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March 5, 2013

Chinese footprints in Uganda

Karera is a small village in Sheema district, 400 kilometers south of Uganda’s capital Kampala. Flavia Nalongo is a famous woman in Karera. She is a farmer and jack of all jobs in the village. Yet it is not her activities that make her well-known. It is rather because of her ability to ride a bicycle.

Everyone in her village knows the story of how Flavia carries bunches of bananas on her bicycle through rough roads for sell in far off markets.

I met Flavia in Karera after a very long day of travelling on rough roads. And of course packed way too many people in the taxi.

I thought five adults excluding the driver was rough for a small saloon taxi with permanently locked behind glass windows. But we picked three more including a woman on our way.

We drove from Nyakabirizi in Bushenyi. Climbed steep rocky hills. Meandered around them, slopped and then climbed again. Buhweju district! We arrived.

Then we drove back using another rough road. Three people in front and five behind. Jam-packed with the driver and two other adults in the front seat. I had a front seat view of the road full of gullies. We hurtled down the hills so fast that even the driver nearly lost control of the taxi at one time.

I had travelled to the mountainous district of Buhweju district to trace for Chinese footprints. I am talking about the Chinese road construction machines distributed to all districts in Uganda in June 2012.

Yes, they were there but not in use. Just packed. Reason? Buhweju is a hilly and rocky district. The machines are meant for light grading. They can’t blast those rocks.  So I decided to go to the neighboring district of Sheema. This is where I found the famous Flavia Nalongo riding a bicycle with three bunches of bananas on the carrier.

She had beads of sweat formed on her forehead. Nether-the- less, a faint smile played on her face as she stopped to greet me, with her bicycle learning against her backsides. Her blouse was soaked with sweat. My interruption helped her take a short break.

The reason several beads of sweat formed on Flavia’s face was not the heavy load she was carrying. It was rather the rough Kabwohe- Kitagata road she was riding on. “All I need to carry out my business easily are good roads,” she said as her smile broadened.

“Farmers are not able to sell their produce directly to buyers because potential buyers fear coming to villages due to bad roads. We now end up being cheated by middle men who buy from us cheaply,” Flavia further narrated as she glanced at me with the corner of her yes while pushing her bicycle casually and I walked alongside her.

Flavia was about to say something when a man on the back of a passing lorry carrying bananas shouted, “Flavia, how are you?” She did not respond but laughed as she looked down boyishly.

Flavia knows that her district received road construction machines from China meant to grade roads in her area. She is optimistic that problems of poor road networks will soon be history.

So soon actually, as Uganda’s state minister for works engineer John Byabagambi notes

Sheema district received three trucks, one grader, four double-cabin cars, three tractors and one motorcycle as part of the road construction unit distributed by the government of Uganda to all districts and municipalities.

They are part of the road construction units purchased using a loan of 106 million US dollars, according to minister Byabagambi.

The funds are in addition to a loan of 350 million US dollars which the government of Uganda got from Exim bank of China for construction of Entebbe-Kampala highway at 2% annual interest

“The money from China is easy to obtain. It has no a lot of conditionality,” Byabagambi notes further stressing that the money which the government of Uganda received from China during the last financial year is far more than it received from the World Bank and European Union combined.

Various roads in Uganda are also being constructed by the Chinese constructors. The more competing constructors there are, the lower the unit cost of construction.

“The unit cost which was about 800,000 dollars per kilometer, we have seen it going down to about 700,000,” minister Byabagambi narrates.

Byabagambi reveals that the newly distributed machines are meant for light grading of roads only.

This answers Flavia’s concern and the worries of several other Ugandans that have been criticizing these machines saying they are weak.

“We want these machines to open up new roads and have the old ones tarmacked,” Flavia told me her feelings as she tried to dodge a giant pothole in the middle of the road.

Godfrey Kuruhiira Akiiki is Flavia’s district Chief Administrative Officer. I told him the expectations of Flavia. He says she is over expectant like several other people in the district.

Kuruhiira notes that the local people expect the machines to solve all their road problems but they can’t because they are not meant to do all sorts of work.

He however says the machines have helped his district to grade various roads in Kitagata and Kasana sub counties.

“The short term is about opening roads. In long term, it is about sufficient and effective motorable road networks right from access roads to the feeder roads then joining the trunk roads,” says Godfrey further noting that the machines are helping them to save 5 to 7 million Ugandan shillings on every road compared to the old system of grading roads.

Such funds could be injected in delivering others services to the local people. Flavia says such funds should be used to improve health services by equipping all health centers with necessary drugs and health workers.

Contrary to Flavia’s wishes, Godfrey says this means they can now grade more kilometers of roads than they would have done.

Flavia, knows that China has not supported Uganda in the road construction sector only. She actually knows that her bicycle was made in China and several other products she owns at home ranging from the lantern to the mobile phones, clothes, shoes and kitchen utensils among others.

Such products are imported and sold in Uganda by thousands of Chinese living in the country. There are actually 7,000 Chinese living and operating over 100 businesses in Kampala alone according to Uganda’s Vice President Edward Ssekandi.

Ssekandi was in February 2013, presiding over the launch of the China-Africa friendship association at Hotel Africana in Kampala.

He noted that the friendship between the two countries has grown into a successful and fruitful relationship in the 50 years of interaction as nations and peoples.

Speaking during this occasion, the Chinese Ambassador to Uganda Zhao Ya Li said China holds Uganda in high esteem for her contribution to the peace and security on the African continent and pledged continued socio-economic, cultural and bilateral relations between the two countries.

The man who knows better the socio-economic, cultural and bilateral relations between Uganda and China is prof. Ephraim Kamumtu, Uganda’s minister of Water and Environment.

He says this friendship can be traced from the time of Uganda’s independence and even before.

“China was one of the first countries to recognize Uganda’s independence and establish an embassy after independence,” he notes.

He cites an example of rice, noting that China was the country that introduced rice crop in Uganda at Kibimba Rice Scheme in Eastern Uganda. Prof. Kamuntu goes on to list other areas of support Uganda has received from China to include construction of Nambole National Stadium which seats about 40,000 people, oil and gas exploration, and construction of health centers among others.

It is time to leave Flavia to ride her bicycle since we have reached a sloppy area. But before I leave, I needed to find out the country she knows most: USA or China. “China” she answered.

As I raised my right hand high above my head to bide farewell to Flavia, I truly confirmed from her answer the global power shift from the west to the east and Chinese as the shining example

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