The best chance in over a generation to get a community back on its feet

By Madeleine Bunting (THE GUARDIAN, 19/05/08):

Crowds have gathered by the borehole in Abia, a village in Katine, north-east Uganda, to greet us. The women are waving flags made of rags and tablecloths, ululating with delight at our arrival. Fence posts are decorated with bright pink bougainvillea. With home-made instruments – thumb piano, drums and strings – the village band accompanies a chorus of singing and a display of dancing before speeches from the local elders. These ceremonies are repeated five times across the sub-county of Katine as we visit the places where the Amref (African Medical Research Foundation) project is at work. Everywhere people press forward to say thank you, their faces creasing with huge smiles, the women going down on their knees according to traditional custom, and explaining how their lives have been transformed.

Mary Amulo, for example. She is 31 but already has six children. She talks very softly – the Teso culture of this region of Uganda expects women to be subservient – but with huge pride. Her husband affectionately puts his arm around her shoulders in support as she explains her role as caretaker of the new borehole. “I unpadlock the pump every morning and evening, sweep the area and wash out the cement pan. When people arrive to get their water, I explain to them the ‘safe water chain’ of cleaning out their jerry cans every day, and washing hands.” Instead of the long walk, two or three times a day, to the nearest swamp to collect water, she is now spending the time at the borehole – more than she is expected to, but she wants other families to benefit as hers has. “My children are no longer getting stomach pains and worms. They can go to school on time because they don’t have to help fetching water.”

Mary’s story is replicated across Katine, as dozens of villagers volunteer for training in basic health, water and sanitation to help their communities. The level of voluntary effort is a humbling reminder that whatever aid the international community gives to Africa, it is dwarfed by the time and resources given by the poorest Africans to their neighbours. When someone in Katine is hungry, the first port of call is the extended family, and culture determines that however scarce your resources are, you help if you can.

The warmth and joyousness of the Abia reception is exhilarating, but being cast as Lady Bountiful is uncomfortable. These are people whom history has served badly, and Britain has played no small role in that. We cobbled Uganda together, creating a country that straddled one of the big ethnic divides in Africa, the Nilotic groups of the north and the Bantu-speaking south: this split and the ways in which it has provided a ready market for the arms industry have defined much of the conflict of the past 40 years that has left northern and eastern Uganda impoverished. Furthermore, the damaging western legacy is no longer seen as just political: it is increasingly also environmental. Last year, Katine was one of many sub-counties in the Soroti district devastated by nine months of flooding, which destroyed roads, homes and crops on which thousands depended. No one can remember comparable floods, and the fear is that climate change is to blame. In this context, the boreholes being drilled and new classrooms are a very tiny gesture of recompense. It’s the very least we can – and should – be doing.

But the question that keeps coming back is: where is the state investment in Katine? Why isn’t Kampala finding the money to drill a borehole for this community? President Yoweri Museveni gets £70m a year in UK aid alone, so how come so little of it has found its way to Katine? Uganda was one of the first countries to get debt relief; it has been the western donors’ favourite for nearly 20 years. It’s true that most of Katine’s children now go to school. Free education was a condition of debt relief. But it has created new problems with huge classes – 75 is normal – and no books or paper. Apart from education, little of the aid millions has trickled down to Katine.

The district governor, Stephen Ochola, is hugely frustrated. He has been promised money to repair the flood-damaged roads, but several months on he is still waiting. Both he and Katine’s MP, Peter Omolu, say they see investment going to the south and west of the country, but not to Katine and its district of Soroti. They are outspoken in their criticism that the government favours areas that voted for Museveni in the last elections in 2006. Soroti is an opposition area: the president polled only 12% of the vote. In his inaugural speech Museveni thanked those who voted for him, but warned that those who had not would see that it had not been a wise decision.

Museveni’s international reputation rests on his considerable achievement in reducing poverty – from 56% to 31% in the 14 years up to 2006 – alongside a dramatic fall in the infection rate of HIV/Aids and steady economic growth. Kampala has been transformed into a heaving city of mobile phone adverts, gleaming office blocks and sprawling suburbs. But the prosperity has been very unevenly distributed.

Further development is handicapped by desperately inadequate infrastructure – astonishing for a country that has absorbed billions in aid. Take the main road into Kampala from Kenya and the coastal port of Mombasa. It is a vital link for the landlocked Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and southern Sudan, yet as it crosses the Nile in Jinja it narrows to a single lane and is in need of urgent repair. Last week, Uganda’s Weekly Observer demanded to know why the bridge hadn’t been made a top priority when Museveni can find the money to pay for a presidential jet.

But the government is, finally, investing in the road that runs through Katine, and Chinese contractors are hard at work paving the dirt track that is the most direct link from Mombasa to north Uganda, Juba in southern Sudan and eastern Congo. The new road brings great hopes of trade opening up across these regions if only the fragile peace agreements in northern Uganda and southern Sudan can hold.

Ochola believes that the coincidence of the new road and Amref’s project is the best chance Katine has had in over a generation to get back on its feet. The villagers have waited long enough; the past 20 years have seen one setback after another – war, cattle raids, more war and floods – and they have been reduced to near destitution. There are many reasons to think Ochola may see his hope realised. The land is fertile, there is no shortage of water, and there is now huge enthusiasm and motivation in the community.

The lives of Mary Amulo’s six children could be very different from her own, particularly those of her daughters – Betty, Barbara, Angela and Rebecca. These girls now have access to clean water and education. Angela looks much younger than her 10 years, but she speaks up confidently, and her English is impeccable. She has a chance now to be the first girl in the area to get A-levels. A year ago such an idea would have been unthinkable.