Monday, February 27, 2012

The President walks a tightrope over gay rights

Homosexuals - in small numbers - existed in Africa long before the continent came in contact with Europe and they were either tolerated or ignored.

So said President Museveni in conversation with the BBC's Stephen Sackur last week (quoted in The Daily Monitor 25/02/2012).

'I don't support promotion of homosexuality, but I do not support persecution or discrimination of homosexuals,' the President went on to say.

Last year, Uganda was branded by the BBC as 'the worst place in the world to be gay'. This sounds like an overstatement to us, given that homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries in Africa, not just Uganda (for example, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and Botswana), and is also illegal in 82 countries worldwide. It may just be that when you have been lying by the pool in Sharm-el-Sheikh you may not have been in the mood to think about the scores of homosexuals banged up in Egypt's prisons.

We are told by people who know these things that Kampala actually has quite a lively gay scene, and a number of organisations which quietly campaign for gay rights. Please note, this is NOT the same as 'promoting' homosexuality. Such groups operate under the radar of most Ugandans, but you certainly don't get the impression that active and persistent persecution of homosexuals is a prominent feature of Ugandan life.

What was being referred to in that catchy BBC programme title were two events last year:
  • the unsuccessful attempt by MP David Bahati to table a private member's bill proposing capital punishment for 'aggravated homosexuality' (defined as when one of the participants is a minor, HIV-positive, disabled or a "serial offender"); and
  • the murder of a well-known gay rights activist, David Kato. 
The latter was a nasty violent 'iron bar' murder. The perpetrator was tried and convicted. The judgement was that it was a failed robbery. I can't imagine many people believed that. The priest taking the funeral service preached against homosexuality. Clerics do that all the time here, but the circumstances in this case made such an inappropriate outburst insensitive to say the least.
Ugandan homosexuals quoted in the newspapers say that their lives have become more difficult since the Bill was first proposed in 2009. It was then that a tabloid newspaper took up the issue with a headline that encouraged its readers to "hang" homosexuals. In October 2010 it published the names, photos and addresses of more than 20 gay people.

Again it is important to point out that the serious press has not contained any articles like these. Indeed, there have been more articles expressing opposition to the Bill and concern over its potential impact than articles supporting it. The tabloid press in Uganda is not that much different from the tabloid press in the rest of the world. A country in which readers have lapped up the News of the World and the Sun can hardly look down its nose at a country which publishes Red Pepper, Red Onion or Bukedde.

Well, the notorious Bill, abandoned last year after an outcry at home and abroad, is back on the stocks again, though in a new form. It is important to remember that this is NOT a government bill, and is NOT supported by the Ugandan President, the Prime Minister or the Cabinet. The Bill is the personal obsession of Mr Bahati, although it has some support among other MPs. Bahati was previously a fairly obscure MP who has since gained fame and notoriety through his championing of the Bill.

Another politician who has also gained fame and notoriety is the Minister for Ethics and Integrity (yes, this 1984-sounding title is actually genuine!). Father Simon Lokodo, an ex-Catholic priest from Karamoja,  appears to be a bit of a loose ca(n)non, as shown when he, some supporters and the police burst into a meeting of about 30 gay people a couple of weeks ago in an Entebbe hotel organised by the group Freedom and Roam. He then broke it up, in full view of members of the press, foreign visitors and various well-known and respected locals. He claimed that the meeting was illegal and that homosexuality wasn't accepted in Uganda. He has also called for the arrest of Kashas Jacqueline Nabagasa, winner of the 2011 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for calling him a liar when he went ahead and closed the workshop although he had earlier said that he simply wanted to speak to participants. As journalists have pointed out, the 1995 Constitution of Uganda allows for freedom of speech and association. Amnesty International has since called on the government to end such harassment of people engaged in 'lawful activities'.

After the raid the Minister said, “We tolerate [gays], we give them liberty and freedom to do their business, but we don’t like them to organize and associate.”

The previous Minister for Ethics and Integrity did something similar a year ago when he closed a workshop organised by Akina Mama, a civil rights group, to train sex workers in human rights and leadership.

Daniel Kalinaki, the respected editor of the Daily Monitor, who witnessed the Entebbe events has since written that what is happening in Uganda is a 'deliberate erosion of civil liberties and rights to assemble and express alternative points of view.' He points to the fact that meetings of teachers discussing strike action and walk-to work demonstrations have also been broken up. The government is aiming to institutionalise this approach by proposing the Public Order Management Bill, which would make it very difficult for people to meet and debate topical issues. These are humans rights issues, beyond simply the matter of anti-gay behaviour. Kalinaki's article has the headline 'Those who go after gays and sex workers will one day go after teachers and doctors.'

The new Bill proposes a life sentence (not the death penalty this time) for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time and where one partner is a minor or has HIV. It also proposes to criminalise public discussion of homosexuality and would penalise an individual who knowingly rents property to a homosexual. Certainly, since it was mooted it has contributed to a rise in openly expressed homophobia.

The government has been trying to distance itself from the Bill, stating that it does not enjoy government support. The Uganda Media Centre published a government statement which questioned why Uganda was the subject of "mass international criticism" when the international community remained "mute in the face of far graver and far more draconian legislation relating to homosexuality in other countries", naming Saudi Arabia.

"Unlike many other countries, no-one in Uganda has ever been charged with the criminal offence of homosexuality," it said.

Certainly, no such cases have been reported in the press. Although there is no doubt that most Ugandans do not approve of homosexuality, they have shown little support for either the old or the new Bill and certainly don't go around dragging homosexuals off to police stations. The targets of that sort of behaviour have tended to be the political opposition. Nevertheless, what is more of a worry for homosexuals is the lynch mob, not the law or the policeman.

Of course, an accusation of homosexuality, or sodomy, is an ideal weapon to use against people you don't like. Hence the current court case involving four evangelical pastors, three of whom are accused of libelling the fourth by saying he was a sodomite. Christianity takes very strange forms in Uganda.

And before all you British and American readers start feeling terribly self-righteous, remember there is still plenty of prejudice about homosexuality in both your countries despite its being legal. It takes a long time to change atavistic feelings. It was only a few years ago since the law was changed in the United Kingdom: in 1967 in England and Wales, and as late as 1981 in Scotland and 1982 in Northern Ireland - well within the lifetimes of this blog's readers. Every few months British newspapers report yet another incident of 'gay-bashing'. The prejudice against homosexuality is still deeply ingrained in some sections of British society: think about the footballer Justin Fashanu's experiences before his eventual suicide.

What makes the homosexuality discussion so peculiar in Uganda, however, is the bizarre view that western countries are trying to make Ugandans homosexual - the 'promotion of homosexuality' that is constantly being referred to and to which the President alluded in his statement to the BBC.  By picking up that phrase in the middle of a statement about tolerance, he was sending out a message to his people that he hadn't forgotten their concerns.

