Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Landslides on Mount Elgon: don't blame Mother Nature

I first wrote about the huge crack on Mount Elgon and its repeated landslides just over a year ago. The topic appears with some regularity in the Ugandan newspapers, always accompanied by dire warnings of an impending disaster. Everyone knows what the problem is; dealing with it is another matter entirely.

Monday's landslide at Bududa was as utterly predictable as it was heartbreaking. By this time last year, a 40 kilometre crack had appeared on the slopes of Mount Elgon. The crack is now 80 kilometres long, five metres deep and about 35cm wide. It stretches across seven highly populated districts.  About three million people live below the crack and about 30,000 on and around it. Mount Elgon, with its fertile volcanic soils, is where Uganda's best arabica coffee comes from, grown not on large mechanised plantations as elsewhere in the world, but on small fragmented family 'gardens', all farmed intensively.

Some of you, like me, will have read the stories and seen the pictures. Three villages were overwhelmed when mud and earth slid down the valleys. Villagers had had plenty of warning from national and district government and from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) which runs the Mount Elgon national park. However, most people insisted on staying put. At the last count, 109 people were missing and feared dead, a good number of them children and in some cases whole families wiped out. There are terrible stories like the father who ran with his son to get clear of the landslide and then turned round to see his son run back into the house to rescue the baby. There is the woman who has lost all four of her children; the girl whose entire family has been wiped out; the school children from the local primary school who had come home for lunch.

The security guard at one of our local Kampala supermarkets said to me, 'My village has been covered.' 

I asked him about his family. 'All gone,' he said.

The toll is expected to rise. 

The Uganda Red Cross, police and local people have been trying to dig their way through the three metre thick debris with rudimentary tools like hand hoes and pangas (machetes). No earth-moving equipment has arrived and, unlike on previous occasions, the army has not been involved in search and rescue. It has been alleged that soldiers equipped with AK-47s rather than spades have just been standing around watching although today's (Thursday's) newspaper says that a few soldiers are now helping with the digging. Search parties have found no bodies so far. They haven't even managed to locate the houses as they are so deeply buried.

The Red Cross is handing out tarpaulins for immediate shelter and utensils and food (12 kilogrammes of flour and 6 kilogrammes of beans) to 112 families. It says 447 families are at risk and need to be relocated at once. The government says it wants to move 400,000 people in all to Kiryandongo, in  north-western Uganda, and soon. The President has since added that all people in the affected areas should move. If there is not enough agricultural land for them, he says they could be absorbed into urban centres.

World Vision has also joined the relief effort, offering supplies to Bududa Hospital for the 11 survivors who are undergoing treatment. In one of those comments which sometimes make one despair, the acting medical superintendent said, 'Although the mudslides are a disaster, the situation has been a blessing because World Vision has given the hospital medicine it did not have.'

So it takes a disaster and scores of deaths before someone gives a hospital supplies. Good for World Vision, but what does it say about Uganda's health services?

So how did this environmental disaster come about?

Over the years the population in the east of the country has increased as elsewhere in Uganda, a nation which grows by one million people every year. The soil on Mount Elgon has become less fertile so people have moved further up the slopes to virgin land and cut down the forests to plant their crops. Many of these small farmers are encroaching (squatting illegally) on the park land.  Once upon a time - only a few years ago - Mount Elgon was home to 400 elephants and countless antelopes, leopards and other animals. No more, I'm afraid. The animals have, quite sensibly, relocated themselves over the border to Kenya. 

The UWA says the area acts as a water catchment area for Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana and for the River Nile. In 2005 about 12% of the park's catchment had been encroached on. The figure is now about 26%. 

The UWA has been reasonable. While advising these poor subsistence farmers to move off the land, they have also talked to them about growing a wider range of crops, using conservation techniques, planting hedgerows and establishing orchards. All these farming approaches help to keep the soil on the mountain. However, people here grow coffee, and that is that. To grow coffee you cut down trees. You don't have to, but that is the way it is done here.

