Monday, December 20, 2010

My Last Blog

Village Theatre

Located about 30 kms east of Kasese, Bugoye Trading Centre serves a number of surrounding villages with daily household items like grocery, fruits, vegetables, kerosene, pop, snacks and things. There are a couple of dozen small shops selling these products on both sides of the strip of the unpaved street that runs through the Centre. There is a school, a church and a small hydro plant nearby. The population of the Centre is about 300, almost all of them shop owners and their family members.

We had gone to the Centre to watch a theatrical performance written and produced specially to sensitize community members about the issues of people with disabilities (PWDs). Instead of holding workshops, and seminars and debates, Ugandans use the theatre to convey their messages. I have seen close to two dozen skits on a wide range of issues, like, the negative attitude of able-bodied people towards PWDs and the explosion and consequences of land mines; and, I am impressed by the powerful impact of theatre in conveying difficult, and at times, sensitive messages. Acted out in the open for anyone and everyone to watch, these performances are held with a minimum of fuss. Actors wear no make-up and there are no stage lights, or hidden microphones, or any other paraphernalia that go with a stage production.

At the Bugoye Trading Centre we were in for a treat as it was a full-fledge drama. Compared to the many skits performed by amateurs, this performance was produced by a professional associated with the East African Theatre Institute. The group had the luxury of having a sound system although the two microphones were, more often than not, a hindrance than help. Actors were paid between 5,000-10,000 shillings ($2.50-5.00) for each performance depending on their role. Not much by Canadian standard. But, it’s not bad in Uganda.

The story was about a very bright young woman, Vera. She always achieved top grades and also excelled in extra-curricular activities. Her parents and siblings loved her dearly and she was the favourite among her friends and community members. She was an ideal child and a role model for younger folks. However, everything changed after Vera became disabled. She had climbed the tree to pick some mangoes. She missed a step and fell on the ground with a broken leg. As result, she could no longer walk without a stick, and even then, she could barely limp her way around.

Vera (in blanket) and family

This upset her father who left the family as he did not want to be identified as the father of a disabled child. Her siblings also shunned her. Whenever they had their friends or other relatives around, they made a point of keeping Vera out of everyone’s sight. She was treated like a prisoner in her own home as her miseries kept mounting.

Her big break came when she was referred to a social worker. He interacted with Vera with empathy and over a period of time, he provided better crutches and a walker for her to become more mobile. He introduced her to an organization of PWDs which arranged for her rehabilitation. This improved Vera’s disability considerably. Slowly but surely, she began regaining her former self. She was again cheerful and confident of herself.

Eventually, Vera found a well-paying job and through her hard work and talents, became manager of the firm. She was earning a decent salary and was destined to achieve greater heights. Noticing such a change, Vera’s family members made a complete turnaround. Her siblings became more open to her and included her in everyday activities. And, upon hearing about Vera’s progress especially her high-paying job, her father returned home.

Village theatre

There were a number of side plots with humorous scenes that made the performance entertaining, for example, when, in accordance with the Ugandan tradition, Vera’s parents were negotiating the dowry that they expected to receive from her would-be husband’s family. (Yes, there is a dowry system here except that it’s the groom’s side which is required to give a dowry to the bride’s family, usually 12 goats and other things like clothing.). There were a number of such incidents that made for an enjoyable performance. The drama ended with the cast leading everyone into a sing-along and dancing with the theme: disability is not inability.

On conclusion of the drama, the audience of about 100 was divided into three groups – men, women and children. They exchanged their ideas about what they had just watched. They also talked about audiences’ reactions and the messages they received. Leaders of PWD organizations confirmed afterwards that the people who watched the performance all agreed that it was realistic depiction of the plight of PWDs.

Drama cast

Canug Disability Support Project

All the paper work for our project to provide assistive devices to people with disabilities has been completed. A local project team of three people has been established in Kasese to manage the project, and, in Canada, we have started receiving contributions from Canadian friends and colleagues. Anyone inclined to contribute can send their cheques to Hindu Society of Ottawa-Carleton, P. O. Box 65122, Merivale Post Office, Ottawa, ON K2G 5Y3.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Children with Disabilities

According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities are 10% of the world’s population. In Uganda, the actual number might be much higher. Nevertheless, this 10% benchmark suggests that there are approximately 3.2 million individuals with disabilities in this country. Among them, well over fifty percent, or 1.6 million, are children.

A vast majority of these children are born with disabilities: spinal bifida (injured or broken spine), cleft lips, club feet (twisted feet), hydro cephalous (big head caused by infection during or right after birth) and cerebral palsy (caused mainly by difficult labour). The most important reason for these deformities in newly-born babies is that in Uganda, 70% of births take place at home. In rural areas, this percentage might be well over 80%. When births take place at home, the necessary health and medical care is not available nor are essential tools and equipment. The inevitable consequence is the birth of a baby with some kind of deformity. There a number of factors for Ugandans’ preference for births at home: cultural beliefs, traditional practices, a lack of health and medical care facilities, and, last but not the least, people’s inability to pay. According to one knowledgeable person, 80% of deformities at birth are preventable.

Parents with their disabled children

Recently, I visited two unique organizations devoted to mitigating the hardships and suffering of these children with disabilities (CWDs).


Maali Wilson is the founder and coordinator of RAPCD (pronounced as rapseed and Rwenzori is the name of this region which is in the foothills of the Rwenzori mountain range). Maali is the Administrator of Kagando Hospital located about 40 kms from Kasese where he lives with his wife and three children. However, he spends almost every waking hour outside of his job on RAPCD’s work. On weekends and holidays he is at the organization’s facility in Kasese where he has a rented accommodation for overnight stays.

Maali’s inspiration for founding RAPCD came from his eldest son. Born with a mild form of cerebral palsy, his son has difficulty balancing himself and his speech is also not clear. But, he has a sharp mind and is even able to work on a computer. A three-wheeled vehicle suggested by a friend in 2004 allowed Maali’s son to move on his own. This was the genesis of the idea that eventually became RAPCD.

It took Maali three years before the founding of an organization for parents of CWDs. Born in 2007, RAPCD pursues three objectives: to empower parents of CWDs; to provide medical and rehabilitation service to CWDs; and, to support the education of CWDs. In three short years he has established RAPCD as a viable institution with its own plot of land just outside Kasese on which one building is already used for classrooms, sleeping accommodation and a kitchen. At present, RAPCD maintains 15 CWDs, 6 to 15 years old, including 4 vision-impaired, 10 hearing-impaired and 1 with facial deformity. A bigger building to house 30 more CWDs is under construction and is expected to be ready in February when the school will re-open for the new term.

Maali Wilson with children at RAPCD’s facility

There is a fee of 150,000 shillings, about $75, for each child for a three-month term. But most parents of the chidren are very poor and they cannot afford to pay this amount. So, they end up paying 60,000 shillings per term which includes living accommodation, teaching facility, plus three meals daily. Maali explained that not all parents are able to pay the fees, and, in that case, RAPCD shows some flexibility. Currently, the paid staff consists of a sign language teacher, a teacher of Braille, two other teachers for general subjects, a community-based rehabilitation worker and a cook.

This is quite an accomplishment. To establish an organization on such a foundation in just three years is like a dream for many other groups in Uganda. So, obviously I was thinking about how did Maali achieve such phenomenal growth. He explained that right from the beginning, he was determined and was able to mobilize the support of friends and well-wishers. These folks have been supporting RAPCD in cash as well as in kind, for example, by donating bricks and mortar and labour for the construction of the buildings.

In addition to support from friends and well wishers, Maali has also been able to connect with people in other parts of the world. For example, there is a Canadian Maali connected with on the Internet who contributes funds every month. Similarly, his connection with an American woman through the UN’s online volunteering group resulted in RAPCD receiving a laptop and a digital camera. Other contributions include Braille-oriented alphabetical templates used by vision-impaired children who were so keen on showing off their writing skill, they completed the whole alphabet in minutes during my visit. As well, RAPCD has received type writers and stationery from outside Uganda. There are huge stacks of books, from floor to ceiling, in large prints, published by the National Geographic Society donated by the Alabama Instructional Resource Centre. There are other books and materials donated by Blind Aid, U.S.A.

