If you have never appreciated life, a visit to Namatala, a slum in Mbale district, will make you appreciate how blessed you are, writes Suzan Aturo
Three quarters of the houses in Namatala are semi-permanent and many households occupy single rooms with an average of five members sharing the meager space.
Sanitation standards are wanting, right from the leaders to the locals. On arrival at the home of the LCI chairperson, John Byansi, the unmistakable smell of cow dung welcomes you. The LCI keeps cows right in front of his door and during the rainy season, the whole place is a mess.
The latrines are in a poor state and yet they cater for over 20 people, since many landlords construct over five single rooms that house an average of five people in each, excluding passers-by.
In fact, some people in the area seemingly have no time to go to the toilet. Instead, they help themselves in polythene bags and litter them near the homesteads.
The pit latrines are not controlled by anyone in particular and many are full, squalid, overflowing and prone to causing health hazards.
The bathrooms are equally in bad shape with many made of polythene sacks and pieces of old iron sheets with uncemented floors.
The major economic activities of Namatala slum dwellers include brewing malwa (local brew from sorghum) and Waragi (local gin) selling charcoal, foodstuff, casual labour, boda boda and building.
The ramshackled structures that grace the Namatala slum
Brewing is so common that the atmosphere in the slum is polluted by the smell of local brew and the sickly-sweet aroma of molasses, one of the major ingredients in the waragi-making process.
Because many residents are jobless, drinking starts as early as 7:00am and goes on until dawn.
Joseph Mulekwa a customer at one of the bars says: “We have a problem of over drinking. I used to stay here and would drink myself silly. I would sleep in bars or get carried back home. This made me move house to Nkoma (another slum) to overcome my bad drinking habits.”
It is, however, ironical that Mulekwa, who said he moved away to overcome drinking, was back in a Namatala bar, drinking. He insists that he has reduced his consumption of alcohol.
The bars in Namatala do not only attract idlers, but also students and the working class, from Mbale district. Some of these students reside in the area, while others come from hostels.
According to Mulekwa, the working class are mainly attracted by the pork joints.
Cost of alcohol business
While brewing in the slum is done for income generation, it has negative effects, not just on the environment which is polluted by the strong smell and effluent into the River Namatala, but also on the children growing up in the slum.
Mary Achom came from Soroti and settled in Namatala in 1983, following the insurgency in Teso. She came with five children — three girls and two boys. She started making the local brew to make ends meet.
However, her inebriated customers soon started looking beyond the drink and it was not long before they targeted Achom’s daughters. Her three daughters were all impregnated while still in primary school and unfortunately, all the men who patronised the homestead denied responsibility.
Just like Mary’s daughters, many young girls continue to face the same challenge in Namatala. Some have been forced into early marriages because their parents cannot afford to keep them.
Byansi says because of the many customers flooding the bars, prostitution is on the rise.
Many families still survive on one meal a day and many children are still out of school because parents cannot afford school fees and other scholastic materials.
Children playing infront of a makeshift structure. Many of them look malnourished
Esther Namataka who operates a bar in Aguba, a popular drinking joint in Namatala, says she barely makes money because there are many people doing the same business. Besides, many of her customers have no source of income and drink on credit.
“When they have accumulated debts, they shift to other bars. I am only able to get money for a meal and when I do not get it I starve,” she says.
Namatala in need
It is clear that this slum, the biggest in Mbale, is in great need of improvement. Byansi says the slum has only one health centre, which gets overwhelmed by the number of patients.
“Our people are many but when they try to go to Mbale referral hospital, they are sent back to the health centre,” Byansi says.
Although many people have access to clean water through communal taps, most landlords charge sh200 per jerrycan, which some cannot afford. Therefore, many people still resort to collecting water from the nearby River Namatala. This has also proved a nightmare because the river has claimed so many lives, especially of children who go to wash, fetch water or swim.
Some NGOs like Jenga CBO, Child Restoration Outreach, Child of Hope, Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation, PONT Uganda and ACTogether, are implementing projects in the area, but much still needs to be done.
Ryan, a volunteer with Child of Hope, a UK-funded NGO based in Namatala, said this after his first visit to the slum: “When we came home from visiting Namatala slum, there was almost a reverence that came over the volunteers.
That experience did something to us. It was difficult to eat our dinner that night, knowing it was much more than those children would eat in a day. I said to myself: “If I ever complain about anything...ever, please smack me. I have no right to complain about anything in my life.”
“Coming back to our house was difficult, knowing that our house, by their standards, would house 40 or so. I am excited to have the opportunity to work there. There are a lot of projects that we can do; we just need to develop them.
There are plenty of problems that have project possibilities: water sanitation, prostitution, child abuse and abandonment by the fathers. I do not think there is one member of our team who does not want to return to Namatala and improve conditions there,” Ryan says.
Profile of Namatala
Stephen Nangabo, an elder in Mosque Zone (Sissye Cell), says Namatala was a bushy place without inhabitants until the 1930s, when a businesswoman known as Peninah from Kenya, bought a plot there and built on it. She was later joined by three other people.
However, these first inhabitants were to set a pace that has continued to date. Their first businesses were bars targeting employees of the defunct African Textile Mills located in the industrial divison.
Nangabo’s father, who migrated to Namatala in 1953, also operated a bar for survival and his son inherited the business when he lost his job at African Textile Mills. Nangabo is both a customer and owner of the bar because when I visited him at around 11:00am, I found him sipping the local brew from a teapot. He was later joined by a number of other colleagues who shared from the same teapot.
He says the name Namatala came as a result of the River Namatala that passes through the area.
According to the Mbale City Profiling Report (compiled by ACTogether, Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation and Mbale Municipality) Namatala is the largest slum in Mbale Municipality with an estimate of 30,200 people.
It has a combination of inhabitants including the Bagisu, Bagwere, Basoga, Iteso, Karimojong, Acholi and Langi among others. Many settled here because of civil unrest, drought, natural disasters like floods and landslides and in search of employment. However, to date they are still grappling with life’s problems.
It is found in the industrial division of Mbale Municipality and is divided into five zones; Somero, Sisye, Nyanza, Wandawa, Doko and Muvule.
The population of the municipality is distributed in the three divisions with the largest, being Industrial Division (where Namatala is located) with 45% followed by Northern Division 40% and then Wanale Division with 15%.
The large population in Industrial Division is attributed to the large population of immigrants as compared to Wanale Division, which is predominately a residential area.