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Friday, April 29, 2011

How (not) to manage a crowd

Today has been quite bizarre.  Like half the population of the world (or at least those with TV or internet access) I have been watching the British Royal Wedding.  The Brits may not be great at cooking - though they are getting better - and our weather is pretty awful but, by jingo, we do a good royal wedding!  All the ingredients were in place: impeccable timing, wonderful frocks and lots of cute children in the crowds to make inaudible comments on TV.  Good thing the wedding wasn't in Kampala.  Although the weather would have been a great deal better, the ceremony would have started two hours late, the cars would have broken down because they'd never been serviced, or would have been weaving in and out to avoid huge potholes, and the horses would have bolted because they hadn't been fed.  Kate's dress would have fallen apart at the seams before she even got to the aisle and Westminster Abbey would be a semi-ruin because the builders had sold off the cement to their mates and used cassava flour to stick the stones together instead.  However, the British Establishment being in charge, the whole wedding day went like a dream.  The crowd were led gently and courteously to where they should be by polite respectful policemen.  Nobody pushed, nobody shoved and nobody decided to test out the latest brand of boys' crowd control toys.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, things were a bit different.  It all started yesterday.  Some of you may have picked up details from the media but, in a nutshell, here is what happened.  We ourselves were not eyewitnesses, so our information is taken from newspapers like the 'The Independent' and 'Daily Monitor' which, unlike most other newspapers here, are not owned by the government.  You can find links to these papers and to others on the right hand column.

The Opposition Leader, Kizza Besigye, has been leading walk-to-work protests every Monday and Thursday, together with the leaders of all the other main opposition parties, in support for the poor of Uganda who are seriously affected by rising food and fuel prices.  Price rises are occurring at the same time as many Ugandans have serious concerns about some recent government decisions about expenditure on fighter planes and the President's swearing-in.  Each time they try to walk, they are arrested.  Yesterday, Besigye, having just been released from jail again on bail, drove through Kampala apparently to go to the bank.  He is currently nursing a large bandage on his arm as a result of being shot by police a few days ago, I'm not sure whether by a rubber or live bullet.   


As his car neared one of the main junctions, it apparently attracted a crowd of supporters.  The police, who shadow Besigye everywhere he goes these days, stopped his car, smashed the windows with hammers and rifle butts and sprayed a gas 'of unknown toxicity' directly at him in the close confines of the car.  Some reports say four cans of teargas and pepper spray were emptied into the car as well as 'obnoxious spray'.  We watched the video of this and we could see the police firing directly into the car at Besigye at pointblank range.  He was not obstructing them in anyway, but simply had his head down to avoid injury.  The CID officer who was apparently leading this attack is reported to be a devout Christian with a degree in social administration.  Unable to see, Besgiye was pulled from the car, manhandled, arrested and thrown into the back of a pick up truck.  He was taken to court in quite a bad condition but released because of concerns about his health.  The State represented by five lawyers protested that 'there was no medical evidence to prove the medical condition of Dr Besigye.'  He was apparently blinded by the gas, his skin was burnt and he had difficulty breathing.  He spent the rest of the day in hospital.  He is still reported to be in a bad way.

Absolutely predictably, the city erupted today.  It was almost as if the police had deliberately provoked the population by their actions the previous day.  From our office window we could hear the sounds of gunfire across the city.  Some was teargas but, as usual, live bullets were also used.  Plumes of smoke rose into the air from burning tyres wherever we looked.  We took refuge at home only to discover that our own neighbourhood was also erupting.  Indeed, there has been trouble in towns across Uganda, by the sound of it.  So, we sat tight and watched the Royal Wedding, a good remedy for the jitters!

Ugandan policemen are not good at managing crowds - except for one senior officer who, a few days ago accompanied Olara Otunno, another Opposition leader, on his walk, apparently to keep him safe.  Sadly, he was then suspended from duty.  However, all the other officers seem to over-react at the drop of a hat, shoot at bystanders and generally cause mayhem.  They seem to get away with it.  Recent casualties include a two year old shot dead while she played in front of her house. By no stretch of the imagination could she be considered a threat to anyone.  Wild spraying of crowds with gunfire, indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray, violent beating of anyone in the way with truncheons or whatever comes to hand appear to be the order of the day.

My solution to the inadequacies of Ugandan policing is to send a contingent along to the next Royal Wedding.  There they will learn to be nice, help old ladies across the road and stop little children from being crushed.  Of course, they will have to leave their toys at home: no more big boys' guns for half-educated semi-trained thugs.  Give them a union jack to wave instead, I say!

You may also be interested in a recent post Through a child's eyes, which deals with related issues.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Demons, ghosts and evil spirits

‘Can we close a school if it’s being attacked by evil spirits?’

I thought I’d come across most of the questions people like me tend to be asked when carrying out professional training.  I hadn’t come across this one before, though.  With the help of my Ugandan colleague we had already established that you could – and should – close a school if the wind was threatening to blow it down, if the rebels were on their way or if cattle rustlers were in the vicinity. Apparently the latter are more dangerous on the way back from a raid than on the way there, for you would then be witness to the crime.  I didn’t quite know how to answer the evil spirit question, however, particularly as it was asked in all seriousness and the other 40 people in the room were all nodding solemnly.  Fortunately my colleague took over at that point and, very sensibly, talked about getting medical advice.

‘Do you have evil spirits in Scotland?’ was the next question. 

Non-plussed again, I ventured, ‘People in Scotland don’t believe in evil spirits.’ 

