Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Oil Palm Plantation on Kalangala Island bordering on Lake Victoria

I recently returned from a visit to Kalangala on Bugula Island, the largest of the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria, where I witnessed  the negative social and environmental effects of oil palm production.  The oil palm is a tree that produces a cluster of fruit that can be pressed to produce oil used for cooking.  Some years ago the Ugandan government entered into an agreement with BIDCO oil refineries to develop oil palm plantations on the island as well as other locations in Uganda. After talking to individuals on the island, I have come to understand that the Ugandan government transferred large tracts it controlled to BIDCO as an economic development measure sweetening the deal by giving the company a fifteen year tax break.

In Indonesia oil palm monoculture has been criticized by environmental groups because of the destruction of the native forests threatening the endangered orangutan.  Something similar is happening in Kalangala with one third of the island now covered with oil palm plantations.  Great tracks of native forests have been destroyed threatening the traditional way of life of islanders who used the forests for wood for cooking, housing and boat building. Charges of “land grabbing” have also been made as islanders have lost land that was used for generations.  Moreover, the use of fertilizer and herbicides on the oil palm plantations results in runoff to neighboring land as well as into Lake Victoria.

Finally, while on the island, I had a chance to meet and talk with some of the workers who spray herbicides to control vegetation and trees that would overwhelm the oil palms.  These young workers, recruited from around Uganda with promises of good jobs, told me:
  • They earn 3000 shillings per day, about $1.20.
  • They are expected to work every day with no time off.
  • They work without protective clothing with only boots and paper dust masks.
  • They live crowded together in company housing sleeping on the floor without mattresses, packed together like sardines.
  • Because food provided by the company and sundries from the company store are deducted, their net pay is between zero and 40,000 shillings per month, the latter being $16.00 in US currency.
Interviewing oil palm workers who spray herbicides to control vegetation.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


New data on how people with and without college degrees have fared in  the Great Recession has just been published by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.  The news for those with a high school education or less is grim while those with advanced degrees or bachelors degrees have fared better.  Let's look at the data and graphs - all from the Center's Report Weathering the Economic Storm.

The first graph shows job loss during the recession and now during the slow recovery. Net job loss  for people with bachelors degrees or better was small during the recession and the recovery has added some two million jobs in this category.  Associate degree or some college lost jobs during the recession but have gained all back in the last two years.  However, high school or less jobs were reduced by 5.6 Million without any growth in the recovery.

Next let's at change in employment over a longer period of time from Jan 1989 to February 2012.  Job growth among the most educated is strong, that of those with some college comes next and those with a high school education or less show a net loss of jobs.

So the graphs show that the benefit of a college education continued during the Great Recession and difficult recovery that we are now in. So the reason for soaring college enrollment is clear - the opportunity for a good job in this time of high unemployment.


Cell phone usage is common here as one can tell on every Kampala street and country lane.  This is confirmed by the recent survey by the Uganda National Bureau of Statistics mentioned in the post below and reported in the Daily Monitor.  The survey found household cell phone usage at 87% for urban Ugandans and 53% of those living in rural areas.  These numbers are eye-popping when contrasted with electricity use which is 53% among urban households, just 5% among rural ones.  And note that the great majority of people in Uganda - 80% - live in the countryside.

My cell phone that I use in Uganda purchased new for $30.00.  It is not a smart phone but it handles texts and has an alarm.  Very reliable and handy.
"Send money across all (phone) networks" this booth says.
 In this developing country, cell phones have come to play an important role and not just for making calls.  The country, I was surprised to learn, uses cell phones in novel ways.  For example, individuals area able and frequently do send money via cell phones.  Here is how it works.  The cell phone companies have small offices virtually everywhere.  At one of these offices an individual deposits the money to be transferred along with a small fee. A message is sent to the cell phone of the person who is receiving the funds who then goes to her nearest cell phone office to collect the cash.  Since Uganda operates as a cash economy without bank checks and credit cards, transferring money this way fills an important role.  Moreover, cell phones are now being used a Ugandan to pay bills for electricity, phones and other services.  So the cell phone companies are beginning to act like banks allowing individuals to transfer money and pay bills.

Sign advertising "pay your electric bill" by phone.
There is something else about the way cell phones work here that is quite different from the U.S. First, one buys a cell phone and then buys airtime.  This is done primarily through cards that cost from 1000 Uganda Shillings (25 cents) to 10,000 Shillings ($2.50) or more. One loads this airtime by entering a coded numbers on the card into the phone.  Because the cell phone companies have small entrepreneurs selling cards virtually everywhere, these cards are easy to find.

Economic development happens in an organic and mostly unplanned way.  In Uganda and other developing countries, the wired infra-structure for phones has been largely skipped as the country has moved rapidly to cell phones avoiding LAN lines.  I was surprised how Uganda has adopted telecommunications technology.  Their creativity is something to admire.

Friday, August 24, 2012


Street scene downtown Kampala.  The booth in the center allows people to send money to others using cell phones. 

A new study shows an increasing gap in poverty between rural and urban Ugandans according to the country’s leading newspaper, the Monitor

According to the report, 20% of urban Ugandans while only 2% do in rural areas; 4% of those living in the city have a car while less than 1% of those living in rural areas do;  the numbers for bicycles are reversed: 20% of households in urban areas own a bicycle, 41% of rural households.  These figures must also be considered in context as over 80% of Ugandans live in the countryside but the cities are growing quickly because of the perceived opportunity there.

