KIRYANDONGO. Thirty-four-year-old Emma Namisi stood akimbo, then pocketed before clasping his hands across his chest. It is searing temperatures here in Kiryandongo District, some 210 kilometres north of Kampala.
The farmer’s shifting postures compared with the fleeting facts in his life.
Eight years ago, a mother’s shrill yanked Mr Namisi out of slumber.
It was a life-saving shout. Nature had lost its cool and directed a deadly mudslide that flattened three Bududa District villages; Nametsi, Namakansa and Kubewo.
On that fateful day, on March 1, 2010, Mr Namisi said his mother’s yelling woke him to narrowly escape a violent rumble and tumble downhill of vast soil debris loaded with crushed trees and boulders.
“I was sleeping when I heard my mother screaming out my name…On exiting [our house], I could see [the] mudslide taking everything in its way,” Mr Namis said, his brain replaying a horror of the past.
He lost a sister to the avalanche. The magnitude of the destruction to life and property amid fresh warning of likely repeat mudslide, birthed what has turned out a bellicose public discourse on relocation of most-at-risk populations from the eastern mountainous region.
Occupation of a government-procured land in Bulambuli, a district neighbouring Bududa, has been jinxed by ownership wrangle and alleged mismanagement of allocated finances.
Infrastructure plan stalled
An elaborate plan to erect a customised self-sustaining neighbourhood, replete with residential structures, a commercial hub, agricultural land and social services for displaced persons, has stalled at the altar of political bickering, resource hamstrings and resistance by natives.
The allure of the rich volcanic soils on Mt Elgon ridges and abundant farm yields have ensnared residents. Some invoke a desire to remain close to the grave yards of their ancestors as a shadowy spirituality excuse to stay put at hell’s gate rather than shift to areas of better safety.
And claims that the government intends to snap up the vacated land has poisoned the debate, polarised friends and hampered help to those who need it most.
In the end, there is plenty of quarrel and counter-accusations, but little action.
Mr Namisi this hot afternoon hobbled to Panyadoli Hills Primary School Ground in Kiryandongo with urgency in his steps.
Local leaders had summoned them for an impromptu meeting with Mr Musa Ecweru, the Disaster Preparedness State minister.
A short trip back to his home before the October 31, meeting got underway, introduced one to residents’ triumphs and travails in the settlement.
The government bussed 603 of Bududa’s displaced to Kiryandongo, some 430 kilometres away eight years ago. It promised them new houses and land for agriculture as well as schools, health facilities and piped water.
All spent the first night communally in classrooms. They had arrived exhausted from the long drive and the buses got wedged in jagged stretch of the road off the highway.
The tribulation prefaced days of further hardship to endure. The government moved the households into tents and crowding and poor hygiene resulted in outbreak of communicable diseases.
Some died, and no one kept the records. Fate seemed more punishing in this promised land in the first two weeks than over a life-time back home in Bududa.
Sixty of the relocated individuals quit Panyadoli Village in Kiryandongo, sprinting back to what was left of their possessions in their cradle land in Bududa.
Their testimonies based on harsh realities discouraged many from shifting away from Bududa, and turned into an eternal nightmare for government officials to debunk.
It was one reason the Disaster Preparedness ministry took journalists to Kiryandongo last month as it sought to prove that not all the people moved in from the east had returned.
“This place is not bad, but there are still many things that the government promised to give to us but did not,” said Panyadoli village chairman Julius Weleka, a survivor of the 2010 Bududa mudslides.
314 people left out
Only 289 permanent houses have been built, leaving 314 people to-date to stay in makeshifts crafted with tarpaulin.
There is no piped water as promised and no nursery school even as the government shifts emphasis on early childhood development.
The available primary schools is crowded, with 29 teachers handling 1,600 pupils. The nearest government secondary school is eight kilometres away, resulting in high dropout rates.
“We have no nursery school here; so, all the children start from primary and after completing primary level, most pupils drop out because the nearby secondary school is eight kilometres [away],” said Kiryandongo District Education Officer Edward Kiirya. “Many can’t afford to move (sic) this distance.”
A few of the individuals with means have installed solar lighting, but the remote settlement is not connected to the national electricity grid.
The roads are in bad state and become impassable whenever there is heavy downpour. It is no different from the village trails in the undulating Bududa terrain where a mix of steep rises and gorges through fertile farmlands pose travel hiccups in the absence of bitumen lane to the hinterland.
Brighter side of life
In spite of the headwinds, Panyadoli village teems with activity. Barefoot children can be spotted playing football stringed from banana fibre and polythene bags. Smoke rises to the heavens from improvised kitchens, evidence that residents can afford meals of some kind.
The iron-roofed houses, asymmetrical as they are, radiate development in the hamlet.
Its rolling flat lands hug several hills on the western end, casting a beautiful glow at sunset.
Mr Namisi’s two-bedroom house, installed with solar at his personal cost, is one of the 289 in the settlement that the government has managed to erect since 2010.
The garden in front of the house is blooming with cassava and maize plants, and the father of two anticipates bountiful harvest.
“I grew up in Bududa. Resettling in Bunyoro [sub-region] was indeed a hard thing to imagine,” said Mr Namisi, “I know that Bududa is my ancestral home, but Kiryandongo is my new home.”
Trouble is brewing between the settlers and natives ostensibly because 300 people from Bududa, who were not planned for, have stealthily settled and are allegedly encroaching on land outside the borders of Panyadoli settlement.