The acute hunger and malnutrition that hit Karamoja Sub-region recently have forced locals to resort to eating leaves and nuts harvested from wild trees.
During a visit by the Daily Monitor to several villages in Rengen and Longaroe sub-counties in Kotido, where hundreds of people succumbed to hunger last year, women and children could be seen harvesting leaves and nuts from trees.
In Nakwalet Village, Longaroe Sub-county, where the wild leaves and nuts have been depleted, Mr Matthew Elukol, his wife and children, spread out in the open field to harvest sprouting weeds for food.
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There is hardly any grain of sorghum from what he harvested last season. Mr Elukol’s three granaries are empty after he sold all the food at the peak of food scarcity last season.
“It is pure luck now, while the nuts and leaves are getting off-season, the rainy season has set in and many wild plants (weeds) are beginning to sprout and this will push us here for some time,” Elukol says.
To the east of Elukol’s neighbourhood is the homestead of Ms Lotyang Napwon Lopwoni, 69.
By Tuesday evening, although she and her grandchildren had spent three days without a meal, her daughter could be seen processing Nyiru, a typically bitter nut of a wild arid plant.
Before boiling the nuts, they are soaked in a concoction of ash for a week to soften the cover, then the nut is extracted. The nut is then washed many times to remove the bitterness before finally boiling it, Ms Lotyang says.
The dish, once ready, is eaten without the accompanying food, she adds.
Ms Sabrina Aleper, a resident, says once the nuts are not properly processed, they cause severe constipation in both children and adults.
“We cannot tell what will happen when these plants and weeds get depleted, because some of these wild plants like Ekorete leaves [help us],” she says.
Ms Agnes Napeyok, a resident of Nakwalet Village, says hunger is bound to hit harder this year following the late rains and the absence of men from the communities who spend most of their time watching over the animals.
“I fear we could lose many people this year because even when the rain is just beginning to set in, the men are not there, they have to protect the cows from being raided by the neighbouring tribes of Dodoth from Kabong District,” she says.
Mr Daniel Lotiang, the sub-county youth councillor for Nakwalet Parish, says raiders from the neighbouring Dodoth tribe of Kaabong have frustrated farming efforts in the area.
“They come in and raid not only the cows but also food and other properties, so there is a tendency for the community to invest in counter-raids and guarding their livestock instead of spending time on farming,” he says.
Mr Lotiang says the fertile belts of the sub-county where the community formerly does farming is now a raiding corridor where clashes occur nearly every two days.
At Panyangara Parish in South Division, Kotido Municipality, the situation is not any better. Leaders say the population in urban centres are worst hit.
In mid-February and March 2022, Food Security Nutrition Assessment (FSNA,22) indicated that Kotido Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate was 14.1 per cent (serious) and Integrated Food Phase Classification (IPC) reported Kotido food security in phase three.
A rapid Mid Upper Arm Circumference assessment (June 2022), was conducted following the assessment to establish the magnitude of malnutrition in the community households. This assessment also established that 24 per cent of the children were malnourished.
Ms Jennifer Aanyu, the senior environmental health officer, also the focal person for malnutrition, says the most affected are children below five years, the elderly, and pregnant and lactating women.
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“The challenge is that caregivers share the Ready-To-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) with other family members due to acute hunger, there is also a critical lack of food security and alcoholism,” Ms Aanyu says.
In July last year, this newspaper reported that more than 900 people, comprising mostly elders and children succumbed to hunger in the region.
Among the most at risk were underfed HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) patients on strong daily drugs, but lack proper dieting, let alone food to eat in sufficient quantities.
Although Unicef (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) puts the number of critically food-insecure or simply food-insecure households in the region at eight in every 10, it pointed out that cattle rustling blamed on local warriors prompted was behind the high poverty prevalence.
Kotido leaders reported at the time that up to 626 residents died, for example in sub-counties such as Kacheri and Kacheri Town Council (336) Nakapelimoru (88), Kamol (68), Napupum (35), Lochel (seven), Maru (45), and Kotido (53).
Karamoja in the northeast, is one of the poorest regions in Uganda, with income poverty at 61 per cent and food poverty at 70 per cent (UNHS, 2016/2017).
The population is mainly rural, with livestock and crop production, and recently, a growing range of diversified livelihood activities.
