Assign-Uganda 5

August 28, 2011

Week 11 in Uganda

Dear Friends,

Sunday’s (Aug 21) car trip was terrific.  I saw Mabira Forest, rode a pontoon boat at Jinja by the source of the Nile into Lake Victoria, visited Bujagali Falls up the river, and on the way back stopped at the upscale Rainforest Lodge in Mabira.  Barbara and I paid our regular special hire driver, Frank, to drive us the whole day, so we could travel where we wanted, at our own pace.

Mabira Forest

I wrote about the Mabira Forest Reserve last week because it has flared up this month as a front-page issue.  President Yoweri Museveni announced two weeks ago his decision to give, at no cost, 7,100 acres of this rainforest to the Mehta Group for a sugarcane plantation – something he tried four years ago, when intense opposition forced him to back down.


Bob Rackleff spent the summer volunteering in Uganda.

So my trip there had the dual function of a nice walk in the woods and firsthand research.  We hired a guide, Hussein, to take us on a brief hike through the forest, and he was very knowledgeable especially about the plants and trees there that his fellow villagers use as food, fuel, medicine and household cleaning.


Hussein handed us a few leaves of the ficus exasperata tree, or sandpaper fig (and it really feels like it), which villagers use for cleaning and polishing.  Another, the Sausage Tree, can provide the bark used for bark cloth, made by beating sodden sheets of the inner bark into a thick paper-like fabric used for paper or cloth, especially now for ceremonial wear.  It has an open breathable quality that makes it comfortable for hot weather.

Intrigued after I read about it in a guidebook, back in July I bought a bark cloth sun hat for the novelty of it, and actually wore it a couple of times – until I looked in the mirror and I looked like Pa Kettle with it on.  For those younger than, oh, 60, Pa and Ma Kettle were characters in a series of 10 movie comedies in the 1950s.  Sort of earlier versions of the Beverly Hillbillies genre of goofy, but salt of the earth, people.

Deciding that at my age I don’t need to look any goofier than I already do, I now keep the bark cloth hat in my room.  But I will bring it back to Tallahassee and may wear it occasionally for the amusement of friends.

The most fascinating tree was the strangler tree, a kind of ficus, which grows first as a climbing vine around a host tree, eventually strangling it.  Then it continues to grow taller and stronger as the dead host tree rots away, leaving a hollow strangler tree that all sorts of wildlife can inhabit, such a bees and their hives.  I have a photo of me standing in one.

Most of all, I learned from Hussein how much forest villagers depend on Mabira for their livelihood.  The National Forestry Authority operates the reserve as a conservation area, but by agreement villagers have the right to harvest plants for food and other uses and gather firewood from branches and trees that have already fallen.  They often abuse this, but not enough to jeopardize the forest, and there’s a healthy balance of growth and harvest in Mabira.

As you can imagine, they’re very unhappy with President Museveni about losing a quarter of their forest and will be a core group among the project’s many opponents.  They want to maintain their way of life and not work for some foreign-owned corporation, if they get any work at all. NAPE will help mobilize them if this bizarre sugarcane plantation idea lasts much longer.

Source of the Nile

Back on the road, we went to a riverside resort in Jinja to see the source of the Nile, by pontoon boat that included a pretty good buffet lunch.  While there’s some debate about whether the source is actually there or one of the rivers from Kenya or Tanzania that feeds into Lake Victoria, the British concluded that Rippon Falls at Jinja was where the lake drained into the Nile, cascading over some rocks that held back most of the lake’s water.  So I believe it’s the source, and that settles it.

The falls don’t exist anymore because the Brits build the Owen Falls hydro dam in the 1950s, which raised the water level there, drowning the falls.  You can still detect where it is today by the surface turbulence.  Barbara took a photo of me there holding a bottle of, but of course, Nile beer, produced in its brewery just a stone’s throw from the river west of Jinja.

