DRIVING in a colonial defender Landrover over a nearly impassable road characterised by huge â€˜potholes,â€™ that made life difficult, we passed banana plantations, a rice irrigation scheme that has become an economic mainstay and a hub of child labour in Butaleja district in eastern Uganda.
Inside the Doho rice scheme, men, women and children as young as 12 years dressed in rags brave the dayâ€™s heavy downpour to till the land.
A glance at the scheme tells tales of environmental degradationâ€” no signs of trees and many years of continuous cultivation have exposed the swamp to flooding.
One of the journalists, Kolyang Mudhangi, said the swamp floods every rainy season and blocks the highway to Butaleja town.
Reports indicate a high incidence of bilharzia and river blindness because the flooded zone acts as a habitat for snails and black flies.
â€œBut the root cause of all problems in Butaleja is environmental degradation.
All wetlands and trees have been grounded,â€ Mudhangi said.
In order to restore the environment, the reigning Miss Uganda, Dorah Mwima, a daughter of the area, in her first home-coming after 12 years, has taken tree-planting to her ancestral home.
The trip, funded by the National Forestry Authority (NFA), with Mwima as its first goodwill ambassador on environmental protection, led us to Kangalaba village, a home to Mwima.
A tree-planting exercise that will eventually spread to the rest of the country has been launched here.
The atmosphere in Kangalaba was silent. Men and women went about their business without minding our presence â€” an indication many were not aware of the celebrations.
At the venue, the MC welcomed us under a huge mango tree shade, signaling the importance of trees. Most of the seats were empty â€“ but the MC reminded us he had informed the community of our coming a month before.
With the microphone amplified to a distance of 10km, the MC reminded the Banyole people to welcome their daughter, who had also come to sensitise them on the importance of protecting their environment.
Before a quorum could be realised, Mwima visited relatives she hadnâ€™t seen in a while. She received a thunderous welcome from uncles, aunts and cousins.
But, behind this joy, an environmental disaster was waiting to strike the community as the residents revealed.
Mwimaâ€™s uncle, Perez Higenyi, a lecturer at Kyambogo University, said the village was facing a number of environmental disasters.
â€œAll the trees have been cut down.
It was too hot during the dry season and it floods during the short rains,â€ Higenyi said. There has been destruction of property and loss of lives.â€
He added that the previous year, two people had drowned in the floods that hit the Doho rice swamp and recently, about 15 houses were destroyed by heavy winds and rain.
â€œAlthough many blamed it on witchcraft, it is clear that environmental destruction was the trigger,â€ Higenyi explained.
The Butaleja district forest officer, Charles Banamwita, said the community had exhausted the fertile land to the extent that many were moving into protected areas.
â€œWe no longer have swamps in Butaleja.
Swamps that previously trapped flood water and created a suitable climate have been destroyed,â€ Banamwita adds.
Environmentalist and resident of the district, Dr. Silver Kalyebbi, said drought was becoming a big problem.
â€œThere has been drought for eight months; the rains have now come, but with heavy winds, houses and crops may not survive,â€ Kalyebbi said.
â€œThere is looming famine. Our women walk for long distances looking for water and food.â€
Kalyebbi further added that the residents had cut down all trees for fuel and construction.
â€œRecently, a classroom block was brought to the ground during a downpour. Trees act as windbreakers â€“ unfortunately most of them have been cut down,â€ Kalyebbi stressed.
About 70% of the residents in Butaleja are poor, living on less than sh1000 a day. They depend entirely on natural resources â€” depleting anything they can find,â€ Banamwita says.
After listening to what her uncles said, Mwima said tree planting in Butaleja was timely.
â€œButaleja used to be cool, green and beautiful. That was then â€” the environment has been destroyed and the future of my people is threatened,â€ Mwima said. â€œI love nature. We have to resurrect the once blooming village of Kangalaba,â€ she added.
Mwima explained that her campaign would not only stop in Kangalaba; it is part of a wider tree-planting project throughout Uganda.
â€œPeople are debating about global warming in conferences and workshops. But the message rarely gets to the â€˜real consumersâ€™ â€“ the poor,â€ Mwima added. â€œI want the message to be implemented.â€
The NFA communications officer, Moses Watasa, said it was the first time in the history of the Miss Uganda crown that the title-holder had taken on environmental protection.
â€œThe past Miss Uganda title-holders have not been keen on environment issues. This one has made a difference and Iâ€™m sure more people will listen to her,â€ Watasa added.
He said the three-year project is aimed at planting over 60,000 hectares of trees annually.
A further 10,000 trees will be planted in Mabira forest next week by NFA and its partners that include the governments of Norway and Netherlands.
â€œThe tree planting project is funded by NFA to a tune of about sh2m per acre,â€ Watasa said.
At Butaleja, Miss Uganda presided over the planting of about 500 tree seedlings with species that included Terminalia, Cypress, Musizi and pine.
â€œTrees are very important in rain-making as well as money-making. The people will get timber, charcoal and many other products if they protect them,â€ Mwima said.
â€œIâ€™m hopeful everyone will join this exercise,â€ added David Namalabya, the head teacher of Kangalaba primary School. He said he would request the forestry body to give each one of his pupils four tree seedlings to plant.
He urged the community to embrace tree-planting by getting tree seedlings from NFA. â€œThis is the only body that can help sensitise and educate the community about the importance of tree planting,â€ Namalabya added.
Mwima called upon the community to each plant five trees in their backyard.
â€œMy father inspired me to protect the environment. He loved nature and planted several trees in his compound â€“ where he relaxes,â€ Mwima explained.
At last, the crowd was enormous and everyone was eager to get Miss Ugandaâ€™s message on environmental protection.
She later led everyone to a tree planting ceremony in the backyard of Kangalaba Primary School and as dusk set in, she painfully said â€˜Goodbye.â€™