It is not clear what the west might have to gain from forcing homosexuality on unwilling Africans. Anti-gay propaganda asserts that homosexuals 'recruit' young people by paying them money to become homosexual, and many otherwise perfectly sane and sensible Ugandans actually believe this. Where this ludicrous, naive and groundless view comes from, we have no idea.

In Uganda, far from the west being responsible for promoting homosexuality, what has actually been introduced from the west has been prejudice against homosexuals. It is said that Mr Bahati has strong links with American evangelicals.  UK-based Justice for Gay Africans campaign group co-ordinator, Godwyns Onwuchekwa, told the BBC that hostility toward gay people has worsened in Africa as the result of activity by US Christian evangelical groups.

This preaching of a 'gospel of hate' is a far cry from the vision of the nineteenth century missionaries who brought Christianity to this country, limited though it may have been. It is also an evil twisting of Christ's gospel of love, based on simplistic and literal misinterpretations of obscure Old Testament texts by poorly educated ministers of religion. The low level of education in this country has a lot to answer for.

The evangelical lobby in Uganda, particularly the 'born-agains', is very powerful, financially and politically, and was behind the introduction of the 2009 Bill. Nigerian clerics are also very influential in Uganda, and they too are supported financially and otherwise by US churches opposed to gay bishops. The Nigerian Senate has just approved a bill to further criminalise homosexuality, the only cause in Nigeria which seems to unite Christians and Muslims. Nigeria, like Uganda, was most put out by David Cameron's threat to cut aid as a result and accused the UK of interfering neo-colonialism.

So, where does President Museveni stand on all this?

President Museveni is a sophisticated politician who has operated in an international context for many years now. The west has for a long time regarded him as one of the most respected African politicians. When he first took power, he was lauded by Britain as one of the new-style African politicians. That plaudit may seem a little threadbare 26 years later, but there is now doubt about his status within African and international politics. What is clear is that he has shown little public sign of sympathy with the anti-gay lobby.

The President will have no desire for his country to become an international pariah. He is only too well aware how naive, intolerant and ignorant his countrymen's views appear when broadcast on the world media. Furthermore, for most of his 26 year rule, his country has received 75% of its budget from the west and even though that proportion has now fallen to less than half, it is still a substantial amount.

Only a couple of days ago it was announced that the USA is to contribute Shs920 billion to reduce maternal mortality by 50% in four districts of western Uganda by the end of the year. Last summer, Uganda lost a notable amount of aid targeted at HIV/AIDs projects because of the previous anti-gay Bill. Aid money has been removed from other areas of the government's work, specifically education (for example by the Netherlands and the World Bank), because of weaknesses in governance. Uganda can ill afford to lose more of its financial support.

The west has not held back from expressing publicly its views of Uganda's position on gay rights. The US and UK have already warned that they would use foreign aid to push for homosexuality to be decriminalised in Africa.
  • Last year, Mr Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan gay activist, was presented a Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington, the first time the award was bestowed on an advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
  • In December, President Barack Obama said that fighting discrimination against gays should be at the forefront of American diplomacy. He described the abandoned Bill as 'odious'.
  • When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke in Geneva at the International Human Rights Day last year she called for the rights of gay people to be respected. "Gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world," Mrs Clinton said. "Being gay is not a Western invention. It is a human reality." She is right. Many Africans actually do not know that homosexuality is not something you choose; it is something which you are born with. Between 6% and 10% of the population have no choice about the matter. We're back to the disastrous impact of a dysfunctional education system.
  • Last month UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told African leaders at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa that they must respect gay rights. "One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," he said.
And it is not just western and UN diplomats and politicians who are making noises. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki has criticised Bahati’s anti-gay Bill, telling a public audience in Kampala that what two consenting adults do in private “is really not the matter of law.”

However, the President also doesn't like his country being pushed around, as he sees it, by the west, hence some of his recent statements. And others in his circle have made similar remarks, for example John Nagenda, one of his advisers, who said, "That fellow [Mr Cameron] said the same thing. Now this woman [Mrs Clinton] is interfering.' Any opinions about the way African countries govern themselves are seen here as 'neo-colonialist'. There is also a real danger that bills like Uganda's will be end up being passed out of sheer cussedness, or - to put it more politely - as a sign of African defiance in the face of its former colonial masters.

However, the President's statements are aimed as much at his own people as at the British and Americans. He is walking a tightrope, between the emotive posturing of a small but vocal section of his own people and the reasoned arguments of international politicians and diplomats. He cannot risk losing the support of people here. The Presidency is going through a very difficult patch just now. Ten of the15 top Cabinet Ministers have just been lost to corruption charges. The quality press is full of critical articles suggesting that State House has known more about the various bribery cases than has been admitted publicly. There have been scandals about MPs' new cars, about oil deals and about corruption in the education service.

Indeed, it could be - and has been - said that the government actually NEEDS the Bahati sideshow, as it distracts attention from all this political turmoil. More seriously, however, it also distracts attention from the really important issues facing Uganda today: the issues of child protection, health and education. Fifty per cent of the Ugandan population is under 15. There is a danger of their needs being ignored while an issue concerning perhaps six per cent of the adult population takes all the limelight. The country's health, education and child protection systems are disintegrating. The number of girls raped at school by their teachers, at home by their fathers and brothers and in their villages by members of their communities is beyond belief. The gaps between the urban and rural areas and the rich and the poor are growing exponentially. However, if all eyes turn to the anti-gay Bill, then perhaps no one will notice all these other  problems. One telling issue is that the main provisions of the new Bill deal with defilement and rape, a far more pressing and urgent issue, but all the attention has been on homosexuality.

What may also happen is what journalists like Jackee Batanda (a Ugandan writing in the Boston Globe) has pointed out: 'tying aid to LGBT tolerance directly feeds into the popular rhetoric that homosexuality is a Western import - and contravenes African morals. Already, statements abound in social media that the West can keep its aid; Africa will not lose her morality because of Western aid.' (LGBT: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender.)

Mind you, there is another side to that argument. It is not uncommon for frustrated westerners working in Uganda to say, 'Well, if they don't like what the west is doing then they shouldn't accept our money'. 

Batanda suggests that 'withdrawing US aid seems to be an ineffective way to deal with an issue that has roots in Western-based evangelical groups pushing an anti-homosexuality agenda.' The United States, she says, 'should clean its own backyard' and deal with the evangelical groups responsible for firing up the anti-LGBT activists. 
Everyone recognises that withholding aid to African countries would lead to huge cuts in health care, education, and other important sectors. Removal of aid would have a disproportionate effect on the weak and powerless. Batanda suggests that if the West is keen on cutting aid, it should be based on a 'broad spectrum of human-rights violations and tagged with stricter demands that countries adhere to all human rights freedoms'.

