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The Chinese multinational making millions out of vulnerable Ugandans

In the west, Tiens markets its products as food supplements and ‘wellness equipment’. In Uganda, they are sold as treatments for everything from HIV to cancer. James Wan reports from Kampala for Think Africa Press

Wasswa Zziwa Edrisa (middle ) distributes Tiens products in the rural Ugandan town of Iganga. Photograph: James Wan

On the corner of a bumpy, red-soil road in the rural town of Iganga in eastern Uganda, there lies a small store. A handful of people mill around the entrance in the glaring sun, waiting for their turn to enter. They are the main source of activity on this placid street, but their patient presence barely betrays the hubbub within.

Inside, almost a dozen people sit crammed on makeshift benches around two edges of the stifling room. Most of the remaining space is taken up by a shop counter, behind which are shelves piled high with vibrantly coloured health products covered in Chinese characters.

A couple of customers compete with a baby wailing as they read out lists of products to the shop attendants who pick them off the shelves. Every now and then, the door in the corner opens. Someone steps out, and the person sitting closest steps in.

Beyond that doorway is an even smaller room, windowless and illuminated by a single light. As I peer in, three people are undergoing diagnostic tests; a woman is standing on a machine that hums loudly as it vibrates, and a few more patients are waiting slumped along the wall.

Wasswa Zziwa Edrisa − or “Doctor Wasswa” as he is known here − stands in the centre wearing a fresh, chequered shirt on his back and an unwavering grin on his face.

“I will show you how we help so many people,” he says, beaming. “Let me show you the machines.”

‘Organ scanners’

“This is one of the scanners,” he explains, pointing to a piece of kit that looks a bit like a 1970s radio. “It shows everything. We can see if you have diabetes, kidney deficiencies, liver problems, eye problems. Everything.”

Wasswa explains that the test works using a traditional Chinese understanding of the body whereby different points of the hand relate to different internal organs. We watch as an attendant prods a patient’s left palm with a metal tip, making a little meter light up. When the light goes green, he explains, it means that part of the body is fine, but if it goes orange it indicates a problem.

Next, Wasswa points me to the corner where a woman is standing on a small machine and holding onto a pair of handlebars, to which she is harnessed. Her whole body blurs in the dim light as the platform beneath her vibrates rapidly, its droning buzz filling the room.

Similar machines can be found in many gyms these days and are meant to help tone muscle, but the uses Wasswa presents are quite different.

“This is a blood circulation massager,” he announces. “You see how she sweats. It opens the vessels and deals with paralysis. It helps people with stroke.”

A woman stands on a machine Wasswa claims ‘deals with paralysis’. Photograph: James Wan


Wasswa then shows me another diagnostics machine, this one connected to a laptop. As the patient holds on to an appliance plugged into the computer, pictures of different organs flash up on the screen for a few seconds each as a dial next to it oscillates erratically. After a minute, a one-page document pops up, detailing how well his organs are functioning.

In the airless room, Wasswa runs through a few more devices − a face pain remover, a blood pressure reducer, a necklace that removes radiation − before squeezing past bodies and chairs to get back to the first patient we met. By now his diagnostic test is complete. The patient tells me that he came to the store because of some mild pain around his mouth. Wasswa breaks the news that there are more serious things about which he ought to be concerned.

“He has a problem with his spleen,” says Wasswa. “At times, he gets constipation and some swelling in the legs and arms. There is also some paralysis in the legs. He gets headaches. At times he feels dizziness. His brain arteries need to be detoxified. He has kidney deficiencies. He has bad chest pain. He has high cholesterol. He has poor circulation. And he has problems with his stomach.”

The man looks young and healthy. Wasswa is not perturbed.

“He needs to improve his circulation by using our machines and he will need to take our products. If he uses them, he will be fine,” he says.

‘Radiation cure’

Back in the waiting-room-cum-pharmacy, Wasswa shows me some of these products. He picks goods off the shelves – capsules, toothpastes, body creams – and stacks them on the counter as he explains what they do.

“This takes away all the radiation in your body. This helps with diabetes. This treats ulcers. This is for slimming. This adds more white blood cells to your system. This is for people who are mentally disturbed,” he says.

“These medicines are good for everything,” he concludes finally, the pile of products on the counter now complete. “If you have cancer, we can help. If you have HIV, we can help. Even if you have a hernia or a tumour or appendicitis, you just take our products and they will disappear.”

Even if you have a hernia or a tumour or appendicitis, you just take our products and they will disappear

This small store in eastern Uganda employs a handful of staff and, according to Wasswa, receives dozens of people each day. Wasswa is also frequently heard on local radio advertising his services and has made quite a name for himself in the area.

Wasswa was previously a school teacher and says his parents were “peasants”, but now, in his 30s, he is anything but. These days, he drives a shiny four-wheel drive, wears sharp suits and travels around the world. All this makes him quite the exception in Iganga, but across Uganda this young man is by no means a solo pioneer and his store is by no means unique.

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Mauritania: The Saharan nation of ocean fishermen

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Think of Mauritania and you are likely to imagine the burning sands of the Sahara, nomads swathed in wind-blown robes and camel trains moving through the heat haze. All correct… but don’t forget the fishing fleet.

