Tale of three towns under lockdown

Saturday May 02 2020

Sir Samuel Baker Street is one of the busiest streets in Gulu Town currently. PHOTO BY TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

At Watoto Children’s Home overlooking Olailong Market in Layibi Division, is a blue pick-up truck with about 30 chicken. A jerrycan with water for washing hands is strapped to its side.

Customers are busy selecting birds of their choice, with very little or no regard for social distancing.
A few metres from the pick-up truck, some vendors are busy erecting poles to establish their stalls as customers crowd the market to buy mainly vegetables, cassava, matooke, potatoes, among other foodstuffs.

This is a busy extension of Olailong Market, which now accommodates vendors displaced from Cereleno Market on Kampala Highway in Pece Division, Gulu municipality after the Gulu Covid-19 taskforce ordered its closure early last month.
To the Layibi Division authorities, the market extension is a revenue boost.

Whereas the district authorities decided to close Cereleno Market, saying the market vendors failed to observe social distancing as one of the measures to fight the spread of Covid-19 as directed by the President, the situation is not any different at this market extension.

Outside the market, several boda boda riders chat as they wait to make deliveries to their clients.

In an interview with this newspaper about the closure of Cereleno Market, Maj Santo Okot Lapolo, the Gulu Resident District Commissioner (RDC), said the market was closed due to disagreements among the vendors on how to obey the guidelines in regard to curbing the spread of the deadly virus.


However, the closure of the market caused a huge impact on the prices of food commodities across Gulu Town.

Ms Vicky Emutai, the general secretary of Gulu United Vendors’ Association, and also the chairperson of vendors at Cereleno Market, said more than 1,300 vendors lost their businesses as a result of the closure of the market. He affirmed that this has also impacted on the prices of food commodities across the town.

“Look at mixed beans alone, a kilo used to go for Shs2,700 but it has now jumped to Shs4,500. Yellow beans that used to cost Shs3,500 a kilo now go for Shs6,000,” she said.

On Monday, Mr Kelly Komakech, the Pece Division chairperson, said: “A committee is currently cleaning the market and marking the four-metre space for social distancing. Only 250 vendors will be allowed on the stalls considering the social distancing rule.”

In the heart of Gulu Town, it is not surprising to see doors of lockup shops inscribed with telephone numbers of the owners.
Several lockups on Queens Avenue, Main Street, Olya Road, among others, now bear inscriptions the phone numbers for their clients to call them if they require their services.

Some shops such as boutiques on Main Street that previously dealt in non-food items have since incorporated food items in their stock.

“We must keep ourselves relevant in order to survive. Clothes no longer sell. I have since started dealing in matooke, beans, posho, sugar, among other food items,” Rose Atim, a boutique owner, told this newspaper onTuesday.

Rita Arac, a hardware dealer on Olya Road, admits laying off all her 13 staff after sales dropped by more than 95 per cent.

“I have written my contact on the doors of the shop so that those who need these materials can contact me. In a day, I get about four customers, unlike the days before the lockdown where I used to get more than 40 customers a day,” Arac says.

O Café, a famous coffee shop in Gulu Town, has since suspended operations. The swanky eatery was a favourite for, especially, the corporates in town.

“Before the lockdown, we used to make sales of more than Shs17m a month. We used to work up to about 11pm. However, we hardly made any sales in the first three days of the lockdown,” a staff at the shop said.

The other activity most hit by the pandemic is the boda boda business. Among the measures to curb the spread of coronavirus as announced by the President was a ban on both private and public transport.

Although boda bodas remained operational, they were ordered not to carry any passengers, except for delivery of cargo. They are also supposed to get off the roads by 5pm.

However, some boda boda riders have devised other means to survive, instead of parking their motorcycles.

