9 May 2019

Uganda: Kampala Lives Are Measured in Dollars, While Upcountry They're Mere Shillings

Ugandan media attaches a different value to life in Kampala from life upcountry - the same way the value of the shilling and US dollar are different.

The worth of currency and human life seem to be determined by market forces. Before we adopted liberal economics, the shilling value was fixed by the minister of finance until the early 1990s, when we went liberal and the shilling's value was left to market forces.

Although the finance minister is unlikely to return to fixing the value of the shilling, there is a case for the health minister to impose a fixed value to life upcountry and (artificially) put it at par with that in Kampala until the media gets used to it.

Take the upcountry district of Buyende, for example. A couple of weeks back, a storm hit Buyende, destroying several houses and leaving 13 people dead. A couple of not-so-prominent mentions in the national media and we were back to business as usual.

But only last September, the former divisional police commander of the same Buyende, who had already been relieved of his duties, was shot dead near Kampala.

All life stopped as the media cameras went to the scene of ASP Muhammad Kirumira's death. And who did they find there? The president of the republic had also rushed there and was interviewing eye witnesses.

The "Kampalaness" of Kirumira's death made it more important than that of 13 Buyende victims.

Kirumira himself had become well known because of his service in stations around Kampala before being transferred to Buyende, which doesn't necessarily mean he was working harder than other DPCs.

About the same day as Buyende's 13 were dying in the rain, a resident district commissioner from the north died in a road crash with six other family members.

He too got a brief mention in the media and that was it. Now Kampala's RDC equivalent, also appointed by the president, is a whole Cabinet minister.

Just imagine a Kampala minister dying in a road crash with or without several family members! The press would not pay much attention to anything else for a week, because of the higher value attached to Kampala lives.

There is this madness of killing young ladies after torturing and raping them that makes headlines when the victims are around Kampala. This doesn't mean that women are not being battered to death upcountry.

Attaching the same value to lives upcountry as those in Kampala is not just a matter justice and morality; it would help address important matters that affect the whole country.

I almost wish an ageing journalist called Buwembo drowned in the rain in his Kampala house instead of the Buyende 13 drowning out there, then some questions would be asked and maybe government would pay a little more attention to climate change adaptation, with the construction for human habitation plus building of drainage channels getting more supervision.

The idle civil engineers now involved in petty trade and football betting in Kampala would be deployed to all districts to help tame the runoff rainwater and help citizens build safer houses.

The exchange rate of the shilling to the dollar can be left to the market, but the value of upcountry lives compared to Kampala lives needs to be fixed by the government.

Joachim Buwembo is a retired journalist and a consultant based in Kampala.

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