The heat from the midday sun was intense, scorching the skin and piercing past the scalp, but a bare-chested 64-year-old Peter Lokoroi was hard at work on his garden.
Days earlier, the heavens had opened for the first time in a long while and Lokoroi, a resident of Nakiloro sub-county in Moroto district, wanted to make the most of the opportunity.
"We are trying to grow food but we don't know what will happen," he said, rather resignedly.
Lokoroi's skepticism is drawn from his experience of the previous 12 months, when unpredictable weather patterns and a host of other factors left him with a poor harvest.
"This past year, there was no food because of drought," he explained through an interpreter. "The drought destroyed all our food."
Lokoroi has cause to worry, given that the latest analysis by the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a leading provider of early warning and analysis on food insecurity, projects how 2017 is likely to be another year punctuated by food shortage in Karamoja.
According to the FEWS NET report, during the 2017 lean season stretching from February to June, very poor households in the districts of Moroto and Napak are expected to face food consumption gaps and be in crisis.
"In these areas, poorly distributed rainfall led to below-average production and very poor households depleted food stocks three months earlier than normal. Many are facing increasing difficulty purchasing sufficient food to meet their basic needs, as food prices are 30 to 40 per cent above average. Food security is expected to improve to 'stressed' in July with the green harvest," says the report.
The situation is made worse by three related developments, the influx of Turkana pastoralists from next-door Kenya as well as refugees from South Sudan, and the poor harvest of food from the neighbouring communities of Teso and Lango, which sell food to the people of Karamoja during hard times.
"This year, though, rapid food security assessments conducted by FEWS NET and information from partner reports indicate that many poor households in parts of Teso, Lango, Acholi, and Busoga harvested significantly below-average cereal volumes in 2016 and depleted household food stocks in January. Due to below-average domestic supplies, staple food prices have increased in most markets," says the report.
Lokoroi is a polygamous husband with two wives and a father to 12 children. Unlike most people from the Karamoja sub-region, he does not keep livestock on a large scale. He said he owns only three cows and 10 goats.
Instead, he burns and sells charcoal for a living to supplement the produce from his garden. However, during the period of sustained drought, not even the charcoal was sufficient to provide enough food to his family. As a result, he said, sometimes they go hungry.
"Yesterday, I slept without food," he said. "If you had a machine to check my stomach now, you would see that there is no food, if you think I am lying."
According to the FEWS NET report, Lokoroi is just one of many locals from some of the affected districts in the Karamoja sub-region where the current food shortages leave people with nothing to eat, if at all.
"In these districts most very poor households are consuming one meal a day consisting mostly of cereals and wild vegetables," says the report. "In Rupa and Nadunget sub-counties of Moroto, there are reports of some household members skipping daily meals and households placing children in different schools where feeding programs are offered."
The hunger that Karamoja has suffered this year is not a one-off occurrence. It has happened repeatedly for the last several years, with the interventions from the government seemingly insufficient to end the problem.
According to Moruita Lukotomoi, a resident of Moroto's Naput village, who says his food during the drought is the blood he occasionally draws out of his cows after piercing an artery on the neck, the government response is not effective.
"We are now used to hunger because the government does not remember us. Many people come here and register our names saying they will bring us support but after they have taken our names, we never see them again," he said.
Lokoroi shares similar sentiments about the government's interventions, which he says come rather late, if at all. "It takes six months or one year before they come with support, yet we need it urgently," he said.
In early February, the government delivered 100 tonnes of relief food (mostly maize floor and beans) to Karamoja, but even the state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees, Musa Ecweru, who supervised the distribution of the food, conceded that it would not be sufficient.
"This is not enough," he told locals. "But it can help you prepare porridge to help you get strength to prepare gardens since rains have started."
Days later, a cabinet statement on the strategic policy action on food security in the country, which was prepared by the government's multi-sectoral team drawn from different ministries, declared that at least Shs 52.6 billion is needed to provide food and water relief to vulnerable households around the country, with most of the money earmarked for Karamoja.
Karamoja has an estimated population of 1.1 million people, out of which 82 per cent live below the poverty line compared to the national average of 31 per cent, according to the Office of the Prime Minister.
Minister Ecweru estimates that most of those living below the poverty line in Karamoja face the brunt of the food shortage in the semi-arid region.
"Between 49 and 80 percent of the about one million people in Karamoja are already in acute food shortage and depend on relief supplies from WFP and the population facing food shortages has kept increasing," he said.
A policy research report prepared in 2011 by the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), a local think tank, notes that the government has over the years gone out of its way to tailor specific programmes for Karamoja and sink billions of shillings into the effort.
"Owing to its unique socio-economic status, Karamoja has had a number of target interventions, ranging from the creation of a special ministry for the region to the development of specifically tailored programmes intended to spur development," says the report.
Some of the target interventions included the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), Peace, Rehabilitation and Development Plan (PRDP) and Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme (KIDDP). Among other things, the programmes focused on infrastructure development, including schools infrastructure, health centres, boreholes and roads.
However, it seems that even the decision by President Museveni to deploy his wife, Janet, as minister for Karamoja Affairs, did not sufficiently oil the government machinery that is supposed to help Karamoja out of its doldrums.
When Ms Museveni was appointed to head the Karamoja ministry, she declared that her mission would be to improve the food security situation in what is largely a semi-arid region inhabited by nomadic pastoralists.
While handing over to her successor, John Byabagambi, in mid-2016, Ms Museveni said the key interventions that happened over a five-year period under her watch included construction of 80 parish dams and five large water reservoirs, as well as the distribution of oxen and ox ploughs, heifers, goats, grinding mills and sewing machines under the Community Empowerment programme to strengthen household food security and income generation.
