By Ugandan journalist Patience Akumu, first published in The Observer
Justine Nabutono squats beside Jennifer Lunyolo’s fruit stall in Busana, a small town in Kayunga district, eastern Uganda, where the Uganda Electricity Generation Company contracted China International Water and Electric Company to build a hydropower station.
The project that began in 2015 is officially closing. Lunyolo and Nabutono are friends, and distant relatives—the kind that would require three hours and graphs to explain.
“You mean Nabukeera the Ferry is gone? Why did you not tell me that Nabukeera is gone?” Nabutono, who has returned to her hometown for the first time in nearly two years, asks.
When she left to go work as a housemaid in Kampala, everybody wondered why she would leave Chinese money for the perceivably low-class venture of housekeeping. When COVID-19 broke out, Nabutono was planning to visit her people, but government restrictions and financial constraints faced by her employer could not allow it.
“I used to work at a bar before I moved to Kampala. I remember how every end of month I would wait for the men who worked for the Chinese to bring their girlfriends and wives. People would dance and drink and fight. Men would buy several rounds to impress women. And wives would smoke out men and their girlfriends,” Nabutono laughs as she looks down the dusty Busana road that stretches into the newly constructed access tarmac road that leads to Isimba public bridge.
Built as part of the hydropower project, the bridge connects Kayunga past Kamuli to Jinja, home of the source of the Nile and major tourist district. With the access bridge completed and the Isimba dam project winding up, Nabukeera, the Ferry whose name means one who wakes up early, is no longer necessary.
“That ferry was like a child to me,” Lunyolo’s neighbour, Agness Nekesa’s statement is somewhat surprising. But then she explains.
“You see, when you have a child, you call the child and ask for money. If you are sick, if you need food, your child will send you money. For me, I called Nabukeera the Ferry (for help). If I needed school fees, food or money to go to the hospital, I would just go to Nabukeera and sell some food to people travelling. And I would always get money.”
Like the ferry, the hundreds of people who found employment at the Isimba Dam Hydropower project, also found themselves no longer needed. From those who worked on constructing the bridge and road to those who cooked food for the Chinese at work and in their quarters to housekeepers and casual labourers, the end of the Isimba dam project means that they all must find alternative means of survival.
Many admit that the project was good and changed lives. People educated their children, expanded their farms and bought property. In Busana, everybody knows the story of a woman who had a relationship with a Chinese man.
The locals say he was an old man who did not have many years left to live. They had a child and a good life. He started a business, built a house for her and her parents. And then he returned to China, leaving her with all the property. The locals speak with admiration about the woman’s ability to seize the moment and change her life.
“Every good house you see in this place was built by Chinese money,” Juma Onyango Alfred, who calls the Chinese his in-laws after his daughter married one of them, says. He is, however, worried that the Chinese are leaving behind a lot of unfunished business.
“They say this road is complete. But have you seen the open trenches? Have you seen how they have left a gaping hole right in front of our public school? How will cars and the children go over that hole? Do they want us to die?” As the Chinese hand over the project to government entity, Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited, to run, Busana is nervous about the future.
“The Chinese laid off many of us in 2019,” Lunyolo, who worked as a guard at the imposing Chinese compound, a fenced community where the Chinese lived since 2016, says.
“It is understandable because the project was almost ending. But what I do not understand is how someone can give you three years of their lives and you terminate their job without any form of gratuity. I only left with my monthly salary, and I had to go and begin my life afresh.” Only a shadow of its vibrant self, COVID-19 snuffed out whatever little life was left in the town. The bars closed, the parties stopped and, with many Chinese returning to their homes and the company downsizing, money streams began to dry up.
At global level, China has proudly broadcast its support to Africa in the fight against COVID-19, including providing testing kits, exchanging knowledge, and having a medical team collaborating with the Ugandan government to give medical support at the China- Uganda Friendship hospital.
Individual enterprises such as the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba, too, donated protective gear and test kits at the beginning of the pandemic. But the people of Busana feel like the Chinese on the ground did not reflect the same charitability as their government and international enterprises.
“They locked themselves up more than before. This is their community, and we served them, but we did not receive anything. Not masks, not food. Not anything. They went behind their fences. The few people who worked for them were not allowed to return home. They stayed in the camps. Up to now, the Chinese do not buy anything from us. They do not even stop by,” Lunyolo says.
The people of Busana say that it is like they woke up one morning and, like Nabukeera the Ferry, the project that helped them build their dreams had vanished.
COVID-19 only compounded the situation, and fear and uncertainty replaced the sprightful hopefulness that rippled through the town at the beginning of the Isimba Dam Hydroelectric project.