Assign-Uganda 4

Dear Friends, It’s been another productive week at NAPE and the feedback so far has been good.  The NAPE staff likes the basic organization of the new website, at least as it looks on paper.  I came up with a new organization and look for the website that will be visually compelling, content rich, user friendly, and a powerful communications tool for NAPE (if I do say so myself).  I wrote two sections — “Challenges” and “Action Agenda” — the former about Uganda issues, the latter about what NAPE is doing about them.  They comprise about 32 articles 600-1200 words each, researched from NAPE’s own piles of documents and hundreds of other websites – and a lot of thrashing around mentally.

 

There’s a very detailed “Quick Links” section, with an extensive list of organizations and agencies dealing with environmental issues, each accessible online by a hot link.  Then an encyclopedic “Library” section of NAPE documents and documents by others, with hot links, organized by subject.  We’ll also

Bob Rackleff at work in Uganda

have links to videos, a YouTube library, Search, and other features.  We should have final comments from program officers about what I wrote by Monday and can begin pasting the content on the website immediately afterward.  We still have some design decisions to make, but can finalize them next week, too — with a full website available for viewing by all staff in about two weeks.  Once clear of that, we can light it up at www.nape.or.ug.

 

Aiming for sustainability of the website after I leave, I will schedule some brief training sessions about writing skills, including a writing manual I am drafting to give to everyone.  In the meantime, we are changing ISPs from the current overpriced, excruciatingly slow company to two new ones — Warid and MTN — which will increase our download speeds eight-fold and save NAPE lots of money. (Having two means that if one goes down, the other kicks in, with no interruption of the website.)  The current ISP costs $500 per month — Warid and MTN will cost $150 per month each — saving NAPE about $2,400 per year.

Plainly, the current ISP sucks, and sticking with it would mean no website.   I’ve had to use my locally-bought wireless internet stick to download files in my research.  It charges by how much I use it, which has been a lot – but it’s faster and more reliable than the office wireless modem.  So the vastly more capable website and prospect for much more Internet traffice has forced a long-overdue decision.

After much nudging by me, we also now have remote backup of all computer files, so that if another burglary or other loss happens, NAPE loses equipment only.  It has taken a major effort by staff in the last three weeks to recover files lost when burglars stole virtually all the desktop computers.  (Ironically, the burglar cleared out a lot of obsolete equipment, and we bought much more capable hardware, including a printer to replace the antique one.)

 

Finally, in looking around the NAPE compound, I realized that we practice very little sustainability to match our preaching, so I wrote a proposal that NAPE form a staff sustainability committee to plant trees, install a rain harvesting system, use our grey water for irrigation, create a rain garden, install PV solar panels to lower electrical costs, and other improvements.  About the solar panels, the more frequent “load shedding” (the current solution to the nationwide lack of electricity production) is running up NAPE’s fuel costs to power our emergency generator, which now averages several hours a day.  Given the high cost of gasoline for the generator, we can recover the solar panel costs fairly quickly.  This sustainability initiative will let NAPE lead by example, and not just exhortation (and show what we’re doing on the website).

 

So things are falling into place, and I feel good about finishing my tasks before leaving for Tallahassee on Sept 20.  I hasten to add that I couldn’t do this all myself.  The staff knew that a lot had to change and just needed a catalyst to speed things up.  I’ve gotten a lot of cooperation and encouragement.

Organizationally, NAPE has been feverishly busy trying to save Uganda’s environment from further plunder, so they had a lot to distract them from technical issues.  All I had to do was sit here day after day with no other responsibilities and focus on this one task.  So NAPE should get the credit.

Uganda Little League Team Take 2

 

I wrote earlier about how inspiring it was that a team from Uganda became this year’s Africa-Middle East regional champs and were on their way to the Little League World Series this month – only to have visas denied by the U.S. because of faulty birth records.  Taking the Ugandans place and representing the region now for the 12th time was the Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, team of mostly American kids whose parents work in the Saudi oil industry.

 

Visa problems prevented the Uganda team from playing in the World Series in Williamsports, PA.

Friday’s New York Times had a follow-up article about the Uganda team watching the expats play in their World Series game against the Canadian team and lose.  The article described how devastated the team members had been to lose their berth in the World Series and their range of emotions from disgust to determination to try again.  The latter emotion won out, and the team a week later began practicing for next year.

The article resonated in several ways:

1.            Ugandans work very, very hard, especially the children, who’re expected not only to go to school, but also bear heavy household responsibilities.  Every day I see even pre-schoolers in my neighborhood carrying big jerry cans of water home from community wells, hoeing gardens, washing clothes and sweeping, hauling bricks and hammering nails.  To get the time to practice an exotic game like baseball takes a big effort.

2.            The boys viewed the game in a rundown “video hall” in a poor neighborhood (almost all neighborhoods here are) of Kampala, described as “a small structure reinforced by wooden poles, sheet metal and cardboard boxes on an unpaved street lined by open gutters.”  (Sounds like my neighborhood.)  I see these video halls all around; it’s where Kampalans watch pirated movies and why there’s only one U.S.-style movie theater in the city.