Travelling across the Sahara to Mauritania’s Atlantic coast I arrive at a place called Nouadhibou. Here, where the desert meets the ocean, I see something that takes my breath away – hundreds of multi-coloured wooden boats crashing through the unrelenting surf towards the open sea.

Twenty to 30 men in each boat, hang on for dear life as their vessels are bucked skywards by waves Californian surfers might pray for.

These are les pecheurs du Mauritanie – the fishermen of Mauritania, and the country’s best-kept secret.

There are many, even in Mauritania, who don’t know about them but, let’s face it, most Mauritanians have probably never even seen the sea. And yet off this coast are some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

In fact thousands of fishermen work these perilous waters and have done for centuries.

Their sturdy open boats, about 40 feet long, are painted in the brightest and breeziest of colours. But don’t let that fool you. This sort of fishing – mostly done at night when fish rise to the surface to feed – is incredibly dangerous. Men, indeed whole boats, are frequently lost at sea and never seen again.

Les pecheurs du Mauritanie, many of whom come from neighbouring Senegal and the Gambia, are said to be fearless. So it’s with some trepidation that I join a boat one night as it sets out for the ocean deeps.

There are no lights, charts or lifejackets but the crew, 23-strong, are sprinkling the boat with water from an old plastic bottle. It’s magic water from a local witchdoctor and will, I’m told, lead us to fish and protect us from danger. I try to look reassured.

Powered by an old outboard motor we head out accompanied by a sister boat – it’s safer to hunt in pairs. The excitement is palpable. The men start stamping their feet and chanting: “Dolle, dolle, dolle.” It means: “We are the force.”

One young Gambian called Happy-Happy tells me: “We haven’t caught anything for days so need a big catch tonight.”

Four hours later, and 10 miles out to sea, there’s splashing in the water and the tell-tale glint of fish-scales. “Herring are jumping!” the skipper shouts.

A vast net, released over the side, is dragged in a wide arc through the raging sea.

Chanting in feverish rhythm the crew start to pull the net in: “Dolle, dolle, we are the force! Be strong like a man – not like a woman.” OK, it’s not politically correct, but it’s effective.

Eventually, our sister boat comes alongside to help wrestle in a net bursting with thrashing fish.

Read more, see more great photos

Read more, see more great photos

Ethiopian Music – an Oxymoron???



ethiopia-flagWhen one thinks of Ethiopia, music doesn’t immediately spring to mind. One associates famines and starving malnourished children because we hear little else of this land locked Africa country on the Horn of Africa.

Truly it is a land that westerners know very little about; and such preconceived images spring to mind.

hunger_ethiopiaBecause that’s the diet the media supply us; that and war.


But there is a lot more to Ethiopia.

Development in Addis Ababa, the capital

Development in Addis Ababa, the capital

The mysterious rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

The mysterious rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

Not forgetting that Ethiopia was the home of all our coffee

Not forgetting that Ethiopia was the home of all our coffee

“Ethiopia has been existent as a nation for many centuries so it is one of the oldest and still thriving states dating back from the seventh century A.D. It is an African country rich in heritage, history, and wide varieties of tourist sites.”Tourist Destinations You can read and see a lot more.

Traditional Krar Harp

Traditional Krar Harp

And what of the music?

Ethiopia has the traditional six-stringed Krar Harp.

The music of the krar harp is starting to be heard in the west.

“An Ethiopian three-piece consisting of a singer, percussionist (playing the traditional kebero drum) and Temesgen Taraken, master of the six-stringed krar harp, they’ve burst out of London’s close-knit Ethiopian community and are starting to make waves on the wider scene with a very well received performance at this year’s Womad festival and recording sessions produced by noted UK roots groover and shaker Ben Mandelson, from which Wollo is taken.

They may use ancient instruments, but there’s nothing arcane about the way that they play them.”YouTube

Impressive Horns


Ankole cattle


Originally native to Africa. Its large, distinctive horns, that can reach up to 8 feet (2.4 m) from tip to tip, are used for defense and cooling by blood vessled honeycombes. Ankole-Watusis weigh from 900 to 1,600 pounds (410 to 730 kg).Wikipedia

Digging up the buried beer at Hotel Timbuktu


After months of Islamist rule, Timbuktu is getting back to normal – with thirsty journalists replacing the traditional tourists and backpackers.

The cloud of dust was so thick it was hard to breathe.

I was trying to write up another script in the corridor, but a member of the hotel staff was sweeping the floor, whipping the dust into the air.

This was the morning after the Hotel La Colombe (Dove Hotel) re-opened. It had been closed for 10 months during the occupation of al-Qaeda militants and their allies.

When a bunch of reporters showed up shortly after the French recaptured the city, hotel manager Mohamed Toure could not believe his ears. A group of Westerners was offering to pay to stay in a building where nothing was working!

Mr Toure looked up and lifted his arms to the sky. He gave us a huge smile of relief and thanked God, exclaiming: “Alhamdoulilah!”

