The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Monday, August 22, 2011

Into Uganda

We arrived at Jinja, east of the horrifically traffic congested Kampala, some days into the trip. This is still promoted as the source of the Nile where the great river comes out of Lake Victoria heading north and there is a John Hanning Speke statue in recognition of the hairy-faced Englishman's triumph after his many years of searching. Pity he got it wrong because everyone now knows the new, true source of the Nile is in Nyungwe forest in Rwanda, right? I've even got the picture to prove it! After all, water has to flow into Lake Victoria from somewhere. (Just ignore those upstart Burundians who are claiming a yet more distant source with the publicity and dollars it can bring. I suspect this soggy little saga has quite a ways to run yet)
Roofless colonial period house in Jinja which is still lived in
Anyway, the rundown hotel where we were staying had an Internet service which, despite East African computer virus paranoia, I felt compelled to use. I asked the delightful, young receptionist (turns out she was 20) how to start the machine up and a little dinosaur icon waddled across the opening screen. Ha, ha, that's cute I said to make conversation. What followed went something like this:
"What is it?"
"It's a dinosaur."
"Can you find it in the forest?"
"No, they're extinct, they all died out a long time ago."
"Before I was born."
"Before my mother was born."
"Even before you were born."

Okay, so will you now kindly stop knocking the education system in your neck of the woods? (Except, that is, for any US Bible Belt readers - please carry on complaining) And, by the way, I wasn't offended but quite pleased to imagine that I might have been around when pterodactyls still patrolled the skies. It obviously explains my interest in ornithology.
The extraordinary Shoebill at Mabamba Swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria
Lake Victoria is immense and looks for all the world like an inland ocean. It still hasn't stopped it from being overexploited. Overseas demand for fresh water fish has grown phenomenally since the 1990s and a lot of people have taken up fishing especially in response to increased prices. Tilapia and Nile perch stocks, the two favourite species, have plummeted. More fishermen seeking fewer fish has led to conflict with hippos and at least six fishermen have died in the lake since the beginning of the year. Here's how it works. Where the hippos are, fish thrive on their dung so the fishermen take ever more risks in trying to cast their nets where the herbivorous but highly territorial hippos may charge and overturn the fishing boats, scrunching anything in their way.
One of the troublemakers
In an act of self preservation but employment short sightedness, many fishermen would like the Uganda Wildlife Authority to cull the hippos which would, of course, reduce the dung and thus the fish numbers. This situation is not likely to get better any time soon. Like many countries in Africa, Uganda is experiencing a huge population explosion. The current birth rate is 5.9 children per married woman, the third highest in the world after Yemen and Niger. The current population is 34 million and is expected to reach over 130 million by 2050 at the present growth rate. Human -wildlife conflicts are only likely to worsen as land and resource pressures increase.
A big hippo pod on Lake Edward
Later in the trip at Queen Elizabeth National Park I asked the guide how many people had been killed by dangerous critters during his seven years doing the job. The score card reads: lions = 3; buffaloes = 2; elephants = 1; AND hippos a whopping 30 due to their close proximity to people not just on water but at night on land when they often pass very close to fishing villages on their grazing routes. In QENP there are 11 villages with a combined 15,000 population exploiting Lake Edward in a supposedly sustainable way and we were told that many people have to stay indoors during the evening rush hour when hippos pass between some of the closely built houses. Richard, our tour organiser in Fort Portal in the west of the country, had a narrow escape once when hippos capsized a boat he was in and four of his six-person party did not resurface.
The Ugandan press attack the President's desire to give away part of a precious rainforest for sugar cane
Unlike Rwanda, some of the Ugandan newspapers are worth reading. Even the raunchy Red Pepper adds a bit of spice to daily reading life. My favourite was the Daily Monitor which is allowed - surprisingly given the authoritarian nature of the regime - to get stuck into President Museveni's government and its rampant corruption. The big story during much of our stay was the president's renewed desire to give away over 7000 hectares of the magnificent Mabira Forest near Jinja, which we birded, to an Indian sugar baron, Mr Mehta. Everyone thought that the matter had been laid to rest because the last time the proposal came up in 2007 there were riots in Kampala and three people were killed.
The strength of the public's response to the give away
The attacks against Museveni for this potential folly have been coming from all quarters including his own party. The unanimity of opinion against the move is refreshing and speaks of a strong and growing environmental movement in the country. Every article and letter on the subject, while we were there, was anti the proposal and the worry is that the actions of the Mehta group in continuing to pursue the carve up one of Uganda's last remaining tropical expanses could inflame anti-Indian feeling similar to what erupted in the early 1970s under Idi Amin. It is only in recent years that Indians have started returning to the country after the 1972 expulsions but there are growlings, not just about the Mabira move but the domination by Indians of the tea plantations which frequently employ Ugandan children under the legal age of 18 thus discouraging them from completing their schooling.
The exquisite Northern Carmine Bee-eater
Someone jokingly wrote in the Monitor that there must be oil under Mabira because it's not as if there isn't alternative land where sugar could be grown. The escalating sugar price, as a result of shortages, is ostensibly the principal reason driving Museveni to reopen the issue of gifting the precious forest land - that and a healthy donation from the mega-rich Mr Mehta, no doubt, to the depleted government coffers and its big wigs following the vast outlays necessary to secure victory in the recent pork barrel election.
Black and white Colobus Monkey
Speaking of oil it has recently been discovered in big quantities in the Nile Delta flowing into Lake Albert in the north west of the country and already there are fights over entitlements and how the wealth will be divvied up with a controversial proposal by a foreign Think Tank that the revenues be given to each individual Ugandan as a Mobile Money bonus instead of the usual siphoning of the profits by the fat cats. This is easily done in a society where virtually everyone has a mobile phone but I won't hold my breath. Where oil is found, especially in Africa, trouble invariably follows. Just ask those living in the Niger Delta.
Murchison Falls
The oil exploration area is just west of Murchison NP and it will be very interesting to see how this issue plays out. Oil is big bikkies of course and everyone accepts that it will proceed and indeed seems to believe that it will be extracted in an environmentally friendly way! Ugandans are immensely proud of their national parks and wildlife reserves and there is generally little sympathy for small scale 'encroachers' who nibble away at the edges for firewood and cattle grazing. The indigenous pygmy Batwa were even thrown out of their traditional hunting areas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in the south west of the country rather than compromise gorilla tourism and its almighty dollar.
Anyone recognise this fellow?
Tour guiding is a growth industry and we came across over 20 trainee bird guides at a swamp outside Fort Portal. (That is a massive number in a tourism sector that is still very small). Half of them were women and I asked one, who was invited to come along on the walk with us, what her future plans were. "I am a lady so would like to be a businesswoman selling ladies' products," she said. "That, and to know all the birds". That is some combo! I have this vision of her on a tour identifying bird calls in between flogging Amway. Yes that's a Black-headed Gonolek, now would you like some hair straightening cream?

More in next episode.

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