It is an old old story. Forest is cut down, then soil washes down the mountain leaving just rock on the upper slopes. The water gathers in the bottom layers of the earth, which are largely clay. The upper layers stay put and the lower layers slide down the hillside. Two years ago, more than 350 people were killed at Bududa; last year, over thirty in Sironko District. Our friends tell us there have been smaller landslides over recent weeks, and some casualties, though not widely reported. And now this.

So what has the government done about the situation? It has been trying to get people to move for quite a long time. There was particular concern following the discovery two months ago of a five kilometre fissure uphill from the bigger crack. 8,500 people were told they were in immediate danger and had to move at once. Overall, one million people need to move, 7,000 every year until all seven districts are resettled.

For a poor country, the government has made a reasonable enough response, but you can see why it hasn't worked. It has already moved thousands of survivors of the previous large landslide at Bududa across to empty land in Kiryandongo. These were not forced removals. The people who were resettled agreed to go. They received tarpaulins from relief agencies for temporary tents, an acre or two of land, together with maize and bean seeds. A tractor was even purchased, though it hasn't made as much headway as the hoes. People received monthly rations of maize flour and beans, though the supplies have now run out. However, the terrain is completely different from the land they left behind them in the east. It is semi-desert and less fertile and there has been as good as no rain. Of the 36 boreholes, only two are operational. It is difficult to present this as an attractive option to the people left behind on Mount Elgon.

However, there are other reasons why people don't move, despite continued warnings from the government. Why don't they go? Some insist that their relatives' graves must also be relocated, for in Uganda family members are buried on family land. Some have said the land they are being asked to move to is swampy and infertile.

Here are some of the responses they gave to an interviewer a couple of months ago.

'I would rather die here than go to Bunambutye or Bwikonge,' one woman was quoted as saying. Ominous words.

'I have nothing to do,' said one man. 'I don't have enough money to buy land elsewhere. This is the only piece of land my father gave me, and I have to live here with my children.' 

His words are echoed by others who talk of the area being 'ancestral' land. 'This is my cradle land given to me by my grandparents,' said another man.

One woman was living in a house through which the crack actually passed. 'When it rains, I have to scoop the water out of my house or make openings on the lower parts of my walls so that water passes through. But it also comes from underground, so I have to scoop it out whenever it collects.'

Even more difficult to believe is the fact that some of the survivors of the 2010 landslide had actually moved back and were living on hillsides surrounded by cracks.

What is it? Fatalism? Stubborn opposition to bureaucracy? A fear of the unknown? Or is it that people are just so poor that they cling on to those pitiful mud huts and their few square yards of soil because it is all they have got?

I wish I understood more about human psychology. I just know that everybody has been well aware for years that more people would die and that is exactly what happened on Monday.

I have kept a file of newspaper cuttings about Mount Elgon over the last couple of  years, thinking, rather callously, that they might come in useful when the next landslide happened. I don't even know if the people whose words are quoted here are still alive.

You may also be interested in:

BBC in pictures: Ugandan landslide

Living on the margins: it's not just people who complain

Monday, June 25, 2012

Beating sense into children

The wailing was desperate. When you hear that kind of high-pitched shrieking, you know it is absolutely genuine. No self-pitying whimpering or the hiccupping of a child getting over a sudden fall, but uncontrollable screaming, and it wasn’t that far away.

 I walked towards the window.  There was an underlying sound. Crack! Crack! I couldn’t work out what it was at first. Then I realised. It was a stick or a strap being brought down repeatedly. Crack! Crack! The wailing went on, getting higher and higher, more and more desperate.

I went outside the office and stood on the steps. Yes, it was obvious what it was now. A child was being beaten, repeatedly. I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it. It was unmistakeable.

It went on and on and on and on.

What should I do? I knew there was little I could do directly, as a white foreigner. I went and fetched a colleague, himself father of a dozen children and well acquainted with the sound of children crying. He walked across the compound and came back.

‘It’s child abuse,’ he said.

‘What do we do?’ I asked.

