22 April 2009

Uganda: Biting Hunger Has Reduced Teso Region to Ghostland

Kampala — JESSICA Akello and her five children gather around a fireplace to eat what is left of the two days' 400 grams of millet bread, the first meal the family has had in a week.

This is at Aketa parish, Katakwi district.

Too weak to stand, Akello scoops crumbs of millet from the saucepan to feed her emaciated babies with protruding ribs. She is is nine months pregnant but the situation facing her family has forced her out of maternity leave to find food and survive the biting hunger.

She does manual work in other people's farms everyday, from eight o'clock in the morning to three in the evening, to earn a paltry sh1000. She survived the ravaging famine of 1994 that claimed the lives of 200 people in Teso region, including her first husband. The region was emerging from three years of the Uganda Peoples Army rebellion against the government of Uganda.

While the war kept people away from their gardens, later, a five-month drought ravaged crops, drying up everything. Many resorted to wild leaves and mangoes for survival! Simultaneously, the Karimojong cattle rustlers violently raided all livestock, forcing the region's 1.2 million people into camp life and starvation. Akello says her family lost about 112 head of cattle. "My husband died of starvation after looking for food in vain. He was the first victim of hunger in our village," she says. She later re-married.

The few shillings she earns cannot sustain her family for a day and hunger is sapping her strength. The number of times she has slept on an empty stomach is countless. "There is nothing coming from either NGOs or the Government," says the frail 45-year-old mother. "That's why we dig for long hours." When it begins to rain after five months, it is feared the region will have become a graveyard!

Amuria district chairman Julius Ocen says already five people have died of hunger and 19,000 others in the district are starving. He identified the dead as Moses Asubu of Alito in Obalanga sub-county, Grace Imalingat, Francis Oryokoto, Takan and Opailum, all of Kapelebyong. Katakwi district agriculture officer James Epilo says there are also 55,000 people there starving, feeding on leaves, ash, cow dung and termites! At a village meeting in Akoro, a frail 80-year-old Immaculate Akiror hadn't eaten for five days and her stick-thin and pale body suggested uncomfortable evidence that the community is about to succumb to hunger-related diseases. Katakwi district health officer Simon Omeke says starvation is also causing anaemia, with baffling symptoms of severe wasting as well as swelling of limbs.

"Katakwi Health Centre 4 receives 100 cases of severe malnutrition of young children every two weeks. We are carrying out a malnutrition study and soon the results will be released," Omeke said.

Palapiano Kawunda, a 71-year-old widower says he hadn't eaten for four days and had to eat cow dung. He has swollen legs and the rest of his body is weak. He is suffering from severe diarrhoea. "I had taken a week without eating. Fearing death, I crawled towards a cow and ate cow dung," Kawunda says.

Other men in the village of Ngariam tell lurid tales of attempted suicide of men being cut down from trees, demented with grief and shame, having lost all their animals and crops.

Epilo worries when he sees pastoralists without their canes. "Their sticks are for looking after animals," he say. "So you can say that the pastoralist's stick represents hope. But if they throw away sticks, that means despair." The 2007 flood disaster that gripped the region destroyed all the crops and forced about 300,000 people into internally displaced peoples camps. Epilo says the Government then intervened by giving the affected residents farm implements worth sh450m consisting of seeds and hoes. "However, the region experienced a prolonged drought for about five months that killed all the crops. Now the future of thousands of Teso people is in starvation," he adds.

The problem is compounded by the high prices of foodstuffs. When The New Vision visited Ocorimongin market in Katakwi, the price of a basin of dry cassava was sh4500 up from sh12, 000. A kilogramme of millet and sorghum flour has soared from sh1,200 to sh3000. "Many people can't afford food. Few who have livestock are selling it to buy food," says Katakwi district councillor Charles Aleper.

The famine hasn't spared the region's school enrolment. Katakwi district education officer Angela Atim says the dropout rate in the district stands at 20 percent per term- for pupils and teachers.

"I am losing five teachers annually. Teachers and pupils are looking for food rather than attend class," she says.

Many people may be pointing fingers at floods, cattle-rustling or drought for the region's famine, but Epilo says these are just part of the triggers. "The region is so remote and inaccessible. Lack of development or decent roads or access to information and lack of access to emergency help has compounded the problem," Epilo adds. People are starving needlessly and neither government nor NGOs have delivered any help. Ocen says he contacted the Prime Minster's office and was promised that they would look into the crisis by April 20 but to date nobody has showed up.

"On April 29, 2009, we are going to demonstrate peacefully from Amuria district and march to the Parliament of Uganda to deliver a petition to the Speaker," Ocen says. Ocen also re-assured the public that by May 15, if the situation has not improved, they will hijack food from any World Food Programme truck that passes within Amuria district.

"We are also members of the United Nations. How many people do they want to see dead before they help?" Ocen wonders.

He however says Amuria district is planning to re-allocate sh60m to buy cassava flour to feed hungry residents.

"The writing is on the wall. Like the 1980, 1989 and 1994 famine, there is looming danger in Teso," he says .

In the previous famine, Government and aid agencies were sharply criticised for the snail's pace at which they brought help to the needy. It was not until death was reported that help came. We are witnessing a similar situation," he says."

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