of last week, scores of beaming faces adorned the pages of the national English language press here in Uganda. The results of the Primary Leaving Examination (PLE) were out.  Similar photos still continue to appear in the papers and will do so for days. The children who feature have a very good reason to be so delighted: they have surmounted one of the major obstacles which the Ugandan educational system puts in the way of educational success. 

The newspaper stories are paid for, of course: by prestigious schools as part of their marketing strategy and, as you would expect, by individual proud parents who can afford the newspapers’ fees. I don’t have a problem with schools and families recognising success in this way. However, these stories are not the product of serious journalism.

Serious journalists have been writing about the PLE results, as it happens, but not on pages such as these. The leader articles and comments pages have been full of angst-ridden reflections on the tragic waste of human potential which these results present.

Success in the PLE, taken on completion of Primary 7 (P7), opens the door to secondary education, employment and a future with choices. Despite that, less than a quarter of all Ugandan P7 primary children are actually presented for P7 certification. All the rest drop out for one reason or another before they get anywhere near the examination room. Yes, let’s repeat that statistic in a different way: the drop-out rate from P1 to P7 is around 75%. The specific figure may vary depending on how and by whom the statistics are collected. Those who survive their experience of primary school to sit the PLE are among the most indefatigable, resilient and (if your parents are well off) fortunate young people in the country. The children with their pictures in the paper have a right to be beaming. 

And what makes the 'survivors' so resilient?
  • Some of the drop outs will actually have been persuaded to leave school by their headteachers in order to protect the schools’ pass rates.
  • Some children will have got tired of being beaten, slapped or pinched for not understanding, will have got ‘lost’ at the back of a class of 100 or will have found the arid rote-learning a complete turn-off.
  • Some will have been taken out of school by their parents to herd cattle, work in the markets or on the farm, go fishing or engage in other forms of child labour.
  • About 80% of the girls dropping out in P6 and P7 will have been married off by their parents or guardians in exchange for a bride price. The going rate for the sale varies, as you would expect, depending on social class and the desperation of the seller: perhaps a couple of goats, or just a couple of bags of sugar. Some P7 girls will already be pregnant, usually as the result of rape. At least 110 girls in Gulu alone missed their PLE exams for these reasons alone.

Many children, of course, never even get as far as P1 in the first place. You might possibly get an education if you are deaf or blind, but you have little chance if you are autistic or, indeed, just ‘slow’. ‘There are no autistic children in Uganda,’ we were told when we arrived. Aye right.

And how well did the lucky twenty-something per cent do?  Quite well it appears at first sight: the pass rate was 86.4% - as it should be given the attrition rate before candidates even get into the exam room. However, last year 88% of candidates passed. PLE results are going down, hence the angst.

The major gap in results is between urban and rural schools, the newspapers say. Actually, it is really a gap between the rich and the poor. If you live in the country but have parents who are well off, you will be sent to school, as good a school as they can afford, even if it involves you travelling a couple of hundred miles and boarding. It is those without money who suffer.

I am not going to rehearse the issues of rural and slum schools all over again. I have mentioned them often enough in other posts: absentee teachers (more than 50% absent at any one time); inadequate coverage of the syllabus (only 42% coverage in Adjumani, according to district officials); classes of a hundred or two hundred pupils; lessons held out in the open or in dilapidated classrooms; inability to pay unofficial school fees; almost no books; children sitting on the ground or on stones, hungry children, tired children, sick children, beaten children, sexually abused children. One could go on for ever.

Nor am I going to reiterate the sheer inappropriateness of the PLE itself, and the course which leads up to it in P6/P7: the triviality and irrelevance (and sometimes inaccuracy) of the English language questions; the lack of a focus on real writing; the maths questions which are far too hard and would not be addressed until well into secondary school in the UK; and the learning of facts off by heart in social studies and science. The curriculum and exam at this stage are about sixty years out of date, if not more, and are based on theoretical study rather than active learning and critical thinking.

Instead I want to take a different tack.