As I left RAPCD’s facility, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the dedication, zeal and ingenuity of Maali which have led to such dramatic growth of his organization.


Located near the town of Mbarara, approximately three-hours’ bus ride Southeast of Kasese, OURS is the most widely known and universally respected institution in Western Uganda. Founded in 1995 by the Germany-based Christian Blind Mission, OURS provides complete rehabilitation services to CWDs. Kordelia Fischer-Borchert is the director and she explained the two-fold purpose of OURS: 1) to empower CWDs by providing rehab, medical and surgical care, medications, physio- and occupational therapy, counseling and social rehab; and 2) to support CWDs in their integration in the society by working with community members as part of a community-based rehabilitation (CBR) program.

The organization has a staff of 14 people that includes professionals like physio and occupational therapists, a nurse, a CBR coordinator and a social worker. OURS also has an excellent but modest facility for rehab treatment and exercises. There are 20 rooms for severely disabled CWDs and their care givers, mostly mothers. In addition, OURS does a lot more work through outreach and home visits. Thus, in the ten months to the end of October of this year, OURS had completed 4,000 visits including 734 CWDs who were first-time visitors.

CWDs and caregivers who stay at the OURS facility are charged 5,000 shillings, about $2.50 per day for transport and upkeep, as a guideline; but, not all parents are able to pay that amount. Organizationally, OURS is part of the Ruharo Mission Hospital which also houses one of the best eye clinics in Uganda and a general medical service.

In keeping with the principles of community-based rehabilitation, OURS works with the parents’ support group, a partners group and about 40 volunteers in the municipality. OURS also conducts training of teachers on the issues and nurturing of CWDs.

Children at OURS enjoying themselves

RAPCD and OURS are but two organizations that serve the poor and most unfortunate children of Uganda. There are other such bodies in other parts of the country. While the need to assist CWDs is humungous, these organizations are beginning to make a difference, slowly but surely.


Oliva was a recipient of a tricycle we provided earlier this year. She came to see me last week to narrate her experience. She is very happy with the vehicle and now that she has become mobile, she has started selling charcoal. She fills the carriage of the tricycle with a load and moves around in the neighbourhood selling it. Charcoal is by far the most common fuel used in Uganda for cooking. So, Oliva is supplying a badly-needed commodity.

Oliva on her tricycle

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Disability is NOT Inability

Last Saturday, I visited the town of Mtondwe Lhubiriha in the sub-county of Karambi. It’s about 35 kms from Kasese and is right on the border with Congo. The small office of the local association of persons with disabilities (PWDs) was jam-packed with people and more were continuing to drift in. There were about 60 PWDs there – men, women, youth, children, elders, infants. Most of them were mobility impaired. Among them were many who could not walk at all. They crawled on the dirty muddy streets. A few used thongs on their hands but many used bare hands. I noticed hardened animal-like calluses on their knees and hands. There were some in the crowd who were able to walk with the help of long sticks. Then there were those few who had vision and hearing impairment. There were also a few children with physical as well as mental disabilities. And, a few mothers carried their infants with deformities.

Unable to walk, but NOT unable to work

At the meeting, we heard from about thirty PWDs. They described their disabilities and the barriers they experienced in all walks of life. Suffering from abject poverty, they focused specifically on their struggles in making a living. Except for a few who ran their own small businesses, for example, of knitting or tailoring, most of these PWDs were barely surviving. Even for those with their own businesses, life was extremely difficult. Yet, amid their miseries and difficulties and uphill struggles, there were some shining examples of individuals who proved that disability did not mean inability.

Margaret Kinene is one such role model. Margaret was stricken by polio in childhood and has no use of her legs. She moves around by crawling on hands and knees. As soon as I was introduced to her, she was eager to take me to her little stall in the town market. She is a heavy-set woman in her 40s; but she was moving on the unpaved streets going around pot-holes and rocks with the energy and enthusiasm of an able-bodied person half her age. Located besides the town’s dump that attracted goats and chickens scavenging for whatever they could find, the open-air market consisted of 15-20 sellers. Most of them sold vegetables. Margaret was selling potatoes, Matuke (unripe bananas), ground nuts and charcoal. Margaret gets her supplies from whole sellers who bring truckloads from Kasese every day. She was married, but her husband has most likely left her. I was not able to get the details because of the language barrier. But, this is usually the fate of many women with disabilities. She has three children aged 17, 13 and 11, all of them able-bodied. The children also help their mother at the market on weekends. I met her daughter who was too shy to talk to me but gave me a big smile.

Margaret And Daughter

Athletes with Disabilities

Ugandans are crazy about soccer or foot ball as some people call it here. While their national team is far from being at the world-class level, Ugandans love to watch and if they can, play the sport. And, PWDs are just as enthusiastic about the sport as other Ugandans. During my meeting in the town, a number of young men made a point of telling me that despite their disabilities, they could still play a wicked game of foot ball. I did not have to wait too long after the meeting to see them in action. When they started playing football in a small field across from the meeting place, I was amazed to see how quick these young men were crawling, almost running, on their hands and knees. They played the game with a lot of gusto and highly competitive spirit. It was a treat to watch them passing the ball and chasing it and snatching it away from each other. I have an excellent video clip, which, the system here does not allow me to download on my blog. I will share it with friends and colleagues on my return.

Tricycle recipients’ entrepreneurial ventures

During my previous placement, we had given tricycles to a few men in the Karambi sub-county and I was wondering about how they were progressing. The answer to my curiosity was provided by a group from the Disabled People’s Organizations Denmark (DPOD). While visiting the same town earlier on a fact-finding mission, the Danish group was pleasantly surprised that a few of the tricycle recipients had become entrepreneurs. They carry tax-exempt goods like soda, beer and mineral water in their tricycles’ carriages across the border and sell them to Congolese shops. On their return, they bring back salt, oil and other goods to sell to Ugandan shop owners. Because of tax exemption, they make a decent profit both ways. Not bad for people who were struggling to make a living before they possessed tricycles. Another testimonial for our project!

Tricycle and Trade

Monday, November 1, 2010

Week Two

The weather has been a mix of rain and heat. This is supposed to be the rainy season here and it does rain, but mostly in the evenings. During the day and especially in the afternoon, it is unbearably hot; and, when it rains, it rains with fury. Last week, I was caught in a rain storm while walking to my apartment. Navigating muddy and rocky streets with countless pot holes and huge cavities filled with water can be treacherous. And, boda bodas (motorbike taxis) are no good in such wet and slippery conditions. I hope I don’t get caught in the rain again.

It was a quiet week. The highlight was a surprise visit from an individual who could not contain her excitement and enthusiasm.

A tricycle recipient’s visit

Biiara Gatrida had called me a couple times during the week wanting to come and see me as soon as possible. She is severely disabled and is unable to walk. She was the first recipient of a tricycle we contributed earlier this year during my first placement here in Kasese. She managed to come on Wednesday along with her 8-year old daughter, Masika. They came bearing gifts - hand-made articles, a basket, a container and a server made from coconut shells, plus, a chicken. A very healthy live chicken! She was beaming with joy as she presented the gifts.

The tricycle has made a big difference in her life as she is now mobile and does not have to depend on others to take her from place to place. Her own business of basket-making and weaving and handicrafts is going well. She also teaches these skills to others with disabilities. In addition, she is working with an NGO of parents of children with disabilities. She shares her experiences to help the children in dealing with their disabilities. Gatrida has another 11-year old daughter; but, as with many other women with disabilities, Gatrida’s husband left her some years ago. Regardless, she is quite content with her life. She could not stop expressing, in her broken English, how thankful she was for the tricycle.

Gift of a live chicken is considered very special in Uganda. It was a token of Gatrida’s deep gratitude. Most Ugandans would have loved to have received a live chicken. They would slaughter and cook it for a feast. But, what was I going to do with a live chicken? Slaughter it or have it slaughtered? The very idea was revolting. So, I gently told Gatrida that I don’t eat chicken. She was surprised, but accepted my word. I gave the chicken away to KADUPEDI.

