13.02.2017 35 °C
“This is the worst year”.
“This is my first time to see this”.
These are exclamations when talking to friends and colleagues about the current dry spell in Arua.
Of course, it is ‘dry season’ when rains aren’t expected till sometime in March and when the weather is especially hot and dry. Inside the house last night, the temperature didn’t drop below 29 degrees and it was stifling lying in bed and hard to sleep. Some local friends have told me they have been sleeping on the ground or outside. Of course, our fan couldn’t be on as the power was off. The water level in the dams are too low to produce much hydro-electricity, so load-shedding is the order. We are very thankful for our 3 solar panels that provide us some power. Daytime temperatures are 35 degrees plus.
But, this hot weather isn’t out of the ordinary. What is less common is that the normal ‘long rains’ from July to November of last year, didn’t arrive as expected and there was a lot less rainfall than normal. Crops like beans or maize that were planted dried out in the fields. Groundnuts that do especially well here, died. This has happened to vulnerable people living a subsistence lifestyle in a highly fragile environment. For these people, few buffers exist except the social networks which allow people to help each other in difficulty.
Friends and colleagues have shared their experience of what the drought has meant for them. Kevin (a woman!), who helps us with washing clothes explains that people have been sleeping on her compound to make sure they are early to the borehole near her as so many people are competing for the water. Lilian, our other helper tells us that she pays a boy about 10p to stand in line at the borehole to fill up her jerrycans as the queue is so long. Abdu, my colleague at Lifestitches says that he gets up at midnight or 1am to pump water because it is too busy at other times. Our security guard, John walks 5km to take a bath in the river since the borehole water is only used for drinking now.
As usual in East Africa, there is scant attention given to the plight of common people and subsequently poor media coverage of the situation so it is difficult to know what is going on, however, it seems that La Nina may have played a role in the changed weather pattern. Of course, poor land management such as denuding the land of trees surely has a big effect on the rainfall.
Although town water was a bit haphazard before December, coming only at night, piped water suddenly completely dried up all over Arua. Water levels in the river were too low for the water company to pump from. Lucky for us, we had water in our rainwater tanks which gave us a buffer for a time, but after a short while, even those ran empty.
For the first time, we had to phone a water truck to come and fill up the rainwater tanks. This would allow me to pump water into the house to let us use the indoor plumbing.
Thankfully, we have access to these water trucks that became very busy, sometimes making trips at 10pm to desperate customers like us!
What is remarkable to us about our friends and colleagues in Arua is how well people take these difficult circumstances. In the UK, any similar situation is unthinkable. There, we expect things to work well, or we will complain, write to the newspapers or even sue!
I am always impressed by the levels of difficulty and suffering that people endure and still manage to have a smile and laugh easily. People have an incredible attitude in the midst of suffering. It is common for friends to let you know that a family member has died in awful circumstances in a very matter-of-fact manner. On Wednesday, for example, one Lifestitches lady greeted me and then shared with me that her brother had died in a motorbike accident the day before. She wasn’t too fazed and got on with her work at the workshop. Here, death seems so common, but is an accepted part of life.
A negative consequence of this attitude of acceptance is that people have very low expectations and don’t hold organisations or the government to account for poor services. People are used to fending for themselves in all aspects of life. There is no expectation of change and little vision for a different world. This fatalistic attitude is said to hold development back. However, it could also be a ‘survival’ mentality borne out of experience of constantly being let down by systems like the health service or electricity board or corruption generally.
As someone with a Western perspective, it is incredible to appreciate that Arua’s water problem exists in a context of a nation with a significant portion of the world’s 2nd largest freshwater lake (Lake Victoria) and the source of the world’s longest river within its borders. Sadly, drought in a developing nation like Uganda is so acute because farmers rely so heavily on the rain. Less than 1% of agricultural land is irrigated. Farmers tell me how worried they are about this year’s rains as they couldn’t cope with another yield loss like last years.
Despite the intensity of African life such as the water problems, power issues and poverty, it is a privilege for our family to live here. I often complain about the problems, but I also realise that it helps us have a perspective on what are the most important things in life, such as faith, hope, health or clean water.
These days, signs are good that the rains are already on the way, earlier than normal. There has been rain in Kampala and winds have been picking up. Today, there is even some cloud, thunder and a few drops of rain.
All promising signs, and a reminder of peoples’ fragile dependence and smallness in a big universe.