The real battle in Uganda

By Jackee Budesta Batanda, Foreign Policy, March 9, 2012

While the rest of the world jumps onto the Kony2012 bandwagon — wrongly assuming that the main problem in Uganda is the Lord’s Resistance Army — Ugandans are worrying about the much more urgent problem plaguing their country: nodding disease.

The cause of the disease is unknown. It affects thousands of children in Northern Uganda, causing symptoms similar to epilepsy, but with more severe mental and physical retardation. (The photo above shows 12-year-old Nancy Lamwaka, a victim of the disease.) Yet the Ugandan government has been notably slow to deal with the problem.

A lot has happened since I last blogged about the government’s strange priorities. As I noted at the time, the Ugandan president’s office requested additional funding for its own needs that amounted to nine times of what the Health Ministry had specified for its first response to the disease. The government’s failure to allocate resources to this threat raises serious questions about its competence and its commitment to dealing with crises.

So the Hon Beatrice Anywar, an MP for Kitgum District, decided to take action: she ferried a number of children from her constituency to Mulago National Referral Hospital in the capital, Kampala. There were reports that the police tried to stop the bus from leaving Kitgum for fear that she would parade the children before Parliament.

When the sick children arrived in Mulago, journalists had a field day taking pictures. While the ethics of this display are questionable, I think it was necessary in order to shock our leaders into action. And Anywar did exactly that by bringing nodding disease to our doorstep. The issue can no longer be ignored.

The president later visited the victims at Mulago, where he promised more government support.

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, women activists in Uganda tied themselves to trees today in solidarity with Northern Ugandan mothers whose children are afflicted by the disease. Parents are often compelled to tie their sick children to trees to protect them from falling down or wandering off.

The gravity of the problem has been aptly described by women’s rights activist Jackline Asiimwe: “It is not acceptable for any parent to think that the only option left to save their children is by tying them to trees when they have a government whose mandate is to ensure that the citizens exercise their right to good health and access to medical attention wherever and whenever necessary.”


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