Thanks, once again, to all my Canadian friends who contributed towards the purchase of these tricycles. Gatrida provides an excellent testimonial about the difference your generosity is making in the lives of some unfortunate people. A special word of appreciation to Margie and Phil Bott of Ottawa who sparked the idea! I plan to see other tricycle recipients to hear about their experiences. I am also exploring the possibility of building on this initiative through a partnership between KADUPEDI, the local organization, and a Canadian charity. Stay tuned!

Biiara Gatrida (centre) and daughter Masika presenting their gifts

Monday, October 25, 2010

My first week the second time around

This being my second visit to Uganda, I thought everything would be a lot easier. Well, my first few days turned out to be not quite as easy as I expected.

It all started with the no-show of the driver who was supposed to pick me up at the Entebbe airport. Then there was a delay in travelling to Kasese, my final destination because the transport was not available. To top it all, while in Kampala, I had to go through the tedious and laborious task of selecting furniture, utensils and all other paraphanalia for my apartment in Kasese which had absolutely nothing for daily living.

On the positive side, in the extra time I had in Kampala, I went to the African Village. It houses dozens of shops featuring clothing, handicrafts, beads, art, musical instruments and other Ugandan and African products. Going to the Village on the back of a boda boda, a motorcycle, riding through the busy and congested and rough streets of Kampala without a helmet was an experience I do not recommend. But, I managed to complete my Christmas shopping more than two months in advance. An accomplishment!

My new dwelling in Kasese is not too far from where I lived earlier. It’s a two-bedroom apartment with a common living room. The place is completely bare except for the furniture and things brought by me and Rajamohan who shares it with me. He is an IT specialist from South India who has been here for over a month. This is a welcome change from my previous apartment where I had no company, no one to talk to. And, he also has a cable TV. He loves to watch news and other programs broadcast from India. Equally exciting, he has told me that he is a good cook. I can’t wait to enjoy some South Indian dishes.

Democracy thriving in Uganda

Elections to all levels of government in Uganda will take place in February and day by day, the political fever is rising. Front pages of newspapers and television coverage are dominated by election-related news and events. Everyday there are stories of political wheeling-and-dealing and charges and counter-charges. Yes, democracy is thriving in Uganda albeit in its unique Ugandan incarnation.

The country has been ruled by President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) since 1986 when he led the fight against and defeated rebellious forces. There have been pockets of violent insurgencies in the North and the West since then; but, overall, Museveni has stabilized the country politically and economically. Having been in power for 24 years, he has also consolidated his base enormously.

As can be expected, there are also those who severely criticize his regime for not delivering on its promises. For example, a national newspaper is running excerpts from a banned book which focuses on Museveni’s failures and machinations. The book also details inefficiencies and duplicity of the Uganda’s Electoral Commission, the body charged with the responsibility of ensuring fair and free elections.

There are other national political parties whose attempts at forming an opposition coalition have not succeeded. Even within these parties, there are frictions and in-fighting. There are some dissenting elements also in Museveni’s party supported by those who lost out during the primaries.

Under the Ugandan system, candidates chosen by political parties are called “flag bearers”. Selection of flag bearers took place last month through primaries, and, in the next few days, each flag bearer will be required to file his/her nomination papers. As the process moves on, some irregularities and disputed claims have been uncovered providing fuel for controversies.

Today is the nomination day for the position of President and six other candidates including a woman, are vying for the position occupied by Museveni. This will formally begin the campaign.

Uganda’s National Hero

Twenty-four years old Moses Kipsiro is Uganda’s new national hero. Two gold medals he won in 10,000 and 5,000 metre races at the recently-concluded Commonwealth Games in Delhi have catapulted him to national prominence. Uganda is not known for producing world-class athletes. So, Kipsiro’s achievements have provided the country with some bragging rights and international recognition. Every day since his return last Monday, this young man has been publicly honoured, lavished with gifts and superlative praises and recognized as a role model for young Ugandans. The government has also pledged greater assistance for the training of athletes.

Ugandans of all faiths, tribes, linguistic groups and political stripes came together to celebrate the achievements of young Moses Kipsiro. A welcome change in a highly politically chjarged climate!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My last blog from Uganda

Ugandan Humour

This is my last blog from Uganda and to close my blogging in a lighter vein, here are some excerpts from a piece written by Pablo Kimuli, who loves to poke fun at Ugandans.

There are things that only Ugandans do that you won’t find elsewhere. We are the only people who bend all the rules, as long as we don’t break them. It’s the only country where you can pee by the roadside during broad day light and no one will point a finger at you, despite the strong warning “Tofuka wano, fine: Shs 10,000”, which loosely translated means you will be fined Shs 10,000 if caught red handed peeing here.

A bold man once stood at such a place with a Shs 10,000 note and held it up high, but nobody dared to ask for it. But then, Ugandans fear witchcraft. Having failed to stop people from peeing on his wall fence, my neighbor decided to write on his wall: “we collect urine for witchcraft.” Nobody dared to pee there thereafter.

Ugandans are the only people who refer to money as “balance” when they actually want “change.” A true Ugandan will always respond “I’m fine” even when they are admitted in hospital or have lost a loved one. We are fond of adding the phrase “well done” after greeting you, even when you haven’t done anything. When it comes to our roads, only drunken drivers drive straight. They only have two problems, starting and stopping the car.

Ugandans are very innovative. We refine empty mineral water bottles to pack fruit juice, empty insecticide tins to make tadoba (locally-made paraffin lamps), used tyres to make shoes (lugabire), and empty tins to hot-comb hair. We never put anything to waste.

We also have our own kind of English. We are the only people who end questions with the 5ws. E.g. “You said what?” “You are going where?” “It’s for who?” “He did it how?”

We are good at throwing birthday parties for five-year olds and 80% of the guests are above 40. Women marry hoping to change the men and the men hoping that the women won’t change. You hear a lady say, “when we get married, I’ll make sure he eats home every night.” Visit any fast food place after 9p.m. and you’ll see how many married men are rushing to finish their chips before heading home for burnt offerings.

Before marriage, the men enjoy walking behind their fiancées, but after two kids in the marriage, the guy is moving fast forward ahead of the wife! We are good at listening to a football commentary on radio and tell it like we watched it live on television. In restaurants, we always grab the opportunity to use tooth-picks even when we have only taken water. Ugandans, especially those from the central part of the country, are the only people who say, “kankomewo” which means “I’ll be back shortly” and never return.

The Pearl of Africa

Winston Churchill was so enchanted by the natural beauty of Uganda that he called it the Pearl of Africa. These pictures reflect the stunning landscapes of this country.

Tricycles and White Canes

As part of our campaign to help some Ugandans with disabilities, we have now given away thirteen tricycles to mobility-impaired persons. Seven of these tricycles have been given to men and six to women.

Here they are:

  • Biira Gatrida (W)
  • Gabriel Agaba (M)
  • Bihanda John (M)
  • Baluku Fauza (M)
  • Biira Rebecca (W)
  • Bwalhuma Masiah (M)
  • Salim Masumbuko (M)
  • Mohindo Verone (W)
  • Josia Kinene (M)
  • Oliva Kiiza (W) (from Shirley Sauve)
  • Kabugho Yeresi (W)
  • Sefas Muhindo (M)
  • Valeria Kyakimwa (W)(from Suzanne Sauve)

Twenty white canes have arrived and the distribution has begun. But, the process has been slower because many vision-impaired people find it very difficult to arrive at the KADUPEDI office to collect their gifts without assistance especially those live in the villages. Office staff is arranging for them to pick up the canes or to deliver them to the recipients.

I have taken pictures of some recipients of tricycles and a couple of white canes. I will be glad to share these pictures with the donors on my return. But, my camera broke down accidentally and I have not been able to photograph every recipient.

Once again, I want to impress on Canadian friends who have donated these gifts how grateful the recipients have been. Everyone, without exception, kept repeating to me how the gift will change their life or open up a new chapter in their life, or allow them to be free, allow them to be independent, and so on and on. Thank you, folks! Your gifts are making a difference in some unfortunate people’s lives.

