1 May 2014

Uganda Balanced on a Knife Edge

A beautiful organic farm
 in Northern Uganda
Having recently returned from Uganda I am trying to readjust to life in London.  In the week that I spent there with Alison Hall from Pop-Up Foundation we packed in a lot.  She was keen to show me a number of schools in the country so that I could understand more about the challenges that we would need to overcome in building our school.  I was keen to meet the farmers who are our clients for the project and to explore the materials and techniques that they use to build their own homes, as our project is going to be self-built by them for their community and so that they retain the majority of the value that the construction process will create.

What I was not prepared for was the shocking stories of the people that I met, the reign of terror that they had experienced and the inspirational way they are now rebuilding their shattered lives.  I was vaguely aware of the Lord’s Resistance Army, but had no real understanding of the terror that they perpetrated throughout northern Uganda during their 20 year assault on the people of the region.
Annette a Child Mother and
aspiring national team goalie
We met a group of child mothers, all of whom gave birth under the age of thirteen, following abduction and rape by the rebels.  One young woman, called Annette, told her own personal horror story of how she was forced to dance on her dead mother’s body before being made to carry her severed head.  Today, after years of help and support by her community she is the statuesque goal keeper in her local football team and has been spotted as a potential star of the future, aspiring to playing in Uganda’s national side.
For me the people that left the strongest impression were a group of farmers who were all HIV Positive, many as a result of sexual violence inflicted during the conflict.  Working together they have rebuilt their burned out homes, replanted their staple crops and are now expecting their first coffee harvest, from seedlings provided by Seeds for Development, planted three years ago.  They were happy and healthy and provided a shining beacon of hope for other suffers of this dreadful disease along with a fantastic demonstration of the ability of the human spirit to overcome outrageous adversity.
The truly inspiring
 happy and healthy
 HIV positive farmers
In many ways northern Uganda is balanced on a knife edge and the decisions that its leaders take will define the future for many people.  During the conflict agriculture was almost entirely suspended for twenty years, with farmers forced into government camps for their own protection.  Anyone found outside the camp fences was assumed to be a rebel; and shot.  The legacy of this terrible period is fertile, organic land, rich in nutrients.

Currently, everything that is grown in this region is organic, as fertilizers are too expensive for farmers to consider and yields are naturally high.  With global pressure to increase food production it will not be long before the fertilizer salesmen come knocking on the door with their promises and lies and it is in my opinion essential that markets are available to allow farmers to secure the premium that their organic produce deserves so that they can make informed decisions about their future.

The journey from our southern base in Mokono, a suburban town outside Kampala to Gulu, the location of one of the largest camps in the north, took six hours on roads varying from modern tarmac to rough, red dirt tracks.  On the way we passed a varying landscape that was green and verdant even though it was the end of the dry season.  We experienced sudden torrential showers that turned the wide ditches on either side of the road into turbulent rivers of rust red water.  We also passed the first signs of change, with huge areas of land totally cleared of all trees, shrubs and plants ready to be sown with GMO seeds.  I had not realised that these crops do not provide fertile seeds, so when this change is made it ties farmers into buying more each year.  It would appear that much like the British created mono-cultural plantations of sugar cane and tea during the colonial period, there are now significant pressures to see this form of agri-business become the dominant agricultural model.

Uganda is rightly described as the Pearl of Africa but it is a pearl balanced on a knife edge and must avoid the mistakes that we have made and achieve truly sustainable development that is socially equitable, economically sustainable in the long term and achieved with the minimum impact upon the environment.  It must not be allowed to become the dumping ground for the outdated products of global corporations or be seduced by outmoded short term thinking that is not in the people’s best interests but will bring rich rewards to the powerful few.

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