Those Kapchorwa and Kigezi hills, and their silent stories

Wednesday May 06 2020

Acute little story in the Daily Monitor headed “In Kapchorwa now, athletes just go digging, says top coach,” was by no means small. With the lockdown to fend off coronavirus (Covid-19) and local and international sport, including the 2020 Olympics, on ice, cancelled, or postponed, athletes in the Mecca of Ugandan long distance-running (and I believe likely to be Africa’s by the end of the 2020s), now get up as early as 5am to go till their gardens the old-fashioned way instead.

They are raising cattle, growing maize, sweet potatoes, and other things to eat. In the past, they used to train three times a day, now they are lucky to manage one. And the groups runs are history. This story of long-distance runners living close to the land is not unique to Uganda.

In Ethiopia and Kenya, nearly all their world dominating long-distance runners are all “villagers”, living in the hilly and mountainous countryside, breathing clean air, running up the steep inclines, and eating fresh food cooked by elderly aunts, with no bad fats and other things that waste the body.

That, and the spiritual connection to the land, are among the reasons they are so good. In decades gone by, many champions of Ugandan primary and high school athletics in the shorter distances were from similarly hilly and beautiful places like Kigezi. Seems hard to believe, given some potbellied chaps from Kigezi who can’t even walk across a street, but they ruled middle distances like 800 metres.

So, what went wrong? Climate change, for one. With the abuses of the environment, occasioned in part by sharply rising populations, soil erosion, and deforestation, temperatures in Kigezi rose. Once insulated against malaria, mosquitoes visited.

If you grow up battling bouts of malaria, you will struggle to be a world marathon champion. Like Kigezi, Kapchorwa is bewitching with the beauty of its rolling hills, the water falls, Elgon Mountain, the fog, and the air that is so sweet and thin, it can pain your lungs.


And like Kigezi, it is losing this beauty to over exploitation and environmental degradation. Yet for all that, one can never really fall out of love with these places. The denuded hillsides are still a sight of beauty.

And there are warriors, in their small ways, fighting to bring back some of the green glory of the past. A friend in Kapchorwa is one such warrior. He looked upon the environmental degradation, but didn’t despair.

He decided to do something about it. He has a bit of money, so he decided he would launch a campaign to reforest. And having studied his society, he concluded that the women would be his best ally. The men had too many issues.

So, he bought a big umbrella, carried his chair, and filled the back of a small pick-up with biscuits and small fruit juice sachets, and went and set up along a point at the edge of his village where women pass carrying water up from a well in the valley.

They would get a package of biscuits and a drink, if they gave him audience to preach his “plant trees” message, and then came to a meeting he had set up for free seedlings. Very many of them came, and he gave them seedlings, and they went away to plant. Several months later, he returned and called a meeting to review progress.

The results were very disappointing. Half the women blamed their goats and cows for eating the seedlings. The other half blamed their husbands: they quarrelled and the man plucked the tree; the men forbade them from planting trees on their land, and so forth. It was a total disaster. He didn’t give up, though.

He had one last trick up his sleeve. He had his own small forest already, so about a year after that heart breaking review meeting, he bought biscuits and juice, and called the members of the failed tree planting project to his home.

A few days earlier, he had sold the mounds of tree branches he had pruned and trees he had cleared, to schools and a hospital in the area. On the day the flopped tree planting society was partying, lorries arrived in his compound to carry away the wood.

The members watched as they were loaded, and my friend was paid several millions of shillings in small notes.

The money filled a sack. The women were gobsmacked. He didn’t say anything, until one of them asked; “You mean all that money is from selling wood from fallen branches and a few trees?” “Yes,” he said. You know how this story ends.

Fast forward to two years later, and all the women now have dozens of trees. They smelt the money. The land, won.

Mr Onyango-Obb is a journalist, writer, and
curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’ and
publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.