Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who owns the land?

The recent headline in the Daily Monitor is not one which most Britons living in Uganda would wish to read: British firm illegally evicts 20,000 Ugandans.

The story, which some of you may have read, first appeared in The Guardian on 22 September this year.The Monitor article drew heavily both on this article and on The Guardian's account of a report by Oxfam, Land and Power, on land grabs in Africa.

Stuart and I don't know the rights and wrongs of this particular case. In a nutshell it involves a British firm called New Forests Company (NFC) which was given permission by Uganda's National Forestry Authority (NFA) to plant trees in Mubende and Kiboga, areas of central Uganda, in order to earn carbon credits and eventually for felling as timber. The NFA authorised the evictions of the local community, which took place last year. It says that the people evicted, 22,500 in total, were illegal encroachers on land which was originally a government forest reserve, and that only 31 families could prove ownership. The Kiboga residents say that they were given the land in the 1970s by Idi Amin. The Mubende residents said they were allocated land as World War II war veterans who fought for the British in Egypt or Burma, or as their descendants. Others say they were given or inherited land during the 1980s and 90s.  Certainly, the communities have been there for many years.

The individual stories quoted in the newspapers are, as you would expect, heart-rending. Villagers describe the Ugandan police and army burning homes, destroying crops and butchering livestock.

Francis Longoli, a small farmer from Kiboga district of central Uganda, is tearful: "I remember my land, three acres of coffee, many trees – mangoes and avocados. I had five acres of bananas, 10 beehives, two beautiful permanent houses. My land gave me everything. People used to call me 'omataka' – someone who owns land. Now that is no more. I am one of the poorest now," he says. (quoted from The Guardian article).

The NFC describes itself as follows on its website. The New Forests Company is a UK-based sustainable and socially responsible forestry company with established, rapidly growing plantations and the prospect of a diversified product base for local and regional export markets which will deliver both attractive returns to investors and significant social and environmental benefits.

The NFC headquarters is now accommodated in what used to be the community's school. NFC says it was not involved in the evictions, that they were voluntary and that no violence was involved. 

The whole situation is a mess. Probably many of those making statements to the newspapers are telling the truth as they perceive it. The NFC may indeed have bought the land in 'good faith', not really thinking through - or wanting to think through - the implications for the real people who already lived there. The politicians who originally gave the land to members of the community may not have ensured that they received legal title. Politicians in Uganda frequently promise land to those they wish to vote for them, sometimes even handing over tracts of national parks. As the NFA says, some members of the community may indeed be encroachers, either intentionally or in error, and the evictions may well be legal, if inhumane. The local people say they have been there for years and developed stable productive communities. If the police and army did indeed evict them without bullying and violence, cynics would say it will be a first in Uganda. The NFC may simply have been averting its eyes. It is challenging Oxfam's evidence.

Behind this particular case lie serious national issues which appear as individual cases again and again in Uganda's newspapers.

First of all, there is the role of major investors in land deals, some Ugandan, some international. Acholi MPs have claimed that local people in Amuru, northern Uganda, have been 'bribed to give away their land for sugar cane growing', mentioning the Madhvani Group. An added twist is that oil has been found in the area. Oddly, surveying of the land was carried out by the UPDF, Uganda People's Defence Force (the army). In Kabale, 2,000 families faced eviction after iron ore investors obtained title deeds for their land. In a different kind of case, the government is said to have leased thousand of hectares of land to two Bangladeshi companies, an arrangement under which the firms would receive 60% of the produce for export, in return training Ugandan farmers in cultivation, seed conservation and irrigation. Nothing illegal about this, only disquiet, with the government denying that any deal was made.

Land grabbing, however, isn't just about powerful national and international companies buying up tracts of land and evicting the inhabitants. Land grabbing is also carried out by ordinary Ugandan citizens. Encroaching, or illegal settlement is a continuing problem across Uganda. Here, most people own some land, whether as individuals, families, clans or communities. Land means food, even if it is just an acre or two of cassava, maize or sweet potato with which to feed your family. City dwellers often talk of 'going to the village' and when things go wrong may move back because at least there will be some food there. To lose your land is a personal disaster. Sometimes people sell their land to start up a business, for example to buy a motorbike so that they can become boda boda drivers, or to set up a small shop. When the boda boda crashes or is stolen, or the shop is burgled or fails, it is a financial calamity. Few are insured and people may be left with nothing. This not only brings shame on the individual, but can threaten the survival of your family. To lose your land is to go hungry. 

The landless, whether through misfortune or poverty, are at the bottom of the social heap, hence the prevalence of encroachment. 
  • Forests belonging to the Bunyoro Kingdom (west) are being encroached on at a rate of 80,000 hectares per year (a hectare is 10,000 square metres). Encroachers develop farms, cut timber and burn charcoal for sale, threatening water catchment areas and the survival of chimpanzees and other animals. In Wambabya Forest Reserve in Hoima, encroachers have ignored warnings to leave. Some of them are victims of the insurgency in northern Uganda and conflict in DR Congo. 
  • In April two ministers survived attempted lynching by angry UPDF veterans armed with machetes and clubs, who claimed the President had given them Namanve Central Forest Reserve near Kampala. Some of the encroachers had already started selling parcels of land to others.
  • In Mayuge in Busoga (east), encroachers have destroyed 40 hectares of trees belonging to a Norwegian company licensed by the NFA to plant trees, and constructed grass thatched houses. They claimed to have been given the land by the President while he was campaigning, which the NFA accepted but said the directive hadn't been put in writing.
  • Encroachers have invaded wetland in Wakiso, outside Kampala, cutting down papyrus and other plants and erecting structures, claiming they had clearance from State House. A similar situation has arisen in Mbarara, where the River Rwizi is being threatened by illegal clearing and farming. The eucalyptus tees planted by encroachers drain the wetland. The President stopped the evictions and said that people should be educated instead. 
  • And there is the ongoing saga of Mount Elgon National Park, which used to be the homeland of 6,000 people, members of various clans now living in makeshift slums. Some have illicitly returned to the endangered higher slopes They cut trees, grow crops and increase the deforestation, leading to further landslides. Duikers, buffaloes, leopards, antelopes, elephants, red-tailed and blue monkeys and other animals have now gone over to the Kenyan side of the mountain because of the destruction of their habitat.

