In Uganda we continue feting the successful women of the land through the month of March and, these days, it is a strange function where the guest of honour — keynote speaker — is male. However, for every woman we celebrate for her good deeds or her inspiring success, there is a girl that society is undermining and brutalising.
Did I say for every successful woman there is a suffering girl? I meant ten or more suffering girls, for every happy woman. And this is not to begrudge the successful women, but to remind ourselves that there is still a lot to do to save the girl in developing countries like Uganda.
For anyone visiting Kampala City for the first or tenth time, two things are bound to stand out: The lawless motorbike taxis called boda boda and the numerous girl beggars at street junctions. Young girls, many of them carrying babies strapped on their backs – presumably their siblings.
Of course, a visitor who has heard of Uganda as the fertile land of mild climate with enough rainfall, a fifth of whose surface is covered with fresh water, wouldn’t expect to see so many people begging. For, why should people who have food bear the indignity of begging? And why should it be young girls below the age of 10 dominating the begging occupation?
This major symbol of a dysfunctional society can be explained briefly. The little begging girls come from the north eastern region called Karamoja, arid by Uganda standards, as it gets only one major rainy season a year. Traditionally, the people used to raid neighbouring communities for cattle, which they used to pay bride price, which is very high. But, in recent years, cattle raids have become commercial and seized cattle are quickly sold to dealers who sell them in markets in other regions. In short, Karamoja has been depleted of the animals around which their culture revolves.
Another bad effect of this is that the hardy, local bulls that had started being used for ploughing in arable agriculture have all been decimated and so shifting from pastoralism to crop farming a big challenge. For, even if you were to use your bare hands to till the land, it is unsafe to do so because, in any space away from the house you are open to attack by the so-called warriors who grab whatever you have, or if you are female, the worst happens — abduction into forced marriage.
These once proud people have, thus, been reduced to waiting for relief food from foreign NGOs, and banditry. But they have figured out that a distant famous city called Kampala is in the same country and reaching it requires no passport or visa. And who is best placed to beg for alms on behalf of the family? The little girl.
Culturally, it is the job of the female who attains five years to find food for the household. The food can be got from Kampala in form of money. So, the girl you see begging at a Kampala junction doesn’t keep a single coin of whatever you give her; there is an adult monitoring her from a distance and taking note of everything. A swoop that rounds up the children to return them to Karamoja is regarded as a malicious, discriminatory act by “selfish” authorities in Kampala, who don’t want them to get something to eat from comfortable Ugandans in air-conditioned cars. The children are put on the next truck back to Kampala.
Kampala is among the most polluted places on earth, thanks to the old, underserviced cars spending hours in traffic jams. So, the most dangerous place for one’s respiratory health is a Kampala street junction. That is where five-to 12-year-old Karamojong girls spend 14 hours a day, being poisoned by cars, half of them driven by sisters hailing from other parts of the country. Beyond that age they are supposed to get married. So, while old car engines are hazardous to everybody, these girls have no choice but to take in their exhausts directly for all their waking time.
Every once in several months, Kampala authorities show their power by rounding up the begging children, knowing very well (presumably) that their presence results from cultural, security and food challenges back home, meaning that even rounding them up ten times, they will return to the street, until such a time as the wealth of this naturally rich country is more equitably harnessed for everyone’s benefit.
So, as the successful women bask in their prosperity, they could do well to also discuss the plight of their sisters in their different fora.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]