Last November the Dutch government, one of Uganda’s biggest donors, withdrew 14 million euros-worth of funding from the education sector because of persistent corruption, weak financial management and poor standards. The Ugandan government had failed to meet the education targets agreed with donors. One of the various last straws was the implication of civil servants in the stealing of funds meant for textbooks for children in government schools.

This marks the exit of Netherlands as a supporter of basic education,’ said the Dutch Ambassador at the Education Sector Review organised by the Ministry of Education and Sports last November. ‘The results we have been achieving since the introduction of UPE (Universal Primary Education) have been disappointing and we decided to shift our focus to productive areas like agriculture.

He added, 'Literacy is the basis for the acquisition of all but the basic life skills. Right now more than 40% of the ever growing number at P3 level is illiterate. They – and their fellows who dropped out of school – stand very little chance of ever making it to any form of secondary education.

Donor countries have very difficult decisions to make when recipient governments misuse the funds they are given. The Dutch government has every right to withdraw its funding if it sees it ending up in the pockets of corrupt officials rather than being used as intended: to improve the education of Ugandan children.  To do otherwise would be to betray the trust of Dutch taxpayers and voters.

So, where does that leave people like us and others who work for international agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities? I think the answer depends on the context in which one works and the kind of activities on which one is engaged.

Stuart and I are not involved in managing any funds. We support, train, model behaviour and coach national education inspectors. We acknowledge that we are unlikely to have any direct impact on the quality of education out there in those terrible schools. We do believe, however, that we can have an impact on the way public servants view education and their role in it, and on their values and principles. We can also help them develop the necessary technical skills to evaluate the quality of the learning and teaching, leadership and management which they observe. There are disappointments of course, but if you didn’t believe that attitudes and behaviour can change you wouldn’t be involved in education in the first place.

Other people who work for NGOs ‘rescue’ children and give them chances which they would otherwise not have. There ARE good Ugandan people working in Ugandan schools: headteachers who believe passionately in the worth and value of what they do and of every child who attends their school; teachers who support, counsel and care for the most vulnerable of their pupils. These people deserve our support. Volunteers working for NGOs which work with specific schools can see the difference they make to the lives and futures of individual children. You can make a difference on the ground if you are engaged in small-scale practical projects which are very closely managed and monitored.

Fortunately, some stories did manage to hearten me this week in the middle of all the hype and all the angst surrounding the PLE results. Even then, I have to admit, there is a bitter-sweet taste to some of them.

At district level
Kamuli District improved its pass rate at PLE despite the decline at national level.  The District Inspector of Schools ascribed the improvement to ‘intensive supervision by education officers’ focusing on attendance by headteachers and teachers and the introduction of a new by-law to check absenteeism.

Second chances
The pass rate in PLE at Luzira Prison Primary School for adult offenders, was 95%, well above the national rate. Seven of the 57 candidates achieved passes at Division 1.

At school level
Royal Pride Community Academy, which is supported by our VSO cluster, presented twice the number of candidates as it did last year, 13 in all. Every pupil passed and four achieved Division 1, a splendid result for any school and particularly for a school in a Kampala slum. (Unfortunately, none of these children is able to afford to go to secondary school.)

So, in summary, children across Uganda are being let down and donors are right to use whatever pressure they can to force the government to acknowledge and address this desperate situation,


  • inspection can work;
  • second chances are possible;
  • schools do make a difference; and
  • the money you give to charity will transform young people's lives.

   International agencies which aim to improve education governance and management across Uganda:


 Non-governmental organisations and charities which support specific communities, schools and children in Uganda

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Coming back to Kampala

I had thought London was quite balmy when I left. The snowdrops were out and, with my winter coat packed away, I was wandering around wearing a fleece. (I almost wrote ‘just a fleece’, but London wasn’t that warm!) Having spent the last eighteen months proclaiming to all my friends and relations that Uganda has a surprisingly temperate climate, not too hot despite being on the Equator, not too wet and not too dry, I stepped off the plane at Entebbe to be met by heat. This was real heat, real African heat, and it was already half past ten at night. The last few days have been hot, too hot even for Ugandans, well into the thirties.

