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The Effectiveness-Lab

We are painting in the dark – Series 2

For many years, I have dedicated December of every year to giving back to my society. Please note the word ’my’ society. As a Ugandan, I have to assume ‘my’ society is Uganda and, in particular, my village Nakabugu; yet as an East-African citizen, I am also obliged to consider East Africa ‘my’ society. Therefore, the painting in the dark blog series focuses on my society Uganda, Nakabugu, but with a natural extension and applicability to the East Africa context. In writing this second blog series via the Effectiveness-Lab, I am challenging fellow East Africans to become more effective, in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. That is my giving back to society

Painting in the dark Credit:
Painting in the dark

Series 2 asks the question: ‘are we relevant and effective in the world that is increasingly complex and uncertain?

In East Africa, we have believed for the last one hundred years that the magic bullet to attain the status: ‘relevant and effective’, is through acquiring Western education. An education that walks East Africans through a highly structured formal education system; where we are taken through pre-defined stages of learning; absorbing whatever the teacher tells us, not daring to question anything, and at the end of the process regurgitate the same at multiple exam sittings. Those endowed with photographic memories excel as ‘A’ students and are top of the class all the way from kindergarten to University, where they are awarded degrees.

Given how poverty struck we are in East-Africa, the hypothesis to breaking the poverty cycle in a family or clan has always been: ‘mortgage all you have, to provide your children a Western education, and bingo poverty shall become history’.

Painting in the dark – the failing poverty eradication hypothesis:

Well, the hypothesis no longer holds true. Remember that in this blog, we are not discussing the child or student, that was in blog series one. The subject in this blog is you the Western-educated adult East African citizen. In other words, while you acquired the much-coveted Western education, there is increasing evidence that you are still struggling to escape poverty in all its manifestations.

The hypothesis that the majority of the uneducated in East Africa are condemned to a life of poverty is a fallacy. Instead, many educated East Africans are also grappling with poverty, only that it is poverty of a different nature. The educated East African is faced with the dynamic of the delayed-onset of poverty. In effect, the educated East African is already destined to become poor but is lucky that the Western education they got, and a job, are delaying the full onset of poverty. It is only a matter of time before many of the so called educated adult East-Africans become truly poor.

Apparently, an education system like the one in East Africa, which is not built on a firm foundation of the growth-mindset, cannot prepare citizens for a complex and uncertain world.

We assume that to remain relevant and effective; adults have to learn continuously. However, in continuous adult learning or the lack of, lies the problem that this particular blog series is trying to address. Learning means different things to different communities, cultures, countries, and individuals. Learning, at least in most of East Africa is about going to school, regurgitating what you have been taught, earning your degree, and getting into white-collar employment. By the time the average East African comes off the Western education conveyor belt, they are very experienced in ‘follower-ship’ and adept in the ‘order and do’ culture.

Since we are such brilliant followers, learning to us is waiting for new instructions and implementing them to the letter. Who can blame us for our followership? After-all, that is what we have been taught; to us, there is nothing wrong with what we know and do.

To the many adult East Africans learning is not:

  1. asking the right questions
  2. boldness to try out new things
  3. trying again, and again, and again

Doing the above three is living the growth-mindset, yet it is not something we are seamlessly taught to do in East Africa.

Asking the right questions and trying out new things:

Let us explore two aspects of a typical growth-mindset and how the lack of, condemns the adult Western Educated East African to painting in the dark

How many East Africans are in jobs, comfortable ones at that, but have not yet asked and answered the questions below?

  • Do I wake up every day asking myself what I can do to become a level 5 employee or businessman?
  • How can I avoid treating success as deserved and not earned?
  • Do I understand why I/we do what we do, and ask questions to help me catch, when why we do what we do is no longer being met?
  • Do I constantly question the status quo and avoid getting into a situation of false satisfaction?
  • I am I a good student of my job/work, forever asking questions of myself and others?
  • Do I link the now (job/business) to the after (old-age)?
  • Will I be able to sustain the same quality of life I live today when I retire?
  • I am I putting away enough money in savings, to have enough disposable income when I retire?
  • Given the very poor national health service system, have I considered a two-track retirement/savings/investment scheme? i.e. savings for daily upkeep and savings for medical eventualities when retired?
  • Have I asked the right questions when it comes to my retirement investments, or I am doing what the John’s are doing? i.e. I have witnessed many in East Africa investing in business not because they know what they want out of them, but because a certain John has invested in the same

In asking the all right questions:

  • Have you been bold enough to try out new things?
  • Have you allowed enough time to scan what is now, and what the future may bring and thought about appropriate business/investment models to secure yourself?
  • If you were helping your child choose a career, from the choice of: a law degree, a degree in psychology, a degree in conflict management, and a degree in political science vs. diploma in nursing, diploma in physiotherapy, diploma in creative arts, and certificate in 3D design – what would you choose?
  • If you were looking at investing your meagre yet hard-earned savings in business, how will you go about that? Do you have the right capabilities to ask the right questions followed by the right analysis? Will you seek the help of an investment adviser?