Encroachment is such a serious issue across Uganda that the NFA has asked the government to allow their rangers to be armed, like those of the Uganda Wildlife Authority. When UWA rangers spot poachers, they shoot to kill. 

However, as the chairman of a group of encroachers on wetland near Mukono said, 'How can we achieve prosperity for all as President Museveni tells us when we don't have land. Should we eat papyrus?'

The ownership of land is frequently in question. Some people have no documentation to prove they own the land they have lived on all their lives, and their parents before them. People living in IDP camps in the north have lost what ever documentation they ever had and the landmarks identifying their property disappeared during the insurgency. In a recent case in Amuru, some people who had lived on their land since the 1940s, or had  inherited it from their parents had no idea it actually belonged to the NFA, who took it over in the 1960s. The NFA are threatening 11,000 people with eviction. 

On top of this, there are still disputes about property owned by Ugandan Asians, some involving individual families. Some complicated cases involve community groups. One case that is rumbling on just now involves Bat Valley Primary School, which was built in 1957 by members of the Hindu community and taken over by Kampala City Council in 1972 when the Asians were expelled. The Indian Association of Uganda applied to renew its lease in 2006, which was granted. Teachers at the school are now accusing the Asians of threatening to demolish the school. The Asians say they are simply planning to develop a health facility on the same site. 

Often land disputes originate in the complex relationships of Ugandan families. Men may have two or three wives or partners who may not even know of each other's existence. The children of these different families may only find out about each other at their father's funeral. Disagreements about inheritance are almost inevitable.  

Neighbours, families or powerful clan members often turn on the weak, such as the disabled, the poor, those with no political connections, the less educated, the bereaved, the old, the sick and the orphans. Women do particularly badly. In 2011, a report by the Land and Equity Movement  estimated that in Lango 70% of widows had suffered from land-grabbing, and 90% of unmarried and divorced women. In 2008 in Mukono, the International Justice Mission (IJM) found that over a three year period (2005-2007) at least 1,750 widows had had their property grabbed. Of these victims, 28% had been threatened with violence and 26% were thrown out of their homes by force. IJM identified the following triggers: polygamous or informal marriages and misconceptions about the law or women's rights. Of the 119 succession-related cases in Mukono Magistrate's Court, only five resulted in convictions.

In Masindi a 90-year old woman left her home to live at the police station. Her relatives had persuaded her to sell her two acres of land for Shs800,000 (£200) to her cousin on condition that he looked after her until she died. She was subsequently mistreated and starved. The police are keeping her safe. The Monitor has a special section devoted to such land issues. However, most stories never reach the papers.

There are also disputes between clans, for example, the Bagisu and the Sabiny in the east. Raids by the Karimajong forced the Sabiny to relocate onto Bagisu land, which they cleared for crops. The Bagisu retaliated and Sabiny houses were burnt down. And then there are the pastoralists, nomadic cattle-keepers. Uganda's expanding population has increased the amount of land under cultivation, disrupting their traditional access to pasture and water and bringing them into conflict with farmers. In Amudat, in the north east, the locals have succeeded in driving out the Balaalo who allegedly entered the area illegally. However, where will the pastoralists go now?

Elsewhere, minority groups are beginning to ask for recompense for being evicted from their ancestral land when it was gazetted as national parks. 

'Apart from the Basongora pastoralists in Kasese District who were permanently resettled, other ethnic minority groups like the Batwa, Banyabindi, Makenyi and others are squatters on other people's land, who keep chasing them away,' said the coordinator for the United Organisation for Batwa Development at a recent international conference on minority ethnic rights. 

The Batwa, a pygmy group, were evicted from their traditional lands when the Bwindi and Mgahinga forests were declared national parks in 1991, and their thousand-year old way of life as hunters and gatherers outlawed.

So, 'Who owns the land?' is becoming a difficult question to answer in Uganda, as it is in many developing countries where wont and tradition are inevitably giving way to deeds and legal documentation. It happened in Scotland during the Highland Clearances when the clan chiefs evicted their own people from land which had been held in common or under traditional tenancy agreements. Another factor is that of 'agricultural improvements' which bring together large tracts of land for commercial farming, as happened in Scotland and is beginning to happen in Uganda. One question is also to what extent the understandable desire of a community to remain on its 'own' land can be allowed to threaten the survival of whole species or irrevocably destroy the natural environment. Changing family structures and social expectations as to individual and marital rights are other factors. What appears 'right' in terms of natural justice for families and communities may be completely at variance with legal agreements drawn up in Kampala and London. To go back to the case with which this post started, the New Forests Company is probably acting within its rights.  This doesn't mean, of course, that it is 'right'.

You may also find the following posts of interest:

Living together in Kibale Forest
Living on the margins: it's not just people who complain

The Independent recently published a well-reasoned and balanced article about the issues relating to forestry plantations: Tree farms; a mixed bag

Oxfam has also produced a film about the 'land grabs'.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Highland lochs and braes - in Uganda, that is

It's a mountainous route from Ishasha on the borders of Congo, through Kahihi and Kanungu down to Kabale in the south-west, near the borders of Rwanda in the south.

'Is this the main road to Kabale?' I innocently asked, observing the rutted murram and muddy potholes threatening to ground our vehicle. 'Oh yes,' came the replies, answering the straightforward question about 'main' as in 'most direct and frequented route' but ignoring the subtext of 'main' as implying tarmac, good condition and speed of travel.

It certainly is a beautiful road, whatever its quality. We could have been in the Highlands of Scotland, or the lower reaches of the Alps.

The road snaked ever upwards, following the southern route of the Great Rift Valley. We looped round Bwindi Impenetrable Forest: we would be visiting the gorillas some other time. Just as well for when we got back we saw that Andrew Roberts had marked the words 'rotten road' against the route we would have taken. And we went up and up and up and up. We kept expecting to go down, but no, we kept going up. We twisted and turned, fortunately meeting very little traffic apart from the odd herd of cows, the usual kamikaze goats, small children calling 'Mzungu, mzungu!' and the inevitable boda bodas and matatus which penetrate even up here. Every so often we slowed almost to a stop as we negotiated deep ruts running right across the road, carrying entire water courses.

