Uganda project visit (1) by Jane Best

I visited two projects funded by Refugees International Japan in Uganda in early March 2012. In this blog:

  • Environment Conservation Programme in Kitgum, Northern Uganda
  • Flying north
  • Joseph Kony and the LRA
  • Kitgum town
  • Meeting the team
  • Tree nursery
  • Eco-clubs
  • Meeting beneficiaries
  • “One leg in the camp, one leg in the village”

I had a couple of days in Kampala and then I started my project visit on a flight from Kampala to Pader in the north of Uganda. The plane was a Cessna 206 – a small six-seater, two seats are for the pilot and another control seat.

It was absolutely brilliant – real flying. It was noisy but the weather was good so it was smooth and a great way to see the country below.

At Pader there is an airstrip and nothing else at all, not even a shed.

This is Acholi land – the home of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that terrorized Uganda for 20 years. There is peace there now and people are returning home. The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, committed serious atrocities throughout the Acholi region – and other areas – abducting children, killing people and torching villages. No-one was safe. The children were made to commit unspeakable atrocities, often drugged and mutilated. Kony had no real agenda. He is said to be in the Central African Republic now. Invisible Children, the recent video that went viral, really simplifies the situation – it was much worse! It is so good to know that now there is peace in the region and people are returning home.

It was dirt roads all the way to Kitgum, my final destination, but not that bad – corrugations with a few potholes. Traffic on dirt roads creates so much dust that the people walking or on bicycles loom out of a red haze. In the rainy season these roads turn to mud, but they are often better than a badly maintained tar road.

Now and again there are concrete markers with a large cross on top. Apparently, these mark where a priest was killed during the 20-year rebel insurgency. Priests would not accept escorts as they believed that God would protect them and therefore they were vulnerable. They had to be buried where they were killed.

Kitgum is a bigger town than Pader but these towns are all an amalgam of roughly built shops such as Hollywood Photo Studio or Eat Better restaurant. Electricity everywhere in Uganda is intermittent and only town buildings have piped water. Women queued at boreholes to fill their water containers and it was the end of the dry season so water had to carried to water gardens and farms. It is tough work and mostly left to the women. I cannot imagine carrying water for a kilometer or more as I heard some of these women do.

I met Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Kitgum staff for a briefing on their work and the local issues.

95% of the approx. 260,000 people who were displaced during the insurgency have returned home which seems a good figure to me. However, this is not the end of the story – challenges still exist regarding trauma, livelihoods and use of land. There were never conflicts over land before the displacement so a lot of this relates to trauma.

I heard that the RIJ funding had provided the springboard for other, larger projects. This is good news and very much in line with RIJ criteria. RIJ provides small grants for projects and where they are pilot projects we hope this enables the recipient to showcase the success and attract bigger funders. In this case, the EU has provided funding for an energy facility programme and the Japan Embassy has funded digging of boreholes that will benefit 8,000 people.

After lunch – choice of millet, maize meal, rice, chicken, beef, fish, beans and greens (a standard selection) – we went to visit the nursery, a school running eco-clubs and a farmer who is benefiting from the programme.

The tree nursery has a variety of seedlings – teak (for construction), neem (for protection against disease), citrus, mango, pawpaw etc –  providing many people with the opportunity to plant at home, eat the fruit from the trees and also earn a little income from selling the fruit.

Everywhere I went the drought conditions were clearly causing huge problems but Francis in the LWF team had suggestions for making it easier, such as using a pet bottle for drip watering. His positive attitude was clearly encouraging people.

We always have to make courtesy calls to the local officials. This is important to ensure the local officials support the work being done and do not impede the activities in any way. They are always pleased to see us and always want the support to continue – i.e., they want to see financial support continue! I sign many visitors’ books on these trips.

One of the offices we visited was in a parish called Omiya – the chairman of the parish knew of Omiya in Japan.

At the local primary school in Lajokogaye we met Benson, the teacher in charge of the eco-clubs, and Janet, the student who chairs the club. There wasn’t so much to see because planting will begin once the rains come but Janet told me of the work she has done and how her family has been able to enjoy fresh fruit and vegetables that they have grown themselves. Some of the students came to sing me a welcome song, followed by a song about the environment. Several had T-shirts on with the LWF logo, the eco-club logo and RIJ on one sleeve! The eco-club logo is neat – showing a tree being grafted and the split part being planted to form another tree.

We visited two farmers who have a good large amount of land and have benefited from the distribution of seedlings. Alex had grown various fruit trees and cotton bushes; and Robert had planted teak seedlings and cotton. Alex had been able to continue farming to an extent during the insurgency as long as he had an escort from the camp to visit his farm. But it was too dangerous for Robert to return so the land lay idle.

Alex is an older man with adult children, but Robert is younger with children to support. Both plan to grow their own seedlings to become self-sufficient and sell them to others.

Robert’s father owns 146 acres and has given Robert 12 acres to farm. Robert planted 300 teak trees, of which 257 survived. They looked sad in the dry conditions, but they shed their leaves to preserve water. Once the rains come they will burst into life. The leaves become dry and break up to be absorbed into the soil, providing valuable nutrients to the soil. They are also useful for carbon exchange.

Everyone is advised to plant crops in between the trees. Robert was dissatisfied with the cotton he grew because cotton is light and only brought 1,000 shillings per kilo. Next year he plans to plant pumpkin and beans – food crops. In his compound he had planted pine trees that the goats had eaten – they were not dead though and once again, Francis had advice for protecting the trees.

I was amused at one his hens incubating her eggs in a gourd mounted in a tree. She looked so comfortable there.

Dinah, from LWF, commented on his use of trees to build his home. She pointed out that they do not need to cut down the whole tree but can cut the top branches for building while preserving the tree. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed to sensitize people about the environment.

A neighbor, Thomas, came by especially to introduce himself and tell me he was going to be a Community Resource person. He was very proud that he had planted 11 trees in his compound from seedlings provided by the project.

I wanted to meet people who have chosen to stay in the IDP camps, so we went to what they call a decongestion camp. People were moved from the mother camps to decongestion camps as they started the re-settlement process. The women we met were older or widowed. Their homes are just 3km from the camp and they have been back to plant but it is difficult for them to build a home without assistance and people who can help tend to exploit them.

This is what they call ‘one leg in the camp and one leg in the village’.

The project is producing good results and beneficiaries are clearly doing better as a result. 200 households have benefited from the seed distribution and this means over 1,500 people. There is still so much more to do as people adjust to their new-found freedom and understand the environmental problems.


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