The recent outbreak of acute hunger and malnutrition in the Karamoja Sub-region has forced locals to eat leaves and nuts harvested from wild trees.
Women and children were seen harvesting leaves and nuts from trees during a Daily Monitor visit to several villages in Kotido’s Rengen and Longaroe sub-counties, where hundreds of people died of hunger last year.
Mr Matthew Elukol, his wife and his children spread out in the open field in Nakwalet Village, Longaroe Sub-county, where the wild leaves and nuts have been depleted, to harvest sprouting weeds for food.
There isn’t much sorghum grain left from what he harvested last season. Mr Elukol’s three granaries are empty after he sold all of the food during the last season’s food scarcity.
“It’s pure luck now, because 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.
Ms Lotyang Napwon Lopwoni, 69, lives to the east of Elukol’s neighbourhood.
Even though she and her grandchildren had gone three days without eating, her daughter could be seen processing Nyiru, a typically bitter nut of a wild arid plant, by Tuesday evening.
Before boiling, the nuts are soaked in an ash concoction for a week to soften the cover, after which the nut is extracted. Ms Lotyang explains that the nut is then washed several times to remove the bitterness before finally boiling it.
She continues, “Once prepared, the dish is eaten without the accompanying food.”
A resident, Ms Sabrina Aleper, claims that if the nuts are not properly processed, they cause severe constipation in both children and adults.
“We don’t know what will happen when these plants and weeds are depleted,” she says, “because some of these wild plants, like Ekorete leaves, [help us].”
Ms Agnes Napeyok, a resident of Nakwalet Village, believes that hunger will be worse this year due to the late rains and the absence of men from the communities who spend the majority of their time watching over the animals.
“I’m afraid we’ll lose a lot of people this year because even when the rain is just starting to fall, the men aren’t there because they have to protect the cows from being raided by the Dodoth tribes from Kabong District,” she says.
Mr Daniel Lotiang, the Nakwalet Parish sub-county youth councillor, claims that raiders from the neighbouring Dodoth tribe of Kaabong have hampered farming efforts in the area.
“They come in and raid not only the cows but also the food and other properties, so the community tends to invest in counter-raids and livestock guarding instead of farming,” he says.
According to Mr Lotiang, the fertile belts of the sub-county where the community used to farm are now a raiding corridor where clashes occur nearly every two days.
The situation is not much better in Panyangara Parish, South Division, Kotido Municipality. According to leaders, the population in urban areas has been hit the hardest.
Food Security Nutrition Assessment (FSNA,22) reported Kotido Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate of 14.1 per cent (serious) in mid-February and March 2022, and Integrated Food Phase Classification (IPC) reported Kotido food security in phase three.
Following the assessment, a rapid Mid Upper Arm Circumference assessment (June 2022) was performed to determine the extent of malnutrition in community households. This evaluation also revealed that 24% of the children were malnourished.
Ms Jennifer Aanyu, senior environmental health officer and malnutrition focal point says the most vulnerable are children under the age of five, the elderly, and pregnant and lactating women.
“The challenge is that carers share the Ready-To-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF) with other family members due to acute hunger,” Ms Aanyu says. “There is also a critical lack of food security and alcoholism.”
This newspaper reported in July of last year that more than 900 people, mostly elderly and children, died of hunger in the region.
Underfed HIV and tuberculosis (TB) patients who are on strong daily drugs but lack proper dieting, let alone food to eat in sufficient quantities, were among the most vulnerable.
Although Unicef (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) estimates that eight out of every ten households in the region are critically or simply food insecure, it has been stated that cattle rustling caused by local warriors is to blame for the high poverty prevalence.
At the time, Kotido leaders reported that up to 626 residents died, including sub-counties like 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 Uganda’s poorest regions, with income poverty at 61% and food poverty at 70% (UNHS, 2016/2017).
The population is predominantly rural, with livestock and crop production, as well as a growing variety of diverse livelihood activities.
