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Uganda hunger crisis: ‘Only a matter of time’

Geoffrey Kibigo, a Tearfund Disaster Risk Management Officer, reports on his visit to Uganda to assess the situation.

Written by Geoffrey Kibigo, Disaster Risk Management Officer for Tearfund – Southern and Eastern Africa region | 26 Apr 2024

Achilla, in a brightly-coloured dress, bends to search for leaves on the dusty ground.

Achilla, a 25-year-old mother of three in Karamoja, searches for leaves that she can feed to her family. When we met her, she explained that her children hadn’t eaten anything more than a few leaves for the past three days. Last year’s poor harvest due to the prolonged drought has caused widespread hunger for many in Uganda. Credit: Geoffrey Kibigo/Tearfund

Of the 1.2 million people living in Karamoja, Uganda, more than 518,000 are facing critical food insecurity. Of these, 90,000 are at emergency levels without food to eat. ‘For the first time in three years, all the nine districts of Karamoja are at crisis level or worse,’ says Narem Sarah Kotido, Chairperson of the local District Disaster Management Committee.

Below average harvests due to erratic rainfall in Uganda

It seems that it is only a matter of time here in Karamoja until news of people giving up the battle for their lives due to hunger and starvation may be all over our news again. Following the compounding impacts of five consecutive years of below-average harvests due to poor and erratic rainfall, along with political and economic insecurity which have taken a toll on many households, it is currently expected that most families will be starving and require food aid to survive until around September 2024 unless the rains come early.

The rain that has been falling in April might improve the situation starting from June 2024, however, the food security situation has been made worse by the fact that the little food harvested in 2023 was not enough to last beyond December 2023. Since the beginning of 2024, communities have been feeding on the last food portions of the harvested millet and sorghum, and have consumed the stored seeds which were meant to provide for people through the lean April/May 2024 season between harvests.

We visited Karamoja in late March and what we saw and the reports we heard point to an alarming phase of the food security crisis kicking in.

Balanite leaves – a last resort for food

Longora Joyce, 74 years old, says she is surviving on God’s mercy alone. She can hardly walk any more due to hunger. Joyce depends on her neighbours, who collect balanite tree leaves to boil for food*. When the team from Tearfund and CAFRAHD (our local partner, Church Action for Relief and Holistic Development) visited her, we found that Joyce had not eaten in the past 24 hours. Looking around her fireplace, it was evident that it had been a long while since she last cooked anything in her compound. It was painful to see. This was the same situation for many elderly people in the Karamoja region.

Selling fence posts for food

In another village, our team met a woman by the name of Magdalene. She is also 74 years old and she lives together with her elderly husband. The couple are blessed with five children. Four of her children have moved away to neighbouring districts to look for whatever work they can get to survive the hunger at home. According to Magdalene, her children hardly ever come home or are able to send help back for her and her husband. Their youngest son lives with a neighbour who agreed to take care of him.

Life has become difficult for Magdalene and her husband. In a desperate attempt to cope with the situation, Magdalene resorted to uprooting her door, which she sold for two jars of sorghum to live off for one week. When she was asked why she sold the door, she responded: ‘With or without the door in my house, I will still die of hunger.’

After selling the door, Magdalene ended up selling off her wooden homestead fence, a few sticks at a time, to buy sorghum for food. By the time of our visit, she had sold almost half of the fence as firewood.

‘With or without the door in my house, I will still die of hunger.’
Magdalene, Karamoja, Uganda

Looking for leaves to feed children

Achilla Racheal is a 25-year-old, married, breastfeeding mother with three children. We met her in some fields where she was searching for wild plant leaves for food. The situation her family is living through at home is beyond words. She described how her three children keep crying for food. ‘It has now been three days that we have been surviving on only drinking water and sometimes these wild plants,’ she told us.

Last year’s poor harvest due to the prolonged drought has been the cause of Achilla’s suffering. ‘The crisis has not yet even reached its peak,’ she said, while picking the leaves from a wild plant. Her husband had gone to prepare their garden for crops so that they are ready in case the rains come on time.

While driving through the different villages in the region, women and young children could be seen on top of the thorny balanite trees and in bare fields picking green leaves and wild vegetables to feed their households as many suffer circumstances close to starvation. But, as Achilla says, this situation is just at the beginning. Only by the end of July will hope be assured with the new harvest… if the rains return.

Desperate need for emergency relief

‘With no emergency food relief or alternative sources of income, it is just a matter of time before the dear souls of some elderly women and men, children, the terminally ill, persons with disabilities, and families headed by orphaned children could lose the battle to hunger due to prolonged starvation,’ the Parish Administration Chairman says.

In addition to what we saw and the reports we heard at various meetings, our local partner, CAFRAHD, has received a number of requests for help from people desperate for food assistance.

A letter written in black pen in cursive handwriting on lined paper asks for help for a family of young children whose mother has died and whose father abandoned them.

One of many heartbreaking letters sent to Tearfund’s local partner in Karamoja by a church leader asking for help with food. This one tells the story of four young children whose mother was blind and has now died. The letter ends by saying ‘The children are not coping with the situation.’ Credit: Geoffrey Kibigo/Tearfund

*Balanite tree leaves are edible and contain fat and protein, but require cooking for a long time because of their bitter taste.

What is food insecurity?

This video from the UN helps explain what is meant by famine and food insecurity.

In many of the countries where Tearfund works, large numbers of people are facing hunger – in many cases, this is a consequence of conflict, climate disasters and political and/economic instability.

Our teams and local partners around the world are working to help support many of those who are struggling to feed their families. If you would like to be a part of this work, please give now. You can do so here.

Pray for Uganda

    • Lift up all those who are facing hunger. Pray that they will have enough to eat.
    • Pray for the rains and the harvests in Uganda. Ask God for good, healthy crop yields and that there will be plenty to provide good nutrition for communities.
    • Pray for Tearfund’s local staff and partners – that they will be strengthened, protected and encouraged as they reach out to support those who are facing great and desperate need.

Written by

Written by  Geoffrey Kibigo, Disaster Risk Management Officer for Tearfund – Southern and Eastern Africa region

Disaster Risk Management Officer for Tearfund – Southern and Eastern Africa region

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