FISTS banged tables in fury as tempers flared. This was in the latest meeting convened by Kampala City Council (KCC) to resolve the Muyenga quarry conflict. The property owners were pitted against quarry operators and workers.
â€œWe are giving the quarry operators two more years to vacate,â€™â€™ Gordon Mwesigye, the KCC town clerk said. This provoked outrage. The property owners had thought that Mwesigye would immediately close down the quarries, but their anticipation was a mirage.
When the name Muyenga is mentioned, many city folks think of paradise. the loud noise accompanied by flying stones and â€œtremorsâ€ from the nearby stone quarries has turned this â€œparadiseâ€ into hell.
As explosives blast the stones, the hill is thrown into chaos. Occupants of the beautiful houses scamper for safety. They panic like chicks fleeing from a preying eagle. Their persistent calls to halt the quarrying have fallen on deaf ears. It still goes on unabated exposing residents to health risks and destroying expensive houses.
â€œI was described as a lone fighter in the last two decades and the blasting has not stopped,â€™â€™ Paul Etyang former deputy prime minister says.
However, he says that the campaign has now gained more support as more people settle on the hill. They say that they will not leave any stone unturned until the matter is put to rest.
Many property developers are at a loss as tenants have shunned the hill. They have petitioned the urban authorities and the environmental watchdog, National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). But they complain that what they have reaped so far is a raw deal.
The quarry operators were given an ultimatum which expired two years ago. However, it passed without KCC lifting a finger to stop what has become a public nuisance.
â€œWe failed to push them out then because of the political events such as campaigns and elections,â€™â€™ Mwesigye says.
Bitter residents say that KCC is unnecessarily delaying and denying them their right to a clean and healthy environment as spelt out in the National Environment Statute (1995).
â€œHow sure are we that politics will not affect the fresh ruling?â€™â€™ Etyang asks. â€œWe are going ahead to apply for a permanent court injunction over quarrying,â€™â€™ he adds.
Meanwhile, Phoebe Gubya, KCC environment officer four months ago had issued a ban on quarrying in Muyenga, pending an environmental audit. NEMA ordered an audit to be done and that this would be the basis for KCC to make a verdict. The audit report will soon be out, says Banabakintu, NEMAâ€™s public relations officer. Mwesigye also contends that the Muyenga conflict is of grave concern.
However, he maintains that it is more of a planning than environmental issue. â€œquarrying and staying in Muyenga as a residential area are not compatible. The quarries should not get licences to operate,â€™â€™ he says.
According to the 1994 Kampala Structural Plan, Muyenga is designated as a residential area with mixed land use (quarrying). â€œIt is this loophole, which the quarry operators have exploited to survive being axed and it is a dilemma to us,â€™â€™ Banabakintu says.
Quarrying began way back in the 1930s. Later, the sprawling city about three decades ago began eating up the hill.
Etyang, one of the settlers on a hill overlooking Lake Victoria came as early as 1972. Tank hill, Muyenga rock, Service and Zange are the five quarry companies operating on the hill. They make stones highly needed in the construction industry.
Besides this, the quarries have a socio-economic role in the area and that is why the workers who come from as far as Kasubi do not want it stopped.
Sam Musoke of Quarry Services (U) argues they employ over 300 people who would find it hard to survive in the city.
But Yasin Omari, Chairman, LCI of Kanyonza zone waters down Musokeâ€™s view pointing out that there are over 1000 houses on the hill.
â€œIf each of them has at least one domestic servant, then we beat them hands down,â€™â€™ he says.
Muyenga International Hotel and Club between them employ over 150 workers, but they have lost clients because of the disturbance caused by blasts at the nearby quarries.
Omari blames NEMA for double standards. â€œHow come they are handling the quarry operators with kid gloves yet they ruthlessly banished churches and disco halls over noise pollution?â€™â€™ he asks.
Kyanyonza zone, Muyenga B, Kyetabya and Bukasa Zone comprising of Bukasa parish are the areas affected most by the quarry. Omari who has become an activist moves in his car with a huge stone which hit Kabuyeâ€™s house recently.
â€œMany people are being compromised and intimidated. But residents gave me a task after they made a resolution to stop quarrying, which I have to fulfil,â€™â€™ he says. NEMA says environment friendly explosives from South Africa would be subsequently imported.
But Omari says they are buying more time. The scars of destruction are there. There are many cracked floors, walls and broken roof tiles. there are also deep pits which have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Princess Ntende, a retired civil servant lives at the fringes of the quarry. â€œThey compensated me when they hit my car. But there are many claims, which they did not fulfil,â€™â€™ she says.
The worst hit houses fall in a distance of about half a kilometre, but the tremors, sound and dust affect as far as Kabagala, which is more than a kilometre away.
According to popular folklore on the hill, Muyenga rock has a resident spirit, which was appeased by slaughtering a cock. So, this made it safe to exploit the hill for money. But the quarrying activities are truly a nuisance.
As I looked back on my way back to Kampala, a man with a red flag in the company of a police constable stopped the cars heading towards the quarry. The sirens had gone off warning residents to take cover.
Within a few minutes Omari rang asking whether I had heard the terrible sound. It reminded me of a popular saying nowdays: â€œThe rich also cry!â€™â€™ Who will console them?
Quarry makes Muyenga miserable