Wednesday, November 28, 2012

When Christians walk by on the other side

One of the busiest junctions in Kampala is where Yusuf Lule Road, with its smart coffee shops and malls, meets Jinja Road, one of the city's main commercial thoroughfares. You can wait ages in the traffic jams, particularly if, like yesterday, the police are helping out. They do this by over-riding the traffic lights and signalling at random streams of vehicles to proceed while leaving others stranded in traffic jam limbo.

Yesterday, we were among the 'others'. Our stream of traffic waited the best part of 20 minutes, watching all the other lanes being chosen first, rather like an overweight pupil during team selection. I was in the process of drifting into traffic jam dreamland, when my eye caught sight of this little boy, not much over a year old, sitting all alone among the dust and debris of what Kampalans call a pavement.

I looked around. He really did seem to be by himself. Although this part of town is a haunt of street children and beggars from Karamoja (the poverty-stricken north east of Uganda), there seemed to be no responsible person in sight. Was the child put there to beg? I don't think so. There was no bowl or other receptacle to suggest this. He sat listlessly, a couple of feet away from the traffic, occasionally gazing around or placing some object he had found on the ground into his mouth.

A young Karamojan girl aged about 13 or so, wandered along the queue from car to car, baby on hip,  asking for money. This baby was clearly her own, probably the product of rape or prostitution (two sexual experiences inextricably woven together in the lives of many girls). Did the little one on the pavement belong to her too? There was no indication that this was so. As usual, we refused this young mother the money she was requesting. That is the 'rule' - we cannot encourage child trafficking. However, it tore me apart.

And what about the baby on the pavement? Feeling helpless, I took photographs from the middle of the six-lane highway. A totally pointless activity, but all I felt I could do. And here are the photographs, unedited.

As I said before, this junction is one of the busiest in Kampala. Smartly dressed pedestrians trooped past, their feet within inches of the little boy. Nobody looked in his direction. In a city where it is dangerous not to keep one's eyes on the ground because of uncovered manholes and 'flying toilets', not one person glanced down. It was as if the baby were completely invisible.

And what should they have done? What should I have done? There were traffic policemen at that intersection. I should have got out of the car, gone across to one of the policemen and demanded that he phone the police child protection unit. I didn't do this. Why? Because of uncertainty and cowardice. Why did the pedestrians not do this, or something similar? It was their country and their city after all. I don't know.

For at least the 20 minutes we spent in that queue the child didn't move from the patch of pavement on which he had been left. A western child of that age would have been tottering or crawling along the pavement or toppling into the road, but not this infant. By some magic, or because he was a docile Ugandan child, or because his diet was so ill-balanced that he lacked the energy to do anything, or because he was too terrified of his carer to make a move, for one reason or other he stayed put.

The child came from Karamoja. You could tell from the distinctive beads around his neck and because begging is surprisingly infrequent among the poor from other regions of Uganda. Kampala is not like Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, where beggars with horrible disfigurements approach every car. We rarely get asked for money by random people on the street. Requests from women and children from Karamoja are the exception.

Another exception, of course, are professional people who often seem to regard their bazungu acquaintances as an easier source for a loan than a bank, and one which never needs to be paid back. They are also a soft touch for a hard-luck school fees story. These middle class beggars are rarely 'poor' by any standard you or I might use. They have simply invested all their money in land and cattle herds, leaving them rather short of ready cash.

One of our friends was shocked when a professional colleague, in his spare time an Evangelical pastor, begged for money to help him continue his studies, presenting crudely forged documentation from the higher institution concerned in support of his request. When she pointed out the forgery, he brazenly said, 'But God wants me to have the money'.

However, beggars from Karamoja are different. Their poverty is real. Their communities have been devastated by years of inter-clan cattle raiding. Now the government is clamping down heavily on this traditional way of life, with an inevitable impact on the size of the remaining cattle herds. The land in Karamoja is dry and getting drier as the result of climate change. The people have no tradition of farming or of keeping smaller animals such as goats and poultry, though various NGOs are now providing them with some support in this. Families are finding it difficult to feed their children, hence the drift down to Kampala and towns like Mbale and Jinja. Begging has become a way of life for children as young as three and four. They live on the streets, and sometimes die, on the streets. That is why the countries of Ireland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden donated so much money to rebuild and reconstruct communities in the north, including Karamoja

So, in a country where 85% of the population claim to be practising Christians, what are its citizens doing about the poverty in the north and its victims on the streets of Kampala?

Well, as you can see from the photos in this post, most of them - like me - just walk, or drive, by. They have, perhaps, seen too much of this before and the awfulness no longer registers. And anyway, this is not their child.