‘We can’t go down there,’ he said. ‘The mob could gather around.’

He was right. Lynchings are common in Uganda. Although we were safe in our office up at Kyambogo University, the volatility of the poor area of Banda market a couple of hundred yards down the road was not to be risked in a situation such as this, even if – or perhaps particularly because – we would be trying to save a child.

By this time, about fifteen minutes had passed since I first heard the wailing.

‘Could we phone the police?’ I asked.

It appeared not. The police were never around. They wouldn’t do any good etc etc.

‘It’s the responsibility of the LC1 chair,’ my colleague pronounced. The first layer of local government is at ‘parish’ level and the chair of the local council level 1 would have an office in the area and a responsibility for maintaining good community relations and public order.

So that was that.

We metaphorically walked by on the other side.

Another five minutes and the wailing had stopped. The child could have been dead for all we knew.

Thoroughly disturbed I went back inside. Our underemployed office staff were chatting about this and that as usual. Today discussion focused on the laziness of somebody’s maid and the need to take one’s worries to God in prayer. An entirely unoccupied typist breastfed her baby, which was then handed around the other half dozen occupants of the room who cooed and clucked. They too had heard the child outside being beaten but could not have been less concerned.

I went upstairs.

‘Did you hear that?’ I asked.

Yes, they had.

‘I was on the point of going out and doing something,’ said one. ‘I couldn’t concentrate on my work with that racket going on.’

‘A child was being beaten with a stick,’ I said.

Yes, they knew.

‘That’s what happens here,’ said a woman, who added that she had looked out of the window and seen a large man thrashing a very small child.

A young man laughed. ‘It’s happened to all of us!’ he said. ‘It happens at home and it happens at school.’

‘The kid probably lost a 100 shillling coin,’ he added with a smirk. 1,000 shillings is 25 pence. Do the maths yourselves.

Sickened, I turned away.

The woman said, ’There’s no point in doing anything. It’ll only make things worse. He’ll just go back and beat him again when they get home if someone interferes.’

And so we left it.

‘How would we feel if the child had been beaten to death?’ I asked on my way out. But no one was interested any more.           

Every single statement my colleagues had made was true, but it all added up to a small child being ferociously beaten in a busy open street in broad daylight. I might have metaphorically ‘passed by on the other side’ but a lot of people were also doing it, but for real. Which doesn’t make my failure to act any more excusable, of course.

It is so easy at times like this to despair of Uganda, this church-going sanctimonious country.

And then I remembered what my Glaswegian friend and ex-colleague David said to me a couple of weeks ago when I told him how I hated the things which happened to children here.

‘If you go back a few years,’ said David, ‘it was happening here too.’

And he was right. And even now it is still happening in Scotland, though these days usually behind closed doors. Thank goodness for ‘busybody’ social workers!

I thought back to my own childhood in the cosy 1950s which the current Tory government seems to want to take us all back to.

‘I’ll tan you!’ used to screech the mothers in my Lancastrian home town. And they did. Often with a belt. Or a dog lead complete with metal fastening which caught your legs, as I recall.

‘Wait till yer Dad gets home!’ was another favourite. You can see it can’t you? Dad opens the door after a long day at work. Mother shrieks, pointing her finger. And Dad lets loose with his fists.

The staff in my brothers’ respected and respectable direct grant grammar school were particularly sadistic. Beatings, canings and some especially creative and inspired punishments were the order of the day.  The woodwork master made boys hold a heavy plane above their heads for half an hour or so at a time. But he had an ‘excuse’, poor man, so they said; he had been in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

I wonder why there was a need for all that violence. These were the brightest boys in the town, all keen to become solicitors and doctors. Were they really quite so badly behaved as to need physical chastisements of that order?

It makes you think about how many fathers and teachers, damaged by the war, ended up committing appalling child abuse. Families under pressure, poor cramped back-to-back terraced housing with people on top of each other, mothers imprisoned in the house with their toddlers all day (for fifties mothers weren’t supposed to work) and battering the living daylights out of them. Ah, the fifties, when families were families and we all ate Oxo gravy round the table together!

