BY RICHARD DRASIMAKU:
WEST NILE: The thuds of hoes smashing into the ground reverberate across a panoramic outlay of gardens owned by South Sudan refugees.
Each gardener is preoccupied with tilling the rented fields in the neighborhood of Ofua III.
The clunks vividly demonstrate efforts by the refugees and their hosts in response to the disruption by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic to their means of sustainable foods.
Located in Uriama sub county, Terego district, Ofua III is part of the Rhino Camp Refugee settlement that covers parts of Madi-Okollo and Terego districts in Uganda where South Sudanese are the majority.
The other settlements within the West Nile sub region are Imvepi in Terego, Bidibidi in Yumbe district, Palorinya in Obongi district and the settlements in Adjumani district.
Coronavirus pandemic disrupts livelihoods
As the coronavirus pandemic surged across the globe triggering socio-economic crisis in its wake, the refugee community was not spared.
The pandemic sparked off increase in costs of food, limited the access to livelihood activities, kept the refugees locked in the decrepit settlements and led to curbing of transport services.
Covid-19 registered its presence in Uganda in March 2020 and prompted the government to catalogue containment measures dubbed “standard operating procedures.”
These included enforcement of social distance, promotion of personal and home hygiene, and crucially the banning of nonfood markets, suspension of transport and imposition of night curfews.
According to the UNHCR update on Covid-19 released on July 21, 2020, a total of 52 refugees tested positive for coronavirus with 100% recovery while 2,919 refugees were quarantined. But so far no serious outbreak has been registered in settlements where South Sudanese are in West Nile.
WFP cuts rations
Then the World Food programme (WEP) announced a cut in the food rations allocated per family head from 12 kilograms of maize flour to seven kilograms and beans were reduced from eight kilos to five kilos.
For the refugees that opted to receive cash payments instead of food rations, WFP slashed off sh10,000 (2.3 euros) thereby giving the refugees sh21,000 (4.8 euros) instead of sh31,000 (7.1 euros) per month.
The shortfall in donations to the United Nations agencies due to Covid-19 pandemic was cited to justify the cuts.
“It was a difficult situation and we had to resort to growing everything we need to eat,” reflected Mary Abawu, a mother of three who hails from Yei River State.
With markets shut and local savings activities stopped, the refugees as well as their hosts looked for avenues of fresh produce to cushion against the shocks on dietary.
Though the lockdown has been eased in phases, its impact on diets and livelihoods for the refugees and hosting community abounds.
Abawu says to ensure access to immunity boosting foods the people resorted to planting food crops on the small plots available to them.
It is Abawu’s second spell in Uganda as a refugee, having fled her native South Sudan with her parents as a youngstar in 1996, she repatriated to South Sudan in 2005 only to run back in 2016 when the restive country descended into anarchy again.
Now with both parents already deceased, Abawu, a single mother who is not sure of her age is the sole breadwinner for her three children and a brother.
Her 50 square metres plot that was allocated by the UNHCR is a setup of five grass thatched houses, a latrine and bath shelter.
Surrounding Abawu’s home, just like the homes of other refugees in the settlement, are tiny subdivisions of the plot accommodating spices and vegetables including egg plants, sweet potatoes, onions, groundnuts, climbing beans, spider plants, amaranthus, okra and pumpkins.
On a quarter of an acre piece of land rented at sh30,000 (about 7 euros) from Charles Azima, a landlord in Amuru village who has also rented out six acres of gardens to other refugees, Abawu planted cassava, groundnuts, maize, and simsim. The popular jute mallow grows on its own in those gardens.
She said planting these crops became very necessary because she no longer carries out the business of secondhand clothes. Her other side activities like crochet thread stiffening and sewing clothes too ceased to make meaning due to lack of demand.
Abawu does all the farm work with her children since she is unable to hire casual labour due to lack of personal protective equipment.
For Joel Lemi and wife Susan Gune who are settled at Imvepi, farming is not only a means to get food but also to protect their eight girls from early pregnancy.
The couple were settled in Imvepi in 2016 and have since got about six acres of free land from a national near Enyau river where they are farming.
Every morning they go farming with all their children and spend the whole day digging, weeding or harvesting fresh produce including cabbages, cassava, rice and fruits like pawpaw.
“I do farming to pay the school fees of these girls. Since schools have been closed, I don’t want men to come near them,” Lemi explained.
The refugees purchase some planting materials such as cassava stalk from the native community but some natives take money upfront for planting materials and never supply them.
