Mityana-Mubende, Uganda

Two hours from Kampala, and two hours from the western city of Fort Portal, and in between the towns of Mityana (30 km away) and Mubende (over 40 km away), there’s an unmarked, narrow and bumpy dirt road off the main road. You’d never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. If you followed it, chances are you would have lost interest before reaching the first house over 2 km down the road.

And I would have never found myself there if it wasn’t for Belinda, who was introduced to me remotely by my friend Carla (who I met in Antarctica four years ago!). She owns a farm here, and it happens to be next to a village. While she spends most of her life in Kampala, farming is a shared passion of her and her husband (who was out of the country while I was there), and they had to look far from Kampala for land.

And what a farm it is! Beginning as a three acre hobby and 10 years later now a sprawling 250 acres across a few hillsides, she’s hired workers to take care of it. Her goat herd of 300 is bigger than some of the goat markets I’ve seen in Ethiopia and Somaliland. She’s got some 12 Ankole longhorn cows, which have comically huge horns, some pigs and chickens, and grows acres and acres of maize, bananas (both the sweet and cooking types), beans, coffee, pumpkins, mangoes, passionfruit, jackfruit, eucalyptus, pine… and plans for so much more. Walking across even a third of the farm was exhausting.

It was a delight to stay with her and her three children, Josh (who kept playing with my hair), Richard, and Linda, along with her sister-in-law Catherine, and three children she adopted into her farm home from the village, Carol, Mary, and Innocent. (Two of them are orphans.) With occasional solar electricity and no running water but a few tanks of rainwater, plus no kitchen yet, they live a pretty simple life — something quite wonderful for her city-raised kids to get used to, and also for many clients of her company who send their city-raised kids to her rural-living based summer camp. While simple, it’s pretty liberating to be away from the chaos of the city, to eat food fresh from the farm, to wake up with the roosters, and to see the stars at night.

But again, while simple, when compared to the neighbouring village of Kayunga, it’s anything but. Belinda and her husband were so moved by their conditions that they built a schoolhouse on their property, and hiring schoolteachers to teach about 70 village children until Primary 3. They’ve given some of their land to the villagers to plant their own crops, reared new piglets to give to some of them, provided medication and basic needs to those in urgent need, and have become part of the community.

On Sunday, we headed to the schoolhouse, which doubles as a church. Many regulars were off to town due to an election rally, but the remaining small congregation had enough energy to blow the roof off. Villagers and workers from Belinda’s farm were already there when we arrived, dancing and singing to a drum, spontaneously led by one member in a call-and-response. (Not unlike the large church service I attended in Kenya!) Belinda translated the Luganda sermon for me — one about prayer and how we don’t know how much we’re worth, using Uganda’s national symbol of the endangered (and heavily protected to the point of being untouchable, even if it’s on the president’s table) crested crane as an example — into English, and it’s interesting to hear how prayers are conducted here: they praise simply and emphatically for (still) being alive, first and foremost. It’s not just a cliche, it’s poignant.

(The one member who was leading the singing earlier, not because he was a church leader or anything, but because he naturally started the call-and-response: he was the one smiling the most joyously. You could not wipe the grin off of his face. Belinda later told me that that was a Rwandan worker of hers — you know how the story goes there.)

Belinda later led me on a walk around the village, with houses spread far apart. As she met with her friends, we were both warmly received — her for returning, me for simply being new and from far away — and people immediately rushed to pull a bench from their homes and put it outside for us, inviting us to chat and showering us with mangoes and peanuts to eat and take home. They really didn’t need to — Belinda grows both — but the gestures spoke volumes.

We met Sebiara, an HIV-positive orphan, under the care of his aunt, who housed eight in a tiny abode. Some slept in beds with mosquito nets, some slept on the floor (sleeping on each other) without any net, and indeed, one other HIV-positive orphan also had malaria. Despite growing abundant food, the children (and many of their neighbours) clearly had the signature bloat of malnourishment. We gave them a couple tins of milk powder, but that’s barely going to last. And the HIV-positive orphans had no access to the antiretrovirals (ARVs) that are often prescribed for free courtesy of the government — there’s no access in the village.

Sebiara’s parents died very young. Like many other villagers from remote places, his father chose to sell many of his possessions to buy a boda-boda (motorcycle), moving to the city to earn money. To a villager, it seems like a pretty glamourous life, driving people around and living large in the city, but it’s expensive, and there were little to no returns for his family. And being in the city often means fooling around, as his father contracted HIV, spreading it to his mother, who gave birth to HIV-positive children. Both father and mother stayed in denial, refusing to see the doctor or to get a diagnosis and treatment. They were never tested, but their children were.

The chairman of the village had a nicer brick house, but wasn’t in good condition himself, with a liver issue (that Carla diagnosed) and also a hip issue. His elderly father had a hernia, and was in too much pain to move when we were there. These are pretty simple things that could be solved — there’s a government clinic a few kilometres away, but the doctor is never present since he’s not paid enough. Even if the doctor was there, there aren’t any meds — those have to be gotten in town, with another paid doctor visit.

