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

As many as 5,000 refugees from neighboring areas established a displaced persons camp in Katine in 2003, placing further strain on the local infrastructure, even further weakened by the LRA cutting the power supply, which has never been reconnected. There are still 250 people living in the camp, too terrified to return to their homes.

Janet Adwo, 24, showed me inside the cramped hut that has been home for her and her two children for four years -- all of them sleeping on a rag mattress with no mosquito net. In a nearby hut a 65-year-old man sucking ajon (millet-based hooch) through a hollow twig told of the calamities he had lived through recently.

He fiercely rounded on a pair of laughing girls.

"There are things I do not like to speak of in their presence," he said. "Young children killed by bamboo sticks pushed through their anuses."

The girls fell silent.

The area has also been subject to repeated raids from the Karamajong tribesmen, armed with AK-47s, who rounded up and stole all the cattle they could find. Farmers have had to fall back on crop production, but with negligible markets for their food.

So, that is life in Katine. These are people with almost nothing bar the clothes they stand up in and the patchy grass roofs over their heads. They are living on fine margins between a hard life and early death.

But for all this hardship and misery, Katine does not feel like a hopeless society -- far from it. The community is full of heroines like Joyce. It is impossible not to be struck by an immense warmth and resilience ... and a fierce ambition to do better.

It is quite hard to see how this "sub-county" -- we are talking of a dispersed community of about 20,000 people -- is going to do better on its own.

Development economists have their varying theories to explain how countries such as Uganda and places such as Katine end up so desperately poor. Malaria, physical geography, poor governance, fiscal failure, trade and conflict are among the standard explanations -- all of them applicable to Katine.

Collier would also point to Uganda being landlocked between Kenya, itself stagnant for 30 years; Sudan, gripped by civil war; Rwanda, devastated by genocide; Somalia, which simply collapsed; the Congo, laid low by years of catastrophic conflict; and Tanzania, which invaded it.

He is also clear that in seeking to help places such as Katine we cannot rescue them.

"The societies of the bottom billion can only be rescued from within," he writes. "In every society of the bottom billion there are people working for change, but usually they are defeated by powerful internal forces stacked against them. We should be helping the heroes. So far, our efforts have been paltry: through inertia, ignorance, and incompetence, we have stood by and watched them lose."

"A future world with a billion people living in impoverished and stagnant countries is just not a scenario we can countenance. A cesspool of misery next to a world of growing prosperity is both terrible for those in the cesspool and dangerous for those who live next to it. We had better do something about it. The question is what," he writes.

The question is what: Most Western journalists periodically scratch their heads about how to keep some subjects fresh, including poverty and climate change. The big picture is known; the facts change little from day to day. Such subjects are at once the biggest news of our times -- and not news at all.

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