I am in Kigezi, enjoying the warmth and hospitality of Banyakigezi, renewing old friendships, catching up on developments in the lives of relatives and taking in the breathtaking beauty of this blessed land.
For the most part, nearly every experience fills me with joy. Not even the evident economic challenges dampen my spirits. Without doubt, Kigezi has been left behind in Uganda’s celebrated socio-economic successes and advances of the last thirty years.
This past weekend, as I drove along the old Kabaare (Kabale)-Kamunyongweire-Maziba-Kizinga-Nyakigugwe road that used to connect Kabaare to Mburara (Mbarara), I saw the evident economic depression of once flourishing communities.
The abandoned Maziba Gorge hydroelectric power generation system is a visible symbol of this neglect. The roaring water still falls over the dam, now a relic of a hopeful past, sounding like the cry of an orphan. Some of the concrete slabs over the bridge are long gone, leaving dangerous gaps that must be a challenge to drunken locals. Rusty hardware offers delightful subjects for the photographer. The defunct power generation station down the river is guarded by men who are not sure what they are protecting.
(Happily, a brand new Muvumbe hydroelectric power project is under construction further downriver. We shall tell that story in a future letter.)
No doubt there are more iron-roofed houses along that route than there were four decades ago. However, what were once thriving commercial centres are now ghost hamlets.
This is a consequence of the 1968 decision by the Uganda government to create a new tarmac road that shifted the route to the hills of Kabaraga and Kaharo. It is a classic illustration of the view that roads do matter.
For example, compared to neighbouring Nkore (Ankole), with its impressive and extensive all-weather roads, most of the roads in Kigezi are extremely dusty rugged arteries in the dry season, and often impassable muddy paths in the wet season.
Nkore is now endowed with the following complete or under-construction tarmac roads: (1) Lyantonde-Rushere-Kazo-Ibanda-Kamwenge-Fort Portal; (2) Lyantonde-Mburara (Mbarara)-Ntungamo-Rwahi-Kabaare; (3) Mburara-Ibanda; (4) Mburara-Isingiro-Kikagati-Tanzania; (5) Ntungamo-Ishaka; (6) Rubaare-Mirama Hills-Rwanda. The Isingiro-Nshenyi-Rubaare highway has also already been prepared for tarmacking.
The positive impact of these all-weather roads on Nkore’s commerce, real estate development and other business investments is visible to the seasoned traveller.
On the other hand, Kigezi, a hilly country that challenges even the most powerful motor vehicles, has only three all-weather routes. (1) Rwahi-Kabaare-Katuna-Rwanda; (2) Kabaare-Kisoro-Kyanika; and (3) Ntungamo-Rukungiri (a large part of which is in Nkore).
Kanungu District has no tarmac roads. The entire Rukiga County, which will become a district on July 1 this year, has only 11 kilometres of tarmac road, the short stretch from Rwahi to Bukinda. This has been the case since 1969.
The communities along the old Muhanga-Rushebeya-Mparo-Rukiri-Kabaare, and the Rushebeya-Kisiizi-Rukungiri routes have regressed partly because of their terrible roads. The communities along the horrible road from Mparo through Noozi, Kyokyezo, Nyamweru-Kabaare remain isolated from the Ugandan dream.
Likewise, dusty communities along the following pot-holed routes offer a sorry sight to one who knew their potential decades ago: (1) Nyarushanje-Nyakishenyi-Kanungu; (2) Rubanda-Rutenga-Kanungu; (3) Rukungiri – Kihiihi-Ishasha; (4) Rukungiri-Nyakabungo-Kanungu; (5) Muhanga-Kamuheesi (Kamwezi)-Rwanda.
Why Kigezi has been relegated to the bottom of the road construction list is unclear. Kigezi has always been very well represented at the high table of the land. During the Museveni era alone, Kigezi has contributed two prime ministers, a minister of finance, very many influential ministers in key portfolios, ministers of state in various economic dockets, a governor of the central bank, and top echelon military and other security officers. The current executive director of the Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) is a Munyakigezi.
One would have expected that these ladies and gentlemen would have been as successful as their Nkore counterparts, for example, in lobbying for this most critical investment.
I am aware of promised tarmac roads for parts of Kigezi. However, these old and repetitive promises have become unfulfilled hopes in the minds of Banyakigezi. One learns to count visible projects, not promises that reach a crescendo in the days before presidential elections, only to fade into silence until the next political campaign.
We must continue to live with the hope that Kigezi will soon appear on the national agenda for vigorous infrastructural investment. Perhaps we need a Minister for Kigezi, a measure that seems to have helped neglected regions like Karamoja and Bunyoro.
The rural electrification program and the highland gravity water schemes have offered Kigezi great opportunities for development. However, full exploitation of these services has been undermined by the poor road network. This should be front and centre in the minds of Kigezi’s representatives at the high table where budgetary and national development decisions are made.
Give Banyakigezi all-weather roads and watch their rugged individualism and industry transform these highlands into centres of accelerated economic activity. It will be Uganda’s gain.