Community Action and the Future of Modern Uganda

A Uganda Kob in the Queen Elisabeth National Park in Uganda. Photo via Wikimedia by Frank Dickert.

A Uganda Kob in the Queen Elisabeth National Park in Uganda. Photo via Wikimedia by Frank Dickert.

In the remote hills of Mahango in South Western Uganda mornings are ushered in by valley mist being chased up steep hillsides by the first smoke of villagers’ cooking fires. Children hop, skip and jump down steep slopes to collect the day’s water from local springs, and wizened Mummas begin the daily tasks of pounding yam, and farming their treacherously angled cassava plantations. Evenings are welcomed with sounds of singing and dancing drifting across the hills before the stars take over, conducting an orchestra of chatting cicadas and territorial hounds. This lush musical landscape is a far cry from the days of Obote and Amin, the latter made notorious by The Last King of Scotland. It is a Uganda not often described in western media; a media saturated with information suggesting Uganda is still a country beset by child snatching war mongers, a place incongruous with children singing their way through water-carrying duty before bounding through the hills on their way to school.  This part of Uganda has had its fair share of drama however. Being so close to Congo the local communities have often fallen prey to bands of rebels drifting across the border, and even now they continue to be stopping points for refugees fleeing violence across the national divide. But it is not these issues, or the history of Amin, or Kony’s rebels in the jungle that communities’ focus on. It is the future –  a concept denied them until relatively recently in Uganda’s history.

The population has been rapidly increasing, and with it, the number of primary schools being built. Still, Joshua was still the only person from his age group in his entire district to graduate from University.

Numbers on the Headmasters grubby office wall in the remote village primary school of Kyamaduma, Mahango district, indicated an increase in student numbers year on year. A big increase – between 15-20% every year, even taking in to account the inevitable fiddling of the books to gain more funding (one illustration of Uganda’s endemic relationship with corruption). But from a school with one hundred students aged 8-11, the community, (according to Joshua who is now a secondary school geography teacher, mountain guide and community development officer) would only expect around ten to fifteen to attend secondary school, 5-10 to complete it, and one, if they were very lucky, to attend University.

Photo by Josh Bulpin

Photo by Josh Bulpin

These are not impressive conversion rates.  Sure, Yoweri Museveni’s government has rolled out an initiative to provide free primary school education for all, but what is the quality of this education, and what is the benefit to individuals when secondary education is far less accessible? There are many who argue that this is just one of several deliberate ploys by those in power to keep Uganda’s rural population in a state of relatively educated ignorance; universal primary education facilitates people being able to read, write and count (hopefully), and it enables the proletariat to read state led media, but it falls well short of facilitating the development of educated free thought and intellectual challenge.

It is these social battles which are being fought by rural Ugandans living in the regions bordering Congo. They are not fighting against an almost forgotten psychopath hiding in a jungle far from their cooking fires and their children, as the miss-leading Kony 2012 film would have us believe. This isn’t to say that Kony doesn’t exist. His actions in the past were clearly horrific crimes against humanity, but Ugandans themselves have chosen, since his last activity in 2006, to move forwards. Communities in the North are performing reconciliation rituals with returning former child soldiers and as a population they just want to move on.  It is people like Joshua who are waging these modern battles of development.

So, what are people in these communities doing to drive their own development? Are they acting in spite of hindrance offered by government, corrupt local officials and a president resembling a dictator more and more by the day?

In the areas surrounding the Rwenzori Mountains people are doing a number of things. One side effect of continuous civil unrest is a lack of community confidence in long term futures. For that reason local wildlife populations have been hunted to scarcity, bush meat becoming a necessary part of the diet. Deforestation also goes unregulated, unchecked, and becomes increasingly widespread as people seek fuel for their homes and some way of making an income from the land. In Kilembe John Hunwick, Joshua, Bongo, and the team at Rwenzori Trekking Services are involving the community in developing long term sustainable systems of tourism. The Buwata Community Trail takes trekkers past the now defunct Canadian Copper Mine and up into the hills surrounding beautiful Kilembe, in Kasese district.

Photo by Josh Bulpin.

Guides are employed from the local villages and are trained to impart with pride encyclopedic volumes of information about the local habitat and way of life. Camp is made at the hilltop settlement of Bunyandiko, where local Mummas prepare goat stew with rice and ‘Irish’ potatoes for tired trekkers and the campsite has one of the most stunning mountain views of any I have been lucky enough to set eyes on. The hike back down takes tourists through a number of subsistence farms where they have the opportunity to buy local produce and further chat with community members. By employing and involving the whole community in this form of project the ownership is shared by all, and each community member earns an income from preserving and developing their habitat and environment, instead of destroying it. This system of development is accelerated by Rwenzori Trekking Services who use a percentage of every fee received from trekkers to invest in local services. So far the community has provided themselves with schools and better healthcare, along with a community-owned cultural education centre. Here, under the stewardship of the gregarious Bongo Man, locals use dance and performance to impart important information to the local community on issues such as HIV prevention, road safety and clean water provision.

As well as the above, the impressive Joshua is also involved in developing better services in his home community in the hills of Mahango. By teaming up with willing young workers from UK based groups such as World Challenge, construction on schools in rural areas unseen by the government or publicity-hunting NGO’s continues to grow. Joshua and his team continue to spread the word about the importance of education and the hope is that better facilities and wages will tempt those who do fulfill their educational potential to return to these communities and continue the development efforts. Joshua is all too aware that building schools is only half the battle, given that the provision of quality education through quality teaching is what will really facilitate community-driven empowerment and development.

The important thing to note in all of this is that it is happening- local communities in Uganda are driving themselves forwards. Of course it does not yet represent a kind of Utopia made real, especially as there are members of these communities who reject and defy other’s efforts (shown by recent bush fires being deliberately set around camps used by trekkers on the Kilembe trails), but many community members are taking responsibility for the world in which they live, and are building for their future. It is for this reason, to do justice to these self-empowering schemes – because these are the issues Ugandan’s themselves are focusing on, that we observers in the west must stop focusing on Uganda’s issues of the past and rejoice in community action for the future. There will always be obstacles, such as Museveni’s ego disabling him from surrendering power, and local big-men continuing the tradition of corruption. But, with people like Joshua driving his community forward with a belief that everyone (every human citizen of planet earth) has the right to a level standard of education, healthcare and services, the future for this part of Uganda is as bright as the equatorial sun which wakes the hills in the morning, and lulls them back to sleep in the evening.

Josh Bulpin

About Josh Bulpin

Josh Bulpin is a Youth Expedition Leader and occasional scribbler of words on his adventures and observations. Having recently spent a year based on a houseboat in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Josh is now living back in London planning up-coming adventures in India and East Africa.