Bujagali Falls

We went about 10 km north of there to Bujagali Falls, a magnificent two-stage torrent that’s a favorite with expat rafters.  We didn’t raft, we just stood there and gaped for over an hour.  I was pleased that our driver, Frank, got an even better treat that we – he’d never seen it before and enjoyed it even more than we did, even though he’s a lifelong Ugandan.  We can easily forget that most Ugandans don’t get around much and may live out their lives without ever seeing most of the natural wonders of their land.

Adding entertainment to the natural spectacle was a local good old boy, who rode the falls down buoyed by an empty jerry can, which he does several times a day.  When he finishes his run, he makes the rounds of spectators, soliciting tips, then goes for another ride.  Why not contribute?  He put on a good show.  (It also reminded me of the last words of the good old boy: “Hey, Bubba, watch this!”)

Tragically, another hydro dam is nearing completion downstream, which will add insult to injury by taking the name of the falls that it will submerge into the reservoir in creates.  (As in Florida, where we name subdivisions after the nature that they destroyed, such Deer Lake, Antler Ridge, etc.)  NAPE was first organized 14 years ago, when the original Bujagali Dam project surfaced, and the original developer dropped out.

But the government persisted, eventually got the suck-egg World Bank to ignore its own policies and provide financing, and construction began.  By probably this time next year, the falls will be greatly diminished or nothing but surface turbulence, like its doomed predecessor, Rippon Falls, six decades ago.


The week went well, refining and expanding the website copy I’d already done, while most of the staff was preoccupied by the Mabira Forest campaign, meeting with other opponents, generating media coverage.  I edited and rewrote a petition to send to President Museveni, as well as a “further readings” bibliography for people unfamiliar with the controversy to read.  You can see this at and click on “Save Mabira.”  The rest of the website you see will be replaced by my version soon.

We also decided to move ahead with a new ISP, Warid (based in Dubai), for NAPE that will be eight times faster and cheaper.  But not as cheap as the Warid salesman first told us.

As we have all experienced, the first pitch with the teaser price is usually very wrong.  On Wednesday, we had a sit-down with the Warid rep, who outlined the real deal, about twice the cost, with several variations.  I played my usual role, the resident skeptic, honed by 12 years as a county commissioner, digging out the details and actual costs.

The rep gave us a written outline of two choices that, after my digging, were actually four choices – variations of connection fee, equipment cost, and monthly subscription fee.  The big variable is the equipment, which we could buy outright for $2,500, buy and pay over time (total cost of $3,700 in two years – not good), rent it for $100 a month (and later buy at a depreciated price, if we wanted), or buy from a third party.  I recommended that we rent – good for our cash flow, flexibility in case better equipment comes along, and keeps the responsibility for repair or replacement with Warid, where it belongs.  I think that’s what NAPE will do.

Because the real cost is twice what Warid first told us, we’ll forgo having a second, standby ISP in case of system failure and take our chances with just one – not a big risk anyway.  If you noticed, the costs are in dollars, which prudent businesses in Uganda charge, to avoid currency depreciation risk.  The Ugandan Shilling has fallen about 15 percent just since I got here on June 11 – from about 2,450 per dollar to 2,830 today.

Africa didn’t get widely available broadband until two years ago, after completion of a 17,000 km undersea fiber-optic cable that snakes down the Atlantic coast, around the Horn, then up the Indian Ocean coast up to the Red Sea.  Until then, broadband here came from satellite uplink services, slower and more expensive, which is what NAPE has now.  Warid will connect us to the fiber-optic cable by microwave, since there are no cable TV or phone landline systems around here.

So another good week at work.

Aug 25 – the 6th anniversary of Katrina.

The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week brought back a flood of memories.  I’ve had a 49-year love affair with New Orleans and was shocked at the destruction to my favorite U.S. city.  I was glued to news reports as the storm and aftermath unfolded and decided to travel there as a volunteer.

