Monday, August 22, 2011

Uganda: where Asia meets Africa

As we swam and sunbathed by Lake Victoria yesterday, we were surrounded by the sound of Indian voices and the colour and elegance of Indian saris. Jinja has always been a place for east and west to meet.

Travel, emigration and commerce between Asia and Africa have been going on for centuries.  Arab traders enslaved Africans and brought them to Zanzibar for export back to their home countries. More recently, at the end of the nineteenth century, Indians from even further to the east were imported by the British to build the railway from the Kenyan coast to Lake Victoria and then on to Kampala - The Great Rift Valley Railway. The Indians died in their thousands, killed by malaria and wild animals. Contemporary accounts describe workers cowering as they listened to the lions devouring their neighbours in the nearby tents, thankful that they were not the victims this time but trembling with fear that, nevertheless, their turn would soon come.

The Arabs left behind their religion: Islam. The Indians, however, put down roots in Africa, most of them becoming small traders.  They opened shops in cities, towns and trading centres up and down the east and south of the continent: in Malawi, Kenya and South Africa, and, of course, Uganda.  Everyone over the age of fifty has heard of the Ugandan Asians.  Those small shops became larger businesses and the businesses became empires, for Indians are good at business, better, dare one say it, than most Ugandans.

Old Indian shop in Jinja.
And the Indians, the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those railway workers, have left an indelible mark on Uganda. Many Ugandan towns - Jinja, Lira, Mbale and Soroti, to name but a few - are unmistakeably Indian in origin, built on a grid pattern and with low decorative shop fronts and covered walkways. Their distinctive buildings, their temples (both Hindu and Sikh), their food (chapattis and samosas), their language (dobbi, or laundry) and their clothes (salwar chamiz) have become embedded in Ugandan culture and heritage, though few Ugandans would recognise them as such.

Hindu temple in Soroti
Then, as you know, Amin expelled the Asians during the 1970s. Why? For similar reasons to those used by Hitler when he made the Jews his scapegoats. The Indians were too successful and too visible.  It had become obvious that they owned major parts of the Ugandan economy.  Why was this? Because Indians traditionally work hard.  They aspire to success but know that success comes through hard slog, rather than lucky windfalls or magic charms.

Hindu temple in Jinja.
A recent Daily Monitor interview with Sudhir Ruparalia, an Indian whose family was expelled from Uganda in 1972, describes how, during his exile in London, he drove taxis and worked in shops and factories doing several jobs at once, to put together the money to start again. He eventually returned to Uganda and his company now owns 16 well known businesses here, Crane Bank, Speke Hotel, Speke Resort, Kabira Country Club, Kampala Parents School and Kampala International School among them.  He was asked to comment on the 'work attitude' of Ugandans. This is what he said.

'Ugandans are very enterprising people. They always want to succeed very first [sic] and there's something wrong with that. You need to start at the bottom and climb up the ladder.'

Indian building in Lira.
Typical Indian decorative frontage, also in Lira.
And that is exactly what the Indians have done. After Amin was overthrown, they came back and built - or rebuilt - some of the biggest businesses in Uganda. The Mehta and Madhvani groups are the country's major sugar producers and own many other businesses besides. They have become such an integral part of the Ugandan economy and have such strong though invisible links with the government that they can 'call the shots' when they deem it necessary or when it is time for repayment. You already know about the President's decision to hand over Mabira Forest Reserve to the Mehta Group for sugar production - yes, 'hand over' for the company will not have to pay a penny for it. Think of all that mahogany, timber worth millions of shillings, let alone the agricultural worth of the land! The Madhvani company, for its part, is being given large tracts of land in Amuru, northern Uganda, also for sugar production.  This is also a controversial decision as it is land which Acholi elders claim belongs to the people who have been living in IDP camps (camps for people internally displaced during the northern conflict). The official reason for the transfer of assets from the nation to individual companies is the recently identified 'sugar shortage'.  Only a few weeks ago supermarkets were giving out 500g bags of sugar free with tins of coffee, yet now we have a shortage - all very odd. Confusing as all this is to the ordinary Ugandan, what is clear is how important the Asian businesses are to the leaders of the country, how indispensable and how powerful.