In Scotland, teachers were still using the belt when I started teaching. Dare I admit it? Somewhere in our Edinburgh flat we have a ‘Lochgelly’ (not mine, of course!), and that was long after the nineteen fifties, I would have you know.

When the belt was taken away, staffrooms rumbled with expostulations. ‘It’s the only discipline these lads respect’, and so on ad nauseum.

Canes are the teacher's weapon of choice in Uganda. I was told that in one of the best known government-aided secondary schools, the students who can't do their work are held down on the ground and whacked. Corporal punishment is illegal, of course, but like all the other illegal activities such as riding a motorbike without a helmet or using plastic carrier bags, it really doesn't make any difference. Headteachers just hide the bundles of home made switches when the inspectors arrive and hope the children are too frightened to let on.

So, who can imagine what the Ugandan father who had caused the wailing had experienced himself as a child before he too became a thrasher and beater. In this most traumatised of countries with its huge rates of alcohol consumption, it is hardly surprising that the cycle goes on and on.

But, as David implied, in time, as in Scotland, violence against children will become socially unacceptable. In the meantime, although Uganda doesn't have enough busybody social workers, thank God for ANPPCAN!

ANPPCAN - African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect

You may also be interested in this earlier post.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Uganda and the UK - comparing the news

Three weeks ago, I left Uganda for a short break in Scotland, returning last weekend.

When I left Uganda I was feeling pretty fed up. The news in the country's press had been gloomy: corruption, riots and a disintegrating education system. Time, I thought, for a spell in a nice well-ordered country like Scotland where drivers keep to designated lanes, always stop at traffic lights and have to pass a driving test. A country where people do not die because medical staff can't be bothered to treat them or demand bribes their families cannot afford. A country which does its best to provide a good education for every child.

The Britain I arrived in seemed quite alien, particularly when I did a brief dash south across the border. Evidence of the Jubilee was everywhere: flag-waving, ubiquitous images of the Royal Family and street parties. Red, white and blue in abundance: not exactly a typical week to be visiting.

I soon found that the rose-coloured spectacles and partial memories of the expatriate do not always provide the most accurate perspective of the country left behind. More telling is what gets published in the media. Now, with the Jubilee well over, what are the journalists actually saying about each of my 'home' countries?

Lying on the desk in front of me are several newspapers: copies of last weekend's Scottish Herald and British i (the mini-version of the Independent) and copies of the Ugandan Sunday and Daily Monitor.

How much, then, do Uganda and the United Kingdom have in common, apart from a shared colonial history which barely lasted a hundred years?

'Corruption' is a word which, sadly, is always associated with Africa. Indeed, predictably, the front page headlines in the Sunday Monitor were Tax fraud syndicate exposed as URA (Uganda Revenue Authority) digs in. This fraud is truly international. It starts with goods being bought in, and transported from China, arriving in Mombasa in Kenya and receiving fraudulent documentation in Nairobi indicating that they have been imported from the East African Community (hence escaping import duty). The goods then slip into Uganda through the border post at Malaba without being properly checked, finally making their way to a bonded warehouse where computer records are falsified. 

A recent article in The East African reported that the country lost more than $1 billion between 2005 and 2011 in dubious tax wavers claimed by well-connected politicians for private companies. The beneficiaries included Barclays Bank and various investment companies. 

I wonder how many Ugandan children all those missing taxes could have educated, how many half derelict schools they could have patched up and how many teachers' salaries they could have paid?

Corruption stories of various kinds are scattered through my posts about Uganda. We come across corruption on a regular basis in our professional lives and it never fails to sicken us. Over the last couple of years, I have naively reassured myself that corruption in Uganda is beyond anything one would find in Britain and that where it does exist in the UK it has minimal impact on the lives of ordinary people. I am used to telling my friends, 'at least people don't die from corruption in the UK'. 

