In a place where drought is the norm, WFP is trying to provide meals for the people of Karamoja, Uganda, writes Peter Nyanzi in an article first published in the Daily Monitor newspaper.
If she could speak to God, Ms Catherine Operemo the team leader for World Food Programme (WFP) field office in Kotido district in Karamoja, says she would "Tell him to change the weather in Karamoja, so that people could grow enough food to eat."
WFP has for several decades been called upon to save hundreds of thousands of the Karimojong from starvation. The most recent food distribution programme took place in August in 10 of the most drought-affected sub-counties in Kotido.
According to Operemo, WFP is often called upon to intervene whenever there is a significant "gap" in food supply. WFP provides 42 percent of the food requirements per household. The households provide the rest from their own resources.
According to WFP country representative in Uganda, Mr Ken Davies, WFP supports some 500,000 drought-affected persons in Karamoja region with food assistance amounting to 13,000 metric tonnes excluding school feeding in 2005 alone. This is in addition to 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), 400,000 school children and 200,000 refugees.
However, WFP faces huge shortfalls amounting to almost 30,000 metric tonnes. Moroto district WFP team leader, Mr Robert Adupa, says at least 90 percent of the harvest is expected this year.
For the relatively "wealthy" families, this could take them for about nine months. For the poorer families, it could last three months.
They have to compensate for the shortfall by working for the food, begging and buying from the market.
Ms Rose Eyoru, a field monitor with WFP (Kotido) has the additional responsibility of surveying the local markets to check the prices of food items.
"The relative prices of food stuffs is an indicator of the food security situation in the community," she says. WFP comes in at a time when the granaries are empty. Each household gets 80Kg of maize grain and 10Kg of beans.
WFP is careful not to give out ground maize flour in order to allow the families to harness the versatility of the maize grain. Additionally, maize grain is simply put out in the sun to dry in case rain falls during distribution or transportation.
A household is assumed to have six members and a household is determined on the basis of the wife since most men have more than one wife. Only wives are the registered recipients of the food.
The husband might come along to help with the carrying but the food is officially handed over to the wife. Kalapata sub-county, Dodoth County in the new district of Kaabong, is usually one of the most drought-hit areas in Karamoja. WFP assists 7,847 households in the 10 villages that make up the sub-county under the programme for drought-affected persons.
In all, WFP gave out 628 metric tonnes of maize and 78 tonnes of beans for this particular programme running between July and August.
According to Operemo, the first food distribution was in April and May 2005. Each distribution is intended to last for at least two months. After an assessment of the situation, the next food distribution might take place in September/October.
But it is the 121 households in Morokori village that are most vulnerable to drought and food shortage.
The errant weather is normally blamed for the predicament of food shortage. Both the rain and the sunshine are equally disastrous.
"The weather here is quite unpredictable. However good the crops might look, they would all be ruined if the weather changed over a period of only a week and it would be another disaster," says Operemo, pointing at the lush sorghum gardens across the road.
All this is due to the "nature of the soil" because the water does not sink into it but just flows off.
According to the Kalapata LC III chairman, Mr Simon Franco Lokol, dramatic weather changes are responsible for the food insecurity situation in Karamoja.
Lokol, like many of his local leaders is at a loss when trying to explain the cause of the problem but attributes it partly to the fact that all the trees have been cleared for making fences for homesteads (manyattas) and insecurity due to cattle rustling from neighbouring tribes and the Turkana of Kenya.
"Insecurity has forced people to run away from good land to settle in these bad places where they live together for safety and security purposes," he says.
Lokol says the main food crop here is sorghum and bulrush, a rice-like cereal. Maize too does well when the rainfall is good but it is difficult to store because of the weevils that destroy the grain in the granaries.
Insecticide is not affordable and the few who have tried to use it have often abused it with fatal consequences since the instructions are in English.
Less than 11 percent of the population is literate. "If WFP was not coming to our rescue with this food in a timely manner, many people would simply starve to death like it used to be in the past," Lokol says.
