Hemingway was never trapped in a mall. This is what I told myself as I watched the floodwaters rise around me last Monday. Before going to Uganda, I'd anticipated all manner of things that could go wrong -- riots, malaria, perhaps even being trampled by raging elephants. Hemingway was able to brag about surviving two plane crashes in as many days. It was the stuff of novels. But Hemmingway, for all his fantastic adventures, never had to hide out in a mall to escape a flash flood.
The rain had hit suddenly and I had been caught out in the downpour. I had spent an hour at the Kobil gas station trying, in vain, to hide from the rain. As the muddy water began to rise around my ankles I made a dash for the mall.
For a country that is right on the equator, it was a miserable and cold day. Uchumi, the supermarket at the mall, had colorful buckets strategically placed around the store to collect water leaking from the ceiling. Hemingway would have made sure his big game rifle was dry and then probably console himself with a flask of whisky. But trapped as I was, I consoled myself with cake as water soaked the café floor.
Needless to say, I was one of the lucky ones.
Dozens of homes in the Bududa district, near the towering Mount Elgon, were leveled by massive landslides triggered by the heavy rains. The exact number killed is difficult to ascertain because there is little in the way of record keeping or even property deeds to mark the houses that were swept away. Thus, the reports ranged from 18 to well over 100 dead.
Stephen Wamukota, the Ugandan Red Cross regional manager, attributed this wide discrepancy to the inability of rescuers to dig into the heavy mud. Another Red Cross official reported that the bodies couldn't be retrieved because they were buried ten feet deep.
This is the bleak and unrelenting reality for those who live on the margins: When disaster strikes, the chance for survival and recovery is far from certain. Take the children who were at school when their homes were buried. Many children lost their homes, but more importantly, their parents. What does a country without a real welfare system do with these newly-orphaned and destitute children?
But landslides aren't totally unexpected. Two years ago, 300 people were killed and 8000 displaced in the same area. And there had been warning signs that another landslide was imminent.
Still, there is little anyone can do to stop this. Uganda does not have the desperately needed equipment to monitor its environment, or the resources to prevent the deforestation of the land. Mount Elgon is facing increasing pressures from a combination of over-population and over-farming, which strips the soil of protective mechanisms.
The government hasannounced a plan to relocate 400,000 people out of the danger zone. The people, however, do not want to leave their tribal lands.Their history is inextricably tied to this soil, however deadly it may be. It is where their ancestors are buried. It is where they have farmed and lived for generations. The land is highly conducive to growing matooke, the staple of their diet. It is also good coffee country, a major source of income. If the villagers are moved, the soil in the new location might not support matooke. They could lose the revenues from the coffee crops. It is indeed a case of the devil they know.
It is a terrible irony that in order to eke out a living, the villagers of Bududa must farm Mount Elgon to the point where it threatens their survival. The loss of their land, and the destruction of the environment have put them at the mercy of forces beyond their control. As climate change places increasing pressures on the Third World such tragedies will become the norm. Not much will change until a concerted effort is made to ensure that countries in Africa have the resources to limit the damage of over-farming and deforestation. As well, countries like Uganda need to build the infrastructure to help limit the devastating tolls of such calamities.
Without this commitment, the rains and weather will continue to exact an awful price. Not even Hemingway could write such a tragic tale.