Ebola: Uganda’s schools were closed for two years during COVID, now they face more closures – something must change

Classroom. Luweero. Photo: Simone Datzberger

Children in Uganda missed out on more school because of the COVID pandemic than their peers anywhere else in the world. An estimated 15 million pupils in the East African nation did not attend school for 83 weeks – that’s almost two years. Statistical models predict a learning deficit of 2.8 years in Uganda because of the time lost through COVID-related closures.

Now the education system has been hit by another public health emergency. In early November the government announced that preschools, primary and secondary schools must close their doors for the year ten days earlier than planned. This is part of its attempt to contain an Ebola outbreak which had, by 16 November, killed 55 people; eight were children.

Of course, it’s crucial for Uganda to try and stop Ebola from spreading. The disease has a far higher fatality rate than COVID. The country’s packed classrooms and poor school infrastructure, such as poor ventilation and sanitation, make students highly vulnerable to infections.

But young Ugandans have already fallen far behind in their learning because of COVID. And, as the effects of climate change worsen, Africa is becoming increasingly vulnerable to health emergencies, including a number of infectious diseases.

That makes it incredibly important for Uganda to find a way to balance the realities of public health emergencies with children’s right to education. This is a particularly pressing issue in low-income contexts where many children struggle to complete their schooling even outside emergency situations.

Kids are already far behind

In a previous study emerging from a larger project called CoVAC (led by Karen Devries, Jenny Parkes and Dipak Naker), we outlined the many harms and losses Ugandan children and youth faced due to the prolonged closure of schools.

When schools finally reopened in January 2022, one in ten students did not report back to school. Some schools had closed for good.

The government tried to support distance learning through TV, radio, newspapers, downloadable curricula or, in some instances, via mobile phones. However, most interventions, in particular those that required access to a mobile phone or computer only benefited urban elites with the means to send their children to expensive private schools.

Almost all of the participants in our study had no or limited access to the resources needed to effectively engage with these materials. Girls in remote areas were especially disadvantaged, as they tended to have less access to mobile phones than boys.

Most of our study participants were not able to continue their schooling via distance learning. They eventually gave up on their education.

Homeschooling became a common practice in wealthier countries. But in Uganda it was a privilege reserved for only a few children from higher socio-economic backgrounds and expensive schools. The majority of Ugandan caregivers have to make an income in any way they can and often lack the time, space and resources to earn with their children at home.

Although schools will be only closed for a relatively short time, losing another ten days of learning may weaken the trust among Ugandans in the functioning of their educational institutions. Many Ugandans struggle to pay for their children’s school fees and will question the real value of education in light of current and potentially more interruptions.

Overhauling current model

Uganda’s education sector needs to be strengthened so that disruptions caused by future health emergencies do not leave children even further behind in their schooling.

This will require an overhaul of how education is governed, implemented and made accessible during emergency situations. Uganda inherited its education system from its former British colonial administration. The appropriation of western and former colonial education systems by countries in sub-Saharan Africa has been questioned and critiqued by many, particularly African scholars.

Schooling, it is argued, was initially used as a tool by former colonisers to “conquer the African mind”. It ignored local culture and context with the intention to sustain colonial administration and nurture exploitative economic structures.

Today, part of the problem with adopting a universal model of schooling is that the many flaws inherent in western-style education are exacerbated in times of crisis. For instance, the model champions a form of schooling that is time and location bound. It does not easily adapt to alternative forms of education that allow for a more flexible mode of learning in the absence of a functioning school.

If adequately resourced and well implemented, alternative modes of learning during school closures can help the most vulnerable children and youth in their educational trajectories and overall well-being. This could be in the form of supporting distance learning in a different manner, such as the potential of outdoors teaching and learning where there is enough space for social distancing. Nearby teachers could be engaged to support locally organised, small learning groups of children in their respective communities.

Another option could be to ensure safe and continuous access to education in a staggered manner under strict hygienic measures. Investments in partnerships with local agencies and community-based organisations could help to facilitate radio, TV or internet-based learning spaces for children and youth with no access to learning technology.


Some Ugandans told us that they fear schools will be closed for far longer than initially announced. This happened repeatedly during the COVID pandemic. It is also sadly likely that Ebola will not be the last epidemic the country must manage.

That’s why novel strategies and more resources are urgently needed to finally address deeply rooted social injustices in and outside education that arise before, during and after public health emergencies. Otherwise, children will be continuously at a high risk of dropping out of school, making them vulnerable to child labour or teenage pregnancies.

Authors: Simone Datzberger and Brian Junior Musenze

Originally published in The Conversation.

Uganda closed schools for two years. The impact is deep and uneven.

Closed School in Uganda
Photo: © Simone Datzberger

Uganda enforced the longest period of school closures worldwide – 22 months – during the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategy was subject to scrutiny by many local and international organisations in view of the multiple challenges the country’s education sector already faced before the pandemic.

Studies of the predicted and already visible impact of COVID-19 on education in sub-Saharan Africa are beginning to reveal how inequities that affected children and their families prior to the pandemic have intensified during and after school closures. It is estimated that 15 million pupils have not attended school in Uganda for almost two years.

Statistical models predict a learning deficit of 2.8 years in Uganda. Other effects include a 22.5% increase of pregnancies among Ugandan school-going girls and young women aged 10-24 between March 2020 and June 2021. There was also an increase of child labour from 21% to 36%, affecting girls in particular. Some schools have closed for good, as they were either destroyed for new real estate projects or sold.

To understand how the prolonged closure of schools affected the lives of adolescents in Uganda we conducted interviews with 36 young people (18 male, 18 female) living in central Uganda (Luwero and Kampala) and predominantly from a low socio-economic status. Interviews were part of a longitudinal qualitative study, the Contexts of Violence in Adolescence Cohort Study (CoVAC).

While the longer term impacts of COVID-19 on education in Uganda remain to be seen and still need to be studied, emerging evidence from our small cohort study, including other research, shows that the effects for young people have already been devastating. The compound effects of school closures, loss of livelihoods and caregiver stress (especially during lockdowns) also increased the risk of domestic violence, with instances of verbal and physical abuse of children.

Context and intersecting disadvantages

Our study participants were between 15 and 17 years old when we first met them in 2018 and over the next four years we conducted at least six interviews with each young person. We also interviewed their caregivers, teachers or peers so we already knew quite a lot about their lives and challenges.

