Ugandan MP Fights for Children with Nodding Disease: Beatrice Anywar

15 Jul

 

 THE HONORABLE BEATRICE ANTIM ANYWAR

 Her name is the Honorable Beatrice Antim Anywar and she is a Minister of Parliament (MP) for the country of Uganda a position similar to that of a Senator in the United States of America. She is one of a handful of women who serve in the Ugandan Parliament and represents her district of Kitgum. Kitgum is located in Northern Uganda and was one of the northern regions within which the twenty-year civil war was fought in Uganda between the rebels in the northern regions and the Ugandan Army, The Ugandan Peoples Defense Force (UPDF) in the south. I met with her in Parliament last month during my assignment as a Visiting Professor at Kyambogo University in Kampala, Uganda. One of my assignments in Uganda this summer was to conduct a first-hand investigation into the mysterious sickness called Nodding Syndrome along with a small team of Ugandan professionals from Kampala. She called me on a Monday morning after a dear friend connected us through email and invited me to meet with her the following Wednesday at noon.

After successfully moving through several police checkpoints and the Registration Desk, I and my dear friend Fionna, who agreed to accompany me to Parliament, finally made it to the Honorable Members Dining Room. Beatrice had chosen a table in small room off of the more expansive dining room situated one floor above. She came toward us with the same confidence and poise that has made her a household word around Uganda. Whether you love her or hate her everyone knows who Beatrice is as soon as her name is mentioned. My first impression was that she looked like someone’s mother- a very capable mother in her blue and white flowered print dress with matching jacket. And that was exactly how she began the interview. We sat down at the table and she proceeded to eat her lunch of assorted Ugandan fruits: watermelon, pineapple, and mango but only after she had seen to our needs first. While she ate she told me her story.

Beatrice assumed the role of mother from an early age when her own mother died unexpectedly and she took over the care of her two younger brothers. She’s remains a devout Catholic and still believes in what she had been taught. “I had always wanted to become a nun, I even went to the Nkonkonjeru Little Sisters of St Francis Convent to start my training but that did not work out,” she said as she cut her watermelon into manageable slices. “One day my dad came and got me. He felt that I could do so much more with my life so I left with him. I never did go back for my clothes.”

Eventually she married and gave birth to four wonderful children but she managed to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration from Islamic University, Uganda and a Masters in Marketing from Makerere University Business School. Beatrice beamed as she described each one of her children to me and I could tell by the pride in her voice that they meant the world to her. There is a wide range in the ages of her children her youngest is six and her oldest is twenty-three. I’m impressed. It means that she has been in the “mothering mode” for a long time now and has had a great deal of experience taking care of others.

“So how did you become involved in politics in the first place?” I ask getting down to the reason for my visit.

 “Well the first time I ran I lost because I was cheated out of my seat in Parliament,” she said. “But a couple years later the man responsible for fixing that election came to see me and confessed to me what he had done. He felt remorse at having rigged the votes. I actually had no intention of entering politics but was approached by a well known MP, the Honorable Ronald Reagan Okumu from the neighboring Gulu district. It was he who convinced me that I could do the job and that the people of Kitgum needed someone like me to help them out. I have already served one full term and am currently in the midst of serving out my second term as a Member of Parliament. And I serve the people of Kitgum proudly. The second time I ran I got so many votes that there was no question but that I had won the election and I did it all honestly”.

Beatrice explained how her career in politics had not always run smoothly. She has been arrested and jailed several times for taking part in an assortment of protests. Her most famous one earned her the title, “Mama Mibira” for organizing protests that stopped the state’s plans to give away part of the Mibira Forest to Sugar Corporation Uganda Limited.  She also gained notoriety as one of seven MP’s who returned 20 million Ugandan Shillings (about $10,000 US) during the 2011 election that had been placed in the MPs bank accounts by the present administration because she felt that is was, “morally wrong.” But this was not what she had brought me here to discuss today so we moved on.

Her most pressing concerns are the presence of the illusive Nodding Syndrome throughout all of the districts in northern Uganda and the lack of interest on the part of the Ugandan Government in helping the infected children and their families.

“There are some cases in Gulu, “she reminds me, “but the real misery can be found in Kitgum and Pader. And where is the government in all of this? Where is President Museveni in all of this? They say they are going to send money and help out but they actually do nothing. They need to be told off! My people are suffering and I will continue to speak out about the government’s inability to act in the best interest of its people.”

“So why do you think the government will not officially declare the north a “disaster area?” I ask.

 She becomes visibly agitated as she responds, “ I wrote to the Speaker ( Speaker of Parliament) and presented a motion that Northern Uganda be declared an official Disaster Area and my motion was defeated by the other MPs. “ 

“Why?” I ask and feel her frustration as she replies.

“Because they have other loyalties,” she answers.” Sometimes they vote with me but other times they support the government’s position. They are playing politics when they should be thinking about what is best for their people.”

“I have gone to the Speaker and petitioned him to create a committee to study the problems associated with Nodding Syndrome and because none of this has been done I have taken the government to court. This is human rights abuse pure and simple.”

“And what about the American CDC?” she adds. She is referring to the United States Center for Disease Control based in Atlanta, Georgia. “They have been no help at all. They have conducted research in the north for three years now and nothing. They have yet to release a report on their findings. They have told us nothing and most of us have lost hope that they ever will. It seems that they only do what the government tells them to do. They work for the government not the people.”