Hindu temple in Kampala.
Today the Office of the President announced that President Museveni has received a delegation of over 30 entrepreneurs from India who are willing to invest in various enterprises in Uganda such as agriculture, banking and information and communications technology. 

The President told them: "Agricultural production in Uganda is not a problem. The only problem is processing. If you can save me on that, I will put your statue in Kampala." 

The well-established Indians are not, however, the only businessmen from the east who are operating in Uganda. The recently arrived Chinese are also here in large numbers, as they are in many other African countries such as Zambia. China has provided 25 million dollars as a donation to construct a new twin-tower building to house the offices of the President and Primary Minister. Perhaps not entirely unconnected with help like this are the contracts for Chinese companies. Chinese engineering firms deal in scrap metal, supply many of the vehicles we see on the streets and, like the Japanese, are building some of Uganda's most important roads.  We recently drove down the Soroti to Lira road.  It was unlike any other road we have driven on in Uganda, bearing comparison with the best roads in Europe.  Broad, smooth and well surfaced, it even had proper signposts, a rarity over here.  The Chinese are also building the road from western Uganda to the Congolese border. When we drove along it we noticed Chinese foremen every hundred yards or so, making sure that the local workmen put in a full day's work, that the materials were not stolen and that the work was completed to an appropriate standard.

Nice new Chinese lorry on the nice new Chinese road being built to DR Congo.
How unlike Ugandan workmanship! The new block of flats to the side of our own block is clearly not perpendicular.  Spirit levels and plumb-lines appear to be virtually unknown tools over here.  Every staircase in the country, including the one leading to our flat, seems to have steps of different depths: I spend my time falling flat on my face. Just down the road from us an entire building recently collapsed through poor workmanship, the rubble apparently comprised of matchsticks and sand, no doubt the result of the usual adulteration and theft.

So, are Ugandans lazy? It is an accusation which newspapers make on a regular basis.

Certainly not most Ugandan women. They work from dawn to dusk looking after their large families, collecting water, growing and gathering food and selling it on roadside kiosks. Most of the nation's farmers are women. What about other workers? Well, we know of college lecturers who don't bother turning up on Mondays and Fridays, leaving their students to fend for themselves. We know of teachers who teach only a couple of lessons a day, if that.  Offices and restaurants are overstaffed, mopping up the surplus population. And, of course, as we all now know, one Kenyan does the work of four Ugandans.

Commentators sometimes explain the low work rate as being the result of Uganda's fertile land and weather: everything just grows and no one has to work very hard. Friends talk of throwing pumpkin seeds into the compound, which then grow by themselves with no need for human intervention, like Jack and the beanstalk. Ugandans certainly have a relaxed approach to life, something which, perhaps, the rest of us could learn from.  However, climate change and hungry populations at home and overseas may put an end to their complacency. It has been reported that Bangladeshi companies are planning to buy tracts of Ugandan land for food production, much of it to be exported, no doubt to compensate for the rapid disappearance of their own over-crowded farmland under the Bay of Bengal. It may not be long before Ugandans themselves are forced to start considering the effects of deforestation and desertification in their own country in order to save their inheritance before it is too late.  A projected population of 60 million by 2030 (almost double the current 33 million) should certainly concentrate the mind. Where is all that food to come from?

The world is now a global community.  Old-style colonialism has been replaced by multi-nationalism and new-style cooperation. For models exemplifying the qualities and skills essential for nation-building, young Ugandans may need to look no further than the established and successful Ugandan-Indian businessmen with their resilience and determination, and the newly-arrived Chinese engineers with their creativity, energy and hard work. The east has come west again and it looks as if it is here to stay.

You may also be interested in this Telegraph article.
Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia sells Euro Car Parts for £225m after starting it with £5,000

How many business success story stories like this has Uganda missed out on? 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More on Mabira

Strange things are happening in Uganda these days. It looks as if the President's plan to give Mabira Central Forest Reserve to the Mehta Group to turn into sugar plantation is receiving unprecedented opposition from his own party members. (See our last post Tropical forest, golf and sugar.) Monday's meeting of the NRM parliamentary caucus is said to have been 'stormy' and the word 'heckled' has even been used.