During the lockdown, we conducted phone interviews between May and June 2020 with 18 girls and 16 boys (mainly aged 16-19 years) who had been participants in our longitudinal study. We interviewed all participants again in 2021.

For the 22 young people (out of the 36) who were in school before the lockdowns, the pandemic seriously disrupted their education. Their experiences varied depending on their socio-economic background, location and gender. We applied an intersectional lens to analyse how pre-existing and intersecting inequities had intensified, with detrimental effects on young people’s educational paths and life circumstances.

For example, young people needed to find ways to generate an income while schools were closed. This posed different challenges depending on gender or location.

Some boys in rural areas migrated to another region to find work, which was often precarious and exploitative. For girls, who tended to be more confined to their homes, and for girls in rural areas, options to earn money were extremely limited. This inability to complete their education, or to work, or to earn enough, was a heavy burden for young people. Some of them felt they had failed.

The pandemic has strained participants’ mental health in multiple ways. They were concerned about whether they would be able to afford to return to school. They expressed feelings of fear, loneliness, anxiety, distress and loss of self-esteem. Very few were able to use distance learning materials.

Several participants experienced unintended pregnancies, reducing their prospects for returning to school. School closures could add to the complex mix of reasons for getting pregnant. Financial pressures, stressful family situations and more free time could all have a bearing.

Structural barriers

Our data also shows that gender, socio-economic circumstances and location have a bearing on the effectiveness of interventions. Not everyone can equally use opportunities to get an education.

Take the example of Atala (not her real name). She is the oldest of five children and helps her mother with chores, childcare and informal sector work. She wanted to train as a nurse but her school results weren’t good enough because – as a girl – she had so many responsibilities. During the first lockdown she was offered a place in a government sponsored vocational training programme in tailoring. But hardly any teaching took place. When the programme finally resumed, classes were rushed. Atala said she got her certificate but didn’t feel qualified to work as a tailor. And she lives in a rural community with no financial means, tools or opportunities to start her own business.

Our study participants’ experiences are a reminder that Uganda’s current challenges in education due to the prolonged closure of schools are not new. Rather, the pandemic worsened existing inequities and structural barriers in education such as: not having access to truly free education; high drop out rates, low learning outcomes or lack of opportunities to find employment after completing school.

These impacts have far reaching consequences for education, reproductive health, mental health, working conditions, and earning opportunities.

Now that schools are open again, we will investigate existing and persisting grievances that affect and disadvantage adolescents, and how they cope with challenges such as paying school fees or catching up with teaching content. Strategies and interventions to ‘build back equal’ can learn a lot from an intersectional lens on the basis of young people’s accounts, their specific challenges, unique circumstances and everyday realities.

Originally published in The Conversation .

Authors: Simone Datzberger, Jenny Parkes, Amiya Bhatia, Rehema Nagawa, Dipak Naker and Karen Devries.

Karen Devries, Jenny Parkes and Dipak Naker are co- Principal Investigators on the CoVAC study

Uganda’s schooling system does not politically empower young people

Classroom. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

More than 20 years ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that:

The lack of education stops a great majority of Africans from being citizens in their own right.

However, in the two following decades, there have been very mixed results on how education enhances political empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some researchers found that in Kenya civic education programmes had positive effects on political participation and engagement. By contrast, other scholars argued that higher levels of education did not increase people’s propensity to pursue “easy” forms of political participation, such as voting in the case of Mali.

One country that is struggling with democracy is Uganda. The country’s political environment remains severely restricted under the regime of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni. In 2019 Freedom House – an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world – downgraded Uganda from partly free to not free.

The signs of restricted free spaces are there. Civil activism has been dampened by a controversial NGO act, enacted in 2016, which severely limits political advocacy. A social media tax was also introduced in 2018 to boost government revenue and end “gossip” on 60 social media outlets including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

My research project “Democratisation through Education” sought to gain a better understanding of what role schools play in the political empowerment of youth. Does education help young people to better understand how Uganda’s government and political system works? Do they engage in critical discussions in school about social, economic or political issues that affect society and their everyday lives?

In short, I was interested in whether, and how, educational institutions empower Ugandan youth to participate in society as active, informed, critical and responsible citizens.

I found that while the majority of respondents felt they critically reflected on some societal issues in school, their reported knowledge of national political institutions, and on how they would claim and advocate for their rights as citizens, was remarkably low.

Shaping political agency

Civic education was initially introduced into the Ugandan curriculum by the government in the mid-1980s. The intention was to engage the population in the nation-building process.

In 2017, I surveyed a total of 497 youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years (201 females and 296 males). They came from various secondary schools and universities across four regions; Central, North, North-East and South-West. In addition I conducted 37 interviews with actors from the government, civil society organisations, community based organisations, school officials, education planners, teaching professionals and local academics.

When my data collection took place, civic education had just been suspended from the formal curriculum. Civil society organisations I spoke to however felt that offering civic education at school would still be very relevant. At the same time, though they cautioned that it can be (and used to be) misused as a political propaganda mechanism and had to be approached very carefully.

By and large, young people’s responses suggest that Ugandan schools only make a very modest contribution in shaping political agency. Barely 51% of all respondents felt that they had a clear understanding of how Uganda’s political system or government works.

According to their responses, critical discussions about issues that affect society did take place in schools as part of formal lessons. But they tended not to revolve around “politics”. Instead, data from the survey revealed that these discussions focus on apolitical topics such as teenage pregnancies, early marriages or alcoholism. According to one male:

Discussions are mostly about how the world is diverse, composed of plants, animals, buildings, water, bodies, that societies are made of families.

Youth did seem to learn about their basic rights as citizens, such as the right to education. However, hardly any reflection or discussion appeared to take place in schools on why political, economic or societal grievances occur. Instead, according to some respondents, these discussions would be held at home or in their communities. In the words of one of the respondents:

It is hard to discuss…issues of society and the world because even teachers fear attacking the evils of the world and society so even as students we develop the fear because we are afraid of being singled out as less patriotic.

Patriotism seems to have a certain priority in schools. Paintings stating “be a patriot” were found on school compounds. Young people also mentioned “patriotic school clubs” with the purpose to serve the country by nurturing positive attitudes towards their country, themselves and work.

Gender differences

There were some striking gender differences per region.

For instance, in the central region (Kampala) only 32.6% of young women said they understood national politics compared to 61.6% of young men. This suggests that the quality of education – which appears to be better in urban areas – does not necessarily translate into better understandings of politics among girls.