Ms Ashraf Nuria Teko, the Kotido vice chairperson, says locals are stuck due to a lack of planting materials.
“They ate all the seeds in the dry season and what we recently provided them as treated seeds to plant, they wash and eat them since that is the only alternative food available,” he says.
He adds: “Last week, they provided the district with some seeds and we are going to distribute them to the communities but we worry that they are going to eat them. Every day people are at your door asking for food and as a leader, you cannot help everyone,” Ms Teko said.
According to her, the green belts where farming formerly took place have been occupied by raiders.
“These people have guns and they camp in these areas, as long as we don’t manage our porous borders, we will be wasting time because guns are always sneaked in,” Ms Teko said.
“The most important thing now is that government needs to deploy soldiers, and security forces along those greenbelts so that we can go back to producing food. These things of food distribution and handouts cannot help this situation, the problem of Karamoja can only be handled by the Karimojongs,” she says.
Mr David Moding, the Longaroe Sub-county chief, says they are undertaking mediation engagements with the authorities of Kopos, Lolelia and Loyoro sub-counties in Kabong from where raiders attack Longaroe Sub-county predominantly occupied by the Jie tribe.
While more than 75 per cent of households in the sub-county used to have livestock as their major source of livelihood, the sporadic raids in the past three years stripped them of this source and very few households now have even oxen to plough farmlands, he says.
But Mr Ambrose Onoria, the Kotido District RDC, says laziness due to the survival on food handouts from the World Food Programme and reluctance to store food after production worsened the hunger situation.
“The people themselves are not very keen on keeping food and we even when they get good harvests, this food is sold off and that makes it worse when you go on the radio or in communities to challenge them on saving food, they will rebuke you that they grew the food themselves and can sell how they wish,” he says.
He adds that because of rampant livestock rustling, the role of food production had been abandoned to women and children.
“We are aware that there is only one season for farming here, so most people don’t take advantage of the short weather.”
On Palm Sunday, while delivering his Sermon at Kasana-Luweero Diocese Cathedral, Kampala Archbishop Paul Ssemogerere called for more support for the people of Karamoja.
“I pray that you take a lead to organise and mobilise those who have got food so that this food can be delivered quickly (to Karamoja), especially at this moment of the Holy Week and Easter celebrations as a gesture of charity to our brothers and sisters who are suffering of hunger,” he said.
“I feel ashamed and I think God is watching, talking of Karamoja as Lazarus, the rest of the country the big rich who was eating and not being considerate. I pray that Caritas Uganda does the needful quickly and I am sure the rest will follow,” he said.
But Mr Milton Muwuma, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Alliance on Food and Nutrition Security, told Daily Monitor that the long-term solution to the persistent hunger crisis in Karamoja is to enact the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) Bill that is currently shelved at Parliament.
“The Office of the Prime Minister and Parliament must fast-track the passing of the DRM Bill because it encompasses the masterplan of addressing the hunger dilemma in Karamoja, without that, there is no framework upon which government can comprehensively act,” he said.
In 2021, the World Vision Karamoja cluster started its operation to tackle food insecurity and malnutrition in the sub-region.
Of the six districts, Kotido has benefitted from the organisation’s Global Hunger response, and Strengthening Resilience and Agro-competitiveness projects, among others.
Under the Reducing Food Insecurity through Cash Assistance to the Drought Affected Communities project, cash transfers of Shs1.169 billion were disbursed to 5,000 vulnerable beneficiaries. While Abim had 900 beneficiaries, Napak had 750, Moroto 950, Kotido 1,050, and Kaabong 1,350.
Ms Hellen Akol, World Vision’s Disaster Management manager, says the region has turned out to be too big to be served using the meagre resources at their disposal.
Karamoja is a big region comprising nine districts, and World Vision’s effort is just a drop in the ocean, the resources are quite meagre while the needs are enormous such that we cannot address all the needs of the most vulnerable people that is where the government has to come in.
She also observed that the government has to do more in terms of addressing the climate shocks and preparedness of the farming communities who are starting to embrace farming.
“If we put a lot of resources into preparedness, we would be able to address the problems of Karamoja, ideally, the state is addressing the symptoms and not the cause of the disease,” Ms Akol said.