The views differed from the Highlands of Scotland in that the forest continued on up to the highest reaches while the valleys in between were intensively cultivated.  Think pre-clearance Sutherland or 20th century Italy or France. Every square inch of the ground was being used to grow crops, using a similar system of terracing as we British marvel at in Europe.

It was difficult to remember that only the previous day we had been gazing across wide tracts of savannah. The same country, but so different! The south-west of Uganda is commonly acknowledged to be the most beautiful part of this very beautiful country.

The road went on and on.

For most of our journey, the forest closed in on us from both sides, only opening out for the occasional trading centre; that is, until we approached the highest point in our route before we made our long-awaited descent to Kabale. Then we did start to meet traffic: diggers and dumpers and huge lorries loaded with timber. They had begun logging here, centuries-old timber being felled to make 21st century money. We passed hillsides denuded of cover. It was the rainy season and before long all the ground soil would be washed down into the valleys and rivers. An old old story, one we know only too well. In fact, by the time we arrived back in Kampala a few days later, the newspaper stories had already been published. Kigezi in panic as rain shows no signs of ending was the headline in the Daily Monitor. The first sentence started, 'Residents of Kabale, Kisoro, Rukungiri and parts of Kanungu districts are in panic....' and the rest of the article referred to risk of landslides.

However, we carried on, despite the periodic patches of mud and streams washing earth and stones across our way. The highest point of the road was probably about 2500 metres and then it fell quite rapidly to the Kabale valley. We weren't actually going to Kabale. We were going to Lake Bunyonyi, one of a cluster of lakes in the region, some in Uganda and some in Rwanda. Of these lakes, Lake Bunyonyi is renowned as being the most beautiful. Formed quite recently, only 8,000 years ago, it is the result of lava from one of the many volcanoes in the region blocking the outlet to a valley.

Our first view of Lake Bunyonyi.

The word 'magical' is often used of Lake Bunyonyi, and quite rightly. The lake has many inlets and islands, and curls its way along, and eventually right up to the national border. The hills you see in the distance are in Rwanda.

Rwanda is, of course, known as Le Pays de Milles Collines, the country of a thousand hills. Geologically, geographically and, in some respects, linguistically, this south-western corner of Uganda should belong to Rwanda. It shares its topographical features, its hills, its forests and its lakes. Not 'belong' in modern political or historical terms, of course, given the pretty arbitrary decisions made by the European powers towards the end of the nineteenth century which led to rather different historical fates for the peoples through whose land they scored lines with black pens and rulers.

However, there are cultural similarities between the two nations. Like Rwanda, western Uganda  traditionally made a distinction between Tutsis and Hutus, cattle rearers and growers of crops, here called Bahima and Bairu. However, the colonial British made less of the distinction than their neighbours the colonial Belgians, who demanded it be recorded on Rwandan identity cards. The current President of Uganda is by origin a Bahima, just as the current President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi. They were educated at the same school, became good friends and fought in the same wars. Many Rwandan Tutsis have taken refuge in Uganda over the years, long before the most recent massacre in 1994. At various times there have been as many as 250,000 Rwandans living in Uganda. Kagame and his Rwandan exiles helped Museveni fight the bush war during the 1980s. The armies of both countries pursued the Hutus into Congo in the late 1990s, and both have been accused by the international community of committing atrocities against the local Congolese and pillaging that country's resources. The relationship between Rwanda and Uganda has been a bit more strained in recent years, though there was a 'making up' last month when Museveni visited Kigali. Since the 1994 massacre, Rwanda is considered by many in the west to have leapt ahead under what many commentators consider to be the benign autocracy of its leader. (See the post Growing up in Uganda for some of the differences.)

However, be that as it may, Lake Bunyonyi is staggeringly beautiful. We were staying in Arcadia Cottages, up on the hill above the lake, and looked out on this view and its changing appearance throughout the day.

Panoramic view from Arcadia Cottages.

As you would expect, we spent a morning exploring some of the islands.  A Scottish haze hung around them throughout the day, the sun breaking through only occasionally.

I am sure this island has a name, but I can't remember it.

We weren't the only ones out on the lake. Boats are the only way people can get around. Some are dugouts like these.

Note the little round stools on which you sit while you row.

Others were more familiar craft, sometimes a trifle crowded.

Apparently the death toll on these boats is quite high. Storms can blow up quite quickly and few Ugandans know how to swim. The Heart of Edirisa community, from which we hired the boat, teaches local children how to swim. It also encourages local crafts and supports local schools, as well as organising canoe trekking around the lake.

We passed Akampeine (Punishment) Island where pregnant girls used to be stranded unless a man was prepared to marry them without a bride price. Not much there to sustain you.

On Bwama and Njuyeera Islands, Dr Leonard Sharp, a missionary, opened a leper colony in the 1920s which only closed in the 1980s. The buildings are now used by a school.

Either Bwama or Njuyeera: take your pick.

Opposite these islands is Bushara Island, run as a community project by the Church of Uganda and local partners. It supports agricultural and craft projects as well as the campsite and restaurant. One of their projects is a pig lottery. Members have the chance of receiving a pig in a lottery and when the pig litters, have the responsibility of handing on a pig to another member, quite an ingenious method of encouraging self-reliance. After a very pleasant walk around the island we embarked again for our return.

Not our boat.

This was ours.

On our way back, we passed terraced shores and hillsides, every square inch of which was utilised. We even saw an otter, but not quickly enough to photograph it.

Terraced slopes wherever we looked.

One thing which surprised us about Lake Bunyonyi was quite how cold it was. I suppose it is 2,000 metres above sea level. Tim and Ruth hadn't quite believed me when I told them to bring their fleeces, especially after baking in the sun only a couple of days earlier.

Huddling over the charcoal fire in Arcadia's lounge.

Last view before the sun sets.

In the morning we woke up to a Scottish mist. Gradually, the lake revealed itself: a truly 'magical' sight.

So, it was home from home, for Stuart and me. Cool mountain lochs, wooded braes and Scottish mist, all in Uganda: who would have predicted it!


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What price compassion in Uganda?

The headline said it all. For lack of Shs300,000 teacher bleeds to death in labour ward. (Sunday Monitor 18 September 2011)

There is, of course, a second story here: about the capacity of members of the teaching profession to afford even the most basic of health services. However, teachers' salaries and the current on-off teachers' strike are not the topics for today's post.

