Tue, Oct 23, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Bringing an African village into the 21st century

A newspaper; a bank and an NGO have launched an experiment to help a Ugandan community battle civil war; plague and ignorance

By Alan Rusbridger  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

With the right flight connections, a journey from the 21st century to the 14th century can take just over 12 hours. It begins in the hot, crowded duty-free hell of Heathrow's Terminal 3 and ends -- through the bushes down a snaking mud track -- by the marshes under a cloudless blue African sky.

In front of us five women are doing what the women in these parts have done for thousands of years -- fetching water for evening cooking and washing.

Dressed in luminous greens and pinks, they return with their heavy yellow cans and hoist them on their heads for the long trail back to their huts.

A few minutes later we're in an African village straight from the pages of childhood story books. Half a dozen mud and thatched houses circle an ever-changing cast of clucking hens, goats and children. There is no sound apart from the chickens and chatter of voices, young and old.

This is Katine, in northern Uganda, which for the next three years will be the center of a unique experiment between the Guardian newspaper, its readership, a bank and a non-governmental organization (NGO).

Together, we're going to try to help the people who live here to make a significant difference -- harnessing the power of 21st century communications, expertise, resources and good will to help change lives still trapped in the 14th century.

The centurial metaphor is from the Oxford economist Paul Collier, who has spent a lifetime studying Africa. In his recent book he writes of the world's bottom billion, who "coexist with the 21st century, but their reality is the 14th century: civil war, plague, ignorance." Katine has had its fair share of all three.

Our experiment will not be uncontroversial. Little to do with aid or development is.

The first, and most obvious, question is: Why intervene at all in a way of life that has changed little in hundreds of years? It is a troubling question that niggles away throughout our visit. There will be plenty of people -- on both the left and right of the development argument -- who may ask: Why Katine? Or even: Why bother?

choosing katine

The answer for me began to harden as I spoke to one of the women collecting the water in that idyllic-seeming scene I'd just witnessed, hot off the plane.

She turned out to be called Joyce Abuko, a 30-year-old mother of five children who also looks after three children of her husband's co-wife and four more children orphaned by AIDS.

So 12 lives in all depend on Joyce. They depend on her rising early in the single mud-floored room she shares with some of the children, some of the chickens, her cooking pans and her food. Twelve lives depend on her cooking, gardening, cleaning, fetching and carrying. They depend on her for their health, their education and their security. They need her to be strong and in good health.

But the odds are heavily stacked against Joyce. Start with the water. The borehole she and her friends use has been swamped by the catastrophic floods that have hit central and eastern Africa this year, displacing up to 300,000 Ugandans -- very probably the result of climate change caused by the affluent other world of which Joyce has no knowledge or conception.

disease

The swamps are host to malaria, schistosomiasis and jigger worms, which burrow into human skin and can cause secondary infections, including tetanus and gangrene. Joyce confesses she is too tired -- and, anyway, doesn't have enough time in her day -- to boil the water before her children drink and wash in it. I could only find evidence of one, hole-ridden, malaria net.

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