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No hope after fire

By Julius Businge

Parkyard vendors stare into an uncertain as government insists on relocating them

It was 2:20 am on Sunday morning when Chief Fire Officer Simon Peter Musoke of the Uganda Police received the first call. “Owino is on fire,” the voice on the other end of the phone line said.

Musoke was on duty at the Uganda Police Fire Brigade Headquarters at the Queens Tower roundabout on Entebbe Road in the southern fringe of Kampala city, barely 500 meters away from the scene of the fire and in just four minutes he was at scene together with his men and 15 fire fighting trucks.

Unfortunately, Musoke soon realised he could not do much to save the burning market.

“There is hardly any space, the market is all congested, the other side of Nakivubo stadium there is a wall, so it is very hard to put out fire in that place,” Musoke told me in an interview, days after the fire.

But that Sunday morning, as fire sped through the easily combustible timber frames and polythene roofing of the makeshift market stalls, Musoke’s men did all they could. Unable to penetrate the burning inner market, they attacked the fire from the sides. They were fighting a losing battle.

Apart from the easily combustible construction materials used, the area of the market that burnt mainly has shoe stalls and other leather products like bags and belts. According to the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, most vendors use petrol to shine the leather goods which could aid fire to spread quickly.

On the morning after the fire, most traders were blaming the police of failing to come in time to rescue their property.

“We informed police in time,” said a trader, “they failed to come, I have lost property   worth 10million. I don’t know what I am going do.” He suspected arson.

But Musoke insists his brigade did all it could to save the traders’ merchandise but the makeshift materials used frustrated them.

Although the traders claim the fire started at 1am and they immediately alerted police, Musoke insists the police report was received at 2:20 am.

“We dispatched our trucks at 2:21am and reached the market four minutes later,” Musoke told The Independent.

Owino Market, officially called St. Balikudembe Market, was established in 1972 when the number of traders and volume of business overwhelmed the older Nakasero fruit and vegetable market.

Although started with only 250, Owino has swollen in an enormous trading space of over 5000 permanent stalls. Many more makeshift stall have been set up by vendors selling anything  from cheap mivumba, hand-me-down clothes and shoes from Europe and America, fruits and vegetables, electronics, fresh and cooked food, and other knick-knacks. But it is the bustling atmosphere of the market that has turned it into a major tourist spot.

The area that burnt is commonly called Owino Market but its name is really Park Yard market because it was carved out of the former parking lot of Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium. Officially it is not part of the main St. Balikuddembe Market, although they are side-by-side in the heart of downtown Kampala city. Together, they form Uganda’s biggest daily market.

This was the second time in as many years that fire fighters had been called to the rescue at this market. On February 25, 2009, a mysterious fire that razed the market left up to 25, 000 traders in tears over lost money, stock, and stalls. At the time, election campaigns were at fever peak and President Yoweri Museveni and other high ranking government, banking, and community leaders visited the market and either pledged or offered support amounting to billions of shillings. But the vendors failed to distribute and share the donation leading to rifts in the market leadership. President Museveni also ordered an inquiry into the cause of the fire 2009 Owino fire but the report has never been made public.

Just as in 2009, the cause of the fire this time remains unclear. Arson is suspected.

Ronald Kyagulanyi, a trader, is suspicious. “May be it was the charcoal stove because some cooks leave their stoves with burning charcoal,” he said. Police say they are investigating. But an irate trader claims the both fires started from the same beauty salon.

“We don’t know why fire comes from that building whenever our market burns,” the trader said.

Initially, some traders claimed the fire broke out due to an electricity short circuit but police established that by the time the market caught fire, there was no electricity.

Counting the losses

Joweriya Namaganda, a 43-year old widow dealt in baby clothes and shoes. She was in tears even days after the fire.

“For me I am a widow, the little money that I have been getting was paying fees to my children, feeding them, paying rent and buying basic necessities for them. Now all of it is burnt- only God knows,” she said.

She said she owes Finca Shs500, 000 and was paying a monthly instalment of Shs 83,000 per month till November. She says her business earned her an average Shs 350, 000 a month from a stock she values at about 4.5 million.

Namaganda is a member of a five-member group called Kigatto that deals in assorted merchandise. Their leader, Kyagulanyi, told The Independent that their biggest worry is the loans from the banks.

“We have just accessed loans from Finca (a money lending institution), all was in stock.  We haven’t finished paying,” he said, “Banks might even stop giving us loans because fire is burning us all the time.”

But manager at one of the vendor’s main lender, Finca, told The Independent that traders would not suffer because they were insured with Chartis Insurance Company. “We insured stock, loan and person to Chartis. They [Chartis] will pay us.”

She said they were ready to give more loans to traders as longer as they met the terms and conditions.

Back in the market, hundreds of traders were lining up to fill forms to be taken to their lending institutions indicating they have suffered loss. Others remained sceptical.

“I am not sure whether this will help, banks need their money. In 2009 we lost property and many of our friends who failed to pay back went missing, even now the same thing might happen,” a trader said.

The letter, signed by Hamuza Kalema, the chairman of the market, is noncommittal. It curtly certifies that the holder “is a true and law abiding vendor of the association” and “he/she is among the vendors who lost their property/goods in the fire outbreak.”

Fred Mpanga, 45, has five children, three of them in school. He says he always counted on the business which he valued at Shs 4 million for their sustenance.

“All got destroyed leaving me with nothing,” he said, “In the last fire (2009) I had clothing but I was able to secure some after the fire. But today everything is ash. I don’t know what I am going to give my children.”

He said he had secured a loan of Shs 2 million in April from Finca and another of Shs 1.5 million from Pride Microfinance which he has been servicing.

“We have to wait as a group to see what the lender will say. But for now we are here. We need to work hard and put our stalls again,” he said.

Uncertain future

Unfortunately, Mpanga’s desperate determination to rebuild his dream business is exactly what fire chief Musoke is warning against.

Musoke warns that the traders’ hurry to reconstruct the market may not be of any help.

“Many traders survive on that market,” he said, “that is why they rush to reconstruct. But it is wiser to have fire protection equipment like portable fire extinguishers, hydrant systems among others. Without those they are toiling for nothing.”

So far the government response to the traders’ tragedy remains unclear. The government spokesperson on the issue, the Minister in Charge of the Presidency, Kabakumba Masiko, initially said the government was giving the traders an additional year to repay the Shs 1 billion loan it gave them after the 2009 fire and promised them another Shs 1 billion through their SACCO for re-stocking.

However, the government’s tone has since shifted. Kabakumba now claims the burnt Park Yard was “illegal”. She has advised the traders to find other places for their businesses. President Yoweri Museveni has also said the area where Park Yard Market is up for rebuilding in a major reconstruction of Nakivubo Stadium. The government says the traders are to be relocated to another place as a way of transforming the Central Business District (CBD) to standards of a modern market.

The government statement on the fire reads: “Some of the activities in the CBD including markets are no longer compatible with the trend of development in the CBD. The Kampala City Physical development Plan recommends that activities like markets and taxi parks should be relocated close to residential areas they serve.”

When Kabakumba, who read the statement, was asked where the traders would be relocated, she failed to answer.

“I will not explain that now because I don’t know. I am only reading what is on the paper,” she told journalists at the Media Centre on Aug 2. Such statements suggest that the traders’ time in Park Yard market could be over.

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