Imagine living in a country where the average age is under 16 (in the UK it’s currently 40 and increasing) so that everywhere you go you’re surrounded by teenagers. It sounds exhilarating. Such optimism and energy; the sheer vitality of young blood coursing through the streets. How brilliant, too, for a country to be unfettered by how things have always been done, no elders to restrain them, hold them back, warn against change. But nothing is that simple. For The Compass: A Young World (Wednesday) on the World Service (produced by Mike Gallagher), Alan Kasujja took us to his native Uganda to find out what it’s like to walk down a street where no one shuffles along, wearied by the years. In the capital, Kampala, we can hear the colour, the life force, captured on his microphone. His voice, too, betrays the impact of being there.
Kasujja says that every time he comes back, ‘I start to feel a bit mature,’ in contrast to those he meets. But he doesn’t sound it. His enthusiasm is infectious, his presenting style refreshingly different. He visits a school in Kampala, where he meets Oscar, who’s 19 and wants to be a lawyer. He’s been an orphan since he was 13 and has had to fund his own education, ‘disappearing’ every so often to make some money. He looks quite melancholic, says Kasujja, abruptly changing the direction of the conversation.
‘Do you cry?’ he asks.
Oscar replies, without pausing, ‘Yes, sometimes.’
‘What do you cry about?’
‘I cry about the challenges I’m having.’
Seven out of ten pupils drop out of school because there’s no money to pay their fees, their parents have died and it’s all up to them. Education is not free beyond primary school because there are just too many students. Oscar makes peanut butter (from a recipe learnt from his mother) and every so often takes time off school to keep his business going, roasting the beans, making the butter, finding new customers.
Outside Kampala the situation is much worse. Kasujja goes to a small village on the shores of Lake Victoria where he finds adults sitting around playing dice while the children are out on the lake in fishing boats trying to earn some money. Their children don’t seem to have much of a future. It’s much worse for young girls, who outnumber boys, many families having four or five daughters to just one son. Many of them stop going to school on a regular basis as soon as they start menstruating because they have no access to sanitary towels.
But it’s not all so dispiriting. Kasujja meets Sandra, who fell pregnant at 15. She was told to leave school and stay at home, but she wanted to sit her exams, which she did, and she passed. Now she says, ‘I’m an example. I went through it. I want to encourage others to stay at school. It’seasy if you surround yourself with the right people.’
Kasujja also meets Philip, 17, ‘head boss’ of the students at his school, who says that school is helping him to achieve his dream. What’s that? asks Kasujja. ‘To become president of Uganda. I am serious, sir. I am serious, working for that dream… to be tougher than Trump.’
On Radio 4 last week, Crossing Continents: Living with the Dead (produced by Rebecca Henschke and Bob Howard) also came up with a very fresh (or perhaps not) way of looking at life. It’s still available on iPlayer and worth catching up on because it takes us so vividly inside a different culture. Sahar Zand visits the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to meet the Toraja who instead of burying their dead keep them alive, sometimes for years. She goes to see a family who have kept their father’s body for 12 years, in a small room in the centre of the house, his grandchildren running in and out and playing a game as if his cadaver was not there.
‘He looks a bit grey,’ says Zand, ‘and he has holes in his face, as if insects have been eating through.’ She’s surprised by her reaction on seeing him. ‘All my life I’ve been scared of corpses and dead people.’ She didn’t even go to see her father’s body when he died. ‘But here I am, standing here, looking at this man, and it’s fine.’
His daughter tells her, ‘We grow up with corpses in our houses. There’s no reason to be scared.’
Every couple of years, families bring out their corpses, stand them up, change their clothes. Zand watches as a 93-year-old grandmother’s coffin is opened. A very strange smell pervades the room, musty, but not unpleasant. She sees a tiny old woman, her mouth and eyes half open, her skin grey, ‘like a stone statue’. Suddenly, Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale begins to make sense.
We tend to avoid thinking about those who have gone before us, because it makes us sad. But in Sulawesi, among the Toraja, a close emotional relationship is maintained between the living and the dead. Forthem death really does not mean saying goodbye.
Kate Chisholm is The Spectator’s radio critic and an expert on Dr Johnson.