It was not a particularly strong answer but it was all I could think of at the time.  It would have been better to explain that schools in the UK also have instances of mass hysteria, though they tend to involve fainting fits and breathlessness rather than gabbling in strange tongues, barking like dogs, undressing and breaking the furniture.  In Britain we tend to look for rational explanations for strange phenomena and, as my colleague had already suggested to these Ugandan officials, call in the psychologists and medical people. 

According to the newspapers, evil spirits have been pretty busy in Uganda over the last few months, particularly, though not exclusively, in schools.  A health centre in Nakasongola, for example, recently had to close as the medical staff and the community had abandoned it following attacks by spirits.  As a result of such demonic action, religious figures, both ostensibly ‘Christian’ and traditional, have also been pretty busy.

Last month, local district leaders brought in ‘pastors’ to cast out demons from children in a privately-owned school in Luweero and destroy the evil powers ‘suspected to have been planted in a yet unknown area within the school compound’.  The headteacher believed that the demonic powers were associated with another nearby – and rival – private primary school.  Her pupils started beating up other pupils, throwing stones and wrestling with the pastor and ‘praying team’.  The local police have apparently not been able to find out who is behind the witchcraft. 

As in the case above, it seems more than coincidental that demonic attacks often occur in schools where there is existing conflict within the local community.  It is not uncommon, for example, for evil spirits to ‘attack’ pupils when there are property disputes involving school land.  Quite conveniently, they may attack when the school community is in the process of being evicted by an unscrupulous developer. 

Experts like Marjolein van Duijl, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Mbarara University, also relate such attacks to the levels of stress within a population, particularly in a country like Uganda where many people suffer from undiagnosed clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Indeed, as James Onen in a recent article in the Sunday Monitor explains, many primary school boarding hostels provide fertile conditions for such mass hysteria to develop. In such hostels, children with depressive conditions, many of whom may have experienced life-threatening illnesses, death or violence within their family circle, are confined together and subjected to considerable levels of psychological stress, particularly within the examination-obsessed Ugandan educational system.  As soon as one pupil presents as ‘possessed’ by evil spirits, anxiety causes the rest to start exhibiting the same symptoms, giving rise to outbreaks of mass hysteria.

In October last year, a number of pupils in a private primary school in Nakasongola district were apparently injured after being physically attacked by evil spirits.  The headteacher and board of governors decided to close the school.  'Our school, like many others in this area, has been affected by evil spirits for very many years but in the last month these attacks have escalated and we felt it would be best to send the children to their parents,' said the headteacher. 

Only last week, a government-aided primary school in Kampala, founded by the Church of Uganda, was also reported as suffering from demonic attacks which, according to New Vision, led to about a hundred pupils trying to kill a teacher alleged to have had some sort of relationship with the headteacher.  Significantly, the incidents took place during examination time and the customary Lenten fast which left the pupils without any midday meal. The demonic events had begun about a year or so ago when one pupil had run berserk claiming that the teacher had hidden charms in the school compound.  Others followed suit and local people entered the school causing even more chaos. Demons (mayembe) had apparently taken up residence in a mango tree.  

The Independent reports that last week children were screaming at teachers, throwing stones and generally running wild.  Some parents have apparently been tying their children up with ropes to control them.  Headless snakes have been seen.  The headmaster has already ritually slaughtered a cow, sprinkled its blood all over the classrooms and compound, and offered libations to appease the spirits.

New Vision reports, ‘The school authorities who are professed Christians by day, and apparent believers in witchcraft by night, have publicly responded with prayer.’  A Christian Pentecostal pastor has carried out some sort of exorcism.   Unfortunately, the ghosts have apparently continued to attack the school. 

And this is where it gets really serious.  A parent has said that the demons, speaking through the children, are demanding “cows with two legs” a common euphemism for human sacrifice. She says they want two girls and two boys to be sacrificed. 

Child sacrifice is an ongoing news topic in Uganda, we have discovered.  In fact last November, the Daily Monitor reported that ‘ritual murders have been on the increase in Uganda, in which children are the major target.’  The incidents which the article quoted included one where a mother in Kasese, short of money after her husband had abandoned her, tried to sell her 11-month daughter to a traditional healer (or witchdoctor, depending on your point of view) for Shs60 million.  The healer rejected the deal and reported it to the police as he had already been accused of suspected child sacrifice and wanted to save his name. 

Most weeks, newspapers contain reports of children’s bodies being found, with private and other parts removed.  Readers may recall a similar incident in Britain a few years ago - the ‘Adam’ case - in which the mutilated body of an African child was found in the Thames.  The Central Police station in Kampala has a specialised unit which deals in child sacrifice, as we found out when we were asked to wait there on a visit to the police station for a completely different purpose.    Last month a witchdoctor received a sentence of 50 years for cutting off the genitals of a seven-year old child in Masindi-Kiryandongo.  Last week a 26 year old received a 70 year sentence for sacrificing a five year old boy.  The perpetrators prefer those with ‘perfect’ bodies, so many Ugandans (including people we know) pierce their daughters’ ears or circumcise their sons, making them ‘impure’, in order to protect them. 

