Uganda: Hunger pushes Teso residents to extreme ends as food becomes 'gold'
In the midday sun, 70-year-old Peter Oduluse lies quietly on a ragged cloth, spread under a mango tree in the compound of his home. He moves his frail body from side to side as he labours to breathe. He can neither sit nor stand.
The contours of his rib cage are outlined through his emaciated body. He is not sick. He is just starved, having gone for several days without a solid meal.
"I haven't eaten in weeks. I have been depending on porridge which my daughter brings here everyday," Mr Oduluse says.
Although it is already 12:40p.m. when we arrive at Mzee Oduluse's home in Amucu parish, Asamuku Sub-county in Amuria District on Sunday May 10, even the porridge that he relies on has not been brought.
Mr Oduluse, who says he was once a successful farmer before the floods of 2007 destroyed all his crops, now depends on his daughter and sometimes, the goodwill of neighbours.
If the porridge does not come, Mr Oduluse will spend yet another night on an empty stomach.
Just a few metres away from his house, Ms Elizabeth Akello sits in a pensive mood under the shade of her grass-thatched mud house, contemplating her next move.
The day has not been good for her as she does not know where she will get food to feed her 10 children.
She woke up early in the morning to wander through the wild for any edible green leaves to cook for her children but did not find anything this time round.
She says her children will now have to take porridge for supper. "They can survive on mangoes during the day. There are plenty of them on the trees. We shall have porridge for supper tonight," Ms Akello said.
But the mangoes are getting scarce by the day, spelling more disaster for many of the children who have been relying on it for survival.
Two years ago, Ms Akello planted cassava but the floods washed away everything. This year, she has tried her hand at it again but the prolonged drought has affected the cassava once again.
"If this drought continues, my children are going to die of hunger. I have nothing to give them," she says, almost resigned to her fate.
The accounts of Mr Oduluse and Ms Akello are replicated in several parts of east and northern Uganda where famine is looming.
Survival for many people in Teso sub-region has become a nightmare now that food is scarce. After being hit in 2007 by floods that destroyed most crops and a prolonged drought that devoured anything remaining after that, the region which used to have abundant food has plunged into famine, leaving thousands of people vulnerable to hunger and starvation.
A Saturday Monitor survey of various areas in the districts of Amuria and Katakwi, two of about eight of the districts across West Nile, northern and north-eastern regions which are facing serious food shortages, revealed firsthand accounts of the magnitude of the current food crisis.
Other districts affected are Moyo, Adjumani, Arua, Abim, Moroto, Kotido and Busia.
In Abim, in north-eastern Uganda, the district speaker, Mr Godfrey Okello, reported a case of a 46-year-old woman, Lina Awili from Angiro village who died on May 4 after going for several days without food.
In Ogoria village, Ongogoja Sub-county in Katakwi, residents said a 65-year-old woman, Lucy Angura died of hunger-related causes in early April.
Ongogoja is one of the worst hit areas by the famine in Katakwi.
Here the famine has taken its toll mostly on women, children and the elderly as they are more vulnerable to hunger and starvation.
Scenes of children with bloated stomachs feasting on mangoes are common in the villages. With no food, that is the only way many of them can beat the hunger.
"We only have supper these days. So during the day, we eat mangoes only,'' said five year old Idd Eyumu, who lives with his grandmother.
Ms Matilda Atim, in Ococo parish, Ogoria village in Ongonja Sub-county, who says she does not know her age, but looks over 70, is staying alive against all odds.
In front of her was a saucepan full of mangoes that she was feasting on.
"This is what I have got, my daughter. There's no food and the mangoes have been my only saviour, she said.
Ms Atim, who lost all her children and husband to rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army, said when the mangoes finally get finished, she might starve to death. "I have no children who can give me food. All I have is that cassava which is dying,''she said pointing to the backyard of her house where she has a small field of cassava and beans.
The days when she can manage to get a meal, only once a day, is a good day.
When asked, the LCIII chairperson for Kuju Sub-county in Amuria, Mr Richard Epulu, said the prolonged drought has not allowed people to plant on time, while what had already been planted is rotting in the ground.
"As we talk now, this should have been the first season when farmers should be planting but its dry. The rains should have come in early March but this has not been the case and yet we expect a dry spell from June. How are farmers going to cope?" he asked.