On average, more than half of the respondents reported an interest in politics, though their interest levels varied significantly between gender and regions.

The lowest interest was reported by females in Kampala (34.6%). The highest by men in the South-West (75%). Unexpectedly, 69.7% of females in the North-East reported to be most interested in politics, significantly more than young men in the same region (55.1%). The North-East, known as Karamoja, is one of Uganda’s historically most marginalised and impoverished regions.

A political role

It is highly questionable whether schools are democratic change agents that stimulate individual political agency in Uganda. The bigger question probably is, should schools take on that role?

If yes, then it is important to acknowledge that educational institutions are embedded in and dependent on surrounding social, political and economic structures. In other words, the education sector alone is not the magic bullet for democratisation, economic growth or poverty alleviation. It can only make its contribution towards systemic change at large.

For this change to happen, there needs to be a shift in thinking among education sector planners and actors (not just in Uganda) about the purpose of education.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 18 December 2020.

Afghanistan: When Conflict meets Education, Desire and Hope

Photo collection & commentary by Najeebullah Azad.

©Najeeb Azad: “Afghan Children”

Afghanistan is not only known for the war against terror but it is also the fifth youngest country in the world, with 68% of its population under the age of 25. For the Afghan freelance photographer and education activist, Najeebullah Azad (called Najeeb), this demographic boom not only creates risks but also many opportunities. Young people want to contribute to and benefit from the country’s development, yet much depends on older generations and the political as well as economic environment. According to a survey conducted by The Asia Foundation (2016), in total 71.2 % of Afghan youth are currently unemployed, 25.7 % illiterate and 13.8 % are addicted to drugs. At the same time, 69.8 % of Afghans reported that they are ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ in fear for their personal safety. In addition, the percentage of Afghans with a family member who was either a victim of crime or violence increased by 1.2 points, to 19.4 % in 2016. Not surprisingly, 29.6 % of Afghans want to leave their home country due to security risks and lack of economic opportunities. Notwithstanding these challenges, Najeeb continues to be a proud citizen of Afghanistan, who embraces the diversity of his home country and deeply appreciates how gracefully Afghans live their lives.

In his photo collection, Najeeb reflects on the interplay of conflict, education and hope. In his view, Afghanistan’s youth remains the country’s greatest untapped resource for a better future. Below he comments on his photographs.

“War & Peace. The dilemma of Afghanistan”

©Najeeb Azad

About 104,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001. The war on terror is still ongoing, however there is nothing as precious as hope for a bright future for Afghans. In this photo, a young man is standing on an artillery which was used during the Afghan-Soviet war. The artillery is now used for recreational purposes, allowing people to understand their bitter history and hope for a peaceful future.

“The cost of war”

©Najeeb Azad

A father praying for his son at the cemetery of Enlightenment Movement. The cemetery is named in remembrance of the death of 80 Hazaras (a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan), killed by IS during a peaceful protest about the TUTAP (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) power line project.

“Children rule Afghanistan’s present and future”

©Najeeb Azad

Children in a nursery school cheering for peace in Bamyan, the central highlands of Afghanistan. The school is located in Arzu Social Centre (Arzu means ‘hope’ in Dari) funded by an NGO, which offers English and computer classes, and a laundry room for women only. Currently, about 38 percent of school age children (4.2 million in real numbers) do not have access to schools, most of which are girls.

“Winter examinations”

©Najeeb Azad

Students attending examinations at Noor High School in Jaghori district, Ghazni province. The first Noor High School was established in Quetta, Pakistan by Afghan refugees who escaped the Taliban, supported by a charity from Japan. After the fall of the Taliban, a subdivision of the school moved to Ghazni province of Afghanistan. Most schools in peaceful areas of Afghanistan do not have proper buildings and facilities and schools located in insecure areas of Afghanistan that still have proper buildings and facilities are at constant risk of being targeted by the Taliban.

“Poverty affects children enrolled in schools”

©Najeeb Azad

A student searching rubbish bins in Kabul in the hope to find a used product which he can still sell to pay for his school expenses. Most school kids in Afghanistan are working part-time as street sellers and rubbish collectors to support themselves and their families.

“Child Labor”

©Najeeb Azad

A student reading in front of his father’s shop in Kabul, where he works to help his family. I talked to him, motivated him about his hard-work, and told him that he is the future of his conflict-affected country, a country which is now a ruin due to decisions of our old generation.

“Young Shepherd”

©Najeeb Azad

A young shepherd supporting his community and family by getting paid for every herd he takes care of. He told me that, the survival of his family is the idea of a bright future for him.

“Educated but unemployed”

©Najeeb Azad

University graduates celebrating their graduation from a private university in Kabul. Only 9.6 percent of college-age students (around 300,000) are enrolled in public and private universities in Afghanistan. The majority of youth does not have access to public higher education and can therefore only enroll at a private university if their families can afford to pay for the fees. However, those few who manage to graduate from a university struggle to find stable employment.

“A school bell made of the remains of an artillery”

©Najeeb Azad

I rang the bell and it was very loud! The noise of war is always so loud, but now this school in Bamyan province of Afghanistan is trying to keep the volume of war low, and shine the world with peace through the remains of war artilleries.

According to Save the Children, more than 400,000 Afghan children were dropped out of school in 2017 due to growing instability in the country and the forced returns of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Conflict has also forced more than 1000 schools to shut.

“Kite runners of Kabul”

©Najeeb Azad

Afghan children flying their kite on Wazir Akbar Khan hill in Kabul. This photo reminds me of Khaled Hosseini’s book – A Thousand Splendid Suns.



Born in Afghanistan, Najeebullah Azad lived his childhood as a refugee in Pakistan during the Taliban regime, and completed his undergraduate degree in India. Najeeb is currently pursuing his Master Degree in Education Policies for Global Development (GLOBED). He has previously worked with NGOs and the United Nations in Afghanistan. He believes the world will be a better place for all through educating the uneducated. Najeeb is an education and civil activist, amateur writer and novelist, and a freelance photographer. He has been awarded by UNESCO, WMO, and many other organizations for his photography. He is currently organizing his photo exhibition about life in Afghanistan across Europe to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan, with the aim to collect donations to build a public library for women and children in his country. If you want to support Najeeb’s work, please contact him at: najeebullah.azad@yahoo.com

Karamoja: Lost in Transition

Tepeth Children Mount Moroto. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

The slopes winding up to one of the peaks of Mount Moroto (located in the sub-region of Karamoja in Uganda) are steep, at times very narrow and rocky. What I experience as a tough climb to the top is the everyday walkway for the Tepeth – one of the traditional societies belonging to the Karamojong people. The Tepeth have lived and worshiped their gods in the volcanic mountain chain for generations. Their lean and slender bodies are covered in colorful cloths and their dark skin is accessorized with bright necklaces, wristbands, belts or earrings. Shepherds, young women, elderly and children cross our way. Their glances are shy, though their facial expressions are full of pride.

