By Ronald Musoke
Gun culture gives way to agriculture but nature still rules
Karamoja is in the news again— and it is the familiar story for which this sub-region of north eastern Uganda has come to be associated with for generations: drought and hunger.
The Karamoja most Ugandans who have never ventured there is the kind presented in the media; a desolate and semi-arid land dotted with naked gun-wielding ‘uncivilized’ people.
But there is more to this region.
A conglomeration of seven districts, Karamoja is about 27,511 sq km in size which makes it bigger than Rwanda (26,338sq km).
It is definitely a land interwoven with contrasts, ironies, paradoxes and confusion as I discovered on a recent visit. As a first time traveler to Karamoja, I excitedly ask him, how long it might take us to reach our destination, Moroto, Karamoja’s biggest town.
“If we are lucky, we will be there by 6pm,” said Robert, our driver, “We should use the Mbale-Nakapiripirit-Moroto road… It is better than the Soroti-Moroto road,” he adds in a way that seemed to suggest the 380km-plus trip would not be easy.
I am with several journalists in Karamoja to follow up on a range of developments such as the Drought Early Warning System—a five year old initiative funded by the European Commission-Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) in Karamoja and North Pokot intended to help the Karimojong of Uganda and the Pokot of Kenya respond appropriately to persistent droughts.
The project run by a consortium of non-profit organizations, including the International Institute for Cooperation and Development (C&D) alongside the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) is led by DanChurchAid, a Danish NGO that has been implementing humanitarian and development programmes in Uganda for the last 30 years.
Luck is one thing that everyone travelling by road to Karamoja needs, especially during the rainy season. Our visit to Karamoja is perfectly timed. We were travelling in the dry season.
The region is at the moment grappling with food shortage challenges—a perennial problem. Technocrats say Karamoja has never recovered from the flash floods that pummeled it in 2009.
As we left Mbale town and headed north through Sironko and Kween districts, we forgot about tarmac as the bumpy and dusty stretch begun. My mind kept racing back to Kampala as I recalled the rather insensitive joke; ‘We shall not wait for Karamoja to develop’.
The farther we drive inland, the more I see what that means. This region certainly has been left behind. It has the worst social-economic indicators in the county.
With a population of about 1.1 million people, life expectancy stands at 47 years against the national average of 53 years.
It has the highest maternal mortality rates in the country (750:100,000 live births), highest infant mortality rates (105 in 1000), the lowest literacy rates (11%), the least developed road and communications network.
It also has the least access to sanitation services (9%) as well as the highest population living in poverty (82% against the national average of 31%) according to a 2008 report from United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNCHOA).
That is not to say that the region is less important or has nothing to offer to the rest of the country.
Although it only makes up less than 3% of Uganda’s population, Karamoja produces 20% of the nation’s livestock wealth. It is estimated that 80% of Karimojong households own livestock in the region.
This means that 20% of the nation’s cattle, 16% of its goats, nearly half of all sheep, over 90% of the donkeys and all camels according to 2009 estimates from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics are in Karamoja.
When we enter Namalu, the first significant trading centre on this route which is somewhere in Nakapiripirit District, I do not see the images of naked and warrior-like people the media has associated the Karimojong with for decades.
Instead, we see old women, a few men, and many children modestly dressed. The men carry their handy stools and walking sticks go about wrapped in their brightly-coloured shukas.
Part of the paradox that Karamoja is begins unfolding as our party heads farther. For some reason, I have not seen the semi-arid landscape that the area is known for. All I see are misty mountains and green everywhere. ‘So where is the famine?’ I ask.
Benedict, a rather chatty man and native of the area says this is one of the enigmas of Karamoja. “If you visited during the rainy season, you would label those who have always referred to Karamoja as semi-arid liars…,” he says.
The greenery we are seeing is because we are in an area in Karamoja that is referred to as ‘the green belt’ and also because the first rain has begun falling.
Normally, the rain season in the sub-region starts in April and ends in May, followed by a short dry spell in June and July, and then the second rain season starts in August and goes on until October. The longer dry spell lasts between October to March, and this according to Okinyom, is a normal spell.
But that was before the region’s weather patterns got more erratic. At the moment, the inhabitants do not know what the wet or dry season is supposed to be. For the last two seasons, it has been difficult to predict which season is which because it rained so much to the extent that the roads became impassable, adds Dr. Francis Inangolet Olaki, the Napak District Veterinary Officer.
According to John Peter Okinyom, the District Agriculture Officer for Napak, the previous season was very bad, majorly because the rains which were expected in April did not come leading to an onset of drought. According to James Lemukol, the Napak District Health Officer, the food shortage in Napak has exacerbated malnutrition rates especially among children.