No today, I thought we'd look at the implications of this story, a family tragedy and a national disgrace, a story which didn't even make the front page news when it first broke.

The woman concerned, Cecilia Nambozo, checked into Mbale Regional Referral Hospital (the main hospital in the east of Uganda) at 6 o'clock in the morning. She died at 8 o'clock at night. Her family and neighbours had already spent all their money on buying the surgical equipment necessary for delivery: the usual - razor blade, cotton wool, birth sheets and surgical gloves. Let's just get this straight: Mbale is a government hospital. Cecilia had already paid for this equipment through her taxes. The government abolished user fees for government hospitals and public health facilities in 2001. Health care is supposed to be free at the point of delivery. Nevertheless, pregnant women often bear the cost of maternity care.

The baby was too large to be born without medical intervention. This had been predicted well in advance, as Cecilia had sensibly been attending ante-natal check-ups and a caesarian had been recommended. A neighbour who had accompanied Cecilia, allegedly asked both a midwife and a doctor to help. She is quoted as saying, ' ...I found her in pain, crying, there was no help. The medical workers looked on as they asked for money.' They allegedly demanded Shs300,000 (£75) to attend to her. Cecilia's husband ran to the local village to sell property to raise the money.

When Cecilia fell to the floor bleeding, the doctor eventually responded by taking her into the theatre, but too late. Her womb had already ruptured. She and her baby died 10 minutes later. The head of Mbale Hospital is later quoted as saying that Cecilia already knew she should have a C section, the implication, perhaps, being that she should have come to hospital ready prepared with the necessary bribe. He uttered the following mystifying words, she 'should not have asked doctors to take her to theatre.'

The story gets even worse, if that is possible. Her naked body was left in the open labour ward and it was left up to hospital cleaners to remove the foetus, which they did, in public and, one would assume, in sight of all the other mothers waiting to deliver.

The police surgeon who carried out the post-mortem said, 'This is not the first case at this hospital; many women have died in labour out of neglect.'

Why did hospital staff ask for money? It was not a fee for medical treatment. No, it was a bribe, straightforward and blatant corruption, money intended to go straight into staff pockets.

It is not an unusual story. Like Cecilia, many women may have no money left over from paying for surgical resources to pay the bribes required for actual treatment. Corruption is rife; so is carelessness and incompetence. Other recent news stories have included the following:

  • When Nalubowa, a peasant farmer and mother of seven, recently arrived at Mityana Hospital, nurses demanded a bribe of Shs62,000 (£15) and the money to buy airtime to call a doctor. She only had Shs6,000 as she had already bought the necessary razor blade and gloves. She was left unattended in the maternity ward. In terrible pain and bleeding to death she screamed that she would sell all her pigs, chickens and goats if the nurses would come and help her. She died. President Museveni's response on hearing of the case? He paid her family Shs500,000 (£125), what he considered her life to be worth.
  • This month, an elected official, an educated woman with three young children - not that that makes any difference - died after bleeding to death in the maternity ward at Arua Hospital, a 400-bed public hospital. A lawsuit following her death may be the first legal test of an African government's obligation to provide basic maternal care. She had arrived in time to be saved, together with the necessary supplies which she knew the hospital didn't have - latex gloves, cotton wool and a razor blade to cut the cord. However, only one midwife was on duty and no doctor examined her for 12 hours. An hour later she was taken into the theatre but she and her baby died. . Her husband, a teacher, provided her only care, frantically changing her blood-soaked bedclothes.
  • In May, a woman booked into a private bed at Jinja Regional Referral Hospital, arrived on a Sunday well prepared with all the medical equipment needed for delivery. The doctor who was supposed to be attending her didn't answer his phone. After two days' labour, during which other medical staff refused to attend to her, the baby died. Rough treatment and inappropriate language from hospital staff are quite often quoted in cases such as this. The bereaved couple have to pay transport for the pathologist if they want a post-mortem. 
  • A new born baby in Gulu Regional Hospital bled to death in its cot as staff allegedly forgot to tie the umbilical cord and did not check on it at any point during the night. 
  • Mbarara MP Emma Boona recently asked medical staff at Mbarara Referral Hospital why some of them were selling delivery kits. A nurse responded by saying they are 'forced to do business with patients as an alternative income owing to their low pay.' Medical staff angrily challenged the MP's right to question their actions, pointing to the recently inflated MPs' salaries and the lack of resourcing for hospitals.

Of course, there are far more medical emergencies in Uganda than in the West, for obvious reasons.  Three quarters of all maternal mortalities result from obstructed labour, haemorrhage and infections. Many of the survivors suffer from fistulas or other injuries as a result. Stunted growth caused by malnutrition during childhood is a major cause of fistulas; the impact of labour on the exhausted bodies of older women with too many children already cause many other problems. Long term, dangerous childbirth can be dealt with through better nutrition, improved education and delaying childbirth until young women's bodies are physically mature. In the meantime, to reduce the high rates of maternal and child mortality in Uganda (at 435 deaths per 100,000 or 16 each day, one of the highest rates in the world) one might expect hospital staff to carry out the jobs which they were employed to do.

Admittedly, inadequate resourcing is also a major factor in endangering the lives of both mothers and their children. 

  • In June, three deaths, two of mothers and one of a baby, occurred in the maternity ward at Lira Hospital. Emergency blood transfusions were required but the hospital did not have any blood supplies. All hospitals in Uganda use one machine in Kampala (five hours away by road) for screening.
  • For the last four months or so, 27 of the 28 incubators at Mulago National Referral Hospital in Kampala, which handles 1,000 premature babies every month, have been out of commission.  The situation was discovered by 20 MPs who were visiting the hospital for other reasons. At the time of their visit, 59 babies were waiting for the only available machine. Every day, 30 to 40 babies are born prematurely at Mulago and are currently being kept warm by being wrapped in cotton. The paediatric ward has one doctor and one nurse. There is no doctor on duty at night. 
  • Arua Hospital has no sutures to sew up women after Caesarian sections: patients must buy these. On the day on which the incident referred to above occurred, the hospital also dealt with ruptured uteruses, a still birth, an incomplete abortion and a bleeding cancer of the cervix.

However, the problems of maternal death are not just caused by inadequate finance. The issue is also about medical ethics and the principles and values of individual medical staff. 

