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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
"If Nobody Helps Us, We Will Perish"
November 10, 2008
By Peter Biro
While Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region suffers serious food shortages, the country’s northern districts are slowly recovering from a civil war that rocked the East African nation for over two decades. The IRC’s Peter Biro reports.
Dark blue clouds are building up on the horizon and a cool breeze announces the midday rain. Boys tending to cattle are hurrying off to find shelter under the many acacia trees that dot the landscape. Here in Karamoja, a remote region in Uganda's northeast, rains are a blessing. But it is too little, too late. According to the UN World Food Program, over 700,000 people need urgent food relief in Karamoja.
The crisis is blamed on long dry spells coupled with a population explosion, environmental degradation, rising food prices and chronic insecurity. Just before I came here to visit the IRC's programs in Karamoja's Moroto district, local authorities revealed that 108 people have died of starvation in the district since January.
As the rain stops we meet a group of people walking towards Moroto town, a small and muddy outpost flanked by a beautiful mountain range in the middle of the vast savannah.
"There's too much sun here; our harvest has failed and we can't feed or water our cattle," says Lucia Lokuwan, an older woman wearing the traditional colourful beaded necklaces and earrings of the Karamoja clans.
To mitigate the crisis, the WFP is handing out food rations, but the people here agree that it is far from enough.
"We have to eat the few things we can find in the bush," Lucia says and shows me some small leaves that she keeps in a bag.
People are also kept afloat by gathering firewood far away from town which they sell in the market. This normally brings in the about 2,000 Ugandan Schillings, or one U.S. dollar, per day.
"If nobody helps us, we will perish," Lucia says with a gesture of resignation.
The current crisis is nothing new in Karamoja. The region frequently experiences periods of extreme hunger. In 1980, Karamoja saw one of the worst famines in history when over 20 percent of the population died, including 60 percent of the infants.
The people of Karamoja, known as the Karimojong, are semi-nomadic pastoralists and cattle play a central role in life here. For decades, illegally armed cattle raiders have wreaked havoc on communities both within Karamoja and in neighbouring areas. The loss of livestock because of these inter-clan cattle raids is also contributing to Karamoja's extreme poverty. The IRC has helped counter this by setting up local committees which help negotiate peace between the fighting clans. To help the Karimojong in the acute phase of the crisis, the IRC plans to pay communities not with money but with food rations to build vital new infrastructure, such as access roads, schools and hospitals.
The underlying reasons for the food shortages are complex and rooted in a long history of political and economic marginalization, explains Howard Ayo, the IRC's economic development officer in Moroto.
"Food aid is only a short-term solution," he says when we meet in the IRC's office. "The root causes of the crisis need to be addressed first."
Howard tells me that people here are totally dependent on livestock which they sell in the neighbouring districts. But raising livestock has proven insufficient in protecting the Karimojong from food shortages. The intensive grazing of the livestock, along with deforestation due to firewood gathering, has eroded the soil and stripped the land of some of its agricultural potential. A new IRC program is underway to help people grow nutritious food and train people in skills that are in demand, like brick and handicraft production.
"One way we want to break this circle of poverty is to introduce new agricultural methods and technologies here," Howard says. "We need to find new options for people to make a living, before it is too late."