Something we realised during our most recent trip to Uganda, is the importance of timing visits according to the seasons and political rallies. This personal recount is adapted from notes written during the trip:
Just as we arrived in Kampala, we found out there’d been protests following the arrest of Bobi Wine, a presidential opposition candidate. Our contacts spoke of police squashing protesters, burning tyres, ‘chaos’ and tear gas being used, and we were strongly advised not to wear red or yellow as they are political party colours (unfortunately we weren’t told this until after we’d boarded our first flight, and Zoe’s wardrobe consisted mainly of red and yellow!) Anna had been in Kampala a couple of days already for her other job, and some of her contacts had cancelled meetings, saying Anna shouldn’t leave her hotel as it wasn’t safe. Thankfully, we didn’t have any urgent business in the centre of the city, other than scouting out electronics shops for local prices of equipment for our minigrids, so we could reschedule and carefully avoid riot areas until we knew what’s safe. Worryingly, the riots seemed to have been around the Innovation Hub that our partners Eco-Life use as their Kampala headquarters, but we thankfully met them nearer where they live, out of the city, so didn’t run into any trouble.
We only spent a couple of days in Kampala before moving to Western Uganda (we’d later return back to Central Uganda). On our first day in Western Uganda, Zoe was told by our partners that she should be careful wearing her yellow rucksack as it was a political colour (and could cause us to get into some danger/fights?). A bit worrying and frustrating as it’s her only rucksack for this trip, but she’s being strong and says she can just use a canvas shoulder bag for the rest of the trip.
During our drive back to our hotel we found out that Bobi Wine has been released from prison and is coming to Kasese tomorrow to campaign….this is the main opposition candidate for the presidential election and his arrest was the cause of all the riots and deaths in the capital, Kampala, last week. Just our luck that the moment he is released from prison he decides to follow us to Western Uganda and visit the very city we are staying in! Hopefully things will all remain much more peaceful over here!!
Our first meeting with our other partners, Kiima Foods, was only interrupted once by some painfully loud music blaring from a political campaign truck that drove around the office buildings. Definitely not the sort of thing you’d get from British politicians, we don’t do fun music! I’ve also seen these trucks with people rollerblading alongside, all in political party colours with fun music blaring and posters on display. We’ve experienced similar situations conducting community engagement in Tanzania when political rallies turned up in the village demanding everyone’s attention, with loud music and announcements.
Today we went on a visit to Mbata village, one of our future sites for a Farmers Enterprise Centre. The 1.75 hour drive was unbelievably bumpy: much worse than Tanzania (maybe just worse suspension on these cars), and I honestly felt I needed a helmet to stop my head bashing against the sides of the car and the ceiling on every bump, and regularly had all the air knocked out of my lungs in a sudden hit. Whilst bracing ourselves on the endless bumpy track, we couldn’t help but worry about how we would manage to transport a mini-grid’s worth of fragile solar panels up the mountain without them all shattering…its no wonder the government hasn’t brought critical infrastructure for the grid to come to these places yet! The scenery and sunshine was beautiful on the drive there. A single dirt track road wound up and around the mountains, surrounded by gorgeous banana trees, and other vegetation. There were quite a few children and women walking along the sides of the road as we drove, carrying big jerrycans of water on their back. We saw the central Mbata trading area nestled in the centre of a valley before we got to it, and it looked so idyllic and peaceful.
In the morning, we ran focus groups with the community leaders, the elders (men) and women, each held separately to ensure people could speak freely.
At the top of everyone’s priorities were getting a communication network in Mbata (there is no phone signal here), and better roads/bridges as apparently every time it rains the bridges break and they can’t leave the village for up to 5 days until the rain stops and the bridge gets repaired.
At lunchtime, dark clouds were beginning to gather. Myself and my colleague Zoe launched into the youth focus group, while other colleagues Anna and Arran were taken on a walk around the village to do a site survey and understand land ownership, for when we begin building a solar-minigrid. At least, that was the original plan. By about 5 minutes in, the heavens opened and we found ourselves experiencing the true Ugandan rainy-season. We’d opted to hold the focus group in their ‘church’, a building made from sticks and clay which provided some shelter. Unfortunately this shelter was in the form of a corrugated iron roof. I don’t know how many of you will have been sat inside a building with corrugated iron when it rains, but believe me, conversation is pretty impossible, let alone holding a focus group. This was the first focus group that I was to try and lead, but I could barely hear myself above the roar of the rain even when shouting. Water was dripping down from holes in the metal sheeting, and after about 15 minutes a small stream had appeared, flowing through the building. We persevered through the storm (thanks to our brilliant partners, Peter and Edgar who did fantastic jobs of translating above the noise), but I couldn’t help but remember how in all the previous focus groups we’d been told that when it rains, the village gets cut off, sometimes for days! I assumed that Anna and Arran were no longer surveying the village with the stormy weather outside either.
