29 June 2012

Uganda: Why Live in a Landslide Zone?

Photo: Mujahid Safodien/IRIN
Women collect water in the village of Ha Rantismane in Lesotho’s mountainous Thaba-Tseka District.

The Gisu tribe, also known as the Bamasaaba, live in the landslide prone areas on the slopes of Mount Elgon in eastern Uganda. Even after the recent landslide on 25 June, they remain greatly attached to their ancestral land and its fertile soil and resist government efforts to relocate them to safer locations.

The Gisu tribe's coat of arms is emblazoned with the words 'Lwe liswa nibulamu bwe Bagisu' ['The life of Bagisu depends on their land']. It helps explain why the Gisu continue to live dangerously.

Ancestral land

Bernard Mujasi , the Mbale district chairman, says people who live in landslide-prone areas have been resisting government plans to relocate them to safer areas because they fear losing their tribal identity.

"Bagisu do not want to be detached from where their ancestors are buried," says Mujasi.

According to Alice Natsila, a mother of five children, tribal elders who perform the circumcision rituals on young males are particularly resistant to moving outside the Bugisu sub-region.

Fertile soil

"The Gisu also know that their staple food matooke [bananas] does well in the fertile volcanic soils of Mount Elgon. They feel that if they move to a different climatic condition, they may not be able to grow their favourite food and cash crops," according to Mujasi.

"The soil's fertility is also favourable for growing the Bugisu variety of Arabica coffee which remains the main source of income for several households in Bugisu region," says Mujasi. The area also provides good yields for vegetables, yams, beans and maize.

People also have access to bamboo shoots which is a delicacy among the Gisu. The mountain also provides a livelihood for the communities who have limited land on which to carry out agricultural activities.

Cool climate

Many locals fear that if they are resettled in the hotter lowlands, they may be exposed to diseases like malaria which is less common in the hilly and landslide-prone districts such as Bududa.

Meanwhile some electioneering politicians are contributing to the degradation of the environment by encouraging residents to do farming on hill tops, cut down trees and, in some cases, build houses in landslide prone areas, according to Natsila.


Former Sironko district chairman David Wambi Kibale says that since the El-Ni-o rains of 1997 the Bugisu sub-region leaders have been asking the Ugandan central government to secure funds to resettle people encroaching on Mount Elgon National Park in the densely populated Bugisu sub-region.

After the massive landslide on 25 June that struck several villages in Bududa district, the Minister of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees, announced that the government needs over 5 billion shillings (around 1.6 million euros) a year to resettle approximately 10,000 people.

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