Isolated from globalization for the past decades, mounting development aid, foreign investment and newly emerging eco-tourism in the area, now increasingly expose the Tepeth to the odd mozunogo (= white person) – who climbs and camps close to their homes. For now, they still hold on to their harsh lifestyle which is grounded in the firm belief to embrace a balanced relationship with cattle and nature. For example, the Tepeth would never cut a living tree when a dead one can be found. However, any romantic notion of living a life off the beaten track, is soon overshadowed by the sight of empty plastic bags that used to contain cheap alcohol and are now scattered along the walkway. Low-quality liquor is consumed by women, men, youth and children alike. “This is a recent phenomenon” – so my local tour guide – who no longer wears traditional Karamojong clothes (except on official cultural days) and proudly describes himself as ‘civilized’.

The Tepeth are a prime example of how some of the few remaining and endangered traditional African societies are suddenly surrounded by massive attempts to modernize and extract resources from a hitherto marginalized area. In fact, all traditional societies in the entire region of Karamoja have been lately subject to a fast appropriation of western norms and ways of living – thanks to an exponential growth of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), development agencies, private investors but also through local Karamojong and Ugandan elites. While the sub-region has been dependent on food aid since the 1960s, it used to be one of the most remote and underfunded regions in Uganda in terms of infrastructure development and social services. This seclusion allowed the Karamojong to maintain their cultural traditions and way of life. Today it receives a significant amount of development aid, roads are being constructed by foreign investors such as the Chinese and attempts are made by the government to improve access to public education and healthcare provision.

Karamoja continues to be the most under-developed part of Uganda, nonetheless. It displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average and remains extremely vulnerable to shocks (security, environmental, political or health) and conflict. The region is characterized by several forms of structural violence, horizontal inequalities and unequal opportunities which are deeply rooted in the legacies of British occupation. When the borders between Kenya, Sudan and Uganda were redrawn, the majority of the Karamojong grazing regions were suddenly left outside Uganda causing several cross-border conflicts among different ethnic groups. Conflicts amplified from the 1970s onward through the acquisition of modern firearms, increasing the momentum for cattle raiding among pastoralists. Attempts by the government to forcefully disarm and settle Karamojong pastoralists led to decades of violence, human rights abuses and widespread poverty. Most pastoralists have now put down their guns but issues of land rights and illegal or exploitative mining activities threaten processes of sustainable development and peace. As the head of the UNICEF regional office put it: “Future conflicts here in Karamoja are about the land, and no longer about the cow.”

Karamojong Children in Moroto. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

Besides, the Karamojong have been at the sharp end of climate change and droughts frequently result in starvation. This intertwined relationship of conflict, ecological degradation, underdevelopment and lack of education has been often referred to as the so-called “Karamoja Syndrome” calling for solutions that fit the everyday realities of a nomadic pastoral community. It is questionable, however, whether current efforts to develop and modernize the region are a sustainable way forward. The vast majority of projects either build on or promote a settled lifestyle for the Karamojong. East African pastoralist communities have been adapting to climate variability for centuries and it is precisely their semi-nomadic lifestyle that allows them to cope with the impact of climate change and resource scarcities. According to a senior expert from the Coalition of Pastoralist Civil Society Organization (COPASCO), re-introducing or maintaining (semi-)nomadism would be one solution to fight poverty and starvation due to unprecedented long periods of drought. Conversely, most of my interviewees (ranging from government officials to development workers and local CSOs) did not share this view and believe that time has come to settle and ‘develop’ the Karamojong. In part this is based on the fact that land becomes more scarce and can no longer be solely used for grazing as it was previously done.

This nonetheless begs the question whether development aid and foreign investment will be soon ‘eating away the soul of Karamojong culture’? Certainly, the region needs humanitarian assistance, there is yet a striking tension between modernity, traditionalism and aid dependency. In the attempt to dig a bit deeper, I get mixed responses from local CSOs about whether and how Karamojong culture should and could be preserved in a rapidly changing environment? For many there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cultural traits. The former referring to practices like dancing, the way of dressing or local village structures such as councils of elders. Bad customs are related to human rights abuses in the form of forced marriages or violence against women. The term ‘culturally-sensitive’ is thus used with pre-caution depending on the custom and context.

Karamojong Dancing. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

In several respects development and traditionalism are supposed to go hand in hand yet strategies as to how to not wipe out a culture that has been in existence for centuries seem to be quite vague. For now, cultural days (usually 3 day long events held in July) and dances that are still performed in the villages are meant to cherish the Karamojong way of life.

In addition, children are supposed acquire deeper knowledge about their cultural background in public schools. Then again, during interviews with district education officials I learn that the majority of teachers in primary and secondary schools are actually not Karamojong and are deployed from all over Uganda – due to a severe shortage of qualified local teachers. Most of the teachers don’t even speak the local language and are not in a position to teach Karamojong children about their cultural background. The only non-formal education programme (ABEK) that was specifically designed in collaboration with the Karamojong to meet the needs of a semi-nomadic society and respond to local aspects of culture is severely underfunded and got recently downsized by aid agencies and the government due to a more settled lifestyle of the Karamojong. Notably, the sub-region has still the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 per cent being female and 64.8 per cent being male).

Karamojong Youth Leader. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

There is no doubt, that every society and culture is constantly subject to change due to global, social, economic and political structures it is surrounded by. As Knigthon put it: “Culture is the accumulation of human response to situation.” The question though is, whether the Karamojong really get a chance of ‘their’ response to adapt to an entirely new situation? Visiting one of the biggest villages in East Africa (Nakipelemoru) in Kotido district, I witness again how alcoholism among former warriors and young women is on the rise. Little do we know what their version, pace and rhythm of development would have been.

“N.G.O. Nothing Going On.”

A Ugandan-Congolese Movie.