The increase in child sacrifice is regarded as so serious that a number of well-known politicians and musicians have thrown their weight behind a campaign called Mutima Gwa Ggwanga or National Spirit.  In 2008, 318 children were reported as having disappeared and of these 304 ended up being sacrificed.  In 2009, there were 80 cases in Kampala alone.  Who knows how many cases are never reported?  Members of the campaign have asserted the need to tighten up on judicial procedures which have let many of the suspects go scot-free.  The perpetrators are not necessarily from rural areas or among the less educated.  Mukono, only a few miles down the road, is considered to be a centre for the practice.  The guilty parties are often very influential. In fact, some well-known and well-connected people have been accused of involvement in child sacrifice, including a famous financial tycoon who ended up being acquitted.  The victims can come from any stratum in society though they are often from poor households.  A common accusation is that housemaids, essential to the running of a middle-class household, steal the children of their employers and sell them for child sacrifice – the African equivalent of being stolen by the gypsies.

Such demonic activities may seem to be completely out of keeping with the culture of a country which prides itself on having been Christian for more than 150 years.  The figures are roughly 85% Christian, 10% Muslim and just 5% animist.  Uganda is nothing if not a god-fearing country.  God shouts at you from the backs of buses, from billboards and from crazy-looking people standing in the middle of the street brandishing Bibles.  It’s enough to put you off Christianity for life.  Ugandan churchgoers know their Bibles off by heart, backwards and upside down, and can quote a scripture reference at you at the drop of a hat.  Indeed matatus are frequently emblazoned with mysterious Biblical references which remind me of crossword clues.  One is, presumably, supposed to whip one’s Bible out of one’s handbag, look up the relevant decontextualized verse and immediately see the error of one’s ways.  A literal reading of the Bible combined with a traditional belief in ancestor-worship and continuing contact with the domain of the spirits results in a view of the world as ‘a cosmic battle between good and evil,’ as James Onen put it.

Interestingly, in Uganda a belief in traditional healing is not necessarily seen as incompatible with an avowed belief in Christianity.  Missionaries may have been remarkably successful in converting the Baganda and their spiritual leader the Kabaka during the nineteenth century.  However, what they also (and probably inadvertently) succeeded in doing is combine elements of traditional religion (animism) and Christianity so that sometimes it is difficult to tell one from the other.  Both religions do, after all, refer to ‘sacrifice’ and a fundamentalist or naïve reading of the Bible can elicit many examples of possession by demons.  Born-again and Pentecostalist Christians, a very powerful section of society and including some very well-known people, may hold services which are not significantly different from an animist ceremony.  Such services may involve incantations, exorcisms and apparently miraculous healing.  

Barnabas Kazibwe, a spiritual healer in Masaka, has recently been banned from his local church for performing miracles which, much to the annoyance of his local bishop, have been attracting thousands of fellow Catholics, Anglicans and even Muslims.  Pastor Yiga Abizayo, another such healer, conducts miracle crusades in which he casts out demons. His newspaper advertisements show before and after pictures of exorcisms carried out on five year old children who probably have autism spectrum disorders, delayed speech or physical disabilities.  Ascribing such conditions to demons is common in a country where childbirth is still a dangerous experience and complex learning difficulties a mystery.  Uganda has three television channels devoted to such ‘shows’.  The programme we watched one Sunday morning would have led to arrests for child abuse in Britain. 

In the religion of the Old Testament Hebrews and ancient Egyptians, God or gods were ascribed powers that were often an attempt to explain the apparently inexplicable or to control the uncontrollable.  For example, God sent the pestilence, the drought and the plague of locusts.  Osiris was reborn with the spring and the fertile flooding of the Nile.  In Africa, if you don’t know what ‘causes’ autism or mental illness on the one hand, or conspicuous financial and social success on the other hand, you may ascribe them to witchcraft.  A family of five were recently burnt to death because the father had worked hard, done well and bought his own house, some land and a motorcycle. He could only have succeeded, his neighbours said, because of witchcraft.  Sometimes the rationale is more mundane.  Wives in polygamous marriages are often accused of cursing a co-wife.  Curses also feature quite a lot in property disputes.

More ‘benign’ versions of ‘juju’ are often described in the weekend newspaper supplements, where women describe the steps they take to catch their man.  Traditional healers, found all over Uganda, including Kampala, provide love potions and recommend rituals to control an errant husband.  Diviners and witchdoctors of both sexes minister at shrines attended by women who come to smoke pipes and utter supplications to ancestral spirits.  Such healers may claim to cure childlessness and even HIV/AIDS, a rather less benign use of their powers.  One such healer, holding her rosary, was quoted in the Sunday Monitor as saying, ‘By the way, I am a deep-rooted Catholic as well.’  She believes God sorts out her clients’ problems through her.

However, time moves on; we have science, we have advances in medicine and we have a national education system.  As Onen concludes, 'It's high time we started trying to solve our problems rationally.  We should get psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors to deal with this problem [demonic attacks on schools] - not pastors, priests and witchdoctors.'  

It is the responsibility of schools and education professionals, particularly teachers and headteachers, to help young people to understand the world in which they live; not to reinforce the prejudices, the literal and simplistic explanations and the magical interpretations of the universe which they bring to school from their charismatic Christian backgrounds or their traditional religion.  A greater emphasis on science instead of the supernatural, medicine instead of juju would be more in keeping with the modern forward-looking society which Uganda aspires to be.


NB.  Having read this article, you may be interested in BBC news in pictures: child sacrifice in Uganda  

Monday, April 18, 2011

Through a young person's eyes

‘What’s the best thing about Uganda?’ asked Stuart, the last throwaway question before we concluded the interview.  What he had meant to ask was what was the best thing about the school, but somehow it came out differently.

‘We get an education,’ the head girl said.

The head boy added, ‘We are able to go to school and learn.  Even pupils like us who are poor can succeed.’

Incidents like this are humbling.  I wonder how often words like these pass the lips of teenagers at British secondary schools.