“I have two wives and seven children, all of whom have to eat. Every morning, I ride to Palaro where I buy two bags of charcoal at Shs17,000 each and sell in town at Shs45,000 each,” James Amone, a boda boda rider at Lacor Trading Centre, says.
“On a good day, I save about Shs35,000, which I hope to use to pay rent, as well as prepare my one-acre piece of land to plant maize,” he adds.

On Wednesday, the district taskforce embarked on distributing food to disabled persons in the town. Their next target was to distribute food to 200 families of destitute people at Forest Ward in Laroo Division.

On the part of health, the number of patients visiting health facilities has significantly reduced, mainly due to transport challenges, according to Yoweri Idiba, the acting district health officer.

“In the meantime, we are reinforcing the capacities of the Village Health Teams (VHTs) in the different areas to ensure they continue with the coordination as usual. We don’t want to see people suffering or dying from their homes because they can no longer access medical care” said.

In Mbarara, most streets are deserted by 4pm

Several commercial buildings in Mbarara Town are closed and deserted.

Only a few businesses, including supermarkets, banks, food markets, pharmacies and health centres are open.

However, even for the few businesses that are still operational in this lockdown, business is not as booming as it was before. For instance, the number of people visiting Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital per day has significantly reduced.

When this newspaper visited the facility on Wednesday, at least half (about 15) of the beds in the maternity ward were empty. The ward has always been overcrowded, with some mothers sleeping on the floor or the verandah.

“We have since limited the number of caretakers per patient to one. We also stopped the food vendors from coming into the hospital. But we also realised people were not adequately utilising the lower level health facilities.

However, with the ban on both private and public transport, we think they are now using them,” Dr Celestine Barigye, the hospital director, said.
Mbarara, a municipality since 1974, and one of the urban centres that will start operation as cities come July 1, had a population of 195,013 when the national census was last conducted in August 2014.

Although businesses dealing in foodstuff were among those allowed to operate during this lockdown, many operators complain of the dwindling number of customers.

“These days, I cook only 5kgs of rice and about one and half bunches of matooke a day. Before the lockdown, I used to cook between 15 and 20kgs of rice and 10 bunches of matooke,” Ms Rosette Birungi, the manager Highway Restaurant, said on Wednesday.

Food prices at most food stores in the town have since gone up. For instance, at most food stores on Mbaguta and McAllister streets, 25kg sack of maize flour that used to cost Shs7,000 now goes for Shs10,000.

However, at Nyamityobora food market, prices of matooke have gone down. With Shs7,000, one can now get a bunch of matooke that used to go for Shs10,000 and above.

By 7am, many boda boda cyclists are on the road heading to town to do errands for their customers or hang around supermarkets, food markets and shops waiting for clients who want their groceries delivered to different destinations.

divisions. However, not all of them are there for any serious business; others are there to pass time. Sights of children vending yellow bananas, pancakes and washing soap are common.

By evening some vendors move their merchandise to the streets targeting people hurriedly leaving their workplaces to reach home before the 7pm to 6.30am curfew.

Many barbers now operate mobile salons. Most of them are just a phone call away.

Although security personnel carry out impromptu operations during the day, targeting people operating businesses not listed as essential, some youth, especially those moving around polishing people’s nails, are a common sight.

On some occasions, many of them are arrested but are most of the time just cautioned and released. A few are charged in court, according the Rwizi Region police spokesperson, Mr Samson Kasasira.

There is a significant number of vehicles on the roads, especially those used by the ‘big people’ in town.
High Street is the passage for the trans-boundary cargo vehicles. Around Total fuel station, on the Mbarara-Masaka road after the main roundabout, there are touts linking travellers to drivers of cargo vehicles.

“People are travelling to Kabale, Ntungamo, Masaka, Kampala and all these areas along the highways. I can make between Shs5,000 and Shs20,000 a day as commission from connecting them (travellers and cargo vehicle drivers),” one of the touts told this newspaper on Thursday.

Like other big hotels that have suspended operations, Rubax Motel in Kamukuzi Division has a notice on its closed gate reading: “To our esteemed customers, you are informed that we have closed for 21 days due to Covid-19.”
Security personnel have since established camps at the hitherto busy Kizungu in Nyamityobora.
By 4pm, people begin deserting the town centre and as it approaches 7 pm, the town is almost completely deserted.

Kabale leaders call for food relief

The usual blare from vehicles and boda-boda riders as smoke from their exhaust pipes spew into the atmosphere is now replaced by bicycles bells.

At around 5pm, a police patrol car with sirens blaring moves around the different streets in town to alert boda boda riders that their time on the roads is up. It does the same a few minutes to 7pm to remind people of the 7pm to 6.30am night curfew.
Most traders dealing in food items, boda-boda operators, truck drivers and other business operators that are allowed to work describe business in Kabale town as dull because of the dwindled number of clients.

Sentaro Byamugisha, the Kabale Town mayor, says the lockdown has left many people vulnerable and require urgent intervention from government.

Alex Beingana, the senior assistant town clerk for Central Division, says before the lockdown, about 40 buses and dozens of trucks off-loading food items from rural areas and the neighbouring districts have been using the Kabale Main Taxi park and the bus park.

These places have been employing several people, who are now jobless.
“Those that were employed in the salons, taxis garages, hawkers, boda-boda operators, bar and lodge attendants are now jobless and in need of urgent food relief,” he says.

He says some people living with HIV/Aids have been approaching him for financial assistance to buy food since they say they cannot take their ARVs on empty stomachs.

Beingana adds that municipal council authorities currently depend on the central government for finances since local revenue collection have reduced due to the lockdown.
“Whereas I advise my people to observe the government directives aimed at stopping the spread of coronavirus, I appeal to government to consider providing food relief to all town dwellers up-country because of the economic hardships they are going through,” Byamugisha says.
He urges security officials to increase their presence, especially during the curfew time, to crackdown on wrong characters that have started terrorising residents and breaking into people’s houses and shops.

Some mechanics and spare part shop owners are seen seated on the Kabale Garage Street waiting for customers.
The same applies to owners of shops selling electronics, stationary and boutiques. These sit on verandahs of their closed shops waiting for possible clients.

“I strategically position myself near my hardware shop so that in case a customer comes to buy any item, I am available to offer the service. I do not have any other source of income apart from my hardware shop,” one the hardware shop owners says.

The chairperson of the business community in Kabale Town, Can Joshua Mutekanga, says even those traders dealing in food items are hardly making any money because most of their clients that used to come from rural areas have been cut off by the ban on public and private transport.

Mutekanga says transport costs for food items such as posho and rice from Kampala to Kabale have increased as transporters report reduced business opportunities.

“Before the lockdown, we used to pay about Shs700,000 to transport 10 tonnes of maize flour or rice from Kampala to Kabale. But now, we pay Shs1m for the same service,” Can Mutekanga says.

The Nothern Division chairperson, Isaac Rushoga, says many people have resumed operating their businesses because they have used up all their savings and now have nothing to eat at home.

“Because of the prolonged lockdown, some people in my area have started going back to their work places because of economic hardships. The rainy season has worsened the situation because many gardens in the peri-urban areas have been washed away, while some homesteads have been destroyed. There is need for urgent government intervention,” Rushoga says.

Dr Paddy Mwesigye, the director of Mwesigye Health Clinic in Kabale Town, says there is a significant drop in the number of patients that used to visit his facility every day.

“Before the lockdown, we used to get more than 10 patients but now, we hardly get more than two patients a day,” Dr Mwesigye says.

However, Leopold Twesigye, a renowned maize flour and rice dealer in Kabale Town and also former councillor for Kigongi Ward, refutes claims of traders increasing the prices of their products.
“For instance, a kilogramme of local rice has remained at Shs3500, while that of the imported one is at Shs4,000. Those telling you that prices of food items have been increased are just fabricating stories for their personal interests,” he says.