10 August 2017

Uganda: Would You Risk Your Huawei to Save a Drowning Human? Not in Downtown Kla!

Photo: Marlies Pilon/ RNW
Traffic in Uganda.
opinion

Until last week, no one had heard of Olivia Basemera. The 38-year-old single mother of three was just another face in the traffic pacing up and down trying to make a sale.

Up and down she walked, past middle-class folks holding up their noses at the delays in their air-conditioned cars; past folks sweating away in the stultifying afternoon humidity swirling around the open matatu windows; past other itinerant traders peddling bananas, toilet paper, pirated books and DVDs, and faulty phone car chargers; past street preachers in over-sized coats screaming down saliva-coated warnings of eternal damnation.

Basemera sold handkerchiefs. Tough as denim and in bright, garish colours, the cloths, all imported dirt-cheaply from China, were in favour during the hot and humid season, giving away to umbrellas during the rainy season, and to plastic toys during the school holidays. Folks like Basemera sell anything richer traders import. For a small cut, they take the goods to motorists who are too busy or unwilling to venture into the mayhem down town.

Shopkeepers say hawkers like Basemera undercut them because they neither pay rent nor taxes; so they ask Kampala Capital City Authority to get rid of them if it wants to collect taxes. In come the KCCA law enforcement agents.

Like young chicks when a hawk is identified overhead, the hawkers scamper and blend into the crowd when the dreaded law enforcement agents appear. To be arrested is to lose one's stock and, often, one's freedom with a stint in jail.

For Basemera, the price was her life. As the hawker fled from the hawks, she fell or jumped into the Nakivubo Channel, which was swollen with rainwater. She couldn't swim. A would-be Good Samaritan saw Basemera in peril. He knew how to swim. But he had his phones in his pockets. He looked around; there was no one he could entrust them to - its a full-time hustle downtown and the first rule to accumulation of wealth is don't trust nobody but your goddamn self!

Torn between a Human and a Huawei, he let Basemera drown.

The easy part to explain about this tragic story is the high-handed conduct of the city law enforcement agents. We saw it a few months earlier in the case of Robinah Namugenyi, another hawker, who was brutally arrested, along with her very young children, then jailed for two-and-a-half months.

Her crime, like that of Basemera, was to try and feed her kids.

We also saw it in January 2012 when city authorities refused to condemn a director, since deceased, who was involved in a shooting incident that left one dead and three injured in Luzira, a city suburb.

But there are deeper things going on here, and some difficult questions. How can we protect private enterprise when we have closed off or grabbed public spaces in shared urban areas? Who does the 'city', beyond its titled plots and named buildings, belong to, and who has a right to earn a living in it?

How do we keep the unwashed masses away from Kampala if it contributes more than half Uganda's GDP while the rural economy has collapsed in many parts of the country? How did we go from a society where it took a village to raise a child, to one in which we attach more value to a $50 phone than to the life of a drowning woman?

Your columnist has no answers. However, I suspect that the search for answers requires us to reframe the way we see ourselves, the way we carve out shared spaces, and the way we define development. During one of our long coffee-in-exile sessions in Nairobi, Charles Onyango-Obbo once shared a story he'd heard about slums.

Most of us are wired to see them as evidence of failed urban planning, and the refuse bin for urban living.In reality, slums are important transit points for people coming into and leaving the cities.

The rich in Kololo and Naguru wouldn't afford servants to clean after them if those servants didn't have low-cost food, housing and education options in Bwaise or Kinawataka slums.

In other words, slums and hawkers are the way cities work, not the way they fail. Until we all can afford to shop in the malls, we need to find a way for the likes of Basemera and Namugenyi to survive. We can't drown them all.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man's freedom fighter. Twitter: @Kalinaki.

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