“Colonialism was easier to fight than the massive industry of NGOs in Africa.”

says Arnold Aganze, a Congolese writer and director of his latest movie: N.G.O. – Nothing Going On. The movie starts off as a light story about how two young Ugandan men, Tevo and Zizuke, hook up and party with mzungu (white/western) girls. When one of the girls offers to help her newfound Ugandan fling to support poor women and children in the slums, the movie takes a sudden twist. Instructed by one of their mentors (Mr. Heineken – a successful Ugandan NGO owner himself), Tevo and Zizuke quickly learn how to play the game when it comes to get a piece of that juicy NGO pie. In order to raise “funds” they pull out all the stops: from a project called “Popcorn for Hope” that is supposed to “empower women” and “build capacity”; to restyling a girl from the slums for a photo shoot, as her chosen outfit does not fit the “African image” for successful fundraising.

What appears to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy on how Ugandans screw mzungus over and over again (in all aspects of life); is at its core a deep critical reflection on the exponential growth of NGOs in the country – if not sub-Saharan African continent. The exact numbers of how many NGOs are currently registered in Uganda are unclear – but during conversations with local experts working in the industry, estimates range from 9.000 – 12.000. Of course, not all of them are operational and briefcase organizations multiply. It is an industry, according to Arnold, that perpetuates aid dependency, serves as a source of income while at the same time distorts our society and culture. In his critique, he refers to both Western and African NGOs alike. “I am as critical of my own society as I am of Western ones.”

For Arnold, those NGOs aim at creating a perfect society, which will never exist – neither within nor outside Africa. He continues “when a project fails and does not yield desired results, donors and NGOs simply cannot accept that failure, leave the village and move on. Instead they are writing new project proposals thereby creating new words for the exact same problem.” In Arnold’s opinion, it is the aid sector, most specifically NGOs, that are creating a picture of a poor, desperate and broken Africa. Against this backdrop, he felt the urge to tell his own story, as an African, and change the direction of that narrative.

Initially, Arnold wanted to shoot the movie in Eastern Congo where he experienced first-hand how for decades an invasion of NGOs (and aid agencies) did not bring about the change people were hoping for. As far as the filming was concerned, it was yet much easier to realize his project in Uganda. The entire budget for the movie did not exceed 2.000 USD and all actors (including Arnold himself) were not paid. “At first no one wanted to support us or even show the movie. A lot of those festivals where we could potentially organize a screening are sponsored by foreign NGOs.” Arnold got the impression that they did not feel comfortable with the content of the film and therefore declined. Similar reactions came from Ugandan organizations who argued that if they offered to help, they would shoot themselves in the foot. Eventually, Arnold and his team managed to screen the movie in several African countries and will be soon touring festivals in Europe. The film premiered at the oldest African film festival the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia in and has been screened at the: Africa International Film Festival in Nigeria; Uganda Film Festival; and the Cameroon International Film Festival. It won in the category “best feature film” at the Mashariki African Film Festival in Rwanda and at the Pan-African Film Festival Fespaco in Burkina Faso.

Towards the end of our meeting, the conversation drifts away from the actual topic and we chat about how Frantz Fanon influenced his thinking and work. Arnold tells me that he would have liked to live a few decades earlier and take an active part in overcoming the colonial struggle. In his view, this was an exciting moment of being black as there was a united Africa fighting for a specific cause. He concludes:

“Today only a few Africans are proud to be African and that is the actual problem we face.”

Confirmed screenings of N.G.O. – Nothing Going On will be held over the summer across Europe at the following festivals:

Truth | Lies: 9 May 2017 (Malta)

Cinemas d’Afrique: 16 – 21 May 2017 (France)

Cinemondes: 10 -17 June 2017 (France)

Helsinki African Film Festival: 7- 14 May 2017 (Finland)

Arnold also offers to show his film at universities. He wants to engage in particular students in a critical discussion about the humanitarian sector, development aid and the continuous portrayal of a single story about Africa. If you want to arrange for a screening at your institution, please get in touch with: arnoldaga20@gmail.com

Uganda: Digging for Social Justice in Karamoja

Co-authored with Tenywa Aloysius Malagala.
How the poor provision of education for the Karamojong affects the community’s ability to advocate for their rights.

Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015
Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015

Nestled amid the hills of the northeastern Ugandan-Kenyan border, a small Karamojong community in Nakabaat struggles to come to terms with a conflict-ridden past and the consequences of mineral resource exploitation by national and international companies. Uganda’s history of state formation was followed by anti-pastoralist policies and decades of drought, land disputes, and land dispossession, leaving the community deprived of food, water, healthcare facilities, and access to education. Locals from areas like Nakabaat have experienced cross-border conflicts for many years. However, what threatens the fragile peace today is no longer warrior nomads or border disputes but Karamoja’s nascent mining industry.

Although the area’s huge mineral deposits have the potential to revitalise the local economy, improve the living standards of a conflict-affected population, and foster processes of sustainable peace development, the region’s natural resources have fortified suffering, abject poverty, structural violence, and human rights abuses instead.

Karamoja remains one of the most underdeveloped sub regions in Uganda, and it displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average. As such, the region remains extremely vulnerable to internal and external shocks, ranging from security, political, environmental, and health-related threats. Yet, Karamoja is rich in two assets: mineral resources (including tin, gold, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, marble, limestone, graphite, gypsum, wolfram, uranium, and lithium) and cultural diversity (consisting of tribes from Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan).

At first glance, the vast lands of Karamoja may appear vacant and unexploited. In reality, they are not—communities, not individuals, usually own the land. This clearly challenges any genuine attempts to identify rightful owners for consolation and compensation prior to engaging in mining activities. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch (“How can we survive here?” 2014), there are currently three active mining companies in Karamoja engaged in different stages of the mining process. These include Jan Mangal Uganda Ltd (a Ugandan subsidiary of an Indian jewelry company), East African Mining Ltd (a Ugandan gold exploration company), and DAO Marble Ltd (a Kuwait-based group).

The report further highlights the difficulties of land rights and ownership and states that

“While Uganda’s mining law requires a surface rights agreement to be negotiated with land owners prior to active mining and payment of royalties to lawful landowners once revenues flow, the law does not require any communication or consent from the local population during exploration work.”

What makes matters even worse is the government’s resistance to implementing communal or collective land ownership based on the Karamojong’s communal tradition.

In a way, history repeats itself in Karamoja—only the exterior actors have changed. After colonial rule, the borders between Kenya and Sudan were redrawn, and the majority of the Karamojong’s grazing regions were left outside Uganda. The extent to which the long-term effects of externally imposed borders have caused civil unrest and conflict in the region remains a highly debated and often disputed point.