So, the President has a lot of competing pressures to contend with. Let's hope he stays on the tightrope.

As for us, we think that ordinary Ugandans are more concerned with feeding and educating their children than with the antics of the anti-gay lobby or the persecution of homosexuals. At the end of the day, their lives will be affected more by the freedoms and rights afforded to them by their government than by the tiny possibility that a homosexual couple may move in next door.

You may also be interested in:

Stephen Sackur's BBC interview with President Museveni about gay rights.

Daniel Kalinaki's article 'Those who go after gays and sex workers will one day go after teachers and doctors' in the Daily Monitor

Martin Ssempa's response to this article 'Sodomites, prostitutes should not be equated to teachers and doctors' in the Daily Monitor

Dr Hilda Tadria's article 'Story behind closure of Entebbe workshop was misrepresented' in the Daily Monitor

Jackee Batanda's article for the Boston Globe 'Cutting aid to Africa won't help gay rights'

Dayo Olopade's article Gay Bashing: a Government Diversion in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times

Uganda activists sue US pastor (News 24)

The following posts also touch on aspects of the gay debate:

Public relations Ugandan-style

Young, female and the world at their feet...perhaps

Christian celebrations in Kampala December 2010

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is it goodbye to Universal Primary Education in Uganda?

Yesterday Stuart and I were 'shocked and saddened' (as they say) by the news that Universal Primary Education in Uganda may soon no longer be 'universal'. The Ministry of Education and Sports has just proposed that government support be removed from all urban primary schools.

Why is this?

The Ministry has a shortfall in its budget of Shs314 billion (just over £85.5 million). Its solution to this problem is a proposal that government funding be retained for poor rural primary schools but removed from the towns and cities. In the view of the top civil servants who draft such proposals, people living in urban centres are prosperous enough to pay for their children's education. They clearly haven't turned off the main streets of Kampala beyond their pleasant residential areas and wound their way down by the slums of Mutungo to the swamp, or through the squalid housing of Bwaise or Katwe with their open sewers.

Universal Primary Education (UPE) has always been Uganda's flagship educational policy. Uganda was the first developing nation to introduce universal primary education, well before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Education for All. UPE was designed in 1997 as a national programme aimed at providing free education to all young Ugandan children. The need for free primary education had been emphasised by the United Nations General Assembly  in 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free for at least the elementary and fundamental stage”.

Uganda has always prided itself on the quality of its education. Upper-middle class families in Tanzania, Sudan and Kenya have often sent their children to Uganda to be educated. In 1962, the newly independent nation inherited an educational system developed and largely funded by missionaries and  modelled on the selective system of England. Although Foundation schools, as they are known, have since been handed over to the Ugandan government, their reputation for high academic standards has persisted. Many of the nation's leaders went to publicly-funded schools.

When Uganda decided to open up primary schools to every single child, it was acknowledging the role of education in empowering young people and transforming their lives. If the poor can gain a basic level of knowledge and skills, particularly literacy and numeracy, then they can become self-reliant. They will also become more employable in a marketplace where opportunities for the uneducated and those lacking core skills (such as literacy, numeracy, problem-solving, critical thinking and competence in using ICT) are increasingly becoming fewer.

Since 1997, enrolment in primary schools has grown from 70% shortly after UPE was established, to 120% today - a ridiculous figure that can be explained by the frequent dropping out and re-enrolling characteristic of the educational experience of many Ugandan children. In many respects real enrolment of around 92% is a triumph.  However, only about 32% of these children make it to Primary 7 (figures published by UNICEF in its report The State of the World's Children 2011).

And therein lie some of the problems of UPE.  When the doors were opened, primary-aged children flooded in. The government paid the schools their pathetic capitation grant of Shs5000 (£1.36) per child per term (usually); it paid their teachers their pathetic salaries of Shs270,000 (£60) per month (sometimes); and built their ramshackle inadequate classrooms (occasionally). Parents were expected to provide uniform, scholastic materials and food. However, the government did not provide sufficient extra resources to address the needs of all the extra children. The result is that educational standards, including standards of literacy and numeracy, went down. The learning environment never recovered. And many of the parents couldn't even pay for the materials they were supposed to provide.

Then schools started setting additional fees, called 'development' or 'PTA' fees. And of course parents often couldn't pay those either. Children are sometimes, illegally, turned away from schools if they cannot pay these unofficial fees. Yesterday's paper recounted a story of a man in Nwoya, northern Uganda, whose belongings were impounded by the School Management Committee after he was unable to pay additional fees of Shs10,000 (£2.72) for teachers' welfare and Shs1,200 for his child to sit an examination. He ended up torching the grass-thatched school leaving 180 pupils without any classrooms.

Given the problems of UPE schools, not everyone in Uganda, therefore, will be as horrified as we are at the possible demise of the programme. Almost all top civil servants are members of the educated elite. (Of course, how else would they have achieved their positions?)  None of them will have attended a government- funded UPE primary school themselves or sent their own children to one. However, many ordinary middle class Ugandans have traditionally sent their children to respected government schools. They now bewail the introduction of UPE as the resultant flood of poor children has 'destroyed' their good primary schools, sending classes of 30 or 40 rocketing up to 70 or 100. Not everywhere, of course. Papers are currently reporting that schools in Karamoja are almost empty this term. Few children returned from the long holiday. Wells are dry and children are tramping miles in search of water. Their parents need them to go out working or searching for food, not sitting in classrooms. However, empty classrooms in north east Karamoja aren't much use to the slum-dwellers of Kampala.

In UPE schools, standards of attainment are also abysmally low. According to the 2011 Uwezo Uganda National Report, many Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) candi­dates under the UPE program cannot read or understand a passage at P2 level. They cannot count either. Nine out of every 10 children in P3 could not read and or under­stand an English story text of P2 level difficulty. Seven out of every 10 children in P3 could not solve mathematical sums at P2 level while 7 out of every 10 in P3 to P7 could not read and or understand a P2 level test. If Uganda cannot raise its educational standards, it will be left out and left behind as the rest of the world passes it by.

We have been told that some years back, P7 teach­ers were made to sit the same exams as their pupils.  Seven out of 10 failed the exams. Primary teachers are often poorly educated, poorly supported and poorly paid. UPE therefore has had many problems beyond those of inadequate resourcing.

Indeed, it is not just that the funding was never sufficient. Many of the funds that existed were spirited away into the pockets of politicians and civil servants. Ghost schools, ghost teachers and ghost pupils have bedevilled both primary and secondary education. Headteachers connive with district personnel, education civil servants and the Public Service Ministry to milk the system of resources by claiming for the salaries of non-existent teachers and the capitation allowances of non-existent schools and non-existent pupils. The proceeds are then shared among them.

