ABSTRACT

When the National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power in 1986, its cadres overflowed with reformist zeal. They set out to transform Uganda’s public life, put an end to ethnic division, and promote local democracy. Today much of this reformist energy has dissipated, and undemocratic kingdoms largely define the cultural landscape. This essay attempts to explain how these things came to pass. It argues that the heritage economy offered NRM officials and other brokers an ensemble of bureaucratic techniques with which to naturalize and standardize cultures. Discomfited by the enduring salience of the occult among the people they governed, and alive to the new opportunities that the global heritage economy offered, the secular men of the NRM turned to managers who could superintend cultural life. In the field of medical practice NRM authorities delegated considerable authority to an organization called “Uganda N’eddagala Lyayo” (Uganda and Its Medicines), which worked to transform the situational and occultist knowledge of healers into the standardized repertoire of traditional medicine. In politics, NRM authorities turned to kings as brokers of tradition and as spokesmen for their people. The commercial impulse to trademark cultures and identify heritage products went hand-in-hand with the creation of unrepresentative political hierarchies. The 2016 presidential election was a further occasion for the reinforcement of monocultural, undemocratic forms of local government.