In pre-colonial Karamoja, political power was exercised over people and not over land or territory. In other words, the nature of semi-nomadic societal life rendered the whole notion of individual land ownership almost irrelevant. Any territorial claims would have endangered the very basis of survival for most pastoral communities. Upon independence, forceful attempts by Ugandan governments to settle Karamojong pastoralists have resulted in decades of conflict and widespread poverty. Today, the Karamojong’s lack of legal proof and land ownership puts them in significant jeopardy of experiencing rights abuses as mining activities continue to increase.

The small Karamojong community of Nakabaat serves as a prime example of how resource exploitation and land acquisition by mining companies increase structural violence and violate human rights. Disarmed by the Uganda People’s Defense Force, the community abandoned cattle herding (and raiding) to mine for small quantities of gold instead. Yet, between 2011 and 2014, their modest existence was severely disrupted when Jan Mangal Ltd entered their land.

Initially, Jan Mangal Ltd promised to develop and compensate the community in exchange for their gold-mining activities, but the company did not live up to its promises. When the community raised concerns about issues of land ownership, Jan Mangal Ltd asserted that the land belonged to the government. Four years down the line, the company has depleted the mine of its gold and has left the impoverished community behind. Miles of black pipes used to pump water into the mining site still remain and serve as a reminder of their activities. In a group interview, the community of Nakabaat claimed that throughout the period of Jan Mangal’s presence they were refused access to water from the pipes. Notably, Karamoja is one of the regions in Uganda that is most affected by frequent water shortages and drought.

These days, there are only traces of gold left at the site. Young Karamojong miners reveal that for one “point” (i.e. the size of a few sand corns) they earn 5.000 Uganda Shillings (UGX) or US$ 1.70, and one gram presently sells for UGX 50.000 or US$ 17. Ugandan businessmen from Kampala are their main clients. Sales figures are purely the result of chance, and there are periods when they sell no gold at all. A “point” of gold may easily take up to one day of mining and involve several members of the community. Fatalities occur frequently due to the poor set-up of the mining site.

Any local attempts to formally complain and report Jan Mangal Ltd have so far failed. Even when the community sought legal assistance from the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Jan Mangal neither responded nor attended meetings about the case.

Besides, communities such as Nakabaat simply lack educated individuals to advocate for their wants and needs, not to mention to engage in lucrative mining activities and businesses for themselves. When we asked community members how many of them attended school, only one young man raised his hand.

Karamoja has the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 % being female and 64.8% being male). Numerous efforts by the government in collaboration with international donors, aid agencies and civil society organisations are currently underway to increase educational attainment among the local people. These positive developments notwithstanding, it may take a time span of two generations until remote communities are able to advocate for their rights and needs.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Modern Slavery: Why dehumanizing the ‘Other’ concerns all of us

While awareness campaigns on modern-day slavery are no longer scarce, our ability not to indirectly support modern slavery through our daily purchasing behavior and routine remains difficult.

Blue Red Black India. Photo: Lisa Kristine. http://www.lisakristine.com/shop-image-collection/modern-day-slavery/
Blue Red Black India. Photo: Lisa Kristine. http://www.lisakristine.com/shop-image-collection/modern-day-slavery/

On a continually shifting priority list of issues to be eradicated globally, modern slavery has slowly but steadily crept up a few places on the attention scale. Apart from local initiatives, the number of global civil society awareness campaigns increased in the past two decades to combat what is often broadly described as forced labor, human trafficking, or enforced prostitution. Within the international community, UN Goodwill Ambassadors such as Ashley Judd, Julia Ormond, Mira Sorvino, and Nicholas Cage shed light on the findings and work done by UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes). Other organizations such as the ILO (International Labour Organization) provide regular updates and statistics on forced labor around the world. Furthermore, CNN recently launched a Freedom Project Ending Modern-Day Slavery, and The Guardian just introduced a Modern-Day Slavery hub, which intends to create a global forum “that investigates both the root causes and potential solutions to modern slavery, elevates global public dialogue, builds alliances on the front lines, and spurs the public, policymakers and corporate leaders to action.” Humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine addressed the issue in her TEDx Maui talk on her heartbreaking photographs capturing the lives of modern-day slaves around the world.

So while awareness campaigns on modern-day slavery are no longer scarce, our ability not to unwillingly and indirectly support modern slavery on an individual level through our daily purchasing behavior and routine remains difficult. When it comes to slavery, we wear it, we eat it, and we drive it. Despite not “buying into it,” we often unknowingly maintain it. Even if we eschew that chocolate bar made of cocoa beans harvested by children who have never tasted chocolate; or if we carefully double check all fair-trade seals on our coffee and tea bags, modern slavery is implicated in so many products and services that it has become an uncontrollable and unavoidable part of consumerism. According to Products of Slavery, 122 types of goods are currently made using child labor or forced labor in 58 countries. These products include gold, footwear, diamonds, cotton, garments, bricks, sugarcane, rice, cattle, shrimp, bananas, salt, corn, tomatoes, tobacco, coffee, pornography, cocoa, tea, fireworks, coal, rubber, crushed gravel, carpets, and sisal.

In short, slavery is interwoven into the most random aspects of our daily lives. The dartboards in our favorite pub around the corner, the mattresses we sleep on, the high-quality outdoor jacket we snatched up on sale for our next hiking trip are all made of sisal, its supply chains and manufacture often mysterious to us.  Those are just a few examples. The 2012 UNODC Global Report on human trafficking finds that at least 136 different nationalities were trafficked and detected in 118 different countries. Trafficked people are working in the world’s restaurants, fisheries, brothels, farms, and homes.

The Big Picture: Some Facts and Figures on the Magnitude of Modern Slavery.

Estimations of how many people are currently enslaved worldwide differ among experts, international organizations, antislavery movements, and academics. This discrepancy mainly arises because of differing approaches to what constitutes a modern slave. For instance, the Anti-Slavery Society uses a particularly narrow classification by drawing on the1880 definition of the High Court of Allahabad in India, which states that

(…) a person is treated as a slave or is reduced to a condition of slavery if another exercises power or control over that person:

1)     to restrain their personal liberty; and

2)     to dispose of their labor against their will, without lawful authority.

