A deafening silence defines what used to be a noisy neighbourhood complete with young children playing in the fields, adult males sipping on malwa at drinking joints and females in groups chatting away.
What used to be well-kempt compounds covered in green grass and small trees providing shade to homesteads, are now homes to small wild game and grazing grounds for a rich man’s cattle. What used to be gardens of cassava, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, bananas, or burial grounds, among others, are now wild shrubs that have since overgrown into a small forest almost closing off what used to be a feeder road.
This is Misanga village, Bbale sub-county, 70km from Kayunga town. The village borders Kamuli district of Busoga, only separated by River Nile. Without a trace of human life or activity, the village looks dead and abandoned.
One walks for several minutes before running into anyone; this is a true description of a ghost village.
“Where did the people go?” I wondered to myself.
But further into the deserted village I was awakened by the sight of a house. Well, not really a house, if definitions are to be accurate; more of a goat shelter, if you can imagine one in a typical Buganda homestead.
It was built with mud and wattle but due to old age, the elements and possible neglect, the mud walls were worn out, exposing rotting pieces of wood that make the supporting poles. The iron roof was held on place with big stones to resist the wind from blowing it away.
The wooden door and two windows looked like they have been food for merciless termites for some time. Through the gaping holes, I could see inside what seemed to be a four-roomed house.
What was the point of having windows? Could they save the house’s occupants from thieves or wild animals? I wondered. Having moved for long without signs of human activity, it was only normal for me to find out if anybody still lived in the shack. I was in the company of two researchers about land injustices in Uganda.
This was an interesting case study, they said. Luckily for us, someone was indeed home!
“My name is Nalongo Leokadia Nakate,” a woman who looked to be about 60 told us moments after offering us a wooden seat and welcoming us in her home – or what remained of it.
Nakate sat inside a grass-thatched cooking area held together by pieces of wood around it. Because of how open her kitchen was, I could not resist peering into the open saucepan to see what meal was being cooked for lunch.
I had never seen that kind of meal anywhere before. It looked like old cotton that had for long acted as stuffing for bedwetting kid’s bed. I wondered what food that was.
Was it cassava paste? A combination of cassava and millet paste? My puzzle was to be solved days later when I shared the story with a colleague familiar with the food.
“To get that food, you boil sweet potatoes. When they are ready, you dry them for preservation,” the colleague said.
At a later date, the dried, boiled sweet potatoes are re-cooked then ground to make a paste. This food is commonly prepared during times of famine, I was told.
And this was the food that was later served onto the plates of some of the children we found at home. Speaking of which, Nakate had nine children in this home.
One of them, about 15 years old, looked like she had Down Syndrome. When she talked – mumbled, really – we could hardly understand a thing. Of the nine children, who, by the way, looked healthy if size is anything to go by, only three wore clothes that covered their entire bodies.
The rest were either completely naked or covering parts of their bodies. And for those that had a stitch of clothing on their bodies, it was hard guessing the last time the garments had tasted water and soap.
Nakate herself was wearing an equally dirty and very old skirt over an even dirtier gomesi, whose original colour was hard to decipher. Due to an accident in the 1990s, her left side was paralyzed and she had difficulty walking or using her left hand.
Don’t even ask about footwear; Nakate and her charges were all barefoot. In what must have once been a big compound now partially overgrown with grass, a chicken roamed, oblivious to the plight of its masters.
“I came to this village in January 1976 with my husband but we bought this particular land in April 1981,” Nakate said.
She said her husband died in 1993, leaving her with eight children.
“I don’t know the measurements of this land in acreage, but what I can say is it is really big,” Nakate said of the land on which her husband and some of her children are buried.
She narrated the source of her misery as having roots in 2013, when prominent businessman and Kayunga district NRM chairman Moses Karangwa one day showed up at her doorstep and told her he was the new owner of the land she was occupying.
“Karangwa came here one day and told me he had bought this land. At first he told me he would compensate me so that I can leave his land, but later he changed his mind and instead said he would only provide us with transport off his land,” a teary Nakate said, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation.
Her village mates suffered the same fate; many had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges of criminal trespass and malicious damage to property. Those who survived prison, out of fear and resignation, migrated to Nsube, about 45km from Misanga.
“I don’t know where to go with all these children,” Nakate said. She said she is living in fear as Karangwa demands that she leaves his land.
“He asked me why I am refusing to go when all my neighbours have gone. He said he was going to provide me with some little money so that I can go and buy land elsewhere, but I told him I had nowhere to get more money to top up and buy land elsewhere,” She said.
“The children sometimes tell me, ‘mother why don’t you leave the man’s land?’ But where can I go? Nowhere.”
Asked why she stopped tilling the land for food for her huge family, she said Karangwa owns more than 3,000 heads of cattle that make farming impossible.
“Karangwa turned all our gardens into grazing fields for his cows. Now to get what to eat I have to dig for other people in neighbouring villages, who sometimes give me food or some little money to buy cassava flour to make porridge for my grandchildren.”
Forget the criticism and controversy surrounding Idah Nantaba the Kayunga district woman MP and former state minister of lands. To Nalongo Nakate and her ilk, Nantaba is a heroine.
“She is the only person who tried to help us. She told us not to leave the land; even those who had left started returning but when she was changed [from ministry of lands] everything came to a standstill. Even those who had returned, their houses were torched at night and were forced back to where they had relocated to,” Nakate said.
President Museveni has visited this area on Nantaba’s invitation thrice, but failed to give solutions to the massive land eviction.
“I’m helpless, now I have nowhere to run. I live each day as it comes,” Nakate said, adding that what used to be their village measuring about 20 square miles has since been sold to Kakira Sugar Works to grow sugarcane.
“I don’t know my fate. I have nowhere to run; I don’t even have money to seek justice,” She said, struggling with brimming tears.
“I have eight children who also have children, all of whom are now with me. [The grandchildren] don’t know their fathers; there is no way I can refuse to be with them.”