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East Africa’s kitchen garden

December 1, 2009

There’s an enormous pig asleep outside our bedroom door, a large frog in the shower (which has hot water, yay!), a big ugly marabou stork patrolling the roof – we’re in Kampala, Uganda and everything feels bigger somehow.

Driving across the Rwandese border, the change is immediate, from the rubbish at the side of the road to the lack of ordered, official money-changers (just the blackmarketeers scrambling for our francs). We switch to left-hand drive and our bus is suddenly filled with standing, crowding passengers (in Rwanda it’s 1 passenger per seat and no standing). Speed restrictions out of the window now, we hurtle along and I take pleasure in being able to read the signs and posters we pass – English is the national language in Uganda and most people speak it. We follow ‘Mr Handsome’ (at least that’s what the trucker’s tailguard proclaims in massive capital letters), pass the turn off for the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (straight out of a fairytale, surely), the Climax Hotel, Minge Motors, Brilliant High School…. We also pass several ‘herbal HIV clinics’ that advertise treatment and cure for HIV – depressing in a nation that made such early and successful progress towards tackling the disease, slashing infection rates to around 5%. The country is currently proposing to execute gay people who have the disease, though, in the latest example of extreme prejudice against this battered community.

We pass field upon field of banana plantations in the lush southwestern corner of Uganda, which feeds not just the nation but also its neighbours. As we journey alongside Lake Victoria, crossing the equator once more, the badly needed rain pelts down in a deluge of massive drops that fill the sky as only the tropical monsoon will. Most of the country has two rains a year, the first from March to June and the second from August till November. This year, the first rains failed across the region, leading to starvation and hunger even in normally wet regions, such as Jinja, the source of the mighty Nile. The drought hit the north and eastern parts – the borders of Sudan and Kenya – most severely, where they have not had good rains for the past four years. There, people and their animals have starved to death (the numbers vary according to whom I speak) and 80% of the population is on emergency food aid. Uganda’s east gets its rains on the winds from parched Kenya.

The general trend towards a drying of East African increasing severity and frequency of droughts, and shorter, more erratic rains) over the past 15 years fits with the leading climate model predictions for the region. Africans are expected to be the worst hit by climate change, suffering worsening droughts that will impact agricultural production, which here more than anywhere will directly reduce food availability. Whether you believe it is relevant or not – and most people I speak to think it is – Africans have contributed the least to climate change, belonging to the only continent bar Antarctica that has not yet industrialized (indeed, what little industrialization did take place prior to the 1980s, has more or less been reversed) – Africans contribute through deforestation and agricultural emissions.

If the 19th century was about Westerners stealing the people of Africa through the slave trade, and the 20th century was about Westerners stealing the resources of Africa through colonisation and unfair trade, then surely the 21st century is about Westerners stealing the water from Africa by climate-change-reduced rainfall and increased evaporation (from higher temperatures).

Last week, at the Commonwealth countries’ get together, Britain and France led the creation of a fund that will donate $10 billion a year to help developing countries cope with climate change. It’s paltry compared to the trillions that Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi (who heads the African delegation at the Copenhagen talks) believes the est morally owes developing nations. He asks why developed nations bail out bankers so easily but fail to help prevent starvation across continents.

Money is just money, though. Of course it can be used productively to help people adapt to or mitigate climate change. But will it be? When we talk about deaths from climate change, we are not talking about the weather killing people (apart from a tiny percentage of cases). People will die from climate change, that’s for certain – but they will be sped to their graves by poor governance, bad infrastructure, lack of access to markets, good seeds, social and gender inequalities and other types of marginalisation that make people’s lives so much harder and miserable. One small example: The bountiful crops from bananas and vegetables that I see growing on my journey from the Kabale border to Kampala are being destroyed in their fields by farmers who cannot sell them locally (due to the glut) and cannot sell them to those who are suffering famine conditions and literally starving to death a few hundred kilometres further northeast because the roads are so bad that they cannot be transported. It is cheaper for Ugandan farmers in the southwest to use this rich food as fertiliser (fertiliser is near-absent across the continent) than to sell it to Ugandans elsewhere dying for want of it. The rains are busy ruining vital road connections in the south; in the northeast, there has been no rain for 4 years – this may be attributed to climate change, but the terrible roads which make practical solutions impossible, are attributable to corruption/mismanagement of road-maintenance funds.

Our bus eventually pulls into Kampala, a tree-lined, polluted but relatively pleasant capital. The city is still recovering from devastation caused by Idi Amin’s and Obote’s destruction of infrastructure, buildings and general terror, but the atmosphere is upbeat. The music is great, gentle jazzy rhythms. At one point, I ask a local to translate the Lugandan lyrics. “It’s about a man who loves a married woman. She loves him too, so she kills her husband to be with him. But then, he worries that she might go off him and murder him for another man later, so he doesn’t want to be with her after all.” Oh.

I cross the city through the driving rain to meet Ambrose Agona, director of the National Agricultural Research Organisation. He’s an enormous bear of a man with a smile as generous as his handspan, and he towers above me. We get chatting about the challenges facing the Ugandan small-scale farmer. At one point, I have to lean in close to hear him, due to the battering noise of the heavy rains on the windows – “It is so terribly dry up there,” he is saying.

I’m going to visit some of these farmers over the next week or so – probably not the ones who are the very most affected, because they live on the militarised borders of Sudan and Kenya, and I had enough AK47 fun around Lake Turkana. But first, we are going to find some chimpanzees in the forests here. Can’t wait!

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