- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

MASAKA, Uganda.

Winston Churchill once called Uganda the "pearl of Africa" because it is substantially endowed with such ever-flowing natural resources as the mouth of the world's longest river, the Nile. Others liken Uganda to the "garden of Eden" because its soil is incredibly fertile. Sow a seed or seedling and surely something will spring forth. Indeed, even the rich customs and traditions of this beautiful and bountiful republic, which gained its independence from Great Britain in 1962, are wonderful sights and sounds to behold. Hear, for instance, the cheerful voices of scores of children in bright-pink uniforms singing "We are happy to receive you, welcome" to the tune of "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain" as our group of American journalists arrives. Imagine the rhythms as they dance what is called the back simba while boys pound ceremonial drums for their special audience. Yet, as I snap pictures and clap along during the morning's offerings, by afternoon my joy had turned to heartache.

See, for all of Uganda's glorious natural and human resources, there is a very dark and very ugly side to this mostly Christian nation. Life expectancy is only 43 years of age. Infant mortality is a frightening 93 of every 1,000 births. The fertility rate is seven children per woman. And, while Uganda has been very successful in decreasing new HIV-AIDS cases, malaria and HIV-AIDS have nonetheless turned countless children into orphans giving new meaning to the adage, "It takes a village."

It is this Uganda, with its morbid statistics, that practically overshadows the Edenesque picture and begs the question: Is there hope for the true pearls of Uganda? Children whose families must buy school uniforms but have no shoes to wear. Children who, on average, walk three miles to and from school. Children who have to squat over mosquito-infested holes for restrooms with nowhere to cleanse their hands afterward. Children who often have to stay home to tend to younger siblings, or who are too sick to make the daily trek, or too busy fetching drinking water.

President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet, did not themselves speak in such terms during their recent Washington visit. But the contradictions are everywhere in Uganda.

Posters and ads of young couples pushing condom usage are all over Uganda, and there are other startling examples. While the first couple of Uganda visits the United States, here, in Masaka, just southwest of the capital of Kampala, hundreds of families attend a day-long health and nutrition expo, where children, mothers and grandmothers learned about the basic food groups, importance of immunizations, safe drinking water and bed nets to ward off mosquitoes. Fairly basic stuff.

At another booth, however, my stomach turns as girls were told about the "advantages" of Depo-Provera, three-month injections that prevent pregnancy. Now, many of you might be saying, "There go the conservatives again."

Well, think about it. While there is nothing inherently wrong with birth control per se, doesn't it make sense to instead provide aid to ensure mothers are healthy so that they, in turn, can give birth to healthy babies?

We know with great certainty, for instance, that it doesn't cost much to immunize against polio, diptheria, tetanus and other communicable diseases. And, to think that girls and women are being encouraged to have careless sex because the Depo-Provera will at least prevent pregnancy is simply unconscionable.

Yet, there is measurable hope.

There is hope in classrooms all over Masaka, where the World Bank is funding programs that allow one school to raise money by raising and selling cows, and at another school where a housing program will attract teachers to the countryside, where teacher-pupil ratios can run as high as 60 to one. The teachers, in turn, will be allowed to live rent-free in housing built on school grounds. There is even hope at a dreary one-room school house for orphans, and hope at a small day-care center that provides much-needed respites for aging and sometimes sickly mothers and grandmothers.

Indeed, there is even hope for Stella, Stephen, Matrida, Robert, Ronald, Yusufu, Sharon, Juliet, Rose, Cola, Ireen and Deborah the children of Kimwanyi Nursery and Primary School, where the health expo was held.

Fate clearly sets up our encounter, for it was these very children I meet after walking away from the dreaded family planning booth. Understand, it all happens after one of the boys points at me and says, ''European." As I walk by another boy waives and says, "Welcome, European." That second misidentification stops me in my tracks, and I crook my finger, encouraging them to come chat and chat we do.

"I am not European," I tell them as more and more children gather around while a gaggle of girls stands off to the side. I soon ask the girls to join, then they turn the tables on me. "Where is your country, European?" one of the girls asks. Clearly, I was at a huge disadvantage, as they are trilingual (English is the official language). So, I draw a map showing Africa, Europe and America. Then they understand, and I ask each of them to write their names down so that I could tell all who read my column about why I think they are the true pearls of Africa and why the future of their beautiful homeland of contradictions rests in our hands.

And so it is, on their behalf. Keep hope alive.

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