To be honest, it was not a very good school.  In fact, at first sight, it seemed to be a pretty awful school.  It had no science labs and what chemicals there were, were kept in a dusty cupboard behind the headmaster’s office.  The boarding hostel had not been registered with the district.  The dozen female boarders washed at the back of a shed in the open air, using jerry cans of water from the standpipe.  The outdoor kitchen produced reasonable platesful of lunchtime posho and beans, but only a handful of pupils could afford to buy.  Prices had gone up from 200sh per serving to 500sh (14p), as a result of Uganda’s soaring inflation, and were beyond the means of almost all of them.  Young people were milling about on the grass as there weren't enough classrooms; the pupils sitting exams were using those rooms that did exist (a combination of partly finished brick and dilapidated wood); and only five out of the 13 teachers had actually turned up.  Some subjects were allocated too much time and some too little as the timetable appeared to be built around teachers’ convenience rather than pupils’ needs, or, indeed, the curriculum.  This private school charged 40,000sh per term (about £12), with an additional 10,000 for the building fund.  Nevertheless, to be fair, the ‘O’ level results were quite good, given the context.

It might be bright outside, but inside it's pretty dark.
We had already visited a government-funded secondary school that day where pupils had been even more positive.  They had told us that they felt they were learning a lot, that teachers were friendly and that they gave them a lot of attention and help.  When we checked the attendance book, however, it turned out that only 15 out of 30 teachers were present, 50% attendance as in most Ugandan schools.  Both the headteacher and the deputy were absent, also par for the course.  Questions about smooth transition from primary school were met with bemusement.  Ugandan children are so grateful to be given a place in a secondary school that it never occurs to them to worry about making the change.  Fifty eight pupils stayed in the unregistered boarding hostel.  Being a school that provided education under the Universal Secondary Education scheme (a misnomer if ever there was one as ‘universal’ in this context means accessible to about a quarter of all children) education was ‘free’.  However, each pupil was expected to bring 50,000sh (£15) per term as ‘development fees’.  Those who failed to pay provided labour for the new school building, including making the bricks.  For 25,000sh per term (£7) you could have a school lunch, but only 150 out of the 1020 could afford it.  The rest got through the school hours from eight in the morning to five in the evening without any food at all, a day usually extended by a journey of an hour or two at each end, on foot of course.

Quite a pleasant campus.

Not that much room for the 145 S1 pupils when they return from break.
All this probably sounds dreadfully depressing to Scottish ears, but these pupils were anything but depressed.  They were keen to be at school, wanted to learn and were grateful for any help they got.  As they milled about the playing fields they looked no different from any other teenagers, though considerably less sullen than British ones and with none of their loud galumphing or sneaking behind the bike sheds for a quick smoke.  Indeed, many British teachers would give their eye teeth to teach young people like these.  These students expect so little and are so grateful for the modest benefits they receive.  They really really want to learn.  And learn they do, although principally through memorising and recalling information.  What Ugandan students lack most are opportunities to think for themselves, to challenge each other and their teachers, to be inventive, to outrage, scandalise and shock.  They have no chance to practise being stroppy and mouthy, and any stepping out of line is severely punished.

School laboratory.
Ugandan children expect to work hard and do so from a very early age.  Once back from school, they may go out to hoe the fields, tend the cattle and goats and collect water.  Then they do their homework, often on the floor and usually by paraffin lamp.  They genuinely care for each other, with five year olds looking after one year olds and fourteen year olds trailing a string of younger siblings as well as one on their back.  You rarely hear them squabbling or complaining.  They exhibit exemplary patience at home just as they do at school.


Like all young people, Ugandan children learn from the adult models around them.  In Uganda politeness and ‘smileyness’ are much valued qualities.  ‘You are very welcome’ we are always being told, when people would probably really prefer to see the back of us.  Ugandan children are considerably more courteous than British children.  Like the young people quoted earlier, they are usually quite articulate and willing to engage even with the two strange mzungus who wander into their classrooms.  They are also surprisingly tolerant of any inadequacies in their schooling.  Of course, their standards and expectations are also quite low. 

However, let’s take a young person's perspective for the time being.  Things are getting harder for families, right across the country.  Prices of foodstuffs have doubled; fuel has gone up by half as much again in the last couple of months.  Inflation was just over 6% in February and is now over 11%.  The parents of many of these young people are really struggling.  More children are eating just one meal a day.  They are watching their parents become ever more anxious and distressed.  Ugandans generally are patient, far more so than we are.  They are used to waiting. They wait in hospitals, public offices and, if they are like Stuart, for their golf club membership.  

However, Ugandan patience is running out.  One sign of exasperation is that we are now into the second week of a series of ‘walk to work’ protests about rising food and fuel prices.  Some of the responses from national leaders could be interpreted as somewhat insensitive, symptomatic of an enormous gap between the rich and the poor.  At the same time as people everywhere are getting hungrier, trillions of shillings have just been spent on military hardware, plans are for billions to be spent on the presidential swearing-in and all the politicians involved in the CHOGM corruption case have been absolved by Parliament.  All this is spelt out day after day in the surprisingly free Ugandan press, and to a similar level of detail as the surprisingly explicit newspaper reports on the inadequacies of the country’s education system.  Inefficiency and ineffectiveness are not secrets here, they are just tolerated for far longer than you would expect.  However, when people in Uganda have had enough, they can get really angry.  The difficulty then, however, is that they have no way of expressing their feelings, for demonstrations are not allowed (except under the law, which does not seem to count). 

