‘’Your Smell Can Tell if You Belong to Africa’s Rising Middle Class’’ – James Muriuki

von Donnas Ojok
Am 16. August 2019 organisierte die Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Zusammenarbeit mit dem Goethe-Zentrum Kampala ein öffentliches Symposium, das den aktuellen Stand und die Beschaffenheit der aufstrebenden Mittelschicht in Uganda diskutieren sollte. Das Symposium machte einen Teil der künstlerischen Projekte aus, die im Rahmen der Future Africa Visions in Time (FAVT) Ausstellung Kampala Edition kuratiert wurden.
The symposium started with an awards ceremony given to three young photographers who participated in the pre-symposium photo contest to share their perspectives on the vision on and of the middleclass in Uganda. The best photo prize was awarded to Jim Joel Nyakana whose work was a portrayal of the housing demand of Kampala’s middleclass. The second winner was Chris Denis Rosenberg whose photo was a portrayal of the sharp contrast of how Kampala’s middleclass are either living on the edge of urban poverty or existing side by side with the urban poor.  The third winner was Stuart Tibaweswa whose photo portrayed the employment challenges and opportunities of Uganda’s middleclass.

During a lightening talk to lay a conceptual foundation for the main theme of the discussion which was the challenges and opportunities for a rising middle class in East Africa, Milton Ayoki, a research fellow at Institute for Research and Policy Analysis argued that the rise of the middle class in Africa isn’t only real but it also has important implication for socioeconomic and political development of the continent. He referred to the AfDB Study which noted that by 2030 Africa’s middle class will make up to 3% of worldwide consumption. He also highlighted that although the rise of the middle class is more pronounced in cities like Cairo, Marrakesh, Luanda, Nairobi, other cities like Kampala and Nairobi are too making significant strides.

In the Uganda contest, Ayoki defined the middleclass as a demographic group that simultaneously meet a per capita expenditure of between 1-5m UGX and includes those who are not vulnerable to falling into poverty. According to Ayoki, among the many characteristics, the middle class social strata live in decent housing (with electricity, piped water, a flush toilet); are employed—deriving primary income (directly or indirectly from non-manual employment; eats quality food (but also junk foods); have access to quality health care; are able to provide quality education for their children; owns material properties like cars; takes into account security from economic vulnerability and are having greater stability in financial inflows that can maintain a middle-class life style.

‘’In this social category, you will professionals, bureaucrats, civil servants, politicians, artists, technical and managerial employees among other’’ Ayoki said.

In a riveting panel discussion session moderated by Raymond Mujuni, an investigative journalist at NBS-TV, the symposium offered a unique platform for four other experts to share their perspectives about the topic.  Among the experts who shared their insights at the panel were Lydia Namubiru from African Centre for Media Excellence; Raymond Mugisha – a risk analyst; Yamara Monika - a cultural anthropologist and James Muriuki an artist from Nairobi.

The moderator Raymond Mujuni gave all panellist a platform to express their personal opinion about the situation of the middle-class in Africa. In his understanding of the middle-class, mostly borrowing from personal experience working on artistic research projects in and around the middle class in Nairobi, James Muriuki noted that it is important to take into consideration things like how someone smells, how people speak, greet and hug when having a debate about the middle class in Africa.

According to Lydia Namubiru, although the middle-class in Africa is rising, the African women are being left behind making the middle-class rise narrative questionable. ‘’If the majority of the urban poor are still women, would it be genuine to be happy about a rising middle-class?’’ she asked. Data from UBOS (2018) attest to this fact, for instance, literacy among females is lower (68 percent) than for males (77 percent); overall, there are more unemployed women (11 percent) than men (eight percent); and generally Ugandan women spend 30 hours a week on unpaid domestic and care work, more than twice the amount of time spent by men (12 hours a week); the 10th Parliament (2016-2021) comprises a 35 percent representation for women; Representation at Local Government level, in directly elected positions is less than three percent for women and over 96 percent for men[1].

However, Raymond Mugisha argued that whilst this could be true, ‘’we cannot be blind to the positive realities and the windows of opportunities than can be exploited to improve conditions of urban women in Africa’’. One yardstick could be in overall female enrolment at universities in Uganda which has been improving in the recent past. For instance, at the university level, the ratio of female to male enrolment is almost 1:1 (79,835 – female and 100,525 male enrolment as of 2018).  

To augment Namubiru’s insight, Monika Yamara, shared the story of Justine, a Rwandan woman who had to defy many odds to break through the glass ceiling and become part of the middleclass in Kigali. Referring to an anthropological research project she carried out in Rwanda, Yamara noted that many women in African cities have to work twice as hard because a plethora of structural bottlenecks hamper their progression to live a better life.

Beside the questions around gender inequality and equity, Namubiru also had concerns about the insecure positions Uganda’s middle class find themselves in. At the end of the day, ‘’we are a cohort of unsecure middle class people we just trying to do whatever we can to maintain our social statuses’’ she argued.

This is somewhat supported by Milton Ayoki’s submission that the biggest problem of the middle class in Uganda is risk aversion because the majority in this category are occupants of a comfort zone. This risk averseness makes the middle class an apolitical, an issue earlier on hinted by Ojok Okello, a programme officer at KAS. During his opening remark, Mr. Ojok argued that an apolitical middleclass is a threat to democratic consolidation because they have the resources it takes to build a robust democratic system but they instead chose not to deploy it. This he argued, defies Aristotelian logic that a strong middleclass is the heartbeat of any democratic society.

Whilst the it’s true there is a rising middle class in urban areas, Raymond Mugisha, a risk analysed posited that there is also a rising population of wealthy people in rural areas, most of them are engaged in large scale agricultural production and other agribusinesses. In fact, ‘’these guys are the ones feeding those in urban areas so you cannot neglect them as part of this middle class phenomenon in Uganda’’ Mugisha hinted.

On another note, Mugisha also warned against defining the middle class using a consumption only lens. But rather, ‘’when we are talking about a middle class, these should be a category of people who are productive and have resources which can be deployed to create a vibrant economy’’, he said. 

This was further reiterated by some participant like Mose Egunyu and Mr. Akumpurira who argued that the problem with Uganda’s middle class is that they are unproductive. ‘’How do we have a middle class that is not productive?’’ Akampurira asked. ‘’Could this mean that these are elite classes of society with close political connections and who are the the biggest propagators of corruption scandals in Uganda?’’ In his opinion, there has to be deep concerns in situations like Uganda society where there is a high level of entry into and high level of exit out of the middle class social strata.

Among other critical conversations held at the symposium was the role of family background in determining entry into the middle class, the connection between public service delivery and middle class attainment among others.


[1] UBOS (2018). Women and Men in Uganda: Facts and Figures


Donnas Ojok

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Donnas.Ojok@kas.de +256 312 262 011/2

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