Final thought

This placement in Uganda has been an incredible experience in more ways than I can put in words. Personally and professionally, I have been enriched beyond my wildest expectations.I am now looking forward to the next ten days of traveling around Uganda and Rwanda with Neil who arrives here this evening. Then…back to Canada to enjoy my grandchildren (and the spring and the tulips and...)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

About Kabakas and Kingdoms

TWO DIE AT KASUBI was the headline on the front page of the Daily Monitor on Saturday. The story began with the heading “Hundreds injured as thousands join Kabaka Mutebi in mourning burnt tombs”.

Kabaka Mutebi is the reigning King of the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda. The biggest domestic news on front pages of newspapers last ten days has been the fire at Kasubi, an area in Kampala, which destroyed tombs of four of his ancestors.

It may be hard to believe, but Kingdoms and Kings and Queens and Princes and Princesses and their palaces still exist and thrive in Uganda. As was the case in India, Uganda was comprised of many small independent territories before colonization. However, unlike in India where the power and priviledges of former stately Rajas and Nawabs were abolished within fifteen years of independence, in Uganda, Kabakas continue to occupy a special status and wield considerable influence.

Kingdoms in Uganda were ruled by tribal chiefs or wealthy landlords or rebellious leaders who established themselves as kings after seizing the territory. They levied taxes on the citizens in order to maintain their palaces, automobiles, armies and lavish life style. After colonizing Uganda, the British were quite happy to support these rulers albeit with only nominal power as long as they paid their dues to the Crown. In fact, the existence of many kingdoms perfectly suited the British divide and rule policy. The Empire was more secure that way.

When the British left Uganda in 1962, Buganda, the home of the Buganda tribe, was the largest and most powerful kingdom. It consisted of a large chunk of territory centrally located and included Kampala, the capital. The then ruler of Buganda, the father of the current Kabaka, was most reluctant to have his kingdom become part of Uganda, and, afraid of losing his territory, demanded to be under the British foreign office instead of an independent country. After intensive negotiations, an agreement was reached that the kingdom would enjoy self determination over its territory and affairs. In return, Buganda became part of Uganda. Today, Buganda has its own Parliament, a Prime Minster and a Cabinet and it retains all its authority and power. But, tensions between the Kingdom and Uganda’s government remain.

The tombs of four predecessors of the current Kabaka were erected over 125 year ago. Because of its unique architecture and beauty, Kasubi had become a national monument, a favourite tourist attraction and a sacred place for the Buganda people. The United Nations had even pronounced it as a World Heritage site. So, when the unexplained fire demolished the tombs on March 16, it immediately became a major national setback.

I learned about the existence of kingdoms in Uganda in very early days of my stay here because next door to our office is the office of the Rwenzururu Kingdom. The place is always busy with a whole bunch of people coming and going. They seem occupied everyday in meetings and high-level consultations. When asked about this, I was told that these were members of the cabinet and staff of the King. This kingdom formerly belonged to the Toro, a much larger and more powerful kingdom dominated by the Toro tribe. But, soon after independence from Britain in 1962, there was a falling out between the Toro Kabaka and Isaya Mukirinia, the leader of the Bakonzo tribe. He led a rebellion and seized part of the Toro territory in the Rwenzori mountains. The Toro Kabaka sent his soldiers to capture him, but he hid in the mountain range and was never caught. He established the seat of his kingdom in a palace high up in the hills. It was due to his campaign that Kasese received its status as a separate district in which the Bankonzo people live. He sent his young son, the current Rwenzururu king, to the U.S. out of fear for his life. Upon Isaya Mukirinia’s his death, his son was crowned as King.

With the existence of these kingdoms, I have been wondering about whether these are parallel governments, because, like Uganda’s national government, these kingdoms also have ministers with portfolios like health, transport, the environment, finance, etc. I was told that they are not duplicating or conflicting with the national government programs. Instead, they are now known as “Cultural Leaders” whose main function is to promote local culture and tradition and to ensure that their values and customs are not undermined by government policies and programs. What does this mean in practice? I have no idea. Regardless, these Kabakas enjoy a very special place in their communities and are influential opinion leaders. They are highly revered and recognized at public events. For example, today, the current King of Rwenzururu, His Royal Highness Omusinga Charles Wisely Iremangoma, was the Chief Guest at the launch of Oxfam-Uganda’s “We Can” campaign which is aimed at stopping domestic violence against women. Lots of people were looking forward to his presence with excitement and anticipation. And, a couple of weekends ago, we were to visit a village to meet a group of people with disabilities. But, two days before our trip, we were informed that the King had decided to visit that village the same day. So, of course, our trip had to be postponed. Kings take priority over us mortals.

To pay for their opulent life style, retinue of staff and maintenance of palaces, these royal families receive funds from the national government. The King of Rwenzururu receives 5 mill Shillings per month, an exorbitant amount by local standards. Other kingdoms also thrive on contributions from the government. This seems to have been a part of the deal that brought them in an independent Uganda in 1962.

A couple of weeks ago, Shaan sent me a CNN story, “African teen king lives dual life”. Incidentally, this young man is the king of the Toro Kingdom from which the father of the current Rwenzururu king broke away fifty years ago. For greater insights about the Kabakas, their Kingdoms and their unique status in Uganda, browse through the following link: African teen king lives dual life

Tricycles and White Canes

Our tricycle campaign has been very popular and now people come to this office urging me to get one for them or for someone they know. Fortunately, I have entrusted Peter the responsibility to decide who deserves a tricycle more than someone else. The first batch of ten tricycles has been completed. Three individuals picked up their vehicles today and five others will come in the next few days. Mobility is such a huge problem with some of them that they have to arrange with a family member or friend to bring them here. The woman you see in one of the pictures came with friends from a distance of about 60 kilometers. And, they had hard time arranging a transport with a rooftop rack to so she can take the tricycle back to her village.

Further offers of gifts have come from these friends in Canada:

Susan and George Nielson
Beth and Jean Noble
Cynthia and Gord Walker

At first, I wasn’t sure if the workshop would be able to make them before I leave in two weeks. But, I have been assured that additional vehicles will be ready in time. This is good news as it will allow us to contribute to the lives of three more individuals.

Along with tricycles, we have used the gift from one of my friends to buy collapsible white canes for persons with vision-impairment. These canes are as much in demand as tricycles. Many people currently use dried-up tree branches or wooden sticks to get around and find themselves in trouble while crossing the streets.

Three more recipients of tricycles

Monday, March 15, 2010

Uganda’s OVC

OVC is the acronym for orphans and other vulnerable children. Because of the staggering number of OVC, Uganda’s national government has a program to deal specifically with their issues.

There are over 2 million orphans in this country. Here, children become orphans because of deaths of one or both parents as a result of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and violent conflicts the country has experienced in last fifty years. Abductions during conflicts and traffic accidents also account for a significant number of orphans.

Vulnerability, a much broader concept, is caused by many factors. Abject poverty, broken marriages, domestic violence, disabilities, malnutrition, unimaginable abuses, intellectual disabilities, psycho-sociological stress, alcoholism and unemployment are some of these factors. Thousands of children living on the street or living in camps in northern districts as a result of conflict and those in institutional or foster care in an unstable environment are also vulnerable.

A Polio Victim

Born with Club (twisted) Feet

Vulnerable Children with Disabilities

Children and Parents at a Village Meeting

Recently, I had an opportunity to talk to the coordinator of an organization that provides linkages and support to OVC. When I browsed through their files for specific cases, I was astounded to find a wide spectrum of OVC. I have selected excerpts from five letters in which writers were requesting support from this organization.

Letter from a woman 31-40 years of age:

I write to request you to link (name of the child) to anyone who can support his education and welfare. I am a poor woman caring for nine children and my husband sells everything I get from casual labour on alcohol. He moves from town to town, prison to prison. My land has been sold because of his wrong. I am very poor to look after my children.

An 18-year old young man wrote:

I am a vulnerable orphan and disabled aged 18.My father died of HIV/AIDS. My mother divorced even before the death of my father. I am disabled due to poliomyelitis which attacked me in my childhood. I am cared for by my grand (aged) mother (grandmother’s name) who carry me to and from school because I cannot walk or stand. I am in senior 3 at (name of school) two kms away. Kindly link me with any organization that can support my education and welfare.

