As FR BERNARD PHELAN goes back to Uganda, he speaks about the changing face of the country IF 1S A PLEASURE now to arrive at Entebbe International Airport, on the shores of Lake Victoria. The last five years have seen a number of visitor-friendly improvements, However, travelling from Entebbe to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, I was struck by the number of signs advertising coffins for sale.
According to a report last year, the number of AIDS cases has reached its peak in Uganda. From the time when the pandemic was first recognised Government has been very open about the problem and active in seeking solutions. This is still the case. The death rate from AIDS, though, is still high and thus the need for the coffins. People from all levels of society are affected, including clergy and religious.
It had been five years since I was in Kampala and I had not expected to be in a traffic jam. It took us half an hour to travel a few hundred metres to the Clock Tower near the centre. The road was clogged with Toyota Hiace minibuses which serve as taxis, carrying workers to their offices. There were also plenty of Toyota saloons which have flooded into the country and, because they are second hand, cost as little as $4,000.
Although many of the roads have been resurfaced since I was Last there, the amount of traffic makes car travel slow and hazardous in the city. I was happily surprised to see that Kampala is now bustling, with shops full of goods and new buildings going up all over the city. Many of the hotels and restaurants, which when I left in 1992 were mediocre to bad, have now been refurbished and are well patronised. Leaving Kampala for Jinja, eight kilometres away, we passed a beau
tiful new stadium built by the Chinese, and a little further on, a sign of the times, a huge CocaCola plant being erected!
Reaching Jinja, you cross the River Nile over the Owen Fails Dam, the main source of Uganda's electricity. Bunched up against the side of the dam and stretching up the river is a mass of water hyacinth, a plague which is affecting the whole of Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile. At Jinja, efforts are being made to remove the hyacinth and some success has been achieved but the other countries bordering Lake Victoria Kenya and Tanzania are undecided about how to tackle the problem. As a result the hyacinth is building up and blown by the winds to many lakeside areas preventing boats sailing and severely affecting the fishing industry.
Although the generators at the dam have all been refurbished and are in full production, with the growth of industry the demand for electricity is now so great, most parrs of the country experience power cuts ("load shedding") every other evening. A new hydroelectric scheme is being constructed beside the present dam to relieve the problem.
The signs of development in and around Kampala are not so evident elsewhere. The government policy of decentralisation has meant that where people have put their minds to restoring the local economy, districts and towns are booming. Lira, in the north, is an example of this, as well as Mbarara and Fort Portal in the west. Development aid is now localised and many of the districts which have suffered deprivation in the past due to insecurity are benefiting highly. In most towns, shops are better stocked but there is often a sense of dilapidation and lack of maintenance of buildings.
The torrential rains which fell all over East Africa, from October into the new year, were totally out of season and have caused a lot of damage to roads and railtracks in Uganda, not to mention land slides in the foothills of Mount Elgon, which left a number of people dead and others homeless. In other parts of the country too, people were forced to leave their flooded homes. Cholera has claimed a number of victims and many people are still at risk, more recently in Karamoja. Food crops in many areas were destroyed. Seasonal rains are now falling and it is hoped that reasonable food crops will be harvested in most parts of the country Hardly a day passes without some report in the newspapers of arbitrary ambushes and rebel atrocities whether in the south west of the country around Kasese and Bundibugio, or in the north and around Kitguma and Gulu. In the former, the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) seems to be intent on terrorising the people, with gruesome incidents of murder and mutilation of innocent villagers. A lot of the rebels are from outside the area.
The infamous Joseph Kony and his group operate in the north, and are inflicting much suffering on their own Acholi people. Recently they have moved into neighbouring Lango, with incursions also into the Teso area. Government troops are active in both theatres with some success but, as in any war, the people are often caught in the middle. There seems to be no end in sight, especially in the north. Reports have it that both sets of rebels are equipped and funded by the Khartoum government in Sudan, in retaliation for Uganda's alleged support for John Garang of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting the Sudan Government army.
PRESIDENT Yoeri Museveni remains very much in charge and is quite vocal on various issues affecting the country. The new Land Bill, intended to regularise the legislation concerning ownership of land throughout the country, has caused a lot of heated discussion, with the President heavily involved. The television has a lot of items reporting his words and actions. Politically the country is preparing for a referendum on whether political parties should be allowed to continue or be disbanded in favour of the "National Resistance Movement", founded and headed by the President.
The system of local grassroots councils still exists, and they have been reasonably successful in involving everyone in the political process and in taking ownership for their own security and development. There is now, at each level, direct voting by the electorate.
On the side of education, government has launched the Universal Primary Education Scheme, which offers free primary education to four chil
quite a few teething problems, not least the shortage of funds to pay the teachers. From there on however, secondary education is beyond the pockets of a lot of ordinary people. Sponsored places in the universities are limited, with others having to pay their own way. Only the rich can afford this.
Health care has not improved much in government medical units. Government now works more closely with church-run hospitals and clinics, and channels funds to some. However, a number of up-country church medical units are in danger of closing down because of the mushrooming of private clinics, many of which dispense treatment-on-demand with no regard for medical ethics or the dangers of drug abuse.
The Catholic Church finds itself increasingly having to rely on local funding as Roman grants are reduced or withdrawn. The rise in the number of diocesan clergy in the majority of dioceses, and the gradual reduction of missionaries, has led to a considerable drop in funding from private outside sources. With a shortage of money in the country due to the high cost of living, late payment of salaries, high secondary school fees and failed food crops, tensions are evident at both parish and diocese level.
Development aid continues to flow to some dioceses, but this is meant for specific projects usually with the proviso that none of the money can be spent on church institutions or personnel. The recent decision of the Episcopal Conference that Major Seminarians will have to share the cost of their education from the beginning of this year, to the tune of about k85 a semester, may have all sorts of consequences, especially in dioceses where local income is very low.
There are more white people around than there were five years ago. This reflects the greater international confidence in Uganda, with a considerable rise in investments and outside involvement in the economy. An increasing number of the white people are tourists, often of the back-packing variety. Others belong to various international organisations, and quite a number are representatives of newly arrived churches.
Corruption is still a blight affecting almost every aspect of life, although in contrast to other African countries there is a healthy openness about the problem. The impression is that Government is tightening its grip on the situation. There is open discussion in parliament about allegedly corrupt ministers, which is freely reported in the media. The Inspector the judiciary are quite active in trying to address the problem.
There is certainly a much greater feeling of hope in Uganda today than I have experienced previously. The many problems which face the country, especially in the economic and security sectors, are a source of concern.
Poverty still afflicts large sectors of the population. Uganda has a wide circle of friends, however, and is looked upon favourably by the World Bank and the IMF. The hope is that these positive indicators will bring peace and development to all the diverse peoples of Uganda.
• Fr Bernard C Phelan is the East Africa Provincial of the Mill Hill Missionaries.