(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Getting food to remote Karamoja villages

Country Map - Uganda (Karamoja District)
IRIN

They gathered in their hundreds on a hilltop to receive food donations, the first such rations in four months to reach the remote drought-stricken Karamoja village of Kabong in northeastern Uganda.

"I don't know exactly how many people died of hunger-related illness because I could not go to the villages asking and taking records, but we estimate that over 30 died," Joseph Lokol, a local chief, said on Monday.

Kabong was cut off in August when heavy rains washed away a local bridge that was the village's only link to the outside world, blocking relief agencies from delivering much-needed food aid.

"Seven died in the neighbouring Kosui parish," Sipiriano Lokwi, another chief, added as he watched those who had received their rations herd away their food-laden donkeys.

Karamoja is a semi-arid region that often suffers serious food shortages due to the chronic drought cycles that hit the region every three to five years. The region is made up of the districts of Moroto, Kotido and Nakapiripirit.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that since January, some 574,000 pastoralists in Karamoja have depended on food relief. The areas of Kabong, with about 78,389 beneficiaries, Kalapata with 50,000 and Kathile with 45,797, were worst affected by the bridge's destruction.

A survey conducted in August 2004 by Uganda's health ministry and the UN Children's Fund showed malnutrition rates in the region to be higher than in rest of the country.

"[An] average malnutrition rate of 18.7 percent, and [a] mortality rate of 3.9 out of every 10,000 people per day are well above the rates found in other regions of the country, including camps for the internally displaced," WFP said.

Local people in Kabong said the last delivery of food was in April before the rains started, bringing floodwaters hurtling down the seasonal Kabong River, which flows from the highlands north of the area.

"We had to walk long distances to gather green leaves, as we fed on these, and burn charcoal to sell in the market so we could buy some food," Betty, a 25-year-old mother of three, said during Monday's food distribution.

A primary school dropout whose husband is a student doing simple jobs during school holidays, Betty lost her fourth child recently to a "hunger-related illness".

CULTURE

Many of the women and children who had gathered to receive the food had a red substance smeared on their faces.

Lokol said it was ochre drawn from dry riverbeds that the superstitious locals claim can ward off evil and protect them from disease.

Indeed, sources said, the food situation would probably have been mitigated after the bridge was washed away were it not for the strong culture and customs of the people in the area.

In an effort to try and ensure continued food availability, local authorities had resolved to construct an alternative temporary bridge along the river so that trucks could drive the food across.

However, the locals blocked the construction on the grounds that the temporary construction passed through their land. They barricaded the road and deployed guards armed with spears and bows to stop its use.

It was only after the seasonal river dried up recently that aid trucks were able to manoeuvre through its sandy bed, where the locals had dug holes to find water.

However, the dry spell has meant the budding plantations of maize, sorghum and other crops that had been grown have started to wither.

Relief workers said if the weather became any drier, the crops would be lost, further threatening the food security of the local people.

"Too much sun or too much rain affects the crops here," Catherine Operemo, a WFP official in the region, said. "We all cry for the rains to persist in a balanced way, but they can also cut us off suddenly as rivers fill up."

In addition, many of the region's pastoralists planted their crops late, as they had migrated with their livestock to other areas in search of pasture; they did not return in time to catch the full rainy season, missing valuable planting time and reducing their harvest.

DIRE NEED

"Every three to five years, Karamoja requires emergency intervention to keep people alive," Ken Davies, WFP country director in Uganda, said.

According to Davies, whose agency delivered the food to Kabong, malnutrition rates were currently worse in Karamoja than in war-torn northern Uganda.

"Attention is focused on nutritional indicators in northern Uganda, but they are even worse in Karamoja," he told IRIN on Thursday, adding that the situation had been compounded by the fact that half Karamoja's population had lost their animals to drought and insecurity.

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