The first week of this month witnessed several deaths related to or caused by lightning in Bumbaire sub-county, Bushenyi District. There have been media reports in other areas of Uganda as well. The last time this scare became a national concern was when schools were the common sites of lightning strikes, prompting the directive for all schools to have lightning arresters. It slowly fizzled out of the public debate, only left to individual initiative, with dealers in electrical materials stocking and advertising the equipment, including fake ones.
People knowledgeable in these matters say that besides tall buildings, other raised grounds like hills become targets. This, they explain, was the reason behind the erection of masts (obunaara) on raised hills around the country in the 70s. Most of these were vandalised during Uganda’s turbulent episodes. As children, we were told these masts had the power to pull minerals in the ground closer to the surface, using the ‘power of mercury’. I recall the ‘rush to dig obunaara’ on several hills across Rugaaga Sub-county in 1979, as the anti-Amin war raged on.
And stories woven around this rush included hunting for ‘mercury’ to earn a lot of money, while others held that the masts prevented long range bombs from crossing areas where the masts were planted. So they had to be uprooted.
Whatever the reasons for their uprooting, these lighting arrestors are now a national emergency. And apparently our leaders seem oblivious of this need. Neither the MP Bushenyi-Ishaka Municipality nor the Chairman Bushenyi District Local Government raised this issue in their speeches as we buried our friends’ mother, who is among the people killed by lightning in this period in Bumbaire Sub-county.
The government needs to take up this issue again, on two fronts. First, the Ministry of Energy and Minerals should take over the importation of genuine arresters, for individual and institutions to purchase. Second, arresters must be restored on those hills where they were uprooted, plus other areas prone to lightning. To minimise the usual squabbles as is usually the case (especially when donor funds come in), this case should be defined as an energy question, not as an emergency which would attract other ‘stakeholders’. Wouldn’t our energy fund take care of this?