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Teso region wallows in hunger

By John Njoroge

Between February and April 2009, nine people have reportedly died of hunger in the areas of Soroti, Amuria and Katakwi districts. Thousands more are said to be in danger of starvation after a prolonged drought spell and a sudden shift in the rain patterns in the region. This has adversely affected crop yields thus triggering a concern on food security. The population is said to be surviving on wild fruits, leaves, weeds and in some extreme cases, poisonous plants.

It is estimated that over 1 million people in this north eastern region are suffering from the effects of hunger. Although climate change is chiefly to blame for the situation in this region, it is emerging that a number of other factors have been slowly contributing to this precarious situation that is directly threatening the areas population.Â

Government in the recent past ordered the disbanding of all the Internally Displaced Peoples’ (IDP) camps in the region; these camps were a result of the Karamajong raid (from 1979), rebel insurgencies (UPA in1987, Alice Lakwena in1994 and LRA in 2003) and much recently the floods in 2007. The government argues that since the region was stable (apart from isolated incidences of Karamajong raids) it would be in the best interest of the people to return to their home and cultivate their land.

Many of these people refused to return to their homes. They urged that they did not have the seeds to plant and the tools to cultivate their land. They continued to stay in these camps, depending on humanitarian agencies to provide food relief and seedlings.

In December 2008, the operations of these humanitarian organizations were reportedly suspended in the region. The World Food Program was instructed to stop food supplies to the region and only concentrate on the Karamoja region. This sudden withdrawal of food aid in the region was aimed at compelling the displaced to return to their ancestral homes. This withdrawal, however, has created another catastrophe that is threatening the lives of the people in the region.

In almost all areas of this region visited by the Independent, hunger is the order of the day. The land may seem green, but the presence of edible foods in lacking. In Obule, Ajet IDP camp, Olweny village, Ngariam Sub-County in Katakwi district, close to 70 household of the original 120 household stayed on and are eating wild fruits and weeds to survive.

The few who had ploughed and planted seeds in the nearby fields were disappointed after their crops failed to yield. Iwapale Gebirot, 80 and his brother Ejuin 86, have been leaving in this camp since 2000. They are old and frail. From the look of things, each one of them does not weigh above 30kg. They have scars all over their bodies, evidence of the numerous physical encounters they have had with Karamajong cattle rustlers. “I had six children, four of them sons,” Ejuin told the Independent through a translator. “I had over 50 head of cattle. I lost them all; including my four sons who were killed one by one by the Karamajong while trying to defend our home and property. All I have left in this world is my brother (he points at Iwapale) we came here and for some time we were fine but it seems God is not happy with us again. The land has refused to give use food.”

The situation for these two old men is slightly more difficult but no different from the rest in the camp. Its 3pm and there is no sign of fires anywhere, meaning that there is nothing to cook. The granaries are empty; their fields are scotched by the sun. From a distance, scores of women and children can be seen foraging through the long grass in search of wild fruits and weeds.

In Ocera Parish, Ongino Sub-County, Kumi district, another family of eight is struggling. Peter Obong, the family bread winner is frustrated by the situation. His maize crop failed to yield and the few Cassava plants he has left are immature. Yet he is forced to harvest them since his family has nothing to eat. “They don’t get any better no matter how long you leave them in the garden. I got the seeds from the Namulonge Research Project but clearly they are poor. I have sold off all except one of my goats.”

Obong’s home is situated less than one kilometer from Lake Kyoga so why can’t he irrigate his farm? “It is difficult to get to that water. Not only are the swamps impassable, there are snakes and high bushes around it. It would require a lot of work to clear and make safe, a task which we around here can’t manage. We don’t even have a road from Kumi town so how would we manage that?

24km from Amuria district headquarters is Acanga village in Amero Parish, Acoa Sub-County, Amuria district.  Here, Christine Akol, a 27 year old expectant mother of eight lives in Acor IDP camp. Her situation and that of her fellow displaced is at its worst; Two weeks earlier, a 67 year man, Emmanuel Opwonya was found dead in his hut. His death has since been attributed to hunger. According to witness accounts, Opwonya was a loner who had been abandoned by his wife and children. A good Samaritan was caring for him but as the situation deteriorated, he retreated to caring for his family alone, leaving Opwonya to his demise.