So what have Ugandan children seen over the last couple of weeks?  They will have seen even more soldiers and policemen than usual on the streets, often accompanied by tanks.  They may have seen clashes between police and demonstrators, stones being thrown, guns being fired – not just in Kampala but in towns and cities across the country.  They may have been in the two Kampala primary schools and the hospital into which the police threw teargas canisters. Some of them may have been the weeping infants we saw splashed across our newspaper pages, rubbing their eyes while their teachers tried to calm them.  Some of them will have been in the houses down the street from our office when the police fired teargas at demonstrating students.  They will have watched the shouting, heard the gunfire and suffered from the teargas which seeped into their homes.  Some young people will have watched people being shot, the pregnant young woman on the way to meet her husband who was shot in the stomach, for example, or the three people in Gulu.  Admittedly, the unrest is sporadic and localised, but it is also unpredictable and volatile.  Many areas remain quite calm and people go about their business in the usual way.  However, to a child that could be even more frightening.  Not knowing what to expect is stressful.

Some Ugandan children may have been even closer to violence and death.  At the same time as their parents and older siblings have been out on the streets ‘walking to work’, young people in a number of secondary schools have also been protesting.  You see, even the patience of Ugandan children sometimes runs out.  Some have been objecting to fairly trivial sorts of things: whether boys and girls should be allowed to sit beside each other during ‘prep’, for example.  Others have been complaining of lack of food at school, inadequate medical care, and insanitary, unemptied and foul pit latrines which are threatening to flood, or even collapse.  And what did these protesting teenagers, and their unprotesting peers actually see?  Policemen being called into their schools by teachers and firing live bullets.  In one school this week such action resulted in the death of a sixteen year old girl.  Violence like this is not a new phenomenon: in 2009 policemen armed with AK-47s descended on one secondary school where students were striking and shot several rounds of bullets that left two students critically injured.  Children in Uganda see things which those in many other parts of the world rarely witness. 

What do incidents like these tell us?  I said earlier that one thing Ugandan school children rarely experience is the opportunity to disagree with others, to challenge, to argue, to dispute.  They are expected to be passive and to absorb what they are told, without questioning.  Their views really don’t matter that much.  Their elders are always right, just as, at national level, the leaders are always right.  As a result, young people rarely learn how to disagree without being violent, or how to demolish their opponents using rational argument.  Hence the volatility, and the rapid descent into violence and even lynching among people who might have been laughing and joking only moments before.  Yes, lynching: about half a dozen cases in the last couple of months, one in our local shopping area.  And just as young people may over-react and the man in the street may over-react, so do the police.    After all, they have been through just the same educational system as the people at whom they shoot.  The political system does not tolerate dissent, protest or demonstration, so what is left is violence: violence by those with a grievance and violence by those in charge of public order who have never learned to cope with opposition, challenge and change.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Living on the margins: it’s not just people who complain

What would you do if a huge deep crack appeared just above your house and threatened to swallow up your farm and sweep away your cattle and children?  Don’t rush to answer, as you’ll never know until it happens.  A couple of years ago, a family living in the small Scottish seaside village of Pennan remained firmly in their picturesque old cottage even when the mud poured down the cliff and rose right up to the sills of their windows, much to the fascination of TV watchers across the country.  People are living on marginal land all over the world, and sometimes that land begins to complain.  It happens in Britain and it happens in Uganda.  It happens everywhere.

Time was when the British Isles were covered in thick forest, wolves and wild boar ran free across the country and much of Lincolnshire was waterlogged.  However, man moved in, cut down the forests to plant his crops, build his houses and cook his meals; killed the wild beasts for food and to protect his farm animals; and drained, farmed and built on wetlands and marshes.

Time was when Uganda was covered in thick forest, lions and leopards ran free across the country and much of the area around Kampala was water-logged.  However, man moved in, cut down the forests to plant his crops, build his houses and cook his meals; killed the wild beasts for food and to protect his farm animals; and drained, farmed and built on wetlands and marshes.

Forest on its way to cook the family's dinner
The British Isles is a crowded little island, the top half pretty empty and the bottom half pretty full: 55 million people in all and a fertility rate of 1.9.  Landlocked Uganda is much the same size, though not yet as crowded: 33 million people at the last count and a fertility rate of 6.3 – not long until it has a population the same size as Britain’s. 

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Britain used to send its surplus population overseas, sometimes willingly, often not.  The convicts went to Australia, the evicted Highlanders to Canada, the younger sons of aristocrats to Kenya and the upwardly mobile middle classes to India.  There they cut down forests to plant their crops, build their houses and cook their meals; killed wild beasts for sport and to protect their farm animals; and drained, farmed and built on wetlands and marshes.  They also, of course, used various means to persuade the local population to move. 

The Ugandans pretty much stayed put, within Africa anyway, and didn’t have much of a surplus population, particularly after a continent-wide slave trade, so they just carried on with their farming, killing and draining more or less where they were.  In the last half century they have lost millions from internal conflict, political violence, malaria and AIDs, but the large new families currently being born to replace them still need somewhere to live, somewhere to farm.  Africa is one of the few remaining places where people sometimes just get up and find somewhere else to settle.  Alas, these days the only land left free is often marginal land, even dangerous land. 

So, every so often, the land complains, as it does elsewhere in the world.  People are swept away by mudslides in Ecuador, floods in Bangladesh and tsunamis in Japan.  Even in Britain we all stared in horror a couple of years ago as we looked at aerial photographs of Tewksbury Abbey, an island in a brand new sea.  And when the land complains, do people move away to somewhere less dangerous?  Not usually.  They go back and build again just where they were before.  They often have no choice. And so it has been across most of the world as the centuries pass.  People move in, settle down and carry on, as if they’ve always lived there, as if that was the best place in the world to build their homes, and because often that is the only place available. 