And the dust! Every surface is covered with a deep red powder, no sooner wiped away than deposited again. Our green car looks red from the distance, as does our rather repulsive white plastic balcony furniture, and even the leaves. Every object one touches stains hands and clothes a rusty red. The latest news is that this hot dry weather is likely to last well beyond February, which is when the dry season usually comes to an end. Instead, commentators are talking about it going on till April. I love the heat (though not the dust!), but this is not good news for farmers, or indeed for Ugandans generally. The papers are warning of an increased fire risk because of the high temperatures and windy conditions. People in rural areas are being warned not to light fires in the bush or burn charcoal.

A hazy Kampala city centre on a quiet Sunday afternoon

In this dry heat, dust hangs in the air, as does the smoke. One of my most distinctive memories of Uganda, particularly in the conurbations, is of the smell of burning rubbish, sometimes so pungent you can almost taste it. Anyone know the carcinogenic effects of smouldering plastic? With as good as no garbage disposal except in the wealthy suburbs, the verges of the streets are lit by the glowing embers of small domestic fires while any open space becomes an impromptu rubbish heap. I was shocked all over again as we drove towards our office on Monday morning, seeing the children clambering over the stinking heaps of refuse at the side of the road, every so often setting off mini-avalanches which slithered down into the gutters. There the heaps will remain, becoming mini-dams during the next rainstorm and flooding the road itself and even the ramshackle houses and kiosks from the whence the rubbish came in the first place.

However, during the dry season it is smoke not floods which one is aware of. As we drove towards Kampala from Entebbe on Sunday evening, we could see the pollution hovering over the city, painting the sky behind the sun’s huge crimson ball with glorious blood-red streaks. Yes, it was spectacular but other senses also come into play. London may not be famous for its fresh clean air but I was soon longing for it.

As night falls, the women start to line the streets, most of them bending over small charcoal stoves, roasting stalks of maize to be sold to passing pedestrians. They nurse their babies on one arm while their toddlers scramble around them, or, worse, sit dead still, not daring to move a muscle.  The first thought of an expatriate Briton is, ‘Why are these children not in bed?’ The answer is sadly obvious.  The darkness is illuminated by little wooden kiosks, whose candles and paraffin lamps provide welcome – if unofficial – street lights. And other women and girls stand in the shadows. Who knows what they are selling?

I had forgotten the sounds of Kampala’s evenings and nights. From the church below our flat rise polyphonic choruses, cantor and congregation taking turns through interminable rhythmic verses. They are still at it the next morning. The dogs bark incessantly. The children in the neighbouring compounds chant their rhymes, shriek loudly during games of tag and squabble and sob in the manner of children everywhere. However, British children tend to do this inside the house, particularly in January. In Uganda life is lived outside and families preserve few secrets. Do Ugandan children ever go to bed, I mutter to myself? Not when all the family share one living-cum-bedroom.

Relaxing on our balcony, 'autumn' 2010

So has much changed during the three months I have been away?

Well, the load-shedding has got worse. The power is switched off around eight o’clock every alternate evening and is only switched on in the early hours. We read by torchlight and go to bed early. Our rich neighbours have a generator which throbs away in the background. The reason for these cuts? The delay in developing the hydropower plants on the River Nile which runs from Lake Victoria to Lake Albert is usually cited. The dam at Bujagali Falls (cost Shs1 billion) should start generating power in the next month or so, and various other mini-dams in different parts of the country are also due to come on stream.  With any luck, the electricity shortage should then be reduced, although the latest estimate is 10 years for completion of the Karuma Falls dam (estimated cost Shs2.2 billion).

The Ugandan government has ordered that energy subsidies be scrapped, raising tariffs signficantly. (Nigeria did the same thing with the result that President Goodluck Jonathan had to restore the subsidy after a week-long general strike.) An investigation by the President's brother Gen. Salim Saleh has discovered that private electricity firms have swindled the country of Shs300 billion through manipulating tariffs. Apparently electricity charges would fall by 44% if this were dealt with. People like us shouldn’t moan too much about the load-shedding, of course. Only 12% of Uganda has electricity anyway (and only 8% of households), most of them in the towns and cities. Most of the rest rely on tadoobas (paraffin lamps) which pollute the air and are a serious fire hazard. Still, spoilt westerners like ourselves feel lost without our laptops, DVDs and water heaters, and sitting in the dark soon loses its attractions. More serious is the effect on industry. Load-shedding plays havoc with industrial processes.