He says of all those admitted in health centres, 7% were fatalities—a figure slightly higher than the acceptable rates of 5% by the World Health Organisation.
He says, this is expected to increase further in the coming months since the district in particular and Karamoj a sub-region expects a food crisis which is expected to peak in either August or September, the most terrible months for the Karimojong.
During this period when most of the crops are not yet ready, you do not want to visit a Karimojong homestead or manyatta.
In a statement delivered to her fellow MPs in early July to explain the hunger situation in Karamoja, Janet Museveni, the First Lady who also doubles as Minister for Karamoja Affairs stated that the situation in Karamoja is not as severe as it is portrayed in the media.
She said food scarcity is most severe in Kabong, Moroto and Napak out of the seven districts in the sub-region and blamed the fragility of the environment and the climate of Karamoja.
According to Mrs Museveni, four years ago, over 75% of households in Karamoja were dependent on food aid for survival and were not producing anything at all.
Today only 10% are categorised as highly vulnerable households and are in need of food aid.
But that is the official narrative. The reality on the ground is quite different.
In the Pokot area Tokora Parish, Kakomongole sub-County in Nakapiripirit District, is the Tokora Community Disaster Risk Reduction Management Committee which is supposed to help about 5000 people.
Like in the other parts of the region, since 2009, drought has been a major hazard affecting the community and therefore food shortage has been inevitable. In Tokora, drought happens every year within the period of March to July.
Organised by ACTED, the group of people has put up a cereal bank and grows early maturing vegetables in response to droughts. The community has also gained skills of identifying and mitigating local hazards such as drought which is the community identified as the most critical.
There are eight villages within the Parish and the food at the cereal bank was meant to rescue the elderly, children and the orphans.
But this year the food bank has little food left and come October, they expect a food crisis. At the time of our visit on July 18, the group’s cereal bank which by estimates can store hundreds of bags of maize, sorghum and beans, had only four bags of maize and beans left.
Margaret Kodet, the group’s treasurer, says the cereal bank was designed to help villagers avoid walking long distances to buy food.
Last year, members stocked 500kgs of beans and 1,100 Kgs of maize, 1000kgs of sorghum worth about Shs 1.3m but due to rampant hunger within the communities, most of the stock has been eaten.
Although there are now plans by the government to distribute over 6000 metric tonnes of food in the months of July and August, the people of Tokora have not had any contact with any government officials. They are worried because a lot has changed in the past couple of years.
Relief NGOs led by the World Food Programme, with government’s backing, have stopped bringing food relief and are instead insisting that nomadic pastoralist communities get involved in settled agriculture.
Janet Museveni believes now security has been guaranteed, food production in Karamoja remains the top most priority and she thinks Karamoja has the potential of becoming food sufficient if more land is opened up for agriculture.
She also sees diversification of food crops, livestock breeds, harvesting water for production, elimination of dependence on food aid and boosting the school feeding programme as solutions to Karamoja’s problems.
In fact as one travels around the region, one can see small enclaves of her ideas being implemented—a valley dam here and there for harvesting rain water, large swathes of land opened by tractors and dozens of protected kraals, and even some modern settlements of brick/iron sheet-roofed houses.
Simon Peter Awas, a member of the Tokora community initiative, has embraced agriculture but says when he looks around this year; all crops in the gardens have withered.
“This season, there is nothing we are going to harvest and they are bracing for famine next year,” he told us through an interpreter. The people tried to cultivate but rains failed. The effects are already visible says Agatha Nangiro, a villager.
“The number of children in the trading centres looking for food is increasing,” she says. This is something already happening in Moroto town,” she says.
Indeed children of school-going age can be seen hanging around hotels and other eateries with the hope of either eating or taking home some left overs.
John Robert Adupa, one of the hundreds of reformed warriors who are now engaged in more peaceful and community development programmes, says this year, there is going to be serious famine. Adupa says since his group stopped rustling cattle, he has found living a settled life very difficult.
Adupa, 28, is married to three wives and has eight children. He now leads a 50-member group called Kobebe Drama Group in Moroto town that teaches people of Moroto town and the neighbouring communities on the causes and effects of drought.
After each performance, his group asks members of the community what they think of the message in the one hour skit.
But one such interactive on July 16 almost ended tragically as angry husbands, accused by their wives of irresponsibility and alcoholism, threatened violence. It was just 5pm in the early evening but already most adults in the community were intoxicated.
“This is the way of life here,” says Adupa grimly, “Since there is no digging, if you can’t find food, at least drink.”
In this intricate and dynamic environment, the challenges seem endless. Decades of dependence on food assistance has undermined self-reliance among the populations and Janet Museveni’s vision of making the region food secure appears a far dream.