Charles Onyango Obbo

Uganda does not have a jigger crisis or whatever; it has a cement problem

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By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Posted  Wednesday, January 29   2014 at  02:00
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Oh dear! The Daily Monitor reports that gospel musician Judith Babirye has claimed that jiggers in Busoga, the ‘capital’ of the infestation, are a curse from God because the Basoga have turned their backs on the gospel.
I can only say that I prefer the scientific version of this story, which goes that Busoga and other places are tormented by jiggers because they lack a simple Earthly object – cement floors in their homes.
I like Foreign Policy magazine. It can be wonderfully contrarian, annoying, naughty, but remarkably revelatory.

In January of 2012, it published an article by one Charles Kenny entitled “Paving Paradise: A Little More Concrete Could Save The World. Really” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/03/paving_paradise).
In Kenya, there is growing pressure to cement floors at home and in schools to reduce jigger infestation. The Rwanda government has got a lot of stick from human rights for virtually “banning” grass–thatched houses with dirt floors.
Are the chaps in Kigali mad, or is science on their side? Let us put the matter to Charles Kenny.

According to his article, cement would not only deal a body blow to hookworms and stuff like jiggers, but to a host of others. Of course, we have all heard that before. What has been lacking are the numbers and live examples.
And that is where Kenny performed an invaluable service.

He reports that “starting in 2000, a programme in Mexico’s Coahuila state called ‘Piso Firme’ offered up to $150 per home in mixed concrete, delivered directly to families who used it to cover their dirt floors. Kids in houses that moved from all-dirt to all-concrete floors saw parasitic infestation rates drop by 78 per cent; the number of children who had diarrhoea in any given month dropped by half; anemia fell more than four-fifths; and scores on cognitive tests went up by more than a third. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, mothers in newly cemented houses reported less depression and greater life satisfaction.)”
Therefore, what the jiggers of Busoga need is cement. If 30,000 homes in Uganda, and say 3,000 in Busoga alone, got cement floors every year, Uganda would be a very different country in less than 10 years.
So how do we get there?

Many Ugandans have complained that since the hated graduated tax was abolished, the Ugandan countryside has gone to the dogs. Without the compulsion to work and pay the tax, men have turned into drunkards and delinquent fathers.
Though I disliked the graduated tax, I have some understanding for those who bemoan its passing.

Perhaps the graduated tax should be replaced with five types of certificates: A cement certificate, a tree certificate, a mosquito net certificate, a solar panel certificate, and a latrine certificate. The solar panel certificate would be a bonus; rural homes that have cement floors, mosquito nets, have planted trees, and have a latrine would get a pre-wired solar panel as a reward.
Every home shall be required to have a cement floor within five years. This would be financed by a voucher that should come from reducing the subsidy that goes to make healthcare in public hospitals free, and from the grant to Universal Primary/Secondary Education budget. In other words, re-introduce cost-sharing and a school cost contribution at 10 per cent, and give households vouchers to buy cement for their floors, tree seedlings, and to build modern latrines.
So that the men don’t sell the vouchers in an underground market, we should again look to Latin America for examples – the vouchers should be given to mothers.

Companies can also buy cement and seedlings and put them into a pooling scheme, and get a tax rebate from the Uganda Revenue Authority.
The heads of households without a cement floor, mosquito nets, and who haven’t planted trees shall be given a warning the first time. They shall be fined a modest fee on the second. And a big fine on the third warning if they haven’t complied.

To get local politicians vested in the programme, people shall be denied the right to register and vote if they have 0 per cent compliance.
The best way to do this, though, would be through market incentives. A friend whom I respect a great deal in Uganda wanted to stabilise the market for his products. He realised that most of his smaller rural clients were losing their business because of poor health and environmental vagaries.
He studied their problems and concluded that it was because they didn’t have latrines, and didn’t have enough vegetation cover in their homes. He introduced a scheme where he gave them free tree seedlings – and a discount on product – if they built latrines. The result is one of the most revolutionary and secret outcomes in Uganda, as he insists on a total media blackout. But one day, we shall tell his story.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com & twitter:cobbo3