Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Abuses of the Poor: Extortion on Remba

It is difficult to put a place like Remba Island into words. Upon approach, swarms of hawks circling the island provide a foreboading warning of what is to come. Stepping upon Remba, the feel of barren rock and trash under your feet, the smells of rotten fish carcass in the sun, and the sight of shottily built tin shacks crowded along the beach gives the sense that this is not a very pleasant place to live. In fact, this island is a haven for convicts, prostitutes, and political exiles from the surrounding countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania, and Kenya. It provides a remote hiding place in the middle of Lake Victoria with a readily available source of income in fishing. There is absolutely no respect for permanent living conditions, the environment, or building any type of community. Life on Remba is a day to day existence.

In our mobile clinic, we encountered rampant malnutrition amongst the children, multiple sexually transmitted diseases in the majority of patients, and a large number of cachectic, lifeless young people with the clinical signs of HIV but no previous testing or treatment.
As if life upon this desolate island wasn't rough enough, we heard news after we left the island of a "war" that broke out on Remba. The island lies near the border between Uganda and Kenya, but in Kenyan territory. However, Ugandan soldiers/police regularly stop on the island to harass the fisherman and demand an illegal tariff for fishing in Ugandan waters. They carry lists of fishing boats and search the island registering each fisherman as he pays the extorted 500 KSh per boat. Those who don't pay are abducted upon Ugandan boats until they come up with the money demanded.

Soon after we left the island, the Kenyan inhabitants decided to take a stand against the Ugandan piracy. This time when the soldiers arrived, the Kenyans banded together and refused to pay the fee, demanding their rights. The Ugandan soldiers came out in numbers and made a show of force, scaring the few Kenyan police from the island. Those who protested were abused or abducted and once again forced to pay the fee. Without organization or support from the government, the Kenyans weak stand proved futile as they again had their meager salaries further diminished by this illegal activity. The abuses and extortion of the poor continues to drive them further and further into poverty.

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