In the Pink Corner – Uganda Sugar-Rush Woos Children Out of School

A few days ago, I had to take someone to the dentist. I still wonder, after millennia and many many technological aancements and world changing events – why is a visit to the dentist still so frightening? Even in my village of Uganda people can now do open heart surgery, but we have failed to make dental clinics a fear-free zone.

Anyway, on my way to the dentist there is this billboard aertising toothpaste with a boy supposedly biting a sugarcane in half. I miss the days when I could also attempt such madness. It got me thinking about sugarcane, a topic which is foremost on a lot of Ugandan minds. Sugar has steadily become the white gold of my generation. On every highway in Uganda, trucks can be found carrying cane in all directions from plantations in the west to factories in the east and from plantations in the east to factories in the central.

My region, Busoga, is peppered with small to medium scale outgrowers who supply one of the oldest and largest sugar factories in the country the Madhvani’s Kakira Sugar Works. However, smaller factories have popped up as well. The allure of the crop is that after spending money on an initial planting, after just over a year, one gets set to harvest a few times. If there is a commitment from a sugar factory to buy the cane, then you are doubly set.

The sugar business is good for the economy but bad for my region. First of all, other cash crops, at least in my region, seem to be suffering neglect. For instance, we are growing sugar without any accompanying coffee to put it in. It used to be that every homestead in my village had a coffee garden not so anymore. The extremely dry weather isn’t helping either. But that brings us to problem number two: the environment is suffering. Vast expanses of ‘useless’ trees have been mowed down for sugarcane.

It still sets my teeth on edge to remember the time our President tried to give away the remains of Uganda’s largest natural rainforest to a sugarcane factory. For once Ugandans rallied and rioted for a worthy cause. In the ensuing hue and cry, he was quoted as saying sugarcane plantations were green and therefore performed the same rain-making functions as a forest. My heart wept. If the Boss could think that way, it is no wonder that the trees and the rain are growing more scarce across peasant farms countrywide.

The other well-documented consequence of sugar money is the social fallout. As soon as weak-minded men get a bit of money, they buy a motorcycle and marry a wife whether or not they already had a wife and several mouths to feed. People are making contracts with alcohol and following it to the grave. They have become as reckless with their lives as fishermen, who are said to make lots of money but to blow it all in anticipation of a sudden death on the waters.

On last night’s news, some ministry official was pontificating about how parents in Busoga are employing children in the cane fields instead of sending them to school. The newscast came complete with shots of young men (very old-looking primary school children) running through a village with some very unfit plainclothes policemen in feeble pursuit. To be honest, the quality of government-funded primary school education is such that maybe farming makes more sense to the future of those youth.

What further saddens me is that youths are being arrested for growing sugarcane instead of attending (super sub-standard) primary school, but no one is being arrested for hanging around playing cards and ‘ludo’ or for this dreaded cancer of sports betting. There is a sports betting shop on every street in my sleepy town and they are always full. If this was one of those countries where everyone has a disposable income and the government gives monetary incentives to women to encourage them to have babies, then perhaps we could spend time sports betting. But we are a food basket where thousands go to bed on empty stomachs.

Where is the funding and manpower coming from to hunt young farmers, but not make sure girl children are in school, for instance? Or make sure that those who get pregnant while in school can still return to it after giving birth? At this point I must admit that I too want in on the sugar-rush. I only hope I won’t be counting costs I can’t afford when I’m done.

Source : The Star

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The Disability Law and Rights Centre (DLRC), School of Law, Makerere University with support from
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