I’m in Nuccups, Karamoja in northern Uganda, close the Kenyan border. This area has had the biggest impact from cattle raiding and illegal weapons.
Development here is retarded, even by Ugandan standards. It’s still seen as the badlands of Karamoja by outsiders. To me, its amazing mountain scenery and rich soils with the potential to turn this area into Uganda’s food-bowl. Before that happens there are some serious challenges here to address…
It’s 8am and I’m waiting in a vehicle with the driver for the military escort to arrive to escort us on a 40-minute drive to Namalu. I observe the villagers in the huts opposite our stationary vehicle. They are totally drunk. Two people are having a fistfight, one is a woman. She throws a punch and trips and the man she is fighting kicks her in the guts as she goes down. The driver tells me they begin drinking the local sorghum brew made in plastic jerry cans at dawn. I ask him where they get the sorghum if they are drunk all the time. They couldn’t farm it because they can barley walk by 10 am. He tells me it is the sorghum delivered as food-aid. Great, the world aid programs are helping these people stay drunk for the rest of their life? Do the donors know what they are paying for?
The pickup truck with 4 soldiers arrives and after a quick radio check we take off following the pickup belching black exhaust and dust. I tell the driver to keep well back so we don’t have to breathe their dust and if the lead vehicle is ambushed we have some measure of escape. It’s a beautiful day and the sun reflects off the shear rock faces on the side of the mountain range, wet from the nights rain. I can make out jungle canopies in the ravines sloping off the mountain ridges. I bet there is some cool wildlife up in there, I think to myself. We pass small villages of mud huts with their stick palisades and grass roofs. We could be travelling back in time for all I know. A few raggedy school kids are trying to flag us down for a lift as we roar past them. In the bigger settlements I see the same problem, more drinking. Men and women are staggering around and the driver sits on the horn to warn the drunks off the track.
In Namalu I scope out the training venue, a guesthouse-café under construction. I’m here for a week’s master training of the Green Warriors. I have checked out their village projects and worked out their weak points. During this week, we’ll sort out those problems. Integrated Pest Management, fencing, Inter-planting and seed saving are the subjects for this stage of the training.
The guesthouse is a concrete building, on an acre of land with a beautiful craggy mountain behind but no water supply. The mountain has caves and ledges and I can see a troop of baboons making their way across the ridgeline.
I spy a bore-pump in the clinic next door to the venue. It has about 3 acres of fenced land and I can see the local community use the bore-pump as their water supply. That’ll do nicely! I take my translator and we pay a visit to the manageress of the health clinic. In a short time we have worked out a mutually beneficial 1-week project. My Green Warriors will build the perfect bore-pump garden at the front of the clinic grounds with 14 types of vegetables, some passionfruit on the fence and a stack of trees around the outside. The health clinic staff will attend the training and maintain the garden. The staff get the produce and the community will watch and learn and hopefully copy this type of food production system. It’s the women mostly, visiting the community health centre.
We begin the digging, 25 Green Warriors and a few health staff. The wastewater from the hand pump will irrigate the garden. At the bore-pump there is a group of skinny children trying to pump the handle. I go over and take the handle and begin pumping for them. These little dudes don’t speak English but I gesture for them to fill their 5 litre containers. It’s hard to tell the boys from the girls as they all have baldy heads and are wearing dirty rags, the type you dig up out of a rubbish pit. I see sores un-healed all over their legs. Some sores are weeping puss. From the looks of their teeth they must be between 8-10 years old but their bodies are the size of Australian 4 year olds. These kids are starving to death slowly.
I ask the matron what’s the deal with all the sick looking children. She explains the parents are too drunk most times to care for their children. The parents feed their kids only the brew waste at the bottom of the Gerry can. She says that even the kids here are drunk and she has treated many 3 year olds for alcohol poisoning. The brewer’s waste is still quite potent in its alcohol content. She continues to tell me the other health problems in the local communities. Malaria is the biggest killer in the local people. For women the next one is pneumonia. The women do all the work here from early in the morning to late at night. In a day they must gather firewood, make the meals, plant and harvest crops, carry water from the borehole and sometimes work late into the night with never a days rest.
The rains come when the woman is in the field and she gets drenched when her body is run down. Where are the men? There are waiting at home sheltered in the hut waiting for the woman to come home with the water and firewood to cook dinner for them. The man is the head of the household and tells the woman to do all the work while he kicks back with some local brew. The men’s health problems are STD’s from raping enemy village women on cattle raids, the matron tells me. Not many smiles in this part of Karamoja. I reckon the women also drink to get out of working so hard.
The weeks’ training goes well. There are now over 80 trained Green Warriors across Karamoja. In the short time we’ve been doing this project we can prove this is the way forward after 40 years of food-aid. The sites where the Green Warriors have set up gardens are productive and many new vegetables and growing skills have been introduced. The next thing to happen here should be working in the schools with the kids. The kids can grow food and tree seedlings at their schools. The kids are capable and learn fast. The adults are too hard to deal with when they drink like this.
I’m walking back to the venue for lunch with a hoe over my shoulder with a few Green Warriors when a man sitting under a shady tree greets me in the Karamajong language,”ajoka!” he says. I say ,”ajok”. He says something else and the Green Warriors laugh. “He is saying God bless you Father, he thinks you are a priest”. Says one of my guys. “Tell him God blesses those who get off their asses and do something” I say. They laugh but don’t translate.
I stand on the hill next to the site, looking across a huge plain with one of the traditional land owners. From here to the horizon many small fires are burning. The landowner tells me the plain used to be a vast forest with elephants, giraffe and all the African animals. Now the charcoal makers are cutting it down for cooking fuel for the cities. It’s a lot of work for little money but poverty drives slavery. ”What’s the solution?” asks my mind automatically…
I imagine the kids of Karamoja growing a million trees at the local schools and replanting coppicing forests to supply charcoal sustainably. Yeah, fast growing trees that one third of the branches are harvested and fed into the charcoal ovens and the trees supply the same again each year. They could feed the leaves to animals. I ask myself how can I help make it happen? If nothing is done then all the vegetation on this plain will go in the next 5 years, then they will start on the mountains. I think about those skinny little sick kids. Maybe, just maybe, we can solve many problems at the one time…HMMM?