If there is anything that represents a 24-hour operation in Elegu, a small town in the northern region at the Uganda-South Sudan border, it is the borehole.
From sunrise to sunset, the only borehole never ceases to be swung to fill long queues of jerry cans.
The borehole, owned by the Uganda Police Force, is the only source of clean water that the town, with an estimated 5,000 people, depends on.
“When the borehole breaks down, the life of the town is paralysed. Water is the biggest problem we are faced with. Each jerry can is now going for Shs2,000,” Alice Twesigye, who runs a restaurant in the town, says.
Elegu Town is the last trading centre to the South Sudan border. The densely populated town was a marsh that fed River Onyama just three to four months ago.
When the border point was shifted from Bibia Town to Elegu Town, so did the business and the people. Despite the town’s growing population and booming business, it is short of major social services.
The only signs of authority visible in the area are Uganda People Defence Force, immigration and tax officials, whose duties are pretty obvious . Twesigye, like many other restaurant owners, shifts the costs to her clients. No wonder, a plate of matooke and beans goes for Shs6,000 – the same amount we spend on a plate with matooke and chicken in reasonable restaurants in Kampala.
With a shortage of water in a dry spell, the residents turn to supplies of Muzamiru Mawejje, who fetches water from River Onyama which wanders near the town.
The water “don”
Mawejje, who hails from Kangulumira in Kayunga District, sells a jerry can at Shs1000. He brags; “on a normal day, I can make 15 to 20 trips and make Shs90,000 a day”.
He says the demand is so high that it is only his energy that limits him.
“There is no sleeping in this town. If you have energy, you can fetch water all day and the clients will still be waiting,” he says.
By any income standards in Uganda, Shs90,000 a day for a service is good daily income, but in Elegu people that earn that amount a day are not considered to be among the top classes.
Mawejje says his income can better be explained by the houses and income generating projects he has established in his home area in Kayunga District.
Although River Onyama wanders through natural vegetations, its waters look polluted.
River Onyama’s water is clayish and empty plastic bottles of mineral water and other beverages float on top.
“This water I fetch here isn’t for drinking,” Mawejje quickly explains, “It is used for cleaning rooms and building.” But, when the worse comes to the worst, some dwellers use the Onyama water for washing utensils and bathing.
By all standards the water is not good for consumption in its natural state, given the fact that the river is where some locals bathe from, swim, wash clothes, answer the call of nature, and fish.
The river is the source of fish locally known as Angara. Fishermen with nets and spears visit the river daily in the afternoon to catch fish which sell thrice the price of upscale market in Kampala.
Three fish, each smaller than the size of a human palm, are sold at Shs40,000.
Both the scarcity and abundance of water is a challenge to the new community depending on the season. A visitor in Elegu Town between the months of November to June, which experience hot temperatures, carries both handkerchief and a bottle of water.
On average a visitor consumes more than a litre of drinking water for every two hours during a sunny day which means that a person can spend Shs15,000 a day on bottled water alone.
Of rain and mosquitoes
During the rainy season, Michael Kintu, a resident, says, the entire area floods. “When it rains, the whole area becomes like a lake and people’s merchandises are destroyed.”
Makeshift owners say to avoid floods destroying their merchandise, they have spent over Shs2.5 million on piling earth to have a level higher ground.
When the water subsides, the marshes become a breeding place for mosquitoes that “harrass” the new community. Those who dare retire at night on the shop verandas have to cover themselves with mosquito nets.
“A bite of a mosquito here is as irritating and painful as that of a bedbug,” Kintu says.
Interestingly, mosquitoes are very rare during day and when they tell you of their predicament, you may think that they are exaggerating the intensity of their hardships. But, red rashes that cover the hands and legs of many of the town dwellers prove it.
With a rapidly growing population, the spread of malaria is also on the rise, yet, there are only two health clinics run by nurses that are in the area.
“The government should help us spray in the marshes to kill mosquito larvae during the dry season,” one resident prayed.
Most people sleep on the verandas because the hostels and hotel rooms are still very expensive and houses in the town are fewer than the residents.
Renting of a self-contained room in the only Guest House goes for more than Shs45,000 a night yet a room in iron sheet houses is at Shs30,000 a night.
But, at night they are all occupied by visitors waiting for the immigrations officials to work on their documents.
Although few cases, have been reported in the river, the indiscriminate dumping of garbage and faeces strewn around every nook and bush may aggravate the sanitary challenges.
A town with no banks
With such housing challenges and no financial institutions coupled with limited numbers of security officers, safety of the traders’ property and money is still in balance.
The financial institutions near Elegu are in Gulu Municipality, which is a four-hour drive.
Twesigye says they are making relative profits in their businesses, but when they make their money, they do not have a bank to keep their money.
“The banks should open for us branches here for us to keep our money. Like you see we sleep in reeds yet we have large sums of money so our money is sometimes stolen at night,” she says.
Without banks and ramshackle houses, the Elegu dwellers have to keep the money they make in their pockets for days, if not months.
The best option would have been the new financial system of mobile money, but the area has no local telecommunication companies and they still rely on South Sudan Viva Cell mobile phone network.
Challenges of physically transporting money have come with a lot of risks. Last month, a forex trader who had exchanged money amounting to Shs120m at Arua Park was attacked by armed men and the money robbed as he transported the money to this town.
In the midst of all those challenges, the new dwellers have shown resilience and have been able to carve out a livelihood.
“If you have money, you can’t fail to get what you want in this town,” Gaddaffi Kavuma, a mechanic and spare parts shop owner, says.
Prolific mechanics, cooks, builders, money changers and traders have already established themselves in the town so have the “ladies of the night”.
Elegu is probably the only town, which has not attained the status of a town board or council that has street lights.
A local investor has established a powerful generator that supplies the entire town with streetlights and power.
“The power generation company charges us Shs30,000 per bulb a month, which is too high for us compared to what is charged by Umeme or other companies in the country,” a trader says.
Small scale industries, especially those dealing in beverages, in Kampala have started constructing buildings, which they use as stores for commodities destined for the South Sudan market.
Before dusk, the manager of the most powerful generator switches on the street lights.
One truck driver, Mande Kyambadde, joked that when the immigration officials and truck drivers see the street lights from the offices, they close and rush to happening places around town.
“Night is like another day. The border closes and entertainment places open. Eating places remove their parasols and turn them in to bars,” Kyambadde says.
Those who are knocked down by booze retire to the verandas or truck or make shift houses.
Surprisingly, as early as 6am, money changers have already established their tables filled with bundles of money ranging from Uganda shillings, US dollars and South Sudan Pounds on the sides of the only street in the town.
Ugandan traders have also invested in a new type of boda boda cycles that carry larger quantities of luggage to and fro Nimule, South Sudan.
Boda boda riders charge Shs9,000 a trip, which is just a half a kilometre from the Ugandan side to Nimule.
Although businesswise Elegu Town is growing at a terrific speed, the shortage of basic social services like water and financial institutions among others may push it to the edge.