Retracing Kisubi boys’ narrow escape during the 1986 liberation war in Uganda

One early January morning 34 years ago, the hurly-burly of life at St Mary’s College Kisubi, one of Uganda’s premier secondary schools was thrown out of gear when a group of haggard-looking government soldiers, fleeing from disheveled but heavily armed National Resistance Army [NRA] rebel soldiers scampered through the school compound.

Several volleys of automatic gunfire had earlier been heard, not far away from the school. None of the petrified students who were at the College that day had ever imagined that their school would become a flashpoint of conflict.

“It was the morning of either the 23rd or 24th of January-1986. The school had just re-opened after a holiday recess. I was in S3 then and we were in class when several rounds of automatic gunfire started going off. The firing went on for a while and then we saw government soldiers running through the compound-shedding their uniform as they fled towards the lakeside,” Andrew Magona, one of the old students, calls to mind.

“Shortly after, we saw young boys in rugs, barefoot and armed to the teeth, giving chase in what we later found was a surprise NRA attack to cut off Kampala from Entebbe.”

Ronald Mutumba, now a certified Public Accountant vividly remembers that day.

“That morning, I remember one of my roommates hastily waking me up. I was not accustomed to rising early. Because of fright, I did not even have breakfast. I remember joining other students as we figured ways of staying safe.”

Luckily for the students, the rebel soldiers were not the forbidding type.

“They were amiable and approachable. That gave us the confidence to accost them and have a chat. By the time, the rebels got back to the College, after pursuing government soldiers, some of our colleagues had picked up some discarded boots from fleeing government soldiers and had tried them on,” Magona recalls.

The rebels who by then had gotten the worst of some back and forth battles with government forces in a bid to capture Entebbe knew that their presence at the college raised the specter of a government reprisal attack and so they advised the students later on in the day to find their way to Kings College Buddo through Kawuku.

The rebels who were under the NRA's 5th battalion rationalized that Buddo would be a good sanctuary for the students since it was in an area that was under their control.

When the students led by Brother Peter Kazzekulya, who was the school’s headteacher reached Kawuku, they were advised to eschew using the main road.
They moved along a tiny checkered footpath that led them to villages such as Ssisa, Nakonge, Nsaggu, among others.

When the students with their headteacher got to Ssisa, which is about five kilometers from Kawuku, it was decided that they would camp for the night at St Peter’s Primary School.

“That night the Milky Way was resplendent with shining stars. Many of us just gazed and feasted our eyes on the starlit sky for most of the night. Very few people slept,” Nick Mujira, an old boy and now the proprietor of Inspection and Certification Company, Inspecta Africa Limited, recollects.

Earlier on as the sun hit its twilight that day, the students heard government helicopter gunships hovering through the skies.

“We had earlier been advised by the rebels to leave spaces between each other as we slept as a means of eschewing death in the event of a government helicopter attack,” Andrew Yawe, one of the old boys tells Masaabachronicle.

Rather ill-advisedly the next day, the students were given the cue to head back to the college. It was a false dawn. A few kilometers into their trek back, sounds of heavy gunfire rang out as government forces fired on fleeing rebels. The rebels met up with the students.

“The rebels were making a tactical withdrawal. There was pell-mell as we took to our heels. Everyone ran. That day was a far cry from the previous day when we calmly walked and reached the Primary school without much incident. In the process of fleeing however a stray bullet ripped through a shoe of one of our colleagues who has since passed on. The bullet grazed his ankle, causing even more panic,” Magona recalls.

Reliving the experience

On Saturday 7th March, about 55 of the College’s old boys, who lived through the chilling scare gathered to relieve the experience, principally reenacting the grueling 25km trek they made as they sought to reach Buddo in 1986.
It wasn’t just walking however for the students, most of whom were teenagers then. On occasion, they ran especially when they had gunshots.

At the crack of dawn, as glints of sunshine penetrated the school horizon, the nostalgic jaunty trekkers were flagged off from the College’s football pitch by Kazzekulya.

Dressed in tracksuits, custom made t-shirts, sneakers and shorts, the trekkers who included Fabian Kasi-the Centenary Bank Managing Director of, Brother Francis Aganze-deputy headteacher of SMACK then, Eng. Godfrey Kaaya, Godber Tumushabe- the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies-Associate Director, Nick Mujira- the Inspecta Africa managing director, Charles Odaga-the Finance Trust Customer Service Manager and also the President of the SMACK old boys association seemed buoyed as we approached Kawuku.