Mmm, I'm not so sure now, particularly after lunch in Edinburgh with my VSO friend Fiona (who sent her best wishes to her friends back in Uganda, by the way). As Fiona pointed out, corruption is not just an African issue. Her examples have made me think much more deeply.

The front page of last Sunday's Herald features a brief recapitulation of the Rangers story with more - far more - inside. The Premier League football club had recently been taken into administration. During investigations it appeared that it had been involved in corruption on a massive scale, cheating tax authorities of thousands of pounds, with the connivance, presumably, of some important people. While ordinary British people had been struggling to pay their taxes and chased for every penny they owe, Rangers had just suggested to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that it should pay only a few pennies in the pound of what it owed, a ploy not open to the rest of us, unfortunately. Thankfully, HMRC refused.

Is corruption in Scotland, though, all that different in its impact from what we are familiar with in Uganda? In Uganda, when the rich fiddle their taxes, we can see the direct effect on its neglected unstocked hospitals and dilapidated schools. It doesn't take much imagination, however, to see the rather more indirect - but still real - impact of tax dodging in Britain.

Rangers is located in Govan, one of the poorer areas of what is probably the poorest city in Britain, Glasgow. Many of its fans come from the immediate area and the households of many of these fans will be supported by health, education and social services which struggle to keep vulnerable families afloat and protect and care for their children. Clearly, in failing to hand over the taxes which pay for such services, the Rangers' Board and officials have demonstrated their contempt for the very fans who have kept their club going. What is worse, over the week since then media coverage has moved on from the original fraud to frantic efforts to keep the club alive despite its corrupt financial dealings and long and unpleasant history of sectarianism. One rule for the big players and another for the little people.

What other news stories point to similarities or differences between the two countries?

While I was in Britain, the long drawn out saga of the Leveson inquiry was still in the news, and will be for some time.  David Cameron had just given embarrassingly limp testimony relating to his cosy relationship with Rebekah Brooks of News International and the infamous 'Yes, we Cam' text. So far the inquiry has lasted for 86 days and cost £6 million. It might result in significant changes to press regulation which could see the 'good guys' (The Guardian and similar) paying the price for the misdeeds of the gutter press, which is unfortunate given the role of the former in bringing to light some of the latter's dubious activities in the first place. What has, understandably, caught the public imagination is the fact that many of the victims were 'ordinary' people whom we can relate to on a personal level, people like Milly Dowler's parents and Kate and Gerry McCann. What may result, depending on the recommendations of the inquiry, are significant changes to the way journalists can operate.

In Uganda there is no such thing as privacy; most people live their lives in the open. Houses are just for sleeping in. It is hardly surprising, then that we are much more likely to see the kinds of pictures in our newspapers which in Britain would be regarded as intrusive, for example photos of the dead and dying. Victims of violence appear half naked and with their terrible wounds on show for their mothers to see. Last Sunday the paper presented a photo of naked conjoined twins from western Uganda, legs spread wide for our titillation, the picture taken just before their operation and subsequent deaths. Journalists hacking people's phones to get spicy personal information or spying through curtains to take intrusive pictures are less of an issue here, then, than in Britain. 

More of an issue is people's awareness of the existence of police informers and photographers in their workplaces, their villages and at communal gatherings and meetings: one in 10 of the population, we have been told.

In the UK, people accuse the newspapers of going too far; in Uganda one can only admire journalists for their bravery. Fourteen reporters accused of treason have just been released after three years without trial in a top security jail. The court case which resulted in their acquittal only took place following media publicity. Other political prisoners are said to rot in jail for years without their cases coming to court. Ugandan judges are surprisingly independent. Of course, there are the odd accusations of bribery in the legal system, but on the whole the justiciary is notable for its preparedness to make pronouncements which may not be to the taste of the governing party.