What else? Traders were on strike for four days because of high bank charges and are now locked in conflict with the government whom they have petitioned to negotiate with the banks. The strike cost the government Shs40 billion in tax revenue.

Truck with armed police

On the good side, there certainly seem to be fewer armed soldiers and police on the streets. Ever since we arrived eighteen months ago, the roads have been full of trucks transporting paramilitaries from camp to checkpoint and back again. It is quite a relief not to be confronted any more by the menacing hulks of police tanks at major intersections, poised to aim their water cannon or fire their teargas at the least hint of a disturbance. The Entebbe Road looks quite civilised.

Police tank parked on a roundabout, taken through the car window

So does that mean that the ‘trouble’ is over? Not exactly, judging by the newspapers. The Activists for Change (A4C) movement has apparently resumed its protests and members of the opposition are back in the cells again. There are rumours in the newspapers that informal commandos under the control of the police have taken over political arrests. (The sinister Rapid Response Unit was disbanded last year for human rights abuses.) Mind you, who needs political protests when the City’s Director of Planning, ordering the demolition of ‘illegal structures’ (people’s homes and shops) in Luzira Port Bell, negotiated with the angry crowd by aiming a rifle at them. The rifle jammed so it was left up to his bodyguard to take over – two were shot dead and others seriously injured. The Director was fired.

And in case we westerners complacently think that people like us do not engage in such violence, this week an American who has been living in Uganda since 2008 was arrested for carrying an illegal firearm. And what is this American’s role in Uganda? He is a ‘missionary’. No comment on the role of ‘men of God’ in Uganda.

So, lots of things have happened while I’ve been away. There are all sorts of stories I could add from the last couple of days’ papers alone: the controversy about the Kabaka’s new son; the theft of the plaque commemorating Colonel Gaddafi's role in rebuilding the Toro Kingdom's palace; the continuing saga of corruption scandals in parliament; the threatened resumption of teachers’ strikes; and, of course the publication of the Primary Leaving Examination results – exactly the sorts of stories we would have in our own British newspapers, in fact. It really is home from home. 

However, all these tales can wait for another day. For the time being, I am just glad to be back in Kampala. Heat, dust and darkness: I can live with these!

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Goodbye for now, Uganda

Home from home

Monday, January 16, 2012

Country, tribe and home

I have never felt the lure of nationalism. Why is this? Partly my upbringing and partly also the many places in which I have lived or to which I have strong family ties: Bangladesh, Wales, Kent, the West Country, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham, Aberdeenshire, the Lothians and the Highlands. At one time it looked as if my trajectory would continue ever northwards, perhaps touching down in Thurso, hopping across to Shetland, swooping over Fair Isle and coming to rest in Iceland. Uganda has put paid to that, taking me southwards once again.

With my family I have picked loganberries in Locksbottom and strawberries in Stonehaven, jumped streams in the Forest of Boland and waves at Portwrinkle, avoided vertigo at Flamborough Head and on the crumbling cliff paths of Dunnottar. Together we have gazed at sunshine on Snowdon and snow on Suilven. We have driven through the tea plantations of Sylhet and the coffee plantations of the Rwenzoris. All these places have felt like home at one time or another in my life. Many other families are also scattered across Britain like this. People no longer live and die in the same place: modern life has put paid to that. I for one, however, have never really expected to have to choose among the places I have, at different times, counted as 'home', particularly those which huddle together on one small island. However, now it seems I may have to.

And what does nationality mean to someone like me anyway? After all, it is difficult to be a nationalist if you are not entirely sure to which nation you belong. One bit of the family defines itself as Welsh, particularly during the Six Nations Cup; another branch proudly waves the Cornish flag. Am I English, like my Essex cousins? Given my birthplace, could I claim a Bangladeshi passport? Or would I have the confidence to declare myself Scottish on the basis of forty years residence, two Scottish sons and a marriage? And, crucially, would five million Scots agree with me despite my embarrassingly English accent?