“I didn’t think I would ever see Europeans again,” he said. He told us that tourism had suffered over the past few years because of a rise in hostage-taking in the region. Yet his hotel was never short of guests.

But the coup against the government in Bamako – followed by the arrival of Islamist militants in Timbuktu on 1 April last year – left him with no choice. He had to close.

“I would have nothing to do,” he told me, “but I would still be up by six o’clock and I would sit on the front steps of the hotel reading a novel all day long.”

When we first arrived, a small crowd of local people emerged, desperate to help out and to earn some money. The reporters, they found, had a list of items they urgently required.

We needed a reliable power supply, so generators and good torches were priorities. Soon the hotel’s terrace was unrecognisable, as a forest of satellite dishes and cables sprung up between the plastic tables and chairs.

A local man toured each table asking whether we fancied mutton for supper. He told us that he planned to roast a whole animal stuffed with couscous for everyone to share. It sounded good to us.

But when he came back with the cooked beast two hours later, it was clear he thought we had ordered the huge animal just for the four of us.

Happily a compromise was reached – we did have to pay for half of the sheep, but there was mutton for all the news teams.

When the Islamist fighters took over the city, they came to question the hotel manager, to ask if there was any foreign investment in his business.

He had to prove, with official documents, that he was of Moroccan origin and that the only money had come from his father. So the place was spared while banks, sacred tombs and shrines were destroyed.

Mohamed Toure did not have to answer any more questions, until the French started to drop bombs on houses they believed were occupied by jihadis.

Many in Mali are experiencing freedom again, though conditions are far from normal

“About 20 of them forced themselves into my garden,” recalled Mr Toure. “They hid under the trees before they left the city.”

It did not take long for trade to return to Timbuktu. Within days of our arrival, a turbaned craftsman had laid out a piece of local fabric with cotton shirts, wooden souvenirs and Tuareg silver knives.

But conditions were still far from normal. When we did get to bed, sleep was difficult. Mattresses were dusty, bed-sheets filthy and torn.

Electricity was in short supply – it cut out at noon each day. We soon got used to those generators roaring away hour after hour.

Running water was also scarce. A few drops for a shower felt like a real luxury.

But the real surprises were called “Guinness” and “Castel”. Cases of the foreign beers had been buried underground when the fundamentalist fighters banned alcohol in town. At last it was time to dig them up.

The bottles were caked in dust like a good French wine kept in a traditional cellar. There were not, however, very many of them so, of course, they were sold at wartime prices.

It has been a great thrill talking to men and women who are experiencing freedom again after months of harsh Islamist rule. The tourists and backpackers – who the people of Timbuktu were used to – have been replaced by journalists and soldiers.

Nevertheless, it means a bit of work and cash for residents who had little of either while the Islamists were in town.

Tourism used to generate significant revenues for Mali’s economy. Soon it will benefit from a new flow of people – journalists, aid workers, soon-to-arrive UN staff and other soon-to-be permanent delegations.

As he struggled to believe his hotel was re-opening at long last, Mohamed Toure told me that, in the last few months, had only been able to afford one meal a day with his family.

“But since you guys arrived,” he told me with a smile, “we’re able to enjoy THREE meals once again!”


Images from Timbuktu

Hotel La Colombe, Timbuktu, Mali – image: tripadvisor

The Islamist invaders destroyed many historical sties and manuscripts.

The Islamist invaders destroyed many historical sties and manuscripts.

A historic city whose very name conjures up a sense of mystery. Once a centre of Islamic teaching, Timbuktu’s architectural glories have been taken by the desert, but the people and the romance remain. – image: dk books

An aerial view of Timbuktu today – image: historyhaven

Lions are Disappearing

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West African lions on verge of extinction, report says

Conservation group LionAid says as few as 645 lions remain in the wild in western and central Africa

Lions in Botswana. LionAid estimates there are 15,000 wild lions left in the whole of Africa, compared to 200,000 30 years ago. Photograph: Frans Lanting/Corbis

It is known for its vibrant culture, oil wealth and huge human population, but few people associate Nigeria with lions. Now a report says the almost forgotten species of west African lions found in countries such as Nigeria are on the verge of extinction following a decline in recent years.

The UK-based conservation group LionAid says as few as 645 lions remain in the wild in western and central Africa. It says lions are extinct in 25 African nations and virtually extinct in 10, and it estimates that 15,000 wild lions remain on the continent as a whole, compared with about 200,000 30 years ago.

“There has been a catastrophic decline in the populations of lions in Africa, and particularly west Africa,” said Dr Pieter Kat, trustee of LionAid. “These lions have been neglected for a very long time and do not have adequate protection programs. They are in real danger of extinction.”

The report says west Africa faces particular challenges due to high levels of poverty, lack of political interest in conservation and an underdeveloped wildlife tourism industry.

“Even though the national parks in west Africa contain very distinct and very important fauna compared to eastern Africa, people tend to ignore that west Africa is a very special place,” Kat said. “As a result the populations in west Africa are declining so quickly, as a biologist I would say that in a country like Nigeria, which has only 34 lions left, they are already extinct. It’s almost impossible to build up a population from such a small number.”

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