Letter from Entebbe: Which Way is Up?

I sat in the petrol station, playing my guitar to the African night, watching the cars, taxis, and mopeds cruise in looking for a couple of liters of fuel, while my driver did his level best to get the van started again. “No petrol, only diesel” was the answer everyone got from the kind attendant; many of the vehicles never stopped rolling, and just passed on to the next establishment.


My driver was crouched in the back seat of his van, where he was hooking up his two reserve batteries to his well-used jumper cables, while the attendant stuck himself halfway behind the wheel, took the key, and followed my driver’s bluntly delivered instructions: “Turn on. Wait. Start.” (Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh …) “Turn off. Wait.” And so on. From the engine compartment, smoke poured into the darkness, which was punctuated by the weak fluorescent bulbs, like the one I was sitting under, right next to the languidly posed armed guard. He had a rifle of indiscernible model hanging over his shoulder; I had my old Martin D-2832, and was working on a new song. Neither one of us drew a second glance from the many passers-by on this tiny-but-surprisingly-busy thoroughfare.

The song I’m working on is called “Entebbe Blues,” but it really has nothing negative to do with this quiet, charming little town, best known (unfortunately) for an Israeli military hostage-rescue operation here decades ago. It should be known for being a calm landing point for travel in Africa, on the shore of Lake Victoria, with lots of wildlife and kind people. Entebbe sits almost exactly on the equator, which raises an interesting question: which way is up? When you sit on the equator, you suddenly realize how arbitrary our Northern hemisphere maps are — as though the galactic plane itself had an “up” and a “down,” instead of the equity of symmetry.

When it comes to sustainability, we know which way “down” is: toward a future of ecosystem collapse outracing our efforts to stop climate change while also adapting to it, a future where the economic dreams of the poor become unreachable because the global pie has no more slices left. And yet, some people seem to be choosing “down.”

In so far as the lyrics for “Entebbe Blues” are a lament, they are a lament about bad people generally, in the world at large. Why do people go bad? What makes someone stride through a city, executing innocents? Commit ritual murder on a child? (A headline I saw recently.) Join the mafia? Or turn a cynical, how-can-I-profit-from-this, gun-selling eye to problems like ethnic conflict?

The more I push this plow this common field we call sustainable development (or “bright green” or “great transition” or whatever term you like), the more I’ve noticed how our plows often strike against big rocks like political intransigence, outright corruption, or just plain evil. There are plenty of little rocks, as well, but these one tries to shrug off — or just “plow right on through ’em” as former Vice Presidential Sarah Palin so colorfully put it when commenting on her future political career. Of course, Sarah Palin ranks as a big rock, in the “political intransigence” category, when it comes to many sustainability issues. Little rocks look more like simple lack of courage, or understanding, or the competition for attention and resources among competing agents of change, who do not always share the view that the struggle to create a sustainable civilization on Planet Earth is Job One. I like to shop, for example; but somehow, I could never see the stimulation of more shopping as Job One, in an era of melting ice caps coupled — and I do mean coupled — to desperately poor people literally dying of drought one year, and running from floods the next.

I heard that one today, from an Ethiopian colleague, referring to a real patch of her real country where real people were dying from drought one year, and being evacuated from floods the next. (It was worth repeating that.) This extreme and dangerous variability is, of course, a predicted consequence of climate change here in East Africa, where I am currently working as a consultant with the Nile Basin Initiative. Knowledge about how climatic change is already worsening the already-impossible living conditions of the poorest of the poor is enough to give you the Entebbe Blues.

On the other hand, during my last visit here, I ran a workshop where senior officials from the region considered the progress of this Initiative over the past ten years, and considered its future. To make a long story short, things have improved dramatically. To go from “next to nothing” to “definitely something, and something good” in just a decade of work on transboundary water resource management, in one of the world’s most politically delicate and complex environments is, well, practically miraculous.

You probably never heard of the Nile Basin Initiative (www.nilebasin.org), and if you look at the website it will probably be difficult to figure out what’s going on, and why Ministerial meetings and Subsidiary Action Programs are something to get excited about. But they are.

Ten years ago, many of the countries in this northeast quadrant of Africa were barely talking to each other about the one resource that binds them all together: the Nile River. It is the world’s longest, and that is just the beginning of a list of extremes that describe this region, which includes an alarming proportion of the world’s poorest countries, poorest peoples, hottest flashpoints, and — if you include Somalia, which is not actually part of the Nile River Basin — largest concentrations of sea pirates (this based on recent news, not on any actual census of sea pirates).

Today, thanks to years of careful diplomacy among the nations, the investments of the World Bank and many other “development partners” (as donor agencies and countries are called), and the work of probably thousands of people collaborating on everything from research programs to micro-grants, this region is not just talking diplomatically about the Nile on a regular basis — an achievement which in itself was already a breakthrough. The river-sharing countries from Tanzania in the south to Egypt in the north are very close to signing an agreement that would enshrine sustainable development principles and practice into the international law governing the region. The result of that agreement would be a lot of more of the very good things that their joint Nile Basin Initiative has already been laboring to produce: more resources for farming and electricity, and more protection for ecosystems and watersheds, in a region that needs a whole lot of all of that.

Yes, there is still a long way to go here. Yes, the region has its share of “rocks to plow through,” ranging from complicated political negotiations to climate change adaptation strategies. But in a place which has far more than its fair share of fuel gauges that have been resting on “0”, there is really only one way to go: up.

Up means sustainable development. For real.

Suddenly, I feel the Entebbe Blues slipping away … though I’m going to enjoy singing them anyway. Whenever I do, I’ll remember that special night at the Entebbe petrol station, a night when Jupiter and Venus were hugging the Moon, and kind people saw to it that I eventually made it to my hotel, after I played guitar into the Uganda night.

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