He said many families are finding it hard to have three meals a day.
According to Mr Epulu, the last time the area suffered a major famine was in 1999 after a prolonged drought that resulted into a poor harvest.
"People in Teso are active but the weather has not been favourable for us and we have now been reduced to beggars. We need the government to come in with some relief aid as we wait for the few crops in the garden to mature," Mr Epulu said.
According to him, cassava is the only staple food that can be harvested in the early rainy season when hunger is acute, but an outbreak in 2008, of the cassava brown streak disease has destroyed the root tubers, worsening the situation.
"You see the cassava lying in the ground but when you uproot, you don't find any tubers. It is just disappointing," he explained.
Even in cases where the food is available, Mr Peter Ipwoka, the LCI chairperson Osepai village, Asamuku Sub-county in Amuria said it has become expensive for majority of the people to afford.
"A basin of cassava which used to go for Shs5,000 is now Shs12,000. Many families are living on less than Shs2,000 every day, how can they afford to buy the cassava?" he asked.
Mr Ipwoka said a kilogramme of beans has also jumped from Shs800 to Shs1,500, far beyond what ordinary villagers can afford.
Emergency relief food, Mr Ipwoka said will be required to keep people going in the event that the famine continues.
The State Minister for Disaster Preparedness, Mr Musa Ecweru, said his ministry is aware of the situation, revealing that Shs1.9 billion has been earmarked to address the crisis.
He said maize and bean seeds, as well as cassava stems will be distributed to households in the affected areas.
For Samson Iliat, all hope is now in the groundnuts he has just planted. The sky opened up to deliver its heaviest rains in over two months in Katakwi District on the night of Sunday.
Mr Iliat was in his garden in Odom village, Usuk Sub-county busy planting groundnuts.
Until recently, the 70-year-old mostly engaged in growing maize, beans and rice. But because most of these crops are highly dependant on good reliable rains and soils, they haven't been much of a priority for him and many other farmers in the region. He is now trying to plant groundnuts.
Last year, he planted one-and-a-half acres of maize and hoped he would get four bags of 100kg each but to his disappointment he got only one.
Mr Iliat prepared his garden as early as March but the rains did not come. Now with the onset of the rains, he has decided to plant his groundnuts. The rains in coming days will determine how the yields fare, but Iliat is a little over a month behind schedule.
Groundnuts are usually planted during mid February and mid April during the first season and in early August for the second season.
"It is already late but I have to plant now. I'm only hoping the rains will continue to fall in the coming weeks," he said.
What he is producing is for home consumption because he does not want the current food shortage that has hit to affect him in the future.
At the moment, he relies on charcoal burning to get money to feed his family.
"I sell every sack at Shs 7,000 and use the money to buy beans and cassava flour and at times we rely on wild greens like ecomoil," he said.
With the food shortage, almost every granary where food is stored between harvests is empty. The roofs have either collapsed or they have been abandoned altogether as most people prefer keeping the little food they have inside their houses other than the granaries.
Ms Mary Akwi who lives in Adacara internally displaced camp in Katakwi said she last had food in her granary in 2006.
"When we were expecting the harvest of 2007, the floods came and since then we have not had any food in the granaries. With this famine, the granaries have been rendered useless. When you keep food there, it will be stolen," Ms Akwi explained.
She has been struggling to keep her family of five children alive on one meal a day. With nothing much to till from the ground, she is now selling her labour to put food on the table.
She is one of several villagers in Adacara who have been engaged in the construction of a community road. For every day she works, she earns Shs3,000 and it is this that she uses to buy food. The work is intensive and it has quickly exhausted Ms Akwi because she does not have proper meals in between and suffers from chest pain.
"When you come back and there is no good meal, the next day you can fail to go back to work. All this work depends on the energy you have,'' Ms Akwi said.
The famine has come with yet another problem, theft.
"People have now resorted to stealing from the gardens. The other night thieves came and uprooted my cassava even when they have not matured," Ms Akello said.
"You cannot even leave any food stuff to dry on the compound, you will not get it because some one will just steal it. The hunger is just too much," Ms Akello complained.
Reported cases of death as a result of hunger are so far low, but local leaders fear the situation could get worse if interventions are not made.