Just as a debate is going on in Britain about the regulation of journalists, so it is in Uganda. The government is proposing changes to the Press and Journalism Act 1995 to include the prohibition of information injurious to national security and to the economy. Six out of the 12 members of the Media Council would be appointed by the Minister for Information. There are already threats to close down radio stations as happened after the Buganda  riots a couple of years ago. The new law may require journalists to get annual renewable licences. Attacks on journalists have increased from 38 in 2009, to 58 in 2010, to 107 last year. The police actually have an official 'media crimes unit'.

In January this year, the US ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, quoted from the Reporters without Borders' Press Freedom Index pointing out in his Monitor article that the country had dropped 43 places - from 96th to 139th place out of 170. He said, 'Press freedoms are the modern day indicators for measuring the health of a democracy'. 

Other commentators have said that the Ugandan press is increasingly censoring itself. Objective journalists are being replaced by less critical ones, said a recent report titled Media Liberalisation in Uganda: Threatening Journalists Rights and Freedoms. Papers are increasingly filled with trivial articles on western-style home improvements, the entertainment industry and columns for women on how to keep their men. It is said that, as in other areas of life and work, some journalists have become state agents .

All this is very sad. When the NRM took power 26 years ago, one of the first things it did was reduce restrictions on journalists and demonstrate that it could tolerate critical media.

What does all this add up to? The kinds of issues we have become aware of in Uganda - corruption and the ability of the press to report on this and other contentious topics - are also issues in the UK and, no doubt, in other countries. What is different is the context, the way they are dressed up for public consumption. What may also be different is the extent to which the ordinary citizen is able to say - or can be bothered to say - 'enough'.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Press freedom in Uganda

Minister appears to advocate corruption 

Home from home

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Meeting African royalty in Entebbe

What better day could there have been to make the acquaintance of the royal families of Africa than the British Queen's Jubilee? Indeed, she graced us with her presence herself.

Here is Queen Elizabeth complete with gloves and what looks like a doctor's bag over her arm, an unhealthy white from head to foot. She is here to meet the First Family of Uganda: President Museveni and his wife Janet. We know it's the President because of his trademark cream broad-brimmed hat.

And where is 'here'? Aero Beach, of course, Entebbe's answer to Trafalgar Square. Here by the shores of Lake Victoria is a bizarre collection of monuments, statues and (not to put too fine a point on it) junk.

Old aeroplanes rot away, clambered over by school children, just a stone's throw away from their airborne counterparts at Entebbe airport.

It's surprising who you come across at Aero Beach. Stuart was delighted to meet Nelson Mandela, acknowledged King of Africa.

The Kabaka of Baganda sits in state, flanked by snarling leopards.

The thatch on his personal snack bar has sprouted into a tree.

And here's Museveni again, waving in triumph, in no doubt at all that as President of Uganda he far outranks the Kabaka.

And who has just flown in?

President Obama of course, almost a Ugandan himself, with parentage just across the Lake in neighbouring Kenya. There are pictures of the American President in shops and restaurants all over the country. His surname is actually quite common. To all appearances, in his spare time the President runs a market store at Ntinda crossroads just up from where we live. Obama's reads the rotting sunbleached sign.

Here he is with his family at Aero beach, all of them albinos. One of the peculiar things about photos of Obama over here is that they are all retouched to give him white skin. Now, what's all that about?

The First Family of America look out over the mzungu sunbathers and Ugandan swimmers, the latter apparently oblivious to the seething bilharzia microbes.

Strange pink hippos and grey crocodiles lurk at the litter-strewn shore, ready to pounce on the unwary.

The crocs ignore the beach volleyball, which Stuart was disappointed to see was played only by young men.

Loud rock music thumped away. The visitors here are mostly under thirty, apart from the rather seedy middle-aged mzungu men looking out for svelte young Ugandan women.

The President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir (with his trademark black broad-brimmed hat), is oblivious to the youthful antics behind him. He is obviously here for an important meeting with the head of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), both of them rather larger than life.

And that was just about it, apart from an elephant which had just popped across the Indian Ocean from the Raj, as if there were none in Uganda itself....

... a dolphin, or is it a shark? ...

And assorted wild beasts

And all by the shores of one of the greatest lakes in the world.