But I also knew enough not to do it right away and become just one more earnest but mostly useless volunteer to house and feed during the early chaos.  Urged by a friend, my daughter Holmes and son Durward went after Thanksgiving as volunteers with Common Ground Relief.  After they returned, they told me how awful it was – much worse than reported – and that I should go to see for myself and help out.

At the same time, I had started dating Esther, she then living in Annapolis while attending Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, courtesy of Doctors Without Borders (MSF).  I decided to go to New Orleans for the week after Christmas by myself, but decided to ask Esther to come with me.  She didn’t hesitate to say yes, and we spent a week there working in the Ninth Ward – I gutting houses and she staffing a free health clinic – with Common Ground Relief.

They were my kind of people – committee, energetic young lefties and anarchists – who showed up in New Orleans just days after the storm, bonded with the remaining community members and went to work, with funding from thousands of contributors who donated online.  They set up two free health clinics, a legal clinic, food and supplies distribution center, soup kitchen, organized demonstrations and rent strikes to keep the authorities on task, and gutted houses to ready them for renovation – not bad for anarchists.  They’re still there.

Three things I remember vividly:

— On the day after Christmas 2005, we drove into the city at about 9 pm on I-10 across the lake, through the wildlife refuge, expecting then to see the lights of New Orleans East.  There were no lights, only moonlight.  There were no people, no activity, just empty houses, apartment buildings, stores, and abandoned cars everywhere, resting where the floodwaters had left them – just desolation.  Accustomed to destruction in her MSF work, Esther quietly said, “I’ve seen better war zones than this.”

We arrived at our French Quarter hotel to a grateful staff but no place to eat (although we found a bar serving gumbo).  Those restaurants still in business closed at about 9 pm because there were so few workers; we ate well there anyway, just earlier.  There was none of the usual merriment, even on Bourbon Street.

— The city had collapsed, hardly anything worked.  Even four months after the storm much of the city outside the French Quarter and central business district had no electricity, water, gas, phone service, or functioning sewer.  The few stores open did a booming business, like Lowe’s at the edge of the Ninth Ward, which opened late and closed early because of staff shortages.  Street signs and traffic signals had blown down, but there were few motorists anyway.  It helped that I knew my way around.

But I also sensed that the city would come back, based on a single incident.  Having gained a nail in one tire, I drove several blocks to an outdoor tire repair business, got my tire repaired, observed the neighbor guys dropping by to swap stories, and concluded that this small business was there to stay, and that others would, too.  New Orleans would survive.

— Our last night in New Orleans, I proposed to Esther.  We had known each other for over 25 years, and this emotionally intense week together had convinced me that I wanted her as my wife.  She accepted, and we married five months later in a handsome 19th-century, red-brick Methodist Church in Abbeville, AL.  We go back to New Orleans whenever we can (and will again, this mid-November).

I went back to New Orleans a dozen times after that first post-Katrina trip, working with Common Ground Relief or attending conferences (and Holmes’s graduation from Tulane Law School in 2009).  In Tallahassee, I raised money and supplies for CGR and advocated in the National Association of Counties for helping the Louisiana and Mississippi counties get through all this.  I also wrote a couple of articles for the Carnegie Corporation about its reconstruction.

I love New Orleans.  I love Esther.  I always will.

Back to Kampala

I had a trying experience a few days ago, after taking time off work to get to a remote business office, which included two matatu rides and a lot of walking, only to learn I’d wasted my time.  I’ll spare you the sad tale – just that I was frustrated and angry.

On the long walk back to catch a matatu home, a young man who’d been on the earlier matatu with me on the trip to this place saw me walking and stopped me to ask if I was lost and could he help with directions.  He was just being helpful, and this snapped me back to the goodness of so many Ugandans, who are welcoming to strangers.  It improved my attitude in an instant.  (BTW, I wasn’t lost and knew where I was going.  Really.)

The police have settled down

After last week’s show of force in Sseguku, the gun toting along Entebbe Road has subsided.  All week, I counted the number of police I saw posted along my route to work.  The ones just passing through in pickup trucks (Toyota Hilux with a bench down the center of the bed, four police on each side) didn’t count.  Until midweek, the counts were in the mid-30s, and by the end were in the low 20s.  More important, very few of them now carry AK-47s.  Mostly they now carry billy clubs and no more.