A woman over 61 years wrote:
(name of the child) is the biological child of (names of parents) born 15/6/1993, a Ugandan, Omukongo by tribe. (name of child) lost his dear mother 20 May 2004 who acting as the mother at the same time as the father. Although the father is alive, he took a double orphan at this time he is living with his grandmother getting no help from the father who is polygamist with a number 50 (fifty) children. The grandmother is over sixty years is unable to work. So it is a duty of this child to do hard labour to get what eat.

A single mother wrote:
I would like to inform you that I the mother of (child’s name) was formerly abducted by the rebels in 1998 and delivered in the bush and encountered problems. I couldn’t get what to eat, where to sleep and in addition a lot of work was given to lift heavy lugages, walking long distances on an empty stomach. By God’s mercy I escaped after one year of suffering. (Child’s name) is now striving for life and in P.4 now at (name of school). I cannot manage to support her education since all my properties were stolen and her father being a casual labourer.

Letter from a woman 51-60 years old:
(Child’s name) is aged 13 years. She is a Ugandan Mukonzo. She sat her PLE (Primary Level Education) this year 2009 at (name of school) where by results are not yet out.

How (child’s name) came to stay with me; My late husband (name) died in 1995. After two years of his death, a certain woman came to me with a baby child of two years claiming that the child belonged to my late husband. The next day, the woman escaped leaving this child behind. She was no where to be seen. I reported the case to police, radio announcements in search of the woman. I had it rough to settle this child… I am keeping her that claim of the mother without any evidence… As a widow with no external assistance from the clan I regret that I may not be able to give her enough support for her further education since I have other orphans…

Gabriel’s Story

Gabriel’s story depicts one of the extreme cases of vulnerability. I could not believe my eyes when I first saw Gabriel. He was not on his feet. He was rolling on the dirty, filthy, bumpy streets of this town going over rocks and pot holes and all. With worn out wooden sandals in his hands he would prop himself up so his head wouldn’t get hurt. His knees were wrapped in layers of rags and he wore a torn shirt and ripped pants which probably had not been washed in ages. Most likely, he did not have a shower or a wash for months. He didn’t seem human. He showed no emotion. He was like an animal, worse than an animal. I found it very difficult and painful to watch him in such a miserable condition.

Gabriel was born in an extremely poor family with a severe case of cerebral palsy and he was unable to use his legs. His disability was a huge burden; so, his family abandoned him on the street. To survive, the only thing Gabriel could do was to roll himself. He would roll from door to door and shop to shop. Seeing him in such a pathetic position, some community members took pity on him. They would give him some food or money. But, that was never enough. Finally, an Imam of a nearby Mosque could not bear to see Gabriel in that state any longer and gave him shelter. But, the Imam himself had limited means. He could not do anything more for Gabriel let alone help him with immobility. So, Gabriel continued rolling on the streets and lived on generosity of others. That’s how he grew up.

When we launched the wheelchair/tricycle campaign, Gabriel was one of the first individuals I thought of. Peter contacted him, and last week, he came to pick up his vehicle. At first, he was dumb founded, but after a chat with Peter, he decided to give it a try, albeit hesitatingly. He had trouble getting on the tricycle because he had never been in any position other than horizontal. Sitting up in the tricycle was a huge and painful effort. But with encouragement from others, he managed. Just a few instructions and he started the tricycle using his strong arms. As he moved, his face lit up. That was the first time in his forty years that he was looking at the world from a different position. What a profound experience! Since everyone in Kasese knows Gabriel, people on the street were all watching him with intense curiosity and joy.

Gabriel trying out his precious gift

It has been a week since Gabriel picked up his tricycle. Peter tells me that some people from the neighbourhood have called to say how, like a kid with a new toy, Gabriel is riding the vehicle. They have never seen him so happy.

Thanks to all my Canadian friends for donating these life-altering gifts. You are indeed making a difference, a huge difference, in the lives of some unfortunate people like Gabriel and Biira Gatrida.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Uganda Notes

The Wheelchair/Tricycle Campaign

Thanks to the generosity of these people, we have met, and in fact, exceeded the target in just one week.

Hazel Baskin

Betty Bergin
Margie and Phil Bott

Ursula Chavez-Hibbard
John Knobel

Carol and Mike Lundy
Lorna McKenzie

Mary and Frank Mayda
Jody and Shaan Parekh

Shirley Sauvé
Suzanne Sauvé

Maria and Jaap Schouten
Maureen Sly

Marie and Mel Thompson

Folks, your gift will make a big difference in the life of a Ugandan with a disability. And Margie, I greatly appreciate your contribution to this effort. To all of you, my most sincere Vasinja (thanks)! Merci! Muchas gracius!

Biira Gatrida in Her New Tricycle

A gift from Margie and Phil Bott

Matooke, Muchomo and Grasshoppers

Matooke is a popular Ugandan dish that consists of steam-cooked green bananas. This is a featured item at most parties and group dinners. Ugandans don’t seem to have enough of it. Kaunga is another popular dish which is a mix of millet and cassava. For some locals, dinner is not complete without some Kaunga. A concoction of maize is cooked to make Posha. One other item that is popular among the Mizungus (white folks) is Muchomo, barbecued goat (or beef or chicken) meat. Muchomo with French fried make a nice meal for many ex pats.

A very special delicacy is called Ensenene. It consists of fried grasshoppers and it is served in Ugandan homes to their honoured guests. I haven’t been served this delicacy, not yet. And, if served, I don’t think I would sample a fried grasshopper.

Rice is a staple at meals. Goat is the most popular among meats followed by chicken. Fish is also available in most restaurants and so is beef although less frequently.

The influence of Indian cuisine is very strong. Many restaurants feature curries (goat, fish, beef and vegetable) and chapattis on their menus. A few higher-priced restaurants also feature Western dishes – pan cakes, sandwiches, salads, pizzas, fish and chips and spaghetti. But their version of these dishes can be quite different. Each time I order one of these items, I have a surprise.

Polygamy and human rights

If I want to marry more than one woman and if the women are happy marrying me, why should anyone object? It’s none of their business. It is a violation of a man’s human rights to insist that he can only marry one woman; and, human rights of women are also breached if they cannot marry a man with more than one wife. They are deprived of their right to freely choose whomever they want to marry.

I have paraphrased above the vigorous argument my driver in Kampala put forward in defending polygamy which is legal in Uganda. For him, the notion of monogamy did not make sense. And, he did not defend polygamy on religious grounds (i.e. Islam allowing a man to marry up to four women). For him, it was a matter of human right. When I asked him whether women have a reciprocal right, he promptly replied that Ugandan women would not want to marry more than one man anyway.

I know of a few men who have more than one wife. One is an old story-teller living in the mountains in a small hut. He has five women (they call them women, not wives) and several children. He is very poor; yet, he seemed to be doing fine living with five women. On Valentine’s Day, the paper contained a piece with the headline, “I love all my wives” and the author was the Chair of Uganda’s Election Commission. It didn’t indicate how many women he had married but it was clear that he had married several times.

What is the maximum number of women a man can marry? I don’t have the answer. But, a few weeks ago, one of the national newspapers featured a full-page story of this very wealthy and huge Ugandan man. The article also carried a picture of his entire clan - twenty one wives and seventy children. Imagine that!

Uganda Time

A few weeks ago, we had a scheduled meeting with the District Service Commissioner who is the head of the local government machinery. This was the first meeting of its kind where our board was to meet him and his staff in the hope of initiating an ongoing dialogue. KDP had prepared for it for days and a couple of people from KDP’s partner organizations had travelled for this meeting all the way from Kampala. However, it was only after 15-17 of us reached the Commissioner’s office that one of his minions told us that the meeting would have to be delayed - by one full day. Even though everyone here has a mobile phone, no one from the Commissioner’s office bothered informing us about the delay.

This is perhaps an extreme example, but, I have yet to attend a meeting, whether with our own executive or with government officials or elsewhere, that has started on time or within a few minutes. And, when a meeting is delayed, it could be for hours, not minutes. What I find amazing is that Ugandans don’t seem to be bothered by this kind of delays. They accept it as part of their way of life. But, my patience is tested daily.

