jueves, 2 de junio de 2011

To Uganda? For what?

Bicycles in Kampala
This was one of the questions that many of my friends, family, ex-classmates and ex-colleagues asked me.

Why are you going to Africa if there is so much poverty in Mexico? Some comments where bordering in the aggressive, even insinuations of national betrayal and lack of interest for my country where thrown at me. Although I am past this it still makes me bubble in the inside, it is almost like the arguments used by climate skeptics in the U.S. Hard arguments using sophist techniques coming from greek times (Zeno's paradox) that are quite tricky to demonstrate using a logic that the other denies.

Why go to the moon or mars if we care about the Earth? The reason is easy, to understand the Earth you need to compare to other planets. In the same way, to truly understand the problems of my country, my city, my neighborhood you need to compare to other countries, cities, neighborhoods. And I have to say that Kampala is very different than Mexico City, than New York or Paris (three cities that I have had the luck to live in and to study in detail).

After more than five year working in retail network management and optimization, I slowly had to truly understand city dynamics. Urban planning and urban development (different concepts because cities are living animals and they grow faster than you can plan) are basic elements that relate to the sustainability of a city. Kampala would not exactly fit in my definition of a sustainable city. It is quite obvious that the city has been growing out of control when you see the way the roads have been carved into the city. There is no public transportation system, no public lighting system, no traffic lights, no pedestrian crossing, no traffic signals, the street level pollution is even worse than my fading memory of that Mexico city's winter of 1991 where birds started to drop dead on the streets. At night the city becomes frankly grim, not a single public lumen to show you the way.

The market.

Llevelo Llevelo! No gracias! Neda Neda Webale!
The chaos in the city and the levels of poverty have led citizens to adapt and small motorcycle sprawl from every corner honking like crazy. They are infinite in number and are frankly dangerous for everyone, in two days I have seen people carrying motorcycles on a motorcycle, 5 people on one single bike, and the list can be long. This was my first impression after just two days walking across the city.

As one of my colleagues from the master put it blogs tend to be pompous, serious or filled with wanna be intellectual posts. Or on the other side of the spectrum just a myriad of details about one's own private life that usually are unattractive to any one else. I should start here with the antithesis and mention that despite all these facts Kampala is a bustling city, full of energy that makes you vibrate at the rhythm of eastern africa development. SIPA has tried to teach me that, cynicism is not an appreciated trait. But I am not going to do it... You can read lonely planet to get the pat in the back version, there are plenty of optimistic people in the world and I am not one of them. I like to point out at the stains.

4 X 1
What needs to be done in Kampala to tend to sustainability. I wouldn't know where to start. The city is growing at a rate of 5%  per year. This means doubling the population every 12 years! already the city counts 2 Million inhabitants and is a complete disaster, planning will be a basic component of the strategy. For a city to become livable, citizens need to be involved in the livability of the city. When you are worried about your next lunch it is hard to worry about the quality of your air or the area of parks per inhabitant. Rates of 128 per 1000 under five mortality are indications that Uganda is in a different stage of development than other countries (France 4, Mexico 17, Nicaragua 26, Dominican Republic 32, Kenya 84, Haiti 87, Niger 160, Chad 209). Kampala does not need programs to promote the use of bycicles  (which actually everyone uses right now). But not everything is lost. Remember that in 1960 the under five mortality rate in Mexico was 137. 

Chewing some air
Mexico managed to reduce its children mortality with a series of governmental interventions, technological diffusion, health system improvements and behavioral change of the population (family planning). My fellow country men, think twice before cursing our health system as useless. Now Mexico city is also changing on the sustainable path, a new proposal to transform the roads that cover the once freshwater rivers that crossed the city is being analyzed. At a certain point in time the rivers needed to be wrapped in tubes and roads built on top of them for public health and traffic issues. Now we are realizing that more roads do not mean less traffic and that water is a precious resource to just use use it to carry our shit.

So in Kampala too, it appears that things will have to get worse before they get better. Planning and some important public infrastructure will be required. Hopefully Kampalians will at some point start to love their city and try to make it a better place by respecting basic civility agreements. In the meantime, be prepared for the hassle.

Boda Bodas everywhere
If I had lived all my life in Kampala, I might think that things are the way they are and can't be changed. If I never left Mexico I might think that all problems are solved with the same stone. Going outside your confort zone and realizing that different cultures are trying to solve sustainable development issues in different ways can only create synergies.

This among other things is what brought me to Uganda...

Again into Terra Ignota.
Utopian Kampala

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