In the past, such musings about my nationality have been rare. I have never really cared what country I am presumed to belong to and am as embarrassed by brutish English nationalism as by its crass Scottish counterpart. Pride in the music, landscape and literature of one's people and wanting to share them with others is one thing. However, what we have been watching on television and reading in newspapers this week have shown an obsession with borders, flag-waving and the resurrection of ancient grievances which is something else again. The online comments have been beyond belief.

According to the newspapers, at some point over the next few years, I will probably be asked to declare to which nation I belong, even if that involves drawing a border between me and some of my closest family members and carrying my passport with me whenever I drive down to see my mother. I remember one of my sons watching news footage of the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia many years ago now, and asking the question, 'When Scotland fights England, which side will I be on?' - a difficult question to answer both then and now. When their father and I had visited Yugoslavia barely ten years before, we could never have predicted the rape, massacre and torture perpetrated by people who had lived side by side in the same villages quite amicably for years. All this may seem melodramatic when considered in the context of countries as apparently placid as England and with as small a population as Scotland. However, size is irrelevant and I believe there is no such thing as national character. It doesn't take much for people who have been neighbours to start treating each other as aliens even if it doesn't go as far as bloodshed. All it needs is an influential politician or two and manipulation of the media. Ask the people of Rwanda.

I was brought up to look beyond national borders. Our Lancashire home welcomed African and Asian students, despite the 1960s racism so blatant in the streets around us. I tried to bring up my own children with a similarly broad view of the world about them, with the result that they have travelled to, and worked in, more countries than we could ever have predicted. Now, however, the inhabitants of this small island, in particularly those in Scotland, are apparently being asked to narrow their perspectives to focus predominantly on their own little patch. None of the Scots I know and like and among whom I have lived for many years are like that at all. Scots have tended to have a somewhat broader outlook, coming from generations of sailors, merchants and explorers as many of them do.

It is difficult to predict how an independent Scotland would operate in an international context. I can't imagine it would be able to afford as many consulates as the UK does at present, with an inevitable impact on the assistance available to Scots abroad. Would Scottish diplomats have the kind of influence on world affairs that we have observed among European and American diplomats in Africa? The United Kingdom has been instrumental in cancelling the debt burden of developing countries and has continued to provide funding for international development despite financial pressures at home. I wonder whether the people of a small independent Scotland would continue to feel such a commitment to poor people in faraway countries or, indeed, be able to afford it on their own.

It is ironic given current discussions about the possible break up of the United Kingdom that our home just now is in Uganda, a country whose key aim since the 1980s has been to try to bring together all its tribes and clans. There are far more languages and ethnic groupings in Uganda than in Great Britain, yet 'We are all Ugandans' is the message for all. It hasn't worked perfectly, of course, with notable differences between the north and the south and a predominant tribe, the Baganda, which argues for a federal approach. However, no one has seriously suggested that the country should be dismantled despite its crazy colonial borders which separate members of the same tribe and cut across language and culture.

Once we break nations into smaller entities and start focusing on differences rather than what we have in common, then the apparent homogeneity of a country like Scotland could soon become illusory. Those who can successfully persuade their people that there are significant differences between the people on the north and south banks of the Tweed can hardly be surprised if similar differences emerge north and south of the Tay. The northern isles of Orkney and Shetland with their Nordic past have traditionally been wary of government from Edinburgh. Speakers of Scots already express their resentment of the privileged position, both political and financial, which the Scottish Parliament has assigned to Gaelic.

The future of our planet requires us to be citizens of the world, sensitive to the needs of people thousands of miles away from our own tiny island. In our families and schools, we do not bring up our children to think principally of themselves. We expect them to see the bigger picture and learn to make compromises in order for others, as well as themselves, to be happy, safe and secure. Inward-looking parochialism which considers only what is 'best for Scotland', 'best for England', 'best for Orkney' or best for any other small part of the whole is selfish, threatens our survival as a species and ignores our kinship with the rest of the world.

You may also be interested in When 'where you come from' really matters.