Many Ugandans do not even bother going to government hospitals or health clinics because of the bribes they are expected to pay. You bribe the askari to get into the queue. You bribe the nurse to see the doctor. You bribe the doctor for a consultation. You bribe the pharmacist to collect a prescription. None of these are legitimate costs. Ordinary Ugandans often find it easier to go to private health clinics and pharmacies because at least you pay an all-in up-front fee. The problem is that the majority of these health facilities operate illegally. A recent joint operation by the Ministry of Health, the Joint Health Professionals Councils and the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda found that as many as 70% of all health service providers in Kampala are illegal: some are not registered and others employ unqualified staff.

However, this still leaves the issue of what those medical staff at Mbale Hospital were thinking of when they refused to help Cecilia Nambozo. What was in their heads? What was in their hearts?

Stuart and I often struggle with the issue of what we see as callousness and lack of compassion in Uganda. We try to rationalise it. We recall Uganda's terrible history: hundreds of thousands killed under Amin, during the bush war, as a result of the AIDs epidemic, and of violence, malnutrition and disease during the Northern Insurgency. We ask ourselves if there is a hardening of the heart which comes from seeing so much death and experiencing so much suffering. Research by clinical psychologists across the world has identified post-traumatic stress disorder as a major issue in mental health. So many survivors have suffered bereavement and family dislocation.

Uganda is a poor country. Most people spend most of their time just trying to survive and trying to feed, educate and support their children. The constant struggle must wear them down. They must have little time, energy or empathy left for the troubles of other people. However, these medical staff chose their profession and applied for their jobs. They signed codes of practice. They have undergone at least some training and, most of the time, they receive a salary, inadequate though it may be.

Uganda prides itself on being a 'Christian' country, one of the earliest conversion stories in nineteenth century missionary history. Whereas Ugandan Islam is low key and discreet, with Muslims quietly following the tenets of their religious faith without making a big deal about it in public, Ugandan Christianity is extrovert. It shouts its presence from every street corner and every hoarding. Prayers are said before - and often during - every work-related meeting, even in the public sector. Money is poured into lavish church buildings. Ordinary people tithe their incomes, in order to provide their pastor with an appropriately prestigious 4x4 vehicle. Evangelists imported from the USA shriek about salvation, promise miracles and then go away with people's hard-earned cash. Sunday peace is disrupted by mad-sounding Pentacostalists gibbering away in gimcrack halls.

All very similar to aspects of religion in mediaeval Europe, in fact, but very very different from the Christianity we are familiar with from our orderly, reflective 21st century British church services. In fact, very different, I guess, from the faith the missionaries brought with them from Europe all that time ago. The nineteenth century was the age of the great social reformers, many of them Christian. They campaigned against slavery, they set up up schools and established hospitals at home and abroad. Admittedly, they did other less creditable things as well, were often complicit in the nineteenth century colonial land grab and insensitive towards, and unappreciative of the cultures and histories of the people they served. They interfered and they caused problems, but, in essence, they meant well towards those in whose lives they meddled. And, yes, they did save lives.

Ugandan Christianity seems to offer salvation, a place in heaven, compensation for the sufferings of this world and an escape from hell. It also offers forgiveness - sins wiped out and a clean slate the next day. What it doesn't seem to offer is compassion for other people. Stuart and I can scarcely recall ever hearing a prayer which was concerned with the plight or needs of others. 

The medical staff in the hospitals mentioned above will almost certainly have been 'Christians'. Just as in nineteenth century Britain, in Uganda it is unheard of not to be affiliated to a church. There are few enough Muslims in Uganda and the concept of agnosticism or atheism is virtually unknown. The assumption is that everyone is Christian, with a few Muslim exceptions. Churches are packed. People can quote scriptural texts at the drop of a hat. They offer to pray for you at the slightest opportunity. However, the faith itself appears to make absolutely no difference to the way people live their lives.

Except that some of them are able to stand and watch another human being die with complete equanimity.

What is the price of compassion in Uganda?

You may also be interested in the following posts.

Caring for the sick in Uganda
Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda'?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

On safari through Uganda’s Great Rift Valley

Most people in Britain have heard of Kenya’s Rift Valley over to the east. We know of the Leakeys and their anthropological findings; we have read less than creditable tales of the privileged ‘white settlers’ and their antics; and, more recently, we have heard holiday stories from the many visitors returning from organised tours.

Kenya to the east, Congo to the west,
Tanzania and Rwanda to the south, South Sudan to the north.
Fewer people, perhaps, have heard of Uganda’s Great Rift Valley to the west, which is even longer than Kenya's eastern stretch, and is different but just as impressive. Perhaps this is because the proud country of Uganda, a British protectorate and never a colony, had relatively few British settlers to write their memoirs and send their stories home, and even fewer tourists.

Uganda's Great Rift Valley is the Western Branch.
Kenya's is the Eastern Branch.

The Western Branch of the East African Rift Valley is what divides Uganda from DR Congo, and East African grasslands from the tropical forests of West Africa. The border is marked by the Blue Mountains of the north and the Rwenzoris of the central stretch. Our friend Tommy has just climbed the highest peak in the Rwenzoris, fully equipped with ice axe and crampons. Once it reaches Rwanda, the Valley continues south along Lake Kivu, through Burundi and down the deep valley of Lake Tanganyika, a name which resonates with any stamp collectors of the 1950s: ‘Uganda, Tanganyika and Nyasaland’, the latter now Tanzania and Malawi.

The journey through what is known - while it is in Uganda - as the Albertine Rift Valley, is an impressive one. The landscape changes from the grasslands and river estuary of Murchison Falls National Park in the north, to the wide plains of Semliki, then on to the Mountains of the Moon (Rwenzoris) described by Ptolemy, taking in lakes with strange Victorian names on the way: Lake Albert, Lake Edward and Lake George.  The latter used to be called Lake Beatrice until it was thought that something manlier was required. These lakes are part of the extensive Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) which borders DR Congo. Lake Albert and Lake Edward are actually bisected north/south by the Congolese border. The lakes mark the places where plates have moved. Indeed, the whole area is dotted with crater lakes and still experiences periodic earthquakes, as we ourselves can lay witness to. The Virunga range to the south, part of DR Congo, still experiences volcanic eruptions, for instance quite recently in Goma.