Rural women near Kitchwamba, Bushenyi District, western Uganda

The report underscores the inequality of wealth in Uganda, a country with a very uneven distribution of family income.  According to the World Bank, Uganda’s GINI Index, a measure of income inequality was 44 in 2009 rivaling that of the United States.  (The higher the Gini Index, the more inequality). To get a sense of what this means, the poorest 10% of Ugandans had received just 2.3% of all income while the top 10% received over 36% of all income.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates the U.S. Gini Index to be 49 in 2009, the highest among all developed countries worldwide.  Again, a look at who gets what is instructive: in the U.S.: the top 10% of earners have an average $87,257 after taxes while those in the bottom 10% have incomes of $5,819 according to an October 21, 2008 report of the respected British magazine the Economist

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What is the National Association of Professional Environmentalists – Uganda?

NAPE Offices in Kampala, Uganda.  The organization also has various grassroots projects throughout the country.
National Association of Professional Environmentalists (Uganda) where I am volunteering has the mission of “lobbying and advocating for the sustainable management of natural resources for the benefit of all (Ugandans).”  The organization referred to by its initials NAPE – pronounced nahpay – has worked heroically for 15 years to improve the quality of drinking water, preserve forests, represent communities displaced by large dams, fight climate change, and protect major lakes and lands from degradation from oil exploration.

More information about some of NAPE’s current work can be found on at the NAPE BLOG or NAPE WEBSITE.

NAPE staff are smart, committed and realistic.  As they explain, “We monitor government actions, conduct research, provide educational materials, develop science-based strategies, organize affected communities, make common cause with other civil society organisations and international organisations, and engage government officials at all levels. It is an ambitious undertaking, but as lifelong Ugandans we cannot ignore what is happening to our precious homeland. While we stand ready to work with anyone committed to the public interest, we also will not allow powerful political or special interests to intimidate or silence us. We have done so since our founding in 1997.”

In future postings I’ll explore some of the specific projects that NAPE is now engaged.


Ant Hill in Devon, Great Brittain. © Copyright Brian Henley and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.
Dear Readers, astute person who sent me a response noted, the picture referred to in question 13 of the posting below of July 12, TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT UGANDA, is actually a termite hill, not an ant hill.  My apologies and for those of you who answered termite hill, please add one to your score.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Mpanga Forest (A above) aerial view.  Note loss of forest habitat (dark green) in surrounding area.

Mpanga Forest in Mpigi, about 45 KM (25 miles) southwest of Kampala, Uganda.  Mpanga Forest is an approximately 450 hectare (1100 acre) preserve that hosts many species of butterflies, birds and monkeys. But most impressive are the trees, tall, stately, creating a rain forest canopy high above the ground.
A large fig tree in Mpanga Forest with the Author for comparison.
Unfortunately, we saw few tracts of forest on our way to Mpanga, not surprising given the rate of deforestation in Africa.  According to Wikipedia, Africa is suffering deforestation at twice the world rate, according to the United Nations Environment Programme:   Of course, Africa is not alone this is a worldwide trend and problem, one that worsens global warming by eliminating trees that soak up carbon dioxide.  Again, citing Wikipedia, “About half of the world original forests had disappeared by 2011, the majority during the last 50 years. "Since 1990 half of the rain forests have disappeared.”

Thinking about the loss of forests as we hiked through Mpanga Forest, the lyrics from Big Yellow Taxi by Joanie Mitchell came back to me:

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Friday, August 3, 2012


While English is the official language, Ugandans as small children first learn to speak one of more than forty native tongues that fall into four families: Bantu, Nilotic, Central Sudanic, Kuliak. Among the four, more people speak a variety of Bantu and the Luganda language is the largest within the Bantu group.  Moreover, Luganda is the dominant language in central Uganda where Kampala, the capital is located and where I am stationed as a volunteer.

Although educated people speak English, Luganda is the language one hears on the streets, in taxis, in restaurants - that the ordinary speech of people.  Here television station programs are in either English or Luganda and there is a healthy English and Luganda press.

All that I might ever want to know about Luganda, and then some.

So, upon arriving I decided to try to learn Luganda, at least enough to order dinner, ask directions and shop.  This has been a more difficult task than I thought as both the vocabulary and word structure are quite different than English and European languages.  For example, there are at least eight noun classes in Luganda, each with its own rules for forming plurals and adjectival agreement.  Furthermore, while in English we tend to add suffixes such as making the plural or regular nouns when we add s, in Luganda one adds at the front of the noun to make plurals and for other reasons.

A good example of all this is from class one nouns which designate people (although not all people are in class one).  Using the root for person, ntu, one creates the singular by adding omu getting omuntu, person; using the plural prefix, aba, one gets abantu, people.  Similarly the root for girl is wala yielding omuwala, girl, and abawala, girls.  According to my teacher, other noun classes use different prefixes, making my head spin.

There are many other complications that make learning Luganda difficult but not impossible.  But the little I have mastered has gotten a smile from some locals and respect on a bus ride recently when I was able to state where I was going and ask the bus to stop when I arrived. 

And I leave with this simple exchange: question: Obulamu? (How’s life) Answer: Bulungi (fine).