This summer I spent 2 months volunteering and travelling around Uganda with the NGO Little Big Africa. Without boring you, it was the most incredible experience and definitely one I will remember for the rest of my life. There were so many extraordinary moments but I wanted to focus, without being overly negative, on the worrying parts of the trip.
Having spent 6 weeks in a very remote village in rural Eastern Uganda, possibly the most depressing thing was that it’s no surprise that this part of the world is going nowhere in terms of human rights, gender equality, corruption and so on. On top of this, it appears that very few people in these communities seem to care or at least are engaged in the idea of change. This is probably because of a combination of stubbornness and ignorance but you can hardly blame the locals. How would you like it if someone came to your country and told you how you behaved was wrong and backwards?
The first very concerning part of the life people were living was the appalling gender imbalance that was clear for all to see. You did not have to be a feminist to be appalled by the treatment of women in the village. The women were responsible for cleaning, cooking, washing, collecting the water, working in the fields, looking after the children and any other household chore that needed doing. It was acceptable to beat your wife; in one household we witnessed a poster claiming ‘If your wife does not obey your rules, you must beat her every day’. Compare this to the men who seemed to have a free license to do what they pleased. Some worked in the fields but the vast majority were drinking by midday and incomprehensible by mid-afternoon. Many men had multiple wives and had literally dozens of children, often moving on to the next unfortunate lady when they so pleased. The average women has 7 children in Uganda but in the village it was more common for women to have more than 10 children. Women have no role in decisions both at a domestic level and a community level and speaking to women in the village there was a sense of real frustration at the awful cycle they are caught up in.
Obviously, there was no way that us as volunteers were going to change an embedded culture in just 6 weeks but until the country changes these prehistoric views, there is not a cat in hell’s chance that these communities will lift themselves out of poverty. When you think of Britain’s Suffragette movement in the 1800s and the beginning of proper rights for women in our country it makes you realise that Uganda and other countries in Africa are at least 100 years behind the developed world both in attitude and behaviour. This is not necessarily their fault, you are born into a culture and way of life but it can only be changed through education and a bottom-up approach led by a democratic government.
Talking of democratic governments that leads me onto my next point: corruption. As it is well documented, the whole of Africa but particularly Uganda has a huge problem with corruption from the top to the very bottom. Yoweri Musevini has been in charge of Uganda since 1986 and while he has stabilised the country after years of war and the infamous reign of Idi Amin, he is effectively a dictator. Unfortunately this deep rooted problem filters all the way down to the smallest communities where we were made aware of local councillors paying off fellow citizens in order to gain some kind of power. The other problem is that rural Ugandans seem scared of political change as it could result in violence and instability in the country. This is of course understandable but how can a country progress economically and socially when they are brainwashed by the current regime that has ground the country to a halt? Virtually everyone had pro-Musevini posters in their homes and many wore National Resistance Movement (NRM) T-shirts to show their support. Whether this was actual support or just to make sure people did not think they were against the regime is questionable. Either way the problems in Uganda are worrying and they are not going to go away overnight; a huge sea-change is needed to stop this culture of corruption and greed.
The saddest thing about the whole situation is that Uganda is a stunning and beautiful country full of lovely, kind people who have very little but are happy and content with their lives. Considerable efforts are being made by the United Nations and particularly the US government to improve the country. However, it is also the responsibility of the government and everyday Ugandans to address these issues and change Uganda from a poor and backwards country to one that is developed and prosperous nation.