Rwenzori Mountains, the western limit of the Rift Valley,
seen from the grasslands of QENP during the rains.
The Ugandan Rift Valley, the flat savannah between the western mountains and the eastern escarpment, is what is described as an ecoregion or biodiversity hotspot and has been recognised by UNESCO as a world bio-sphere reserve. It supports more vertebrate species than any other part of Africa, including 1061 bird species (half of Africa’s total and including 41 endemic and 25 threatened species) and 402 mammals (34 of which are endemic). It boasts 175 reptiles, 16 of which are endemic. (Thank you again, Andrew Roberts.)

We have been doing the journey down the Rift Valley in stages, our most recent expedition being with Tim and Ruth as we travelled from douce Fort Portal in the north, across the Equator near semi-industrial Kasese, through the grasslands of QENP and Ishasha to magical Lake Bunyonyi in the south. We have already described parts of the region in our posts on Kibale and Kyambura and, last Christmas, in our post on the Kazinga area of QENP. The northern area of the Rift Valley is quite often in the news these days because oil has been discovered in Lake Albert. However, that is a story for another day. 

Cloze procedure at the Equator.
We were lucky: we saw lions within minutes of entering the park. The clue is to look out for the Uganda Kobs (antelopes), which feature high on the big cats’ menu. Locals, however, are less thrilled than visitors by the proximity of lions. Not long before we arrived, lions had killed four cattle from the Kasenyi area of the park, precious food and, indeed, investments for a very poor community. Villagers receive no compensation for such depredations, of course. In response, six lions had been poisoned. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) does its best to keep the delicate balance between humans and animals, but their policy is clear: animals come first.

Picking its way delicately in front of our Landcruiser,
this Uganda Kob was in far more danger from the lions.
One of our indelible memories will be of a nervous Uganda Kob, dancing metres in front of a group of lions, approaching and then retreating, wagging its tail the while. Was it a version of ‘chicken’? The ranger said the kob was a territorial animal and the lions were occupying its patch. It was just keeping an eye on them. And who said antelopes are nervous creatures? That kob deserved the Victoria Cross.

As a first-time visitor, one of the most striking experiences is to to see animals all round you, even along the main road from Kasese to Mbarara, which runs right through the park. A wonderful sight during the day, but a very good reason not to drive at night.

Just hanging about at the side of the road.

...and sometimes causing mayhem.
The crash commemorated in this warning sign cost 10 (human) lives.
Just remember, I'm in charge.
Given the priority given to animals, there are few enough ways for humans to make a living within the park. The descendants of hunters who were forcibly moved from their original villages, local people now work for the various safari camps, unofficially doing a bit of poaching on the side. They make salt from some of the crater lakes and take fish from others. They do the upkeep on the safari tracks which criss-cross the grassland. However, they are not allowed to engage in farming or do anything which would affect the natural landscape or vegetation of the grassland. The desperate poverty of the local people is in notable contrast to the smart jeeps and binoculars of the visitors.

Not a 'smart' jeep, but Stuart is keeping a good eye on it all the same.

Salt pans at Bunyampaka crater lake, in the middle of the Kasenyi plains.
The fishermen of Katunguru.
As you might expect, visitors are encouraged to follow certain straightforward guidelines when entering, or staying near to the national parks. Rangers and managers of safari camps will give you the following useful tips.
  • If you are chased by a hippo, run in a zigzag, making sure to veer to the left, not the right.
  • If you are chased by a rhino, climb a tree.
  • If you are confronted by a lion or a leopard, don’t climb a tree; they’re better at climbing than you are.
  • If you meet an elephant or a buffalo, stand still or reverse.
  • If you meet a snake, remember to stamp on its head and not its tail.
  • That log is actually a crocodile: don’t go in the water.
  • Do try and stop the monkeys getting into your luggage.
  • Oh, and remember to tuck in your socks so safari ants don't run up your trousers, but also remember that it’s an offence to kill them.

You will have complete recall of all this helpful advice, of course, when you next meet a lion at the top of a tree, or are bitten by a snake after mistakenly stamping on its tail. It’s hard work being a visitor to a national park: so much to remember, so many opportunities for muddle and confusion.

Crater lake by Jacana Safari Lodge in Maramagambo Forest, at sunset.
As before, we stayed in the very comfortable Jacana Safari Lodge, in Maramagambo Forest just below the eastern escarpment and on the edge of the wide savannah which stretches all the way to Ishasha in the south. Tastefully furnished with genuine wood carvings and other artefacts, the Jacana doesn't have a single zebra print in sight. The rainy season having arrived two or three weeks early, our Landcruiser found disengaging itself from the mud on the approach road quite challenging, despite the four-wheel drive. We slithered across the ruts and hoped we didn’t meet an elephant. Remember the advice: stay still or reverse. Staying still OK, reversing not possible!

Butterflies are easier to deal with than elephants...
...particularly when one is relaxing by the Jacana's pool.
Pied kingfisher.

Our pictures of lions are rubbish and we didn’t managed to snap the leopard we saw slinking away through the grass. However, we had a wonderful afternoon spotting pelicans and fish eagles – and even a rare shoebill (or possibly a spoonbill, ornithology not being our strongest point) - on the Kazinga Channel.

Pelicans en masse.
...and lording it above the rest.

Fish eagle.

Long-tailed cormorant (we think).

And then it was down to Ishasha, following the line of the escarpment which marks the easternmost limit of the Rift Valley . We drove for 70 kilometres on deeply rutted muddy murram roads, across grassland dotted with gum trees and acacia. By some quirk of the signposting (it was the wrong way round), we missed the turning to the Ishasha National Park itself. After about 20 more unnecessary kilometres we realised we would soon be at the Congolese border post: the huge lorries thundering down the murram road were a clue. At that point, Stuart pointed out that we would soon need some diesel. He had been unable to buy any from the now defunct petrol station on the escarpment before we left the Jacana, and had thought it best not to worry me with the information when we set off.  After some gentle constructive discussion, we decided that we probably did have enough after all, certainly enough to look for tree-climbing lions and then free-wheel down the hill to Simba-Mitti camp where we were due to stay that night.

Terraced farmland on the eastern escarpment.

Even more Uganda Kob.