Stapled newspapers and the soccer craze

The first time I bought a newspaper in Kasese, I tore the first page when I tried turning it. That’s because vendors staple their newspapers. Apparently, some people go to the newspaper stall, grab and read a paper there and return it without buying it. So, to prevent free-loaders from reading the paper, they put at least two and sometimes more staples. Not a bad idea, eh?

There are two major national newspapers. They are both in a tabloid format, and in both, domestic news take up a huge chunk of the space. Uganda’s national election is only a year from now. So, political news and stories dominate the news. Major international news like the disaster in Haiti and Chile’s earthquake get lost somewhere in the middle pages.

Aside from domestic news, each paper devotes four to six full pages to soccer every day. Ugandans are crazy about soccer. The World Cup of soccer is scheduled in South Africa and it is only 100 days from today; so, the countdown is on. There are stories of teams, their owners, managers, players and juicy gossips. Sports pages hardly carry news of other sports with the exception of a couple of items like Tiger Woods’ mea culpa and an Indian cricketer’s record-breaking 200 runs in a one-day match. The same is true of local TV stations which continuously show soccer, soccer and more soccer. But, the Winter Olympics, an international sporting event, was completely ignored.

Sundays are special

Sunday is a very special day here. It is reserved for one and only one activity – visiting the Church. For most of the residents of this town, their Sunday is not complete without a visit to the Church. Walking around Kasese and neighbouring communities on a Sunday morning, you can see groups of people, older men in dark suits and ties and women in long dresses and head scarves going to or coming out of a Church. Even for younger Ugandans, Sunday Church service is a must. This is such an important part of their weekly routine that they cannot fathom someone like me, for example, not going to the Church.

However, Church’s influence goes well beyond the Sunday service. Every business meeting and public function, except a one-on-one visit, invariably begins with a prayer, a Christian prayer, asking for spiritual guidance and divine wisdom. Sometimes, there is also a prayer of thanks at the end.

Beauty is in the gap between the teeth

An article published in a newspaper around Valentine’s Day caught my attention. It described features that denote beauty for traditional Ugandan women. Among this country’s many tribes, physical standards of beauty vary. However, a gap in the front teeth of a woman is considered a mark of beauty in a number of tribal groups. In some communities the gap may be in the upper jaw while in others, the preference is for a gap in the lower jaw. Regardless, to be considered beautiful, a traditional woman must have a gap in the teeth.

To meet this criterion, some women have one or more of their front teeth knocked out. The article noted that the practice of removing women’s teeth can be traced back to the meningitis outbreak in the Karamoja region. Since the disease locked the victims’ jaws, their teeth were taken out to administer aloe vera and other herbs. Thus began the practice which later became a symbol of beauty. In one tribe, traditional Lugabara women knock six teeth out of their lower jaw in order to look beautiful. Different strokes…

Music and dance

There are 56 ethnic groups in Uganda and over 40 major languages and dozens of dialects. On a recent field visit, I was in a community about 20 km from here and these people spoke a different language. Even the young woman who was my interpreter had difficult time understanding them. The existence of so many tribes and languages accounts for the great diversity in music, dance and theatre. The picture shows a traditional instrument of the Bakonzo people. It is made of wooden planks placed on a couple of tree stumps and people hit the planks with small sticks to produce music to which women wearing grass skirts dance. Unfortunately, I have not been able to send you the video. But, enjoy the picture.

Bakonzo tribe’s instrument called Embara

Monday, February 22, 2010

Make a difference

In my blog of January 27th (KADUPEDI - The people I work with), I had written about some of the most amazing people I have met here. Biiara Gatrida was one of them. She was born with polio and both her legs are non-functional. She wears thongs on her hands to use them as her feet and drags herself all over. When I met her, at first it was painful to watch her straining at each step. At the same time, I was struck by how well she could manage herself, as if her disability did not exist. She has boundless perseverance and determination.

Despite her condition, she took courses on weaving mats and baskets. She now makes and sells these hand-made articles to support herself. When I asked her about her biggest wish, she instantly replied that she was desperately yearning to acquire a wheel chair. If she had her own vehicle, she explained, she could herself pick up the raw material for her weaving business. When others help her, she cannot always rely on them. And, she wants to be independent. She also wants to start giving lessons in weaving to others in her situation.

Reading her story on the blog, my dear friends, Margie and Phil Bott, were moved and they immediately fired off an e-mail to me offering to buy a wheel chair for Biiara Gatrida. What a heart-warming gesture! And, they didn’t even inquire about the cost. Very special people they are, Margie and Phil.

In talking to Baluku Peter at the office, he explained that because of road and traffic conditions, here, a tricycle is preferred by those who are not mobile. It has a wheel in the front. Instead of paddles, the rider uses the handles that put the chain in motion to move and steer. After a few inquiries, we connected with a local company that makes these tricycles. Its first product is shown in the picture.

To build on the gesture of Margie and Phil, I have decided to acquire more of these wheel chairs/tricycles. My target is to get a minimum of ten of these vehicles before I leave Uganda around 10 April. Since writing that blog, I have met dozens of people - children, women and men, who, because of polio, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, land mines, accidents or injuries suffered during Uganda’s bloody insurgencies, are not able to move. And, being extremely poor, no one, including family members can help them with mobility.

The challenge is overwhelming and giving these vehicles to ten people will be only like a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, there are many small ways in which we in rich countries can help out these poorest of the poor, people with disabilities. Giving of these wheel chairs/tricycles will be one such tiny step.

If you are moved, motivated or inspired, I would welcome your participation in this project. It will cost you not more than $200. And, you will certainly make a huge difference in the life of someone less fortunate. They will forever be grateful to you.

For contributing to this effort or any questions, please send me an e-mail at:

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Ugandan Family

Robert is a 34-year old Ugandan. I met him at an Internet Café a few weeks ago. He is a medical laboratory technician working in a Health Centre in Kasese. We meet once or twice a week, usually on Sundays.

Yesterday, he invited me to visit his home in a nearby village located in the Rwenzori mountains. Robert has a government subsidized apartment in Kasese, but he visits his home every weekend to be with his mother and siblings and more importantly, to help them “dig”, i.e. cultivate land. We started in the morning around 9. Normally, Robert travels to and from his village by a boda (motorbike taxi), but, today he had made special arrangement for a car taxi. Once we left the main highway, the road to his village was, like most other roads in Uganda, unpaved with hundreds of thousands of rocks and pot holes every few meters.

Maliba Town

We reached a town called Maliba (pronounced Maliva) around 10:15. It is located at the bottom of one of the mountain peaks in a scenic setting. At one end of the town is a half-completed structure where Robert’s family members and neighbours were waiting for us – his mother, his two brothers, two sisters, cousins and several neighbours. They exuded genuine joy and warmth. They were pleased to see me and their excitement was palpable. More than anyone else, his mother was beaming with happiness. Her name is Kabugho Rakeri. I soon learned the reason for their excitement - I was the first foreigner to visit them.

Family and neighbours in Maliba

Robert’s father died ten years ago of Asthma. Robert is the second oldest among his five brothers and two sisters; so, he introduces himself as Bwambale (second born) Robert. His older brother lives in Kampala and the rest of the siblings are still studying. Robert is the main breadwinner and the half-completed structure is a Health Centre he is building for his village. There is none at present.

Standing by this building, Robert pointed out his village, Mpumuro, located way up the hill. That’s where his mother lives and that’s where Robert and his siblings were born. His family members climbed up the steep hill on foot without much effort, but to make it easy on me, Robert called a couple of bodas. Yes, I rode on a motorbike without any safety gear on an uphill path with all kinds of hazards. Here, you have no choice or time to worry about safety.

Mpumuro Village

The village consists of scattered homes besides parcels of hilly terrain. Robert’s family owns about 5 acres. They grow coffee, cassava, banana, maize, Irish potatoes (Ugandan name for potatoes), sweet potatoes and groundnuts (peanuts). But, farming contributes only marginally to family’s income.

There are three small homes made of mud and wooden planks on their land – one serves as a common accommodation for the siblings, one consists of the kitchen with a wood-burning stove, and, one is his mother’s quarters. They also have a goat with two babies as well as half a dozen chickens. Water supply is a huge problem. They have to fetch water from a nearby river and that involves carrying pots full of water up and down the hill.

