By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
Poor farmers at Shs 2.5bn Tarehe Sita event complain that medals without money were not enough given the role they played in the liberation war
On the eve of the Feb.6 Army Day, Tarehe Sita, as President Yoweri Museveni drove to Kyondo Parish in Kasese district to lay a wreath on graves of 19 people killed by Allied Democratic Forces rebels on October 7, 1997, something unusual happened.
The President saw children who were playing along the road run away as his motorcade approached. He stopped and called them back to find out why they were running away. It was then that he noticed some of the children were suffering from a skin disease that leaves the head scalp with patches locally known as ebiharutsyo or ebiguna.
Museveni narrated this incident the next day at the Tarehe Sita rally at Kasese District’s Nyakasanga Grounds. He said he was surprised that such skin diseases still exist in the country.
“I will go back to that area,” Museveni said, “It appears people here are not doing basic hygiene practices like ironing clothes.”
This year’s Tarehe Sita marked 31 years since the then-rebel National Resistance Army rebels fired the first bullet in the attack against Kabamba Army Barracks to launch the five-year war that brought President Yoweri Museveni in power.
The Defense and UPDF spokesman, Col. Felix Kulayigye, said the army decided to take the national Tarehe Sita celebrations to Kasese because the people of Rwenzori supported the NRA war and joined government forces to fight ADF.
Kasese was a conflict area from 1964 to 1982 during the Rwenzururu rebellion, then 1981-1986 NRA war and in 1996 to 2001 was under attack from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU). These wars killed many people with the most memorable being the ADF attack on Kichwamba Technical College that left over 80 students burnt to death. The wars also ensured that Kasese remains among the poorest areas in Uganda.
On his way to Kasese district through Fort Portal, Museveni should have seen the grass-thatched huts sitting on patches of maize gardens and in trading centres like Kikongo where peasants like Wilson Mbusa live in abject poverty.
It’s harvesting season but Mbusa, who still scratches the earth with an ancient-looking hand hoe has nothing to harvest. The sun destroyed his one-acre crop of maize.
“This season the harvest has been bad,” said the father of seven, pointing at his scorched field, “I will hardly get 100kg of maize grain from this garden.”
Lying near the Equator and on the leeward side of the magnificent Rwenzori Mountain ranges, Kasese is a drought-prone area. But Mbusa says this time the sun has been unusually hot. He had hoped to harvest at least 1000kg.
He will barely have anything to sell. But even if he did, the price, Shs 500 per kilo, is a pittance.
“I am not sure my children will be in school,” he says, “Maize grain is my main source of income.”
Joyce Biira is also a peasant in Kyondo. She farms cotton on the lowlands but she is also unhappy since its price nose-dived. She lives in a mud and wattle house and, like most people we spoke to in the rural countryside and a few urban centres in Kasese, does not know much about the Tarehe Sita day.
However, she braved the baking Kasese sun to listen to President Yoweri Museveni.
The President spoke mostly in English with a French translator for his two guests from the neighbouring DR Congo among the 18 representatives from African countries.
He recited his now pet topic on how he captured power “without money” and how he now collects Shs 5 trillion in taxes per year.
He talked of how Uganda will have an electricity surplus in two years time with the commissioning of Bujagali Hydropower Dam and how oil money will transform the economy.
“The economy of Uganda will roar and soar,” he told his excited distinguished guests; mainly government office workers, 24 ministers, and 20 NRM legislators mainly from the Rwenzori region, among others.
He praised his government for being “an expert at building an economy without money after fighting a war without enough guns”.
Since the local leaders speeches had dwelt mainly on poverty, he told them to stick with agriculture. He promised to turn Kyondo into a model Arabica coffee growing area, erect an electric fence to border the Queen Elizabeth National Park so that animals to do not destroy their crops, repair and expand Mubuku Irrigation Scheme, and teach the locals modern commercial farming. He promised to revive the Kilembe Copper Mines that ceased production in the 1970s, and give the area a US$47 million airstrip.
Forty minutes into the President’s speech, Biira decided to walk away. She says she was angry that the President did not talk about things that matter to her; the price of her cotton, maize and other crops. She is poor and wants more money in her pockets. She says the president should have talked about teacher absenteeism in schools, lack of drugs in health centres, and lack of clean water for her. Her expectations are shared by many including the Kasese district chairman, Mawa Muhindo.
The diseased children that had shocked Museveni are an everyday thing across the country. Health care delivery is in shambles across the countryside. Last year, jiggers hit Busoga region and had the government rush there with Shs 400 million to treat the poor hygiene disease.
Poverty is seen in the numerous grass-thatched mud huts in Kasese.
Kasese district is the home of the Hima Cement used to build permanent houses in most of Uganda. However, most of Kasese residents live in semi-permanent structures made of clay bricks and mud. They cannot afford the cement.
The Rwenzururu king, Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere, had begged the President to order the companies in the area to pay royalties to the kingdom but the other local leaders had spoken of the need for clean water, market for their cotton, and technical schools like the one destroyed during the war. These are the reasons people in Kasese continue to wallow in poverty, die of treatable diseases like cholera, malaria, ebiharutsyo and scabies.
At least 600 people, including politicians, and soldiers like the Inspector General of Police Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura received medals. As part of the week-long Tarehe Sita activities, the army swept the streets, cleaned hospitals and treated the sick.
Museveni promised assistance to families that had lost relatives in the many wars and laid a foundation stone for a house that the UPDF soldiers are building for one of them, Joseph Bwambale.
After the receiving Museveni’s medals, some of the poor farmers complained that medals without money were not enough given the role they played in the liberation war.
Museveni listened attentively and replied: “The time will come when medals are accompanied with something.” The Tarehe Sita event in Kasese cost Shs 2.5 billion; just a small portion of the Shs 5 trillion, Museveni’s government collects in taxes each year.