And the people in power? What are they doing about little children damaged by poverty?

The answer is simple. As you know from previous posts, the politicians and senior civil servants in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) have actually stolen $50 million of the $70 million which the countries mentioned above had provided as aid for the north, including Karamoja, aid to help the families of little children like the one at the Jinja Road junction. Shs2 billion of this aid was used to buy eight luxury cars for the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and five other ministers within the OPM. Shs6.2 billion was allegedly used to fund one of the President's re-election pledges made when campaigning in the north, the provision of a ferry on Lake Kyoga (Daily Monitor). Alas, it seems that the same money was stolen twice, the promised ferry turning out to be a 'ghost' ferry which never materialised! So, no concern at the highest levels of government for the poor, young or weak.

And the Church? What is the Church doing about the inequality it sees around it and the suffering of the destitute?

On Sunday, the Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, like most Ugandans, went to church. Specifically, he went to Namirembe Cathedral, the historic birthplace of Ugandan Christianity. Namirembe Cathedral belongs to the Church of Uganda, part of the worldwide Anglican  Communion. And what did the Prime Minister do while he was there? He preached about spiritual values. Oh, and he also donated Shs5 million for the choir to buy new robes with. I wonder if it came out of the aid money for the north....

And did anyone stand up and protest at the way in which the Church's complicity in theft was being bought? No.

And did anyone walk out in the middle of this grossly hypocritical charade? As far as we can tell, no.

Of course, it is not the first time that politicians have allegedly 'bought' the silence of the Church of Uganda. Around the time of the last election, the President provided its bishops with cars. He also gave a donation of Shs10 million to the new bishop of the Rwenzori diocese on his consecration. It is hardly likely that any of these grateful clerics are going to bite the hand that feeds them and stand up for the victims of greed and corruption. Anyway, they are far too busy preaching hatred for homosexuals to have time for the poor.

The respected Church of Uganda bishop Zac Niringiye had to retire from the church to be able 'to work towards the restoration of justice in the country', according to the Daily Monitor, June 12 2012. The new Archbishop of Uganda has made it clear that he will be a spiritual leader only and will leave politics alone, despite the appeals of the Inter-religious Council of Uganda. The IRCU's Secretary General, Joshua Kitakule, said in protest, 'It is the duty of religious leaders to find solutions to injustices, bad governance and inequality, among other roles'.

And the other Christian denominations?

Well, the Evangelical 'born-agains' are part of the political elite and only concerned with their own worldly prosperity and spiritual salvation.

The Roman Catholics appear to have a bit more 'oomph' about them, fortunately. According to the Daily Monitor, a brave priest in Kabale called Fr Gaetano Batanyenda 'issued a stinging criticism of President Museveni and Premier Amama Mbabazi, depicting them as "dishonest leaders who lack the willingness to fight corruption"'. In a wonderful tirade of a letter headlined Why Bigiramana (the incriminated Permanent Secretary) and group should let go, the heavily edited version of which covers an entire page of newsprint, the meddlesome priest referred to the President's recent repentance 'for his sins and those of other leaders, past and present', during celebrations of the 50th anniversary of independence. As part of his lengthy missive, Fr Batanyenda provides a helpful list of all the sins which the President had conveniently forgotten to mention. The list is as follows.

Greed for power, breach of contract, bribery, expropriation, primitive arrogance, impunity, deception duplicity, intimidation, theft, inconsistency, land grabbing, sycophancy, balkanisation of Uganda into tribal districts, blackmail, bad governance, bad leadership, possessiveness, fear to do good, indifferentism [sic], divide and rule, institutionalising an individual and individualising an institution, inconsiderate, favouratism [sic], insensibility, double standards, patronage, insincerity, kleptomania, dishonesty, manipulation, nepotism, suppression, torture, beackery [sic], aggrandisement, pride, intolerance, extravagance, bigotry, abusive language, despotism and others.

Fr Batanyenda may not specifically refer to the beaten and destitute human being lying by the side of the road to Jericho, but he certainly has the measure of those who continue to walk by.

You may also be interested in President Museveni's prayer of repentance, delivered at the 50th anniversary of independence celebrations.

1 comment:

  1. I think that this is a very powerful piece. It is very difficult to decide what to write as there is so much which can leave you open-mouthed with amazement or shock.

    I also read the piece by Fr Batanyenda and thought it so to-the-point. It echoed much of what I certainly think and feel about what I see around me but he expresses it far better.

    As to the child, when I see such children by the roadside Moses tells me that there will be a mother somewhere, watching what is happening. But that doesn't make it OK.