Lake Victoria

My son Durward in his email this week mentioned seeing a documentary about the problems of Lake Victoria, which are massive.  It’s the second largest freshwater lake in the world, second only to Lake Superior, and shared by Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  The lake gets a lot of attention from NAPE because of its central natural resource role in Ugandan life and work.

When I was at the Abajudaya Jewish community at the foot of Mount Elgon a few weeks ago, among the visitors were three biologists from Montreal who’d just finished studying the collapse of native fish populations because of introduction of the Nile Perch.

Some genius in the 1950s decided that this bigger species would be good for export commercial fisheries and deliberately began stocking the lake with them.  As humans do, and not just in Africa, they overdid it — with a species that can grow to six feet in length and weigh up to 440 pounds — although they’re usually caught before then and top out at only (!) 300 pounds.

As the biologists I met helped to document, this resulted in one of the largest mass extinctions observed.  As voracious eaters and top-of-the-food-chain predators, the Nile Perch wiped out hundreds of species of everything from phytoplankton to tilapia and aquarium fish.  The decline in fish species in the lake, the United Nations reported in 2010, “is considered to be the largest documented loss of biodiversity ever inflicted on an ecosystem by humankind.”

Fortunately, sort of, commercial and sports fishers have reduced Nile Perch populations, so that some of the nearly-extinct species are making a comeback.  So a huge fish, a top-level predator, may have met its match with the world’s ultimate predator — humans.  Makes me proud.

Americans have a similar problem in the Midwest, where humans have failed to control the Asian Silver Carp which advanced up the Mississippi to the Illinois River — devastating native fish populations as they went — where several government agencies are trying to stop them from getting into Lake Michigan. They’ve even used electrified fences as barriers and are considering permanently sealing off the river from the lake.  They’re also try to catch them to process into fish meal, which may work to reduce their numbers.

In Leon County, we used its cousin, the Grass Carp, to control aquatic weeds because of their hearty appetites.  At Lake Ella, you can get up close and personal with them.  But we carefully control them with barriers at outfalls to prevent them from getting into other water bodies, and used only sterilized carp that cannot reproduce.  This usually worked.

The Oil Curse

Besides Mabira Forest, the growing oil industry here is our biggest issue, with NAPE partnering with other Ugandan and international NGOs to expose the government’s secrecy and coziness with Tullow and other oil giants developing oil fields in the Lake Albert area.  I’ll write more about that later (bet you can’t wait!).

On Thursday, I went to a lecture sponsored by the Uganda Wildlife Society at the Uganda Museum by a local academic outlining the challenge of oil governance, attended by students and faculty (mostly Makerere U.), numerous NGOs, and some government officials. (And two AK-47 toting police outside the door – what the hell?)

It was a good survey of our situation but also a good look at the unreality and timidity of the other NGOs – that somehow writing a new law or regulation would bring the oil giants to heel, produce huge revenues for Uganda, and curb corruption.  Well, to do that first requires a government that respects the rule of law, which is in short supply under President Museveni.

Plus, the government has already signed five production sharing agreements, the basic contracts, with Tullow Oil and others – so all major conditions are already decided.  It doesn’t matter what laws are passed now.  Plus, the government refuses to show the agreements to anyone – although a flak-catcher from the government spoke, promising to work with everyone and share “the information that we can,” the usual horseshit (hey, I used to write that stuff!).

What I really learned that afternoon is that NAPE is the only NGO in sight with any realism about oil governance here, the one most willing to confront the government, and that I’m lucky to be working with the right organization.

This weekend was mostly work at home on the website.  Barbara, my housemate, went to Eldoret, Kenya, for the weekend to visit friends.  She worked there for six months a couple years ago and took the opportunity to go there before we return to the U.S.

I’ll write again next week

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