'I was reminded that this was Uganda proper.'
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First published: April 17, 2006
Our journey would see us visit many villages to discover the local people's own efforts in fighting HIV/AIDS. Apac is mainly occupied by the Langi and Alur speaking nilotic harmites with some Acholi communities.
We reached Kafo, at the junction that branches off to Masindi district headquarters where we stopped for a break. After about a 20 minutes drive from Kafu, we diverted to a murram road on the right, which I was told is a short-cut route to Apac, the most southern of the districts in northern Uganda. The road took us up to the Nile river at Masindi port, and I had to ask if we had reached Apac as there were only a few wood built shore houses. Nasur, the friendly driver of the vehicle we were traveling in told me we were going to cross the river and then continue on road to Apac district.
Across the 150 meter river width from this Masindi port our destination became visable. The presence of a ferry for transport across the river at Masindi port from Masindi district to Apac district is a big blessing. I was surprised to learn that the ferry was a free service by the government to transport people across the river, with people only collecting money for diesel when the ferry crew did not have fuel- something that rarely happened, I was told. Even the die-hard opponents of the current government have to thank Museveni's government for the ferry; here to facilitate transport for business and people's travel. It is a two-mortar engine metal ground machine operated by two men. It was able to accommodate two coasters and our landcruiser, a Dyana truck, and people with their goods. Once it comes, people just board and they are transported across on the 10-15 minutes water ride.
The murram road to Apac is in good condition and you can't help but wonder why there are not many settlements or developments on the roadside to tap business or people residing near the road. Much of what is seeable are maize and cassava plantations and mostly mangoes, which during the ripening season provides an alternative food source for many families in Apac.
The area is mostly flat with few if any hills or valleys, and there are some stretches where the trees and vegetation mix in a natural beauty to make traveling to Apac enjoyable. Like me, you will be disappointed that you only briefly see the waters of Lake Kyoga on the left hand side of the road to Apac town.
Everybody in the vehicle volunteers to show me Akokoro primary school, the school where former Uganda President Apollo Milton Obote (RIP) attended his primary education, and the road leading to his Akokoro village residence, which he used to call Akokoro city. Neither the school nor the road is indicative of an approach of a city or a town, but the coolness and seeming originality of the place is worth praise.
Akokoro Primary School.
After what seemed like an hour of driving after disembarking from the ferry, we found a sign post, "Apac Town Council Welcomes You". I'm relieved that we are about to reach our destination, Apac town, surprised at how short the distance is because it was just approaching 5 pm. But I was more surprised that there was no single house in sight- only trees and stretching grassland at this sign post welcoming us to Apac town. It was after a kilometer from the signpost that we start seeing houses indicating the approach to the town.
Activity is rife in shops lining the road on both sides, as we reach what seems a busy suburb of an ordinary town, which I expected Apac to be. At a one meter circle round about housing a huge Celtel billboard, we crossed over to the left where another stretch of shops on both sides of the tarmac road lead us to Travelers Inn, the place where we were supposed to be accommodated.
It was then that I asked Nasur when we were to reach Apac town, only for him to surprise me by saying that we had already passed through Apac town.
A town that ends before it starts? I wondered. The shops were as ordinary as those in any trading center of Uganda, basic commercial buildings with two, three or four doors as shops. The most close-to-elegant thing we passed was the Celtel billboard. You cannot help but wonder whether there is a strongly enforced law against storied buildings in Apac as there is no single storied building in Apac town and its environs.
The town of Apac.
I was told that I had to buy the items I would need as soon as possible since shops in Apac town normally close at 8 pm and people retreat to villages from where they come back to the town in the morning to continue with business.
The place is peaceful though, cool and enjoyable with everyone ready to greet you with a friendly handshake and show you around. The inn had good rooms and DSTV, where people come in the evening to watch movies, football and other entertainment.
The power cuts are deeply felt here that one old man on learning that I was a Journalist had to emphatically send me to tell the boss of Umeme (the power distributing company in Uganda) that they were about to mobilize people and come to Kampala. He said that they will demonstrate or even beat him up for 'deceiving people that they were supplying power' when they were giving occasional electricity that they could hardly put to use because of its irregularity and uncertainty.
The people here are probably easy to mobilize, as also seen in the anti HIV/AIDS efforts through their different groups, which was the main reason I had come to Apac.
In the morning, we set off to different villages and almost everywhere you can see men and women on bicycles, which seems to be the main mode of transport here.
Like many people here, John Bosco Amunyo, the chairperson of Komatha, a traditional healers group whose activities we had come to witness in Apac district, rides on a bicycle. Amunyo confirmed what I had been told- that getting public transport within Apac is by big luck and occasional. One can only imagine how these people are able to traverse the whole district on bicycles, mobilizing each other and their communities.
Amunyo says that Komatha stands for Kony (save) Kwoo (life) Maruji Traditional Healers Association. It was formed by traditional healers in Maruji county, Apac district in 2003. Komatha has undertaken a number of activities including community sensitization, treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS, counseling and supporting orphans and widows, as well as training their fellow healers how to contribute in the AIDS fight.
