Forgotten Kyotera earthquake victims living in poverty, desperation

Tuesday October 22 2019

Impact.  A collapsed house in Rakai  near the

Impact. A collapsed house in Rakai near the Uganda-Tanzania border following the earthquake in 2016. PHOTOS BY IVAN KIMBOWA 

By Emma Mutaizibwa

The hamlet of Kyebe in Kyotera District is bereft of hope as residents have been pushed to the margins. In 2016, an earthquake struck the area, leaving a trail of destruction.
At least four people died following the earthquake, whose epicentre was located 20km from the northern Tanzania town of Nsunga. More than 200 homes collapsed while schools, hospitals and roads were also ravaged.

A total of 3,186 houses, including school buildings, developed cracks after the earthquake. The disaster forced more than 4,000 people in the villages of Kifamba, Kanabulemu, Kibanda, Kyebe, Minziro, Kasensero and Gwanda in Kyotera and Rakai districts to abandon their homes and seek shelter under trees and banana plantations.
Rakai and Kyotera districts have in the past been blighted by tragedy and ruin. In 1979, marauding Tanzanian army officers alongside Ugandan fighters pounded the area with artillery as they ousted Idi Amin from power.

In the early 1980’s, Rakai had the first documented HIV/Aids case in Uganda. With the highest prevalence rate in the country and one of the highest in the world during the 1990s, the scourge left homes broken and hundreds of orphans in the care of their grandparents and those without relatives trapped in a life of squalor.

Disaster
In 1994, the spectre of sorrow returned to haunt the area. Bodies of Rwanda genocide victims pushed by the currents of the Akagera River floated on the pale-blue waters of Lake Victoria at Kasensero Landing Site in Rakai, which was halved to create Kyotera District in 2017.
Today, a memorial site bears the last vestiges of the genocide. It is four years since the earthquake struck but the faces of the residents there depict impenetrable misery.

Intervention. President Museveni (left)

Intervention. President Museveni (left) interacts with leaders of Rakai District while visiting the earthquake-hit area on Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

A month later, the President visited the areas affected by the earthquake and promised to help them rebuild their lives. Government promised to provide each affected family with 30 iron sheets, bricks, cement and iron bars. A few days later, government, through the Office of the Prime Minister, dispatched 10,000kg of maize flour, 5,000kg of beans, 1,000 tarpaulins and 200 blankets to the affected sub-counties. However, some residents rejected the relief, saying they were in dire need of building materials, not food.

Three years after the earthquake, no help has come to the communities. The earthquake worsened the plight of the communities in one of the poorest areas in the country.
There are few ill-equipped health centres with low numbers of skilled medical personnel. Women give birth on verandahs of the health centres, which have no beds. Some sub-counties only have one primary school and roads are in a poor state.

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One has to ride on a boda boda for a distance of about 20km from Kyebe Sub-county through a slippery road across Maramagambo Forest Reserve in order to access Minziiro Health Centre II. But the cracked walls at the ill-quipped health centre II offer no comfort to patients who have since abandoned it.
The area has no piped water and electricity. The only borehole is located 2km from the village. Kakuuto MP Christopher Kalemba says it is a travesty of justice that the President gave funds to communities in Tanzania that were affected by the earthquake.
He recalls that when the earthquake hit the area, the President on October 4, 2016, visited Nangoma and Minziiro sub-counties, which were devastated by the HIV/Aids pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Since that day, I have presented it five times as an issue of national importance but up to now, nothing happened. Our President and government gave $200,000 [about Shs730m] to support the [Tanzania] victims, who have reconstructed their houses and the road was done,” reveals the MP. “On our side, we don’t have any answer. We have talked to the Prime Minister, the President has been informed, the minister of Disaster Preparedness came but nothing has happened,” he adds.
Today, most of the social infrastructure is broken. For instance, the theatre at Kakuuto hospital broke down and expectant mothers have to find alternative hospitals, which are in far-flung areas.