The land complained here in Uganda just over a year ago.  Three hundred or more people perished in landslides in Bududa, the Mount Elgon area on the Kenyan border, a disaster caused by deforestation and degradation from over-cultivation.   Much of the area had been designated a national park almost twenty years ago , with fences erected to keep out the local clans and protect the environment and the animals.   The government has helped many of the landslide survivors move to central-west Uganda, giving them small plots of land, farm tools and cooking utensils.  However, others are gradually moving back up the slopes, back into the threatened area and there they are re-building their houses, planting their crops and pasturing their cattle.  The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is doing its best to draw attention to the dangers of encroachment and has warned people to relocate.  However, during the recent election a few irresponsible politicians are reported to have promised the right of return to within the park area in exchange for votes and no one is willing to call their bluff.

A misty Mount Elgon hovers over Mbale and its surrounding swamp.
And how do we know the land is complaining once more?  A huge crack has recently developed on the slopes of Mount Elgon, threatening the lives of 30,000-80,000 people.  The crack is 40 kilometres long, up to a metre and a half deep and has recently widened to 30cm.  Mud has started flowing down the mountainside and water springs have begun to gush from the rocks.  It is only a matter of time before the side of the mountain starts slipping away, taking with it whatever or whoever has managed to dig a toe hold in the thin surface soil.  But the people are insisting on staying put.

Sometimes it is not the land but the animals which complain as population rises and people move into areas which were once left wild.  Recently, in the Luweero area north of Kampala, baboons have been destroying crops and frightening children away from school.  80 baboons were killed by the local vermin control team in January, to the dismay of the UWA who would have preferred a more selective cull.  

Baboons are remarkably unafraid of people.
In the north of Uganda, villagers who had recently moved back to their homes after many years in the IDP camps woke up to the sight of 60 snakes, probably recently hatched young pythons, all coiled up together.  Young pythons mainly eat rodents, but adults can eat goats and even people. After years in the camps, the people had forgotten how to deal with the local wildlife, and the snakes had no reason to think they weren't welcome. 

In the villages bordering on the Murchison Falls National Park, villagers have been warned to expect more attacks by elephants that have started to move into farmland looking for food.  A rather sad story has been circulating over the last couple of days, about the death of Mary the elephant, who had become quite a tourist attraction in the village of Kutunguru in Queen Elizabeth Park.  Sometimes it takes imaginative solutions to accommodate both animals and humans.  Further south in the Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth Park, local rangers supported by the Uganda Conservation Foundation, have succeeded in enabling elephants and villagers to live peacefully side by side by building elephant pits to keep the huge beasts out of the farmland and away from the crops.  The disgraceful decision to develop a golf course in Murchison Falls National Park may not be quite so straightforward a problem to solve, recalling the shame of Donald Trump’s Balmedie golf course on the sand dunes of north east Scotland, an area of scientific interest.  I'm sure the elephants will have lots to complain about.

An uncomplaining elephant.
However, it is not just in the rural areas that the land complains.  Sometimes it is not sudden disaster but long term incremental damage to the environment that threatens not only those who are responsible for the damage but an entire eco-system, in this case, Lake Victoria.

Kampala is a city of hills, but in between the hills are swamps, papyrus wetlands in the past largely left alone to the water birds and fish.  There are swamps like this all over Uganda.  They stabilise soils, regulate the water cycle and recycle nutrients.  Without them, land erodes and rainfall is disrupted, leading to drought and food insecurity: a phenomenon even fertile Uganda has begun to experience.  And in Kampala, these wetlands and their meandering streams play an essential role in filtering the city’s filthy polluted sewage-filled water before it reaches the lake.   

Swamp in the centre of Kampala, gradually being turned into gardens.
Squatting on the edge of the Northern Bypass.
Even the police station is squatting.
However, Kampala is a rapidly expanding city of getting on for one and a half million people.  Unsurprisingly, not all these people have houses or land on which to build - which is why all along the Northern Bypass close to us, on the margins of the city, the swamp is being built on.  Squatters move in, cut down the papyrus (making it into mats and baskets), dig up the red earth and mould it into bricks which they either fire or bake in the sun.  

Bricks drying against a background of pit latrines.
These bricks they sell, a very common source of income for the poor.  And out of these bricks are built tiny ramshackle houses with their accompanying pit-latrines, homes to thousands of marginalised people living on marginal land all around the perimeter of the capital city.  Banana trees are planted, schools are built, churches are erected and before you know it, an entire community is in existence.  And what happens when it rains?  The water seeps up wherever it can, rubbish-choked gutters become surging rivers and homes and livelihoods are swept away.  Lake Victoria becomes even more polluted.

