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When an entire village lives on one borehole

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

A round wattle hut painted black at the bottom and gray at the top stands 200 metres ahead. As one gets nearer, four circular unbaked brick but grass thatched huts emerge. A young woman in her late teens is baby-sitting one yard from the kitchen door. Chicken and children are roaming the dusty compound. Its a poor home in a typical African village. This is the homestead of Meiga Namuddu, a 54-year-old woman in the savannah village of Kisura in the remote district of Masindi. The five grass-thatched huts constitute Namuddu’s homestead. The main hut, about 3 yards from the kitchen, is the dwelling for Namuddu’s two younger children and a granddaughter. To the left of the kitchen is a hut that serves as the guest wing. Behind the guest wing is the bathroom made of dry grass. Namuddu lost her husband in 2000. She is the sole bread winner of household which comprises eight people. Yet she has no paying job or formal business. The setting is an abundant proof of the prevalent poverty and vulnerability afflicting the masses in Uganda’s countryside.

As we enter her compound, a beaming Namuddu ushers us into the hut that passes for a guest wing. She has been looking forward to seeing us. After a short while we are led into the grass-walled bathroom to have a bath after about a one-kilometre walk to her home under the scorching sun, which is the main reason Namuddu’s village suffers scarcity of water.

Unlike the city dwellers who wake up and turn on a water tap in the bathroom, the sink or in the courtyard, some 400 households in Masindi’s Kisura village in Mutunda sub-county, every day walk one kilometre to reach the nearest water source.

Namuddu’s two younger children fetch water before leaving for school in the morning. Sarah Nanzala and Godfrey Byarusu, both in Primary 5 at Kakwokwo Primary School, have to bear the long queue at the water source every morning. It affects their reporting time at school, but they must leave water behind if they are to find a meal at home after school. There are two boreholes in the whole village, built by Masindi district administration. The local community maintain the boreholes through a  committee. Each adult pays Shs3000 for repairs if the boreholes break down.

According to Joseph Kidaga, chairman of the local community-based organisation Mutunda Rural Development Association (MURDA) which works in partnership with ActionAid Uganda, it costs Shs25 million to construct a borehole. Government statistics show that 10 million Ugandans have no access to safe water. This problem is worse in the northern and north-eastern districts where less than 12 percent of the population have access to safe water.

National Water and Sewerage Corporation is only operational in 22 towns in the country. The biggest of this water coverage is in the city. Even if the 22 towns on the national water supply grid were to be counted on district basis, it would mean that 74 districts have no safe water given that there are 94 districts in Uganda today. Even in the 22 towns, outside Kampala, the water coverage hardly goes beyond the main district centres. This has prompted the intervention by the private sector especially the NGOs to help in provision of this basic human need.

For example the UNHCR has provided boreholes in some Masindi villages. ActionAid is working in partnership MURDA, in sensitising the residents to task the government to fulfill its obligations of providing basic needs like water and schools. ActionAid has also been supporting the residents in construction of primary schools, eradicating poverty and malaria as part of strategic intervention to mitigate social problems facing the local communities.

However some residents have taken personal initiatives to address the water scarcity in their localities. For instance, the Local Council II chairman in Kisura village, constructed a borehole in his compound to have water for his family and his big herd of cattle. A household which wishes to draw water from his borehole pays an annual subscription of Shs5,000. This is too expensive for Namuddu and her 21-year-old son who is now married with a baby boy. The LCII chairmans borehole is 400 metres away from Namuddu’s home.

When both boreholes break down, the community is condemned to drawing water from the valley dam which they share with cattle, goats and sheep. Besides being unsafe water for human consumption, Namuddu has to walk 6km to the dam. On another day, when the dam water becomes too dirty, the widow has to walk about 8km from her home to the River Nile to get water.

Besides the biting poverty and scarce water sources, Namuddu and her community face a myriad other challenges. Whenever it rains, the downpour is so heavy  and destroys crops. For the last four seasons, the maize harvests have been bad, laments Namuddu. I am only hoping that this one will be better although the rains have delayed. Lack of a reliable and profitable market for her produce is another dilemma. Namuddu used to grow cotton but has since stopped and resorted to maize. Cotton has lost market and its prices are not worth the labour. She has never heard of the governments National Agricultural Advisory Services, which would give her advice to use her oxen to plough the land for commercial production rather than relying on it for subsistence farming.

Mutunda sub-county has 57 villages with 4 health centres serving 47,000 people of which 32000 have been internally displaced by the Lords Resistance Army insurgency.

The health centres are more of shadows than medical care facilities. Kidaga says they lack drugs and are agonisingly understaffed. For example there is one clinical officer in charge of the whole health centre at Mutunda. He said complicated medical cases are referred to as far as Lacor Hospital in Gulu. Those who cannot make it to Gulu are left to fate.

There is high malaria prevalence in the area, but there is no sight of a mosquito net in Namuddu’s home. This underlines the ineffectiveness of the governments much touted eradication of malaria.

The day is wearing away and the singing birds announce the dusk. Everyone in Namuddu house is participating in preparation for the familys supper. We rush to the borehole with Namuddu’s 12-year-old last born, Godfrey Byarusu to fetch water at the borehole. The queue is long. It takes us two hours to get the water. Darkness has already swallowed up the entire village. Only the dim light from a kerosene candle (tadooba) pierces through the darkness to enable us see what lies around us.

Despite all these difficulties, hope on Namuddu remains defiant to despair. Namuddu and her family are happy to host strangers from the city. In the morning they line up to bid us farewell.

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