If you look closely, you'll see a Giant Monitor Lizard.

We picked up a ranger at the Ishasha UWA camp on the Congolese border, which doubles up as a Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force encampment complete with tank, and drove alongside the border scarcely a couple of hundred yards away. We saw wonderful creatures: eagles and vultures, herds of antelope... We didn’t, however, see the tree-climbing lions for which the area is famed. Lions being lions, they didn’t bother much about the border and had clearly wandered off to the other side. They are interesting creatures, these lions.  The tree-climbing Ugandan lions are exactly the same species as their Congolese cousins, except that the latter haven’t learned to climb.  Apparently this knowledge is passed down from Ugandan mother to Ugandan children, and the Congolese haven’t grasped it yet.

We saw lappet-faced vultures, African white-backed vultures
and Martial eagles - take your pick.
A herd of buffaloes in peaceable mood.
However, we had seen plenty enough treasures. It was late afternoon and our permit was running out. It was now time to find a safari tent and some diesel. We turned off the 'main' road – the signs were quite clear: Simba-Mitti camp. It had been raining recently and the road to Simba-Mitti was awash: metre after metre of muddy water of indeterminate depth. The Landcruiser sank down well over its running boards and half way up the engine, but fortunately kept going. Eventually we saw the turn off. Simba-Mitti was a new camp and we were probably among its first visitors. We struggled through the mud, down into the hollows and up the other side, but where was Simba Mitta camp? Who knows? To this day we have no idea where the camp was hiding. We looked at the sky.  More rain threatened, hardly any diesel, a high chance of being trapped by rising floodwater. It was time to cut our losses. A quick phone call and we elicited the fact that the Savannah Resort Hotel 30 kilometres down the road on the road to Kabale could take us. And there was diesel in the nearest village.

Simba-Mitti: but where was our tent?
So, a comfortable banda instead of a flooded safari tent that night: an oasis of comfort before we moved from the savannah of the north to the mountains of the south. It was helpful to be reminded to leave one's firearms at reception. The Ugandan Rift Valley: we wouldn't have missed it for the world.

If you would like to learn more about the Rift Valley, I guarantee you will enjoy a wonderful book called Uganda's Great Rift Valley by Andrew Roberts. Very well written, witty and informative: I couldn't put it down.

More posts about the Rift Valley include the following:

Living together in Kibale Forest
Chimp pee and elephant poo: our Ugandan anniversary
Speechless in Kazinga
Fort Portal, Semliki and Toro Golf Course

Other posts about scenery, animals and travelling around:

Highland lochs and braes - in Uganda, that is
Gathering at the waterhole

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Living together in Kibale Forest

In Great Britain, we tend to have cosy relationships with animals. The old clichés come out as soon as I write these words: the people who die while rescuing their dogs from fires or floods; the money poured into animal charities compared with those supporting children; and the pet shops crammed with gifts for dogs and cats way beyond anything that most children in Uganda could even dream of.

Animals are not regarded in the same light in Uganda, and probably not in other African countries as well. Animals spread disease. They attack and kill people. They eat crops so that your children go hungry. That doesn't mean they can't provide some benefits to people, however. Animals, both wild and farmed, are food. If semi-domesticated, they can act as guards. And in some areas, particular animals may have a monetary and cultural status well beyond their nutritional value – cattle, for instance. However, animals are rarely, if ever, pets.

So what happens in Africa when animals and people both regard the land as belonging to them? What are the chances of conflict? And if there is conflict, who is most likely to win?

Uganda has the youngest population in the world: roughly 50% below the age of 15 and 56% below 18 (and 5% above the age of 60 - that’s the impact of history for you). It also has the highest population growth in the world, a rate of 3.4% with an average of 7 children per woman (Population Reference Bureau Washington - 2011 World Population data sheet). At this rate it will double its population in 20 years. All these children need food and housing. All these families need farmland. As a result of population growth just since the early 1990s, Uganda has lost a third of its forest - and the animals which used to live in it. Marginal land – mountainside and wetlands – continues to be encroached on, and landslides, floods and death are the result.

Part of the 50%, riding their home-made wooden tricycles on the road to Kibale.
And, in the meantime, over the last century, what has been happening to the animals, those enormous herds of elephants, buffaloes and antelopes for which its grasslands were famed as recently as the 1960s? How have the hippos, the crocodiles and the rhinos survived?

Young male elephant looking for a herd in QENP.
A lot of animals went down to the mzungus’ guns, and a lot went into the Ugandans’ cooking pots. Having said that, in the early part of the 20th century, the land in the west was actually under-populated, because of the impact of sleeping sickness on the local human population. From the 30s through to the 60s, animals such as elephants and hippos were also shot as part of controlled culls, as well as as game, because their numbers gradually outgrew the space and nutrition available to them in the national parks. For 15 years between 1972 (Amin) and the late 1980s (end of the bush war), it was open season for hunting. The invading Tanzanians who ousted Amin in 1979, gorged on game which they were forbidden to kill in their own country. 

Animals have continued to be poached: for food and, if you are a rhino, for your horn. No rhinos now exist in the wild, although a breeding programme has succeeded in reintroducing a herd of about 11 in central Uganda. And the poaching still goes on, not so much of elephants and hippos; more of antelopes and wild pigs, more conveniently-sized beasts. Even now, rows continue about the gazetting of national parks. The Mount Elgon situation is well known. However, only yesterday local people were protesting about the UWA evicting them from their ancestral land in East Madi (north). The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) has done a lot to protect the animals. Until very recently, virtually nothing was done to protect the people.

Happy hippo and friend wallowing in the Kazinga Channel, QENP.
The decision was made long ago to prioritise animals over people in the national parks. For the local population, the results were sometimes tragic. Whole tribes and clans were evicted, not just from their land but from their thousands-of-years-old way of life: hunting and gathering. Some starved to death as a result (for example, the Ik of Kidepo in the north-east). In Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), the local clans have been restricted to fishing and salt-making in the crater lakes. Being national parks, no farming is allowed so most other food has to be brought in from elsewhere. We saw some pretty grim rural housing in the Kasenyi area of QENP - the word ‘slum’ would have been used in an urban context – and some very deprived-looking children. The fishing boats of Kutunguru look pretty enough when snapped by visitors on the Kazinga Channel cruise boat and no doubt their catches are sold regularly to the local hotels. Nevertheless, the people must experience a pretty restricted life compared with that of their forefathers not all that long ago.