Why is Mabira important? It is the last remaining tropical rainforest in central Uganda, acts as water catchment for Lake Victoria and has a unique eco-system. Assertions that parts of it are 'degraded', ie have already been chopped down and encroached on, have not so far been substantiated. A field trip a couple of days ago failed to find any evidence of degradation in what the paper has described as 'lush tropical forest'. Indeed, the National Forest Authority asserts that the opposite is true: after years of tree-felling during the 1970s, the forest is now regenerating. It will be interesting to see how the arguments pan out. On the one side are those who see the benefits of creating jobs and earning returns for investors, and on the other are those who fear the loss of endangered species and the negative impact on the local population, the water balance and the climate. As a few writers have pointed out, sugar is not food.

Opposition to the plan has already spread beyond Uganda to the influential diaspora. Lobby groups have been set up and social networking sites are a-buzz.  Hackers have broken into the Uganda Investment Authority website and posted messages calling on the public to save the Mabira Reserve. The Kabaka of Baganda has reiterated his 2007 offer of an alternative site and the kingdom has aligned itself with those opposing the Mabira give-away. The Anglican church in nearby Mukono has made a similar offer.

So, it looks as if we're in for an interesting few weeks. After a couple of months of comparative calm, protests appear to be back on the cards for one cause or another, of which Mabira is just one.  The black-uniformed riot police have reappeared and the main junctions and roundabouts have started to sprout police encampments and water cannon tanks again.  Perhaps it's just as well we're off on safari with our family in a few days' time. No plans for sugar plantations in Kibale, as far as the chimps are aware.

Update 19th August
The President made the following statement to the Kampala City Traders' Association on Tuesday. 'Tell anybody out there that I am ready for war on sugar. Let us fight this war once and for all. I am not ready to listen to anybody who is saying I save Mabira.' He also stated that Mehta 'does not mind what follows.' (Daily Monitor) Some commentators have expressed concern about the possibility of an anti-Asian backlash if the plan goes ahead, similar to the one last time the Mabira project was proposed. We wait and watch.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tropical forest, golf and sugar

Stuart and I had a great time on Saturday. We went on an outing to Lugasi (an hour’s drive to the east of Kampala, on the road to Jinja) with the Irish Society, fellow Celts who know how to have a good time.  The highlight for Stuart was the golf competition at the Mehta Golf course (see Golf courses of Uganda Part 1).  The course is laid out in the middle of the eponymous sugar plantation.  The Mehta family have been major players in the Ugandan economy for many years.  Expelled by Amin, they returned to rebuild their sugar plant and reconstruct one of the key business empires in Uganda.

A pleasant place to sit looking over the golf course.
Having slimmed down - ironically, because of his reduced consumption of sugar - and got fitter since his arrival in the country last year, Stuart had no need for heart defibrillation this time from his partner, Finlay.  They bounded effortlessly up the slopes and, no doubt, admired the ‘glorious splashes of colour’ on the way. They both did respectably with the usual alternation between brilliance and complete hopelessness which characterises most games of golf.  As Stuart would say, he moved smoothly between unsatisfactory and sector-leading….and back again with unnerving frequency.

A splash of colour which particularly caught Stuart's eye.
No need for heart massage after all.
The highlight for me, however, was a wonderful walk through nearby Mabira Forest Reserve. Mabira is the last remaining area of tropical forest in central Uganda. The National Forestry Authority (NFA) has steadfastly worked to retain this superb primary forest and protect its animals and birds, after years of felling for sugar plantations during colonial times, and then by ordinary people during the Amin years.  Protecting the forest has not been easy.  The pressure from Uganda’s rapidly increasing population in recent years has resulted in significant encroachment from landless families who move in, cut down trees to make charcoal and plant fields of matoke (green banana).