“The government refuses to fund an organized census to determine just how many children have been infected with Nodding Disease. I have heard estimates from 3,000 to 4,000 children but those totals are much too low.  I know that the real total is more like 7,000 children infected with Nodding Disease and 200 of them have already died. There are now 34 adults confirmed to have Nodding Disease as well. And what about the children who survive? They will need medical centers that will provide medications, treatment, and food to ensure they get the proper nutrition to build their bodies back up again. They will need transportation to make sure that they are able to reach these medical centers. They will need special classrooms equipped with special education teachers who will have to be trained in how to best teach these children. We already know that their previous level of intelligence will never return. If the government won’t then who will take care of these children and their families?”

“Now the government wants to cut the national Health Budget for next year by 6%. I will be fighting this proposed budget on the floor of parliament this very afternoon.” she adds.  “Sometimes I think that these children are supposed to die- that it is all about grabbing the Acholi’s land.”

“Tell me more. What do you mean?” I ask.

“There is oil in Gulu and the government would like nothing better than to take the land away from the Acholi people and create a vast estate of government – controlled sugar fields on their land. This is all about more money for the government and the people presently in power,”

“What do you want people of Uganda to remember as a result of reading this article?” I ask.

“I know about all of the rumors that have been spread around town about me- about how I was given a lot of money by President Museveni and about how he owns me. Well it’s not true. I did not take his money and I am my own person.  What concerns me most of all is what do I tell the people I represent?  They do not understand why the government will not help them. There is a woman I know in Kitgum who gave birth to seven beautiful children. Right now two of her children have died from Nodding Syndrome and three more are infected with Nodding Syndrome and will probably die. What do I tell her and her two remaining children? It is thoughts such as these that keep me moving forward and make me stay in the government’s face.”

And she’s right.  I recall hearing the late Professor Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and creator of the Kenya Green Belt Movement talk about how she was slandered, beaten, arrested, and even imprisoned by the Kenyan government in her career as an environmentalist – how members of the government tried to destroy her career. It was only after she received the Nobel Peace Prize that the Kenyan government claimed her as their own again. It’s hard to be an African woman in politics under normal circumstances. It’s dangerous to be an African woman in politics when you’re determined to challenge the status quo.

“Are you afraid at times?” I ask not sure where this question will take me.

“I have paid for my commitment to my people. Last year in November I was in a bad car accident along with my six year old son. I ended up in the hospital.”

“Are you saying that you were deliberately hit – that someone was trying to kill you?”

“That is what I’m saying. “

“Do you think that they will try again?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And this time how will they do it?”

“This time I think that they will use poison,” she says and deliberately puts the last piece of pineapple on her tongue and begins to chew.

Suddenly I am no longer hungry and catch a fleeting glimpse into Beatrice Anywar’s world- a place where might continues to make right and no one is really who they pretend to be,

“What do you want the people of the United States to know about this situation?

“I have always been fond of the United States. My older children attend university there,” she says showing me a Fourth of July Reception Invitation addressed to her and her son courtesy of the United States Embassy in Uganda.

“The government of the US needs to know that children are dying needlessly and that they can help by publically asking the Ugandan government why the children are still dying and what the Ugandan government intends to do about it. They can ask why the north has not been declared an official disaster area yet. The people and the government of the United States need to keep watching what ‘s happening to these children in Uganda and if they ask enough questions hopefully they will embarrass the Ugandan government into actually doing something to help these children out.”

A week before I left to return to the United States, the Ugandan Monitor ran this story about Beatrice Anywar. Kitgum Woman Member of Parliament, Beatrice Anywar Resigns from Opposition Cabinet as Shadow Minister for Energy, Oil, and Mineral Resources. According to the writer of this article Beatrice was getting much too close to President Museveni and he predicted that she would soon leave her present political party and defect to the other side -which just happens to be the party to which Museveni belongs.

I suppose the article was written to discredit her but it had quite the opposite effect on me. It caused me to peruse all of the articles that had been written about Beatrice in the local Ugandan newspapers for the past three months. And I discovered that many “someones” had gone to a lot of trouble in order to try and tarnish her good name. Why did Beatrice’s political conduct have to be superior to the dubious conduct regularly demonstrated by her male colleagues? Why is Beatrice held to such a high standard and the bad behavior of her fellow MPs regularly overlooked? Changing political parties is not a new occurrence in Ugandan politics and male MP’s have done so often- as many times as it has taken them to secure the political limelight.

So maybe she will defect to the other side and maybe she has created stronger ties to President Museveni.  But in the end why is that such a bad thing? If it allows her to tackle the problems associated with Nodding Syndrome, help the people in her district, and not line her pockets with cash like so many of the honorable male members of Parliament have done-so what?  It seems to me that the press and certain MPs have gone out of their way to negatively portray her choices and criticize her for whatever course of action she’s taken so far. And it is this relentless criticism that has convinced me that she has to be doing something right if she’s managed to bother her critics to this extent. Way to go Beatrice! Because I do believe that if you had already entered the political sewer and been hanging around with the rest of the corrupt MPs there- you wouldn’t have gotten their attention at all.

Kat Nickerson    Kingston        Rhode Island    USA                                       July, 2012

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