Robert (in the middle) and his brothers

As soon as we arrived, neighbours and friends and relatives started trickling in to greet and meet me. Robert kept repeating how special an occasion it was that a foreigner had visited them. They were glad to hear that on my part, I considered it an honour to have visited their family. They also giggled at my attempts to speak a few words in their language. Several half-naked kids kept staring at me from the doorway. They couldn’t contain excitement when I took their pictures. I also met an elderly man who is the guardian for Robert and his siblings. In this community, when a man dies, someone, an elderly family friend or a relative, is entrusted with the responsibility of mentoring and guiding the young ones. Robert explained that whenever any of the siblings and even their mother has an issue to be resolved, they turn to him for advice. He is like an elder in some of our Aboriginal communities in Canada.

When we settled down in their hut, Robert’s mother was keen on serving me some home-cooked food following their customary practice. Robert told me that she was anxious to have a goat slaughtered and cook it for me. But, he had advised her previously that I prefer vegetarian diet. Ugandans are so accustomed to meats, they cannot fathom a strictly vegetarian diet. She was disappointed, but, as a welcoming gesture, she gave me a shirt as a gift.

Tribal Traditions

I was not able to communicate directly with his mother and others because they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Lhukonzo, their language. So, Robert acted as interpreter to help with the conversation. I learned that Robert’s family is from the Bakonzo tribe. According to their tradition, the father looks for the bride for his son, similar to the tradition in rural India. When Robert’s father was of marrying age, Robert’s grandfather started looking for a woman for him. He reached out to a neighbouring community and found the bride for Robert’s father. I doubt if Robert is going to follow this tradition. He already has a girl friend, Mary, a lovely woman whom I have met.

I had no idea that these people also have a dowry system. But, the roles are reversed. Instead of the bride’s folks giving the groom a dowry as in India, it is the groom’s family which gives out a dowry to the bride’s family. Often, the dowry consists of goats. Goats are greatly prized and goat meat is the most popular meat.

To give children some sense of their roots, when a child is christened, his/her formal name begins with the name of the grandfather on father’s side. Robert’s formal name is Nyamongera (grandfather’s name) Robert. All his siblings’ names similarly begin with the name of their grandfather. Yet, they don’t use their formal names in everyday use. Thus, Robert is called Bwambale (second born) Robert.

Robert’s grandfather on mother’s side died a few weeks ago at the age of 115, an amazing record in this country where life expectancy is only 52 years. He had seven women (the word they use around here for wife), and an unknown number of children. Polygamy is legal in Uganda. His grandfather on father’s side had three women and seven children. However, Robert’s father had only one woman, Kabugho Rakeri, Robert’s mother.

Outside Robert’s Home

Returning from the village, no other transport was available. Our only choice was to walk down the mountain, about 3 km to the base. The narrow path was full of twists and turns and a steep incline that sometimes was almost vertical. To exacerbate the problem, I wore sandals, not walking shoes; and the light drizzle had made the path extremely slippery in places. Robert goes up and down this path every week, knows every inch of the way and had no problem. Thanks to considerable support from him, I managed, except for a slip. That climb was one of the most stressful and exhausting I have experienced.

At the base, Robert had already arranged for us to have lunch in an excellent restaurant. The beer tasted wonderful even though it was not as cold as I would have liked. And, the vegetable curry was also good. That lunch culminated an unforgettable day. The visit to Robert’s family was an awesome learning experience, the highlight of my stay in Uganda. I got some valuable glimpses in the culture, traditions and practices of rural folks in this country. I hope other ex pats in Uganda will have a similar opportunity.

Robert’s mother

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Disabilities in Uganda

In the short time that I have been here, I am beginning to realize how overwhelming the issues affecting the disabled community in Uganda are. People with disabilities (PWDs) are among the poorest and rampant poverty contributes greatly to disability. It’s a vicious circle.

Using the World Health Organization’s world-wide estimate of 10% of population as a benchmark, there are 3.2 mill people with a disability in the country. This is perhaps an underestimate.

Causes of Disabilities

A number of factors have led to large-scale disabilities. Following independence from Britain in 1962, Uganda was torn apart by ethnic and tribal conflicts. Then came Idi Amin’s reign of terror from 1970 to 79 during which thousands of people were killed or severely injured. Another civil war broke out in 1982 under the banner of National Alliance for Liberation of Uganda (NALU). That uprising was squashed in 1986 by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) which has been the ruling party since. However, violent agitation occurred again between 1996 and 2002, led by the Alliance for Democratic Front (ADF).

These civil wars have left thousands of Ugandans maimed, homeless and orphans. In addition, 57 areas, many in the Kasese district, have been affected by land mines planted during the conflicts adding large numbers of people to the ranks of PWDs.

Many children are born with a disability: hydro cephalous (a big head), club feet (twisted feet), deafness, blindness, speech impediments, cerebral palsy, polio, etc. When a woman gives birth to a disabled baby, chances are that her husband/partner will leave her or react violently towards her accusing her of bringing such a baby in the family as if he may have had absolutely nothing do with the disability.

Furthermore, abduction of children has resulted in thousands of orphans. Between 1990 and 2001 alone, an estimated 20,000 children were abducted in conflict areas, and only 5,000 were returned to their communities. These children suffer from psychological problems and high-risk behaviours. Thousands of more children have been rendered orphans and vulnerable due to malnutrition, limited access to food and medical care, difficulties in eating balanced diets, and, stunted growth. The issues of these young Ugandans are of so monumental that the national government has established a special program for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC)

Polio Victims

Chronic diseases like malaria, cholera and meningitis add to the rolls of the disabled as do accidents. Ugandan diet, women’s difficult labour at child-birth, and, poor health care are other contributing factors. And, preference for large families adds to the misery.


Overall, Uganda has fared better than some other African countries. The prevalence of HIV among Ugandans 15-49 years varies from as low as 2.3% in the northwest to a high of 8.6% in the central region where Kampala is the major centre. In the western region which includes Kasese, the incidence is 6.9%. However, in the Kasese district the prevalence is 11.5% and it has been rising. This district is on the border with DRC and there is very heavy traffic carrying goods back and forth. Drivers of these lorries are known as “geographical bachelors”, i.e. married while at home, but bachelors on the road. There are also a couple of big industries, cobalt and cement, which attract workers, mostly men, from the villages. In these circumstances, HIV keeps spreading.

There is no information on HIV among PWDs, but it is suspected that the figure will be much higher because PWDs are more susceptible to the virus. They tend to readily succumb to the human need. Most of them are isolated, poor and lonely, and extremely vulnerable. With the slightest hint of love and attention, even from complete strangers, they submit. This is particularly true of disabled women shunned by partners and family members.

Many children inherit HIV from their mothers. Numbers of HIV-positive children of mothers carrying the same virus is not known. But, a recent newspaper item suggested that although the situation has improved, it could still be as high as one in six children.

A lack of HIV/AIDS education is another factor. There are community workers who strive to raise awareness and urge people to undergo testing. But, their reach is very limited and sporadic. Adding to the difficulty is non-availability of educational material in Braille and sign language teachers.

Since HIV/AIDS’ victims are mostly in the income-earning age bracket, the impact on families is devastating. The care and medication for an HIV/AIDS patient takes a heavy financial toll and the responsibility for looking after the family is often thrust upon children who lack maturity, knowledge and skills. As well, psychologically, these children are under heavy stress as they watch their sick and suffering parents day after day until their death.

Social Attitude

Above all, social attitude towards disabilities inhibits adequate care and rehabilitation of PWDs. A disability is considered a stigma or a curse, something a disabled person deserved, something to be ashamed of. Some mothers are so traumatized by a disabled child, they hide them lest others might see them. Community members tend to avoid PWDs.

KDP delegation meeting with District Commissioner (squatted, 2nd left)

Social attitude towards disability and the disabled has led to widespread systemic bias against PWDs. They cannot attend schools most of which are inaccessible and do not have teachers to teach sign language or Braille or meet other special needs. Many hospitals are not easily accessible either and hospital beds and latrines are not suited to meet the needs of PWDs. Hospital staff members also do not have the skills to interact with PWDs. As well, there are cases of abuse of PWDs by health care workers themselves. In the work place, the chances of securing employment are virtually non-existent for PWDs. There is a national law, The Persons with Disabilities Act 2006. It provides for equal access to employment for PWDs. But, the law is only like a statement of good intentions. Its implementation and monitoring leave lots to be desired.