The start of the forest
And these are just the roots! Above-ground buttress of a massive ficus.
Secrets of the forest.
The NFA has made considerable progress in limiting and reversing the encroachment, while making sure that local people can make use of, and benefit from the forest in sustainable ways.  They are allowed to collect firewood for family use, although if they sell it they can be prosecuted. One of our guides, Sam, was brought up within the community and knows the forest intimately, having been sent to collect firewood himself as a child as well as herbal remedies, including a little red berry which is traditionally used for de-worming, and bark which is used for stomach upsets.  Visitors are welcomed and can stay at a couple of eco-lodges and go on walks through a network of paths, with guides to point out the various kinds of monkey and identify the many bird calls. With 300 species in this forest alone, that makes for a lot of birds! This was what my friends and I, non-golfers all, were doing on Saturday, in the company of various small fry and some well-behaved teddy bears who were delighted to find a delicious tea-party set out in a clearing beneath the towering trees.

And they're still just roots!
But here's a patch of sky.
A wonderful time was had by all and we went home tired but happy.

More forest secrets.
It was a shock, therefore, to wake up the next morning to the following headline in the Sunday Monitor, ‘Mabira must go, Museveni tells district officials’. So, what’s the story?

There is, apparently, a sugar ‘shortage’ in Uganda, according to the newspapers, hence the plan by the Mehta Group, owners of the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited (Scoul), to cut down forest to plant more sugar cane.  We cannot comment on the accuracy of this statement about a shortage.  What we do know is that sugar prices have rocketed, perhaps more so than the prices of all other food stuffs whose increases are causing Ugandans considerable worry – and hunger - just now.  Indeed, the price of sugar has increased from Shs3,000 (75p) to over Shs7,000 per kilo in less than a month, putting it way out of reach of ordinary Ugandans who may only earn Shs2,000 per day.  Even the middle-class supermarkets are ‘rationing’ sugar (memories of  early 1970s Britain!).

Sugar is seen as a staple food in Uganda and poured into tea and onto porridge in copious quantities.  Whereas most middle class Europeans have reduced their sugar intake, regarding sugar as providing ‘empty’ calories, with no protein or vitamins to compensate for its tooth-destroying and fattening qualities, Ugandans are generally unaware of the health concerns which surround it.  They just like sugar.

The political controversy about the sugar ‘shortage’ has been growing over the last few weeks.  Some commentators have put the shortage down to drought, which is surprising as drought hasn’t really affected central Uganda to any great extent, although it has had a major impact on the north.   Others have queried why all the Ugandan sugar factories have allegedly closed down for ‘routine maintenance’ at the same time. Some commentators have gone further and hinted that perhaps the apparent shortage has been manufactured.  Why?  To raise the price, perhaps? Who knows, and who are we to judge anyway?

Well, Stuart and I have no view about this although we are aware of the ongoing unrest in the sugar industry, including strikes at the nearby Madhvani plant which resulted in a lock out. Last week, the President announced a ban on the export of sugar which was immediately reversed by the Trade Minister.  The Information Minister stated that the President had been ‘misquoted’.  All very confusing.  However, exports are essential for Uganda as it imports most of its goods. In fact, shock, horror, it is now rumoured that the country is going to begin importing sugar!  The Ugandan Shilling has been rated as the world’s worst performing currency, has been at an all-time low against the dollar for two months, and continues to fall. Exports bring in dollars.

It is not the first time that plans have been made to fell large areas of Mabira Forest to plant sugar.  The Mehta Group made a similar application a couple of years ago and, after considerable protest from environmental groups and ordinary citizens which resulted in three people being shot by police for ‘rioting’, the plans were dropped.  However, the current situation clearly signals an ideal opportunity to get them back on the table: difficult to argue against businessmen cutting down forest to plant sugarcane at a time of ‘shortage’. However, it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth….

Update on the Mabira controversy, August 16th.
According to the Daily Monitor, the President yesterday announced that the planned sugar plantation would only use 'degraded' parts of Mabira Forest Reserve. State House organised a visit by journalists to these degraded areas, led by the Environment Minister. Unfortunately, after slogging through the forest for two hours, the group had still failed to find any 'degraded' areas.  The Environment Minister had had enough by this time and went off to the best hotel in Mukono for a cup of coffee. With her out of the way, the government officials told the journalists what they really thought. 

