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Pregnant with possibility? A few beg to differ

 Street News Service 02 August 2019

African countries are trapped in a mad rush to realise the eight UN Millennium Development Goals before the deadline falls. African presidents met in Uganda last week to accelerate matters, but those on the ground remain decidedly unimpressed. (1216 Words) - By Joseph Opio

SNS (EU) Pregnant with possibility

Children pose for the camera while fetching water at a well in Kabalagala, Uganda. Photo: Joseph Opio. More photos available- please email us.

For nine successive days in July of this year, the 15th African Union (AU) Summit raged amidst glitz and glamour as African heads of state gathered in Kampala to reflect on the fast-approaching 2015 deadline for two of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Held at the picturesque Munyonyo Speke Resort, the summit saw 49 presidents and 3,000 delegates deliberate under the theme "Maternal, Infant and Child Health and Development in Africa." Yet, while presidents and delegates debated long and hard, few outside Munyonyo believed the deliberations would inspire a solution to the harsh realities on the ground.

Indeed, to many, Munyonyo Speke Resort is a portrait of irony. Seated on the well-manicured shores of Lake Victoria and fast gaining a reputation for hosting high-powered global conferences, the resort is best-accessed by road through parts of Kampala that would hardly flatter local organizers in the eyes of the convening delegates.

Along the hastily-renovated Ggaba main road that leads to Munyonyo lies Kabalagala, a chaotic neighbourhood that plays host to one of Kampala's largest slums.

Kabalagala and Munyonyo might share the same area code. But that's as far as their similarities go.

Since the 15th African Union (AU) Summit started on July 19, slum-dwellers in Kabalagala have become accustomed to the sound of police sirens ushering delegates through on their way to Munyonyo. Few among the slum dwellers are even aware of how critical to their own existence the summit is, and when made aware of its themes, most greet that information with shrugs of indifference.

Twenty-six-year-old Rosette Nakalanzi has lived in Kabalagala for over 15 years. Curiosity about the arriving presidents persuaded Nakalanzi to make the short trip to the main road to gawk at the blur of presidential convoys as they zoomed past the prying masses gathered at the main trading centre.

Nakalanzi thinks she might have caught sight of the flamboyant Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi behind the tinted windows of one of the passing limousines.

As a mother of three, Nakalanzi should be more interested in the Millennium Development Goal-themed issues the Libyan and other contingents have gathered to discuss at Munyonyo.

Yet for a while after the VIP vehicles have sped past, Nakalanzi still finds the awe-inspiring sight of Gaddafi's colourful female bodyguards a more exciting prospect.

"Frankly, I don't know how seriously people like us should take these summits," Nakalanzi states matter-of-factly when she eventually gets over her delight at spotting the continent's movers-and-shakers.

"I have an idea of what they will be discussing. Some women and health activists came, talked to us and distributed fliers about this summit. But I doubt whatever is discussed will be implemented in such a way as to affect my immediate future or that of my children."

Nakalanzi's skepticism borders on cynicism but it seems to be the chorus of choice among most of the Kabalagala mothers whose lives were the main inspiration behind the fifth UN MDG.

Nakalanzi's indifference to the immediate effects of discussing the maternal, infant and child health challenges confronting Africa might be ill-advised but it's not hard to understand.

After all, African countries, and Uganda in particular, have embraced and discussed the fourth and fifth MDGs ad nauseam but fallen desperately short when asked to turn words into deeds despite a looming 2015 deadline.

"It's all good to discuss ways forward but if the money spent on this summit had instead been used to implement what was discussed earlier…" Nakalanzi wistfully says before trailing off.

To many health activists in Uganda, the fourth and fifth MDGs are inter-linked; with improving maternal health forming the first line of defence in the battle against high rates of child mortality.

But, as Lillian Akello, a health provider in Kabalagala insists, both the fourth and fifth MDGs have been largely neglected in favour of the other 'more glamorous' goals.

"The government has merely made token gestures when it comes to maternal and child health through availability of the most basic things like immunization and mosquito nets," Akello observes. "Most African countries, including Uganda, have neglected the MDGs concerned with maternal and child health, focusing instead on the other more visible goals."

Akello's assertion echoes the recent revelation by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon that "for too long, maternal and child health has been at the back of the MDG train."

In fact, in a statement titled "Pregnant With Possibility" during the AU summit in Kampala, deputy UN Secretary-General, Asha Rose Migiro reaffirmed the same, labeling the maternal and child mortality rates on the continent as "among the highest in the world."

Migiro also criticized as "abysmally slow" the progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goal of drastically reducing these deaths.

Many participants at the summit, including European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs stressed the need for African states to deliver on the 2001 commitment to spend 15% of annual budgets on health if any inroads into the fourth and fifth MDGs are to be made. Such depressing assessments can be borne out by the evidence and statistics on the ground.

Nakalanzi is lucky not to have died or lost a baby in childbirth but she tells of acquaintances who have suffered those particular misfortunes.

Just last January, her neighbour Damalie Atwiine was rushed to the local health centre expecting her fourth child, only to lose her in a stillbirth due to a ruptured uterus.

Atwiine survived the ordeal unlike the 505 out of 100,000 mothers who, according to figures by the Ministry of Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, perish from pregnancy-related complications in Uganda every year. That alarming figure offers a scathing indictment on Uganda's performance in comparison to other African countries like Mauritius and Botswana that have reduced their maternal mortality ratios to 24 and 100 respectively.

As per the fifth Millennium Development Goal, Uganda is duty-bound to reduce its maternal mortality ratio by 374 over the next 10 years. It seems like a hard ask for a country that only managed to reduce the same by 18 in the past 15 years.

Nakalanzi's neighbour Atwiine might not have become just another statistic but her still-

born child now counts among the 88 infants who die within one year for every 1,000 babies born.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reveals that of those children who survive that treacherous one-year death sentence, a further 152 die before making five. Uganda has tried to fight this mortality but the progress made has been painfully and fatally slow.

Statistics from the government show that in 1990, Uganda's child mortality rate stood at 167 for every 1,000 live births. In the last 15 years, it has only fallen to 152 per 1,000.

Now, the fourth MDG imposes an obligation upon Uganda to reduce that to 57 over the next 10 years. The fact that Uganda fell way short of its own targets of reducing infant deaths to at least 78 per 1,000 live births by 2002 and 68 by 2005 doesn't inspire much confidence of the same government fulfilling the target of reducing infant mortality to 31 per 1,000 births by 2015.

No wonder then that Nakalanzi seemed more excited by her near run-in with Gaddafi than the prospect of the 15th AU summit discovering the magic bullet to Africa's maternal and child health challenges.


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