Today's paper states that donors have warned the government that they will withdraw funds if it does not keep to its commitment to spend at least 20% of the national budget on education. In its National Development Plan, Uganda projected that it would spend 17% of its budget on education. This projection has since fallen to 14%. As a result, Uganda stands to lose its Shs240 billion ($100 million) World Bank grant for education.  The country would also become  ineligible to apply for funding from the World Bank's Global Partnership for Education fund: a $100 million grant to help countries meet the MDGs by 2015. The head of Uganda's Education Development Partners, Mr Geopt, said that the current inflation rate of 28% already meant a contraction in budgets in real terms. He added, however, that the government could save Shs25 billion yearly by eliminating ghost schools, pupils and teachers - in our view, certainly enough to educate the urban poor.

In November 2009, the government set up a five-person Commission of Enquiry to investigate corruption of the ghostly kind. The Commission was charged to report within six months on the misappropriation of funds for UPE/USE. Well, two years and a month later, the Commission has still not reported. Members have had a few meetings and at least two extensions to their deadline. Their budget went up from Shs4.3 billion to Shs6.3 billion and they still asked for even more money to carry out their duties. (The whole of Mbarara district only receives Shs400 million for UPE.)

The commissioners have spent Shs7 billion on hotel and restaurant bills and transport but they have held no public hearings and have carried out no field trips. Apparently the Commission spent about Shs10 million every day just on travel within Kampala. Sometimes as much as Shs2 or 4 million was drawn on fuel cards for just one transaction. The five commissioners allegedly spent Shs3.5 million on lunch each month, having submitted a budget for 10 people. One of the commissioners is the substantive but erstwhile director of the also erstwhile Education Standards Agency, in charge of ....(guess what?) standards (and inspection), who was removed from her post because of accusations of irregularities. MP Tumwebaze Frank of Kibaale wondered 'why commissions of inquiry are funded by the agencies they are inquiring into and where there are high chances of compromise'.

An audit of the Commission's account books has revealed 'a number of anomalies'. Even worse, during the audit to check the doubtful expenditure, seven audit assistants were over-paid professional fees totalling Shs37 million.

The upshot?

It now appears that MPs have unanimously voted to put a stop to the enquiry into corruption (perhaps because the Commission was itself corrupt?). They have asked for another investigation to be set up to enquire into the operation of the Commission of Enquiry itself. The President has, however, attacked the Speaker and Parliament for putting a stop to an 'important committee'.

And who suffers from all this endless circularity, waste and in-fighting?

No doubt about that. It is the poor children of Uganda.

According to the Monitor, whereas the President has called the members of the Commission 'freedom fighters', MPs called them 'useless, idle, redundant, sophisticated vampires and money guzzlers.'

However, this still doesn't help the children. The drop-out and failure rates of children in UPE schools are unacceptably high. That is bad enough. Now, most of those living in towns will not be able to afford to go to primary school at all.

What is the moral of this tale?

There would be no need to remove government grants from poor children in the Kampala slums if the money for their education hadn't been stolen by the rich and powerful, or indeed, by the just comfortably off. Whether it is the kind of corruption recounted in our last post, or the salting away of funds for textbooks, the amount of money deliberately removed from public services in Uganda is a disgrace to this so-called 'Christian' country.

As the Good Book says, 'For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.' (St Mark chapter 4 verse 25)

Or, in more modern English, 'For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.' 

Unfortunately, in Uganda people tend to take the Bible literally.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Ghost bicycles, ghost schools and real children

Letting children down: PLE results 2011

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hurray, stormy days are here again!

Storms in Kampala
Friday was the turning point. After unprecedented temperatures building up for weeks, 30 to 32 degrees in Kampala and up to 39 degrees elsewhere, on Saturday the weather broke.

We had heard thunder rumbling away all afternoon and the clouds gradually darkening. Then, on our way to Cayenne, a nearby watering hole, the sky turned an angry red and the red dust suddenly swirled head high so we could barely see in front of us. Pedestrians dashed across the road, clutching babies and loaded with shopping, trying to get under cover before the storm broke.

The low rumbling became loud crashes right over our heads. Trees waved wildly and lightning flashed above and around us. The rain poured down, washing across the streets and flooding the drainage channels. And so it continued, all that evening. After a brief respite at 11 o’clock, it started all over again at 3 o’clock in the morning.

This will be the weather pattern for the next few weeks: warm bright sunshine, thunder rumbling away in the background and then sudden outbursts of violent wind and rain. The weather people say that the rains in the western highlands and around Lake Victoria will spread to the rest of the country by the end of March. Seventeen people have died already and we can expect more deaths and injuries from road accidents, floods, lightning strikes and falling trees, walls and roofs.

Rainstorms across the countryside
However, the stormy weather is welcome - except for the casualties, of course. People across the country and not just in the usual drought-prone regions, have been suffering badly from the extended hot season. Food and water shortages are now acute and many animals and poultry have died. Bush fires have burned down huts and killed people. They have torn through huge stretches of the national parks in western Uganda, as well as sugar cane plantations, natural forests and urban markets. Scores of families are homeless as a result. And in Karamoja, over in the north east close to the famine-struck areas of Kenya, people are trudging 14 kilometres or more for water and are already hungry. Rain storms are good.

The priority now, of course, is to use the rain properly: for communities to build dams and set up irrigation systems to boost harvests and increase food security; and for the country as a whole to take action to preserve its wetlands and forests for the future. Only by protecting its water catchment, will the country’s future – and vital - agricultural and industrial development become possible.

Uganda and its national parks

Rumblings within the corridors of power
And tempests have also begun to rage in the capital: not too many out in the streets, unlike this time last year, but a lot, it seems, within the corridors of power. Thank goodness again. Rain storms clear the air and clean the ground. They bring down rotten trees and scour out the filth and debris lurking in gutters. They fill water courses and prepare the ground for the new green shoots of recovery.

A Tullow tornado
Gales continue to swirl round Parliament House. The Government has just signed a Production Sharing Agreement with Tullow Oil (an Irish oil exploration group, whose critics usually called it ‘British’) about the extraction of oil from the Albertine Rift Valley in the western kingdom of Bunyoro. Nothing wrong with that, you might think…except that Parliament had specifically passed a resolution halting oil transactions until the necessary legislation had been passed. MPs assert that the draft agreement does not provide sufficient protection for the country against rapacious foreign investors.

The kingdom of Bunyoro
Nevertheless, the resolution was not much of an obstacle to the President who simply ordered the Minister for Energy and Mineral Development to ignore it and put her name on the papers, letting loose a veritable tornado among both Opposition and his own NRM MPs for ignoring the will of Parliament. This action fuelled speculation that 'some people have already been compromised and therefore transactions must go ahead even if it means defying Parliament.’ (The Daily Monitor)

Oil is due to start flowing 36 months after the papers have been signed. Mind you, Andrew Mwenda of The Independent is very sceptical about the idea of continuing debate in Parliament, saying it just gives more opportunity to MPs to dip their personal buckets into the oil reserves.  Tullow has already passed on two thirds of its interests to France’s Total and China’s CNOOC.

The President said he had fought a resistance war and repaired a ruined economy; he would not let ‘economic saboteurs land him into mistakes [sic]’. This is a storm that may not die down quickly.

Lake Albert and the oil

A tsunami of corruption allegations
Two Cabinet Ministers have just been swept away by a tidal wave of accusations that they approved inflated compensation payments mounting to Shs150 billion of taxpayers’ money to two businessmen whose land was taken over for use as a market.  The Public Accounts Committee seem to think that some of the shillings drifted back in their direction. The high tide is likely to deposit both culprits in the law courts. Furthermore, the former Attorney General was reduced to pleading for mercy to the President himself for his guilt in approving the compensation claims - while also hinting at the existence of past government deals which he might just think about making public. An interesting belief – that a letter can influence the judicial system.

Also caught up in the swell was the respected Governor of the Bank of Uganda, though he is still managing to keep his head above water. Some have claimed he authorised the payments following pressure from the Finance Minister. The Governor may also be paying for his public, and possibly brave/unwise, disagreement with the President’s decision a few months ago to purchase $400million fighter jets using cash from the foreign exchange reserves.

The waves triggered by the compensation payments have certainly risen very high indeed, as high as it is possible to imagine. It is said the two Ministers, ballast tossed out of the Presidential ship, were pushed under before they could drag anyone else down with them. Whether they’ll ever be found guilty, of course, is another matter, as is whether the money will be recovered and returned to the public services from which it was stolen.

The sacking now makes 10 vacancies in the Cabinet: the two new casualties joining the other eight whose integrity has been questioned. NRM MPs are falling overboard at an unprecedented rate. Yesterday there was an emergency meeting of the NRM caucus, down by the calm waters of Lake Victoria.

Downpours drench MPs
When floods recede, they sometimes reveal hitherto hidden structures.  It has taken two months for a secret deal to come to light which gives each of the country’s 375 MPs Shs103 million (nearly £30,000) to buy a ‘luxury’ gas guzzler car.

Yaslin Mugerwa in the Daily Monitor points out that the lifetime cost of treating an HIV/Aids victim is Shs20 million, which means that each vehicle could help save the lives of five people. The whole Shs38.6 would treat more than 1,875 Aids sufferers.  300,000 poor Ugandans cannot afford anti-retroviral drugs.

The subsequent outcry has been enormous, even for Uganda. A torrent of abuse characterised by the word ‘greedy’ has rained down upon the honourable members. Apparently, this kind of money could ‘operationalise’ the entire health structure of a small district, with 100% staffing (unheard of in Uganda). The timing of the news, of course, was bad, coinciding with threatened strikes by desperately underpaid teachers. Each car would pay the salaries of 345 primary teachers.

MPs had already asked for a Shs50 million individual advance, a removal of taxes on their new cars and an increase in monthly salary from Shs15 million to Shs19 million.

One piece of comfort for the common man is that, given the whirlpools swirling around Uganda’s potholes just now, the garage bills for the ‘greedy’ MPs will be astronomical.

And various lightning strikes
The Presidency has just requested a Shs92 billion supplementary budget to ‘pay for special meals and drinks, welfare and entertainment.’ It also includes Shs2.3 billion for maintaining the presidential jet,  Shs11.6 billion for ‘donations’ and Shs8.8 billion for travel at home and abroad. This is the second of such payments to State House. Five months ago it got an additional Shs66.6 billion. If the request is acceded to, the State House budget will apparently balloon to more than Shs158.6 billion— more than twice the 2011/12 Budget for Mulago National Referral Hospital, according to the Monitor. The money could also have been used to meet the Shs75 billion required to answer teachers’ demands for a 100 per cent salary increase.

The sum also vastly overshadows the Shs7 billion which the Ministry of Health is struggling to find to treat 3,000 children in Northern Uganda struck down by a mysterious ‘nodding disease’. Its initial request for a supplementary budget had been turned down, so funds have been re-allocated from elsewhere in the health budget.

Children with this degenerative disease present with nodding heads, running saliva, stunted growth, seizures, mental retardation and malnutrition. At risk of falling into open fires, many spend their days tied to trees to prevent accidents. A Junior Health Minister has just reassured Ugandans that ‘only 170 deaths’ had been registered. Others say 200, but who knows how many have been quietly buried in hard-to-reach areas. There is no diagnosis and no treatment – except for anti-epileptic drugs to control the nodding.

Acholi MPs have been frantically trying to draw attention to what should be a national emergency. The disease first appeared three years ago, though it is claimed that the first action to combat it was taken only a week ago. So far Shs100 million has been released of the promised Shs7 billion. Not so much a deluge, more a trickle.

So, what is the long-term weather forecast?
Let us hope that the reporting of these turbulent events signifies a very public cleansing of the Augean stables. Rottenness has been revealed as the floodwater swirls through the channels, obstacles to fair and equitable government are being washed away and the ground is being swept clear, we hope, for the planting season.

The trouble is that the weather in Uganda is so unpredictable these days that no one can tell you about the pattern of seasons any more. I guess a few weeks of sunshine will brighten up the murkiest areas. Periodically, as now, wild storms will tear across the countryside, demolishing disintegrating buildings and making passage for the deluge.  Who knows when it will be time for the seeds to be planted, the crops gathered in and the harvest made ready for the granaries?

Granary on stilts in northern Uganda

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Royal Pride photo album

The new term has started at Royal Pride Community Academy. As in every Ugandan school, children have come along with the necessary supplies: jotters, toilet rolls and brooms for sweeping the classrooms and compound. Not all of them of course, but among the 200 hundred or so learners, there's a reasonable enough supply of learning materials to be shared around.  A few have the new blue uniforms (much more practical and durable than the old violet gingham). Most, however, are making do with the uniforms they more or less fit into, handed down and often rather torn and shabby. Some, of course, have no uniforms at all.

So here is a quick photo tour of the new term at Royal Pride.

Owning a pencil is something to be proud of!

School work has started in earnest. In the big brick building, two teachers team teach the three nursery classes (Baby Class, Middle Class and Top Class), together with Primary 1 and Primary 2, about 100 children in all.  In the early years, some of the work is in English.....

....but most is in Luganda, the local language.

Papyrus screens separate the classes. Inspectors have recommended that they should be replaced by brick walls, to reduce noise, but there's no money for that just now. Primary 3 and Primary 4, each with their own teacher, occupy the other two 'classrooms' in the brick building. Each class has about 25 or 30 pupils, all hard at work when we visited. Godfrey and another teacher teach Primary 5,6, and 7, each with 15 to 17 pupils. These are much smaller classes than in most schools. In Uganda, the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) has set the pupil-teacher ratio at 1:53. In fact, most urban schools have classes of 70-100. In the country, classes can be 200 or more.