Gathering water at litter-strewn Kikorongo crater lake, Kisenyi.

Eyeing up our car; visitors are few and far between.
This preamble is just a long-winded way of saying that any park which has got the balance between animals and humans 'just about right’ deserves as much praise as we can give them. One of those parks appears to be Kibale, north of QENP, between Fort Portal and Kamwenge. (The 'k' in Kibale is pronounced as 'ch'.)

We stayed at the Chimps’ Nest, a safari camp just on the edge of the forest. Our own comfortable banda was surrounded by bush, while the tree house Tim and Ruth stayed in was within the forest itself: so much so, that they actually needed guards to escort them to bed, to protect them from the aggressive forest elephants which roam these parts. This was no romantic notion: Tim and Ruth could hear the elephants crashing around and tearing down trees during the night. They debated what they would do if their tree house was torn down. Tim’s idea of holding onto the trunk (of the tree, not the marauding elephant) was brave, if a tad over-optimistic. We saw the evidence of their rampages the next morning (the elephants, not Tim and Ruth); the silent fear of the guards had clearly not been an affectation.  A fifteen minute walk to one's bedroom provides plenty of opportunity for more excitement than one really wants before tucking oneself in. The delight, however, came in the morning when Tim and Ruth woke up high up near the forest canopy and ate their breakfast while watching monkeys gambol around the branches adjoining their open air ‘dining room.’

Tree house at Chimps' Nest.
Petit dejeuner en plein air.

Venturing back.
Developments like Chimps’ Nest may appear at first sight to be yet another encroachment on the natural forest. Far from it. Sensitively designed and managed camps like these may be one of the best ways of protecting wildlife from further depredations.  Visitors are able to experience ‘real’ forest life, and hoteliers have a vested interest in keeping the environment and its animals intact for them to enjoy. Indeed, Chimps’ Nest is said to be planning to expand the area it holds, to provide more of a ‘buffer zone’.

And buffer zones are needed. Local people have to watch while the protected elephants rampage across their fields of sweet potatoes, uprooting and devouring the food they need for their families. They shout and wave sticks, but elephants are dangerous, and they sometimes have to call on the UWA rangers to fire shots in the air. Despite the existence of an elephant trench, it is virtually impossible to provide complete protection to entire villages as houses are spread out over quite an area.

Preparing cassava for drying.

Goat shed with resident dog.

Women preparing the ground for a sick neighbour.

Curious pig.
Nevertheless, local communities can benefit significantly from the visitors who come to see the animals. They sell their vegetables, fruit, meat and honey to Chimps’ Nest and, no doubt, other safari camps. They work in the camps and ranger posts themselves and, in Kibale, take small numbers of visitors on guided walks around their villages and to nearby wetlands. Local crafts such as the beautiful raffia baskets and mats made by the women are another source of income.  We also enjoyed the local singers and dancers: nothing polished or designed for tourists, just local people sharing their traditions. An absolute privilege.

Children learn raffia weaving at school...

...and make their own beehives out of wicker and mud.
So people benefit and animals benefit - and, of course, visitors benefit. The relationship may sometimes get a bit strained – 'Oh no, the elephants are trampling the maize again' – but, overall, it is mutually beneficial. There are few, if any, package tours as such to Uganda. The independent visitors and fairly exclusive small group safari tours which do visit the country tend to be supportive of conservation and appreciative of the opportunities to explore a relatively unspoilt part of the world. Such visitors can make a real difference both to preserving the environment and wildlife, and to supporting the people.

Peeling the tatties...
...and entertaining the visitors.

Locally-made instruments.
And all this, of course, makes a real difference to the particularly special animals who live in the forest itself. (Not that each animal isn’t special in its own right – no racist supremacy within the animal kingdom, we hope.) If people can be persuaded that it's worth preserving the forest, then the animals will be preserved too. Kibale Forest contains 13 primates, including chimpanzees, baboons, grey-cheeked mangabey, red colobus, black and white colobus and L’Hoest’s, red-tailed, vervet and blue monkeys. (Thank you,  Andrew Roberts.)  If you get bored with primates, there are 335 species of bird life in Kibale, many of them rare and endemic to this particular area. Uganda is one of the world's great ornithological destinations. In fact, overall, birdwatchers bring in twice as much money into the Ugandan economy as gorilla watchers (in 2008, $6 million compared with $3.3 million, according to the UWA, with the potential to rise to $45 million, or so they say). 

I would love to boast about how many of all these creatures we saw. We have to admit, however, to being at Foundation Level in animal and bird spotting. The baboons are easy; you can see them on the road. The chimpanzees take more work – a lot more work. OK if they stay up in the trees eating fruit, as they did in Kyambura Gorge. Not quite so OK when they decide to traverse hill and dale at great speed, with the huffing, puffing and sweating visitors in hot (yet tip-toeing) pursuit as they (the chimps) do what chimps do.

Baboons usually stay put, often on the road.
And what do chimps do? The females tend to stay out of sight with their young ones. You might see them scaling a tree with the little ones clinging on for dear life, but they rapidly disappear if they consider you to be a threat. The males, however, do the usual male galumphing thing. They're exhibitionists, really. They hoot loudly, swing through the branches and thump energetically on the buttresses of the enormous trees which tower above. All calculated to intimidate but really just showing off – much like human males, in fact. Teenage humans who communicate in grunts would be quite at home in Kibale Forest.

Slithering down.

And off they go.
Oh, and if the chimps get just a bit too much for you, you can also try to track down some of the 400+ butterfly species in Kibale: just a fraction of the 1,200 different kinds of butterfly which Uganda takes for granted.

There is a butterfly there, honest!

And a couple here.

So, in our view, Kibale has got the balance just about right. The visitors have lots of wonderful creatures to see, the people have retained their dignity and sense of self-reliance and the animals are doing just fine. Living together: that's what communities are all about.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Living on the margins: it's not just the people who complain (has more on elephant trenches)
Speechless in Kazinga (about Queen Elizabeth Park)
Chimp pee and elephant poo: our Ugandan anniversary (about the chimps in Kyambura Gorge)
Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda' (has more on the Ik)