'We were surprised when we read that the President is planning to give away a degraded area because we don't have any,' said an official from the NFA, on condition of anonymity.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Being well, doing well: VSO Health Screening at Royal Pride Community Academy

Hungry children find it difficult to learn.  So do sick children and tired children. The links between health, nutrition and learning are well established and universally accepted.

Health screening at Royal Pride.
Much of the work VSO volunteers have been doing at Royal Pride, the small nursery/primary school we have been supporting in the Mutungo slum, has concerned the children’s health.  Those of you who have been reading this blog will know that so far, with the help of friends in the UK, we have managed to make some improvements to the generally damp conditions in which the school operates on its site next to the swamp.   These conditions contribute to the high levels of malaria among the children. The playground is now drier since we provided loads of murram to raise its level, although we are still having problems with the wooden classrooms being flooded whenever it rains. Not only is it difficult for children to learn when they are sitting with their feet in water and mud, but any standing water attracts mosquitos, so a longer-term solution really is needed. Every time the classrooms flood, the classes have to be decanted and all 270 children crowd into the one brick building which stands above the water.

The wooden classroom block.

Muddy classroom floor, after a flood.
One major success has been the harvesting of water from the roof and installation of a water tank so that children can wash their hands after visiting the latrine. You will be pleased to know that the incidence of diarrhoea has gone down by about a half since this improvement was introduced, according to Godfrey, the headteacher.

Using the new water tap.
Another major success has been the school’s achievement of NGO status. This means that it is now an official not-for-profit organisation.  Its status was granted on the basis of its role as a community school focused on the needs of orphans and vulnerable children and their families.  Figures published today indicate that the number of orphans has increased nationally from 11.5% in 1999/2000 to 14.3% in 2009/2010. The 2010 data shows that 2.43 million of the 17.1 million children in Uganda are orphans and about 32,130 children between the ages of 10 and 17 are heading households. (Minister of State for Labour at the launch of the five-year National Strategic Programme Plan of Intervention for orphans and other vulnerable children.) Of the children in Royal Pride, about 70 are orphans and almost all the rest are vulnerable because of poverty, their own and family illness and traumatic events in their childhood. Health promotion is a key aspect of Royal Pride's support to local families. The next step in establishing the official status of the school will be licensing and then registration with the Ministry of Education and Sports. The school has already received its first visits from the local inspectorate.

The motto is a common one, not indicative of any denominational status!
Over time, however, it has become clear that the children have many health issues beyond those caused by poor accommodation and facilities. Food prices have rocketed here – doubled in the last month alone. Hardly any children now bring food with them at lunchtime.  Sometimes food fights break out as some try to grab what the lucky few have brought (usually little more than a couple of pieces of cassava). Almost all the families eat only once a day, and then not much.  They may have cassava, porridge, posho (cornflour) or beans, if they are lucky.  The government says that parents should send their children to school with food for lunch, but that simply means sending many of them to school with their evening meal to eat at lunchtime and then putting them to bed hungry.  Understandably, most parents prefer for the family to eat together at home in the evening. Hungry children find it difficult to concentrate on their work and are more susceptible to disease.

I've got my lunchbox.
VSO volunteers would like to introduce a feeding programme at the school, with the help of supporters back at home. However, before we can plan such an intervention we really need some idea of the main health issues affecting the children, hence this Friday’s health screening sessions.  Fortunately, we have two highly experienced medical professionals among the VSO volunteers, Jean, a nurse and midwife, and Simon, a doctor. Under their leadership, we planned a day of activities which included height and weight measurements, eyesight tests, medical checks and de-worming.

Dr Simon wields the stethoscope under Jean's watchful eye.
Romaine in charge of the scales.
Stuart in charge of the height chart.
The day was highly successful, if exhausting. While some children found it very exciting, for others it was quite overwhelming. Overall, about 170 turned up.  Many were absent because of malaria, so we will try to catch them later.  We still have to go through the results, but by half way through the day Simon had identified about half a dozen children about whom he had some significant concerns, possibly relating to HIV, repeated bouts of malaria, TB or other serious illnesses.  These children will need to go to local clinics with their families to be tested. Some children may need glasses, which will need to be paid for. We would like the height and weight measurements to be built into the curriculum so that the teachers can keep a track of those who are failing to thrive.  One of our volunteers is donating scales and buying a height measure for this purpose. Although we aim to provide porridge for all the children, as it would be invidious to choose among them, we will probably try to provide dietary supplements for those who are significantly underweight. De-worming is an important aspect of healthcare and needs to be repeated regularly.  Many of the children had swollen stomachs, indicative of the presence of worms.  Worms prevent children absorbing the nutritional benefits of any food they eat.  Simon also checked them for skin diseases, listened to their chests and hearts and looked for any signs of infection.