45 minutes into the 1.5 hour focus group, Anna came running into the building and said that we had to stop the focus group as soon as possible, as we’d been advised by Francis (our partner) that we had to leave before the rain stopped and the roads got too bad. There was a mad dash back to the car (fastest soaking through to the bone that I’ve ever experienced) and we found ourselves sat dripping wet, and terrified for the 2 hour drive back down the mountain in heavy rain and lightning.
As expected, the journey was far from smooth. The mountainous road which had previously had beautiful landscape views on our journey to the village, was now entirely clouded over, and you couldn’t see any of the other mountains, just mist. The single, pot-holed, bumpy dirt track was now a mud slide, and rivers were appearing alongside, through and across the road that we had to drive down. We were unbelievably grateful to our driver who did some insane 4 wheel driving and quick manoeuvres to avoid us getting stuck, as at several points we could feel the wheels beginning to spin without us moving, especially when attempting to climb uphill. Looking out of one car window down the mountain, you’d be terrified by the steep drop into nothingness, whilst on our other side we had the mountain, which scared us further when mini landslides started slipping down onto the road. Twice we had to drive over sizeable earthy-muddy chunks of land that had slid down the mountain onto the road…not entirely comforting knowing that this mud was not fixed, and could easily cause the car to tilt, and then slip down the mountain.
Thankfully, we made it past the worst of it without any major incidents. We were very concerned for the rest of our Ugandan team in another vehicle behind us. It was amazing to see how a small number of local people were still out in the rain in normal clothing, working on the fields, and somehow there were a few of them navigating motorbikes up/down the mountain, despite the roads being shockingly bad, bumpy and wet. We passed two other stationary cars that had got stuck trying to climb a hill, and were amazed when we caught up with a normal car that seemed to be surviving, but after 20 minutes, it too got stuck.
When we finally made it back to paved roads, shaking from the adrenaline of the journey, our celebration was short-lived. We noticed that there was an unusually high number of people stood out in front of the shops, and walking along the road. And the more we looked, the more we noticed the alarmingly high police presence, all armed with massive guns. We passed an army/police truck full of them, and they lined the road. It would appear we had managed to time our return with the arrival of Bobi Wine, the main presidential opposition, and cause of the riots and deaths in Kampala just last week. Yikes!
The more we drove, the more crowded the roads became, and the higher the police presence. There were armoured cars, and big guns everywhere. People were running along the road excited to see the man himself. The traffic slowed, and we found ourselves stuck, soaking wet, in a queue of cars trying to see Bobi Wine.
Eventually we reached an opportunity to split from the main road, and our driver sped down the (no longer smooth and paved) road, to try and overtake the convoy. As we finished the loop and arrived back at the main road, we looked to back to the left along the road, where we’d come from, and saw the huge convoy of vehicles and people, with an ambulance leading the way, about 50m away, with sirens and lights flashing to clear the road. It looked like we’d made it to safety and overtaken Bobi Wine! We whooped in celebration and urged our driver to be quick before they caught up and we couldn’t get onto the road.
Upon joining the main road, it turned out that our view to the right had been blocked by a truck, and there were in fact still vehicles in front of us. Instead of overtaking the convoy, we’d managed to place ourselves right in the middle of it! After a few minutes, our hearts hammering, we managed to overtake the vehicles in front of us and get away from the convoy. Police continued to line the road with guns in preparation for the convoys arrival, and as we approached the town, two armoured vehicles blocked the road ahead. With 5 people squashed into a car, I was worried they might stop us (the current COVID laws are that only 3 people may sit in a 5 seater car, and 5 people may sit in a 7-seater car). We kept our face masks on and they waved us through, having bigger things to worry about.
Back at the hotel, we were able to relax again, fairly certain that all-out chaos wouldn’t erupt in Kasese, like it had in Kampala. Over dinner, Arran checked twitter and it seemed Bobi Wine’s appearance had led to the use of tear gas and 3 people being shot. The speech and broadcast that he’d been meant to do had been forbidden (as expected) by the President, but it seems that this time he’d not been arrested for ‘gathering crowds during COVID’ (probably because Kasese is only a relatively small village in comparison to Kampala so they didn’t have strong enough grounds for arrest). It’s upsetting seeing how democracy so easily can turn to violence and although I’m inspired that people are pushing for change, it is extremely sad to hear of the loss that results. Growing up in the UK, I couldn’t imagine my life being at risk in the same way each day for speaking out for the right to vote fairly. We will see if their fight has been successful in the election results next month.
Today has taught us a very clear lesson. To ensure our work can be carried out safely and effectively, for us, our partners and the communities, we need to keep aware of the political situation and not time visits around election campaigns. We also should wherever possible only travel in the dry season, as the remote communities are often inaccessible during the wet season, making visits dangerous, difficult and sometimes impossible. (Note that the following day after writing this, we tried to visit Mukorokumi village but had to turn back to due flooded roads).