The end of an epidemic or entrenched pests can come when we even give up hope of ever being free from it. That seems to be happening in Uganda, where ghosts had become endemic in public affairs. It has taken the emergence of a much bigger problem of global proportions to render our continued romance with ghosts untenable.
Remember how Ebola and Covid made handwashing with soap a life-and-death matter, whose unintended consequence was the eliminating many diseases of poor hygiene? Climate change is now flushing out our ghosts.
The reproduction and multiplication of ghosts for stealing public funds can be traced back to the civilian administrations that came after the 1979 fall of the military government. Before that it was risky to mess with the ruling soldiers’ dwindling budget.
The earliest form Uganda’s ghosts took were schools. A policy to establish many secondary schools arose, and these were duly registered. The designated head teachers erected signposts on the land where the school was meant to be but, more importantly, got allocated an Indian TATA lorry each to ferry (non-existent) students for co-curricular trips. The head teachers then spent all their time in Kampala deploying their truck for commercial cargo transport. Their ghost institutions thus came to be known as TATA Secondary Schools.
In the succeeding years, ghost teachers emerged and their salaries made district education officers rich. The public service also started multiplying civil servants like rabbits. Things were getting out of hand when the president ordered the charging of the top military commander in the court martial for maintaining ghost soldiers on the army payroll 20 ago.
Since then there have been head counts in different services and ghosts in the public sector seem to have been weakened, but not before the country’s top learning institution, Makerere University, was also found to have had a few thousand ghost students. But the fleeing ghosts apparently found a home in the private sector and started taking non-human forms, like trees.
So, as Ugandans became aware of the climate change threat and that deforestation removes the carbon sinks the ghosts found tree cover a safe haven. As tree planting was encouraged, companies overplayed that tired phrase – corporate social responsibility – by planting trees. Sorry, they started planting ghost trees. But huge budgets (passed on to their consumers) to plant “one million trees” could have had less to do with re-afforestation.
Finally, last October, the onslaught on Uganda’s ghosts was launched where they were born – in the schools. The TATA schools are no more, having either become real schools or their land having been grabbed altogether. But the remaining schools are now the real theatre of war against climate change.
The war was launched last October by Education Minister and also First Lady Janet Museveni. Her campaign for greening the schools goes hand-in-hand with fighting the grabbing of school lands. The ministry is handling more than 100 cases of schools that have had their land grabbed.
The irony is that many grabbed school lands in and near towns were turned into car washing bays and petrol stations – the very top agents of air pollution that fuels climate change.
Currently, the deforestation rate is at 122,000 hectares per year, in this small country 240,000 square kilometres, a fifth of which is open water. Uganda is projected to become water stressed in less than 20 years.
The havoc climate change unleashes on Uganda includes landslides, hastened by cutting of trees in hilly areas. We started this month by losing lives to landslides in the southwest of the country, already an annual tragedy in the hilly eastern areas.
Launching the fight against climate change in the schools kills several birds with one stone. Besides the beauty of inculcating the culture of tree planting and maintenance in the children, who are our future, the school communities are encouraged to protect the restored tree cover. Schools have been a cause of deforestation, as they buy tonnes upon tonnes of firewood for cooking.
If the school greening is sustained, Ugandan ghosts will at least have no hiding place in non-human hosts. Good things are happening as our environment gets better.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]