However, Davies, the WFP boss says it is untenable to continue having a cyclic crisis of food scarcity and hunger whereby the people of Karamoja suffer food scarcity on a chronic basis.
"There has to be a plan on the table outlining what has to be done, otherwise a cyclic emergency situation in Karamoja is not tenable anymore because there are so many other competing emergencies in the world," he says.
"We look forward to working with the government to address the structural issues underlying the problem."
Davies says key on the agenda for the region should be addressing peace and security concerns, education, basic social services, and a long term plan for improving Karimojong livelihoods.
Operemo says WFP faces numerous challenges in its efforts to get food to the people who desperately need it in Kotido. One of them is to ensure that the people who need the food actually do get it in the stipulated measures.
There have been cases of impersonation, corruption and inflated registers.
Some people including local leaders have tried to selfishly manipulate the system in order to get a lot more food for sale, while depriving others of their share.
To minimise this, WFP demands that the sub-county chief, parish chiefs and local councillors have to be involved in the process of registration and food distribution.
"They know their people by face and name and so they help us to pick out the impersonators," Operemo says. The distribution is done at designated centres called final distribution points (FDP).
According to Mr Samuel Longole, the Local Council (LC I) chairman of Naipeicokei parish, there is need for the LCs to be around to ensure that there is no confusion and fighting. "My role is to watch over the food for my village before and during distribution and to ensure that the process is orderly and that the people are calm," he says.
Involving the women
Each of the villages must have a food management committee, which verifies each recipient household.
There is also a complaints committee, which handles any complaints that might arise in the course of the distribution of the food.
Women make up the majority of the members of these committees. "We want to involve women as much as possible because traditionally, availability of food in the family is a women's responsibility," says Eyoru.
Two weeks after the distribution exercise, WFP comes back to the communities for a post distribution monitoring exercise to verify the quantities of food received per household.
It also conducts a food utilisation monitoring exercise to find out if the food received is actually being utilised for the purpose for which it was got. From experience, WFP has observed that when the food is given to the men, it often ends up in a drinking place, in the market or reaches the family in significantly reduced quantities.
"In most cases, whatever quantity reaches home could end up in the hut of the favourite wife while the other wives are left to starve with their children," Eyoru says. Additionally, the bad state of the roads also makes it difficult for the delivery of food to those who need it.
For instance, the only means of access to Kalapata sub-county is across the bridge at Kaabong, which broke down several months back. The bridge has not yet been repaired.
Luckily, the water in the river has ebbed over the last few months and the traffic can pass through a shallow section of the river without much difficulty to deliver the much needed food relief assistance.
The other challenge is insecurity. Every time WFP staff travel out to the field to distribute food, they have to be escorted with a pick up truck full of UPDF soldiers armed to the teeth as a precaution against ambushes by dangerous AK 47 wielding warriors who still roam the jungles. Incidents where WFP trucks and warehouses have been attacked and looted are all too common.
However, WFP believes that food in itself is not enough for an economically deprived region like Karamoja. It has therefore devised creative ways of using food to bring about community development. One of the programmes is code named, "Food for Assets."
"What this means is that we give people food to carry out development activities. Instead of paying them money we give them food," Eyoru says. Under this programme, Kamion Health Centre and a modern grain store were constructed in Kamion parish.
Food was used as an incentive for people to collect local materials and to contribute manual labour. The development organisation, Oxfam Great Britain, provided iron sheets, cement and paint.
Now, the Ik community, one of the most marginalized in Karamoja, no longer have to walk 35 Km to get treatment. At Timu, WFP has embarked on an ambitious project of putting demonstration gardens to encourage the community to grow non-traditional crops such as tomatoes, hybrid maize, bananas and fruits, "just to show the people that growing any crop is possible."
WFP believes this could be a major breakthrough in enhancing nutrition in the community, where malnutrition rates soar to as high as 20 percent among children under five.
Operemo knows that her prayer for "better weather" in Karamoja could after all not be unnecessary.
The secret she says, could be supporting the Karimojong to find creative ways of changing their situation.