I'm not so sure about this de-worming business - Godfrey reassures.
Nor am I.

Not so bad, after all.
In addition to all these medical and nutritional interventions, we must continue improving the building.  If we are going to store food in the headteacher’s office, the only room which can be locked, we need to provide a metal door.  Locals have already tried to break in and once they know food is being stored there, the risks will increase. We also need to raise money for a solid concrete foundation for the second building to raise it above the ground so that it doesn’t flood.  That is probably the next priority.  Also important in the longer term is the provision of a second block of latrines.  At the moment the only latrine block is shared among all children, from three to sixteen in age, and is used by both boys and girls.  There are no latrines for staff.

Nice clean latrines at Royal Pride.
Another Next Step is to hold a health information day for parents, probably at the beginning of September.  One of the VSO volunteers outside Kampala is a nutritionist and we would like to provide advice to families on how to increase the nutritional value of easily available local food. Other advice will relate to the prevention of malaria through using bed nets, and how to avoid water-borne diseases.

So, we will be busy over the next few months.  All this work with Royal Pride is on top of volunteers’ everyday jobs.  VSO provides a small amount of money which we have used to buy de-worming tablets, produce health cards and provide other materials for the health screening.  However, Royal Pride is a cluster project, not a mainstream VSO project, so all the improvements to accommodation, any health treatments such as glasses, and the feeding programme need to be provided out of funds raised specifically for that purpose, principally from among our friends and families in our home countries. If you would like to make a contribution to this work and are one of our former work colleagues, please get in touch with Jane Renton.  Other possibilities are to give contributions to any others of our friends or family members whom you might know. Alternatively, email me direct on and I will let you know how to get money to us.

School staff fill in the cards.

Waiting patiently, health cards in hand.
Our turn next.
Once a teacher, always a teacher.  Tommy in full flow under the awning.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Yours faithfully, Shocked of Kampala

Dear readers

Every so often something pulls me up short, something so shocking that it takes my breath away.  Here are three stories from the last few months which left me feeling quite stunned.

My first story reached me through the pages of yesterday's Daily Monitor. A primary teacher in Jinja District has been accused of sexual abuse of 18 girls in P6 and P7. He told them to take their work to his house for him to mark where he would meet them.  He refused to mark the books of the half dozen brave girls who refused to follow his instruction. The alleged sexual abuse itself is not the shocking bit of this story.  Paedophilia and rape of young girls are, it seems, normal aspects of Ugandan life and little shame or guilt attaches to the men who perpetrate such acts. No, the shock comes from the fact that when other school staff complained to the authorities, the headteacher and parent body pleaded for the teacher not to be charged as he was the only one who taught science and maths in the school and P7 pupils would be sitting their Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) next term. Oh, and by the way, an issue only slightly less shocking is that the teacher refused to mark the work of the half dozen girls who escaped his clutches, giving the excuse that they were 'slow learners'. Thank God for ANPPCAN who, together with the district education authority, took up the case after their Kampala office was contacted by two people complaining of 'increased' sexual harassment of the girls.

My second shocking story was recounted some months ago by my Ugandan friend Pamela.  She had gone up north to check on the progress of a very able P7 girl who was due to sit her crucial PLE exams in a couple of weeks' time. A sponsor was paying the girl's school fees and had become concerned because she had not received any report about her progress for some time.  When my friend arrived at the school, the girl was nowhere to be seen.  When she made enquiries in the village, it turned out that the girl had been 'married off' to a middle aged man in another village by her alcoholic father so that he could benefit from her bride price.  And the price of this young girl?  A bottle of warigi (Ugandan gin) and Shs 20,000 (£5).