The camp is still home to about 200 people. Like in other camps, they had harvested nothing; they had nothing in their granaries and their fields were visibly dry. OPM, a humanitarian organization had donated seeds to the camp but the floods of 2007 and the subsequent prolonged drought affected the expected yields.

In Kapelebyong Sub-County, Kevina Arioko was found dead in front of her hut. She had struggled to fend for her children who are barely alive. On finding her body, the villagers took it upon themselves to feed her children.Â

The cases are endless around the region. With no hope in sight, the people have become angry and desperate in the face of possible death. More and more people are risking long journeys to urban areas where they can readily get work and food. Cases of malnutrition in the area have more than doubled in the last six months as more and more children are diagnosed with Kwashakoo and Marasmas. Faith in the local leadership has almost disappeared as the population blames the hunger situation on the apparent failure of their local leaders to communicate to the central government over their issues.

Their leaders are however not taking the blame. The Amuria LC5 chairperson, Julius Ocen, blames the food insecurity situation in his area on the unwillingness of the central government to help the people. “There is famine in Teso but not to the extent of the Karamoja region. The state has an obligation to protect, respect and facilitate the provision of food to its citizens. It has however failed to do so deliberately.”

Ocen insists that he has, on numerous occasions, sufficiently communicated to the government the situation in Amuria but has been ignored and even persecuted. “In April 2009 I wrote to government through the office of the Prime Minister. I never got a response. In May, I wrote another letter in which I threatened to lead a demonstration to stop WFP truck taking food to Karamoja if our problems were not addressed. The only response I got was a copy of a letter from the Prime minister to the Minister for disaster preparedness. Before I could lead the demonstration, I was arrested on accusations that I was leading a group of thugs that where mounting roadblocks and robbing civilians.”

Subsequently, the office of the PM sent 200 bags of posho and 60 bags of beans to Amuria district. When they were distributed to the 31,000 people in the area, they could only provide one meal per household (3kg of Posho and a quarter cup of beans.

The Soroti LC5 chairman, Stephen Ochola is worried that his region’s potential has been underutilized. “We have water in this region. We have a lot of swamps, rivers and lake. How come we are complaining of hunger yet the central government does not have the will to institute irrigation programs.  We would not be waiting for the weather. Look at Egypt—it’s in the desert but they export fruits and juices to Uganda. Half a million people in Teso are in danger of starvation yet government is doing nothing but doing cheap things that they think will win those votes. Children are dying and people are getting very angry. Domestic violence is on the rise due to a rise in alcoholism as a result of frustration.”

Dr. Florence Alaroker, a pediatrician at Soroti referral hospital is worried about the future. “Last year we registered malnutrition in 20% of the children brought here. Today, 50% of the children brought here are malnourished. We have no space to admit all of them and no facilities to cater for them. The therapeutic feeding centre in this hospital which was funded by WFP and MS France stopped since the donors withdrew.”

Dr. Bernard Odu, the medical superintendent of Soroti Hospital, says he had never seen such an influx of malnourished children. “I have worked here for ten years but these few months have been difficult. The government funding per person per year is Shs 4000. We cannot help everybody. But we do our best. Our problem, however, is that the patients both adults and children keep coming back due to our friendly environment.”

Minister for disaster preparedness Tarsi Kabwegere down plays the situation. “WFP did not withdraw from that region. They only reduced the supply. We will continue to provide help but the situation is not as alarming as it is being expressed.” He adds that the government is supplying food to the people and that the weather would soon be better for agriculture by August. “They will survive,” he says.

It remains to be seen if the likes of Ejuin and Iwapale will alive by August. For now they will have to make due with Emalakwang, Echototo, Edo, Echadoi, cassava shoots, Emulokuju leaves and termites.

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