‘I am Dr Professor Jimmy Spire Ssentongo’, So what?

A couple of years ago, as participants in a multinational Summer School, one of the things that we Ugandan participants struggled to get used to, was addressing everyone by their plain name.

The key facilitators; from Holland, India and Indonesia, insisted on us using their names without any titles. They were scholars of repute in their respective fields, all with PhDs, some, full professors.

On many occasions, we found ourselves unconsciously addressing them as Prof or Dr. One of them, who was to later become my PhD supervisor, was specifically uncomfortable hearing anyone call her Dr.

Even as her supervisee, I addressed her as Caroline, period. As Ugandans, our uneasiness could be understood in two ways. First, in many of our African cultures, we do not address elders by name. It is a way of showing respect. I cannot address my teacher, or someone my mother’s age by name.

It is the way many of us are brought up. In fact, in Buganda, my elders may never hear me utter their names. All they might hear is; Maama, Taata, Ssebo, Nyabo, Jajja, Kojja... In English, I could use; Dad, Mum, Uncle, Miss, Master, Sir, and so on.

I do not find any problem with this social order, except where it breeds a sheepish attitude before elders; where younger people can never contradict them.

In some ways, this explains the retrogressive ageism in some institutions, with elders becoming automatically correct/right on mere account of their age or seniority. Juniors may fear presenting progressive ideas in restraint from appearing to fault elders.

The second reason for our hesitation to address our facilitators at the Summer School by name, partly connected to the first, is that we were socialised into understanding that many of our people are very keen (almost obsessively) on their titles.

It is one of those things you always have to get right to avoid offending people in our society. Perhaps we should add to all our basic books on Uganda for visitors that, for their life in Uganda to be smooth, they should always remember to explicitly address everyone by their title – from Professor, down to Mr Chairman (Chaiman).

Some Ugandans may never respond to your greeting if you forget to add their titles. We know this so well; that is why, where no specific title comes easily, we have to create one in order to get audience.

When you are asking for directions from a stranger, you will have to start: ‘Boss, where is The Observer located?’ You may as well use ‘Senior’. Police officers will be addressed as ‘Officer, Afande, Big man, ...’ Your builder is ‘Engineer’, forget about the qualifications.

When one is an LC1 chairperson, ‘Chairman’ becomes part and parcel of his names. A nurse or herbalist permanently becomes Musawo; that being the easiest way to get their ear.

Sometimes you get amused at events when a person stands to introduce him/ herself including all their titles as though they are part of their names: “I am Dr Engineer Ssalongo Ssebuyungo”.

Could it be about marketing ourselves, so that people get to know what we do or the services we offer? That would be fine. But on many occasions, such announcement comes unnecessary; often quite clear that one is simply announcing their estimated importance or achievements.

We might well argue thus: Shouldn’t people be free to express pride in achievements they have laboured hard to earn? Maybe.

But, so that what? Why not leave your audience the freedom to choose to address you as Dr, Prof., Engineer, Honourable, Owekitiibwa, or not? Essentially, what would you lose?

Some research in Psychology shows that people who are into such inclinations of boastfulness are often fighting an internal ghost of lack of self-esteem.

For some reasons, they have developed an anticipation that people might despise them. They are not sure of themselves, sometimes even about the title they want to be pronounced.

They, therefore, find need to sing for it, like bad wine. Otherwise, if one were internally satisfied with their achievement, would they desperately yearn for public endorsement?

In extreme cases, this tendency might be a reflection of what is known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder – manifesting as an inflated sense of self-worth.

Some of these people are genuinely convinced that they are very important to society; that everyone should know who they are and what they have achieved; and that they should be admired or celebrated.

We all have the liberty to choose how to live our lives, and one shouldn’t be forced to abandon their dear title that earns them a feeling of fulfilment. However, there is more for a society to benefit from humility than pomposity.

The show-off culture reflected in our obsession with titles has disastrously eaten deep into our society in many other aspects of life, often creating unnecessary (unhealthy) competition and wastefulness – thereby impeding social progress.

We see it at our weddings, kwanjula, and all sorts of show-off parties. If you have no title to boast of, at least splash money to maximise recognition.

I have been at occasions where someone refused to sit simply because a seat was not reserved for them at the front or high table. Some have left in protest because they were not given a chance to speak, as if they had an invention to announce!

In a society where the urge for recognition becomes this obsessive, you will certainly have everyone in a position they deem to be ‘big’ demanding for huge vehicles so that their presence is maximally felt.

Recently I saw my new young member of parliament posting several photos of him on social media, standing beside a brand new Toyota V8 in the middle of an empty street, door open. I just wondered what was going on in his head. While it is good to celebrate our achievements with society, I think we need more lessons on humility.


The author is a teacher of philosophy.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd