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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Women baring (almost) all, but with bras unburnt

The papers have been full of pictures of breasts this week, and that's the quality press I'm talking about. In contrast, Red Pepper, the Ugandan equivalent of the Sun, misses few opportunities to publish photos of well-endowed women with minimal clothing.

So why the multiplicity of breasts? Actually, don't get too excited, they're the same pairs of breasts repeated day after day. Two main stories recently have involved breasts.

The first story went unphotographed. A group of 60 ordinary village women in Amuru, northern Uganda, stripped to the waist in protest at being removed from their ancestral land in order to make way for one of our most prominent Asian families, the Madhvanis, to set up a sugarcane plantation. This is a very complex story which deserves a post of its own. The women were demonstrating their contempt for officialdom. Baring one's breasts and deliberately pointing them at men is one of the most insulting forms of protest here. It apparently symbolises the role of women in suckling and nurturing children and brings shame on men, who have themselves suckled at a woman's breasts.

The second story, a couple of days later, started with the arrest of Ingrid Turinawe, head of the FDC (Opposition party) Women's League. The arrest itself was not the story: a lot of opposition activists are being arrested these days, much to the concern of the diplomatic corps and international donors. No, the issue was that as Ingrid was being manhandled by the police, one of the officers deliberately stretched out his arm and squeezed her breast, very hard and no doubt causing considerable pain, judging by her grimace. He kept his hand in that position for some time and, even when Ingrid managed to push it away, went back to his deliberately painful groping. All this was recorded by television cameras, and, apparently, replayed in slow motion on TV channels. The stills have appeared in the newspapers day after day. The US Embassy has issued a statement condemning the police action and even Uganda's mis-named Minister for Ethics and Integrity has called for disciplinary action against the police officer concerned.

However, the repercussions didn't stop there. A day or two later, another group of 'women activists' marched to Kampala's Central Police Station 'half naked', as the newspapers put it, in protest at the mistreatment of Ingrid Turinawe. Actually, it wasn't quite like that. Only two women appeared in the photos and both were wearing fetching, if not entirely well-fitting, bras: so no actual breasts were on display at all, although there was considerable cleavage. The Daily Monitor reported the story under the headline 'When a woman's nakedness is not a small matter'.

Six women were arrested. This time the Ethics Minister said the women were at fault as they wanted to 'perpetuate violence'. Interesting connection that, between the display of underwear and 'violence'.

'It is unacceptable for mature people to behave in an undignified manner.Why add insult to injury?' he said. I'm slightly puzzled about who is insulting or injuring whom.

Both incidents have given rise to a good bit of discussion about taboos relating to 'naked' women. A lecturer at Makerere University said that traditionally nakedness was a curse which would have to be undone by rituals. This is a bit odd in a country where covering breasts is a relatively recent custom. Indeed, in rural areas like Karamoja women may still only cover the bottom half of their bodies, 'leaving their breasts to swing about in abandon' as the Monitor tastefully put it, carefully avoiding the word 'gay'. Even in towns, breasts may often be at least partially on view as breast feeding is standard practice.

Indeed, Ugandan men tend to be more interested in women's buttocks than their breasts. Traditional dances require energetic wiggling of the bottom and a modern dance called 'Bend over' actually involves what appears to be simulated sex. As elsewhere in the world, women agonise about their shape, with the result that posters stuck on what would be lampposts if Kampala had any, advertise the services of herbalists and others who can help women put on weight and increase the size of their bottoms. When dresses are displayed in roadside shops, the material over the hips is stretched as wide as it can go to indicate how even the most protruding bums can be squeezed inside, unlike in the UK where the fabric tends to be folded back to given the impression of trimness.

However, forgetting the buttocks, I think the point about the display of breasts is that the women in both cases were deliberately defying men and, by so doing, insulting them. Of the two incidents, the one in Amuru was probably the more shocking as it involved mature traditional women deliberately flouting custom and  embarrassing sophisticated city investors. The incident at Kampala involved well-educated female members of the professional elite embarrassing half-educated members of the police.

Most women in Uganda have been, and remain, traditionally subservient. They have minimal access to family planning, on average seven children (more among the rural poor) and a one in 16 chance of dying in childbirth. They represent about 90% of Uganda's farmers, growing almost all the food for their own families (baby on the back, toddler at the side, infant with miniature hoe helping out), all with little or no help from their husbands. Uganda has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Africa and, quite probably, the world. Beating their wives is, apparently, how men 'show they love their women.'

Women who get fed up with this kind of 'love' have few choices. Their children are the possession of their husbands and if they leave an abusive husband they usually have to leave their children behind. There has been a run of stories about abused children of both sexes, beaten or raped - or beaten and raped - by their fathers and desperately trying to find their mothers. If a mother leaves or is thrown out of the family home, she and her children may lose contact entirely as this is a country with no street addresses or postal deliveries. The often shifting relationships within Ugandan families mean that many children are brought up by stepmothers, often sequentially by different ones, or passed between the various households of a polygamous arrangement. Not great for the kids, but not great for the stepmothers either.

However, downtrodden uneducated women are not the whole story. There are many strong, indeed impressive, professional women. The President has appointed some very able women to the Cabinet: the Ministers of Finance and Health, for example. The Speaker of the House, Rebecca Kadaga, is getting a very good name for herself because of her perceived incorruptibility and firmness in sticking to Parliamentary rules, despite her origins in the ruling party. Sometimes her role means that she has had to stand firm against the President himself, and sometimes she succeeds. She is the first Speaker in East Africa to allow the media to use electronic gadgets in the House, enabling the general public to monitor their representatives. The MP Betty Bigombe, though politically conservative, showed immense bravery in negotiating directly with Joseph Kony when the rebels were still in northern Uganda. The long-suffering First Lady herself, Janet Museveni Minister for Karamoja, is generally well respected. She recently had to undergo public humiliation by her husband, who when arguing against any display of affection between homosexuals and, also it appears, among heterosexuals, said, 'I married a beautiful woman called Janet. Our children have never seen me kiss her.'

Jennifer Musisi, the chief executive of Kampala City Council, despite being accused of paying herself and her officials way above the going rate for public officials (she says it discourages them from stealing) is beginning to make an impact on this chaotic city. She was not afraid to upset the powerful taxi drivers' union when she brought in a fleet of Chinese-made orange Pioneer buses which run along set routes to set timetables and are cheaper than the matatu deathtraps. Some of her actions are controversial, for example trying to deal with 'unofficial' housing and shops which spring up overnight on swamp areas and other people's land. Actions which are probably necessary if somewhat ruthlessly executed.

It's not just the political establishment which has strong women, as we have seen. Opposition activists include the MP nicknamed Mama Mabira who has been campaigning against the felling of precious Mabira Forest in central Uganda to provide the Mehta family with more land for their sugar plantations. Betty Nambooze is a constant thorn in the President's side, taking part in, and being arrested during the Walk to Work campaigns.

And strong Ugandan women have been around for years, it seems. A splendid series of Uganda@50 articles in the Monitor has featured a few of them, for example Dr Sarak Nyendwoha Ntiro, the 'Ugandan Rosa Parks'. When she joined what was then Makerere College (motto 'Let us be men'), the male maths lecturer advised her to join female courses like knitting and tailoring. She held her ground, with the result that the lecturer walked out, saying he would not teach while she polluted the class with her presence. After graduating in 1950, she taught at Kyebambe Girls School. Later on, she would refuse to be paid less than her male counterparts and insisted on working for nothing. It took the wife of Sir Andrew Cohen, the last Governor General before independence, 'to restore parity'. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to graduate from Oxford, started the Teaching Service Commission, taught at Gayaza High School and was one of two women on the Uganda Legislative Council. When exiled to Nairobi under Amin, she established an Education Consultancy of Higher Education for African Refugees. She supported family planning and many other women's issues and set up the Sarah Ntiro Lecture and Award in support of girls' education.

In the 1980s, Noerine Kaleeba, once principal of Mulago's School of Physiotherapy, nursed her husband when he was dying of AIDS, with virtually no support because of social stigma. She set up The Aids Support Organisation (Taso) in 1987. Today, Taso offers antiretroviral drugs, counselling and testing services, financial support and community awareness about HIV/AIDs. After 10 years, the UN appointed her as partnership and communities mobilisation adviser in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Rhoda Kalema was born in 1929 into a polygamous family of 24 children. Unusually for the time, her father, the Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of Buganda insisted that all his children, wives and relatives received a formal education. After marriage, she became a pioneer member of the Women's Movement in Uganda and had several political posts as an MP. She worked at Gayaza High School, followed her second husband to Edinburgh and did a course in Social Work and Social Administration at Newbattle Abbey college. Her political activism continued and she was arrested and imprisoned by Amin and then Obote. Her family discovered where she was when she was recognised on a prison bus. She was responsible for the Kalema Commissions's report on the Laws of Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance which tasked the government with addressing issues of dignity and women's right, the forerunner of the current Women's Rights Bill.

So, despite what may at times seem like insuperable challenges largely related to domestic pressures and expectations, women in Uganda have a long history of political and social activism. Admittedly, as in countries like India and Pakistan, girls born into educated elite families have completely different experiences and aspirations from their poor rural sisters.

Still, at least girls growing up today can see these impressive women on television and in the press, if they have access to the media, of course. You have to be brave to be an activist in Uganda. Nobody could accuse any of these women of kowtowing to the men.



You may also be interested in the post In praise of Ugandan women...writers.



Thursday, April 26, 2012

Church and State in conflict

‘But if conflict is a constant in Christian history, so is consolation, and the Church’s ancient ministry of comfort to the afflicted goes a long way towards mitigating its record for discord and intolerance.’ (Richard Holloway)

Mmm…. In the context of Uganda and other African ex-colonies, this is claiming a lot for 'consolation', though, on balance, I think I probably agree with Holloway’s statement.  Leaving Alexandria, A Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway talks, among many other things, about the role of the Church in standing up for the weak and excluded. (Thank you, Jonathan, for my birthday present! I couldn't put it down.)

The Church is in the news here just now. The State, of course, is always in the news. Corruption toppling politicians, strong arm tactics with protesters, dysfunctional public services: we have them all. Nothing new there, then. For the last few weeks, however, Church and State in Uganda have been playing for real the familiar but dangerous political game of dare and bluff. Who knows how it will turn out.


The Church is powerful. You see physical churches wherever you go in Uganda, solidly built structures like the one above, which contrast with the dilapidated houses and schools by which they are surrounded. There is a lot of money in the Church here in one of the poorest countries in the world. Quite a lot of it comes from abroad, principally from America where 'church planting' is big business, usually directed at the charismatic Evangelical end of the Christian spectrum. However, the well-established churches are also doing pretty well. While Britain is closing down churches, All Saints Cathedral in Kampala, Church of Uganda (Anglican/Episcopalian) is constructing a brand new 4000-seater to replace its historic building, at a cost of Shs26 billion.

The Church is also newsworthy, unsurprisingly. We have lots of media stories of "pastors' peccadilloes", just like the UK has lots of stories of "barmy bishops". But there are also more serious stories, bizarre though they may appear to outsiders. Here's a taste, before we get on to the real subject of this post.

Recent news stories have focused on the brother of Anglican Archbishop John Sentamu, a Ugandan and favourite to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Sentamu's brother Pastor Robert Kajana (with no family names in Uganda, you can never tell who is related to whom), is the millionaire head of the very odd and very successful Miracle Church. Kajana  has his own TV channel, casts out demons (on TV), allegedly issues bounced cheques (probably not on TV), smuggles alcohol across Lake Victoria (definitely not on TV) and is accused of various sex scandals (well, who knows…?). All of this makes his ‘charismatic’ brother John appear distinctly safe and boring. Smear by proxy, of course, is a common ploy of the UK's Daily Mail, whose feature articles have been circulated in the Ugandan press, and which seems to believe that carefully adding the word ‘allegedly’ to every alternate sentence makes it OK. None of us is responsible for our siblings, thank goodness, and nobody here seems to be the slightest bit concerned. The titillating tales of Pastor Kajana are small beer compared with other press reports on the sorts of things some pastors get up to.




What else have we read recently? Oh yes, it looks as if Uganda’s going to get yet another saint.  The country does pretty well by saints, most of whom bear exotic names like St Kizito. Well, a very dead bishop in Masaka has just been dug up so that the Catholic church can prove that he has special powers. They’re going to ask the Pope to make him a saint. Apparently, and this may simply be newspaper embroidery, his body has already been chopped up so that it can be distributed around the country as relics. This seems difficult to believe. I really can't believe that a church in the twenty first century would actually do this. On the other hand if the newspaper report is true, it is extremely insensitive to say the least, in a country where human sacrifice is still a major concern.

Indeed, at the same time as this holy disinterment was taking place, a notorious child sacrifice case, that of poor sad victim Joseph Kasirye also of Masaka, was wending its way slowly through the law courts, yet again. It was the first court case we were aware of when we arrived a year and a half ago. Lawyers failed then to convict the influential middle class businessman Godfrey Kato Kajubi who was allegedly responsible for Joseph’s dismemberment and sacrifice. Unlike the bishop, young Joseph was unfortunate enough to have his private parts and head removed while he was still alive. Sometimes the Church gets it so, so wrong…. Making an association between dead bodies and miracles is not very wise, as was pointed out by a recent columnist.

Admittedly, the Church got off to a bad start in colonial Uganda, as we are all learning during this 50th anniversary year of independence, though it 'redeemed' itself later. The nineteenth century history of the Europeans, and particularly the British, in Uganda is shameful.  Colourful figures like Lugard, Stanley and Portal were arrogant greedy bullies, who carved up the proud kingdom of Buganda, set about grabbing as much extra territory from other neighbouring kingdoms as possible and got cross when the ‘natives’ didn’t like it, so they grabbed even more. Unfortunately the Church doesn’t come out of it too well either. 

The Church Missionary Society (Anglican and British) arrived first, in 1877, and the White Fathers (Roman Catholic and French) two years later. Interestingly, their arrival came about as the result of a letter sent to Queen Victoria by the Kabaka requesting that she send missionaries to educate his people. I suspect he may have regretted his action later on. Each church was basically a stand in for the mother country. The soldiers grabbed land and the missionaries grabbed souls. During the ensuing religious wars between the different brands of the Church, one of the CMS missionaries, Charlie Stokes, even became an arms dealer. Kabaka Mutesa I tried unsuccessfully to play the Christians off against each other in an attempt to save his kingdom. Mutesa’s successor, Mwanga, failed even more miserably. In 1886, thoroughly frustrated and probably mad – hardly surprisingly – he ended up burning alive scores of Christians, the famous ‘Uganda Martyrs’ sanctified a few years ago by the Pope (cf St Kizito above).  There were also about 70 less famous Muslim martyrs. Church and State in conflict.

Looking at the old photos of the Christian martyrs and realising how young they were (‘pages’ at the Kabaka’s court), it becomes clear that most were child ‘soldiers for Christ', quite probably with immature minds manipulated by European missionaries into thinking that martyrdom was a holy act. Unsavoury religious and military groups do the same thing even now.  No doubt these teenage Christian martyrs burnt to death believing that they would wake up in paradise. How far our views about martyrdom and about what is an appropriate age at which to make irrevocable decisions about one's life have moved on since those times. This is certainly true in Europe and, one would like to think, elsewhere.  

The British surpassed themselves a few years later, when, Kabaka Mwanga having been removed, they put his infant son on the throne as puppet ruler, and then proceeded to divide up Buganda's land, traditionally held by the Kabaka in trust for the people (800,000 of them). Most of the land, 10,500 square miles, went to the colonial government, 350 square miles went to the baby Kabaka and much of the rest to a new ‘gentrified’ class of Bugandan landowners. The missionaries, however, also did pretty well out of the deal, receiving 92 square miles. As it happens, they would use the land to minister to the people whom the colonisers had been responsible for turning into landless labourers. From then on, it seems, until independence, the Church and the colonial State in Uganda were pretty much inseparable.



So that is Holloway's ‘discord and intolerance’ of the Church more or less over with, for now anyway. Fortunately, this poor start to Christianity in Uganda developed into something much more positive as the ‘consolation’ role of the Church came to the fore. Missionaries founded schools and set up hospitals. Their Foundation schools are still among the best today. Many missionaries were utterly selfless and devoted their entire lives to serving the Ugandan people. You very rarely if ever find any criticism of the missionaries coming from Ugandans. The Daily Monitor to its credit has been publishing biographical accounts as part of the 50th celebrations, stories like that of Joan Cox, headmistress of the famous Gayaza High School for girls. Constance Hornby is another good example (see our earlier post Promoting girls' education in Kigezi). The Ugandan churches (both Anglican and Catholic) were among the first in Africa to ordain local priests, with white missionaries very rare these days except among the Evangelical movement.

Since then, issues of Church and State have taken several twists over the years. Christians might have been complicit in the colonising of Uganda, but they were far less compliant later on.  Cardinal Nsubuga was an outspoken advocate of humans rights under President Idi Amin. Amin assassinated Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum and other clerics who had spoken out against injustice too often and too loudly. John Sentamu of York left Uganda for Britain at that time. As a magistrate he had fallen foul of the regime by convicting one of Amin’s cousins of rape, despite having been warned to find him innocent.



But what about the relationship between the Church and Ugandan State nowadays? Well, the Church is currently wading into some very contentious areas of State activity, all reported in detail in the press. Before Easter, Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi (Church of Uganda) issued a statement on behalf of the Uganda Joint Christian Council (Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox) appealing for an end to political violence on the very day when the government banned activities by Activists for Change (A4C), an opposition pressure group. A4C has been campaigning for freedom of speech, expressing support for Uganda's poor who are getting even poorer under the high rates of inflation (30% last October falling to 20% just now) and condemning the impact of endemic corruption at the highest levels. AC4 also campaigned for the restoration of Presidential term limits (previously two terms of five years), which were removed in 2005 a year before the election in which President Museveni stood for his third term. This is currently his fourth term and he has been in power for 26 years.

Orombi, trying to calm the situation, said, ‘It is legitimate on the part of government and the opposition to hold divergent views on various issues affecting the country but it is not healthy to engage in violent confrontations and running battles.’ (The Daily Monitor)

On Easter Day, Bishop John Baptist Kaggwa (Roman Catholic, Masaka) preached that the use of force to stifle divergent political views would only compound the problem (The Observer 11 April 2012). ‘The correct line for this country is dialogue, not any other means.’  The reference to ‘the correct line’ resonates with Ugandans as it is a phrase used by the NRM, the ruling party, and picked up and used as the title of a book by the sister of Kizza Besigye, the main opposition leader.

The bishop said, ‘We saw the police rounding up people indiscriminately. Some were severely tortured and had to be flown out of the country for specialised treatment. Others had flimsy charges preferred against them. Doesn’t this show that some of us act without reason? .... Looking at what is happening in our country, I feel it is better for us to roll it back to the pre-independence times, because that’s when we had leaders that cared for the general welfare of the population.’

Nostalgia for colonial times is an interesting and surprising view, expressed also by others. We can assume that Kaggwa was talking about twentieth, not nineteenth, century colonialism.

Bishop Kaggwa was not the only highly-placed cleric to make such pronouncements. Also on Easter Day, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga (Roman Catholic) preached about ‘the relationship between Church and State, the need to share resources equitably, the restoration of presidential term limits, political honesty of … leaders, the overarching desire or lack of it in fighting corruption and why politics, faith and reason are three sides of the same prism’. (summary by the Sunday Monitor 15 April 2012)

Lwanga said ‘I kindly urge our government to free all political prisoners unconditionally as a sign of genuine peace, reconciliation and justice as we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of our independence.’

He referred to a pastoral letter written in 1961, a year before independence, by the first Ugandan Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka entitled ‘Church and State’ which makes the case for two guiding principles for the new country of Uganda: that the forms of government may change and that the Church and State can work together for the common good.

Lwanga went on to say, ‘The abuse of political power as well as the abuse of human rights are quite rampant in our society.’

In defending the restoration of Presidential term limits, Lwanga quoted Article 69 of the Constitution which provides for the people of Uganda to have the right to choose a political system of their choice through free and fair elections or referenda.  Assistant Bishop of Kampala Diocese Zac Niringiye (Anglican) repeated the same message in his Easter Day sermon, as did the Orthodox Metropolitan Jonah Lwanga.

The debate about Presidential term limits and the rights of the Church to make political pronouncements has been rumbling on for weeks now, with the ruling party largely discounting the views of the Church and questioning its right to interfere in State matters. 'Render unto Caesar what is due unto Caesar and to God what is due unto God.' The President dismissed the clerics’ concerns saying he would only leave when his current term was up if his own party recommended it. Well, in their caucus two days ago, that is exactly what the NRM didn’t do, although well over a hundred of them (out of about 350 or so) had signed the motion. Another group of MPs has started a campaign to impeach the President, though we can't imagine that this sort of action will get very far.

In the meantime A4C, now banned, has been resurrected as 4GC, For God and my Country, a bold move given that this is Uganda’s national motto.  Church and State again, in a country in which political parties were, until very recently, established on religious sectarian lines. 

Be that as it may, the Anglican and Catholic churches appear to be gearing up for some pretty determined if politely worded opposition to the status quo. Given that 85% of the Ugandan population claims to be Christian and another 10% Muslim, that makes for an interesting few years until the next election in 2016. The Inter-Religious Council in Arua, West Nile (northern Uganda) which speaks for both Christians and Muslims has stated that clerics will stand up to political intimidation.

‘Religious leaders speak for the voiceless,’ said one.

Another said, ‘Unless we fight poverty, our churches and mosques will face challenges and compromise integrity.’

Archbishop Lwanga finished with these telling words.

‘The biggest gift the President can give Ugandans is the smooth transfer of power when his term of office is over. How can your security forces mercilessly flog the very people who pay taxes that is [sic] then used to pay your salaries? We shall continue to cater for both soul and social needs. Those who think that [the] church is doing nothing should stop it because we are contributing massively to developing this economy. If the church is to withdraw all institutions such as schools, hospitals, farms and bank services, then Uganda would remain empty.’

So what looks to outsiders like a power struggle continues, recorded in some detail by the Ugandan press. There are many aspects of the Christian Church in Uganda which we find quite alien. However, it was good to hear these prelates reassert the role of the church in providing 'consolation' to the weak and excluded. In providing that 'consolation', 'conflict' with the State may be inevitable.


NB As with all our posts, any information which does not come from our direct experience has been taken from the quality independent newspapers in Uganda: The Daily Monitor, The East African, The Observer, The Independent and, sometimes, from the government-owned New Vision.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bogs, bugs and boreholes

Before we moved to Uganda, I rarely if ever thought about water except when, yet again, I arrived at Glasgow's Queen Station umbrella-less and had to make an instant purchase before setting off for the Argyle Street office. In fact when I sat down to write this post, I tried to remember the last time our domestic water supply and plumbing in Britain had impinged on my consciousness in any way whatsoever. I have vague memories of once getting a leaking shower tray resealed. Living in a modern flat, we've never had to worry about frozen pipes. My mother's garden in Yorkshire sometimes suffers from a hosepipe ban. That's just about the long and the short of my interest in water to date.

Bottled or filtered?

When I left Scotland, people had started to refuse expensive and environmentally unfriendly bottled water on the entirely justifiable grounds that what came out of Scottish taps was quite good enough to drink.Well, sorry to say, now we're in Kampala we're back to drinking bottled water and contributing our own share of environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles to the city's open garbage heaps. Not all the time, of course. We have a reasonable supply of 'national' treated water which we boil and pour through a perfectly satisfactory water filter which removes the not-so-nice brown stuff. We are, of course fortunate that being among the 1% in the country with gas/electricity for cooking, we don't rely on either firewood or charcoal to boil our water, otherwise, like many Ugandans, we might be tempted to take short cuts. Of course, national water is regarded as 'safe' water ... but not for mzungus.


However, I don't really like the taste of boiled and filtered water that much so, being a spoilt mzungu, I always make sure we have a few bottles of mineral water in the cupboard. It's Ugandan mineral water, of course, from the Rwenzori Mountains or thereabouts, but, still, it's a luxury.


Using the standpipe

Most of Kampala has reasonable access to water. By 'reasonable', I mean there's a standpipe within a couple of kilometres of most people's homes and most middle class people pay to have one in their compound. A few people, like us, even have piped water which, strangely, at Shs 32 for 20 litres is cheaper than the Shs 100 paid at pay taps by the majority of the urban poor.  During the dry season, the supply dries up in some parts of the city, but now we're into the rainy season it's flooded drains we have to worry about, not water shortage. Wherever we drive, whether towards the university on our way to the office or along Ntinda Road on our way to town, we see lines of women and children, jerry cans carefully balanced on their heads, on the way to the standpipe, or back from it. Pity the pregnant, and the women with small children.


Fetching water takes precedence over school, so at half past eight, when most schools should have already started, there will still be children trekking back and forth, for large Ugandan families need a lot of water. And that picture is one that is repeated all over the country. All car journeys whatever the time of year, are along roads lined with youngsters of all ages with their jerry cans.


The water sources in urban areas may look pretty basic by western standards, but they bring water closer to the people. In the photo below taken on the main Kampala to Entebbe road, the women on the left are waiting for the boy down by the standpipe to get his water first. To us, it looks like a gutter, but it is a water supply.


The further you go into the country, the further people have to walk. It is not uncommon to see lines of women and children stretching three of four miles as they walk from one settlement to another to get water.


The size of the jerry cans is usually adjusted to the size of the child, but not always.



And do men ever carry water?

Very rarely.  If they do, it's a business operation, and they don't use their heads, they use bicycles or carts. They then sell the water, usually at around Shs200 for a large can, though it can rise to two or three times this at times of water shortage. Once, shortly after we arrived, Stuart and I needed to buy water because our radiator was about to explode. We were charged Shs 2000 for a part-can, and paid because we thought it was the going rate. No, it was the mzungu rate.




The standpipes are operated by hand pumps, good exercise but pretty tough on children.


The jerry cans are usually recycled cooking oil containers - the Roki brand are the favourite as they're solid. If you lose the screwtop, you just replace it with a banana or a bundle of leaves. Recycling and reselling cooking oil containers is big business.


So that's water for you. Pretty straightforward ... except it isn't.

Why? Because only about 75% of the population (Ugandan National Household Survey 09/10) has 'access' to national water (and these figures are contested - see below). People often have to wait in line for four or five hours when water is scarce, with significant impact on the safety of women and girls and on children's schooling. And even if you're within a couple of kilometres of a standpipe, that doesn't mean you use it. Even in Kampala, we often see young children squatting in the gutter to fill their jerry cans with filthy yellow water, because the standpipe is just too far.

And the quarter to a third of the population without 'access' to a standpipe or a borehole?

Wakiso town and local area (around Kampala) had as good as no water for months. We know because one of our friends lived there. According to the Monitor, people have been forced to collect water from contaminated springs, roadside trenches and swamps. Water went up to between Shs600 and 1000 per jerry can.

The photo below is of water collection at a crater lake in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Looks nice, from a distance. Looks green close up.



In Masaka (about a couple of hours drive west from Kampala), two girls recently drowned trying to draw water from the river and two women were gang raped at night. The NWSC manager said 'the situation might not change soon'.

In the Rakai area close to Lake Victoria and an hour or so from Kampala, the UN Habitat funded water and sanitation project has collapsed because of corruption. People now have to trek across the border to Tanzania to collect water. The children below are collecting water from Lake Victoria at Jinja, further north, but equally contaminated.


And it is far far worse the further from Kampala you go. Moroto one of the two main towns in Karamoja, only has one tap in the whole municipality. In northern Uganda, at least 500 households have been drinking contaminated water from a single borehole, the Agata restaurant borehole in the centre of Adjumani town. (Note to self: remember not to go to the Agata restaurant when next in Adjumani.) UNHCR and the local water and health departments are providing water treatment tablets. The district was supposed to inspect the water quality every three months but 'lacked the funds'. Unsurprisingly, the area has a high prevalence of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea and dysentery. Water sources in at least 10 sub-counties are being tested, particularly 'those downhill near pit latrines, those with cracked platforms and the ones that are prone to flooding,' said the Assistant District Health Officer.

Ah, pit latrines... now that's another - but related - story. In Uganda, and many other countries, pit latrines represent modern improved sanitation. According to the UNHS survey, across Uganda 85% of households have pit latrines, 4% have VIP pit latrines (with a pipe to lead the smell away), 2% have flush toilets and ... 9% have no toilet at all and use the bush or similar. An important thing to remember is that if you don't have piped water for drinking, you are hardly likely to have a flush toilet and anyway, there are virtually no sewage systems.

What's a pit latrine?


A pit latrine is a large hole dug in the ground and covered with a concrete base with a hole in it. Using a pit latrine has a knack to it - aiming accurately. Really good pit latrines have foot shaped blocks to help you position yourself properly. My advice?  Don't look down and don't breathe in for the duration. The poster below should give you the idea, though this does seem to be a particularly posh pit latrine, with a removable cover.


Every family is legally required to have their own pit latrine or similar. Most people dig their own. This is the row of individual family pit latrines lining a road near us.


They have been built out of bricks shaped out of the mud by the side of the road. You can see some spare bricks drying. (Just don't think what's in the mud....)

One of my worst inspection memories - having sworn never ever to use a school pit latrine - is being too cowardly to explain to a colleague that I wasn't too keen on the lukewarm rice and beans served in his chosen eating place and ending up lurching from one school pit latrine to another as we made our 'visitations'. (Inspectors are like angels...) Actually, the latrines were not as bad as they could have been. A favourite punishment for errant pupils is scrubbing the pit latrines (favourite for the teachers, that is).

A word of caution. 85% pit latrines across the country is an average and more positive than figures quoted elsewhere. The World Bank report below found between two and three people out of every 10 had no 'proper' latrine. In Budaka, 40% of the population don't have pit latrines. In Kotido in Karamoja, it's worse: 90% use the bush. Persuading the local population to dig latrines is the responsibility of local leaders. However, 75% of leaders in Kotido district in Karamoja themselves do not have latrines. In fact, only 5% of leaders have any sort of sanitation at all. New Vision claims that even those latrines which exist are often not used because they are considered taboo.


Lack of latrines in schools has a serious effect on school attendance. Drop-out rates in Masindi are reported to be increasing because of inadequate sanitary facilities, lack of water and sinking latrines (a common and quite dangerous hazard). In Napak, many schools have no latrines, with both staff and pupils using nearby ground which then becomes littered with human waste. WaterAid states that across the country the pupil to latrine stance ratio in primary schools has declined from 54:1 to 66:1.

'Parents starve children to avoid spending on toilets' (Daily Monitor)

And it is not just country areas which lack sanitation. A recent research report called 'Living in Kampala' and produced by John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre states that the city's 10 major slum areas have only 322 pit latrines between them for 22,391 people (an impressive 'one' at the end of that total) and these are often 'dilapidated, filthy and inadequate'. That means that 99.7% of households do not have latrines, contrary to the Public Health Act. Many have open drains and the biggest, Katwe, is said to have no sanitation at all. The prevalence of 'flying toilets' - defecating in a plastic bag which is then thrown away - means I always check carefully where I place my feet when walking. The report states that as it costs between Shs100-200 to use the few public toilets, some parents avoid feeding their children to reduce the frequency of toilet visits. Sanitation is not just a health and safety issue: it is also a matter of human dignity.

And the impact of poor sanitation?




In Uganda, over 75% of the disease burden is preventable. According to a new World Bank report Economic Impacts of Poor Sanitation in Africa, Uganda loses $177 million each year due to poor sanitation. The findings show that 84% of these costs come from premature death. About 90% of the deaths are as a result of poor water, sanitation, and hygiene. Premature death, health care costs, lack of productivity and time lost, are all a result of inadequate sanitation.

The report indicates that each person without access to a toilet can spend up to 2.5 days per year finding a private location to defecate in. Women are particularly affected because of their role in looking after children, the sick and the elderly. Lack of access is also a significant safety issue for women and girls.

The Ministry of Health has just reported that in Kampala 46 cases of dysentery and 38 cases of typhoid have been recorded in one week alone since the rainy season started. The same is true in other regions of Uganda: Kamwenge, Hoima and Kisoro in the west and Adjumani and Yumbe in the north. When it rains, water sources become contaminated with faeces from poorly built and maintained pit latrines and from human and animal waste scattered across the land and deposited in drainage channels. Children suffer most because they are the ones sent to collect water. They are also more likely to play in it and if they catch any of the water-borne bugs, they are more vulnerable to the diseases they cause.


The Ministry has also reported 280 registered cholera cases in Mbale, Kasese, Buliisa, Sironko and Bududa (from the far west to the far east). About 30 people have died. In Mbale, the cause was 'interrupted water supply' which resulted in people using contaminated river water. The number of cholera cases in Nebbi has risen to 700. Newspapers are showing pictures of patients being treated in tents and on drips under trees as the health facilities struggle to cope. Authorities are blaming the outbreak on the fact that only a quarter of households have pit latrines and humans and animals share the same water sources.

According to WaterAid, the government target is for 77% of the rural population and 100% of the urban population to have safe water within easy reach and hygienic sanitation facilities by 2015.  Unfortunately, the figures for safe water have stagnated at 65% in rural areas, and reduced from 67% to 66% in urban areas.  The good news is that access to improved sanitation has increased to 70% in the countryside and 81% in urban areas.

WaterAid and its partner NGOs are doing an invaluable job in Uganda, particularly in ex-conflict areas, sinking boreholes, establishing rainwater harvesting, constructing dams and building latrines. It has calculated that if Uganda managed to achieve the relevant millennium development goal, the lives of 9,000 children could be saved by 2015. However, if current levels of investment continue only 2,000 will be saved. As usual, NGOs and international donors are filling the gaps.



I know all these stories about horrible water-borne diseases sound very off-putting to the average westerner. However, as with most unpleasant things in Uganda, they don't affect everyone. Average figures are misleading. The gap between rich and poor is enormous, and almost all westerners, even volunteers like us, are unimaginably rich by the standards of most Ugandans. People like us boil and filter our water: we have the time and resources to do so. We wash our fruit and vegetables without begrudging every drop. We think nothing of buying weekly supplies of bottled water just because it tastes better. Even when we travel about the country, we don't see the worst of the conditions nor do we come in contact with the poorest of the poor. When we are working, we stay in relatively nice hotels and, on the whole, eat in decent restaurants. The same is true of most middle-class Ugandans as well. When we are on holiday, we stay in the kind of accommodation that local people couldn't even dream of because it would be beyond their imagination.

For all these reasons, I really do not have a deep understanding of what it is like to be poor in a country like Uganda. However, I do believe I'll think rather differently about water once I return to the UK.


You may also be interested in the following slideshow:

Uganda: the problem of unsafe water and poor sanitation in pictures (The Guardian)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

National parks, wildlife and golf

Uganda has had a pretty bad press over the years. Until recently, the only thing most westerners knew about the country was Idi Amin, who was ousted more than 30 years ago. It was gratifying then when Lonely Planet named the country the world's top tourist destination for 2012, an accolade most of us living here would happily support, as a few recent posts of mine may have indicated. We had a bit of a hiccup a few weeks ago when the video Kony 2012 went viral, but the furore seems to have died down again - still a terrible situation for DR Congo but, as most people now accept, no longer for Uganda.

So, why come to Uganda for your holidays? In a nutshell: beautiful landscapes, lovely weather and marvellous wildlife. Above all, it's unspoiled. After 40 years of conflict in one region or another, Uganda may no longer have the astonishing numbers of animals found in Tanzania's Serengeti. However, neither does it have the tourist buses queuing up to snap each hapless lion as we hear is the case in Kenya's Masai Mara.

Murchison Falls National Park
Visitors to Uganda tend to come in their twos and threes as independent travellers, or with exclusive tour operators. As a result, we have some beautiful luxury safari lodges (expensive in Ugandan, but not really in international terms), together with plenty of campsites for the less well off. Large-scale tourism really hasn't taken off here, about which some of us selfishly breathe a sign of relief while also knowing that the country really needs the dollars which tourists bring in. Nevertheless, tourism, largely focused on Uganda's wildlife, contributes 3.2% of total GDP to the economy (Shs1.4 trillion) a figure the tourism authorities wish to see rise to 5.8% (Shs2.4 trillion) by 2021.

So, Uganda's national parks are a precious precious resource. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), which is mandated to manage the country's 10 national parks and 12 wildlife reserves, may have had its ups and downs as far as its own governance is concerned. However, it is doing a very important job in terms of protecting the country's natural resources, with the help of organisations like the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF). This isn't easy. Local communities get understandably nervous about wild animals which don't recognise park boundaries. UWA only has 1,200 rangers across the whole country, far fewer than the 3,300 it claims it needs.

Only the other week, lions from QENP invaded villages in south-west Rukungiri devouring 18 goats and driving the locals to take refuge in the sub-county headquarters. Recent fires in QENP drove smaller wild animals into Ishasha town on the DR Congo border, to be followed by the lions which normally prey on them. Instead they ate 100 goats and 50 cows. This week it was leopards causing trouble in Teso over in the east. The locals have started hunting them after they killed scores of goats and sheep. In central Uganda, Luweero District's Vermin Control teams have killed 200 monkeys which had been destroying crops. In Murchison Falls, a pregnant woman was killed when she tried to stop some elephants from eating her cassava crops. On Mount Elgon, many of the animals are reported to have moved over the border into Kenya because of the encroachment into park land by illegal settlers who cut down trees, plant crops and hunt wild animals for game meat. These are just examples of wild animals doing what wild animals do. National parks are not zoos.

Ishasha National Park
All these incidents of conflict between man and beast relate to food security. Poor communities are naturally angry when precious food sources are destroyed by animals. They are resentful when their families no longer feel safe while the UWA prioritises wildlife over people. Landless families see park land as empty wilderness into which they can move to grow their matooke and cassava. In a country which adds 1 million people to its population every year, tensions between animals and people are likely to become increasingly significant.

In February, an article in the Monitor quoted a small scale farmer, Agnes Ndyomubandi, living on the border of QENP and dependent on her crops of cotton, cassava, maize and banana. 'For several years, I have lost all my gardens to elephants and baboons from the park. I could not support my family.'

Malaria caught when families sleep out of doors to try to protect their crops is a significant cause of death in areas bordering the parks. In 2010, more than 460 farmers in Kasese unsuccessfully tried to sue UWA for damages caused by wildlife.

The UWA and UCF do the best they can: stepping up ranger patrols and teaching villagers how to dig elephant trenches or plant chilli around the perimeter of their gardens. Tooro Botanical Gardens Fort Portal, supported by CARE International Uganda, encourages farmers to burn red pepper mixed with elephants droppings to discourage elephants. An imaginative project supported by the NGO Volcano Safaris Partnership Trust, encourages communities in western Uganda to build bee hives into natural fences. Malaika Honey has trained Kasese farmers on bee keeping which not only discourages elephants and increases crop yields but enables the honey to be used to produce alternative medicines. A formal agreement has just been signed between community leaders in Kyenjojo, Kibale National Park and the UWA to allow residents to carry out bee farming and collect firewood, on condition they do not engage in poaching or deforestation, another major threat to the national parks and their animals.


Queen Elizabeth National Park
However, the threat to Uganda's wildlife doesn't just come from poor rural communities with whom most of us would have some sympathy. Increasingly it is coming from poaching by big business concerns. In one month 176 pieces of ivory, 189 hippopotamus teeth and a number of monitor lizard skins were seized from across Uganda as well as from Entebbe airport. A lot of the ivory goes overseas to China, with some of the many Chinese workers here being suspected of involvement in the trade. An organisation called Bush Meat Eastern Africa has recently donated equipment worth Shs7.5 million to the UWA to combat poaching, including ICT equipment, GPS gadgets, ivory detectors and security torches. The UCF has even offered employment to ex-poachers.

Nevertheless, despite these steps, a recent audit of wildlife in the national parks published in the Daily Monitor makes depressing reading. The Auditor General announced that between 2006 and 2010 in QENP alone, the number of lions had gone down by 81%, Uganda kob by 69%, buffalos by 45% and hippos by 43%. Last year alone, auditors said 25 elephants were killed in Murchison Falls, which also lost 55% of its hippos.  The wonderful and remote Kidepo National Park in the far north-east had lost 79% of its ostriches and 74% of its zebra. It has even been stated that some animals, like lions, zebra and ostriches, are likely to become extinct.

Now, there is a real danger of over-reacting here. Considering many Ugandan schools cannot easily account for a dozen textbooks, it is hardly likely that the hapless auditors dispatched into the bush managed to track down and tick off every single wild beast.  Indeed, the UWA said the Auditor General's claims are exaggerated. Instead of the animal population declining by 81%, UWA state that its has 'only' declined by 50%. The worst decline in population came in the 1960s and 70s, when almost all animals were in danger of extinction. Numbers have fortunately increased since then, though they have not regained their pre-independence levels.

And it is not just Uganda, it is all over Africa that animal numbers are reducing. It was recently announced that 600 elephants have been killed in two months in the northernmost national park in Cameroon, a park Stuart and I have visited and where we saw our first, and never-to-be-forgotten, herd of wild elephants.

So, the UWA and international and national NGOs and animal rescue groups like Save the Elephant are doing their best to achieve a careful balance between protecting the livelihoods of communities and protecting the population of animals and Uganda's tourism industry.

Which makes last week's headlines even less believable. For the last two or three years, the Madhvani Group, one of Uganda's most successful Asian-owned businesses, has been attempting to get permission to build a golf course, firstly in QENP, and, when that bid failed, in Murchison Falls National Park. It was a major news story in autumn of 2010. What has made this Donald Trump-like enterprise even more piquant, is that over the years Uganda's President has issued more than one directive ordering the authorities to give way to the Madhvanis. The most recent directive came last week.

Now the Madhvani family, into its fourth generation in Uganda, is not just one of the country's foremost investors, having rebuilt its more than 100-year-old sugar empire following expulsion by Amin in the 1970s, as well as expanding into brewing and luxury safari lodges. It is also a major benefactor of education and health services. The group's Busoga Sugarcane Growers' Association initiated the Kakira Outgrowers Rural Development Fund in 2005 which improves the quality of community life within 30km of the Kakira sugar factory and provides soft loans to farmers. The group employs 75,000 people in the Busoga area and many more in their enterprises elsewhere.

More important even than their business acumen and charitable work, is the fact that the family are personal friends of the Musevenis.

The current situation is that the Marasa Group of companies, owned by the Madhvani group, is waiting for the results of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Interesting, in the meantime that Mr Mani Khan, director of operations and tourism for Marasa, has been appointed to the board of the UWA. Some environmental groups have claimed that this represents a conflict of interest.

The upshot is that the President has given the UWA and the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) one month to explain why they have blocked the Madhvani group from developing the golf course.

'Now I have given Nema one month to tell me how the golf course which is just one hundred acres will damage a whole park of over three thousand square miles. Those people of UWA, if they don't tell me, then I will know what to do,' the President said.

Speaking at the elder Madhvani's funeral, the President is quoted as saying that in 1982 he had received from Madhvani 'some ammunition for our ... struggle [the bush war]', not in the form of bullets but money. So the links between the families are certainly close.

Murchison Falls National Park
A lot will depend on the extent to which the EIA takes into account not simply the direct impact of the proposed golf course on the three thousand square miles mentioned above, but also the indirect impact of miles of fencing to keep the animals from eating the golfers, miles of road, increased traffic, increased housing, the use of pesticides and fertilisers, the reduction in tree cover and the effect on the water table of artificial watering. Somehow the idea of carefully manicured greens in the middle of a great wilderness area appears bizarre. It is difficult to imagine the rich Americans for whom this is being developed coming all the way into the middle of an area of wild savannah not to see elephants but to play golf, a game which is amply catered for, within easy reach of the airport, by the Uganda Golf Course in Kampala, Entebbe Golf Course 34 km away from the capital and the quintessential American golf course of Palm Valley half way between them both. Oh, and there's the golf course at Lugasi, developed by the Madhvanis' friends the Mehtas. As one correspondent has written, why travel all the way over to Murchison for a game of golf?

The needs of poor Ugandan farmers you can understand, but the whims of rich foreign golfers?

Well, we wait and see. Just think of the elephants.


(NB Thanks to Tim and Ruth for the elephant, lion and giraffe. Their photos are much better than mine!)


You may also be interested in the following posts.

Living together in Kibale Forest

Tropical forest, golf and sugar

More on Mabira




Saturday, April 14, 2012

A symbol of Uganda by the shores of Lake Albert

We're gradually getting around the Rift Valley lakes with their bizarre Victorian names. We reached the southern shore of Lake Albert on Easter Day while visiting the Semliki Wildlife Reserve. And we'll be only a watery hop, skip and jump away from Lake Albert's northernmost bay when we visit Murchison Falls again in May. Mind you, the lake is 160 kilometres long and the bits in between are not all that get-at-able. There is no road around the lake and we will probably not risk a boat trip, what with Lake Albert's notoriously sudden storms, the poor safety record of the local boats and the fact that half the lake belongs to DR Congo.

Lake Albert is on the centre left, with a dotted line through it showing the Congo border
We drove to Lake Albert through wooded savannah, passing through herds of grazing buffalo and Uganda kob.



We met a few fellow travellers, some making better and some slower progress than us. There was no stopping this lorry, with the bizarre message 'Grow more cocoa', a crop we have rarely if ever come across in Uganda. It was hurrying along loaded with goods for transport to Congo and matooke to sell at the village.


Other travellers were in less of a hurry. This hamerkop had stopped for a drink.


Some pedestrians slithered along slowly, knowing they'd get there eventually. This is Uganda, after all, where no one hurries and tomorrow is always another day.


Others just waddled determinedly towards the water.


As we neared the lake, we started seeing mud and pole huts arranged within compounds as well as a few more solid-looking brick buildings with corrugated iron roofs.



We were surprised to pass what appeared to be a large army encampment - until, that is, we remembered that this was border territory. The soldiers' housing was pretty basic - grass-thatched mud huts and shelters - but it looked as if it had been erected relatively recently.


We realised we were getting close to the lake when we spotted these African open-billed storks (or at least I think that's what they were), a whole flock of them pecking away at the grass.


And then we were there, at Ntoroko, the main fishing community. We were quite surprised at the size of the settlement given how isolated the place is. However, I think the village counts as one of the poorest we have seen in this part of the country, with lots of crumbling single-roomed grass-thatched mud houses and grubby children wearing tattered adult clothing, the people too poor to photograph. The ducks looked healthy enough, though.



Scavengers of various kinds were working their way through the numerous garbage heaps. I was shocked to see so many baboons so close to housing and children, for these animals can be dangerous.


The dominant male was clearly taking his responsibilities seriously. Not an animal I would care to mess with!


One small baboon, just like a human toddler, was delighted with the bit of red plastic he had just dug out of the rubbish. He quickly ran off with it and climbed on to his mother's back to keep his trophy safe.




Some of the scavenging marabou storks were taller than the children.


Rather disturbed by what we had seen, we hurried through the village and made for the more attractive prospect of the lake and its birds. Not many people were out and about, just the occasional fisherman. The small boats pulled up on the shore had been covered with sand to stop the wood splitting in the sun. You may just be able to see the Congolese shoreline, a dark blue strip along the horizon.


The young man in the boat below had just returned from fishing and was removing his catch. Once the boat was empty, he set off again, punting across to the opposite shore.



Various larger boats with outboard engines were crossing from one side of the lake to another.


True to expectation, birds of various kinds were getting on with their daily activities, fishing, flying around, doing a bit of paddling - just a normal Sunday morning for a bird.


Egrets of one sort or another dominated the scene: elegant great white egrets with lovely almost swan-like necks and their near relations the little egrets.


This long-tailed cormorant (or possibly black heron or egret - I make no claim to be an ornithologist!) was keeping a good lookout for a quick snack.


The sacred ibises were paddling around looking for shellfish.


We had come across several of their black hadeda ibis cousins out on the savannah. We see a lot of hadeda ibises in Kampala. They fly around our flat, making an unbelievable racket with their loud cawing.


There was constant movement around us as birds took off and alighted, swooping down over the water and then rising again. I think the bird below is a great cormorant, while the monstrous one below that, looks like a marabou stork.



However, the loveliest birds, from my point of view, were the kingfishers.  I completely failed to snap a glorious deep turquoise malachite kingfisher. However, I was luckier with the grey-headed and pied kingfishers which generously condescended to pose.




Even this weaver bird thought a little rest looking over the lake was a pleasant way to spend a few minutes on a Sunday morning.

However, it was soon time to wend our way through that dispiriting village again. Back in the car, we drove through the rubbish heaps.

And then, in one of those wonderful moments which we'll always remember, we saw a completely incongruous sight.


Majestic crested cranes, Uganda's national bird, lording it over the waste heaps.


What better symbol could there be of Uganda?