"As healers, we carry out daily sensitization of the community on HIV and other STDs. Each time a client comes to us, we sensitize them. We tell them to get early treatment of STDs. If we identify that they have HIV/AIDS, we refer them to health centres for VCT (Voluntary Counselling and Testing) and PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission) of HIV," says Anthony Okello, Komatha general secretary of Komatha.
They also refer "clients" to medical practitioners and other traditional healers. "Cases we can not handle, we refer them to health centres and other traditional healers. We refer clients among ourselves," Okello says as he led us to Tarugali, to the homes of some of the traditional healers.
The feeder roads to all these places are well kept and vehicles can move with ease. The expanse of land both cultivated on and unused leaves no doubt that much of Apac has fertile land that people can exploit for agricultural production.
Yet, in all the villages we visited in Apac, the high level of poverty is the common statement. From people's accommodation, mainly (manyattas)-round grass thatched and mud and wattles houses, to what can be seen as assets in a homestead. One-acre cassava or maize plantations are the main asset of most homesteads, with a few lucky homes having sheep or goats. No family of those we visited had cattle.
We visited Alenga Primary School where children thought we were some sort of donors here to give items. One Apina Robert, of P7 said he wants to be helped to go to secondary because education is his only hope for a better future. He said his parents couldn't afford the money to take him for secondary school education. Another pupil, Acheng Caroline wanted us to offer her full uniform with shoes (she didn't have shoes). It seems everybody in Apac needs help in one way or another.
Children playing in the town of Apac.
"Me, I know I will complete my primary here because I was supported with scholastic materials. But I want to go for vocational training so that I'm able to get work as soon as possible and help my siblings and family," says Sarah Alobo who is in P6.
Whether it is "the-donors-will-give" mentality, or people are genuinely poor and have little or nothing to do about their situation is not clear. But the prevalence of poor conditions is prevalent in people's speech, actions and appearance of many.
"When we organize community sensitization education meetings, community members always ask as to give them like lunch allowance before they can attend. What should we do or tell them? Can we be given a fund for sensitization?" asks Grace Otim, one of the Komatha healers, also asking something.
It is this limitedness of resources that is putting its heavy toll on Komatha activities. Their main source of funding is the annual contribution by the 43 members of Komatha. They are each supposed to pay 10, 000/=. They also raise money from membership fee for joining Komatha with each prospective member required to pay 2, 000/=. This is hardly money that can help an organization run its programs.
Amunyo, Komatha chairperson says that as an organization, they want to start several income generating activities, starting with an herbal garden. "We want to plant all kinds of herbs, but also all kinds of trees- even those species threatened with extinction, which we can sell to the community. We want to introduce some herbs like aloe Vera, which can help us generate funds. This herb alone will be introduced in every sub-county within the district," says Amunyo.
"As part of our intent to enable us to help vulnerable families, we are planning to have poultry farming both at our office and in child headed families. We are also planning to start brick making also directed at child headed families. All these are projects to enable us raise an income for our beneficiaries," adds Okello.
Children playing in the town of Apac.
They also plan to keep writing proposals for funding from different local and international NGOs and government bodies. " We are also hoping to get help to build a reasonable office for Komatha since we are currently accommodated at Ibuje health centre and the office can be taken away anytime," says Tom Obonyo, another healer.
"Our major plan is to continue to look for ways of sustaining Komatha. And as we get sustained, then all the programs we have laid down will be accomplished," says Amunyo, affirming that sustainability remains only but their dearest dream.
It is a situation where the helpers need much help as well. But their efforts are nonetheless very commendable given the amount of recourses they are operating with.
When we returned to Travellers Inn at around 7 pm, life was back to a low profile in much if the small town. But everyone you meet and interact with seems to be happy about something. Probably being positive about life, yet I could not help but wonder how or when much of Apac will be raised from such poverty. I was reminded that this was Uganda proper. Life here is the norm for many people in different places of Uganda.
I had learnt from the previous day that getting good food here means you go early for meals to the two main restaurants. I was laughed at when I asked for Matooke and chicken. Matooke is rare here, I was told, and few people like it anyway. The usual best was rice and well prepared beef, which was good for lunch or supper.
As I went to bed at 10 pm (I normally go to bed at midnight), my worry was of a more immediate nature. I had been told, actually warned by several of the people at the Inn, that I had to wake at 3 am so as to catch the bus that leaves at 3:30 am. "If the bus leaves you this Wednesday, you will go on Friday. It is the only means of transport to Kampala," one Peter Otim volunteered.
I woke up at three and wished the people I came with and was leaving behind goodbye. By 3:30 am, I was seated in the bus, which luckily was only 20 meters from the Inn. We left Apac at 3:45, through Lira (this time not through the short-cut at the River Nile). We arrived in Lira town a few minutes past 6 am. The day broke with some good journey covered, but I could not help think to about the little or no journey that many people in Apac were making with the little that they have.
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First published: April 17, 2006
Gerald Businge is a media practitioner and features Editor at Ultimate Media Consult in Uganda. He is a graduate of Mass Communication and several journalism and leadership certificates. He has been a practicing journalist since March 2001 and has worked at The New Vision as features writer, and has written extensively for different newspapers, magazines, newsletters in Uganda and internationally. He currently does fulltime media communication consultancy work as well as writing and editing at Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd where he is a founding member and CEO. You can get his attention so long as you are interested in and you are working for a better world.