Journey through Uganda

Wednesday, April 03, 2019
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Janice Biehn, communications coordinator with Foodgrains Bank member Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), and Sarah Adjonye, a churchwarden of Bethlehem Anglican Church at Rhino Camp in northern Uganda. (Photo: Submitted)

Local writer finds food security projects taking root

(This article originally appeared in the Anglican, the Diocese of Toronto newspaper, republished with permission.)

By Janice Biehn

In his 1908 book My African Journey, Winston Churchill dubbed Uganda the Pearl of Africa, for its rugged natural beauty and fertile land. More than 100 years later the moniker is still worn with pride, but the land is not as productive and parts of the country experience food insecurity.

Aggrey Nshekanabo of Send-a-Cow Uganda says that, in theory, Uganda should be able feed the world. But climate change has done a number on small holder farmers, whose harvest supplies about 65% of the country’s food.

“The seeds and soil are tired,” he says. “It’s the end of February but where are the rains? They should have started already. We don’t have the knowledge to adapt.” With the world’s youngest population, feeding the multitudes will continue to be a challenge for years to come.

I am in Uganda representing The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) in a delegation of communications professionals from member agencies of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank: Becky Longhurst of Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR), Jon Self of World Renew, Samantha Burnside of Emergency Relief and Development Overseas (ERDO) and Shaylyn McMahon and Musu Taylor-Lewis of the Foodgrains Bank. We will also be joined by Nyambura Githaiga, a peace building and crisis specialist with the Foodgrains Bank, and Edward Echwalu, a Ugandan freelance photographer formerly with Reuters.

From left to right: Janice Biehn, Becky Longhurst, Shaylyn McMahon, Samantha Burnside, Musu Taylor-Lewis and Jon Self. (Photo: Submitted)

Over the next week we will visit three food security projects supported by our agencies and implemented these Ugandan development partners:

  • the Anglican Diocese of Nebbi, which for three years has been training rural families on conservation agriculture, empowering women with a savings and loan cooperative and training men and women on the importance of sharing household responsibilities;
  • the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Arua, which has been delivering an important nutritional supplement to vulnerable South Sudanese refugees in Rhino Camp, as well as women’s sanitary kits and psychosocial support;
  • St. Jude’s Family Project in Masaka, which for 20 years has been training local people to feed their families using farming techniques such as permaculture.
    We know we have come to hear people’s stories and share them with our respective churches, but we don’t yet know how inspired we’ll be by the people we meet.

Diocese of Nebbi, Nebbi

Clusters of one-room brick buildings with sloped thatched-grass roofs dot the landscape in the rural outskirts of this northwestern town. Towers of hand-made bricks are stacked to form their own kiln and huge bundles of grass lean against the trees. Goats and roosters and pigs forage about. Children walk home from school in long lines, turning to wave and smile at our party. Women peel cassava or husk cowpeas in the shade while the men lay bricks or tend the fields. Some houses have small solar panels propped up on the ground, for if there is one thing Uganda has a lot of it is sunshine. We are acclimatizing to the 35°C heat.

The development staff takes us to meet two separate Savings and Loan co-ops. In my group, 14 women gather on a tarp laid out beneath the shade of a tree. Plastic lawn chairs are set out for us and we are welcomed with singing and dancing. One by one the women rise to tell us how this program has transformed their lives.

The women do the bulk of the farming but with the increase of climate change, the work takes longer and produces less. They learned conservation agriculture techniques such as planting more than one type of seed at a time (to be less vulnerable to a bad crop), mulching (to retain moisture), and planting in rows (to make weeding easier). Soon their harvests were yielding enough food that they could feed their families and sell the surplus.

Once men saw the increased yields and what the women were learning, couples began to work together as partners, sharing not only the farming workload but household and parenting duties as well. Gender workshops were also organized for both men and women.

Judith and Moses invited us in to their home. They have a 14-year-old son, a 9-year-old daughter and a two-month-old son. Moses held baby Emmanuel with ease, but said through an interpreter that he would have never done this with his first-born son. With profits from selling her produce Judith was able to purchase the decorative curtain that hid the bed behind them, as well as plates and cups and chairs. To not be able to demonstrate hospitality is a shameful thing to a Ugandan.

