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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 June 2007, 11:08 GMT 12:08 UK
Why Uganda hates the plastic bag
By Mark Whitaker
BBC News, Uganda

This weekend Uganda joins the growing number of East African countries which have banned the plastic bag in an attempt to clean up cities and prevent environmental damage including blocked drains.

Trader wrapping cakes in plastic bags
The ban covers the manufacture, import and use of plastic bags
Before your eyes become accustomed to the sight and the stench, the Chitezi municipal dump - which serves the Ugandan capital, Kampala - is like a scene from a painting by Bosch, a premonition of the Apocalypse, or a vision of Hell.

High in the sky, great birds wheel around on the thermals. At first glance, they look like giant vultures, casting ominous shadows on the ragged human scavengers strewn around below.

But as they touch down on the grey, stinking moonscape, they seem to take on a ghastly sub-human form themselves. Like cowled priests bent over the rotting piles.

With their moth-eaten plumage, grotesque "alopecia-ed" heads, and sinister reptilian eyes, these are Africa's nightmare birds - marabou storks - fencing with their murderous bills over the carcass of a plastic sack they have ripped apart.

Flocking here in their hundreds, the ravenous birds are making a feast of Kampala's refuse, squabbling with their human competitors over the richest pickings.

Waste management

Grey women in flip-flops - some with babes in arms - clamber over piles of jagged metal and broken glass. Men - dust-bathed and ragged - push and shove to be first in line when the next truck comes, bringing the very latest delivery of detritus from the city.

Map of Uganda

One of the ragged men, Ezekiel, told me he had worked at Chitezi every day from sun up to sun down, collecting plastic for the past 10 years - for 50 pence a day.

Ezekiel told me he had thought long and hard about how the city could better organise its ramshackle waste management. Nobody ever listened, he said.

But Ezekiel - a man at the very bottom of Uganda's social heap - still had lots to say about his country's most talked-about attempt to tidy itself up: Uganda's proposed ban on plastic bags.

Here they are called buveera, and they are everywhere.

Only a tiny fraction of them end up at Chitezi. Instead, once discarded, they are blown in the wind, washed into drains and water courses and eventually ground into the earth.

Uganda is blessed with some of the richest soil in Africa, but around the towns and villages it is laced with plastic.

New strata are forming - a layer cake of polythene and poisoned soil, through which Uganda's rains can never percolate.

Instead, dotted around Chitezi are stagnant pools where even the storks will not drink. Their fetid waters bubble with the methane brewing beneath them.

Bags are 'poison'

In the slums and shanties buveera are breeding grounds for disease.

With no mains water and no sewerage system, the bags are used as toilets. Flying latrines they are called, because when you have filled them, you throw them as far away as you can.

And when the rains come and wash them out there is a good chance that some little boy or girl sent on an errand will see a bag in the street and use it again, to carry firewood or maybe food.

In one of Kampala's slums I spoke to Bobby Wine - currently Uganda's biggest home-grown pop star, a man who styles himself Ghetto President and Hygiene Ambassador.

He still lives and works in the slums, and he has written pop songs about plastic carrier bags. He calls them poison.

He points to neighbouring Rwanda.

"Man", he says, "that's a poorer country than Uganda - but at the border if you have buveera, they tell you that you can't come in. Why can't we be like Rwanda?"

Well, the answer is that Uganda will be like Rwanda.

Pioneering legislation

After a fair amount of stalling, the government has just announced that from 1 July the manufacture, import and use of plastic bags thinner than 30 microns will be banned. All other polythene will be subject to a whopping 120% tax.

Uganda's capital city
Kampala, Uganda's capital, is spread over a series of hills

The decision is perhaps timely. Kampala is gearing itself up for a visit by the Queen in November for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - or Chogm.

Everyone is talking about Chogm. The symptoms of Chogm fever - a rash of new buildings, a sudden outbreak of civic pride, general hyperactivity and the smell of new paint - are everywhere. And Chogm may have spelt the beginning of the end for buveera.

With disarming frankness, the country's environment minister, Jesca Eriyo, confessed to me that she was embarrassed by her capital city's lamentable standards of waste management; by Chitezi; by its sea of polythene, and its flying latrines.

Now, at last, they could all be headed for the exit door. And not just in Uganda. Neighbouring Kenya is introducing similar legislation. Tanzania wants to go even further and ban plastic drinks containers as well.

Despite its problems and its poverty, East Africa is blazing a trail which many in prosperous Middle England can only dream of following.

And the people I spoke to - the minister, the pop star, the shopkeepers of Kampala, or Ezekiel at the dump - all seemed happy to be pioneers in a post polythene age.

As one man in a corner shop put it: "Good riddance, who asked for all this plastic in the first place?"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 30 June, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Uganda
13 Apr 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Uganda
13 Apr 07 |  Country profiles
South Africa bans plastic bags
09 May 03 |  Africa
M&S to charge for shopping bags
22 May 07 |  Northern Ireland

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