Soon it's half past ten, time for play...

...but, even more important, time for porridge. The cook has brought it from her home further up the hill, in big blue plastic buckets. The queues start - little ones first.

This isn't just any old porridge, it's Energy Booster - a soya/maize/millet mixture with added vitamins.

And it goes down well.

Older learners wait patiently.

Little ones take their precious mugs of porridge into the classroom.

Royal Pride is now attracting some children from slightly better off families, who can afford to send their them with a snack of chapatti, bread or similar, (like the little girl above). For most children, however, the porridge they receive at Royal Pride will be their first meal of the day, and will last them until they have their main meal (usually posho [maize porridge] and beans) at home in the evening. Classroom teachers at Royal Pride say that since the feeding programme has started, children's concentration has improved and, stomachs full, they settle down much better to their tasks. Feeding helps learning!

Plastic bowls, beakers, mugs - any container will do, as long as it contains porridge!

The older children too, wander off to their classrooms.

Primary 5, 6 and 7 use the old wooden building. It's not really safe for the younger ones, especially when it rains.  However, you can't always keep them out at playtime!

Nevertheless, the school fabric is getting better, thanks to Godfrey's enthusiasm, the parents' commitment and help from supporters in the UK. Sandbags now provide a barrier between the school compound and the swamp.The latrines have been replaced, thanks to support from our VSO cluster. (The previous ones were destroyed by floods.) The new latrines have separate sections for boys and girls. (There are still no latrines for the teachers.) These are the girls' latrines.

Godfrey and the parents have plastered the outside of the main brick building, and are adding bars to the windows. They hope to add proper wooden doors. We think it might be a good idea to make one of these doors a metal one, so that at least one classroom could be used to store resources. Theft is a major problem in this desperately poor community. However, this may not be a major priority just now.

The School Management Committee (like a Board of Governors or Parent Council) has erected papyrus fences round the perimeter and a corrugated iron gate to improve safety and security.

So what next for Royal Pride? Well, the key aim is to improve accommodation, resources and management so that the school meets the Ministry's Basic Requirements and Minimum Standards. Learning and attainment are already strong aspects of the school's work, despite the minimal resources.

Our VSO cluster in Kampala and the surrounding area has taken the decision to continue to support the school. The priorities for improvement are to:
  • improve the area around the new latrines and next to the swamp to reduce risk from disease;
  • raise the old wooden building onto a platform so that it doesn't keep getting flooded. Over time and with help, the school should be able to build brick walls around the old wooden walls just like it did with the new brick building;
  • build a kitchen building with integral fuel-efficient stove;
  • pay for National Water and Sewerage to take piped water from further up the hill down to a standpipe at Royal Pride so that the children have access to a safe water supply for drinking;
  • build dividing walls in the existing brick building and continue to improve it by adding proper doors and bars on the windows, for security.
In the longer term, it would be good to set up a sponsorship programme with an NGO like Lessons for Life.  However, first things first!

So a positive story about the determination of a community to provide the best education it can for its children. Thank you to all the people in the UK who are helping the people of Mutungo to achieve this. Thanks also to all the VSO volunteers, past and present, who have done so much to make the school what it is today.

You may also be interested in the following pages:

RPCA feeding programme

Background information about Royal Pride

If you scroll down the right hand side of this blog, you will find a whole section of posts about Royal Pride Community Academy, together with a slide show.

PS As with all posts which contain close-up pictures of children in named locations, the photos have been taken with agreement of the headteacher and with the understanding that the SMC/parents would be content.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life of a secondary school student: exams, fees and a whole lot more

Imagine being a Ugandan teenager.  Not the teenagers you see digging the fields, sifting rubbish on the garbage tips or selling mugs of peas at the traffic junctions. No, the teenagers who were lucky enough to be among the 25% who got into secondary school and are now among the resilient 14% who have managed to scrape together their fees and stick it out for four years. What's it like to be on the final straight: the dash for ‘O’ Level?

'I [Paul] often lacked school fees and often dug in order to stay in school. I replaced the lost time by reading overnight…worse, I got into a coma because of severe malaria and did not read or attend school for one month.' (all quotations are from The Daily Monitor, New Vision or The Observer.)

You get up at five o’clock in the morning in your boarding hostel and do a couple of hours of study before breakfast. You then work all day in your classes and do prep until 10 o’clock at night. That is your life.

‘I owe my success to…my brother who was always waking me up to read.’

Sofiya Nakatwanyi lost all her belongings, including textbooks, while in senior three, when a fire gutted her dormitory at Mbale-based Hamdan Girls High School in 2010. However, with God’s help, Nakatwanyi recovered from the tragedy and worked harder.

Crowded illegal boarding hostel.

And if your parents cannot afford the boarding fees, your day will be just as long but with the addition of an hour or two of travel, usually on foot, followed by homework, probably by the light of a paraffin lamp.

The constant power black outs…did not hinder Lawrence Senoga….’There was a point in my life where I had to use a phone to read at night,’ [he] said. Also a day scholar he trekked long hours in the day just to get to school. He pays tribute to his parents….a security guard and a small scale business woman respectively who have struggled to raise fees for him, often getting loans.

Ugandan ‘O ’Level students work hard. Any success they achieve, they have more than earned. Some lose weeks of classes as their parents can’t afford the fees and they are locked out of school until they come back with them – or don’t return at all. Some work in any ‘spare’ time they have, earning the fees themselves. Secondary school fees place an enormous strain on families, with even middle-class parents such as doctors taking two jobs in order to afford them. As many Ugandan families pay fees for the extended family, the strain is considerable. Thank goodness for sponsors, gratitude to whom was expressed by student after student. And, of course, as elsewhere in the world, some students have none of these challenges as they are among the privileged – in Uganda, the very privileged few.

Studying in the shade of the (donated) water harvesting tank

Why so much studying? Ugandan secondary students are among the most tested youngsters in the world: tests every week, tests every month, end of term tests, end of year tests. As a result, tests take up more than a third of teaching time, drastically cutting down the time for learning. They are so busy being tested they don’t have time to learn anything, hence the ridiculous amounts of homework and the weekend and holiday classes. They certainly don’t have time for field study, practical projects or research.

Musiime said his challenge was the geography exam on field work about a farm and a fish landing site which they had not visited.

Head boy and senior pupils.

The long hours are illegal (official hours are 8am until 5pm), as are the weekend and holiday classes. Students don’t have a choice, however, and if they complain, they’ll be turned out of school. Every so often, the pressure builds up, the gasket bursts and all their resentments about inadequate food, filthy latrines and overcrowded dormitories explode. The result? School strikes, intervention by armed police and, all too often, tragedy.

