KAMPALA, Uganda – A telling moment as I finished up an assignment here in Uganda came not when I was in the impoverished Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda, the focus of my work, but here in the capital of Kampala.
Getting lunch at my hotel, I spoke to some fellow visitors and they asked me what had brought me to Uganda. When I told them I had been in Karamoja, one woman looked surprised and said, “Did you find food there?” When I asked another woman how people in Kampala perceive Karamoja, she replied without a beat, “Backwards.”
I wasn’t surprised. To say Karamoja has had a tough go of it is an understatement. It’s not only that the place can be unduly hard and harsh — it’s been plagued by cycles of drought for years — but that it’s been a region that has traditionally been neglected and forgotten.
One Ugandan humanitarian worker told me that, years ago, it was fashionable for Ugandan political leaders to say, when speaking about the development of their country, “We will not wait for Karamoja. Karamoja will catch up later.”
One reason for the neglect? The Karamojong people are agro-pastoralists – meaning they raise cattle as their main source of income, and grow crops to supplement that. They have tried to remain true to a traditional way of life; but are among Uganda’s poorest and most politically marginalized ethnic groups. Their access to medical care and schools has been spotty. They have also lived in an insecure environment, where banditry – cattle theft — has been common.
By most accounts, security has improved in the region in recent years, and the neglect has eased some; the Ugandan government is focused on Karamoja more than it has been in the past. But it’s still a place where humanitarian measurements are still very low – almost nine of 10 people in the region can’t read or write.
So, there is much work to do in Karamoja, and in my experience there, I can say fully that that work will take time and it won’t be easy.
But it can be done, as I saw in a week’s visit with residents, community leaders and the dedicated staff of the TOGETHER program, a five-year program that began in 2012 and employs the competencies of CWS, MAP International, ECHO, Inc., and the chief funder, St. Mary’s United Methodist Foundation.
The combination of the expertise means the agencies can complement each other’s work – so that the TOGETHER project can focus on ‘holistic community development,’ said my CWS East Africa colleague, Mary Obiero.
Adds TOGETHER team leader Brenda Achaa: “What we are proud of is that it’s not just one agency – it’s the diversity of the team, the various competencies we bring.”
(Among CWS’s activities in the program? Disaster mitigation and education work, as well as creating and strengthening youth groups. To help this, youth training centers are being created to teach such skills as masonry, tailoring, carpentry, catering and animal husbandry.)
The over-arching theme of the project is building resilience among communities. When you break that down, that means improving livelihoods and providing access to food, as well as improving the overall health and environment for vulnerable communities. One final goal is in reducing the damage caused by disasters through disaster risk reduction strategies and disaster mitigation training.
It sounds like a high order, and it is – once you have been to the Karamoja region you see how all of the problems of the place are tightly inter-related: how the issues of food, livelihoods and insecurity, to take just three, are all so closely connected.
And yet when you begin to tackle one problem, you begin to tackle others.
Perhaps the most moving moment of my visit came when members of a disaster risk reduction committee in a village of Losakucha Parish spoke of learning basic spelling skills in the course of their work on the committee – enough to spell their names now. Lokorimong Lino, 50, a leader in the community, taught them.
“This gives us confidence,” said committee member Karla Awas—and it makes the desire for children to attend school all the more urgent.
That is no small thing, as TOGETHER team leader Achaa pointed out. “Attitude can’t be changed by us. It has to change through the communities themselves.”
There are a lot of stories I gleaned from my assignment; in the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing them.
Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer.