Border disorder

(With thoughts as I write this to my sister, Madeleine, who is an anthropologist and whose special interest in borderlands may have sparked my interest in this particular story….)

 At supper at the guest house there was a new visitor. Nothing remarkable about that, except that this gentleman was from Congo and he could not speak any English at all, whereas most of our visitors speak at least a little English. I unpacked my French and we started to chat. It turns out that he was an topographical engineer from the Congolese Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kinshasa. He had been sent by his government to this remote corner of Uganda after several years of negotiation to meet with his Ugandan colleagues and to try to get the border back in the right place! Half way through dinner, and mid way through his animated description of his job, my new Congolese friend jumped up from the table and disappeared to his room. He emerged shortly after with a bundle of large rolled up sheets of paper under his arm. This was his work. Here was the border. And here is what he showed us.


Beautifully detailed historic maps

In 1908, officials of the King of Belgium and the King of England sat down and drew a line on a very detailed map of this far-flung corner of their respective colonies and thereby determined who should be under Belgium’s rule, and who should be under British authority. Nothing has ever been updated, map-wise, and I doubt there has been much local engagement with the formal knowledge which is kept in a vault in the British Library (our Congolese visitor’s team had to go to London to get a copy.) People in the area pass the knowledge of the border in their lived experience down the generations. In the time since the border was drawn, the border has moved to the east a little bit here, to the west a little bit there, as families have shared out their fields to their offspring, and married across the border, and lived on one side or the other interchangeably.


Our Congolese friend’s job was to walk the border with his Ugandan colleagues and to put up border marker posts on the line of hills above Buhoma where the frontier lies. 16 kilometres to be defined on this visit, and twenty the next, until the whole border was clear.


I went to bed musing about the way colonial powers could make assertions about the lives of people so far away, geographically and psychologically.


On the ward a few days later was an elderly gentleman in a bright red T Shirt. He had been admitted during the night, complaining of dizziness and breathlessness and light-heartedness and chest pain. After a night’s sleep he was a little better but still feeling shaky. Was this a heart problem? an infection? Malaria? (anything can be malaria!)


Probing more deeply, he described how he felt something gripping in his chest, and how his breathing was tight, and shallow, and how when he thought too much, he started shaking, Was he describing a panic attack….? I asked if there was anything that might be worrying him or on his mind. Well, yes.


This gentleman was a farmer with a large family. His land was on top of the hill, overlooking Buhoma. Until a few days ago, his land was in Uganda, and he traded here and made his life as a Ugandan. But, as the border was being re-asserted, he had been informed that in fact his land was not in Uganda after all, but in Congo. Ugandans had, over the years, encroached into territory that formally belonged to Congo as their field boundaries had been shared and shifted over the generations. Our patient was told that he was in Congo illegally, and that the land he had thought was his would be taken away from him by the authorities. Not surprisingly, he was experiencing the symptoms of an acute stress reaction to such a life-changing event.


How vulnerable are people’s livelihoods here, now, to decisions made far away geographically and far away in time.

The boundary between agricultural land, and the protected impenetrable forest is very clearly seen

There are other forces at work, determining where and how people farm too. The small fields and crops that are clinging to the hillsides in our area are very picturesque to the observer, but the farmers are not planting their crops high on the steep slopes close to the border with Congo because of the wonderful view, or because of the quality of the soil (quite the contrary-), but because of the pressure of population in this area. There are 198 people per square kilometre in our district. Uganda has a much higher population density than the neighbouring countries of Tanzania , South Sudan and Kenya, and the population density has more than doubled since 1991, reflecting the huge increase in population in the intervening years. , Uganda’s fertility rate remains very high

( The total number of births per woman is an internationally monitored statistic called the TFR. Uganda’s TFR has only just fallen below 6 (that means an average of 6 births per woman), only Somalia, Niger , Chad and Congo manage a higher rate. Uganda’s population is increasing by more than 3 % a year. This means there is a net gain of one Ugandan every 22 seconds. A young population has many babies, and fewer people are dying very young. On a background of population pressure at a national level, Bwindi has particular pressures on its population and agricultural land. The influx of tourists to the area, here to visit the gorillas, means that owning property in the area opens the potential for profit from these lucrative visitors. So land is bought up by people from outside the area to build lodges and resources for tourists. Incomers (often from Kampala) out-compete the local farmers with the sums they can offer to pay when land is for sale.

tea planted all the way to the ridge

For our patient, the hospital could offer counselling and psychological support, but ultimately, there would be little he could do to change his family’s new situation – it is part of a much larger historical- , geopolitical- economic- and population- disorder.




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