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Return to Katine evokes optimism

A girl pumps water at the Obalanga borehole in Katine

For three years, RICHARD M KAVUMA covered the Katine development project in Soroti district.  With the donors gone, he returns to find Katine slowly but surely forging ahead

The most obvious difference as I arrived in Katine last month was the weather. In December 2007, Katine was scorching hot and the vegetation lifeless-brown that as a first-time visitor, I wondered how livestock survived. Eight years later, December 2015 found Katine in the middle of heavy rains that have rendered many feeder roads impassable to two-wheel-drive vehicles.

These changing weather patterns have left farmers here at crossroads, trusting neither traditional knowledge nor modern meteorologists. Hence, it has not been unusual to find neighbouring gardens with crops months apart: one with sorghum ready for harvest, the other with the crop only flowering.

But rain is generally seen as a sign of blessings, even in this flood-prone Teso region of eastern Uganda. And I dare say that the present rains coincide with a sense of optimism about Katine.

Back in 2007, Katine was a sub-county of 25,000 to 30,000 people recovering from successive waves of insecurity, including attacks by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Its socio-economic indicators were among Uganda’s worst.

Then, a five-year project funded by Guardian and Observer readers and Barclays bank, with Amref Health Africa as the principal implementer, sought to improve health services, education, livelihoods, water and sanitation and community empowerment.

Amref formally left Katine in 2012, but the Livelihoods component morphed into the Katine Joint Farmers Association Cooperative (Kajofaco). With financial backing from Guardian and Observer readers, the NGO Farm Africa has been providing technical support to Kajofaco, whose 1,000-tonne produce store is easily the largest building at Katine sub-county headquarters.

In February, Farm Africa will leave, hoping that Kajofaco will stand on the shoulders of its 792 members. And so, eight years on, I have returned to villages that I covered for three years up to 2010, to see how Katine has moved on outside the now-famous produce store.

Ojom health centre II, my first stop, is apparently in good health, judging by the nearly 50 parents and patients, here for immunization and treatment. It is uplifting that the local government has given the facility more support.

The vaccine fridge donated by the Katine project broke down irreparably, but the Soroti district authorities provided another one. Its batteries are weak, and sometimes vaccines go bad but, otherwise, it works. Under the Northern Uganda Social Action Fund II, the government gave Ojom a second staff block that can house two employees.

Ojom now has three permanent staff, the clinical officer in charge of the facility, a lab technician and nursing assistant.

“Sometimes we have a really good turnout – about 60 or 70 patients a day – especially when we have drugs in stock,” says nursing assistant Betty Aguyo. “Even now we still have drugs for malaria, diarrhea and antibiotics. The delivery from the National Medical Stores has improved. Even when they delay, it can be for a week at most.”

The laboratory, built by the Katine project, is still functional, and one of its three rooms now serves as the drug store for the entire facility. The health centre’s fortunes have changed with improved staffing and delivery of drugs.

Each of Katine’s five parishes – with at least 7,000 people – is meant to have a health centre II; but Aguyo says Ojom serves three parishes. Perhaps, she says, it should be upgraded to health centre III, which would allow it to have more staff and admit some patients.

On the way from Ojom, I run into Charles Eyagu, who has tried his hand at large-scale citrus fruit growing. He is visibly distraught although he warmly smiles on seeing me. The truck carrying oranges, including those from his garden, has got stuck on a rain-soaked road. About a dozen village mates have tried to push it out of the mud but in vain.

Eyagu is also the chairperson on the management committee for Ominit borehole, built by Amref in January 2008. That, he reports, remains functional, because each household still pays Shs 1,000 per month.

“We have repaired our borehole so many times,” Eyagu exclaims, momentarily forgetting about his troubled oranges. “Even people came from Gulu [district in northern Uganda] in a bus to study how we are managing our borehole. We recently had Shs 1 million and we are now loaning it out to village members.”

As I found out from Katine and Ojama parishes, so far, the water facilities set up by Amref have been maintained by the communities.

“The system is working well so far, because we have kept sensitizing people about the importance of paying the monthly fee,” says Moses Elebu, chairman of the Katine Water and Sanitation Association. “All the water sources built by the Katine project are still functional.”

Also still functional is the piped water line to Tiriri health centre IV, the largest mini-hospital in Katine. But still nonfunctional is the surgical theatre that was renovated and equipped by the Katine project in 2011.

As Dr Jackline Angwec, the first female doctor to take charge of Tiriri, tells me, without mains electricity and without an anaesthetist, they can only do minor surgeries. Among the theatre’s key purposes is emergency obstetric surgery – key to cutting maternal deaths.

Fortunately, with Uganda’s general elections due in February, there is hope the government may connect power – although that hope existed before the 2011 elections.

“Those electric poles were planted in the ground and left there more than a year ago,” says Dr Angwec. “But two days I saw Umeme [power distribution firm] people here and they told me that they have been told that power must be connected by January.”

Like in Ojom health centre, Dr Angwec is happy with the regularity of the drug supplies from the National Medical Stores. The only challenge is (also true for the national referral hospital in Kampala) essential medicines often run out long before the next supply is due. In those days, patients must buy their prescriptions from pharmacies and drug shops.

Leaving Tiriri health centre, I am in no doubt Katine is forging ahead. The health centre finally has a chain fence and unattended gatehouse closely watched by tall grass.

Cattle are also slowly coming back to Katine – seen grazing in threes or fours every here. According to Farm Africa officer David Ogwang, this is partly due to the village savings and loan associations, most of them started by the Katine project.

One thing that is clear is that even with external help, the role of foresighted leadership can hardly be underestimated.  Moses Elebu, the chairman of the water association, for instance, tells me that one challenge they have is village leaders who interfere with the water source committees because they want to control the modest amounts collected by locals to pay for repairs when they are needed. 

With some disappointment, I learn that the Katine resource centre is literally no more. The old Katine project office, which housed the facility, was taken over by the sub-county administration officials who now enjoy the ‘new’ building, computers smooth tables and swivel chairs.

I also run into Simon Edangat, one of the brains behind the Katine Joint Farmers Association Cooperative. Edangat, who served two terms as the Kajofaco board chair, is now team leader at Katine Integrated Farmers Development Association (Kifda).  He tells me Kifda recently got a loan from Kajofaco and they are milling locally-grown cassava into flour, which is sold as far as South Sudan.

“The business is good, but it could be even better for the members if the lending rate [two per cent per month] could be lowered,” Edangat says.

As I turned to leave, Edangat says he has forgotten one thing: “I can’t end without thanking the people of Guardian for supporting Katine community.”

rimkav@observer.ug

This article was first published on www.theguardian.com

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