Understanding the Real Uganda

Come to Kampala and you can see that things are happening, everywhere buildings are going up or being restored. New restaurants are opening up weekly. Kampala now has numerous radio stations with most of them being independent and modeled after America’s top forty stations.  Besides  there are  modern grocery department stores that are bringing goods to Uganda to those who can afford it, a movie theatre and bowling alley.

The economy in Uganda has been growing by 7% per year and you can see new BMW’s and other fancy European cars being driven by Africans who have made it. Yet the real reason for the fastest growing economy in Africa is the return of the East Indian community that was kicked out by Idi Amin in 1972 (40,000 were forcefully expelled and their properties taken over by the state and given to friends of the government, something that ruined the country economically). Today their sons and daughters have returned and reclaimed the properties and brought in new capital. Many of them come from places like Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, London, etc.

Downtown, everything looks like things are becoming prosperous, were it not for the street kids that accost you as you stop for a traffic light. Go beyond downtown to the slums and you will find the real Kampala that has not changed. That remains in poverty, where life and death intermingle daily. Where survival is the word of the day. Where eight to ten people live in a small room, where the rats are the size of cats and where there is a shortage of everything but misery.

The Ugandan, in such a place if he or she has a job, makes very little like 15 to 30 dollars a month. Money for which he or she puts in long hours. The typical waitress or waiter in a restaurant in Kampala comes from such slums, wearing their nice uniform they look well off, but they never get to eat the things that they serve and many of them make between 15 and 40 dollars a month for 12 hour shifts, working six to seven days a week. (Staff is served a bowl of Ugandan food in back of restaurant).

Take the house-girl that works all day long, seven days a week for 10 dollars a month, or the security guard that makes 35dollars a month for 12-hour shifts seven days a week. Life is hard in Uganda and similarly in other African countries, even though services like doctors cost only 7 dollars a visit, when you only make 20 dollars a month you think twice before going.

Traditional healers who live in the villages and slums are making a real comeback and even Christians and Muslims often go to such seeking their counsel and advice. Health is a big issue in Uganda with AIDS blowing its unmerciful winds across all economic and social lines. In fact AIDS started amongst the elite of Uganda first and literally wiped out whole families. Now it is sweeping through the slums and villages touching almost every family. One thing that is often absent in Uganda are older people unless you go to a village. A whole generation of Ugandans has been deeply touched. In the last five years 1,000,000 people have died of AIDS and related sicknesses and that are the documented cases, countless more people die of the disease and it is not recorded as such.

I spoke to Tito who lived in a home I worked with. He had lost his mother a week earlier. I asked him how his mother died and he gave me a common Ugandan answer. “You know that Baganda (tribe) witchcraft.” That often is the answer for someone who dies of AIDS, witchcraft. His sister had died of the same thing as the mother. There are more orphans from AIDS than came about during the various wars that have taken place in Uganda during the last 30 years.

Malaria is still the biggest killer in Uganda with over 150,000 people dying every year from this dreaded tropical disease that relentlessly affects everyone- especially the young. The primary medicine, coartem is proving ineffective and new treatments are not as readily available or are costly and most Africans will simply go to the pharmacy and get what they feel will work best since you do not need prescriptions. In the slums the simplest of illnesses, like diarrhea will take their toll amongst the children and many of them die from such things. Medical care at hospitals costs money and people have to bring their own mattresses, toilet paper, and food. I have seen people simply sleep on the springs of a military bed.

Often no doctors are available when you go at night and you have to give a bribe to get treated. Doctors who themselves are trying to eke out a living, steal hospital medicines and sell them in private clinics that they run in various places. It all comes down to survival. Education, since 1996 is supposed to be for all and free and the government has allocated money but it is not enough and many children simply do not learn. When it comes to education the job of paying the school-fees, uniforms, books require many family-members to pitch in share for the cost. The Swahili word “Harambee” which means pulling together best describes this unique African concept of helping each other.

When you add up the cost of school you can see why people help each other. Primary school will run between 30 to 50 dollars for a three month term, on top of that you have to buy a school uniform that is between eight to ten dollars, add things like books, paper, pencils, besides the student has to bring a broom for cleaning and several rolls of toilet paper. I have spoken to a student who was denied toilet privileges simply because he did not have toilet paper. Many students have to pay for lunch, which is a dollar a day and then there is the cost of going to and from school which is in a crowded taxi, actually a mini-bus.

That can cost between 80 cents to two dollars a day depending on where the school is. Food is for sale everywhere. You can see the produce neatly stacked on the ground everywhere in makeshift markets. Chickens are either tied down or in cages. Beef hangs out in the open, covered with flies. Green Banana stalks (matoke) are sold to hagglers. Everything here is bargained for including the caskets that are transported on the back of bikes. (Entebbe road has a section where most caskets are made. It is shocking to see the many small caskets for children.) Rarely is anything bought here without a bit of bargaining.

The main staple is matoke, which is a green banana that is mashed and steamed in a pot over a charcoal stove covered with banana leaves. There is also posho, which is a corn meal that is made into something that looks like grainy mashed potatoes. Meat is expensive, since a chicken costs around seven to ten dollars, and beef is about the only meat that people can regularly afford. (Beef is sold by pound with no choice of cuts) Many Africans hardly ever eat meat since it simply costs too much and stick to posho, matoke, kidney beans, ground peanut sauce, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Many people have only one meal a day and often go to bed hungry. Faith is a main part of Ugandan life.

You will rarely find agnostic or atheist in Africa. Most people have a real faith in God. Churches and Mosques are filled with worshippers during services and people embrace their faith in a very serious fashion. Moslems and Christians in Uganda get along reasonably well and there is a tolerance for each other Church services last for hours, literally all day long. A church near our house has church everyday and ministers to 2000 people who have AIDS, some of which have been healed through prayer (So the local newspaper reported). On Friday evening most churches have an all night prayer meeting.

Sunday morning many churches begin singing and never stop until late in the afternoon and then they start again with an evening service. Even most devout Westerners would have difficulty in adjusting. Faith, for many Ugandans is the hub of social life. When you have little else, it becomes the focus and provides a needed outlet for the pain of heart and soul that so many feel. They take their faith very seriously and their devotion to God is carried out in daily life. President Museveni has said that for many jobs he would only like to hire born again Christians or devout Muslims since it would reduce the level of corruption that is prevalent in Africa. Church attendance often numbers into the thousands.

There are many churches that have over 5000 in attendance on Sunday mornings and evangelism has become a way of life. There is no separation of church and state as known in the West, but people in all walks of life freely speak of God and take it as normal to do so.

The little pubs and restaurants where barbecue chicken and goat is served on skewer are filled people listening to music as various as rap, reggae to the Soukos style from Zaire (Congo). There is an appreciation of the here and now, of the moment not knowing what tomorrow will bring and a desire to forget the pain of today and yesterday.

Laughter and joy is the common denominator amongst the common people of Uganda. You do not see the empty stare of a person in poverty like the street people of the West. There is a determination to live in spite of the way things are.

As told by: Juliet Lussen – Volunteer

Compiled by: BoHU MeDIA