2014-Heilke-MatthiasMatthias Heilke

Since this is my first post — the blog just started functioning a few minutes ago! — please allow me to introduce myself. I just finished my second year at McGill Law, and I am pleased to be spending my summer in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. I will mostly be working at the Centre for Health, Human Rights, and Development (CEHURD), a local health-law NGO that does everything from lobbying to community education to strategic litigation.

There are lots of blogs about what it is like to be a clueless muzungu (white person) making his first visit to a developing country, so do not expect too many words about it here. Just compose something in your head about gruelling poverty, getting lost for lack of road signs and addresses, and the dangers of riding a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi), and you will probably get the right idea. (And please try to make me look good in whatever you think up!)

~What I’m up to~

As of writing, I have spent exactly three weeks working at CEHURD — it would be a day more, except I couldn’t find the CEHURD office on my first day of work. Google Maps lied to me! I have done a whole bunch of things, so I’ll just list them:

• Intellectual property rights. Patents especially have an enormous and mostly negative effect on access to medicine in developing countries. I spent a couple days in meetings at the Ministry of Justice, going through their draft regulations on patents with the aim of promoting access to medicine. As of those meetings, I have influenced Ugandan government far more than Canadian government! Now we are meeting with some of the stakeholders, especially other health NGO’s and local generic pharmaceutical producers.

• Strategic litigation. CEHURD has a substantial strategic litigation department, and I have done [privileged] with them. We’re [privileged]ing. It’s really [privileged]!

• Also some strategic litigation that I can actually talk about, as we held a press conference about it this morning at our office. Long story short, there are two villages near Kampala whose source of drinking water is being contaminated by a Chinese quarrying company. They also are getting covered in stone dust and being subjected to the noise of explosions, all of which is leading to serious health problems. The local government and the responsible national governmental body refused to do anything about it. CEHURD is filing a suit against all three actors. I got to help edit the plaint.

CEHURD's press conference venue, a.k.a. the courtyard of our office.
CEHURD’s press conference venue, a.k.a. the courtyard of our office.

• Non-communicable diseases. CEHURD is following up on a study it did last year for the UNDP on NCD awareness and prevention at Kampalan universities, and I am helping coordinate ideas, prepare documents and so-on. It is an enormous challenge: I have no experience with this kind of work or programme, and I have literally never stepped foot on a Ugandan campus. On the other hand, it turns out students are pretty much the same everywhere (read: underslept, undernourished, and oversexed).

• Communicable diseases. I have listened rather than participated, per se, in various conversations about HIV advocacy. I also had a lively debate with one of my coworkers as to whether being HIV-positive increases one’s duty of care toward others to not get your blood on them. I said yes morally but was agnostic legally; my coworker said no to both. People suffering from HIV also suffer outrageous discrimination and ill will here, so there is a very emotional context.

 ~What I’m not up to~

There are a couple items currently in the news related to CEHURD’s work in which I have not in any sense participated:

• An HIV-positive nurse was convicted a few days ago of criminal negligence after she pricked herself with a needle and then, after going to clean up, allegedly accidentally used the needle on her infant patient. The hospital administered anti-retrovirals, and the child is HIV-free, but the nurse was nonetheless sentenced to three years imprisonment (prosecution requested six years). The case has turned into a public litmus test as to how one sees people with HIV. The nurse was represented by CEHURD’s very own Counsellor David (though, I should emphasize, I have not heard him talk about the case, and what I mention here is all public information.)

• A public interest lawyer has filed a suit against the government regarding this year’s budget, on the grounds that the budget provides so little funding to primary education that it violates the right to education. It will be a very interesting case, but sadly not one in which CEHURD is involved — the lady who filed the petition is not with our organization.

I’m afraid this blog post is less incisive than I might hope for. Such is the way of introductions. I promise the next post will be about just one topic!

~Weekly Miscellany~

• Many thanks to Prof. Richard Gold for teaching me intellectual property law. I had no trouble keeping up with the discussions at the Ministry, even though I had been in Uganda for less than a week. In a job where I know basically nothing about most of the topics I work on, that is a major victory.

• Currently trending in Kampala: “TGE”. It’s an acronym for a Lugundu phrase that means, “The government should intervene!” You say it if you cut your finger, for example.

• One Ugandan beer company, Tusker’s, advertises itself as “authentically American”. I doubt whether its customers have caught on to the joke. I have not had the opportunity to try it for myself, yet, being preoccupied with waragi (the local millet gin), but I will get back to you with my thoughts when I do.

• Novida. It’s a non-alcoholic malt beverage that tastes like pineapples. Why Schweppes (the maker) doesn’t sell it worldwide is beyond me. So good.

• My coworkers are seriously nice. Not that amusing an observation or anything, but true and worth saying.

• Habs sweaters seen in Kampala: 1. [Update: 2. The latter was for sale in Owino Market starting at 10,000 shillings, rather stained, but with its Village des valeurs tag still attached.]