18 July 2009

Uganda: Living On Less Than One Dollar a Day

Although Uganda's economy is growing, 31 per cent of the people are living in abject poverty. Evelyn Lirri examines how they survive;

Everyday in Omodoi Sub-county, Katakwi District in eastern Uganda, Ms Grace Atai begins her day at 5: 30 am-without breakfast. She treks 10 kilometres to till her garden where she has planted sorghum, groundnuts and cassava. But the soil has been overworked, coupled with severe drought currently ravaging the region. Ms Atai does not think she will have a good harvest this year. Yet this is where she has been getting food to feed her nine children all her life. Previously, she would also sell the surplus to cater for other requirements like medical care and clothing.

Today, the 38 year-old expectant mother and her peasant husband are not sure what the day holds. The family lives every other day not sure of how or whether they will put food to table. Ms Atai's biggest worry is how she will feed and clothe her nine children as well as buy soap, salt and make ends meet.

When Saturday Monitor met Ms Atai, a slender woman with a wrinkled skin dressed in a tattered blue blouse on the afternoon of June 24, her children had not eaten any solid meal that day. "I only gave them porridge this morning. It's kept them going," she said.

Ms Atai said on a lucky day, the family takes one meal which is usually served in the evening. "During the day, the children have to feed on mangoes. But as you can see now, most of the mangoes are getting finished. My children will now have to starve," she said. Even on some days, Ms Atai said, her family has had to sleep hungry because she cannot afford to buy food from the local market as prices have spiraled as a result of food scarcity in the district.

Just two weeks ago, her family went to bed hungry because she did not have Shs1,200 to buy a kilogramme of maize flour.

The recent drought in Katawki and other neighboring districts has left thousands of people food insecure in a region that already suffers high poverty levels.

Katakwi District population officer Samuel Omoding said poverty levels in the district are alarming, largely exacerbated by the floods of the last two years that destroyed the people's main source of livelihood. "Many people here now have to look for alternative ways of surviving. They tried agriculture this year but the rains have not been favourable. Crops have dried in the field except cassava which has been resistant to the drought," Mr Omoding said. He said if the rains don't come soon, many more people will be pushed down into poverty because they will not have any source of livelihood.

Ms Grace Atai in front of her grass thatched house with her children. PHOTO BY EVELYN LIRRI

Like many people in this region, as elsewhere in Uganda, Domitila Asengo, 48, is living in abject poverty. She has been struggling to feed her six children from the meager income she gets from engaging in manual work. "I go and weed people's garden and I am paid Shs1,000. This is the money I have to spend on food but it's not enough," she said.

However, not all days are so kind to Ms Asengo. "When I don't get any garden to weed, my family depends on wild leaves which are also starting to dry because there has been no rain for the last three months," Ms Asengo explained. She said even mangoes that her family used to depend on have become scarce and expensive to afford for a person like her whose daily income is less than a dollar-a-day. "We are now buying three raw mangoes for Shs100," she said.

Recently, Ms Asengo said when one of her children fell sick, she could not afford to take him for treatment at a public health centre because she did not have money to pay Shs500 needed to buy a registration book required at the health centre. "I had to rely on traditional herbs to treat my son," she said. This is the desperate state in which many people are living, unable to afford even the basic of services because its beyond their income reach.

Despite improvements registered in recent years in terms of economic growth, most people in Uganda continue to live in abject poverty. According to the latest Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) poverty report released recently, the proportion of Ugandans living in absolute poverty is at 31 per cent, with the majority of poor people living in the East and northern regions.

Although eradicating extreme poverty is the first millennium development goal, Uganda still faces a big challenge of reducing the numbers of its population that still lives in absolute poverty. In fact, the Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic Development, through the Population Secretariat is focusing its World Population Day celebration on how to address challenges of poverty. The day to be marked on July 11 2009 will be under the theme, "Empowering Communities to overcome the challenges of poverty."

Mr Hannington Burunde, the head of information and communication at the Population Secretariat said the challenge now is how to reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty amidst the current global economic crisis. "We are looking at what strategies can be put to fight poverty so that we avoid the impact of the credit crunch," he said.

While extreme poverty levels in Uganda have been reducing from 56 per cent in 1990 to 44 per cent in 1998 and 31 per cent to date, the country's high population growth rate is impacting negatively on government's effort to cut on poverty levels.

According to the 2007 State of Uganda Population report, Uganda's high fertility rate of 6.9 per cent and a low contraceptive use is contributing to persisting poverty. "The high fertility rate contributes to a high population density, a situation likely to lead to land insecurity especially for many women because poverty affects them most," the report reads.

The director of population and social statistics at the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Mr Andrew Mukulu said recently that the reduction in the number of people living on less than a dollar a day has not been translated into a significant reduction in the actual number of people living on less than a dollar a day.

"In 1992, there were 9.8 million people living below the poverty line, in 2003 they were 8.9 million, today, they are 8.4million people living below the poverty line," Mr Mukulu said.

Discussing the implications of Uganda's high population growth rate at meeting with members of Parliament in Kampala recently, Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba, a poverty eradication expert said while countries with high populations can benefit from a demographic dividend, 56 percent of Uganda's population which is below 18 years old only spells disaster.

"The fast-increasing population appears to be the factor in the rising absolute number of people living in poverty. The current population growth rate is unsustainable because it's not producing a quality population. If such a population is not checked, it will only turn into a disaster," Dr Nuwagaba said.

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