5 June 2017

Uganda: Hunger Not Ravaging Teso Alone - Karamoja Suffering Just As Much

Photo: The Observer
Children digging during the rainy season in the hope for rains.

In the last two weeks, The Observer has revealed, through a two-part series, the level of devastation that food shortage has caused in the Teso sub-region, as well as the genesis of the problem. Today, as part of our effort to understand the extent of the problem, JONATHAN KAMOGA travels to Karamoja region's Kotido district, where he attempts to find out why the food shortage situation is not any better there.

The ripple effects of drought can spread far and wide, and for a long spell. First, because of the prolonged drought, crops dried up. Then famine hit as food stores went empty.

Now, residents of Panyangara sub-county in Kotido district are facing a water crisis after 90 per cent of the boreholes, their only source of water in the area, broke down or ran dry. Panyangara has a population of 40,574 people living in four parishes and 38 villages.

At Kapadakook village, the damage of the prolonged drought can be observed by all human senses. A smell of dry dust pierces through your nostrils as the sight of bare gardens meets your eyes with formerly green crops now looking grey. The only surviving green are a little scattered drought-resistant shrubs.

As you stroll along the roads that snake through this empty plain, you cannot fail to notice that even the birds are not singing. They seem to have migrated from the area together with many families that once occupied the now-empty houses.

But some souls have not lost hope. In certain gardens beside the road, children, men and women can be seen digging under the scotching sunshine. The soil is hard and the children look malnourished, but they dig with enthusiasm, like it is going to rain the next day.

"A famer never gives up. We still have hope and that is why we are not giving up even when the rains have delayed to come, we shall dig and by the time they [rains] come, we shall be ready," Anthony Longok tells me.

Longok, a father of seven, says as a farmer, his survival has always been on growing crops for subsistence. He gets income from selling part of his harvest while his family remains with the other half for consumption. However, this is the longest dry season he has ever seen in his 41 years of existence, and it has come with consequences to his family and people around him.

"I tell you this is serious! People's granaries are now dry and the prices of food in the shops are so high that many of us can't even dream of buying from there. Imagine a kilo of beans is Sh 4,000 and a kilo of posho is shs 3,000!" Longok exclaims.

He worries that if the famine that has already claimed 22 lives, according to the area police, continues, many more will die.

"It is not about laziness; no," Longok says, with a grim on his face. "We Karimojong are not lazy as people say. It is the weather that lets us down even when we work hard."

MANGO MEALS

Like Longok, 68-year-old Anna Nabul worries for her 12 grandchildren with whom she stays. She says the family used to have at least two meals a day, but with the current situation, they sometimes have to settle for just one meal in two days, including her youngest grandson, John Lokorimoe, who is three years old.

"This is a unique year. We are also wondering what is happening to us. It is so unusual," Nabul says through an interpreter. "What shall I do for my grandchildren if the situation continues like this? Where can we run to if all we are eating now gets over?"

She tells me of people from her village who travel about five kilometres to go to the market in Nakongumutu to simply buy a mango, eat it and walk back to wait on how that week will end.

Kotido district chairman, Ambrose Lotukei, also worries about the future. Even though a few drops of rain were received the night before, he is afraid many families will not be able to plant during the next rainy season because they ate up all their stock, including seeds that they are supposed to plant.

"Government will start delivering seeds through Operation Wealth Creation but of course it may not be enough; so, we request that government considers giving us more seeds," he says.

In Rikitae parish, fear gripped the residents a few days ago when an elder died of hunger in his hut. Being an elder and with the respect and position he held in society, the residents thought it as a bad omen and a sign that many of them will follow shortly.

However, parish chief Lucky Awiri, to some extent, credits government for acting swiftly, although indirectly, to save lives of the old people in the area, this particular death notwithstanding.

"You see; these old people cannot work; so, there is nowhere to get food from. A famine like this can easily wipe them out. However, the government, under its senior citizens' grant, has helped save many," Awiri tells me in her office.