The UNEB Secretary…appealed to [the] Minister of Education and Sports….to find a solution to rampant cramming among students, saying [they] are not learning but are instead studying to pass examinations.

However, February is not the time to bewail those who fall by the wayside; it is the time to celebrate the successes of those who made it. These young people have jolly well earned their ‘O’ Level certificates!

So, what’s the score now the results are out?

‘O’ Level highlights
  •  Performance overall improved by 2.3%, following a decline related to the introduction of Universal Secondary Education (USE).
  • 8.5% achieved Division 1, 18.3% Division 2 and 25.5% Division 3.
  • The failure rate went down from 6.4% to 4.2%.
  • The number of pupils sitting ‘O’ Level increased by 8,435 (though this is still well below the number of pupils added to the pupil population every year.)
  • The number of female candidates was the highest ever: 46.5% of the total number.
  • Girls did better than boys in English Language and Literature.
  • Out of the 273,363 candidates, 100 had special needs. Of these, 40 were blind, 49 were deaf and 11 had ‘impaired ability to read’ (presumably dyslexic). They all achieved Division 2, whereas in 2010, 43.5% got Grade 4 while 4.2% failed completely.

Following the introduction of USE, the government has recruited 1,400 new teachers, built 4,297new classrooms and refurbished 1,864 others, to improve the pupil-teacher ratio. (Employing more teachers is of no use unless they have classrooms to teach in.) It has improved sanitation and water supply, and built multi-purpose science rooms and libraries as well as increasing the supply of science kits.

However, there the positives stop.

‘O’ Level lowlights

1. Three quarters of candidates failed chemistry and biology.

The reasons?
  •  Candidates hadn't covered the syllabus.
  •   Most had had as good as no experience of carrying out practical experiments.

In fact, the very first time many students carried out a practical was for the exam. Students did not know how handle the apparatus or record the data. The government has been rolling out a building programme to provide government-aided schools with laboratories and stock them with equipment and chemicals. Nevertheless, even those government schools which do have labs are said to use them rarely, if at all.  Very few private schools have labs, except the elite establishments, and many with labs do not have any equipment. There is also said to be a shortage of science teachers.

From the time Renne Manake set foot in St Lawrence Citizens High School [an elite establishment] all the way from Kenya, she knew the quiet environment and good facilities like science and computer laboratories would act as a stimulus for success.

The Education Minister is justifiably very angry about poor performance in science.

2.  Selective education is exclusive

The key measure of performance is the percentage of Division 1 passes each school achieves.
  •  2,314 schools presented pupils for ‘O’ Level.
  •  Of these, only 70 schools were successful in getting 50% or more of their pupils through the exams with awards at Division 1.
  • In 214 schools only 1% of pupils achieved Division 1.
  • In 630 schools not one single pupil achieved a pass at Division 1.

Entry to secondary school is selective. It is therefore hardly surprising that schools which restrict entry in S1 to those with aggregates of 4 and 5 at PLE do better at ‘O’ Level than those which accept pupils with aggregates of 15 and 16, or 27 and 28. Nevertheless, the media insists on publishing lists of the ‘top schools’ as if these were roll calls of excellence. No doubt many of these elite establishments do provide a more conducive educational environment, are able to employ and pay better teachers and are allowed to keep out poor children who have struggled through major difficulties and who might need support. However, every educationalist knows that academic potential bears no relationship to social class or the ability to pay.

3.  It matters where you live
  •  Pupils in the rural areas, particularly the north and east, did worse than those in central region and the towns in the west. Exceptions were the two new districts of Butambala and Otuke around 18% of whose pupils gained Division 1.
  • Although Kampala, Mukono and Wakiso (central region) registered top performances, they also had the highest number of no-shows for the exams. (My personal guess is that some students may have been encouraged to stay away)
  • Despite Kampala emerging as the district with the best performing schools, it also had the worst performing. Over 60 schools did not register a single student in Division 1.

Pressure on school places in the capital means that private schools are mushrooming, many of them unregistered and with very poor educational standards.

4.  It’s not great being a girl
  •  The number of candidates who didn’t turn up for the exams had increased from 4,848 to 6,339. Officials put absenteeism down to ‘early marriages and illiterate parents who do not value education.’
  • Girls did worse than boys at science (and maths, and social subjects, and everything else…except English).
  • 10.2% of boys gained Division 1 compared to 6.6% of girls.
  • 47.4% of girls gained Division 4 compared with 39.9% of boys.

The Daily Monitor claims that single-sex schools did better than mixed ones. Twenty out of the 30 top performing schools were single sex. However, that may simply be because no overcrowded USE schools are single sex while the selective elite establishments reflect their often colonial or missionary origins.

5. It gets worse

One of the worst announcements this week was the publication of a study by Makerere University School of Public Health, funded by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The study found that in Kampala 21% of female secondary school students between the ages of 14 and 17 have engaged in ‘transactional sex’ – providing sex in exchange for something, usually money. One in twenty has had sex with a relative for this purpose.

First-time sex for most happened when they were between 10 and 14, with 15% doing it for money and 12.3% being raped. One in five had conceived, with 21% of these having aborted and 16% miscarried.

Of the 54 schools sampled, 40 (74%) were private non-denominational, seven were government-owned, six were Christian-based and one was a Muslim school. All were mixed schools, while 61% of them operated both boarding and day sections.

‘Some children are raped from [in] their homes and intimidated into silence for fear of the parent’s refusal to pay school fees,’ said the deputy head of Kitebi Secondary School.

It’s those school fees again.

The depute wished the survey had included S1 and S2 students, who were particularly likely to be victims. Last year a report called Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Uganda showed that more than 500 children below the age of 18 had engaged in commercial sex both in and out of school in Kawempe Division of Kampala alone. It pointed out that entry into the sex trade is getting earlier. The trade includes children of eight to 13 whom middle-aged men find particularly attractive as they charge lower prices and are assumed to be free of HIV/Aids.

However, it’s their older sisters we are most concerned about in this post. The stresses of secondary school life are bad enough without the need to go into prostitution to pay your school fees.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Power to the People

Our heat wave continues. Temperatures have been hovering at around 30 degrees in Kampala, rising to the mid-30s at least in the north. Only the south west is slightly cooler, at a balmy 27 degrees. Today has been very close, with the temperature rising to 32. Thunder rumbled away all morning, then wild winds started swirling the dust around followed by a brief downpour, the first for a month. We relished the sudden coolness, but it was over far too soon.

How are we coping? Pretty well, actually. While Stuart misses the variability of Scotland’s weather, I just love the heat, particularly stretched out beside the swimming pool. A long drink with ice cubes – heaven!