Others, such as the ILO, UNODC, or the civil society organization Free the Slaves, have a much broader definition. Next to forced labor, human trafficking, enforced prostitution, and ritual and traditional forms of subjugation, slavery can also be linked to debt bondage, religious practices, or state-sponsored forced labor.

By this definition, the number of slaves today is the highest in human history. While one has to take the rapid increase in world population into account, a conservative estimate by Free the Slaves founder, modern slavery activist, expert, and professor Kevin Bales finds that around 27 million people are currently enslaved. In contrast, the ILO comes to an estimate of 20.9 million. If one agrees with Bales’ figure, twice as many people are now enslaved as were taken from Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade from the 16th through the 19th centuries. According to Free the Slaves, another novelty of modern slavery is the collapse in the price of human beings. While the average price for a slave in past centuries was USD 4,000, it has decreased today to no less than USD 90. Prices vary by country and region.

Combating Modern Slavery

The fight against slavery has seen some success. So far, 154 countries have ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Unfortunately, many of these countries, especially in Africa, still lack the necessary legal instruments to implement the protocol. Thus, one challenge is to improve the system and maintain its efforts.

Alongside the efforts of the international community, several charitable organizations such as End Slavery Now, Free the Slaves, and Anti-Slavery are dedicated to eradicating modern slavery, liberating slaves, and reintegrating them into society.  Local initiatives, associations, and NGOs such as Temedt in Mali—which developed a set of collective activities to raise awareness—also exist.

Related to the work done by organizations like Temedt, another challenge is the incessant stigmatization of centuries-long slave trades and colonial rule. In West Africa, for instance, Hahonou and Pelckmans (2011) found that the legacy of slavery continues to shape the everyday lives of millions of citizens, as well as the political landscape, in countries such as Benin, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso. In their study they examine, among others, the examples of Benin and Mali, where the slave-origins of high-ranking politicians remain public secrets. To this day, most politicians hide their roots as slaves or simply avoid the topic. Evoking slavery brings shame, and in some instances, even leads to societal marginalization. The quasi-silence surrounding the issue of slavery and the impact it has on contemporary state and society relations has been consistently neglected by colonial administration and most postcolonial governments. Moreover, ritual slavery and other forms of modern slavery are still widely practiced throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another obstacle in combating slavery is that most of the existing tools and efforts are either victim-centered (e.g., trust funds and programs to aid freed slaves) or focused on prosecuting human trafficking gangs and networks. While these are important endeavors, they don’t tackle the core of the problem. Why do humans enslave people? What has to change within societies around the globe to bring slavery to an end? In 2011, the New York Times reported that in the U.S., 100,000 – 300,000 American children are sold into sex slavery every year. This clearly gives rise to the question, why are there so many pedophiles in our worldwide society? What can we do to prevent people from enslaving and hence dehumanizing “the other”? As Bales accurately put it:

“The minds injured by slavery include those of the slaveholders. By dehumanizing others in order to enslave them, slaveholders dehumanize themselves.” (Ending Slavery, “How to free slaves,” 2007).

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS

When torture becomes a cultural habit: calling for an end to Female Genital Mutilation

On the challenges to eradicate FGM as a broadly accepted practice in many African societies.

Waris Dirie. Book Cover: Desert Flower. 1998
Waris Dirie. Book Cover: Desert Flower. 1998

On 28 November 2012, world news bulletins were headlined with the usual tragedies: the Palestinian case, Syria, the Egyptian crisis and the latest events in Iraq. A few newspapers even featured the M23 uprising in DR Congo – next to Lindsay Lohan’s self-destructive nightclub adventures. What barely received any coverage, however, is the remarkable approval of the first UN General Assembly draft resolution, which calls for an end to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a torturous procedure, which affects the lives of no less than roughly 150 million girls and women worldwide.

In short, FGM as described by Waris Dirie’s campaign and organisation ‘Desert Flower’ is: “(…) A destructive operation, during which the female genitals are partly or entirely removed or injured with the goals of inhibiting a woman’s sexual feelings. Most often the mutilation is performed before puberty, often on girls between the age of four and eight, but recently it is increasingly performed on nurslings who are only a couple of days, weeks or months old. (…) The procedure is usually performed without anesthetic and under catastrophic hygienic circumstances. Knives, scissors, razor blades or pieces of broken glass are used as instruments among others.”

Clitoridectomy is believed to date as far back as the 5th century BC in Egypt. It is not widely known that it was also a conventional practice in the 19th and early 20th century in Europe as a cure for “mental diseases”. A personage no less than Sigmund Freud contended: “The elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity.” The procedure was finally banned in Europe and North America between the early eighties and nineties. Today, FGM is primarily an African phenomenon. In 2012, it still affects around 90% of all females in Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan; and more or less, 50% of girls and women in Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria and Togo. In some instances, it also occurs in South-east Asia or among immigrant communities in Europe.

In an attempt to stem these shockingly high numbers, a vast number of anti-FGM awareness campaigns and training led by the international community and mainly Western civil society organisations emerged. According to the UN, “Over the past three years, some 8,000 communities across the world, including 15 African countries, have abandoned the practice. Last year alone, 2,000 communities declared that they will no longer allow the human rights violation to continue.” The new draft resolution – although not legally binding – is an additional and crucial step forward. Still, the torture is far from being fully eradicated as a cultural habit. The FGM Education and Networking Project finds that it remains a broadly and publicly accepted procedure in the African societies listed above and the number of girls mutilated does not appear to be reducing dramatically. There are various reasons why it is so complex to bring female circumcision to an end. Not only is FGM a tradition deeply embedded in the culture of several African countries, it also requires an enormous amount of time and continuous effort to burst through the various societal networks that practise and support it.

Here are some of the biggest challenges in the fight against FGM:

FGM as an initiation to womanhood

FGM is not simply an act of circumcision. In most cases, girls undergo a week-long training in the bush as an initiation to the role and responsibilities of socially-respected young women and future wives. Non-circumcised girls are often thought of being unclean and face tremendous challenges in finding a husband. In some societies, a failure to be initiated could be a one-way street to social margnialisation, if not even stigamtisation.

FGM as a broadly accepted institution

Interviews with about 50 local civil society organisations in Sierra Leone revealed that the majority perceived FGM as an important institution that needs to be maintained, albeit under better hygienic conditions. Around a third stated that the process of initiation should be preserved but without the cutting. In some instances, interviewees felt that FGM prevents young girls from teenage pregnancy and prostitution. Public opinion on FGM differs, of course, from country to country and depends largely on the percentage of girls habitually circumcised.