And my third story?  Yesterday evening, we drove down Acacia Avenue in Kololo, one of the pleasanter parts of Kampala.  On Friday nights it is quite a busy road as Ugandan professionals and people like ourselves are on their way to their customary hostelries.  Given that the cars in the ensuing traffic jam were likely to be full of the well-heeled of the city, some of the Karamojan beggars from the centre of town had made their way up there.  As we sat in the traffic, we saw a scattering of beggars: a 12 year old girl with her baby on her hip, a slightly older teenager with a toddler holding onto her skirts, his bare bottom on display to the world... and a girl sitting on the pavement.  How old was she? About 10 or 11 at the most.  What was she doing?  Sitting in front of a heap of earth which she had clearly just been digging up. Her expression was completely blank.  And, as I watched, I saw her stretch out her hand, pick up a small lump of mud - or perhaps it was a grub - and pop it into her mouth.  Her hand went back for more.

These are stories about the lives of young girls in Uganda. Make of them what you will.

Yours faithfully

Shocked of Kampala

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hunger and thirst in Uganda

We passed through Namutumba the other day. It’s not a particularly noteworthy place: the usual ribbon-like trading centre with people going about their normal business and, in between the houses, fields of brown shrivelled maize.  I can’t imagine Namutumba has ever been in the news before. However, it has now gained passing notoriety as the place where 15 children have died within one month, not of famine, but of kwashiorkor, malnutrition caused by acute protein deficiency.

The parents of the dead children in Namutumba did not believe that they had sickened because of hunger. They thought the children had been bewitched, or that the disease had been caused by polio immunisation.

‘The children eat; it is not that they go hungry. We feed them on the same food we eat. How come we are not dying?’ said one family member quoted by The Observer (the Ugandan not British newspaper).

And the children had been eating: they had been eating mangoes and cassava, the root crop which Ugandans eat in emergencies.  Normally a side dish or snack, cassava on its own does not provide for the protein needs of children. The better off supplement it with small fish (mukene) or with ground nuts, but Namutumba has suffered a number of disasters, and supplementary protein was not available. Endemic diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia made things worse. World Vision took six of the sick children to the hospital in the main town, Mbale, but their parents removed them, preferring to take them to traditional medicine men. So children do not just die of malnutrition; sadly, they also die from ignorance and poor education within their communities.

Lack of food in Uganda, one of the most fertile countries in Africa, is a complex issue.

Namutumba is in a rice-growing area.  However, in May a rain and hailstorm destroyed the rice fields, as well as maize, beans, potatoes and other crops.  Even the cassava yield was low as the storms were followed by drought. The climate is changing, as it is in the rest of East Africa.  Droughts are harder and last longer and rains are erratic. People no longer talk of the ‘rainy’ season or the ‘dry’ season.  No one knows when the rains will come or how long they will last. When the rains do eventually come they are violent and destructive, leading to landslides and thunderstorms which kill people and livestock and damage crops. Uganda is also suffering from new crop diseases which affect fodder and the staple food matoke (plantain). Banana wilt disease is spreading. Animal feed is becoming more expensive and is often contaminated. The Ministry of Relief, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees has been trying to deal with the situation.  For example, it has been distributing food in the east and north of Uganda, the areas worst hit by the drought, with priority being given to households headed by children, the elderly, widows and people with disabilities or HIV/AIDS.  However, much longer-term measures are needed.

Map of Uganda showing drought-ridden Karamoja, Teso
and the border area with Kenya. Kampala is in Buganda, by Lake Victoria.

The UN Uganda humanitarian profile 2011 indicates that Uganda, despite its fertile soils and good weather, remains one of the world’s most hunger-prone countries because people are so dependent on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods. Way back in October, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) announced that nine million Ugandans (about 30% of the population) faced hunger, with many eating only one meal per day. The report stated that 15% were already malnourished and that 40% of child deaths were due to malnutrition. That was ten months ago and things are already a lot worse.