Well, perhaps not the ice cubes. Our power cuts have got noticeably worse over the last couple of weeks. They are totally unpredictable. I emerge with dripping hair from a pleasantly warm shower to find that, alas, there’s no electricity for the hair drier. Our fridge is struggling and is more or less on permanent defrost surrounded by a pool of water. We no longer buy perishable food in quantities expecting it to last more than one day. The load-shedding always seems to coincide with my evening skyping to family. We try to keep electrical equipment on permanent charge but often find ourselves in the pitch dark, unable to watch the next DVD of The West Wing as our laptops are dead.

So, that’s what power cuts are like for the privileged 8% of Ugandan households which, like us, have an electricity supply: warm drinks, lank unstyled hair and reading by torchlight. Middle-class suffering.

What about everyone else?

There have been ongoing debates in the newspapers about whether the government should or should not subsidise electricity tariffs. Over the last month, the cost of electricity has gone up by 36% for domestic consumers and by up to 69% for larger industrial concerns. Recently the government was forced to slash ministry budgets to pay hundreds of billions of shillings in unpaid arrears to private power suppliers which had threatened to shut off power completely. Apparently subsidies have risen because of the cost of thermal power, introduced because of the loss of energy from the country’s hydropower plants.  Why has hydropower reduced? Because the water level in Lake Victoria has fallen to an unacceptable level, affecting in turn the River Nile which flows out of it. (See earlier posts about the impact of tree-felling on water levels.) Corruption has also delayed the completion of the Bujagali dam, the newest hydro-electric dam on the Nile.

One argument for allowing electricity prices to rise is that as it is only the rich 8% who use electricity, reducing the subsidies won’t affect the poor, especially as 75% of these subsidies go to larger businesses which use 60% of the electricity anyway (Andrew Mwenda, The Independent 27/01/12). Why should the rich be subsidised to run their hair driers, water heaters and fridges? The poor 92% of the population, he points out, rely on kerosene and firewood.

Other writers disagree with Mwenda’s analysis. They say that increased electricity prices and ongoing load-shedding have a major effect on the poor, despite the ‘lifeline tariff’ remaining the same. (Donald Kamugisha, The Independent 27/01/12 and Ndinawe Byekwaso in The Daily Monitor 05/02/12) Any disruption to industrial processes puts prices up for ordinary people. Automated dairies and grain mills can’t afford to have any problems with their electricity supply. The less food that is processed, the more expensive it becomes. In a country where inflation is running at over 25%, that has a major impact on people up and down the country, rich and poor. Maize milling plants, for example, produce one of Uganda’s staple foods, posho.

Cutting off the power means that water purification plants and pumping equipment don’t work, so the water can also be cut off. Stuart and I are all right as our nice flat has supplementary water tanks, but we’re among the lucky ones.  As a result of the rise in electricity prices, the National Water and Sewerage Cooperation has also increased water tariffs by 10%, affecting the price of jerry cans of water for those who have to buy it, as well as those few of us who have piped water. A number of areas of Kampala are now without water, particularly those in hilly areas, because of the power needed to pump water uphill.

Offices stop working. Administration can be pretty disorganised in Uganda at the best of times. Load-shedding results in thousands of office workers kicking their heels. Stuart and I alternate working at home with working in the office, depending on which building has got a power supply at the time. Ordinary clerical assistants can’t do that. The existing backlog of work gets even higher as photocopiers and computers lie idle.

Some industrial workers are laid off when there’s no power and their wages are docked. No one can afford that. Some offices and workplaces may have generators, but not all, and anyway, diesel costs money as angry city traders recently pointed out. Power cuts affect businesses like Hoima Cement and Uganda Clays which use local raw materials, making their products more expensive than imported products and less competitive in the export market.

Frequent power cuts are not, of course, confined to Uganda. They are a problem which afflicts most developing countries where demand outstrips supply. The Worldwatch Institute recently published research showing that across the world, more than a billion people have no access to electricity while a further billion have only an unreliable supply, affecting their health and livelihoods and the environment (for example, through increased use of firewood). In Uganda, we are promised that when the new Bujagali dam comes on stream, load-shedding will decrease. That will mean a reduction from the current twelve, to ‘only’ eight hours without electricity each day. Even then tariffs will not fall for 13 years, according to the State Minister for Energy, because of the need to cover debts incurred during the building of the dam.

However, load-shedding can have a much more serious impact on ordinary families than even rising food prices, limited domestic water supply and mounting paperwork in government offices.

Last week, Jinja Referral Hospital, one of Uganda's main hospitals, announced that at least 150 people had died in the last six months due to unstable power supply and load-shedding. At least a hundred of the deaths were of children. The hospital’s Director said that this estimate was ‘ridiculously low’. The hospital admits 400 patients, including 150-200 children, every day.

On at least three days each week the hospital has no power at all. The main wards affected are the children’s ward, intensive care and the operating theatre. A patient on life support may only last five minutes once the power is switched off. Load-shedding particularly affects children who need oxygen, for example, those with pneumonia, premature babies and those with heart disease or asthma. One nurse described manually pumping oxygen into a baby for over six hours. (Incidentally, the hospital is only supplied with one oxygen cylinder every month.) Patients who are receiving blood transfusions may also die. Vaccines stored in fridges are affected. Doctors and nurses who are in the middle of operations may end up completing them by the light of their mobile phones. Some medical procedures, for example childbirth, cannot be delayed even at night time. They take place in the dark, adding to Uganda’s already appallingly high maternal and peri-natal death rate.

The hospital has no money to buy fuel for its generators. It receives Shs7 million (£2,000) to cover all support services. Generators can cost Shs2.5 million per month to run. Sometimes relatives of patients undergoing surgery or other procedures will offer to pay for fuel for the generators but this is apparently against the law. When there is no electricity, there is also no water. The hospital has no reserve water tanks so water has to be rationed, affecting sterilisation and also halting surgical operations.

Jinja Referral Hospital is not, of course, the only hospital which is suffering such difficulties. They affect every hospital in Uganda, and many of them will have even worse death rates caused by power and water shortages. One interesting situation involved Entebbe Hospital which last month was closed because of electricity and water shortages, despite the fact that State House next door was fully lit. Ewanga Health Centre at Arua ran out of water last week and had to be closed. The only borehole in the community had broken down. As a result, patients had to travel for 20 or 30 kilometres in the scorching sun to the nearest alternative centre.  Last year, all generators at Mulago Referral Hospital in Kampala, the main hospital in the whole of Uganda, stopped working at the same time, a problem which caused at least 15 deaths on one day alone.

So getting power to the people is not about supplying them with unnecessary luxuries like TVs, DVD players and stereos. It may actually be about keeping them alive.

You may also be interested in the following posts.

Caring for the sick in Uganda (about health care)

Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda'? (about the Bujagali Falls hydro-electric dam)

Coming back to Kampala (about power cuts)