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{UAH} How Teso became ‘national headquarters of hunger'

How Teso became 'national headquarters of hunger'
  • Written by Edris Kiggundu

On Wednesday, May 24, The Observer published a story showing the extent of the devastation that hunger has caused in the Teso sub-region. In this second part of our series on hunger in Teso, EDRIS KIGGUNDU traces how the sub-region became food insecure and points out some of the solutions to the crisis.

Teso began its slow but steady descent into the current food crisis decades ago. The sub-region, according to local and civil society leaders, used to grow plenty of cassava both as a food crop and cash crop. Sam Opejo, 64, the elder from Kapir sub-county in Ngora district, remembers that trucks upon trucks from other parts of the country used to roam the villages, collecting cassava.

"We made a lot of money those days and we married all these beautiful women," he said, pointing to his wife metres away.

However, in the late 1980s, the sub-region was hit by two tragedies that had an impact on food security. The first was the rebellion by the Uganda People's Army (UPA) and other rebel groups that destabilized the region, forcing people to flee their homes and the land.

"No one could go to the garden during the war; so, a lot of land was idle. We were depending on relief from government," said Benjamin Opolot, a former youth councillor for Kobwin sub-county, Ngora district.
The second catastrophe was the mosaic disease which destroyed acres and acres of cassava, which was the sub-region's staple food.

Edulas (granaries) at a home in Toroma Katakwi

Without a reliable food crop, the sub-region started teetering on the edge of famine.

"People moved onto other crops like sweet potatoes, groundnuts, millet and sorghum. They needed to have a stable source of food," James Peter Inyangat, the executive director of Vision Terudo, told The Observer in Ngora town recently.

Vision Teso Rural Development Organisation (Terudo) is a Teso-based development organization that was founded in 1982. Its founders envisaged it as a vehicle that would foster economic and social change in the sub-region. From tackling poverty to education, from dealing with HIV/Aids scourge to domestic violence, Vision Terudo has had a plateful to deal with.

But with the support of donor groups, the organisation established its footprint in most parts of the sub-region and it has become an iconic institution. In a society where formal government institutions have at times failed to do their work, the not-so-fancy offices of Vision Terudo in Ngora town, have become a place of first resort for people in Teso trying to look for answers to their predicaments.

On any given day, you will find a mother reporting about poor health services at a particular health centre, a parent complaining about rampant absenteeism of teachers at a primary school or a farmer looking for advice on how to improve their crop yield.

As part of insulating the sub-region from hunger, Inyangat says that in 1994, the organisation introduced a mosaic-resistant type of cassava, which however was not taken on well. At that time, many people had moved on to other crops which they were treating as food and cash crops.

Opolot, the former youth councillor, said the new food crops could not sustain the people for long due to a number of reasons.

"After the war, there was a population explosion as normalcy returned. All of a sudden people did not have enough land to cultivate and there was need to put back the children in school," Opolot said.

With little food being produced on fragmented pieces of land, the region, starting from the early 200s, began to stare into the face of famine.

For how long would things hold together? Not long, it seemed.


In the months of June and July 2007, the sub-region experienced devastating floods, following persistent rains. The floods washed away gardens, destroyed road infrastructure and led to the death of at least nine people.

In a joint assessment of the impact of the 2007 floods on food security in eastern Uganda, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), painted a bleak picture ahead for Teso. 

In their report, the bodies predicted that between June 2007 and July 2008, Amuria district would have a deficit of 16,419 tonnes of cereals, 27,743 tonnes of roots and tubers [cassava] while Katakwi would have a cereal deficit of around 3,315 tonnes but small surpluses in roots and tubers.

"Many households in both Amuria and Katakwi suffered total losses of some crops [due to the floods], especially cassava, sweet potato and groundnuts, and need to be immediately identified and targeted for assistance," the report noted.

