A story has circulated on Ugandans’ WhatsApp groups in recent weeks provoking us to rethink our tendency to invest more in dead bodies than in living persons. I am not sure whether it is created or true, but it tells of a woman who delivered by caesarean section in a Kampala private hospital and could not be discharged because she could not clear the bill of about $1,500. She sent an SOS to relatives who ignored her. A couple of days later, the hospital gave the family the sad news that she had died, and called upon them to clear her bill, which had now risen to $2,500, in order to be given her corpse.
In a matter of hours, the relatives had raised (more than) the money and paid the hospital. Management then brought them the mother alive, in good health with her bouncing baby — much to their anger and chagrin. The story circulated at a time government was splashing at least $500,000 on the burial of a politician in whose district a public hospital that handles some 70,000 sick children a month but has only 10 beds in its tiny children’s ward was crying out for funds to improve the ward on whose cold cement floor many admitted children were lying.
But, as we fuss and spend money that we don’t have on burials, one major burial happened in Uganda recently that did not make much news. It was the burial of a century-plus-old citizen, a corporate citizen. The management of Uganda Railways Corporation recently decided to give it a befitting and dignified burial, even before it is pronounced dead, that will ensure its legacy forever. They created and commissioned a railways museum.
The museum appropriately comes at a time when all the news about Uganda Railways smells of death. The relevant committee of parliament has been probing the corporation and found that hyenas have eaten big chunks of it. Please don’t call our hyenas vultures, for those birds are very patient and will never eat anything that still has some breath left in its body.
Government has a specialised legal undertaker based in the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, who buries corpses of corporate bodies. This undertaker hasn’t yet pronounced Uganda Railways dead, so it is officially alive.
Even the chairman of parliament’s Committee on Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises Joel Senyonyi admits as much and submitted a report to the House with recommended measures to save it.
Among other things, he wants title deeds for the hundreds of acres of railway land that the hyenas grabbed to be cancelled. He also wants officials who purchased old locomotives that cannot fit on the existing railway lines to be held accountable. But Senyonyi knows his limitations as an opposition MP and has appealed to people of goodwill in the ruling party to sell his recommendations to their boss.
The not-yet-late Uganda Railways in whose tomb we have invested millions was started by British empire builders in the 19th century after identifying transport as the main obstacle to the development of the highly promising fertile and mineral-rich country.
Positive investment in Uganda’s railway system continued as long as the colonialists remained in charge until they granted the country independence in 1962. After that, it has mostly been negative investment which goes beyond throwing away good money buying old unusable locomotives and “selling” many acres of prime railway land to “buyers” who don’t pay for them. And so on, but at least the railway museum is real and will serve as a museum.
All is not lost, however. What is not happening in the railway sub-sector is happening in the road transport sector. Not only is Uganda helping build roads elsewhere in DR Congo to facilitate trade and development, it is also now making its own land vehicles.
Last week, a Ugandan designed and built luxury bus, the Kayoola Diesel Coach, drove across the border into Kenya up to Naivasha, where a big Rotary convention was taking place. Now that is something!
Most buses built in Africa hitherto are just imported lorry chassis over which bus cabins are built. Such buses not designed to be buses lack the technical attributes and comfort of a bus designed as a bus.
So, even as they dig the grave for trains, Ugandans are building capacity for making buses.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]