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Biting hunger in Karamoja

At least 50 people are reported dead, and thousands at risk. People are now eating tree leaves, amidst reports the government ignored warnings of severe food shortage, reports Edward Ssekika.

Clad in yellowish short trousers, a T-shirt emblazoned “World Food Programme (WFP),” a faded green stripped coat, 78-year-old Samson Olongole struggles to speak clearly. His cousin Maria Lotengei says when he is fine, Olongole loves narrating Karimojong folktales to visitors. Unfortunately this time round, he just can’t; he is too hungry to speak.

By 4:30pm when we meet, Olongole has not eaten anything, having had his last meal, mainly green tree leaves, the previous day.

“If anyone can help with something to eat…,” he says after a long pause, halting midway his sentence.

When I offer him a one-litre bottle of water, he takes almost five minutes struggling to lift the seemingly ‘heavy’ bottle to his lips. Clearly, he might be mistaken for somebody who has been ill for months, yet he is only suffering from starvation. Olongole is a resident of Konyanga village, Nawaikorot parish, Ngolereit sub-county, Napak district, in Karamoja, where severe hunger is reported to have killed dozens of people, and left many bedridden.

Olongole may be lucky to be alive, many elderly people and children here have starved to death. Albine Ababa, the parish chief of Nawaikorot, reveals that in his parish alone, three people have so far starved to death.

“Many people can’t move, especially children and the elderly; so, they are bedridden because of hunger. Three people have so far starved quietly to death in their houses,” he says.

The previous week, Ababa says, an elderly woman was just rescued trying to commit suicide other than starve to death.

“I don’t know if she is still alive, because she was badly off,” he says.

Back to Olongole. He had his home in Matany, where he produced 12 children. They are all dead, and so is his wife. Some of his children were killed in cattle raids while others died naturally. His cows, the main valuable property, were taken away during cattle rustling. He himself escaped with injuries; that is why he decided to come and stay with Maria Lotengei, his cousin.

Lotengei says her village has not received rain since the year started and therefore, all her crops dried up in the garden. She says her family, and indeed other families in the village, have nothing to eat and have resorted to green leaves of plants, especially trees locally known as esobollat.

So far, seven people have died of starvation in Napak district alone. Emmanuel Ocepa, the district information officer, says four people starved to death in Nagulangolol village, Ngolereit sub- county.

“I visited the families, these elderly women tried to ask for food from the neighbours but the neighbours didn’t also have. So, they couldn’t have anything to eat,” Ocepa says.

The whole of Karamoja sub-region is facing a serious hunger crisis, but Napak and Kaabong districts are the worst-hit. Samsom Lokeris, the Kaabong MP, reveals that more than 40 people have starved to death in Kaabong district in the last two months alone and many more are at risk of starvation.

The sub-counties of Kalapata, Loyoro, Kamion, Lodiko, Kapedo, Kaabong and Lolella are the most affected areas. Three are also reported to have starved to death in Nachogorom village, Nadunget sub-county, Moroto district.

“I have not yet got data from other districts, but in Kaabong, the situation is very critical. More than 40 people have so far died due to lack of what to eat,” says Lokeris, also the chairperson Karamoja Parliamentary Group.

This year, Lokeris explains, Karamoja did not receive enough rains for crop cultivation. The sub-region received light rains in April and when planting started, the rains stopped, destroying crops already planted. Even last year’s harvests were poor due to heavy rains, leading to flooding, that also destroyed crops.

Thomas Oyugi, the capacity building officer for the non-governmental organisation ACTED, in charge of Moroto district, says the communities and leaders ignored warnings of an impending severe food shortage.

“Since last year, we [NGOs] have been publishing drought bulletins warning of food shortage, but neither the leaders nor the communities took it serious,” Oyugi notes.

In the villages, people have also resorted to begging. Young and old, people are begging from every new face they see in the village even for as low as Shs 100 to be able to buy something, at least to eat. Due to the food shortage, Ababa says many youth have left Karamoja for nearby towns like Soroti, Mbale, and even Kampala, for either casual jobs or even begging.

“Even parents are sending their children outside Karamoja especially to Bugisu and Teso areas, such that they can be able to get casual jobs, money and send them food,” he says.

Food handouts

The government, through the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), World Food Programme (WFP) and other development partners, has intervened by giving the most vulnerable households, food handouts. OPM has already dispatched 40 tons of food aid to the sub-region.

But given that most families are starving, Lokeris says, food handouts from OPM, is just a drop in the ocean. For instance, Lokeris explains, in Kapedo sub- county alone, 57,000 people were identified by local leaders as the most vulnerable, but out of these, only 399 people were able to receive food from OPM.

WFP also distributed relief food to help vulnerable households to cope with hunger. The distribution started in May in all the seven districts of Karamoja, targeting children, the elderly, disabled and the chronically ill, but locals say it is not enough.

Janet Museveni, the minister for Karamoja, also confirmed the severe hunger in the sub-region in her recent statement and said that government planned to dispatch more relief food in July and August. Ms Museveni, who is also the First Lady, says insecurity and food production remain government’s top priorities in Karamoja.

Given the fragile environment and effects of global warming, Lokeris asks government to consider irrigation if the sub-region is to become food self-reliant. Without such long-term interventions, Samson Olongole says Karamoja could forever need WFP aid.

ssekika@observer.ug

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