The consequence of these factors is that PWDs are looked upon as useless. Even many disabled individuals see themselves as good-for-nothing. And, in the long list of government priorities and limited resources, issues of PWDs seem to fall by the way side.

This is the context in which KDP and other similar organizations serving PWDs are carrying on their work. Their task is huge and the challenge is immense.

Women with disabilities at a tailoring class

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

KADUPEDI - The people I work with

Kasese District Union of People with Disabilities, KADUPEDI, KDP for short, is the NGO I am working with as Program Development Advisor. KDP is a district-wide umbrella organization with over 30 members. KDP was founded in 1995 to provide a unified voice and action in dealing with the issues of people with disabilities (PWDs) in the Kasese district.

My Office Entrance

Awe-inspiring People

What has impressed me more than anything else is the exceptional breed of people associated with KPD. Baluku Peter whose official designation is Development Worker is very much like a CEO. Alice looks after all administrative chores and Biira Sylvia is the Rehab Worker.

Peter has twisted feet and a broken back. He limps and is bent over. When he was six years old, he was captured in the cross fire between Uganda's warring factions. He was injected with a serum in his legs that completely immobilized him. At one time, he was not even able to stand up. He had to drag himself to move around. However, he was determined to deal with his disability and overcome the barriers. He worked hard, studied hard and persevered to become an accountant. He is also a community worker. His personal experience inspired him to work to improve the condition of other PWDs.

Now, he is completely independent and manages his life much better than many able-bodied people. He uses his arms and cane in so many different ways, I marvel at his versatility. He also commands respect and authority. There is a constant stream of people with disabilities who drop in to seek his advice on any number maters, some of which go well beyond their disabilities. When he speaks at meetings, others listen. He is also an elected member of local council. He works at KDP as a volunteer.

Alice is in charge of office and is barely three feet tall. She fell down when she was an infant and was gravely sick and that has stunted her growth. Her arms and legs are extremely short and she has a hump on her back. But, she has a constant big smile on her face. She is always the first to arrive and the last to leave and lock up. And, what does she get for her work? Absolutely nothing! She is 27 years old, the eldest among her three brothers and five sisters. Her mother is dead and her father is a peasant without any land. He earns nothing and depends on Alice to support him as do her siblings. But she cannot find a paid job anywhere. She makes a bit of money as a typist, but, the income is negligible.

Smiling Alice

The third person who works here is Biiara Sylvia. She is a very bright and energetic young woman. She is a trained Rehab Worker. She was born with a bone disease in her left leg. She was operated in 1998 when an artificial limb was transplanted. She has a big limp while walking. She provides rehab services to children, parents of disabled children and to adults. As a qualified rehab workers, she would like to secure a paid job, but she cannot find one and KDP cannot afford to pay her. So, she also works here as a volunteer.

Biiara Gatrida is another woman I met. She was born with polio and both her legs are non-functional. She wears thongs on her hands which she uses as her feet and drags herself all over. It is gut-wrenching to watch her. Yet, even in this kind of condition, she took courses on weaving mats and baskets and now sells them to support herself. Her biggest wish right now is to acquire a wheel chair so she could pick up raw material and deliver finished products for her weaving business herself instead of asking others who are not always reliable. She also wants to start giving lessons in weaving to others in her situation. What a story!

I have met a number of other disabled people. Despite their disabilities and accompanying poverty, they carry on their lives with limitless resiliency, perseverance and positive outlook. They exude happiness.

Liberation Day and Equator

Yesterday was Uganda’s national Liberation Day. Twenty four years ago yesterday, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) defeated the rebels and took power under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni. I attended a rally and celebrations in Kasinga, a village about 35 km from here on the border with DRC. It consisted of unending parades of military personnel and a huge speech-a-thon. Anyone who has any kind of elected or appointed position made a long drawn out speech. The best part was some entertainment and traditional dancing. I hope I can upload a video of this dance in which women clad in grass skirts dance to the tune of drums, known as Embara, made up of wooden planks placed on two small tree trunks. Very traditional and unique!

On return trip from Kasinga, we stopped at the Equator which is exactly at the midway point of the earth. So, now I have the bragging rights that I stood at the centre of the earth. Ha, ha! The man in yellow shirt is Peter of KDP.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life in Kasese

Kasese – Week One

Kasese is located in the foothills of the Rwenzori mountain range that provides a gorgeous backdrop. However, Kasese is one of the poorest districts in the country with 60-70% of the population living below poverty line, i.e. making less than $1 a day. By far the majority of the population is Christian, but there is also a sizable segment of Muslims. There are about half a dozen Indian families, all of them in some sort of small business.

I live in a neighbourhood called Kamaiba. Walking from there to and from work has given me some understanding of the town. At street corners and particularly at major intersections there are the ever-present boda bodas (motorbike taxis) with young Ugandan men looking for customers. There are also bicycle taxis that offer cheaper fares. A ride on the boda boda from my apartment to office, usually a 20-minute walk, costs 1,000 Ugandan shillings, approximately 50 cents.

Like in India, Bangladesh and other developing countries, mobile phones have taken over this society and land lines are unheard of. One of the first piece of advice I was given was to get myself a mobile. Without mobiles life here would be unthinkable. This is what accounts for the proliferation of dozens of businesses offering mobile phones and related products and services. Every block in the town has at least one and often more than two or three such businesses. Some of them also offer other services like photo copying, typing and computer repairs.

Kasese’s streets are also full of all kinds of shops – milk and bread, fruits and vegetables, groceries, household items, motorbike and bicycle accessories, clothing and pharmacies. If you are looking for a tailor, all you have to do is to go to the main market and you will find several tailors on the side walk with hand-operated sewing machines ready to give you instant service.
There are a number of restaurants, a few of them, more expensive ones, offer menus featuring Ugandan as well as their version of Indian and Western dishes. There are a few Internet Cafes, most in extremely cramped quarters with no fan or ventilation. They seem to be doing very well.

The People

Ugandans are slim and short, soft speaking and mild mannered. I have seen a few fat people but I haven’t seen any obese Ugandan. They dress conservatively. No bright-coloured clothing. Most people speak English, but their accents and very soft voice can pose some problems in communicating.

Their family size is quite large – 7, 8 or more children are not uncommon. One of the workers here explained that Ugandans prefer large families because that is a sign of respect in the community. Also, parents fear that not all of their children will live to look after them in their old age. To make sure that at least a few of the children will survive, they opt for many children. But, large family size inevitably contributes to poverty. Despite abject poverty, however, there are no beggars on the streets. A huge difference between Uganda and some other developing countries!

I find Ugandans to be very friendly. Walking on the street, many people greet me or return my greeting with a smile and a nod. Sometimes I find little children gazing at me from a distance and as I come close, ask me “how are you, Sir?” or “good morning, Mister”. Cute!

Like other traditional societies, Ugandan culture is extremely hierarchical. This is reflected in how people identify themselves. Unlike our way of identifying one’s name with first and last names, here people identify themselves with their seniority in the family. For example, I would be called Balouku Navin, meaning the first born son called Navin. Nisha would be Masika (first born girl) Nisha, Shaan would be Bwambale (second born son) Shaan and Neil would be Masereka (third born) Neil.

Uganda’s population consists of many tribes each with its own language, music, arts and traditions. They greatly value their tribal identity. In my very first talk with Peter at KADUPEDI, he told me that he is from the Mukonzo tribe, Konzo for short, and that this tribe predominates in this region. However, in the country as a whole, the tribe representing the majority is Baganda which their current President Yoweri Museveni belongs to. It is this tribal identity that has caused much internal strife and civil wars in Uganda over the years.

One big, very pleasant surprise! Motor cycle driving has not been an issue. Original plan was for me to get training in Kampala, but that didn’t happen; and, when the matter was raised here, I simply said that I don’t drive a motorbike. That seems to have put an end to that matter. What a relief!