FGM as an “incentive” and the influence of secret societies

What makes the process of initiation very attractive for girls is that it is often accompanied with an endowment in the form of new clothes; jewelry and other accessories of which many young women are fond. It is no exception that families remain highly indebted until years after their daughter’s initiation. In addition, large payments have to be made to professional circumcisers, usually women who enjoy a high reputation or belong to highly respected secret societies. Probably, the most commonly known secret society is the Sande also known as Bundu or Bondo in the West African region. Their social status and influence does certainly play a crucial role as to why FGM remains an accepted practice and custom by the broader public.

Impunity despite torturing

Countries with no specific laws against FGM include: Cameroon, DR Congo, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Somalia. Although legally banned in Benin, Burkina Faso, CAR, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Niger, Senegal, Sudan and Uganda – there were (with a few exceptions only) hardly any convictions in any of these countries. Notably, FGM continues to be widely practiced in developed African countries such as Egypt where it is estimated that about 97% of all women are circumcised.[i]

Combating the practice of FGM requires male support

In an official statement on 28 November 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated: “We need men to change their mentality.” In patriarchal societies, male dominance has the potential to do both either impede or strengthen efforts in changing mindsets towards FGM. Acknowledging the importance to bring more men on board, the UN campaign UNITE to End Violence against Women has recently introduced a Network of Men Leaders to address violence against women. At the local level, men also have the power to influence women’s networks performing and financially benefiting from FGM. Hence, stopping circumcision as a practice will only be successful up to a certain point if it remains an issue largely tackled and discussed by women only – at regional and international levels. Male support is essential to eradicate centuries-long mindsets of perceiving FGM as a cultural tradition, which is no less than gruesome torture.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

[i] For more statistics access: http://www.desertflowerfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/Prevalence-of-FGM-and-Legal-Situation.pdf,

Freetown’s “Ajekuleh”: Where the Good, the Bad and the Ugly revive memories of a tragic past

Just sit and watch.

Ajekuleh Slave Tunnel. Photo: Simone Datzberger
Ajekuleh Slave Tunnel. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2012

“There is no replacement for street sense”, a group of young men tell me while squeezing out the last drops of cheap whisky from little plastic bags.

It’s a hot, sunny, mid-summer afternoon. I find myself in the remains of a crumbling market hall situated downhill in a district called Belgium in Freetown. At first sight, the densely-crowded hall seems quite intimidating, disorganised and chaotic. Women with their babies hoisted onto their backs are selling food, soft drinks, alcohol, snacks and tobacco. Young men are trading knock-off designer footwear and shirts next to a group of males gambling for money.

“This is our casino.” explains a local.

Disabled men try to make their way between piles of cassava leaves and girls washing clothes in big colourful buckets. A tailor is diligently working on a sewing machine that seems to date back to the early 20th century. Sound waves of various music genres float in from all angles. Children are playing cheerfully on the fringes of the hall – next to garbage, loose chicken and a dirty little stream.

The locals have nicknamed this area “Ajekuleh”. Everyone is welcome from every corner of the city. Ex-combatants mingle with students, the unemployed youth, artists, okada[1] drivers, prostitutes, ex-prostitutes, local politicians as well as formal and informal businessmen. They drink, smoke, eat, dance together, engage in passionate discussions about all sorts of issues and daily affairs. People also come just to sit down, relax and take a break from the busy life in Freetown. The fact that I was the only white person among them who also happened to be female did not seem to perturb anyone. A few shake my hand and ask for my name while others offer me cigarettes. Some are curious about the purpose of my visit but all of them ensure that I am sitting on the most comfortable part of a shaky bench.

“Simone, in this place you will find the good, the bad and the ugly. Just sit and watch,” whispers a local friend of mine. So I sit down and watch the daily routine of the Wild West in Freetown. In time, I hear stories about corrupt elders, how informal businesses are ruled by unwritten laws, how people educate themselves in the streets when they do not have the opportunity to attend school, how they have to bribe the police when raids are occasionally conducted in the area, and how ghettos here in Freetown differ in social strata, unofficial policies and style. All of this and much more, here in Ajekuleh, happens on historical soil.

A legacy

Less than 20 metres from my shaky bench, the relics of two slave tunnels revive a tragic past. Roughly 500 years ago, the Portuguese built a fort to trade gold and ivory. From 1550, the most profitable commodity became humans. After going through the slave tunnels, locals point out the manacles built into centuries-old walls. The condition of the homes next to the fort remains are abject. I can’t help but think of John Newton’s[2] 1788 tract: “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade” in which he wrote:

Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys and the women), besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not easily contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down, among the men to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. (…) And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the captives of Mezentius, fastened together.

More than 200 years later, many people call the long stretch of slums around the coast of Freetown their home. Areas such as Kroo Bay or Susan’s Bay are congested, overpopulated and can be extremely dangerous especially during rainy season. Children frequently get swept away by floods along with their houses. A young man in his mid-twenties tells me that he prefers to sleep in the streets during the rainy months as it is simply too dangerous to stay at home. Less than three months ago, he lost his dwelling and all his belongings in one night. He is still coming to terms with the loss but is nevertheless happy to be alive. Five people from the community did not survive. Various attempts to relocate inhabitants from the slums along the coast have failed so far.

Dealing with the past

I notice a couple of young men sitting inside the slave tunnels. Locals tell me they come here to eat, smoke, drink and carry out their informal businesses. Along with the market hall, it is another regular meeting point. It almost resembles a public park bench in the middle of the town.

“What kind of changes would they like to see in Ajekuleh?” I ask. Ideally, they would like to create an international business centre so that people can do business on a much larger scale, they tell me. Our location, standing inside the slave tunnels, is not much of an issue in our conversation. I wonder how they feel about the past? “Oh Simone, this happened a long time ago. We like you white people from the West!” they reply.

Throughout my stay, many locals repeatedly told me that Sierra Leoneans have a very short memory. I wonder how people feel about socialising with ex-combatants (from the country’s civil war in the 90s) on a daily basis – not only in Ajekuleh? “They are our brothers and sisters! We sympathise with them because they begged us for mercy and we forgave them.”

I kept on returning to Ajekuleh on occasion. I sat down, watched and listened. What struck me most is probably the tendency to overlook the bad, focus on the good and ignore the ugly when it comes to the Sierra Leonean relationship with the past.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

[1] Motorbike

[2] Founder of the Wesleyan movement.