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Living off Kampala’s railway reserves

By Flavia Nassaka

One neighbourhood mourns businesses destroyed by KCCA eviction, fears increased crime

Kirinya- Kito Zone is a low cost neighbourhood about 10kms outside of Kampala. As the city expands eastwards, the tiny brick and tin shanties in the area are jostling for space with sprouting new modern apartment blocks around its main feature; Uganda’s biggest sports arena, the Mandela National Stadium, Namboole.

On its edge, along the railway line eastwards, a genteel community of clay artisans, plastic garbage and metal scrap collectors, charcoal briquettes sellers, petty traders, and liqueur dealers has thrived for years.

Now, however, as city authorities seek to introduce a metro-rail and modernise the railway to speed up trains and expedite trade with neighbouring Kenya, the community lives under fear of looming eviction.

“Today you found us here but who knows where we’ll be tomorrow. They say we are here illegally,” says Alfred Wakwale, one of several strong-looking men whose sweating muscles shimmer in the sun as they frantically stamp mounds of grey clay. The clay will soon be moulded into popular energy-saving charcoal stoves commonly known as ‘sigiri’.

Wakwale was originally a bricklayer on private house-building projects. But after failing at his first job, he resorted to pottering in this area and has been doing it for six years. He says he earns around Shs350, 000 a month which is about 50% more than the starting salary of a low level government employee.

When we spoke, it was around 10 on a cool morning, but several mud-splattered porters like Wakwale were already sweaty as they offloaded clay from a truck. Business appeared to be brisk and it was almost impossible to find space to stand.

In a tiny space almost the length of two football fields and 100 metres wide between Namboole Road and Kinawataka Road, and crammed already with numerous small houses, another three trucks were loading used plastic bottles and clay-made charcoal stoves. The little space left was covered by finished charcoal stoves which had been spread in the sun to dry.

Apart from the vibrant pottery business, Kirinya-Kito has been a dumping area for rubbish that comes out of Mandela National Stadium when events take place there.

People here make a fortune out of almost everything. During events, they go collecting all the plastics and all the kinds of rubbish relieving stadium staff the burden of cleaning since the stadium, and the whole Bweyogerere town area, does not have rubbish dumping grounds or incinerators.

The buyers of the collected plastics, glass, and metal are agents of major recycling and iron-smelting plants.  With collectors of the Kirinya-Kito type under threat from evictions, recycling factories will soon face difficulty finding raw materials. The Kirinya-Kito charcoal stoves also are the pride of forest conservationists as the clay retains more heat than traditional metal stoves and require less charcoal to cook.

But ripples from the evictions might soon be felt even further afield, as I noticed when I peeped into one of the broken down structures and saw a microfinance bank loan official who did not want to be named in intense debate with some of the business people in the area. There appeared to be tension and urgency from this distraught group. Though they have loans to pay, both lender and borrower realise it is no longer business as usual. Losses will be made and livelihoods destroyed.

Increased crime feared

Joachim Sembatya, the area LC 1 chairman worries about such challenges that are likely to emerge after the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) and the Rift Valley Railways (RVR) management evict the artisans who are allegedly operating in a railway reserve.

Sembatya says the pottery business alone employs more than a thousand people. Some live in the numerous one-roomed brick and tin shelters whereas others come in every morning to work.

While the residents worry about the impending eviction which will leave many of them unemployed, Sembatya’s greatest worry is insecurity.

“Soon this place will become a bush and stories of murder and robbery are to become the order of the day,” he says.

Sembatya’s fears are based on stories that older residents recall when they speak of the days before the area was populated and people started frequenting this place either to work or, later in the evening, to take alcohol. Back then, the place was a den for robbers who waylaid, mugged, and clobbered their victims along the railway line.

45-year old Christine Aciro remembers those days. She has lived and worked as a potter in this area for the last 27 years. She came at the age of seventeen when she got married to a railway worker and they lived in the Railway Quarters; two rows of tiny houses with whitewashed brick walls that still stand today with their ancient lead-contaminated asbestos  sheet roofs now black with age.

When Aciro’s husband died, leaving her with very young children to fend for, the only way forward was to venture into pottery. The business has done miracles for her. From the money she makes, Aciro has built a two-bedroomed house and she has been able to pay fees for the four children.

Aciro says in a good month, she can make over Shs 500,000 to which she adds around 150,000 that she gets from selling empty plastic bottles. All this work, she does in her courtyard just near the railway line.

During the interview, she kept diverting to give instructions to the porter who was stamping her clay.

Aciro and others in this community say during the more than 20 years they have lived on the land, they have kept it clean, established businesses, and even built homes on the understanding and agreement that they would stay clear of the railway reserve which has always been 15 meters on either side of the line.

Lack of information

As 65-year old Hajjati Joweria Musoke who has lived and worked along the railway for more than 30 years says, they have been basing on measurement made by Chinese engineers who demarcated the area. She points at a spot she says marks the 15-metre reserve and stops a few meters clear of her two-bed room semi-permanent house.

Hajjati Joweria says since she saw how KCCA enforcement staff destroyed property along the railway line in other areas, she and other residents are no longer sure of their fate. Already KCCA enforcers have measured the area and some residents who are certain they will not escape eviction have picked out their most valuable items, demolished their homes and left.  Hajjati Joweria and others are staying put.

Their hope is pinned on the 15 meters barrier, which is about as wide as a common two-lane road. It may seem like nothing but for the people living along the railways in Kito, those 15 meters means shelter, livelihood, education for children, and a place to call a home.

The evictions are part of KCCA’s plan to introduce railway transport service to reduce traffic in the city centre.

People in the affected area claim they have not received any official communication and most of them kept referring to media reports that the issue had reached court and therefore hope that the government can convince KCCA to halt the evictions further allowing time for negotiations.

The case before court follows confirmation by Rift Valley Railways (RVR) officials that the Passenger Train Services are set to start in October this year with more than six coaches (wagons) ready for use.

Information from KCCA indicates that RVR has started demarcating stages at various points from Namanve to Kampala in the east then to Kyengera in the west.

But many of the people we spoke to say they need more time to settle their affairs in the area, develop a relocation and livelihood strategy and, most importantly, find their children proper educational alternatives. Most of those we talked to said they have no places to go.

Some, like Hajjati Joweria, still holds on to hope that they could negotiate with the Railway Corporation like they had done years ago through verbal agreements.

Ultimately, these mixed messages and gaps in information have led to a distraught community, uncertain of what their future will be.

When contacted for a comment, KCCA’s Spokesperson, Peter Kaujju said that they are waiting for whatever will come out of court and that is what they will follow.   That offered little consolation for Hajjati Joweria.

“We can never know when they are to throw us out,” she said, “We last heard that evictees were going to be heard in court.”

Then she added: “KCCA doesn’t communicate, they only act.”

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