Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Remembering the things that really matter

People ask me: Why are you running for public office? Why are you running for Member of Parliament (MP)as an opposition candidate in a constituency that traditionally returns MPs from the ruling party? They think it is an inexplicable mystery that I spend time and energy involved in something that does not guarantee any income or stability.

In 2000 when I joined active politics as a publicity Secretary for a leading opposition candidate for the Presidency in Uganda, I was very passionate and radicalized. I wanted ‘change’ so badly that my blood boiled whenever I engaged in a debate with anyone opposed to ‘change.’ How could they be both deaf and blind?

Today, with the temperament of middle age; I may not be as radicalized as I was in 2000, but my passion for change has not ebbed, in fact it seems to grow with time. I spent the last nine years away from the frontlines – the grassroots. The nine years I spent in the United States enabled me to literally stand outside the problem and reflect on the reasons, the real reason for my passion.

At first, it was high sounding platitudes like human rights, democracy, good governance that came forth from my lips in any argument for change. I reasoned that corruption was eating away at much needed resources for development and that nepotism had created a public service that cared little for merit. These arguments were reasonable and plausible as I repeated them on radio and television. Many were impressed by the articles that I churned week after week on these topics. Yet they were not enough to explain the radical decision I took in 2000 to stop working for myself, for a profit, for the security of a predictable income; and take on a struggle that changed my life to an insecure, unpredictable, unexplainable mess.

In my mind, I replayed images and recounted memories of the 2001 campaign and it was not the brave men and women speaking at podiums, the lyrics of the songs we sung or the news headlines that took center stage. Instead it was the woman that I met in Kisenyi weeping over the body of her 8 year old daughter that remained uppermost in memory. She was so distraught that I could not pass her by to continue with my campaigns for the day. I stopped to join her in grieving, the body of her little girl stretched before us in a tiny, cramped space she had called home. I was in a slum area and the open gutters that run outside the front door stunk to high heaven with all kind of human and household waste. A child who grew up in this environment was lucky to make it to the age of 10, I thought.

The bereaved mother, a Muganda woman, wept for her child and while she wailed she also narrated the ordeal of raising a child to any age in her neighborhood. Between sobs she wondered where she would get money to transport that small body to her village for a decent funeral. The child, I learnt had died of malaria and it was easy to see the breeding place for mosquitoes that spread the disease; right outside her front door. I contributed to the transport fund for moving the child’s body to her ancestral burial grounds and left with a heavy heart. Today am still haunted by the experience.

I knew I would never walk away from those issues even if I lived on the other side of the world for 9 years.

So when I returned to Uganda and decided to run for public office, I sought an urban constituency and returned to the slums to confront urban poverty. I am still trying to understand issues of health, hygiene, housing, sanitation, water, sewerage that affect slum dwellers to this day. It is people in the slums that come out to vote and the only time they see political leaders is around campaign time. So they are very cynical and will easily exchange their vote for one meal.

Today, I spend time in places like these in Nakawa Division, Kampala, trying to reinforce the idea that the vote is one of the few, if not the only weapon; in our arsenal for positive change. I spend hours listening, talking, answering questions and asking question; trying to find solutions that are not dependant on an insensitive government. Through asking questions and listening, am learning a lot. I have learnt that people without a latrine are not passionate about democracy. They just want a leader who will mobilize resources to build a latrine.

When I visited with opinion leaders in Mbuya II Parish last week, we talked about the challenges there and how we could solve them together. I learnt about Giza-Giza market where the only public latrine was over used and falling apart. As a result when people in the market need to use the toilet, they find some privacy and use a plastic shopping bag to collect their waste after which they throw it over the nearest fence and go back to whatever they were doing. Cholera outbreaks are therefore common place during the rainy season.

For the people of Giza-Giza market, change begins with building a new latrine. They do not care for high sounding phrases like good governance, human rights and democracy. All they want is a clean, usable toilet. It costs less that UGX 1 million (Uganda shillings) or USD $500 to build a toilet for Giza-Giza market. The toilet will remain there whether or not I make it to Parliament next year. There will be less cases of cholera and the people of Giza Giza will be grateful that we worked with them on this effort to improve hygiene and keep disease out of their neighborhood. You can contribute to the effort by visiting my website click on the ‘Donate’ link or if you are in Uganda you can donate to my MTN Mobile Money account: 0788244517.

Together we can make a change that is meaningful to all.

Anne Mugisha for Nakawa

Speaking Truth to Power

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