Jasonga – Day 41

Posted on April 18, 2012

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It’s taken a while but I’ve finally had my first encounter with a pit-sawyer. It wasn’t hostile so I wasn’t chased out of the forest by people brandishing spears (stop panicking Mum and Dad!!). It was in fact instigated by me and the man I questioned is retired and pushing 70.

They call him Jasonga in the village of Maram – but his real name is Papa Kilaveri. He was born on 15th March 1946 in Congo and came to Uganda in the 1959.  He worked in the forest as an illegal pit-sawyer for 24 years, retiring in 1996. A carpenter by trade, he fell into this illegal line of work because he couldn’t find employment in his vocation. Back in the 1970’s logging (especially) mahogany and Cordia millenii was big business and the demand for young, unemployed strong men was high.

This morning Moses picked me up on a motorbike he’d hired and we made the bumpy ride to Jasonga’s village through the back fields. As a reluctant passenger I gave Moses strict instructions to drive very carefully. There are no helmets available and I did not want to become a statistic. The tall grasses whipped us either side as we passed along the narrow muddy footpaths. In front of us lay a breath-taking scene of green rolling hills and lush landscape. The contorted shapes of villagers were silhouetted against the bright morning sunlight as they bent over double tending to their gardens.

The sound of our spluttering engine shattered the silence in the village, setting the chickens clucking and flapping out-of-the-way. Jasonga’s home, if you can call it that, is more of a tiny shelter away from the other mud huts. It’s completely open to the elements with just a bit of straw covering four wooden posts. As I walked towards him I could see he was sat on a small log in front of a smouldering camp fire; his knees pulled into his chest. His grubby clothes hung loosely on his small frame and his hands and feet were caked in mud and dirt. In his left hand he clutched a piece of roasted cassava which he was chewing slowly.

“Jambo Jasonga. Jini-lango Asha. Abari?” I said in my best Swahili, extending my hand and smiling broadly. He looked up at me squinting.

“Muzuri Asha.”

He nodded for me to take a seat on the log opposite him. For more than an hour we spoke about his life in the forest with Moses squatting on his haunches between us, acting as a translator. This is what Jasonga told me about his life as a pit-sawyer:

“I chose to work in the forest in order to survive. I was a carpenter, but there was no work available at the time so I turned to pit-sawing. I started in 1972, I didn’t earn a lot of money. It was just money to live, I was able to buy food and soap and basic things. When I wasn’t able to do it any more I left.”

Back in the 1970’s land in Uganda was cheap to buy. I’m told it used to be sold for around $2,500 Ugandan Shilling (less than a pound), but Jasonga was an immigrant with no inherited family land, his low wages meant he was never able to save any money while he supported himself and today he has absolutely nothing to show for it.

“Very many people worked in the forest during those times. We would start at 7am and finish at 6pm every day. It was very hard work, but I felt fine doing it because I was strong and healthy, I had power. I wasn’t worried about working in the forest. Mahogany was the main tree everyone cut. There were 4/5 different species in particular. Cordia millenii was also another tree that traders wanted. They liked it very much because it was good to make boats.”

The problem is they still “like it very much to build boats” and the forest is being depleted of a valuable food source for the primates of the area, who are also key in helping to regenerate the forest through seed dispersal. It’s surreal to think that the logged areas that I am investigating in N5 are the very areas that Jasonga and his co-workers toiled away in almost 25 years ago. This area is full of illegal pit-sawing sites and there appears to be no let up. But looking at this poor old man I cannot help feel sympathy towards him.

“We used to enter the Budongo Forest, deep. We were paid by the number of pieces we brought back and the number pieces depended on the tree. Some trees you could cut wood that measured: 12X1 (feet) and I would cut 10 pieces. There was myself and another man. The two of us, with one saw, would do this work. I didn’t cut wood for myself, I was cutting for my boss. One piece of timber could pay $1,500 Ugandan Shillings. Ten pieces could get $15,000 Ugandan Shillings. This was then divided in two so my share was $7,500 Ugandan Shillings (about two pounds fifty).

“My boss was a man who never entered the forest. He stayed in Masindi and was rich. He would give me orders for timber 12X1, 12X2, 8X2, 6X2, 4×2. The orders would be from Kampala or Jinga and would come from his boss. I don’t know how much he earned but I think it must have been a lot.”

Jasonga says in his day there were no forest patrols and although logging was illegal, there was no one to stop them and the forests had very many trees.

“I think the difficulty today is that people are chasing pit-sawyers out of the forest. That did not happen in my day. That is the main difference. But if you have power (strength) then you still continue today.”

When I asked him if he had any regrets he told me: “We knew it was illegal to cut but we (pit-sawyers) cut because we needed to survive. How else could we get money when there’s no work? You can’t stop pit-sawing. People will always need wood. They need it to build their houses, to make roofs, doors.”

Jasonga is a father of four, but his children do not live with him. He can barely fend for himself. The eldest is a farmer/ carpenter and the youngest is still in primary school. I didn’t ask about their mother, it felt too intrusive. Moses thinks the family live close to the lake in Butiaba where illegal timber is sold. When I asked him why Jasonga hasn’t gone back to Congo, he told me, this is his home now, it’s all he knows.

“They (children) have moved away and don’t live with me,” he said with sadness. “If they did live with me then it’s possible that they would have followed me and done pit-sawing. I would tell them it’s a strong job – hard work but I would also tell them to do something else.”

Like most issues in Uganda it’s very hard to find a solution to a problem when corruption and easy money speaks volumes.  Everyone is desperate to pull themselves out of poverty and into a better life and who can blame them? But what is frustrating is that it’s blatantly obvious that the way to fix most problems it to start at the top of the food chain and target the wealthy who are pulling the strings of the poor. The trouble is these people are often in politics and are usually filthy rich to be able to bribe their way out of a given situation, so the cycle continues. Those pit-sawyers that are thrown into jail are simply replaced by another eager line of men and women queuing up to take on the work.

Uganda is a beautiful country and has so much to offer in terms of resources, but there are people who are stripping it of its natural wealth and beauty at an alarming rate to satisfy their greedy short-term needs and very soon there’ll be nothing left for the future generations.

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