KOTIDO — Catherine Namoe straightens up from the back-breaking task of harvesting cow pea leaves to answer some questions. It is tough work, she says, and the men do not help much.
Even if the rain does not come again to turn the plant’s yellow flowers into pea pods, the leaves can be dried and stored for a while and may help feed her family over the long, hungry season in Uganda’s north-eastern region of Karamoja.
Namoe gestures towards distant hills rising out of the semi-arid savannah. She could spend a day walking there, barefoot, cut a bundle of firewood from the remaining trees, take it to the nearest trading centre and sell it for a possible 500 Ugandan shillings ($0,20) — enough to buy a cupful of kerosene or cooking oil or a few spoonfuls of sugar.
Yet her story is a tale of relative and still uncertain success. She and her fellow 1,1 million Karamojong, who come from more than 20 inter-related ethnic groups, are experiencing an unprecedented period of peace and opportunity.
Karamoja has been marginalised on several levels.
The 28 000sq km region is difficult to access and it is not on the national power grid. The few businesses in the small towns and trading centres rely on diesel generators — and fuel costs 20% more than in the capital, Kampala.
School and health services are more limited than anywhere else in Uganda. Most Karamojong struggle just to feed themselves; as recently as 2007, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) was providing emergency food aid to almost the entire population.
Poverty has resulted from decades of under-investment, but also from the implosion of traditional livelihoods. Most Karamojong are semi-nomadic pastoralists; men once moved with their herds in search of pasture as the seasons and years dictated and clans coped with lean years by raiding cattle from neighbours.
But the steady spread of modern weapons, aggravated by the spillover of armed conflict from the Lord’s Resistance Army insurrection in northern Uganda, resulted in the cattle-raiding habit escalating into a spiral of insecurity.
Earlier government efforts to stabilise the region had limited success, but a sustained disarmament campaign over the past few years has fared better. Human rights groups have criticised the force that government troops at times deployed in the campaign, but observers agree the violence has now abated, at least for the time being.
Peace is “like a new ideology”, says Milton Lopira, who heads a local non-governmental organisation, the Warrior Squad Foundation, in Kotido, one of four districts forming Karamoja.
He stresses that people were sick of the violence and lawlessness, which made everyone a loser. Young men, raised as cattle-raiding warriors, “now have an opportunity to engage in non-violent activities and they are ready and willing to change”.
Uganda’s central government is determined to convert the peace dividends into development dividends.
“We want to see how (local people’s) minds can be engaged in production so that they are not at the periphery, but participating in development alternatives,” Pius Bigirimana, permanent secretary in Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister, said.
The PM’s office co-ordinates a Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Programme that has gathered pace over the past two years, with growing support from international donors.
According to Bigirimana, plans are in place for tarring the 170km road from Mbale, to the south of Karamoja, to Moroto, in the region’s centre. Power lines will also come to Moroto from Soroti, to the west.
Bigirimana is reluctant to specify a timetable for these major projects, but says tens of millions of dollars have been firmly committed to more than a dozen substantial dam-building and irrigation schemes and that work on many has already begun.
In addition, over the past two years the government has supplied seeds, ox ploughs and hoes to groups of households willing to work the land, and has opened up 4 047 hectares of land though a tractor-hire scheme.
International donors have also switched from emergency relief to investment in “productive assets”. Notably, WFP is testing what Hakan Tongul, deputy country director for Uganda, calls “a new strategic approach to ending hunger”.
WFP still provides food aid through schools, to infants at risk of malnutrition and to especially vulnerable families, but the main thrust of its operations in Karamoja is now to give food or cash to people working on projects to diversify and strengthen their own livelihoods.
These projects, implemented through NGOs contracted by WFP, offer communities a “menu” of options, including planting crops, improving rural roads and small-scale water conservation and harvesting.
“There has been amazing interest in the communities,” Tongul said, especially in food cropping. Some 450 000 people have benefited from the programme over the past two years — Namoe is one.
The new approach has coincided with two consecutive years of good rains — after several previous years of drought — yielding decent harvests of sorghum, millet, cassava, cow peas, ground nuts, sunflowers and sesame.
The evidence is visible everywhere in Kotido, where groups of women pound sorghum while men sit in the shade making wicker baskets to carry the harvest home and domestic granaries to store it.
According to Martin Orem, co-ordinator of the Coalition of Pastoral Civil Society Organisations in Uganda, Karamoja’s low and irregular rainfall makes agriculture very difficult, explaining the region’s traditional, pastoral economy; in times of drought herds can be moved — crops cannot.
Orem welcomes increased government attention to Karamoja, but worries that “very senior people are saying that pastoralism is outdated, keeping our people in poverty, remaining backward”. He calls for closer consultation with communities in framing development plans.
“We recognise there must be change and we know for sure that pastoralists want to diversify their livelihoods, but it would be unfortunate for government to think they can think for communities,” he added.
But people seem no longer to be living in fear and, promisingly, moves are under way to transfer security duties from military to civil authorities.
No-one disputes that improved security was the first and most urgent step towards improving lives for the Karamojong. Yet the construction of a new Karamoja, more integrated into the rest of Uganda, is likely to be a long and contested process.