Did Karamoja need the iron sheets?
What you need to know:
- I have been to a lot of villages, visited homes and worked with local leaders on several community development projects. But every time I visit this region, I almost feel a shadow pass over my face and I always find myself transfixed by the grim-looking surroundings.
Over the past five years, as part of my involvement in the humanitarian aid sector, I have been to the Karamoja Sub-region at least seven times. During this time, I have met, interacted and through our organisation, I have helped to support more than 3,000 Karimojong, especially in Napak and Moroto districts. I have been to a lot of villages, visited homes and worked with local leaders on several community development projects. But every time I visit this region, I almost feel a shadow pass over my face and I always find myself transfixed by the grim-looking surroundings.
I have had a glimpse of what daily life within a normal Karimojong family looks like. I have watched mothers, with lurching sadness, struggle to find food and care for their households. And I have also seen children grow up in communities marked by turmoil and danger.
Most of the region’s inhabitants, perhaps damned by their heritage, have spent a lifetime rearing cattle and harvesting unproductive fields, while watching the seasons flow past them with no real hope of a better future. Karamoja is a place like no other. Its problems appear to be too entrenched; the challenges are too hard; and the support required is too great. But, in my view, Karamoja mainly suffers from three key long-standing chronic problems, that is, hunger, armed conflict and the mindset problem. The region is semi-arid and experiences chronic hunger year-on-year and estimates suggest that about 100 children aged less than five years die each week from preventable diseases related to food insufficiency. Armed conflict has contributed to intense periods of recurring violence and has prevented the region from participating in significant development initiatives.
The mindset problem is probably the biggest of them all. Over the past 30-or-so years, the Karamoja sub region has been arguably the single largest beneficiary of donor aid in Uganda (billions of dollars have been injected into the area, you may never know it!) and hundreds of interventions have been implemented by both government and development partners.
However, the majority of these interventions (including the provision of cash handouts, food stamps, or even iron sheets) have not been sustainable and have instead created a bigger issue - the dependence syndrome - which now resides in our peoples’ mindset. We once organized a farmers’ training in one of the Karamoja districts and to our surprise, some of the participants insisted that we should have just given them cash rather than spending a full day teaching them about good farming practices. Don’t get me wrong: housing in Karamoja is in a terrible state.
There are only a few concentrations of modern houses. But from my personal experience and research, modern housing is one of the least worries for the Karimojong. Majority still prefer their traditional housing model of grass-thatched huts, locally referred to as Manyattas and this has been evidenced with the past government housing projects. Modern houses have been previously constructed but have been largely shunned by the intended residents citing reasons related to poverty and the above-mentioned challenges.
The act of government ministers allegedly swindling iron sheets meant for Karamoja is horrendous. And for me, it is even more painful knowing that scarcely available resources were or are not being directed towards the real, pressing development needs of the region.
If our government (and development partners) really wants Karamoja to break from its wretched past and mould a more meaningful future, priority should be directed towards solving hunger, armed conflict and the mindset problem. Presently, the iron sheets would be nice-to-have, but not a must-have!
Mr Mukalazi is a Ugandan executive and socio-economic thinker. [email protected]