About thirty elders have received Shs 50,000 from government under the citizen's grant which is supposed to take them for two months. In 2010, the government in collaboration with the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and Irish Aid established the Senior Citizens' Grant (SCG) across fifteen of the Uganda's 112 districts, for everyone above 65 years of age and for the Karamoja region, the age was set at 60.

More districts have been brought on board since.

Under this programme, individuals receive Shs 25,000 per month and Awiri says it is the only reason many old people have not died of hunger.

INCREASED CRIME

For survival, some community members have resorted to stealing animals from their neighbours which they slaughter, preserve and hide in their homes to feed hungry families.

Others are on rampage too, breaking into their neighbours' granaries to seek what may be left in there. To counter this, the community carries out village mobilisation and arrests the culprits who are immediately sentenced to death through mob justice. Just two days before we visited, a young man had been killed not far away from the police station after he was caught stealing.

"You pity the culprits who steal to feed their families and they are killed instead," Ayatollah Kapchemut, the Kotido district police commander, tells me, his face clearly showing some bit of confusion. "But we can't allow crime to thrive because of this; so, we must explore different avenues of survival for these people."

WATER CRISIS

Being hungry would not have been any worse, but the people in this village are also experiencing water shortage. The seasonal rivers nearby dried up as well as the small valley dams provided by the government. The only source of water that remained was boreholes, but more than half of them have broken down due to pressure.

Lotukei says this was because of "overstretching them" by the increased number of users who came from as far as Kenya's north-western Turkana region in search for water.

Mzee Nabul, too, worries for her grandchildren on water again. She says of the two functioning boreholes she knows, the nearest is three kilometres away and her grandchildren have to walk this distance, wait for long hours to get water. It is a day's work, she concludes.

"There are very many people at the boreholes, families want to take water home, cattle keepers bring their cows and even the soldiers use the same borehole," she says.

Kotido town is dusty with mainly small short commercial buildings lining up along the murram roads. Businesses here run from small retail shops to food parlours, lodges to electronics shops. Because of the nomadic way of life of the Karimojong, they seem to have shunned the town. It is occupied by youths, doing mostly petty business.

At particular spots in the town, one notices long lines of young and old Karimojong people, clad in their traditional wear, standing beside a long line of yellow jerrycans. This point is a commercial water source whose owner charges Shs 200 per 20-litre jerrycan.

This, however, varies according to numbers and only works out for people in the town; many of the customers here are buying this water for commercial use like lodge owners and restaurant owners, others are lining up to take the water to nearby villages where they can sell the jerrycan at Shs 1,000.

The water crisis has also affected health centres in the area like Panyangara health centre III. The taps stationed at the entrance of the centre have never produced a single drop. The borehole that is about 100 metres behind the health centre broke down three months ago and caretakers of in-patients are required to join the long queues at faraway boreholes to get a drop.

Alex Ongom, the senior clinical officer in charge of this centre, looks frustrated. Even with the constant smiles I throw at him, he never returns any. He maintains a frown on his face as he abandons the line of waiting patients to come and talk to me.

He is working alone, meanwhile, as the nurse supposed to assist him has left briefly. Ongom is worried about many things, from the single ward which accommodates children, women and men to the cracked hospital walls and caved-in pit latrines, the limited manpower at the centre and now the water crisis.

"In case we have to conduct say a delivery, we have to send the attendants of the patients to fetch water which can be as far as five kilometres away. This puts the mothers at risk," Ongom says as he takes me around the health centre.

Chairman Lotukei says that as local government, they cannot replace all the boreholes in the district at once because of limited and competing resources and asks the government to come in with help.

"What we ask from government is to build us big valley dams, not the small ones that we have; so, we can have water even throughout the dry season," he says.

Moses Kizige, the state minister for Karamoja affairs, agrees with Lotukei on the issue of valley dams as the long-term solution; however, he cites financing challenges.

On my way along the bumpy ride out of Kotido, I can't stop thinking of people in this part of the country who cannot meet essential basic needs. My mind races from Nabul's starving family to the people eating mangoes for a meal; from the patients that walk long distances to access water to children tilling dry fields in hope for rain.

And then I wonder: is it God or government that should urgently intervene? For the affected desperate souls, whoever comes first is the real messiah.

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