A recent report on nutrition and agriculture by the Uganda National Academy of Science (UNAS) states that 38% of children under the age of five are stunted and 48% of children between 24 and 35 months.  The causes include low birth weight, as their mothers are also malnourished, iron and iodine deficiencies as well as, quite simply, not getting enough food. The deficits in children’s physical and mental growth are irreversible and translate into enormous social and economic costs, as well as individual personal tragedies. The Ministry of Agriculture came up with a policy on food and nutrition in 2003 but not only has it not been translated into law, but there has been very little education of the general population about maximising the food values available through their everyday diet, simple measures like adding a spoonful of margarine to children's porridge.  Education has a crucial role in improving the health of the population.

Poor nutrition is increasingly a national problem across Uganda, not just in the famine-hit areas. Inflation in Uganda has risen to 18.7% (compared to 1.7% a year ago). Food prices increased by 97% last month alone, 200% in some parts of the country and rising fuel prices have added to the problems caused by drought. Across Uganda, in urban as well as rural areas, many families simply do not have the cash to pay the higher food prices. Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala has announced that it is overwhelmed by the increasing number of malnourished children and is having to treat them in corridors and reception areas. The number of child malnutrition cases in the capital’s main hospital increased from 39 in December to 183 in June this year. Clearly this is not famine on the scale of Somalia, but it is extremely disturbing in the context of a country like Uganda which should be the breadbasket of Africa.

Water shortages have been a longstanding problem across Uganda for many months.  Women in drought-stricken areas talk of walking for miles and queuing for 10 hours at a time at the borehole. Uganda has 112 districts. The government is predicting that by September this year 15 districts in the north and east will be experiencing outright famine and that 35 districts again in the north and east will suffer acute food shortages.  Even parts of the west will suffer some shortages.  These shortages are not consistent across Uganda’s countryside or its crops.  For example, the prices of tomatoes and pineapples grown in central Uganda have actually fallen because of good harvests.  However, people don't gain their calorie or protein requirements from fruiting crops like these. The food shortages in Uganda may also be exacerbated by the fact that significant amounts of its cereal crops, especially maize and beans, are being exported to neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan which are themselves in the throes of even more severe famine.

The current drought-stricken areas of Somalia and Kenya to the east.
Uganda is to the west, by Lake Victoria.
So far, official figures indicate that at least 20 children and 3 adults have died of hunger in Bulambuli in the east of Uganda where 3,000-4,000 acres of maize and beans were destroyed by drought. In addition there are the15 children and , indeed, 50 adults in Namutumba mentioned at the start of this post. It is believed that other deaths out in more remote villages may not have been recorded.  The government says that 1.2 million people in Karamoja, the most drought-ridden region, are at risk of starvation, a problem they share with their neighbours across the Kenyan border.  Indeed, a month or two ago, the Ugandan government agreed to allow the Turkana people from Kenya to graze their livestock in Uganda because of shortages of pasture and water in their own land.

The advice from the Ugandan government is for people to store food in family granaries.  However, you can only do this if you have a surplus.  Most Ugandans sell any surplus food they may have grown to pay for school fees. Living in the modern world requires cash and the only way to get it is to sell your crops.  Sadly one of the first casualties of food insecurity is children’s education.  When children are hungry, they no longer go to school. Unfortunately, even the government has not been following its own advice about food storage particularly well. Although it built grain silos in the 1980s, it has since leased them to private companies instead of storing grain for emergencies to feed its people.

Dealing with food insecurity requires longer term planning on the part of national and local government.  It requires better food storage, the use of modern agricultural methods to improve irrigation and increase the fertility of the soil and introduction of more drought resistant plants.  However, none of these developments will be possible unless the education of every single Ugandan is improved.  Small-scale subsistence farmers need education which is relevant to the problems they face within the new environmental context. Moving agriculture in Uganda into the twenty first century and learning how to cope with climate change require a better and more flexible education system, one which is geared to the immediate and future needs of the country and its people.  The Ugandan farmers of the future need an education system which values and develops the knowledge,  skills and creativity which they will need to deal with the challenges which lie ahead. And all Ugandan children need sufficient food, food which provides the nutrition necessary for them to learn, develop and live life to the full. Or, indeed, just to live.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Food and drink in Uganda

The water of life