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

So, sooner or later, Joyce and those in her care will end up in the local health center. At first glance it looks impressive enough: a series of long brick huts, even an operating theater.

But, as with so much about Katine, appearances are deceptive. There is no electricity or running water, few malaria nets and an inadequate supply of drugs. The operating theater, opened with some ceremony by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's wife a year ago, has never been used.

On the day we visited, the place had a feeling of hopelessness and decay about it. A solitary ambulance stood unused in the long grass, waiting for spare parts. A charcoal stove was the only way of sterilizing equipment in the delivery room; a single paraffin lamp was the only means of light after dark. Medical recordkeeping was rudimentary, with only a quarter of the local population tested for HIV.

Government figures suggest that Joyce will be lucky to live beyond 46. She has a one in four chance of dying from malaria.

Joyce's brood stand little opportunity of improving their lot through education. They travel long distances to get to school by 7:30am. There is no food for the children during the day. By mid-morning, even those who came have begun to drift off home.

Sanitation is poor -- five holes in the ground for a notional roll of 650 children -- and no water. Girls stay at home when menstruating and many drop out early because of pregnancy or marriage.

As at the hospital, there was a forlorn air about the Katine primary school the day we called in. The teacher who greeted us was initially upbeat and welcoming. But as she recited a litany of problems -- few text books, classes of up to 130, poor accommodation for teachers and so on -- the life sagged out of her. I watched as a class of listless 10-year-olds struggled with an aimless lesson in creationism.

There was more spirit up the road at the local community primary school -- started by a group of parents -- but with even more basic conditions. Children sat on mud floors or rough hewn logs under grass roofs open to rain. The sum total of written texts amounted to seven Bibles. The seven teachers (between 350 children) wrote in the dust for lack of slates.

So much for plague and ignorance. The last in Paul Collier's trilogy of 14th-century disasters -- civil war -- has also been visited on Katine. Of the two main rebel groups operating in northern Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has wreaked the most havoc -- looting, raping, mutilating and killing numerous residents and abducting countless thousands of children in the name of the religious fanatic, Joseph Kony.

kidnapped

I met one young man -- still worried about giving his full name -- who had found his way back to Katine after a year of abduction. He had been kidnapped at 17 and spent a year of forced marches, sometimes roped to hundreds of other young men. He described how they had looted their way across the country. He spoke of seeing numerous killings; of ears and hands sliced off; of friends branded with red hot pangas; of raids on terrorized farmers and terrifying battles with the Ugandan army.

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