We met an older gentleman living alone, without a wife or children. His only possession is basically his house — with an iron sheet instead of a straw roof, it’s not bad, but with one room and no ventilation, he’s suffocating whenever he cooks. While we gave him a puffer for his asthma, he really needs a separate kitchen, but with his limited mobility and laboured breathing, he can’t build one himself or even farm to earn money; he depends on the kindness of other villagers who bring him food. Having the money to buy nails would easily solve his kitchen problems; a kitchen could be built with branches and straw as long as there are nails and others willing to help him.

Furthest down the road, we met Susanna and Enias, elderly grandparents taking care of their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren. But again, too elderly to work in the fields (and even more immobile since Susanna fought off malaria and Enias has some hip issues), they themselves have to be taken care of by another villager. They had heard that there was a foreigner around, and had waited patiently the previous day, afraid to wander too far off from their home or even go relieve themselves, hoping I would visit! Awww. They gave us some blessings, led a short prayer, and Enias was so emotional he sang a short song for us. I nearly cried.

These people have so little, and yet they were so open to us. And they have a litany of problems that can easily be corrected: disease from lack of latrines and handwashing, lack of clean water (or even boiling the river water they have), malnutrition from eating only maize and fruits (they have animals, but they sell them; they also sell their harvest to buy clothes and possibly other food from the market, when they could stand to grow a more healthy and equally profitable variety), management of AIDS with testing and medication, and prevention of AIDS from education.

But the solutions don’t come as easy as they sound. There are no government services available in many villages, with the nearest town often 10-20 km away. Much of the poor lives on about 1000 shillings per day (a shockingly low US$0.30, though note that purchasing power is different here), while transport to such distances would cost at least 2-3000 shillings. That leaves walking as the only option, which isn’t an option at all if you can’t move. And if you need to see a doctor, a visit plus buying meds would cost you about 50000 shillings in total. Social welfare does not exist.

Education would lift many people out of poverty, and also teach children (who can teach their families) proper health awareness, but the nearest school is often in the nearest town. Same price issue. Boarding school is a pretty common thing in Uganda though, so if you remove the transport factor, education still costs money, about US$100 per semester, and there are three per year. So that’s roughly 3500 shillings a day for a year.

People who seek opportunity often leave the village to live in the city, thinking that money flows everywhere. They sell everything they own, invest in something unprofitable, and come back poorer or even never come back, leaving others to take care of their family. Those who do find success sometimes never turn back either, keeping both their wealth and their education to themselves, when it could do so much good in their former community.

The government has been doing a commendable job on their HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, advocating for faithfulness, abstinence, male circumcision, or use of protection. But they can only reach so far: billboards are present in the main cities, and there’s a bit of awareness in the small towns, but if they even manage to get to the villages, there are illiterate people who can’t read signs. Meds for AIDS and malaria are distributed for free…where there’s a clinic with meds. Even if there is one, most of the physicians in charge can’t be bothered to go to a rural clinic, or even stock it with meds.

Some signs in Kampala. That last one: come on!

Back in Kampala, Belinda’s brother Collins, who studies reproductive health, gave me a bit more context into the AIDS epidemic in Uganda — prevalence has dipped from the 1980s, but has recently risen again to an alarming 10% of the population. (In his context, it makes dating difficult!) There are so many cultural factors involved: a not insignificant chunk of the populace, despite Uganda being heavily Christian and Muslim, seems accustomed to infidelity (both male and female). One or both partners cheats, contracts HIV, then spreads it to their partner and sometimes their children. Then there’s the fact that many girls from poor backgrounds get involved in sex work to fund their education or to pay for the higher cost of living in a city. Or the men, like Sebiara’s father, who sell everything they own to get a boda-boda and fool around in the city before returning home, destitute and sick. Even among the educated populace, men often go too far in courtship and impulsively (without protection, of course) force themselves on unwilling women, either unaware or unwilling to accept that now “no means no”, in a culture where women traditionally played coy and would say no even if they meant yes (seriously). And to top it all off, there’s still a stigma against people who do have HIV/AIDS, and they’ll often hide it and spread it rather than admit to having it and taking appropriate measures.

So… where do you possibly start? And what could I, as a visitor, and others like me possibly do to help, with no expertise? We can alleviate some of their problems temporarily, but only for so long. Foreigners throwing money at the problem isn’t going to help it go away — this is something both foreigners and locals should realise — when there needs to be cultural change and a more concerted government effort. Sure, the government is doing something, and NGOs fill the gaps, but many people still fall through the cracks. It would be a shame if help only came after such a crack became a gaping chasm.

I’ll still be thinking of all of those people I met. Despite their difficult circumstances, they still had pride and never asked for anything, offering their hospitality instead. They deserve a lot better than what they’ve got.

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