Sunday, 24 October 2021 08:30 GMT

Uganda's traders sleep rough as Covid lockdown drags on


As evening falls in the Ugandan capital, traders at the country's biggest market prepare for another long, cold night's sleep between the fruit and vegetable stalls, forbidden from returning home.

Under a strict 42-day coronavirus lockdown imposed on June 18, vendors at Nakasero market in downtown Kampala were allowed to keep trading -- but only if they agreed not to return home and sleep where they worked.

The government distributed mosquito nets, drinking water and soap to roughly 600 vendors suddenly faced with a six-week stretch away from home, confined to the cramped quarters of the marketplace.

Comfort is in short supply. Personal space is scarce, and amenities ill equipped to handle so many people.

Come evening, the lucky ones find prime real estate between mountains of fresh produce and crates of chickens.

The air may be stale and muggy, but at least a tin roof covers their heads.

The less fortunate are forced to sleep in the open, curled up on sheets of cardboard or hessian sacks in a vain attempt to keep warm from the biting cold.

"I am sleeping on a mat, and some pieces of boxes. Together with my (mosquito) net. Yes, that is all," said Abu Kikomeko, a 23-year-old university student who helps out his aunt at her vegetable stall at Nakasero.

He appreciated the mosquito net, but misses the warmth of his bed.

"It is not like I am home (where) I close the door. But since I am in the market, an open place, of course you feel the coldness between you," Kikomeko said.

- 'Life has changed' -

Nearly two weeks into their six-week confinement, Kikomeko's aunt Gladys Kyabangi Sebuyira said living conditions were wearing thin.

"Life has changed. Because we are not at home, everything is just difficult. Bathing... it is quite difficult. Washing our things, the way we sleep. Things are not so easy," the 47-year-old said as she hunted for a place to sleep with her 21-year-old daughter.

Linet Okoth, another trader, said the daily discomfort was compounded by a lack of business.

Foot traffic was sharply down, she said, with buyers staying home because of concern over the record surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in the East African country.

"We don't have customers. They are not coming to buy, because they fear to come here," the 41-year-old said.

As coronavirus cases and deaths surged to record highs, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on June 18 froze all public and private transport, and imposed a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew across the country of 45 million people.

The veteran president warned that hospitals were full and not coping with the outbreak, as daily cases soared from the low 100s in late May to over 1,700 by mid-June.

Sentoongo Mansoor, vice chairman of Nakasero market, said the lockdown was having an economic impact, hitting traders particularly hard.

The number of vendors at Nakasero was down three-quarters, he said, while those who stayed behind in the hope of earning a living were struggling in poor conditions.

"We still have challenges of accessing some facilities. Mosquito nets were distributed by government but they are not enough, places of convenience like toilets and bathrooms are not enough," he said.

Throughout the night, truckloads of fresh produce are delivered to Nakasero from across Uganda, but it is not clear it can all be sold with trade in a slump.


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