18 May 2008

Uganda: NRM Has Brought Robust Growth in Street People


Having lived and worked in Kampala for a fairly long time, I will be the first to admit that street children are to some extent one of the key defining features of Kampala. But two recent events have left a very strong impression on my mind regarding the street people.

The first event occurred around 1:30 p.m. on a working day. A man got hold of a rod and lifted it to hit a young woman, who from appearances could well have been a street mother.

The woman who was carrying a malnourished baby started to run but could not move fast enough and did the unthinkable: she dropped her child on the pavement and sped off for dear life.

Her pursuer also dropped the rod and continued to walk on as though nothing had transpired. I was incensed by the man's action which exposed a very young child to danger; other onlookers however found the spectacle amusing.

The second event was at about 9:30 p.m. I was walking from my office to board a taxi and my attention was caught by the sight of a crying child. The child was definitely under three years of age but there she was with outstretched hands begging for alms with tears streaming down her face.

Given that I was hurrying home to catch my one and a half year son before he slept, the begging girl greatly disturbed my mind. I looked around to identify the adult acting as her patron but could not see him or her; instead I discovered there were three other children of about the same age spaced 10 metres apart and sitting in the same begging posture like the crying girl. Somebody or some people were obviously exploiting these children for economic reasons.

It was now my turn to feel the urge to pick up a rod and beat the daylights out of whoever was forcing young children onto the street, late at night, to beg. I later talked to a social worker who told me that people go to live on the streets because of both pull and push factors.

The pull factors for leaving home and going to live on the streets include the excitement and glamour of living in a city; hope of raising living standard; financial wellbeing.

The social worker told me that it is particularly difficult to convince families to get off the street because the amount of money that street people make from begging is usually a lot higher than what they can make from entry level vocations.

The push factors include the ongoing disarmament process in Karamoja as well as the difficult food supply situation in that region that has been a major contributory factor to the influx of Karimojong families onto the streets of Kampala.

Other push factors include: natural population increase above carrying capacity; international trend of urbanisation; cost of living; search for additional income; child abandonment and neglect; family size; and disintegration of the traditional family.

The street people are among those at the lowest point of the urban poverty scale but they are not the only urban poor. There are other urban poor people who live in slums, earning Shs60,000 a month which has to accomplish the impossible task of meeting the cost of all their basic household needs? Space does not allow me to mention the crowd of idlers who are always ready to hire out their time for the next demonstration.

As I mulled over these experiences and the words of the social worker, I thought about people like President Museveni who have been calling for the urbanisation of Uganda and eradication of villages in the name of economic development. I wonder whether urbanising Uganda will reduce or increase the number as well as plight of the street people.

Circumstantial evidence indicates that one of the achievements of the NRM government has been the robust growth in the number of families living on the streets.

Mr Abola is the team leader for Akamai Global

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