The Unraveling

Friday brought a slew of news, including the delivery of 82.6 million bucks’ worth of Tomahawks to a Syrian airbase. Mid-afternoon in Europe saw the fifth lone wolf terror attack using a vehicle, after France, Israel, Germany, and Britain—all this within nine months, the human gestation period.

The US missile strike raises an immediate question, because it reverses policy trumpeted (pun intended) only a week ago. It remains to be seen whether the new administration suddenly grew up, or whether this was merely a ballistic tweet.

I hope you come here because you like ideas, but also because you enjoy words—I want to thank you by sharing a curious text on Trumpspeak.

And yet, what moved me most this week was a story from sub-Saharan Africa about Gulu, a town in Northern Uganda. These tales never make it into the mainstream news, but they illustrate how far apart we are from the tragedy that passes for life in many parts of the world.

Gulu is about the size of Stamford, Connecticut, and is in the poorer (!) part of Uganda. It has a soccer stadium, built by the British in 1959—it used to boast power and water, but both have long disappeared. Transportation went the same way—the only railway line was out of use for twenty years, until 2013, when trains began operating again.

The town appears to boast several hotels, and their websites use standard westspeak such as ’boutique’ and ‘wifi’, but occasionally odd things crop up—my favorite is the word ‘leopard’ underneath the list of rental cars of the Golden Peace hotel—not hotlinked, sadly, but when you hover over it the tantalizing hint ‘leopards in Botswana’ appears.

One guy supplied the following comment on his experience in another hotel.

When I arrived, I was put on ground floor room, next to a Ugandan government official so there were security men outside his room 24/7. They were very friendly and offered to “protect” me too, whatever that means, but I could hear them talking in the halls 24/7, flirting with the housekeeper…

What got me to Gulu was a story about the municipal abattoir, which has a capacity to slaughter thirty animals daily. It was set up in 1959, apparently by Indians and Nubians—you don’t hear much about Nubians these days. If, like me, your memories of them are all from Ancient Egypt, which they ruled in the VIIIth century BC, then you’ll be pleased to hear that Kenya is now home to about a hundred thousand Nubians.

In 1960, a German vet made improvements to the building, and, much like the football stadium, there the story ends. The consequences of this are first explained in a description about a local entrepreneur (euse?)…

Filth from the Gulu main abattoir continues to flood into Harriet Achen’s restaurant as she collects her grimy cooking utensils – some filled with maggots – from her workplace, shortly after a heavy downpour. Clad in a floral dress, with a bandana wrapped around her head, Achen uses an empty can and a plastic bag as gloves to scoop out the animal waste.

“If it continues to rain like this, I don’t know how I will survive. I won’t work for days because I have to clean my [work] place. More so, I need to pay up my bank loan and also fend for my children,” says the 34-year-old single mother of four.

I couldn’t find Harriet’s restaurant among the various offerings in Gulu, including one called ‘The Iron Donkey’, perhaps a local name for the train, much like Native Americans used ‘Iron Horse’.

The effluent from the abattoir blocks the sewage system, because the lipid fractions aren’t adequately separated and disposed of, and the general (un)sanitary conditions of the facility, whose incinerator broke down two years ago, contribute with an added stench of burning hooves and horns. The reporter informs us that these issues “have become daily inconveniences that repel potential customers.”

Trucking animals for slaughter, Ugandan-style. But that’s okay, at least they have Coke.

The use of the term ‘inconvenience’ speaks volumes about sub-Saharan Africa, as does the offhand reference to the ‘single mother of four’, a quintessential African problem.

But this is far more than an inconvenience, it’s a major health hazard for zoonotic diseases—and it’s not just sewage contamination within the abattoir—the hapless goats are already sitting in waste.

As a consequence, one hundred thirteen cases of brucellosis were registered since November of last year, forty-four in February alone—the sanitary authorities advise the population not to eat meat from the Gulu slaughterhouse, when the real option is obviously to close down the establishment.

The key point here is that the abattoir is only a symptom, and the whole infrastructure of Gulu unravels as we inspect services such as education and healthcare.

The Lacor Hospital was founded in 1959—what is it about that year?—by Comboni missionaries, which once again is the story of all Africa. A husband and wife team, made up of Italian pediatrician Piero Corti and his Canadian wife Lucille, started the hospital, which now treats a quarter of a million patients every year.

But this is no ordinary hospital, it replaces all kinds of social safety nets. As an example, it also trains masons, carpenters, and electricians, pointing out that disease and poverty are an intimate couple—not only does poverty breed disease, but the opposite is also true. AIDS, which is rarely talked about in the West these days, is still a major concern—surgeon Lucille Teasdale Corti died from it in 1996—the hospital says it was ‘professionally acquired’.

Lacor also served as a refugee camp—during the war that ravaged the region between 1996 and 2006, between 3,000 and 10,000 women and children sought nightly refuge in the hospital grounds to escape rebel attacks.

To place that in context, UNICEF estimates that thirty thousand children between the ages of seven and fourteen were abducted over that decade and forced to become guerillas (child soldiers), or sold into slavery.

Like a cable-knit sweater that starts unraveling, you only need to pull one thread to watch the whole fabric of society fall apart—the story I’ve told you, of fatherless kids, deadly pathogens, environmental hazards, and the collapse of basic infrastructure in not a Gulu exclusive.

Africa is one thousand, or one hundred thousand Gulus, dealing with challenges that Europe and North America eliminated long ago, problems for which simple solutions exist.

Uganda suffers this fate despite being unusually well endowed in natural resources—apart from valuable minerals, including the ever-sinister coltan, its soils are so rich that it could potentially feed all of Africa.

The Lacor hospital is going bankrupt—not from the war, but because of peace. Since the war ended in 2006, international aid has moved on to other war zones, so the poverty resulting from the conflict can no longer find solace.

When you witness tragedy on this scale, three little words come to mind.

Cruelty. Waste. Sadness.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.



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