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Child Labour still rife in one of Uganda's top rice producing regions

Butaleja, located in the East of Uganda, is one of the country’s foremost-rice producing districts.

Rice farmers in this waterlogged region, have through the years, made a killing, selling the grain, which is, by all accounts, a staple for many Ugandan families.

As any rice farmer in Butaleja will tell, however, growing, weeding, harvesting and producing rice does not come easy. It is a labour intensive undertaking, which calls for time, money and reliable labour.

To that end, most farmers go to extremes to produce the grain; including hiring child workers.

Whilst, many in the district, are quick to drop a veil over it, it is a glaring fact that, there are children in Butaleja, who are cajoled and on occasion, compelled to work in its rice fields; for long sustained hours.

It is a disturbing phenomenon, that 15 year old Latif Birya has bore witness to.
Looking disheveled, Birya says he works the rice fields, often, to get money to buy his scholastic materials.

One wonders, however, when he gets time to go to school, when he, to all appearances, spends most of his time in the rice paddy.

“My work is to scare away birds. On occasion, I assist the owner of the garden, to harvest. I always find time for school, however” Birya says with a mortified gaze on his face.

While it is hard to quantify the magnitude of the problem, it is a harsh reality; that district officials are aware of but have struggled to eliminate.

In some select rice fields in Namaganda, Muyago and Wega, the practice of using children is rife, though one will hard pressed to make contact, or to speak to the children, working the fields, as they either hide or walk away.

“Child labour is indeed a problem in some areas of the district. The practice of employing children to dig, plant and scare away birds from the rice gardens is not cordoned but it has been happening. The children are paid money for their work but that should not be encouraged especially during times of school. The problem has been exacerbated by the eschewing of responsibility by some parents. Not sending a child to school means he or she is vulnerable to exploitation,” Hamile Koire, a rice farmer in Butaleja says.

Patrick Mudida, a rice farmer in Busibira subcounty is however quick to dismiss the notion that the practice is widespread.

“The usuage of child labour on rice farms is something I do not cordon, but I also know that it is not, in every part of Butaleja. Finding children running around the rice farms does not mean that they are compelled to work on them and it does not also mean that their parents are not responsible enough to pay for their education,” Mudida says.

Alex Kambo, a rice farmer and teacher says child labour on Butaleja’s rice farms has been happening and has to be outlawed.

“In the areas, where it is happening, it has to be stopped. Our children ought to be in school, not on rice farms. Butaleja’s children should not be lured or coerced to work in the gardens for money. They should instead be encouraged to embrace school.”

Ritah Wapela, a rice Farmer in Namaganda, says she has not seen firsthand, any child working on a rice paddy.

“There are several rice farms in Namaganda, but I have never witnessed child labour, on any of them.
The children, I see, are there to chase away birds and they only do it, after school.”

Plans to tackle the issue

Richard Waya, the Butaleja district chairperson, says the district has started operations to bring a halt to any forms of child labour.

“Our position as a district is that it is illegal for any child in Butaleja to work in a rice paddy, when it is school time.
The district has put in place an order to arrest children who work in the fields, instead of going to school.
The fine for a child got in a rice field, during school time, is sh5, 000. Parents, who send their children to the fields, instead of school are liable to pay fines,” Waya says.

James Waluswaka, the Bunyole West county Member of Parliament, objects to the notion, that child labour is endemic on Butaleja’s rice paddies.

“That happened in the past. It is only when children have broken off from school, that you will see them, working in the rice paddies. The ordinances, the district recently passed in relation to the issue make it hard for anybody to compel a child to work for them, in the rice fields, during school days,” Waluswaka says.

Side Bar

According to recent statistics from the Butaleja district education office, the school dropout rate in the last four years, has surged from 45 per cent to 78 per cent.

Statistics also show that the dropout rates in upper primary are between 60 to 70 per cent.

In the year 2000, over 200 Child Workers in Butaleja District were detained by the Police.

The law

The Constitution of Uganda Article 34 states that children under 16 years of age have the right to be protected from social and economic exploitation.

The Constitution prohibits child slavery, servitude, and forced labor.

Government policy

This year, the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development launched a national strategic plan to eradicate child labour in Uganda.

Florence Nakiwala Kiyingi, the State Minister for Youth and Children affairs, said all children of school going age should not be employed, but sent to school.

In 2016, the Government approved the Children (Amendment) Act, which outlaws the use of children for labour exploitation.

The Government also launched the National Social Protection Policy that targets child labourers.

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Lake Victorias Equator Island is a Jewel Plan a visit soon

From Entebbe’s aero beach, it took us approximately 25 minutes to get to Lake Victoria’s Equator Island.
The winds were blowing mildly and the lake’s blue waters were tranquil. Our destination was an Island on the lake where the lake’s waters straddle the equator.
It is said the Equator line runs through two of the lake’s Islands, principally Damba and Lwaji.
Before we embarked on our voyage however, we had to bid some time, spending close to half an hour, waiting for the mechanics to prepare the ferry’s decks for the ride on Africa’s largest lake.
Excitedly waiting with me, were the East African Mariners, most of whom seemed very eager to stand a treat of their maiden voyage on the famed lake.

The excitement was written on almost everybody’s face. Aside of the adventure, the mariners also had a worthwhile cause to accomplish that day. They were on a mission to donate life saving jackets to the Islander’s fishing communities.
Going by the accounts I heard before we set forth, majority of the lake’s fishermen go on ill-advised fishing expeditions without life saving jackets, even deep in the night when even people without aqua phobia would be dead frightened to ride on the ominous looking waters.
When we finally departed, it was an exhilarating experience. It was a joy ride devoid of bumps and grinds, due to the fact that the lake’s waters are free of reefs and there was not a single trace of a tidal wave. Those sitting down as we rode were heard saying, the ferry was going perpendicular, straight like the way the crow bird fly’s. From the vantage point of the deck however, one could see that the ferry was making turns.

Everyone seemed buoyant when we caught sight of the first Island. There was lots of hoopla all around us. Smiles seemed not locked away. Face’s lit up, by the endless repertoire of jokes, coming courtesy of the many happy go lucky emcees we had onboard. Amazing charms struck our eyes as we rode off on the rather placid waters that characterized the lake that day. It seemed only natural when an old gentleman seated at the back of the ferry exclaimed, God is great. It was spell binding watching the different varieties of birds chirping and flapping away. We caught glimpses of Kingfishers and the egrets flying low on the surface of the water, eager to catch some prey. It was fun too watching all the revelers on the sandy beaches we were leaving behind in our wake.

The Kamikaze fishermen paddling their canoes past us however seemed non chalant. Most looked all too consumed up in their trivial round. Regardless, the sight of them trying to catch fish with their baits ticked the fancies of many on the ferry.
Midway through our voyage, Uganda air force planes hovered over us. Luckily we had some UPDF marines on deck to charm everybody down.
Lake Victoria has many ring shaped archipelagos that many of the fishing communities’ inhabit. They are eye candy especially when you are riding on a ferry.

On the face of it, many of these communities abode in old corrugated iron sheet shelters. All the structures seem provisional. When we went past one of the inhabited Islands, a group of 6 bark naked men were taking a bath on the edges of the Island. Some even had the nerve to wave at us in their birthday suits. As our ferry cruised past the many archipelagos on our way to our destination, almost everybody wanted to catch a glance of these curiosities of nature. It is said Lake Victoria has 84 of them.

We finally reached our destination, Lwaji Island. Plenty of Bird life exists here, going by what we saw when we alighted the ferry. There were many birds flying in and out of their nestling grounds. What fascinated us most however, is the fact that this particular Island seems un-inhabited, save for the few UPDF marine soldiers we found there. Some bits of the Island are cleared of bushy vegetation whilst the rest seems more like bear garden.

On this picturesque Island, one can enjoy a wide view of the lake, the Entebbe airport run way and the other surrounding Islands. The atmosphere and breeze all around us was pleasantly refreshing. On the Island too, you will be able to spot a tree that has incredibly grown on the Island’s rocky surface. The Island can be a good respite, place if you fancy a quiet place to lay your life issues to heart. If sightseeing is your cup of tea too, this island is the perfect get away The Island just like the rest on Lake Victoria are of considerable conservation value but nothing seems to show this particular one is or has been visited or revamped of recent. Before our tour ended, we lined up for photo opportunities at the Equator line. There is a signpost designating the spot where the equator line passes just like in Masaka. ACCESS To get to Lwaji Island, one will have to part with a small amount of money. There are ferry’s that take visitors there often. Ask when you reach Entebbe town or aero beach.

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