A garden of maize destroyed by heavy downpour in Kobwin subcounty, Ngora district

The floods, according to Inyangat, also set in motion a pattern of two contrasting climatic conditions that the sub-region continues to experience till this day.

"Sometimes when it rains, it rains so heavily that whatever crops farmers have planted are destroyed and when it is dry, it goes on for so long that we lack water and animals die," Inyangat said.


While nothing could have prepared Teso for the vagaries of the weather, when it comes to food security, some people believe something could have been done about food storage like in the olden days.

Writing in Daily Monitor in November last year, after reports emerged that some people in the sub-region were dying of hunger, Dr Okodan Akwap, a lecturer at Kampala International University, too wondered what had befallen the edulas, Ateso for granaries.

"Back in the 1960s and the 1970s when we were children, Teso was a sub-region that took the matter of food security very seriously…there would be edula (granary) for groundnuts and others for cowpeas, amukeke (sliced and dried potatoes), cassava, millet, sorghum, beans, etc. It was culturally unacceptable for a homestead to be without granaries," he opined.

Akwap also noted the people had "thrown away the culture of storing food for tomorrow, opting to exchange it for money that will be used today."

Like elsewhere in rural Uganda, granaries were introduced in Teso by the British colonialists and served two main purposes: first, they acted as a food reservoir for families for the period between planting and harvesting; secondly, they served as a store for seeds for the next planting season.

An edula was usually constructed using a combination of mud, clay, cow dung and flexible stems from some plants. Most families in Teso normally used to have two granaries to store different types of produce but polygamous families could have up to six.

Tom Okelloto, the chairman of Iteso Welfare Association, a charity organisation, remembers that back then, clan chiefs would inspect homes to confirm, among other things, if they had a granary. Those without edulas were usually punished.

"You could be paraded in the village and told to do community service," Okelloto said.

Granaries started disappearing from Teso life during years of insurgency in the late 1980s. Once rebels figured out that some people were using them as hiding places, they began raiding homes which had granaries.
Okelleto said some people later opted not to have them at all.

Still, a number of homes in the sub-region have granaries even today, the difference being that virtually all of them are empty.

"People do not have enough food to eat. Where do you expect them to get food to store?" asked Okelloto.

Secondly, the hunger crisis has led to a spike in crime, including food thefts, according to local leaders. It would, therefore, be risky to store food in a granary. Many people now designate rooms within their houses where they store some of the food on bare ground. In many cases, the food goes bad.


Government last month delivered relief food to parts of the sub-region. According to local leaders we talked to, each family was given an average of five kilograms of maize flour. In addition, special groups like elderly, widows, child-headed families and the sick were given rice.

Inyangat of Vision Terudo said while the relief food was welcome, it was not adequate because the average number of people per household in Teso is six. This means on average, each person in a household received a kilogramme, which cannot last beyond one week.

And secondly, beyond the handouts, there is a growing realization that the sub-region needs a long-term sustainable solution to the problem of famine. Vision Terudo, in collaboration with another organisation, Pearls of Change, believes they have the formula.

"We have zeroed in on four crops that can be used as cash crop and are friendly to the environment. They are ginger, red pepper, avocado and jackfruit," Inyangat said.

These can be grown alongside the common food crops such as cassava and maize. Of the four, Inyangat believes ginger is more profitable because a processed kilogram can fetch as much as Shs 250,000 on the international market. If planted on half an acre, the type of ginger (mzungu) that is being piloted by the two organizations can yield up to a tonne. 

With each unprocessed kilogramme fetching between Shs 9,000 and Shs 15,000, ginger, it is hoped, will be an economic game changer. If the people in Teso get a reliable cash crop that can earn people handsome money, it means they will spare some of the food crops, like cassava and maize, which had been converted into major cash crops. These foods will then form the buffer against hunger.

This is still hypothetical but Inyangat's dream is that it will soon become a reality.


Gwokto La'Kitgum
"Even a small dog can piss on a tall building" Jim Hightower

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