In light of all that has happened over the past few months, including the closure of the Maranatha Health clinic due to a factory being illegally put up next to our land, I have been following the Ugandan media with interest this week. Mostly, to track the articles that are being written about Maranatha. (By the way, I wrote this blog over 6 weeks ago but have only got around to posting it now!)
When I first moved to Uganda, I took an overly-keen interest in the newspapers, delving very deeply into the politics of this country. Like many Ugandans, I became quite wrapped up in the politics of Uganda, the key players, the scandals, the economy, the issues. The average educated Ugandan’s interest in politics is a fascinating phenomenon that I’m still getting used to. After 25 years of my life lived in Australia, where most young people who have finished high school can barely offer up the names of the PM and deputy, it is still bizarre to me that so many Ugandans know all the key ministers, their families, their business dealings, and scandals. In essence they are the Ugandan version of celebrities.
However, about 1 year in, and after reading about the millionth corruption investigation story, my interest in the media waned, especially since 99.9% of the time nothing was achieved by reporting the story. It made me a little too cynical, reading again and again of men being found ‘not guilty’ for crimes that have appeared to cost the country millions of dollars in tax payer funds. Although I would’ve loved to, I also didn’t feel (and still don’t) that I should share my thoughts publically about such issues considering the sensitive nature of my employment and status in this country. Furthermore, although the media is open, free and can report essentially whatever they want, I feel almost every story is fanatically event-based, rather than drawing Ugandans into a bigger-picture conversation on long term solutions to the issues facing the country.
Last week reminded me again of why I have tried to avoid getting too heavily invested in Ugandan politics and media. Keeping track of the headlines, two things have been highlighted to me:
Much journalism in this country (in my opinion) is amateur and opportunistic*. I was completely ignorant until a few weeks ago that when one needs to have a story written in this country (unless it is a national issue) one must PAY journalists to write it. Yep, you heard me correct. Over and above the wages that journalists receive from the newspaper, to have an investigation and story written about the issue in Kamwenge (or any issue for that matter, so I’ve been informed from Ugandan friends), we were expected to fork out money (per media outlet/journalist) for the mere privilege of their interest. Now let me get this straight. We do not pay them for a one sided account. After you fork out such ridiculous sums of money for mediocre reporting, they write what is purported to be a ‘balanced story’ (while others take your money and write nothing!). So far however, the quality of articles has been at best slightly inaccurate, at worst totally missing the point of the issue. Every single article written so far has described us as being from Austria (it really isn’t that hard to get the donor country correct, these journalists are degree holders for goodness sakes!); has dramatically misquoted or just plain made up ‘quotes’ we are purported to have said; and the one published the other day quoted a man in Kamwenge town – a maize dealer who is OF COURSE going to benefit and side with the factory – claiming that the residents don’t need or want the health centre, and can easily go to Fort Portal (70kms away) for treatment. Might a journalist point out or question the agenda behind his one sided view? Not in Uganda it seems! Moreover, most neglect to highlight or only vaguely mention, (1) the level of corruption and negligence of district officials which surely must have been present to put up a factory next to a health centre, and (2) the extremely poor quality of health services currently being offered in Kamwenge, that has been redeemed dramatically by the services at Maranatha, and do not currently exist elsewhere in the district.
The second thing that was sadly highlighted to me this week as I poured through the newspapers is, in a demonstration of ironic timing, a collection of articles lamenting the state of health and health services in this country. Of particular interest in the past week, I have read that new figures have shown the HIV rate is rising from 7.5 To 7.9% (the figure I suspect is much higher in Kamwenge); Family Planning levels in rural areas are decreasing; that child malnutrition rates are on the rise and now stand nationally at 35% (in Kamwenge they sit at around 60%); and maternal mortality is again on the rise, with the national figure now at 438/100,000 live births. Michael and I observe the practical realities of these stats everyday and they simply confirm what we are seeing in our own district. However, most alarming is the last statistic about maternal mortality rising. See, from my Masters, I have learnt a bit about health systems – their elements, different ways to strengthen them, schools of thought around this and also how to measure their capacity and effectiveness. One of the key ways to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of a health system is through maternal mortality statistics. Why? Because maternal services rely on so many different aspects of the health system – things like the presence of primary health care services (ANC and delivery), staffing levels, transport mechanisms, referrals, emergency response, availability of drugs and equipment, and availability of tertiary/specialist care. All these services combine to ensure women do not die in pregnancy or labour (and so poetically, in countries like Australia, that maternal mortality barely exists). Basically what I am saying is that health services in Uganda, generally, are decreasing in quality, in turn producing these unfortunate statistical realities.
Which begs the question – why allow a health centre doing such a fantastic job fighting against these statistics, to be forced to shut by putting a factory next door? Why aren’t the district leadership – among others – viewing this as an issue of urgent and significant importance?
And, why oh why, didn’t the journalists of Uganda identify – and point out the link – between the broader problems of health in Uganda they were writing about this week, and the articles written about Maranatha Health, a much needed service subsidizing a broken health system.
Thus endeth my rant.
*As a disclaimer, I’m sure there are many fantastic journalists in Uganda – I may have lucked out! Also, there are many things that combine to make this a problem – including lack of support and good educational opportunities, corruption, and small salaries.