I recently heard from a Roman Catholic priest I interviewed last year during an assignment in South Sudan. He told me that some of those he knew who had fled during political violence had died of hunger.
My heart sunk when I heard this. Though crises like those in South Sudan often cause food, and food assistance, to be cut off, it is still unconscionable, even during war and conflict, that people can die of hunger. It shows a lack of moral imagination in so many ways, but is particularly damning of the forces that unleash war.
When I heard the news I thought about my time early in 2014 in South Sudan. But I also flashed to my time later in the year in Uganda.
Uganda has long been touted as a country with great economic potential, with some even declaring that with the right push, Uganda could potentially feed the entire African continent. Such talk has been scaled back in recent years, though institutions like the African Development Bank Group have hailed signs of Uganda’s economic growth.
Still, it has to be said that Uganda has been plagued with both political and economic instability, and nowhere are the easy declarations about the country’s potential harder to find than in Karamoja, in Uganda’s northeast.
“There are still a lot of gaps here, and a lot has not been done,” Anglican Bishop James Nasak of the Anglican Church’s North Karamoja diocese told me not long ago. He was referring to the fact that the region and its people have been neglected politically and socially. “It’s all about poverty here,” he said. The burning question “at the end of the day,” he said, “is ‘What do I put on the table?’ ”
One of the issues facing the region is how the people of Karamoja can best feed themselves. As agro-pastoralists – cattle-raisers, by and large – they have been dependent on one way of life and are having to incorporate others in order for their communities to, first, become more resilient and, eventually, flourish.
Debates about how the Karamojong people can do this are robust. Some say cattle remains the best way for people to support themselves. Others argue that an embrace of small-scale farming is preferable, while some say what is needed is a combination of the two.
While these debates continue, what is clear is that the linked relationship between poverty and hunger are at the heart of the region’s problems. “The biggest problem is hunger, and all aspects of the struggle to eradicate hunger are critical to what we do,” said Jimmy Onen-Walter, the country director of the humanitarian organization MAP and a coordinator of the TOGETHER program.
The TOGETHER program, a five-year initiative that began in 2012 utilizes the skill sets not only of CWS, but MAP International, ECHO, Inc., and the chief funder, St. Mary’s United Methodist Foundation. The combined expertise is allowing work from one group to complement that of the others.
Progress may be slow in Karamoja, but it is evident. During one of the days I spent with TOGETHER colleagues in the village of Nasinyon I saw a combination of programs at work: youth empowerment, adult literacy, gardening development (for both community sustenance and livelihoods), animal vaccination programs and the development of aquifers. All were seen as a piece.
Village implementation teams — community members working together on small committees – have been the foundation for the work. Among the successes: harvest of ground nuts which yielded profit for about 30 people active in the gardening work.
Challenges remain. The type of crops grown in the community garden are dependent on the ongoing problem of dramatically changing weather patterns. Last year the problem was drought, the year before floods remain a constant source of uncertainty.
Still, even with challenges, the community feels change is afoot. “We feel empowered now,” said villager Logwang Ekolipus. “We are most proud just to be organized.”
In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing more stories from Nasinyon and some of the other villages I visited in the Karamoja region.
Chris Herlinger is CWS’s senior writer.