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Maya Kimberly Prabhu is a freelance journalist currently living and working in Kampala, Uganda, where she also acts as Uganda correspondent for East African business analysis publication, Ratio Magazine. German/Indian by birth and nationality, Maya grew up mostly in South East Asia and Africa. She has been covering Ugandan political, economic and environmental news for print and online media for the past year. 

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Maya Kimberly Prabhu is a freelance journalist currently living and working in Kampala, Uganda.

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The economic aftershocks of Nepal’s earthquake

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A family beside a damaged house near Naglebhare, Nepal. Asian Development Bank under a Creative Commons Licence

In downtown Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, travel agent Sonam Ghale has plenty of time to talk.

He spins his computer screen toward me, and scrolls demonstratively through a long Excel spreadsheet of cancelled bookings: business is terrible.

It’s an impact, he says, of the April and May earthquakes which killed over 8,500 in Nepal. The travellers for whom he usually arranges tours and Himalayan treks are steering clear.

We’re in Thamel, the capital’s backpacker heartland, a usually bustling warren of charmingly shabby alleys touting adventures, hotel rooms and curios to the annual slew of foreign visitors.

Although the earthquake was gentler on buildings here than in the many parts of the city, which are still frozen in scenes of raw devastation, it’s hitting the traders hard. Yak wool, felt, cashmere and crewel-work still spill colourfully out of Thamel’s shopfronts, but today it doesn’t look like anyone is here to buy. More than 3 months after the quake, Thamel’s streets are all but empty of tourists.

Nepal expects quieter monsoon months from June to August, which are the ebb-tide months of the tourism year. But this year’s lull, I’m told repeatedly, is extreme.

Kshitiz, head waiter at the popular tourist haunt The Yak, expresses the crisis in terms of dinner guests: on a typical late-July evening, he serves at least 25 customers. Tonight, he can expect just 4.

Holiday-makers aside, the monsoon is peak season for Hindu pilgrims from India. Most monsoons, Sonam arranges an estimated 1,000 pilgrimages to Mount Kailash in Tibet. How many this year? I ask him. ‘Zero,’ he says, and shrugs.

Sonam and Kshitiz number among half a million Nepalis who work directly in tourism, and for whom Thamel’s quiet streets are an augury of financial hardship.

I spoke to Chandan Sapkota, Economics Officer with the Asian Development Bank in Nepal, who underscored the significance of the tourism sector as a source of livelihoods.

‘Revenue generation from tourism is pretty low,’ he said, ‘about 2% of GDP. But direct and indirect employment generation is high. A lot of consumable goods for tourism-related industrial and services activities are procured internally, so there’s a long value chain.’

Sapkota explains that many of the vegetables grown in Nepal are destined for consumption in hotels and restaurants that thrive on tourist dollars. So it isn’t only concierges and chambermaids, or trekking guides and porters, who rely on a healthy flow of visitors for their incomes, but farmers and truck drivers and all the many thousands who work economically upstream.

Sheikh Abdul Khaiyum's home in Kathmandu collapsed when an earthquake struck Nepal on April 25.

Maya Prabhu

A short walk down the road from the Yak Restaurant, I meet Sheikh Abdul Khaiyum, a signmaker.

He is sifting through the crumbled wreck of his family home, a casualty of the 25 April earthquake. The 3-storey house was his grandfather’s, then his father’s, he tells me. In 1934 the house withstood an 8.0 magnitude quake, needing only minor repairs.

Surveying the brick-and-matchstick rubble heap before us, he shakes his head. Finding an extra $140 each month for a small flat to accommodate his family – who ‘thanks be to God’ all escaped via a first-floor window when the structure began to list – isn’t easy. It’s especially hard after losing the income he used to draw from renting out his home’s ground floor to a local butcher.

Khaiyum’s plans for reconstruction are accordingly modest. ‘I want to build a cottage,’ he says, stepping up onto a chunk of wall and sketching a floorplan with his hands: ‘with two rooms, here.’

But saving up for building materials seems close to impossible when his clients – the hotels, shops and bars of Thamel – have no money to spend. And, with his repeated applications for government assistance generating no response, he hasn’t even managed to clear the site yet.

Trembling ground

The rains are due to let up in the next month; the mist will lift and the crystal peaks of the Himalayas will be visible even from smoggy Kathmandu. The drier air should signal the onset of peak tourism season, but travellers are unlikely to arrive in their usual numbers. ‘It’ll be challenging to go back to previous visitor levels during 2015/16,’ Sapkota told me.

While a recent, government-commissioned study conducted by structural engineers at Miyamoto International declared the popular Annapurna trekking zone ‘safe’, the quake-hit region remains seismically very active. Locals are growing used to the trembling ground they live on.

Sonam Ghale told me that ‘in the month after the earthquake, we used to run from our houses when we felt [a tremor]. Now, we don’t even get out of bed.’

As a new geological report warns that stress levels along a stretch of the Himalayan fault to the west of Nepal continue to build, foreigners might not feel quite as confident. And now, a controversial draft constitution has sparked political protests in pockets across the country.

Kshitiz, head waiter at The Yak, expresses the crisis in terms of dinner guests: on a typical late-July evening, he serves at least 25 customers. Tonight, he can expect just 4

So, what’s next? In July, the Tourism Ministry reset its tourism target for this year, from 1.1 million visitors to 475,000. A post-disaster assessment determined that the sector will need an injection of $387 million to rebuild.

Sapkota says that a 2016/17 bounce-back to 800,000 visitors is possible, but warns, ‘unless the government manages to assure travellers that Nepal is safe, it will be very difficult to recover.’

So far, the government’s intentions seem promising. A high-level committee to promote tourism has been formed; the Miyamoto report commissioned.

Nepali representatives have made appearances at Indian tourism conventions, declaring the country back on its feet. What is lacking, explains Sapkota, is concrete action and an appropriate sense of urgency.

Government-led recovery initiatives have already faced serious delays. Nepal’s reconstruction chief was only appointed to the post on 14 August, more than 100 days after the earthquake. Meanwhile, the politics of the new constitution are threatening to overshadow recovery plans.

And Nepal’s tourism agencies have a track record of failing to hit targets. Despite a much-promoted goal of 1 million annual arrivals by 2011, the country’s busiest year to date has fallen 200,000 travellers short.

The fact that the Nepal Tourism Board is currently embroiled in a hefty corruption scandal, with charges filed against more than 20 employees, is likely to hamstring the body further.

A delayed rebound is a worrying prospect, Sapkota concedes: ‘a lot of low-skilled and unskilled jobs are dependent on [the sector’s recovery].’ Nepal is safe, authorities assure prospective visitors. But unless their message is heard, the livelihoods of Nepal’s poor remain at risk.

Maya is a writer, recently based in New Delhi. She tweets as @mayakprabhu.

One Uganda, one people?

As President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was sworn in last Thursday, just a mile across town security forces confronted tens of thousands of opposition supporters welcoming home his most bitter rival, firing live rounds that killed at least one. Local television station WBS reported as many as five deaths over the course of the day.

Opposition leader Colonel Dr Kizza Besigye flew into Entebbe airport after a two-week sojourn in a Kenyan hospital, where he received treatment for wounds sustained during an arrest in Kampala. Besigye had been blocked from boarding his flight the previous morning, but as he made his way from the airport, hordes of supporters waving freshly-cut green branches and posters of ‘the Colonel’ greeted him at a road-block on the shores of Lake Victoria, and marched alongside him as his convoy began an eight-hour journey down the 40-odd kilometre road into the capital city.

Heavy police and military presence all along the Entebbe-Kampala road heralded trouble, and the many thousands gathered around Besigye’s vehicle and on the roadsides were met with sticks, teargas, rubber bullets, and finally live ammunition as security forces sought to disperse them.

From an open-top rented van behind Besigye’s, I watched the crowd repeatedly re-form, hurling rocks that shattered the windows of at least two police and military vehicles. Hundreds of individuals walked tens of kilometres from Entebbe under gruelling midday temperatures, in defiance of the threat posed by the armed security forces.

With the convoy barely ever breaking walking pace, Besigye and his charismatic wife Winnie Byanyima, reported locally to be a former girlfriend of the president, stood out of the sunroof of a navy blue four-wheel drive, waving to dense throngs of dancing, cheering supporters.

‘So much money has been put into President Museveni’s inauguration,’ said a Besigye supporter who identified himself as Francis, ‘and yet, people are suffering.’

‘This is our president,’ shouted crowds from the roadsides as Besigye passed through towns and villages, and chanted this thrice-defeated presidential candidate’s campaign slogan, ‘One Uganda, One People.’

Political analysts say that since the start of the opposition-led ‘Walk to Work’ protest against rising fuel and food prices over a month ago, Besigye commands a much greater following than he did during the February elections.

Security forces’ response to the protests over the last month has been violent, with the latest of Besigye’s four arrests resulting in injuries, including temporary blindness, for which he has been treated in a Nairobi hospital over the past couple of weeks. Riots in Kampala and two other cities the next day were an expression of public outrage, and left nine dead and hundreds injured, according to Human Rights Watch. The view from my bedroom window that morning was streaked with columns of black smoke, striving skywards, as roadblocks of palm fronds, timber and garbage were set on fire all over the capital city. I heard reports from elsewhere in the city that police and military were ‘spraying bullets’ into the rioting crowds.

But on Thursday, security forces were noticeably more restrained in their use of live ammunition, preferring teargas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons and sticks.

By afternoon, the President and the foreign dignitaries invited to his swearing-in left the inauguration festivities in Kampala for a luncheon at his residence in Entebbe.

Security forces used, for the most part, nonlethal weapons to disperse rowdy crowds before presidential motorcades passed through. But at least one person – a motorcycle taxi driver – was shot and killed as he participated in stoning Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s car.

During his speech at an old airstrip in a central Kampala suburb, in the presence of at least 10 African heads of state, President Museveni made no direct mention of his rival Besigye, or of the protests that have been dominating Kampala’s headlines for the last month. However, he did refer to the food and fuel price increases that have been troubling Uganda, pledging to buy fuel in bulk from neighbouring South Sudan, and to introduce new irrigation projects for farmers.

President Museveni said, ‘I call upon those who have been pushing opportunism to join the national consensus instead of... embarking on disruptive schemes.’ In an oblique reference to his country’s recent troubles he continued, asserting that, ‘those disruptive schemes will be defeated just like the previous opportunistic schemes have been defeated.’

At the end of this new term, President Museveni will have been in power for a full 30 years. He has, no doubt, a great deal of experience forging a ‘national consensus’ and overcoming political challenges, but it hasn’t stopped his challenger asserting that his methods have cost him his legitimacy.

Kizza Besigye has pledged to walk to work again today, and if previous episodes in this string of protests are anything to go by, he’ll have the lively company of both supporters and police.

For me, this past month has been edifying: the burn and acrid taste of teargas has become so unpleasantly familiar that I always carry swimming goggles in my handbag. I’ve learnt to distinguish the crack of live ammo from the more muffled pop of rubber bullets, the staccato burst of a teargas canister from the mad bang of a stun grenade.

A savage spectacle

Last week, I watched a dead man burn, and I didn’t feel sickened, or saddened, or scared. I didn’t have time to.

The weekend’s lethargy was slow to wear off that Monday morning. Shortly before noon, I still stood towelling my wet, washed hair on the balcony of our little apartment in Ntinda, a shambolic potholed suburb to the north-east of Kampala. Noise travels in Ntinda, which, like the rest of the city, is geographically defined by its hills, scattered with houses and shopping centres, and its valleys, carpeted in tin-roofed slums. When the wind blows my way, I can hear the tiny, tinny robot voice of the automated scales in front of the supermarket across the street offer to measure my height and weight.

Some sounds don’t need the wind’s help. Monday’s quotidian hum of back-to-work traffic and street-level chatter was rent by the unmistakable crack of gunfire. A stick-figure crowd gathered and craned and jostled for room on the balcony of the shopping centre across the main road, partway down the hill. Confirmation enough for me.

A volley of further shots beat an erratic rhythm to my scramble for flip flops, phone, paper, pen, my boyfriend’s Nikon point-and-shoot. I skipped stairs on my way down into the muddy, unpaved alley that slips from our building’s gate into the bustling main road.

A thick crowd of nervous people obscured my view of the action being played out twenty metres down the street. I squeezed between terse, torpid figures. An older gentleman grasped my arm and cautioned me: ‘The police have shot some thugs. The police are unpopular, so people are angry. But they were doing their job. I know,’ he said, ‘I’m a soldier.’

Photo of dead body

Crowds gather around the victim. Photo: Maya Prabhu

I pushed forward until I saw the three bodies. They cast improbable red shadows under the candid midday sun. Scattered across the road some three or four metres away, living people in living bodies with angry faces milled around them. I climbed up on a low wall with my camera and started shooting, too. As I shot pictures of the bodies and questions at the witnesses around me, a couple of young men moved towards one body. As they stepped away again, a dark quick smoke rose from the corpse. In an instant, his checkered shirt was alight.

The burning man had allegedly stolen a boda-boda, or motorcycle taxi, and had been beaten to death by the angry mob in punishment. The other dead men were bystanders, victims of a probably panicked young cop’s AK 47. The cop, identified as PC Njala by the District Police Commissioner James Ruhweza, was the only heavily armed policeman in the vicinity. He had fled after discharging the shots that had summoned me to the scene, afraid of the lynch-mob’s retribution. An hour or two later, William Kintu, Resident District Commissioner for the Ntinda-Nakawa area, told me that Njala had ‘used his gun unlawfully’ and claimed he would be apprehended and charged with murder. ‘The problem,’ he qualified, ‘is a lack of training.’ He was found at his barracks, and consequently taken into custody pending investigation of his actions.

I think that the mob would have killed Njala had he stuck around until his magazine was empty. When I arrived at the scene, there were no police officers present. A truck bearing riot police arrived, picked up one of the bodies and left again, sirens blaring. A little while later, a few officers arrived on foot, and were swiftly forced into retreat by a hailstorm of rocks and broken bits of asphalt. A warning shot sent a ripple of terror outwards from the centre of the crowd, and the periphery of the mob scattered. I edged forwards again minutes later, when the police officers had disappeared.

It was a savage spectacle, and not nearly uncommon enough to interest the major international news agencies.

Although Ugandans are no more violent than any other people, they have had the misfortune of a brutal political past. Institutional violence and volatility streak with heady momentum through the nation’s history, and today, corruption hobbles its development at each level. The result, as the old soldier explained to me, is distrust of government organs, including the police force. So justice, in its crudest guise, is meted out in the streets.

Monday’s lynch-mob may well have been spearheaded by boda-boda riders like my friend Baker, witness to the lynching, and his twin brother Richard. These motorcycle-taxi drivers are the social sinews of the city. They are typically young men, often self-employed, with a little expendable cash in their pockets. By definition, they are mobile, and, as a result, informed. There are thousands of them, and they have a striking allegiance to one another. Not infrequently, they agglomerate to form a powerful gang. So, as it was the police command that I questioned for an explanation of PC Njala’s behaviour, it was the boda drivers that I asked for justification of the mob killing.

Richard told me, ‘This man [a thief] can kill a boda-boda rider, and take his bike. The police catch him. Then, three days later, he is free again, and takes another bike.’ The reason for the early release? ‘Corruption!’ he exclaimed, palpably frustrated. I understand.

Witness holding bullet

A witness holding a bullet. Photo: Maya Prabhu

Riot police – enough of them to still the mob’s exuberant rage – moved in when the crimson pools under the remaining two bodies had travelled into tapered, clotting streams on the tarmac. I stood with the toe of my flip flop in blood as I snapped close-up photographs of the charred corpse. His arms were raised in a skeletal mockery of self-defence. My nerves were on edge. I was alert, but unemotional. I was too busy for feelings, and, by evening, so was the rest of Ntinda. The mob had dissipated, the TV crews had driven out. Things trundled back into their normal rhythms on the busy thoroughfare.

The next morning, I sorted through my notes and photos. It gave me time to think, and, overwhelmingly, I felt regret. It’s such a pity that crime is handled like this. It’s a pity that it needs to be, in the absence of a reliable judicial system. It’s a pity that the everyday men and women on the street were turned into murderers, and a pity that PC Njala, probably no more sinister than any other frightened man with a gun, was too. Like the mob and the corpses on the roadside, he is the product of a broken system.

I’m not sickened, not scared, but I am sorry.