And then the whole of East Africa complains.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Golf Courses of Uganda Part 5: MaryLouise Simkin’s Memorial Golf Course, Namulonge

Uganda certainly has some golf courses in most peculiar places. We have already written about the idiosyncratic, stunning but taxing Mehta course in the heart of the Lugasi sugar plantations (Golf Courses of Uganda Part 1).  We have not yet ventured out to the golf course which we have heard resides in the middle of the Kenyara sugar works near Masindi.  We have, however, penetrated to the depths of the countryside to the north of Kampala where, after a bit of searching, we found the splendidly-named MaryLouise Simkin’s Memorial Golf Course (MLSMGC). The only relationship that MLSMGC bears to the Augusta National currently filling your screens is that in terms of manicuring, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The first hole at Namulonge, the research centre building behind.
We have not heard of many golf courses in the middle of agricultural research centres.  MLSMGC is buried deep in the grounds of the National Agricultural Research Organisation’s Crops Resources Institute at Namulonge.  Namulonge itself is buried deep in the countryside beyond Gayaza, right in the middle of undulating acres of banana plantations.  And Gayaza is on the quiet, lazy and circuitous route between Kampala and Jinja, beyond the furthermost limits of the Northern Bypass and only a few miles from the city itself.  Indeed, its location is one of its major merits.  If you cannot face being bankrupted yet again by the extortionate fees at Kampala Golf Course and, like us, live at the opposite side of the city from Entebbe, probably the best golf course in Uganda, and cannot face battering through the city yet again, then the Namulonge course is for you.   It is clearly marked on Uganda Map No. 3: Beyond Kampala.  Cross the bypass and on reaching Gayaza, turn left.  Drive five or six miles along a brand new tarmac road.  Ignore the first agricultural research centre you come to: the askari hadn't heard of golf.  Continue a couple more miles and there you are. 


As soon as you hesitate at the right hand turn, not really believing that you have actually reached a golf course, you are accosted by an enthusiastic caddy who hops into your vehicle and directs you through the grounds to the course itself.  At first you can’t really believe your eyes.  You would almost think that you were venturing into a miniature version of an English country estate.  That is, until you see the ‘club house’ and you are brought rapidly down to earth.  ’Club house’ is a bit of a misnomer: really a booth for selling beer and sodas and making sure you pay.  Still, it does the business and the welcome is warm enough (and the prices low).  The friendly local youngsters hang around, treating the crumbling fencing as an adventure playground.  Their parents cross the paths, loaded with firewood or jerry cans of water.  Across the greens you can see the long low buildings of the research centre itself.  But you are here to play golf, so off you go.

The 'club house'.
The course comprises nine holes in pleasant parkland surroundings – like Ratho Park Golf Course – but, when we were there at the height of the drought, burnt bone dry.   The greens were terrible.  Unlike most of Uganda’s other courses, there is no watering. The tees were in a similar condition. However, the rains have now reached Kampala and its surrounding area, so don’t be too put off by our pictures.  Indeed, even as I type these words I can see pink sheets of lightening across the dark sky towards Namulonge, the thunder is growling and heavy rain is on its way once again.  The course is probably as pleasantly green now as the fields all around it.  Apart from the par 3s, most holes are well designed, including three attractive dog legs, and a couple of long par 5s. There are no bunkers.

Teeing off at the first hole.
The 2nd green and the 8th (and, of course, the 11th and 17th)
Actually, there are only eight greens – the second also serves as the eighth but is attacked from a different angle. The course is unlikely ever to be “busy” but imagine if it was, with several groups playing 18 holes – potentially 4 groups simultaneously playing the 2nd and 11th and the 8th and 17th  all heading for the same green. Contemplation of that scenario drives Stuart to drink.

The 3rd green.
The course has one ridiculous hole – a 250 yard par 4.  To protect the par, the tee is placed directly behind a huge tree. You MUST aim away from the tree (and therefore the green), otherwise you will be felled by the rebound. Makes Augusta seem straightforward.

That tree!
And another! Same hole.
But Stuart played with a Namulonge member who plays off 4 in a Jinja competition – and yes – he was a real golfer. I guess playing anywhere else other than Namulonge must give you the feeling that you’re playing Augusta.

Long par 5.

Still long par 5.
Another par 5.

What a green!


Monday, April 4, 2011

What do we mean by ‘motivation’?

Yesterday, in an idle moment, I was skimming the pages of ‘T-VIBE’, a semi-literate ‘yoof’ magazine included in the Sunday Monitor.  Its back page was adorned with two sizeable pictures, one of three slickly attired young men beaming widely as they opened the doors of three brand new cars, and the other of some glum-looking young people disdainfully clutching gift-wrapped presents.  This was an article about the prize-giving ceremony at one of Uganda’s foremost schools.  Whereas in Scotland the usual sort of school prize is a book token - and, indeed, schools make great efforts these days to ensure that they celebrate a range of skills and achievements - here in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries, three students at this prestigious establishment were given brand new Toyota Raum cars, some received cheques for 500,000 shillings (£150, more than double a government-employed teacher’s monthly salary) and others received ‘various [unspecified] gifts’.  What for?  Academic success, of course, as measured in ‘points’, presumably in A level results, the achievement of which success goes by the mysterious title ‘cantab’.  As far as we know, ‘cantab’ is nothing to do with Oxbridge entrance.

Okay, I know that Britain also has its exclusive schools for the privileged and wealthy.  However, I don’t think I have ever before seen such an unashamed celebration of educational inequality published in a national newspaper.  What made it worse was that the ceremony was led by a retired bishop who ‘urged the students to always have self-discipline, fear God and manage their own time if they are to triumph the world easily’ (sic) and the senior vice-principal (spelt ‘principle’) who commended his protégées for their ‘hard work and sacrifice’.  Nice to see the church promoting worldly success as an aspiration...   It would also be interesting to know the nature of the sacrifice.  My guess – which may be unfair – is that these young people had simply spent their leisure time studying, as is common at their age and stage, and no big deal in the great scheme of things. 