Denis Candia, the local council II chairman for Akino parish maintains that incidents of dishonest natives cheating refugees are isolated.
He says most people identify in solidarity with their “brothers” from South Sudan and are happy to share resources with them.
Their worry is that aid agencies are not doing enough to alleviate the negative impact on the environment arising from the farming practices such as bush clearing.
“I have personally given 15 acres of land to be used by refugees. Most of it is free of charge but the UN needs to help us to plant more trees,” he urged.
According to Gilbert Akuma, an official from the Office of the Prime minister attached to Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe district, the refugees are encouraged to partner with host communities in farming.
He said in some cases the refugees are not utilising all the plots that were allocated to them by UNHCR and the government and stressed that some efforts were underway to promote agroforestry to mitigate the adverse impacts of encroachment on bushlands.
Agencies help with high yielding varieties
Under the difficult circumstance, organisations such as the German Development Agency GIZ, Rural Initiative for Community Empowerment (RICE-West Nile), Italian Development agency ACAV and Oxfam adjusted their support programmes by reducing the interface between extension staff and the refugees.
Some of the organisations distributed quick maturing and high yielding varieties of crops such as cassava, maize, beans, onions, tomatoes and groundnuts as well as livestock and poultry.
Many of these interventions also targeted the host community in line with the national refugee policy.
For instance RICE-West Nile responded with a package of relief items including 25 kilograms of maize flour, 15 kilograms of beans, five litres of cooking oil, energy saving stoves and a bar of soap per household for 305 family heads.
Its director, Pax Sakari, says in order to prepare the refugees and the host community for the aftermath of the Covid-19 emergency, the organization supported 20 farmers’ groups consisting of a total of 600 members.
These were given planting seeds while 38 model farmers were supported with inputs and tricycles to transport the produce.
“We are not going to be giving food in the aftermath of the pandemic. But when you look at the refugee population and what we are able to offer, this is just a little drop in the sea,” said Sakari.
On its part Giz switched from group farming to individualised farming in compliance with the Standard Operating Procedures.
“We stopped meetings between beneficiaries and the community based trainers and concentrated on supplying planting materials,” Martin Stange, Giz’s team leader of the agriculture support programme said.
Accordingly, the organisation supplied 17 tons of groundnut seeds, 87 kilograms of onion seeds, 6.2 kilograms of tomato seeds and three tons of rice and 1,628 bags of cassava cuttings among others to the 5000 refugees and host community members in Rhino Camp, Imvepi, Palorinya, and Adjumani.
Janet Azikuru, 55, a resident of Walaka village, in Uriama sub county is one of the 25-member Alioderubo village savings and loan association that was supported with seeds of onions and groundnuts by GIZ.
Azikuru is currently harvesting the onions which she dries on a tarpaulin and stores in a sack with plans to sell at the end of the year.
“We slice and dry the leaves for spicing vegetables for our own consumption,” she says.
But the lockdown was imposed when the onion seedlings were still on the nursery bed and GIZ had not given watering cans that many farmers worked at a loss with their seedlings wilting due to lack of water.
Molly Driciru, a member of the same group, says she might only reap sh2,000 (0.5 euros) from sale of onions after losing seedlings from two tins on the nursery bed.
GIZ’s own records indicate that at least four refugee groups refused to set up nursery beds due to lack of watering cans. These were Salama, Akiba, God Gives and John’s Group all in Rhino Camp.
Emphasising climate smart farming
Whereas agency supported farmers are trained and guided to practice farming the modern way, the majority of the population still mix the crops in the gardens the traditional way.
Gertrude Badaru, the Arua district agriculture officer says intercropping is okay when there is land shortage but farmers need to do it with good practices like maintaining the right spacing and planting in rows.
She adds that intercrop is also good because if one crop yields poorly, a farmer can get a good harvest from another; for example poor weather may affect beans but you get better yields from cassava.
Curiously, the agronomist notes that some refugees who have taken farming seriously are now the providers of fresh foods like tomatoes, cabbages and egg plants to the nationals some of home rent out the land to the refugees and spend the fee on alcohol.
She recommends to the refugees and the hosting community to adopt climate smart agriculture practices such as mulching with grass instead of burning the grass in the fields if they are to boost their food production.
“Mulching leads to water retention, protects the soils from erosion and when the grass decays, it provides rich nutrients for crops,” she asserted.
“By intercropping quick maturing and high yielding crop varieties with the right mix of farming practices, the refugees and their hosting communities in West Nile have the means to diversity of foods and sustainable diets,” she concluded.
This article was produced with support from Climate Tracker.