Many years ago, I went to rural Busoga with a good friend. Among the many places he took me to, was a village that had been laid to waste by HIV/Aids.
All the grown men and women had died. We found just one home where there was a very old poor frail woman, with three malnourished little children. The healthy people had fled.
It was typical of many villages in Uganda, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa, then. They were bleak places from a Dickensian hell. The end seemed near. The countryside was dead.
Yet, they didn’t. The countryside didn’t die. It started to change into something different. Before we go the Uganda villages, perhaps Kenya reveals best the process that is underway.
On the weekend I travelled through part of the Kenya countryside. Kenyans with money have bought hundreds of acres of land. Homes with wind turbine and solar powered electricity, independent dams, and racecourses are sprouting in the countryside. There is a boom in golf settlements…exclusive homes built around full-length 18-hole courses, and airstrips.
A Ugandan doctor often visits a doctor buddy of his. They drive from the hospital. Get to Wilson Airport, catch a small plane (owned by his doctor friend) from Wilson Airport, and fly and land at a small airstrip owned by the fellow and his friend. They are picked up and go to the guy’s house. His friend makes this trip to work in Nairobi five days a week!
If you think the good doctor can afford all this luxury from treating malaria and backaches, you would only be 25 per cent correct.
The real reason is that the global environmental crisis (and movement); the scourge of poachers; and flight to the cities (by the poor) has created opportunities no one thought would ever happen. Thus in some of those remote new Kenyan homes, the owners build simple tree houses.
People in the West and, increasingly, Asia, driven to near insanity by the concrete jungles that urban areas have become, pay up to $2,000 a night to come and live in those tree house in the “African bush”. Some of them are booked a year ahead.
Poachers have blighted Kenya and Tanzania. Once world-famous national parks have seen nearly all their animals perish at the end of poachers’ guns and poison, and the trees denuded by illegal loggers.
Quite a few of vast home grounds in Kenya are nature conservancies. If you want to see wild animals, watch birds, and strange-looking trees, that is where you find them. And eco-savvy adventurers are flocking with big dollars, and laying them down in these far-flung homes.
One of the most famous marathons in Kenya and Africa, the Lewa, is in such a private conservancy. One of the thrills is that a buffalo or some wild animal might often chase runners, so there are park attendants all over the running track and helicopters in the air, shooing away the animals. At the rate it is going, soon it will be easier to get into Heaven, than a place in the Lewa marathon.
In Uganda, the issue has played out differently. As we have noted before, the Land Act of 1998 created new dynamics that allowed people to lease land to short-term investors, critically detaching use from ownership and bringing new capitalist freedoms.
Which takes us back to that visit I made to Busoga. Aids – and war – wreaked havoc in Uganda, but they also freed up land for unconventional use. Because they came in the tail wing of an environmental crisis, both donors and the government invested big time in things like tree growing.
Hundreds of Ugandans thus took what were essentially free seedlings, and grew millions of trees. In recent years, as trees have matured, we are getting tree millionaires. The mother of a friend in Ugandan journalism sold a small corner of her forest, and made $350,000!
Now something else is happening. The Museveni government has failed to provide any kind of social services anymore except one…roads.
A researcher was telling me the other day that the biggest migration happening in Uganda today is not to the towns and cities, but to the roadsides. The small people in the Ugandan countryside, due in part to environmental pressure and the lack of services, are selling or simply abandoning their lands and moving to live five to 10 kilometres from a road.
The researcher estimates that if the trend continues, by 2050 the great majority of Ugandans will be living near roads, and the countryside will be empty. Not exactly. Expect to see golf residences, conservancies cropping up in Uganda too.
The countryside will not collapse as the villagers flee it. It will become richer, although it will be the “wrong” Ugandans making the fortune.
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