All of which has really focused our attention on what Ugandans mean by ‘motivation’.  Clearly, in the school above, it is money and the acquisition of material goods.  And that is, indeed, what the word does actually refer to in Uganda.  In our line of work we often hear people discussing how best to ‘motivate’ teachers or other public servants.  What is actually meant is not how to increase their commitment to those that they serve, such as their pupils, but how much of an additional financial reward is required to encourage them to carry out the work for which they are already being paid a salary - not a particularly high salary, admittedly, but one that can be double, or more than double, the salary earned by their peers in private educational establishments.  Indeed, we recently heard a Chief Administrative Officer claiming publicly that teachers in government schools demonstrated less commitment and worked notably less hard than their privately employed colleagues, his personal view, of course.

The word ‘facilitation’ is equally confusing for a westerner.  Whereas to us ‘facilitation’ of a conference means deciding who is going to be leading the discussion groups, in Uganda it refers to how much money participants will be paid by the organisers to attend - not just refunded after they have attended the event, but paid in advance.  We find it astonishing that participants at conferences, meetings and training sessions are actually paid to attend. Understandably, ‘facilitation’ includes travelling expenses, but it may comprise additional payments beyond that.  Indeed, ‘facilitation’ may sometimes be claimed even by people who work permanently in the location where the meeting is going to be held.  Virtually every training session in the educational world starts off with complaints about the inadequacy of the ‘facilitation’, rather a depressing experience for the presenters.  The idea that staff training is an expected aspect of the work of any professional appears to be an alien concept.  Scottish teachers are not always renowned for the alacrity with which they jump at the opportunity for professional development.  However, they usually accept that it is an integral part of the job and something that the participant or his or her employers pay for, rather than regard as a source of supplementary income.

In the same paper as the story about the fortunate sixth year students, we read the continuing saga of the disappearance of billions of shillings of public money when Uganda hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting about four years ago.  Many successful politicians apparently expect personal remuneration in the course of their duties over and above their salaries, rewards which go well beyond the inflated expenses claimed by British MPs about which the public, and the law courts, were so rightly concerned in the months before we left.  In fact Ugandans refer to this as politicians and other public figures ‘eating’ at public expense, a euphemism for unofficial rewards over and above one’s salary.  Bribes, in other words.

Given the models set by such public figures, it is hardly surprising therefore that young people at those Ugandan schools which nurture the country’s future leaders are being encouraged by their mentors to see financial reward as a key motivating factor and the mark of a successful career.  Those who achieve the greatest academic success at A Level receive government scholarships regardless of their family’s financial circumstances: ‘for him that hath, to him shall be given…’, in the words of the Bible.   Those from poorer backgrounds who struggle through overcrowded schools under the Universal Secondary Education scheme have far less chance of being rewarded and supported in this way, despite the far greater difficulties they have had to surmount en route.  And after graduation, many successful young Ugandans seek their fortune overseas apparently because of the higher salaries paid in the west, with the result that Ugandan hospitals, for example, are bereft of doctors, particularly those in the more remote regions. We are aware of some attempts by organisations like Rotary International's Interact Clubs to develop a greater awareness among school students of the plight of many of their countrymen, and a deeper social conscience, through service to the community.  We hope that such activities have a similar impact on Ugandan young people as a short spell living in a council flat apparently had on Michael Portillo.   

All this would appear very bleak if it were not for the individual examples of selflessness and generosity that we have come across in the most unexpected circumstances.  We once arrived unannounced in a rural primary school just as the local 'tailor' was measuring half a dozen orphans for uniforms which their teachers were paying for out of their own modest salaries.  Just the other day I was stopped in the supermarket by a young woman who thought I looked like a teacher and asked for advice about how to get primary children involved in recycling.  My antennae immediately went up, for we are always being accosted by people who have far better ideas than we do about how we should use our volunteers’ allowances.  However, this woman was quite genuine.  She had set up an NGO, HEAL Uganda, to encourage young people to manage waste and protect the environment.  She didn’t even mention money.  You will be pleased to know that I talked about some of the activities Scottish schools are engaged in and gave her the website address for Eco-Schools Scotland.  Here was one person, a local, not a mzungu, who wanted to make Uganda a better place for people to live in and had just got up and done something: self-motivation in action.  Good on her, I say.

In schools like Royal Pride Academy, a community school, we have found a highly committed headteacher and staff who are working for a pittance.  Many of the pupils are being brought up by extended families or well-wishers who are themselves living on virtually nothing.  We heard, for example, of an old woman who had found a baby by the side of the road and had been bringing him up for some years by herself and in very difficult circumstances.  Another grandmother is breaking rocks in a quarry to support her orphaned grandchildren.

We were delighted the other day to arrive at Royal Pride while the P6/P7 class were carrying out their weekly formal debate: this week’s topic was whether life was better in the past than in the present.  The animated discussion was very firmly chaired by one of the pupils, and points of information carefully managed.  It would be nice to think that these confident and articulate young people, following the example of their teachers, might one day be motivated principally by the desire to serve their fellow Ugandans rather than by the prospect only of pecuniary or material reward.

The motion: Early life is better than now life.
Opposition (in red) putting up a strong argument against proposition.
Attentive members of the audience.

You may also be interested in 'Hail to Uganda's creme de la creme', about the results achieved by senior pupils in secondary schools and the gap between the most privileged and the rest of the school population.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Golfing in Uganda Slideshow & Video

Golfing in Uganda Slideshow & Video: "TripAdvisor™ TripWow ★ Golfing in Uganda Slideshow ★ to Jinja. Stunning free travel slideshows on TripAdvisor"