3.    It also shows what these kids were and are up against in competing in this region in an American sport, perennially dominated by a team of affluent American boys stuck in an American enclave in Saudi Arabia with not much else to do but practice baseball.

4.    Despite all that, the Ugandan boys – remember how insecure and easily hurt you were at 11 years old? – are determined to try again.  With a year to come up with better birth records (and, I hope, a less rigid U.S. State Department), I bet they can do it.

Incidentally, at their age, I was one of the worst players in Tallahassee Little League history.  I played for the Dodgers at Levy Park an entire season and never got a hit – the entire season.  I was regularly booed – by my own team.  For the next two years, I lettered in baseball in the 7th and 8th grade at Florida High, but the coach never let me in a game, until the very last inning of the last game.  That was the last team I ever made.  At age 68, I am still athletically incompetent and avoid any game that includes keeping score.  I bear the emotional scars to this day.

Mabira Forest

In the meantime, the political heat is rising here as the economy is souring.  Inflation is picking up, the shilling keeps falling in value, shortages of things like sugar and electricity are stirring discontent.  Large demonstrations have become frequent.  President Yuweri Museveni continues to blame economic problems on “economic sabotage” and “indiscipline” by environmentalists like NAPE and political opponents.  On top of this, Museveni acts as if nothing he does should be questioned, no matter how outrageous or baffling his decisions are.  On August 12, he unilaterally announced that he would go ahead with clear-cutting and giving away one-third of the Mabira Forest Reserve for a sugar plantation for bio-fuel production.  First, he has no legal authority to do this.  Second, he tried this four years ago and touched off massive demonstrations that forced him to back down.

The Mabira since 1932 has been a forest reserve (a legally protected status somewhere between a U.S. national forest and national park).  Uganda’s second-largest forest reserve, its120 square miles form the eastern end of the Guinea Congo Forest in central Africa, and is one of the most biologically diverse rainforests in the country.  (I visited the forest on Aug 21 and will write about it next week.)

Uganda Sugar plans to clear cut a third of the Maibira.

Located near the Nile River, it’s home to many endangered species, and is a growing eco-tourist destination – and, importantly, only 25 miles east of Kampala, so it’s very accessible to visitors.  Plus, in securing World Bank funding for a dam on the Nile, Uganda in 2001 agreed to preserve the forest.  Well, I guess to Museveni, that was then, this is now.

 

The government dropped plans four years ago, after intense opposition and remained quiet about it until Friday (Aug 12), when Museveni announced his decision in a public forum.  This week, he reportedly told a business audience, “Tell anybody out there that I am ready for war on sugar.  Let us fight this war once and for all. I am not ready to listen to anybody who is saying that I save Mabira.”

Maybe he’s not serious or maybe he is.   If he is, he doesn’t care that it makes no sense to rip out a priceless, irreplaceable rainforest to plant one commodity crop to process into gasohol as a phony “green” solution to climate change.

Museveni says it’s about jobs, neglecting to mention the many more jobs that depend on the forest today.  And he had the nerve during his announcement to warn against environmental degradation.  “Destroying forest reserve, wetlands will cause a very great danger to you people,” he said, evidently with a straight face.  A local newspaper over weekend ran a photo of him watering a newly planted tree, encouraging more planting.

If there were any doubt about the need for greater efforts to protect Uganda’s environment, Museveni did his best to erase them.  And my work just got a little more important.

Kampala floods

A third of Kampala city (including Sseguku, where I live) is a wetland.  The other two-thirds are hills – high ones, averaging 300 to 500 feet above the wetlands.  Both used to be covered with trees.  Wildife flourished.  Water soaked into forests, wetlands and aquifers.  At the bottom of this watershed, Lake Victoria was pristine and productive.

Then Kampala’s population grew and people got other ideas – cut down the trees and build a city with buildings up and down the hills and all over the wetlands.  No trees means no water retention when it rains.  Under those conditions, torrential rains mean the water rages down the hills, into what used to be wetlands, flooding the poor who now live there in makeshift homes.

Friday afternoon (Aug 19), we had a heavy afternoon rain that flooded the lane between the NAPE building and Entebbe Road.  To get home, I had to wind my way up and down muddy paths to reach the road.  Entebbe Road itself had flooded there but was clear by the time of my walk.

Judging by the local newspapers, this was a citywide problem on Friday, adding one more misery on the poor in their wetland slums.  Among its impacts, the flood has added new shit (from thousands of unsanitary latrines) to the community wells most Kampalans depend on.  More shit in the water means more cholera and other diseases, so we can expect new infectious outbreaks. The government has known about this potential problem for decades.  It enacted laws and regulations to prevent encroachment in wetlands, protect water quality of Lake Victoria, prevent deforestation, etc.  These documents cover pretty much all the bases, and they look good on the Internet.  But nobody pays attention, least of all the government, and now nearly all of Kampala’s wetlands are gone, most trees are a memory, and the flooding and contamination get worse.

