The Week that was… is a section in Sunday Vision that I used to religiously follow in the early 2000s. I hope it still runs (I haven’t read the Sunday Vision in years – for reasons I shall explain elsewhere). Anyway, back then, after perusing – and musing all-through – Tom Rush’s escapades in the Sunday Magazine, the “week that was” section would be my next pick.
In last week alone, I have travelled through the districts of Kabarole, Kibale, Kamwenge, and Ntoroko. The last time I made such a trip was in late December 2010 (the trip, then, would lead me through Kibale, Kamwenge, Ibanda and Kiruhura). Four years later, a couple of things have changed in these districts and towns that I can be allowed to make a few generalisations and inferences.
Travelling through Kibale district on January 2, 2011, I was shocked at the terrible state in which the Fort Portal-Kibale-Kamwenge road was; it was badly in need of repair – dusty, pot holed and narrow. 2011 was also an election year and while listening to one of the local Rutooro stations in the car, I would listen to the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, pledge in Runyankore that one of the things his government would address in the next term – his fourth; or sixth, depending on how you look at it – were roads, public administration and management of the new found oil wealth. I remember wondering out loud to the other occupants of the car: “How I wish the NRM fulfilled even half of their pledges…”
I was to be proven wrong four years later. The Kibale-Kamwenge road is now under construction, and by the look of things, more houses have access to power; there are two or three new bridges on the same road; the road is wider now…I could go on.
Save for sections of the Kibale-Fort Portal road which are still dusty, a lot has changed (infrastructure-wise) in this part of the country. The ever-so-clean Fort Portal is now even cleaner – the government hospital (Buhinga) has been reconstructed and given a new coat of paint; there’s a new central market (almost the same size as Wandegeya or Jinja’s Napier market); the roads are well paved and there are a number of tourists taking a stroll in this town. On the downside, however, Fort Portal remains a quiet, sleepy town. Unlike its peers Masaka, Mbarara, Gulu or even Jinja, there is not much hustle and bustle in Fort – like the locals fondly refer to the town. Big supermarkets like Tuskys, Nakumatt and Shoprite are yet to set up here. Yet you expect they should, seeing the large number of tourists who flock this town. Some of the buildings on Kampala, Kasese and Babiiha roads are badly in need of a facelift.
One thing that struck me about Fort Portal was the cleanliness, not only of the people, but also the people. Even without law enforcement officers (like is the case with Kampala), shop verandas are clean and there were disposal bins outside most places.
My six hour stay in Fort Portal included a brief visit to Virika hospital, one of the many Catholic church-owned hospitals in the country. I was here to see a friend’s dad who had been admitted. It was my second time. The first being a decade ago when I was hospitalised here, after a malaria attack. The hospital, like all Catholic institutions, is exceptionally clean and the staff are very attentive and helpful. Which deflates the notion that Ugandan doctors are lazy. Perhaps there’s something about religious institutions – the respect and reverence which people accord them, and not to public institutions.
The next stop would be Ntoroko. One of the newest districts (carved out of Bundibugyo), Ntoroko borders the DRC to the west and Lake Albert to the North. The Fort Portal-Bundibugyo-Lamia road and its magnificent bends (corners) is a sight to behold. Interesting to note: the road was constructed by the now infamous CICO Chinese company that has been entangled in the Katosi road mess. It is one of the many contradictions of Uganda today – that a company that delivers such a hugely successful project can fail on “smaller” projects like the Kasese-Fort Portal road and Katosi.
Before it’s construction, a journey from Fort Portal to Bundibugyo was nothing short of nightmarish. From dangerously hanging cliffs to long-winding turns that often caused cars to overturn; to the long hours spent navigating through rough terrain; to narrowness of the turns and risk of head-on collisions. The new 78 km road has reduced the time of travel between the two western towns from 4-6 hours to 2 hours. Business seems to be thriving on the roadsides and power has recently been extended here. All this in the last four or five years.
What all this means.
It has become tradition for the urban elite to dismiss rural voters and their voting choices as being simply irrational and driven by money, bribes like salt and soap. This, from my finding, is only partly true. While the urban elites have to contend with jam, pot-holed roads, expensive food and a high cost of living, the rural masses are having their “seven years” of plenty – road construction projects have driven demand for food; provide jobs to rural youths; lodge and bar owners are reaping big from construction workers and the extension of electricity means that many are lighting up their businesses, extending their working hours and reducing the cost of doing business. There’s a mismatch: The aspirational urban folks, wanting to project their frustration (bad roads, high cost of living) on the rural masses, and the rural folks starting to enjoy the fruits of infrastructure investment.
What this could mean for the opposition in 2016, is the question this writer is grappling with. How do you craft a message that resonates with these two groups od people? How do you leverage urban frustration and manage rural expectation to your benefit?
My week-long trip to western Uganda will be serialized here on the blog starting this week. Stay tuned.