Mabira Forest is Safe For Now! Government Drops Plans

Uganda’s finance minister, Ezra Suruma, announced yesterday at a dinner meeting in Guyana, that the Ugandan government has dropped plans to give away part of the Mabira forest. While I was studying Luganda and development studies in Uganda last semester, the government announced in April that it would be giving away 7,000 acres for free to the Mehta Group’s Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited. The owners of the Mehta Group were of Indian ancestry, igniting decades of tragic racial tension between South Asian Ugandans and Black Ugandans of diverse ethnic groups. Most Ugandans and South Asians work and live together peacefully, but Uganda’s colonial and postcolonial histories have damaged race relations in the country. Protests over the Mabira Forest giveaway turned hideously racial, tainting this important ecological and indigenous struggle with anti-Asian racism. One Indian man was stoned to death during the protest, five Black Ugandans died, and Simon Kaggwa, a Ugandan journalist, barely survived after being run over by a car during his ‘riot beat. Indians fled into Kenya, and Museveni attempted to reassure the Indian government that South Asians are welcomed and embraced in Uganda, with anti-Asian racism being the exception rather than the norm.

Mabira forest is about seventy square acres, located near Jinja and Kampala in the Mukono District. It was established as the Mabira Forest Reserves in 1932, when Uganda was part of the British Protectorate (who was being protected during the colonial regime always makes me want to type ‘Protectorate’).

Since April, the decision over whether Mabira Forest would be opened up to transnational corporations has been under review by the Ugandan parliament. Originally, Museveni had been determined to go through the plan, but the horrible protests, as well as the Seoul plantations which were set fire to, hit international news and stirred controversy over whether Uganda was ‘ready’ for CHOGM, or the Commonwealth meetings.

I am relieved to hear the forest will be protected, and I can only pray that racial and ethnic reconciliation in Uganda will take place, not just between Black and South Asian Ugandans, but in Acholiland as well. Mira Nair, wife of famous Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani and film director of movies such as “Monsoon Wedding” and “Mississippi Masala,” has been doing amazing work in bringing together East African and South Asian filmmakers to cover stories that nobody else is covering. Check out the link to learn more about the Maisha Film Lab, whose advisory committee includes Spike Lee.

I was never able to visit Uganda’s beautiful ancient rainforest, but it is a crucial home for 199 butterfly species, 300 bird species, 312 species of trees, and rare, vanishing primates. Since the 1970s, 50% of Uganda’s forests have been wiped out by deforestation.

I am mourning those who were lost in the protest, relieved that journalist Kaggwa was able to recover, and cautiously ecstatic that for now, Uganda’s precious forest is safe from the Mehta group.


Brilliant article by Daily Monitor writer Muniiki K. Mulera on some quintessential Ugandan paradoxes.

“A government happily spends tens of millions of dollars to host an international conference like the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) while 92% of its capital city’s residents have no toilet facilities.

The same government, on a pre-Chogm spending-spree, imports luxury cars and all manner of gadgets, then begs the international community to help it cope with floods that have further impoverished its poor citizens.

The state, already spending more money on running the presidential palaces and the presidency than it spends on its national health services, pours $100 million into renovating and expanding the old colonial governor’s residence, cynically known as the State House.

Meanwhile school children study in condemned buildings, millions lack life-saving anti-malaria bed-nets, patients seek treatment in severely under-equipped hospitals, police and military personnel live in shacks, cultural activities are starved of cash, and the country’s oldest and largest university is on the brink of bankruptcy.

A president spends $40 million on acquiring a personal plane while his people, over 75% of whom live in serious poverty, have no agricultural inputs to assist their peasant efforts.

The whole thing stinks, just like the outdated toilet facilities at King’s College Budo.”

Why Chogm Is Disturbing Me

I don’t like CHOGM, or the ridiculous commonwealth meetings taking place in Kampala this November. CHOGM, the loathsome abbreviation I often heard on the radio and in conversations on matibuses, happens every two years in a different British commonwealth country. This year, Uganda is considered ‘developed’ enough to hold its first chogm meetings. Generally, most heads of commonwealth countries show up, and Queen Elizabeth makes a mighty appearance. I am a little taken aback by my nasty tone, or the venom I am unleashing right now. When I first heard about CHOGM, I felt neutral, a bit skeptic. CHOGM was in November, and I was in Uganda from the end of January to the end of May, more or less. But after seeing preparations for the meetings while I was there, and hearing some pretty depressing news over the summer, I am feeling differently.

Previous CHOGMS have discussed important issues affecting member states, such as apartheid in South Africa (did you know apartheid is pronounced apart-hate?) or a coup in Pakistan. Last year’s CHOGM meeting was in Valletta, Malta (2005), and the 2003 meeting was in Abuja, Nigeria.