Judith and Moses with their baby Emmanuel in Nebbi, Uganda. (Photo: Submitted)

Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG), Rhino Camp

PAG staffers Sheshmond Esalu, Simon Ekadu and Andrew Ogwang accompany us on the two-hour drive from Arua to Rhino Camp. Almost 100,000 people live here, mostly South Sudanese. Some have been here since 2016, unable to return as the conflict in South Sudan continues. There are 13 refugee settlements in Uganda, hosting a total of 1.2 million refugees, the highest in Africa.

The camp is divided into six sub-camps, which are further divided into zones. We are visiting Ofua Camp, zones 2 and 4. Many of the brick and thatched-roof houses are wrapped in the tent material of the United Nations Refugee Agency. The chaos of the early days is gone, yet the challenges remain.

Our intrepid driver, Patrick Nsereko, expertly navigates the treacherous roads until we arrive at the church — a long mud-covered building with a grass-thatched roof. As we file into the building we are greeted with singing and clapping and dancing. By the time the song is over the church is full and children poke their heads in the gap between the walls and the low eaves to watch.

We learn that each village zone is governed by a Refugee Welfare Council made up of refugee leaders who interact with the NGOs. Each leader stands up and introduces themselves. The people are grateful for the support they have been given but growing more and more frustrated. Monthly food rations only last 20 days. There is no way to make an income to buy more food for the remaining 10 days, or to buy uniforms so their kids can go to school. The corn-soya nutritional porridge that PAG provides to 2,500 vulnerable people in Ofua has been delayed at the Kenyan border for a month.

The next day we meet refugees in Zone 4. We speak with a group of breastfeeding or pregnant women who have been receiving the fortified porridge. They sit close together on a bench, two of them holding their babies on their laps. All but one attend Bethlehem Anglican Church, the large building behind us. Sarah Adjonye, who sits at one end, is a church warden there. She patiently translates each woman’s names and ages, and their harrowing stories of how they arrived here, mostly on foot with only the clothes on their backs. “God must have a reason for putting us here,” she says. “It’s not normal for people to live like this.” Then the words seem to catch in Sarah’s throat and she brings the back of her hand to her eyes. Quietly, she says, “We must have really sinned for God to punish us like this.” Afterwards, she tells me she is praying for help to start a small drugstore business. I tell her I will pray for her, too.

St. Jude’s Family Project, Masaka

On our last day, we head west to Masaka. Founder Josephine Kizza Aliddeki greets us with enthusiasm. The 22-year-old organization has grown to include modern offices and classrooms, dormitories and a cafeteria for instruction in permaculture. PWRDF has been supporting St. Jude’s for a year-and-a-half training 210 women farmers, building 210 water tanks for rainwater harvest, establishing tree and vegetable nurseries and more.

Josephine’s son, Daniel, recently completed a masters degree in Oklahoma and is excited to show us the new demonstration garden. “We built it on the side of a hill to show farmers that an area that seems inhospitable can still grow food,” he says. The garden includes irrigation tunnels that run down the hill and feed into three aquaculture pools where fish are farmed. There is eggplant, tomatoes and banana trees; grass compost heaps and compost tea made from manure; chicken coops and pig stys. “Permaculture is all about using the soil to feed you, but also feeding the soil,” says Daniel. He explains that farmers learn to continuously plant so there is no “season”. Plants are harvested in turn and carefully chosen to also return nutrients to the soil.

Emily, 52, leads other vulnerable people in caring for a tree nursery, making soap, breeding pigs and chickens, and collecting water in Masaka, Uganda. (Photo: Submitted)

We take a short drive to the home of Emily, 52, who is disabled. She leads other vulnerable people in caring for a tree nursery, making soap, breeding pigs and chickens and collecting rain water. Emily tours us around her home and shows off her new higher-efficiency wood-burning brick stove, one of 120 in the community.

PWRDF has supported St. Jude’s in planting more than 10,000 trees. When crops are not turning a profit, many people cut down trees to burn and make charcoal to sell, but the cost to the soil and air quality is far greater than the short-term gain.

When we return to the main building, the community is waiting to meet and thank us. They have written a song about how their lives have changed. Josephine translates: “It is through the Canadians that we can reach higher and higher,” the song goes. “We’ve been able now to improve our lives because St. Jude came to work with us.”

Mission accomplished.

Janice Biehn is the Communications Coordinator for PWRDF and Rector’s Warden at St. Olave’s in West Toronto.

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