What leaders say
Mr Kalemba fears that this could cost him his seat as an MP come 2021 elections.
“They [electorate] say you have not fought for us because they hear things being given to other people. The President pledged iron sheets and iron bars. They say the leaders received these things and they were not delivered,” he says with a tinge of frustration.
In August 2017, Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli, during a visit to Mutukula border post, heaped glowing praise on Mr Museveni for helping earthquake victims in his country. Many families, especially those ravaged by poverty and HIV/Aids, now live in makeshift structures.

Ms Robinah Sssentongo, the Kyotera Woman MP, says what was delivered as humanitarian aid was a mockery of the residents.
“We had the President going to Tanzania with money and what we heard next is that he was coming to help. It became a presidential pledge. What they did was to bring maize flour and also beans and people rejected that. This is tax-payers’ money; even if people are vulnerable, we must respect them because we are accountable as leaders,” Ms Ssentongo says.

The MP, who previously worked as nurse and treated locals, especially those ravaged by HIV/Aids, argues that “If people want A don’t provide B. Their need was a house or a tarpaulin.”
Many families are still living in temporary structures because they do not have finances to reconstruct their homes.
Ms Margaret Najjemba fears that the old structure, which developed cracks, may collapse and kill her children.

She has spent her meagre resources to put up a rickety structure.
“I have not had any help. We sleep outside, the rains hit us and the mosquitoes bite us. Ants have also invaded the house, we are badly off,” Ms Najjemba says.
Mr Dickson Ssenkima, a resident of Kyebe, says some sub-counties do not have a single secondary school. “You have to walk for 30km to go to a secondary school,” he says.
Most of the children in the communities drop out of school, especially after completing primary level. The two districts perennially post dismal results at PLE, UCE and UACE.

Effects.  Pupils of  Sacred Heart Primary

Effects. Pupils of Sacred Heart Primary School, Biganda, in Rakai District sit next to a classroom block, which developed cracks after the earthquake. PHOTO BY IVAN KIMBOWA

Mr Ssenkima says in the aftermath of the earthquake, there was little help that came from government.
“They brought posho here; we don’t have a problem of food because we are farmers; we need homes. We have seen help go to people to Bududa [a community on the slopes of Mt Elgon in eastern Uganda], we are also Ugandans and we don’t want to be discriminated. We are being treated like non-Ugandans,” he adds.
Mr Ssenkima recalls how his expectant wife almost died last year while attempting to deliver.

“There is only one taxi that moves to Kyotera and returns in the evening. It was luck that I had to hire a car and a medical officer who escorted her. She later gave birth in the forest. I have also lost a relative on the way to hospital and others have lost their families members,” he adds.
The road is another hindrance for patients seeking treatment. “The road through Maramagambo Forest Reserve is so slippery that you can’t go through during the rainy season,” Mr Ssenkima says.
Mr Francis Xavier Lubinga, a resident of Kyebe, says they travel for at least 35km to access a health centre II or a secondary school.

What lawyer says
“To access a health centre IV, you have to travel 45km to access a doctor through Maramagambo Forest Reserve. Recently, a woman was delivering a child but unfortunately she died here at the health centre II. The midwife tried her best and she needed an ambulance. When someone came with a vehicle to assist, she had already died,” Mr Lubinga says.
Mr Arthur Nsereko, the coordinator of the Network of Public Interest Lawyers (NETPIL), says government must be held accountable as a duty bearer in dispensing humanitarian aid without discrimination.
“When we are talking about disaster, we are talking about issues of survival, dignity and is livelihood. Government will tell you that the lack of response is due to inadequate funding or limited funds.

Unfortunately, we have seen government responses in other places and the question is; ‘why have we had a response in other places and not in Kyotera?’” he says.
Mr Nsereko, whose organisation offers pro-bono services to the under-privileged, says the discrimination of affected communities in Rakai and Kyotera districts violates the Constitution.

“Under the National Objectives and Directive Principles, the State is mandated to have an effective mechanism, we are talking of disaster preparedness, management and response that reaches everybody equitably. Article 21 of our Constitution explains the principle of equality and freedom from discrimination. Why Bududa and not Kyebe?” he wonders.
The residents, according to Mr Nsereko, are also entitled to the right to housing, the right to education, the right to health and equality in access to national resources in case of disaster.
With no hope in sight and government shirking its responsibility, some residents have approached authorities in Tanzania, seeking citizenship.

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