In Kampala, a blind man has 'seen' what many of his able-bodied counterparts chose to ignore: a city in desperate need of better sanitation and cleanliness. Paul Kafeero, 48, a motor mechanic, who lost his eyesight as a result of an AIDS complication, has managed to motivate and mobilize thousands of the capital's underprivileged citizens to sweep the streets clean, regularize garbage collection and unblock the drainage system, ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of State Summit slated for November this year.
Kafeero has accomplished this as part of his work for ESCOM, a company formed in May 2006 by Kampala 's Mayor Nasser Sebaggala in an attempt to solve the city's garbage and sanitation problems. Initially, it was called Youth Brigade and served as a campaigning platform for Sebaggala's political activists. However, when Sebaggala decided to form ESCOM, it mainly comprised volunteers who wanted to make a difference in the city. Before Kafeero's unfortunate blindness, he was the mayor's campaign manager; he currently works as ESCOM's finance director and advisor. It is through his political activities that Kafeero was able to reach out to around 8,000 people.
When Sebaggala was elected Mayor of Kampala, he had assured ESCOM of the contract for garbage collection only if it initially agreed to work for free on a trial basis. A survey conducted by a group of researchers led by James Habyarimana, a Ugandan student at Georgetown University, USA, in August 2006 had revealed that garbage collection was high on the priority list of Kampala residents. So, when Kafeero went looking for volunteers he met with an overwhelming response. Training people for the cleanliness drive was not a problem as Kafeero and his team relied on a hands-on approach.
Initially, the volunteers persevered for their cause and without any monetary benefit. And their hard work was rewarded in the form of the multi-million shilling contract. "ESCOM has been at the forefront of cleaning the city. So far it has exhibited a high level of commitment and given a convincing performance," said William Tumwine, Deputy City Clerk.
Kampala produces 1,560 tonnes of garbage daily. And ESCOM is now in charge of cleaning the city at sh25m a month. "The company is expected to earn shs20m, if itcharges each household shs100 per day to collect garbage from homes," Sebagala says.
Before ESCOM came on the scene, garbage collection had been a major area of concern for the authorities. While the city was rapidly expanding, the budget allocated to improve civic amenities did not show a corresponding growth. There were other reasons as well. In the 1970s, the City Council was able to dispose off 80 per cent of the garbage with ease as the city was populated mainly by Asian entrepreneurs, who generated little garbage and that too not bulky material. But now the demographics have changed and the native people form a major part of the population. The garbage from their homes is mostly organic and bulky. "Solid waste collection is a costly service, consuming up to 50 per cent of the operational budget. Yet, it used to serve only about 70 per cent of the urban residents, leaving out the low-income group areas," says Tumwine.
But ever since Kafeero's involvement there has been a noticeable change in the sanitation in lower-income neighborhoods. While the earlier clean-up efforts had restricted themselves to the prosperous parts of the city, ESCOM has consciously looked towards making a difference the poorer districts.
Kafeero believes that as ESCOM rids the city of the garbage, it is also helping reshape and re-orient the attitudes of its residents. "These days people don't really care about each other's welfare," he says. But with ESCOM, ordinary citizens have come forward to bring about a positive change in their neighborhoods, an indication that communities can make a difference without any real help from the authorities. Every morning, around 7 am, ESCOM's workers - most either unemployed or self-employed - assemble at Kafeero's home where they are assigned their districts. After completing six hours of work, they get back to go to their other respective jobs.
When Kafeero and ESCOM initially began their work, their efforts were met with a lot of skepticism. Col. Kahinda Otaffire, a minister of the local government, could not believe that a visually challenged person could make such a remarkable difference. However, after meeting him he was impressed by the mass mobilization and pragmatism. Says Otaffire, "We used to spend Shs 300 million to clear the garbage in the city, yet there was no visible difference. But these volunteers, with just a little bit of effort, have done wonders and we are going to revise our laws to see if they can be accommodated."
But all do not share Otaffire opinions and optimism. The awarding of the city's multi-million shilling contract to ESCOM has not gone down well with Kampala's various division leaders, councillors and companies that were earlier engaged to collect garbage.
Nabugabo Updeal, a consortium of garbage collection companies, has sued ESCOM and the Kampala city authorities, citing violations of contract. "We have already invested heavily in 20 trucks and numerous dustbins. In addition, we have also spent money on study tours and sensitizing people. So we feel we have been treated unfairly when the city authorities went ahead and gave the contract to another group," says Abdul Sonko, Manager-Operations, Nabugabo Uplands.
But in his defence, Sebaggala says that the firms which had been contracted by the divisions to collect garbage did not have the capacity to handle the workload, while ESCOM, within a short period of its existence, has delivered excellent results.
With ESCOM now earning, its workers are given a regular salary. Though they were promised the equivalent of $70 per month, their current earnings are equivalent to $30. In addition, they are being paid salary arrears.