•September 20, 2010 • 3 Comments


East Africa road trip

•April 16, 2010 • 3 Comments

“…and finally, the most important discovery-the people. How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are as one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. I am struck by how firmly each race is grounded in the terrain in which it lives, in its climate. We shape our landscape, and it, in turn, molds our physiognomy. Among these palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder… With their strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?” R.Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun

The name of the game

•April 15, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The old men can walk no farther

•February 3, 2010 • 2 Comments

The Karamojong occupy the arid territories of North Eastern Uganda. It is believed they originally migrated from Abyssinia in the 1600s. When they reached the present Kenya, they have fragmented into several groups: the Turkana, Maasai, Toposa, and the Dodoth, which continued splitting and moving south. The cluster that traveled the longest way are said to have used the phrase “Kar ngimojong”, meaning “the old men can walk no farther”. Today the Karamojong are the largest illegally armed group in Uganda.

The Karamojong are nomad warriors, who live and they die for their cattle. Owning cattle is a mark of adulthood for men. Being without cattle is almost as onerous as being seriously ill, it threatens life. Raiding livestock, which the Karamojong claim to solely own by divine right, from neighboring pastoralist groups in Uganda, Sudan and Kenya has been practiced for centuries. Cattle raiding is not considered stealing, it is a central part of the culture and a right of passage for the young men. However, the recent availability of AK47s has made the raids increasingly violent. The government have attempted to broker deals for weapons amnesties, but the number of cattle the Karamojong have wanted per gun has apparently proved too steep for any agreement to be made and President Mouseveni has permitted them to keep arms for protection, but the fighting between the nomads and the army, as well as occasional road ambushes, might make him change his mind.

The citizens who live in the city are apprehensive of the Karamojong and consider them ungovernable, poverty-ridden savages. Literacy levels are indeed low but the value of their cattle is often much greater than the value of the salaries received by government civil servants, who come from the south to administer the region and pressure its people to abandon their pastoralist lifestyle, like they did in this village.
The old men shall fight no longer.

Making Waves at Naguru Remand Home

•January 29, 2010 • 4 Comments

Set in a landscape of derelict buildings and industrial warehouses the Naguru Remand Home for juvenile offenders is a complex of brick halls built in 1954 for 45 inmates. On this day, it holds 156 boys and 25 girls aged 12-18. It took us at radio Mama FM a while to convince the Ministry of Gender and Development, who runs the institution, to allow reporters come in and conduct an outside broadcast, which would allow the kids share their stories on air. Eventually we were granted a visit and voice was given to the inmates, but under one condition: they can only use this opportunity only to send greetings to their relatives, whom many of them have lost touch with. We were not allowed to ask questions about the challenges they currently face at Naguru.

Until a few months ago, Sebagala was growing up with his grandmother in Mpigi, a district west of Uganda’s capital. Orphaned at a very young age, he can hardly remember his parents. “Does your ‘jiajia’ know you’re here?” – I ask. He shakes his head. He’s got the most gripping eyes the size of ping pong balls but he hides them underneath a large blue hoodie. We chat in my broken Luganda, he shows me around the compound. Later I ask Uncle Martin, a former market boy turned social worker, who’s been a father, mother, teacher, lawyer and friend to thousands of boys who passed thru the remand home in the last 13 yrs, what are the charges Sebagala has been detained for. “You should ask him” he replies. “That’s what we teach them here, that they should be able and ready to speak for themselves.” Wondering whether I can handle the conversation with my limited vocabulary, I ask the boy: ‘Why are you here?’ ‘For defilement”. He is 12 years old.

Defilement (having underage sex), together with murder and robbery are the capital offences most of the boys at Naguru are charged with. In the remand home they await trial, sometimes for months, sometimes for years before being able to see the judge and tell them their version of the story. However, many of the kids are accused wrongly as a result of family dispute, land-based conflicts, blackmail, etc. The global child rights standards adopted by African parliaments trickle down sluggishly to villages, where the concept of children’s rights can be a curiosity and harsh discipline is the norm. Sometimes they’re even brought to Naguru by their parents or step parents, who consider them trouble and pay a bribe to the probation officer to sign appropriate paperwork for the child to be admitted. Before a visit of a high-profile foreign official (lately Clinton and the Queen of England) Naguru gets filled with youth from the streets, as a part of the city’s routine clean-up operation.

The Ministry provides the kids with not much more than a roof over their heads, bunk beds, uniforms and posho (cornmeal porridge) with beans for lunch and dinner, every single day of the week. It is a non-for-profit organization, COWA, who assures that the kids are kept busy and receive some education during their ”remand” time, although funds are scarse and all it can afford at the moment is wood-work workshops and basic English and math classes.
The kids occupy themselves with various activities, often with no encouragement or supervision from the adults. During my last visit at Naguru, I observed a mock court session, where the roles of the judge, defendant, prosecutor, attorneys and witnesses were all played by the kids and taken with utmost seriousness. “They will all have to appear in front of a “real” judge one day – said Martin – and doing this on and on will just make them more confident and aware of how the system works”.
The fact that the child-defendant has to be accompanied by a guardian, who’s a family member, to be taken to court is a Catch 22: when the kids are taken to the police, their parents are seldom notified, let alone the fact that many of the kids have lost their parents long ago. Tracing the families can be a long and costly process, and Naguru doesn’t have necessary resources to conduct it each time. Consequently, kids’ legal process can be extended far beyond the existing hurdles of already clogged Uganda’s judiciary system.

Before Christmas, we aired a program from Naguru on our radio, Mama FM, hoping that someone somewhere will hear the kids’ voices and let their parents or guardians know of their whereabouts. The response was overwhelming. The listeners were calling in and offering their support. They were truly touched by the stories from Naguru, an institution they had known little about besides that it was a “prison for those stubborn kids”. Then a call came in: “I’ve been looking for my son for months… I’m separated from my wife and Michael was staying with her but he ran away, so we thought… I just turned on the radio and the first thing I heard was my son’s voice…”. The father came to Naguru the next day and took Michael home, right in time for Christmas. “God is Gracious”, said Martin when telling me about their reunion.

And airwaves powerful, I thought silently.

Safari means journey. Part 2: the North

•January 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

Safari means journey. Part 1: South to Southwest

•January 14, 2010 • 3 Comments

“In the following pages I have endeavoured to portray all that appeared to me most important and interesting among the events and the scenes that came under my notice during my sojourn in the interior of Africa.”
John H. Speke