Steps away from CHOGM, but out of reach of its benefits, slum life marches on

Posted: October 15, 2007 in Blog

Irony can come in all shapes and sizes. Today it came in the form of a transport truck carrying six brand new luxury cars, barreling down the road from the airport with police escorts.

We stood in an open expanse of dirt mounds, layered with garbage and feces of the human and animal variety, watching the convoy scream its way through the street. Its cargo of cars are to be used during next month’s meeting of Commonwealth heads of government (known as ‘CHOGM’) to be held here.

I had come to visit one of Kampala’s many, but arguably one of its most notorious, slums, with a photographer and two local aid workers, one of whom grew up in this particular slum, to learn more about life in this ramshackle neighbourhood that thousands of people drive past every day.

It sits on the western edge of Kampala, visible to anyone heading to or from the airport in Entebbe. In fact, besides being used as a route for the delivery of all the luxury goods arriving in this country as it prepares for CHOGM, the road itself has been completely re-done twice (because contractors used poor asphalt the first time) since I arrived here three months ago. All so that visiting dignitaries will have smooth sailing when they fly into town for three days in November.

Politicians here have said time-and-time again that CHOGM will benefit all Ugandans; that cutting every single government budget (health, education, etc.) by five per cent to help pay the costs of preparing for the conference would be worthwhile; that freezing a campaign to bring electricity to rural Ugandans (with a goal of achieving 10 per cent coverage by 2010) to help pay for a boost in power here in Kampala to lessen the chance of brown-outs during CHOGM will, in the long run, benefit all Ugandans.

The claims were difficult to believe, but rolling your eyes at the ludicrous nature of these statements is easy to do when you’re listening to them come from politicians during one-on-one interviews or from the comfortable seat in a press conference theatre.

So we set out to put these statements to the test. The Katwe slum is about the closest that CHOGM preparations come to the lives of Kampala’s most disadvantaged residents. The slum sits beside the road to the airport, and as if to drive the point home, the truck carrying the luxury cars blew past us just as we were about to cross the train tracks and descend into the slum.

We were reminded of the reputation this slum has within minutes of crossing the tracks. We first met some young kids, none older than 11, carrying large and heavy burlap sacks full of scrap metal and plastic.

This is how the kids, long dropped out of school, make a living. It is also a source of some of the insecurity people complain about, as they say these kids break into houses to steal anything—from pots and pans to plastic jugs— that could be sold as scrap material.

After leaving the kids and speaking briefly with a man who lived in a tiny mud building crammed between the railway tracks and a dark, pungent drainage ditch, we were approached by a group of men demanding to know who we were.

They spoke with my colleagues in Luganda, so I spent most of the conversation trying to pick up whatever words I recognized. From what I could discern, they claimed to be security officials of some sort and wanted to know what we were doing there.

Though strong and fit, their clothing was disheveled and dirty. One of the four wore mismatched plastic sandals. As the conversation continued, their demeanour softened and we all introduced ourselves.

It turns out they were undercover detectives who had been following us since we’d entered the slum. They stopped us to warn us and make sure we knew the safety threats that existed in the slums. We told them that yes, we knew about the problems. They shrugged, advised us to hide our valuables and warned that it was unlikely anyone in the slum would come to our assistance if we were accosted. Then they walked back to the shade where they sat, watching those who came and went.

We walked through the narrow, dirt paths that separated the collection of one-room homes. Some were made of concrete and mud brick. Others were made from mud that had been mixed with straw to fortify it. We crossed over drainage ditches, stepped around human feces and attracted a small collection of children who followed us through the slum.

Our first stop was the local councilor who is in charge of the slum. We spoke with him in his cramped, windowless office, also made from mud. He was interesting to speak with, but I was surprised when he told us he’d never actually been down to the worst part of the slum, called Cambodia, where we were interested in spending most of our time. The area was populated with street people who had taken to living in ramshackle shacks and one family even living in the tarped-over shell of a car.

Some had been living there as many as five years but they still aren’t welcome as far as the rest of the slum’s residents are concerned.

“They come in here and steal anything from our homes that they think they can sell as scrap metal,” the councilor told us.

This detachment was confirmed later on when we were speaking with a young man who had moved off the streets and into this tiny mud home (rent is 10,000 shillings a month, or about $6). We asked whether anyone from the community helps these people who live beside the train tracks.

“The only time they come to us is when they help us bury our dead,” the man told us.

After leaving the councilor’s office (we also asked whether he thinks the area residents will benefit at all from CHOGM. He answered in saying they plan to organize protests along the nearby road that most of the delegates will be using to reach Kampala from the airport in the hopes that someone will pay attention to their plight), we walked through the collection of shacks and stopped at a group of boys and young men who were sitting in the shade.

They were gathered around a community water tap. A businessman had installed the tap, and charged residents 50 shillings (about 8 cents) to fill a jerry can. These boys and young men were in charge of accepting payment from those who came for water.

We had been told that one of the slum’s problems (common in many places here) is idle youth who have no prospect for education or employment. Beyond the lack of hope, idle hands often find a way of getting into trouble.

But these guys were great. We spoke with them for 15 minutes or so (though one immediately elected himself as the group’s spokesperson to try to keep things orderly), about the challenges they face in the slum, and also about CHOGM.

They talked about being arrested merely for standing around in public areas. I asked (through a translator) everyone in the group to raise their hand if they had been arrested. Every single hand in the group, about 15, shot up. The main guy smiled as he raised his hand, as though it was a silly notion to think that any of them may have escaped arrest.

We discussed CHOGM and how the arrests were related to CHOGM for a few minutes before saying good-bye. As we turned to leave, a few of them stopped someone in our group to ask if we could explain what CHOGM is. Here they all were, being arrested by police trying to clear the streets for CHOGM and these guys don’t even know what it is. They just know that, whatever CHOGM is, it’s a giant pain for anyone here in the slum.

We continued on, weaving our way between buildings and shacks, and eventually out the back end of the neighbourhood, where we walked into an open, grassy area that was criss-crossed by a putrid and foul-smelling river that drained into a larger, and more putrid, river.

We crossed the weaving small river several times, each time by balancing across a narrow, rotting piece of wood that had been placed across. Eventually we came full-circle back to the train tracks where we had started. We wanted to return to the young man we’d spoken with first, and so made our way in that direction.

At the end of a mud-brick wall, the path turned left and we could see the young man across the drainage ditch, hanging his laundry. But first we were stopped by a family we met at the end of that mud-brick wall.

The wife sat in the grass. Her husband lay on a sheet, shaking and with his eyes closed. Their young son sat on the other side of the husband, all cramped into a small sliver of shade.

We knelt down and spoke with the wife. Every now and then the husband opened his eyes and muttered a few words in response to our questions, but otherwise he lay in silence, as his arms, legs and lips going into periodic spasms.

The husband had fallen ill two weeks ago and had gotten steadily worse. The family could not afford to go to the doctor, and so they spent their days sitting in the shade, hoping that maybe tomorrow he will begin feeling better.

We asked how they’d managed to scrape together money here in the city. This was one of the few times the husband opened his eyes and, in hardly a whisper, he said he was the only one in the family who could work. The wife cast her eyes down at the ground. I wondered whether she may have been thinking about life without her husband, who gave no reason to believe he’d regain his health.

They had, like many in this corner of the slum, come to Kampala from other parts of the country in the hopes of making more money than they could in their village in the eastern region of Uganda.

There they had land, but much of rural Uganda does not function on much of a cash economy, so many flock to the city or larger towns in the hopes of a paying job.

Few succeed, and this family’s experience was no different. They had been in Kampala about a year, and desperately wanted to go back to the village. Here they lived in a mud shack a few metres away from the train tracks, with no access to a toilet and few job prospects. The husband found the odd job carrying things for businessmen, but otherwise they found no prospects in the city.

We eventually said our good-byes and continued on our way for our final interview, with the young man named Godfrey who we had spoken with earlier.

Taking a break from hanging laundry, he crouched down and entered his home, coming out with a bench that he placed in the dirt. The small bench was as wide as the path, separating the train tracks from the drainage ditch, on which his home was built.

He took one of his shirts off the line, used it to wipe down the bench and gestured for us to sit. We were his guests, and he wished to make us as comfortable as possible.

We sat under the scorching sun and spoke with him for 20 or so minutes, about his life and about life here in the slum.

“Some people pass here and think we’re all mad. But when we walk up on the train tracks, do we not walk just like everybody else?” he said. “We are the same as all those people who live in the big houses. I mean, we’re all just human beings, right?”

He told us about leaving his village two years ago, to come to Kampala where he thought opportunity awaited. Unfortunately, it did not. And he spent a year living on the streets before he managed to scrape together some money to get this one-room mud house, perhaps the size of a small walk-in closet, where he lived with his wife.

We asked whether he knew what CHOGM is. He then went into a very detailed description of the meeting, explaining how the heads of state from all the Commonwealth countries would be visiting Uganda in November.

We then asked whether he thought the thousands of people living here in Katwe would benefit at all from the meeting, and all the money being spent to prepare for the meeting.

“I hear the Queen is coming to see the condition of the Ugandan people, but I don’t know that she’ll see the conditions of the people here,” he said. “Maybe we should ask her to use the train, because then she’d see our lives here.”

He said that last bit with a smile, and sheepish laugh, as he pointed up to the train tracks that were barely more than an arms-length away from his home.

How many times a day do trains pass by here, I asked.

“Four, five times a day but sometimes it’s too many to count,” he said.

We talked a bit more about health and education.

“In this area people are dying so much from strange diseases we don’t understand,” Godfrey said. Over his shoulder I could see the man we met earlier, still lying in the shade, shaking.

On education, he said he wants to go back to school. He dropped out in grade five, but still hopes to go back and finish.

And with that, we said our good-byes. As we shook hands, Godfrey spoke to me in Luganda. I picked up enough words to understand what he was saying and answered using a few simple words I’ve become comfortable with. He laughed. “You’re learning Luganda?”

I’m trying, I told him.

We climbed back up the steep embankment to the train tracks to begin our walk back to the main road. Standing on top of the elevated tracks, one could look to the left and see the slum in all its rusted, dilapidated glory. Looking to the right, in the direction we were walking, a panorama of downtown Kampala, with its gleaming office buildings and recently paved roads, stared back at us.

Our backs turned to Katwe, it was the perfect vantage point for a look at the only slice of Kampala that CHOGM delegates are likely to see in November.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Chris, this is great stuff! We would appreciate some photos, however.

    Do you have a camera you can snap a few shots with? It would do wonders for context.

  2. cmason2 says:

    Hey Phil,

    Glad to hear you’re enjoying the site. Two problems with photos– one temporary, one a little more long term.

    Firstly, I was there with a photographer, so he has all the photos and I haven’t had a chance to get any from him yet. But I’ll get some soon enough.

    The second problem is space on the site. I can only post so many photos before I go past my space limit. But I can post some small versions without too much difficulty, so when I get some I’ll go back and insert them into the post. You can see I’ve done that with several posts.

    Really enjoy checking out your site– sounds like you’re having a blast up north.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s