Saturday, March 19, 2011

It never rains but it pours…

Only ten days ago I was bewailing the lack of water.  Then at the beginning of this week the heavens opened and it has rained every day and night since!   OK, not ALL the time but for quite extended periods – a couple of hours or more at a time sometimes.  And, also, not everywhere: the drought-ridden areas are still bone dry.

Fetching rainwear in Kampala
But what rain!  Just imagine being on the west coast of Scotland during the holiday season.  In my own mind I can recall a three week holiday in Ballachulish with my French pen friend when I was 15.  It rained non-stop – stair rods - throughout those three weeks and I can honestly say there wasn’t a woollen mill within 50 miles of Loch Leven which we didn’t visit.

Uganda does rain properly.
Well, those of you who know the west coast well, just visualise that rain, then multiply its force by ten and add in gale force winds, skies illuminated by lightning and the sound of crashing thunder.  That was the weather we encountered when visiting a primary school deep in the countryside east of Kampala on Tuesday.  We had got as far as the headteacher’s office when the wind rose, tearing through the insubstantial building and threatening to whip off the roof.  Peering through the downpour, we could just make out the classrooms across the quadrangle, children clustering at the doorways underneath the overhang, shivering in their thin cotton garments.  It was after lunch and the children – who should have been already sitting at their desks - were still dashing up and down through the mud to the pit latrines, soaked through within 3 seconds of being outdoors.  Most were barefoot and the few who had shoes had taken them off to save them being spoilt.

No sign of most of their teachers, of course.  Some had not made it back from their houses, not an unusual situation in Ugandan schools regardless of the weather, and some had simply decided not to bother teaching.  To be fair, it was virtually impossible to hear oneself think let alone speak because of the heavy drumming on the corrugated iron roofs.  Nevertheless, it should not have been beyond the bounds of possibility – otherwise called teacher creativity – to devise some written tasks which could have been completed despite the rain.   Unfortunately, the Ugandan approach to lesson planning does not allow for any flexibility.  It is easier to stop teaching than to organise an activity which is not in the plan: somewhat ironic given that we have found no evidence of strategic forward planning in any other aspect of Ugandan education!

So, while we struggled through our interview with the deputy headteacher (because, of course, the headteacher was absent), the children generally milled around, scampered through the mud and learned nothing whatsoever throughout the couple of hours we were there.  These are pupils who broke up at the end of November and have scarcely been to school since the start of the new school year at the beginning of February because of the disruption caused by the elections.  It will be the Easter holiday in a month’s time and in five months they will scarcely have had one month’s proper teaching. 

Imprisoned in the headteacher's office, we didn’t make it to the classrooms, but there would have been little point anyway.  Eventually some of the more enterprising children decided that they might at least take advantage of the rain to refill the thirty or so water containers for the next day from the overflow of the water tank, which did at least mean that the precious water wasn’t wasted.  We waited till the rain died down and then drove off along the long murram roads, grateful that our solid Landcruiser made it safely through the thick sticky mud and deep potholes.

Rain clouds over the Rwenzori foothills.
Back in Kampala, travelling was not much easier.  In the days before last month’s elections, the city’s potholes had been rapidly filled in with red murram and even rubbish, just to show that the capital’s ruling administration was efficient and effective.  Alas, these stop-gap measures have now been washed away and the potholes are as bad as ever, with deep waves of rainwater scouring them out and threatening to wash away any vehicle brave enough to be on the roads.  Predictable but typical of Uganda’s political short-termism.

However, things are getting interesting within Kampala city politics.  You may recall that the original mayoral elections were abandoned after the ruling party, NRM, was discovered to have planted a score of ballot boxes with pre-ticked papers at various ballot stations.  Newspapers allege that this wheeze was planned with the connivance of the NRM candidate, a pastor of the Miracle Church, a church which is at the crazier end of the Ugandan ‘born-again’ movement.  A dozen journalists were beaten up with nail-studded cudgels for attempting to report the vote-rigging.  Nevertheless, the whole incident was so embarrassing for the Electoral Commission whose agents had been caught helping the NRM do the ballot box stuffing, that they re-arranged the election and sacked twenty of their agents.  Any further vote-rigging would have been so blatant even for Uganda that the election at the beginning of this week went ahead quite smoothly and the Opposition candidate Erias Lukwago got in on an anti-corruption ticket, defeating the NRM candidate in a landslide victory.  The defeated NRM candidate has since announced that he is ‘going back to minting money’, an interesting doctrinal position.

All this leaves us with a very intriguing situation here.  We have a local government election result in Kampala which is quite at odds with the national election result for the same polling stations, but is apparently completely in tune with earlier voting patterns.  Kampala, so we are told, has always tended to return Opposition candidates.  We also have a Lord Mayor who is said to be anathema to the President and whose celebratory parade through Kampala was tear-gassed by the police.  Yes, true – you could not make it up!  Imagine the Metropolitan Police using tear gas to disrupt the Lord Mayor of London’s Parade…  There is a basic rule to the reporting of any Ugandan election activity.  Gatherings in favour of the ruling party are described as ‘enthusiastic crowds’.  Those in favour of the Opposition are described as ‘riots’ and quickly dispersed by armoured vehicles, teargas and, last week, by live ammunition, fortunately fired over participants’ heads. 

Just to make it even more interesting, the President has recently restructured local government in Kampala so that the Mayor has no access to any money.  The person who holds the purse strings is, apparently, a hardline NRM member.  What are the chances of our world-famous potholes being filled in permanently?  How are any of the bog-standard activities of local government going to be financed?  Mmmm… the words ‘struggle’ and ‘power’ come to mind.  So, interesting political weather in Kampala then. 

Who knows what the long-term weather forecast will be?  When Stuart and I, somewhat over-impressed by our recent electrical storms and downpours, asked our Ugandan friends whether this was now the much-delayed rainy season, they all prevaricated, saying, ‘Well, not really, you’re just seeing the first signs of a change in the weather.’  They told us to wait for a month or two to see the real thing.

Storm clouds over Palm Valley golf course.

A rain sodden view from our office car park.

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