The government springs to action

Lest you think the government can’t do anything right, it showed its muscle this week in Kampala by clamping down on peaceful assembly.  The police and army were out in force all week, including in harmless Sseguku. Protesting higher prices, the opposition in April staged “walk to work” demonstrations.  These were just like they read, leaders and supporters walking to work instead of driving cars – no carrying weapons or calling for revolution, just walking. As usual the government overreacted, fired tear gas and then bullets, killing 10 people around the country.  The police wounded Kizza Besigye (the runner-up candidate for President in the February national elections) in the hand with a rubber bullet, then assaulted and gassed him, sending him to the hospital.  He left for Kenya to recover.

 

Police round up suspects. Citizens say police torture people.

 

Ugandan riots are made to lie down on the road after their arrest. Earlier this month, Besigye was tried for inciting violence in the April demonstrations, but a judge dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.

Two weeks ago, led by Besigye, the opposition launched a “light a candle” procession in Masaka, about 80 miles southwest of here, to mourn the protesters killed in April.  The police broke it up with tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring several, but no fatalities.

There was the usual bluster by Museveni and senior officials – calling the peaceful demonstrators “terrorists” and making baseless charges that the opposition was preparing an armed insurrection and other scary talk that few people take seriously.  Museveni’s chest-thumping was deafening.

Besigye announced that they would continue protesting.  On Wednesday a group led by opposition members of parliament organized a vigil in a Kampala suburb, but police broke that up, too, with water cannons that stained their clothing with pink water (who says Uganda can’t innovate?).  Bull Connor would be proud.  It was part of a citywide show of police and army strength to discourage gatherings.

So in peaceful, harmless Sseguku this week, the police were everywhere along Entebbe Road.  I first noticed the buildup on my walk home on Monday, when police reinforcements were setting up pup tents at my local substation for themselves.  It rained all that night, heavily, so the next morning I could see they were grumpy from what must have been a miserable night.

The show of force in Sseuku and Lubowa (the next neighborhood north) peaked on Thursday, when I counted about 60 police and army guys along the two-km of Entebbe I walk every workday – including four or five riflemen positioned on the high bluff at the Roofings Company factory.

There I was walking to work that morning, wondering, do they think I’m protesting something?  Is that rifleman on the bluff looking at me funny or am I just imagining things?  The regular beat cops I greet every morning were nowhere in sight, just strangers trucked in from elsewhere.  So I kept up my usual routine of friendly greetings, assuming that they would figure I’m harmless.  I guess it worked.

By Friday, the number of police and army along Entebbe Road had dropped to about 20, having redeployed the rest to other parts of the city. Throughout the week, despite all the official tension, the life I’ve seen every day around me went on as usual – people making things, selling things, grilling meats and frying cassava, sweeping the dust, burning the garbage, catching rides in matatus, people schmoozing with friends, children playing with makeshift toys, and men occasionally grinning and shouting, “Hey, mazungu!” to that skinny old white guy walking by.

I hope life stays peaceful like that for years to come.  Ugandans deserve peace, a government that cares about them, and a better chance for the good life. Unless their leadership betrays them again, these things could happen.

Saturday’s exploration

I set out Saturday (Aug 20) to buy a couple of things I wanted, by retracing some of my steps of two weeks ago – getting off the matatu to town about three km this side of downtown and walking through the Ndeeba market, where only poor Kampalans or serious cheapskates do their shopping.  I needed a new power strip for our living room and found it, at a good price, in an electrical shop about the size of your walk-in closet.

 

The market is plagued by strikes and wrangles

Then I strolled further into the market, which includes hundreds of homes, as well, venturing down narrow lanes and creating quite a buzz among the residents.  It was less than 24 hours since Friday’s downpour, so the mud was prodigious.  Emerging onto Masaka Road and walking along it, I refreshed my images of the lumber and wood products businesses centered there. Then back to Entebbe Road and downtown on the most intensively commercial strip in the city.  This time, I took more photos, so that years from now I will remember the amazing sights I saw – the metal shops making bunk beds on the sidewalk, auto parts stores with whole front ends displayed on the roof and rear axle assemblies stacked on the ground – well, it just went on and on.

A Kampala market.

 

 

Just before downtown, I took a side street I was curious to follow, into another market district of foods, mostly – then into the back entrance of Owina Market, the scene of the recent devastating fire but now back in full swing.  I was squeezing my way through the throngs of shoppers and merchants when a downpour had me seek shelter under several awnings.  Now I know what happens in Owina Market when it rains – everybody and everything gets wet.

Making my way past the market, I rendezvoused with Barbara, who got fitted for a new dress from the material she bought last week, and we met two other AJWS volunteers for an early dinner.  One was Joe, who is in town for a few days from Gulu, in the north, where he works in a program resettling former child soldiers for the Lord’s Resistance Army.  He needed a break, as you can imagine.

It was a break for me too, since I could hang out with a guy; all the other AJWS volunteers here a women and they’re great company, but a lot of their conversations don’t resonate.  So we got to talk guy talk for a while – a refreshing change.

Then it was back home and an early night, to be ready for our day trip on Sunday.

Until then, best wishes,

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