The real cost of lacking a growth-mindset:

Many Western-educated adult East Africans do not have the mental orientation to deal with the above sets of vexing questions. Asking such questions has something to do with the mental orientation that we get when we practice the growth-mindset.

Let us take a simple example of investment in real estate, specifically, houses for rent by the so-called middle class in a country like Uganda. A forty-year-old individual builds a self-contained three bedroom house at a total cost of $50,000. The monthly rental for the same house is about $150 a month. Simple arithmetic will tell you that it may take you 28 years to recoup your investment in this house, assuming its value stays the same and that your capital is not gotten via corrupt means. With a life expectancy In Uganda of just over 50 years, you are likely to die before earning any profit from your investment. If one were asking the right questions, they would have considered other options; for example, build such a house and immediately put it on the market for its cost plus profit. Is it even wise for common people like us to go into semi-professional real-estate business? Should one consider looking at options for a viable retirement scheme and let the experts do the job of investing in them? Should one consider buying company stock on the stock exchange instead?

Apart from real-estate, how many of us have started businesses without conducting proper market surveys and environment analysis? You may have excellent ideas that fly on paper but do not make sense in East Africa. Not making sense is not always due to your inability, but the sheer number of forces at play externally. For example, as you mull over investment options, have you asked questions about the future of the East African middle class and whether it will grow or dwindle in the long-term? What markets are you targeting that are not driven by the viability of the middle class of a nation?

How many of us have kept an eye on the global labour trends and how that should inform the choice of career for your child? Would you rather have a child train to become a physiotherapist or nurse and get into employment straight away or even employ themselves, than becoming a lawyer where three years down the line, they are still unemployed and working for a restaurant chain, asking for rent from your meagre retirement income. If such parents ask the right questions on what will determine future employment in East-Africa, they should be keeping an eye on the developments in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Math). Are they going beyond rhetoric?

We know that the right answers to all these questions are difficult to come by, but the solution cannot be making tokenistic, unviable investments and choices. A growth mindset should help East Africans to ask the right questions and TRY new things. As a result, we won’t be left to the elements of luck and dependence that we have suffered for so long, and may, for some more time to come.

We should stop painting in the dark fellow East Africans. However to do so, we need to make the necessary investment, and there is no shortcut to embracing a growth-mindset at all levels of society

My takeaway: Not asking the right questions as well as having the boldness to try new things, exposes us to the delayed onset of poverty. I am sure that you have met retirees that were extremely rich and comfortable during their work days but live a life of misery in retirement. It is all about not having a growth mindset both at school and in adulthood. Ask the right questions and be bold to try new things and you may just about guarantee yourself a relevant and effective life all the way into retirement


4 responses to “We are painting in the dark – Series 2”

  1. I have a solution; and the solution is somewhere in having a proper investment mix. I can assure you all investments have their own inherent risks. Whereas Real Estates have a longer payback period, Company stocks can collapse drastically. These days even Governments default (heard what happened in Greece?), so government bonds and bills are not safer either. Bank savings can be wiped out through inflation losses. What can one do then? ABG and CPA Mulooki, talk to me on investment analysis – this is one of the ways I earn a living – advising on investments!


    1. Indeed, Investment analysis is one of the answers to avoid painting in the dark!


  2. Good article. What are some of your recommendations to this. I had a discussion with a colleague on real estate. His view is not to recoup his investment in the next 20 or so years but the long term inflows that will come even when he is long dead. That will provide security for his siblings. About the choice of courses to study, you are spot on. I do agree with you. It is the fact not only in east Africa but the developed world as well.


    1. Omulangira Mulooki – webale for taking time to read the blog; well, let us start with your friends position on real estate: of course we have to respect his views but is he asking himself the right questions? Do you think the average life of a house in Uganda is more than x30 years? If it were, then we are talking a sizeable investment that one has to ask why it would take your friend that long to get his money back. Alex, can you imagine the state and value of a typical Uganda mabaati house after x30 years? Do you think it will value that much value to the children? Are we asking ourselves the right questions?


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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