The total budget from the Office of the Prime Minister for Karamoja is Shs 16 billion. In addition, according to Byabagambi, the NGO sector has injected at least $56 million (about Shs 196 billion) into the Karamoja sub-region.
However, during a February 28 visit to Nakapiripirit district, Ms Museveni, who is now education minister, decried the fact that despite the interventions she supervised, people in the sub-region are still facing hunger, with some dying as a result. So, why has Karamoja continued to suffer food shortage despite the millions of shillings that the government has pumped into the region over the years?
AUDITING GOVT EFFORTS
The chairman of the Karamoja parliamentary caucus, Sam Lokeris, said the government's effort has not registered the desired effect due to insufficient resources.
"The government put in resources, which resources were of course not enough," said the Dodoth East (Kaabong district) MP. "It is not that when the First Lady is there, everything is OK."
Karamoja affairs minister Byabagambi told The Observer on Saturday that the resources were indeed insufficient, but said it is all they could get from the government budget.
"The [resource] basket we have is not so huge and is not so elastic that we have all the money that the Karimojong need," he said. "The people saying we are sending little money are mostly leaders from Karamoja but they have not even utilized the little we have sent to them in a proper way."
The LC-III chairperson for Abim sub-county in Abim district, Richard Okori, says while natural factors have played a considerable part in keeping Karamoja in perpetual hunger, the government intervention and assortment of programmes don't help the people in the ways that they hope either.
"There are very many good government programmes. But these interventions that the government comes up with to assist our community, they don't consult. Take for example, Operation Wealth Creation, these people brought for us citrus in May last year, which did not coincide with our rains. So, most of the seedlings dried up," he said.
Part of the problem, according to Okori, stems from the way the government develops its plans. He said the government does not involve the community that is supposed to benefit right from the start of the planning process.
"Planning is a bottom-up approach, but for them they plan from the top; so, you find that some of their interventions are actually not what our people need," he said. "To make that support beneficial to our community, consultations must first be made before they can come up with the most effective ways of offering that support."
Minister Byabagambi said the planning for most government programmes starts from the bottom but the finer details are arrived at by technocrats since they have the requisite expertise. He said programmes such as the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF), whose budget amounts to $100 million, are implemented at the district level.
"There is nothing implemented in Karamoja which the local leaders are not involved," he said. "Unless they want us to give them money and they just eat."
A study report prepared in August 2015 by the Uganda Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Technical Working Group, which includes representatives from the central and local government, NGOs and UN agencies, sheds more light on the problem areas.
According to the report, which compiles a comprehensive analysis of the situation in each district, although the government has helped increase the land areas cultivated, crop production generally remains below normal.
In addition, a combination of historical challenges which endure in Karamoja districts, such as high prevalence of livestock diseases, poor infrastructure and low household incomes continue to peg the region back.
"The most extreme limiting factor to food security in the region is utilisation, followed by access," explains the 59-page report. "Utilisation of food is affected by poor sanitation, poor child care practices (low feeding frequency for children, poor dietary diversity, and poor food preparation methods), and low per-capita water usage below 15 litres per person per day and poor food storage."
Another report, prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the European Commission's humanitarian aid arm argues that by focusing on improving agricultural productivity at the expense of livestock production, the government is using a skewed approach. It calls for a return to prioritizing livestock production.
The report, titled, What to do about Karamoja - a food security analysis of Karamoja, says that focusing on offering basic support to existing livestock strategies (in particular to animal health and marketing), could dramatically improve livestock productivity.
"This would both raise incomes to levels above those of households in many parts of Uganda and would increase resilience, making the even small herds owned by the poor sufficient to support food security (from livestock sales) without depleting herd sizes," says the report.
It adds: "When considering the likely impact of climate change - continued increase in the unpredictability of rainfall patterns - this strategy becomes ever more pressing. Current development policies do not adequately support this, and most development programmes give more support to crop-based livelihoods than to herding based on freedom of movement. This runs counter to the evidence."
MP Lokeris says if the government wants to promote agriculture in Karamoja, then it will need to put up efficient irrigation schemes, not just valley dams for cows.
"When Obote was in power, he had planned for an irrigation scheme so that people would be able to have enough water drawn from Lake Bisina and then give technologies that are able to help people produce food with or without rain. So in all these [current] interventions, the most critical one would be to harvest water for irrigation in the area and introduce irrigation schemes in various areas," he said.
Lokeris also calls on the government to set up a consistent plan for distributing quick- maturing, drought-resistant crops around the Karamoja region to enable the locals circumvent the persistent weather challenges.
"We need quick-maturing, drought-resistant seeds that people would now be using so that if the rains come for two or three months, they are able to plant and they would mature before the drought comes up," he said.
Minister Byabagambi said the government has started pilot irrigation in seven districts, but decried the fact that they had not been replicated in other areas.
"We thought others were going to learn, but nobody has learnt from them. That notwithstanding, the government has dedicated more resources to support other irrigation projects," he said.
Byabagambi added that while the government plays its role to improve the situation in the region, the Karimojong also need to change their lifestyles and adapt to using more efficient ways of living and creating wealth.
"Of course it takes time to change their way of living and their way of thinking because they usually think they are right. When you see them following those small cows, they think it is wealth but it is not true. Karamoja has about two million cows and the population is 1.2 million, meaning every person owns only one and a half cows; so, that one can't be the way to bring income into their pockets. To me, the biggest job we have to do is to change the mindset of the people of Karamoja so that they can also be part of the economy."