According to Ms Ashraf Nuria Teko, vice chairperson of Kotido, locals are stuck due to a lack of planting materials.
“They ate all of the seeds during the dry season, and what we recently provided them as treated seeds to plant, they wash and eat because that is the only alternative food available,” he explains.
“Last week, they provided the district with some seeds, and we are going to distribute them to the communities, but we are concerned that they will eat them,” he adds. Every day, people come to your door asking for food, and as a leader, you can’t help everyone, according to Ms Teko.
According to her, raiders have taken over the green belts where farming used to take place.
“These people have guns and camp in these areas; as long as we don’t manage our porous borders, we’ll be wasting time because guns are always sneaked in,” Ms Teko explained.
“The most important thing now is that the government deploy soldiers and security forces along those greenbelts so that we can resume food production.” Food distribution and handouts will not help this situation; the Karamoja problem can only be solved by the Karimojongs,” she says.
Mr David Moding, the Longaroe Sub-county chief, says they are engaging in mediation with the authorities of Kabong’s Kopos, Lolelia, and Loyoro sub-counties, from which raiders attack Longaroe Sub-county, which is primarily occupied by the Jie tribe.
While more than 75 per cent of households in the sub-county used to rely on livestock as their primary source of income, sporadic raids in the last three years have deprived them of this source, and very few households now have even oxen to plough farmlands, he claims.
However, Mr Ambrose Onoria, the Kotido District RDC, claims that laziness as a result of surviving on World Food Programme handouts and a refusal to store food after production has exacerbated the hunger situation.
“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 goes on to say that due to rampant livestock rustling, the role of food production has been delegated to women and children.
“Because there is only one farming season here, most people don’t take advantage of the short weather.”
On Palm Sunday, Kampala Archbishop Paul Ssemogerere called for more support for the people of Karamoja during his Sermon at Kasana-Luweero Diocese Cathedral.
“I pray that you take the lead in organising and mobilising those who have food so that it can be delivered quickly (to Karamoja), especially at this time of Holy Week and Easter celebrations as a charitable gesture to our brothers and sisters who are hungry,” he said.
“I am ashamed, and I believe God is watching,” she said, referring to Karamoja as Lazarus and the rest of the country as the big rich who were eating and not being considerate. “I pray that Caritas Uganda acts quickly, and I am confident that the rest will follow,” he said.
However, Mr Milton Muwuma, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Alliance on Food and Nutrition Security, told Daily Monitor that enacting the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) Bill, which is currently stalled in Parliament, is the long-term solution to Karamoja’s persistent hunger crisis.
“The Prime Minister’s Office and Parliament must expedite the passage of the DRM Bill because it contains the master plan for addressing the hunger crisis in Karamoja; without it, there is no framework upon which the government can act comprehensively,” he said.
The World Vision Karamoja cluster began operations in 2021 to combat food insecurity and malnutrition in the sub-region.
Among the six districts, Kotido has benefited from the organisation’s Global Hunger response, as well as projects such as Strengthening Resilience and Agro-competitiveness.
Cash transfers totalling Shs1.169 billion were distributed to 5,000 vulnerable beneficiaries as part of the Reducing Food Insecurity through Cash Assistance to Drought-Affected Communities project. Abim had 900 recipients, Napak had 750, Moroto had 950, Kotido had 1,050, and Kaabong had 1,350.
According to Ms Hellen Akol, World Vision’s Disaster Management manager, the region has proven to be too large to be served with the limited resources at their disposal.
Karamoja is a large region with nine districts, and World Vision’s effort is a drop in the ocean; the resources are limited, and the needs are so great that we cannot meet all of the needs of the most vulnerable people; this is where the government must step in.
She also stated that the government needs to do more in terms of addressing climate change and preparing farming communities that are beginning to embrace farming.
“If we put a lot of resources into preparedness, we would be able to address Karamoja’s problems; ideally, the state is addressing the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease,” Ms Akol said.