It’s 42 days and 3 hours to CHOGM time in Kampala, check the handy countdown clock on the official site. Years of preparation have literally gone to three days from November 23 to the 25th, 2007. Officials looking as strange as I did (yes, I made a few Ugandan children cry with my scary blue eyes and posho-colored skin, although I generally produced a bizarre amount of excitement– i.e. ‘Maama, look! Wow!’) will arrive in Entebbe and most likely see a Uganda- as cliche as this sounds- that most Ugands never see. They will enjoy the extremely expensive roads built just for them (!), or perhaps the fabulous joys of the Serena or Sheraton hotel. This reminds me of scenes from “Life and Debt”…

These are some reasons I have been loathing CHOGM.
1-Most Ugandans have had their wages put ‘on hold’ until CHOGM is over. Government has spent a fortune building roads and installing what I call “first-world plus” amenities, and can’t afford to dispense wages for government employees. Businesses have gone chogm-crazy and taken out extravagant loans, anticipating CHOGM businesses, and have been using employee wages to start paying off the loans. My dear Justine Kasozi, or my Ugandan mommy, hasn’t been paid in over 4 months. No sente (money in Luganda)means no school fees (Uganda’s education is predominantly privatized due to structural adjustment). My little Ugandan sisters (Mrs. Kasozi’s daughters) have to pay about $150 USD a semester to go to a school with teachers that show up, real books, and desks. I’ve been to public schools in Uganda. 2 broken latrines for hundreds of bright, motivated children dying to learn; teachers that often don’t get paid and usually don’t show up, and worse. Girls having nowhere to dispose of sanitary napkins. Not a single ball for hundreds of boys and girls to use at recess.
2- What CHOGM is doing to street children. The government is clearing the streets of beggars, mostly impoverished kids and women from Karamoja, or north-eastern Uganda, and dumping hundreds of kids in a makeshift holding center. Sometimes you’ll be in Kampala, and street children- resilient, vulnerable, very young kids- will literally follow you for blocks saying “sole, sole, sole,” or some, some, some. If you give the kids some money, they might remember what block they were standing on, and 20 more kids might appear at the block the next day. It sounds like such a conservative argument, it really does, but it’s a lot of responsibility- what if 20 more kids show up at that block the same day? What if the government catches them begging, which is illegal? Most of the time while I was there, because of CHOGM, there were no street kids, just at the beginning and the end. As horrible as our homeless shelters are, and the foster system too is really screwed up, neoliberal reforms have not yet hit the u.s. the way they have hit uganda.

What does neoliberal reform mean in Uganda? Goodbye social infrastructure. The government’s only role under neoliberal is to provide a safe environment for capital. Free trade, not fair trade. School fees. Social services in neoliberalism should only be provided by charitable donors, which I really think is not a good long-term strategy (i.e. donors tend to give erratically, which is not great for the long-term social infrastructure that people need). Rather than building a social welfare system, Ugandans are locked into relying on Save the Children, which can try hard and fill short-term need, but doesn’t generally know the local needs of communities the way democratically elected officials could. And they couldn’t, obviously.
Perhaps most importantly, ngo workers are not (!!) held accountable the way theoretically the Ugandan government could.

3-I am so tired of the Ugandan government dumping so much precious money into the roads between the Entebbe airport and the capital, to give Uganda this lovely polished look that just isn’t accurate. There are some nice Ugandan roads (nothing though compares to the amazing road infrastructure in Rwanda, I’ll never forget their brilliant roads, Kigali- despite the incredible challenges and horror it’s seen- was sparkling the few days in March that I was there), but generally roads are soft and red and potholed. The roads they are rapidly building for CHOGM are also being rushed so quickly that they are being built poorly. I personally feel nostalgic for Ugandan roads, but I am definitely in the minority on that and that will probably vanish when I am on a bus and need a helmet to protect my little redhead from smacking against the ceiling hehe.

But now, the positives on CHOGM! How bipolar of me.

+Global warming is a major issue on the CHOGM table
+A boom possibly to the tourism industry, even if tourism is a mixed bag, there is potential to reap on foreign exchange. Uganda’s Minister of Tourism stated, “CHOGM is a golden opportunity to showcase Uganda.”
+More attention might get paid to critical issues such as peace and security in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Karamoja, peace and reconciliation in Acholiland/Northern Uganda

Photo from my brother ne mukwano/rafiki (friend in Luganda and Kiswahili, respecively) Joel Steiner:
p.s.eventually you will find this in a book in Aristock bookstore or maybe Banana boat, for 50,000 ugshx (around 35 usd).