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.
Shocked of Kampala