Uganda: seeds of hope

15-04-2010 Feature

Following the August 2006 ceasefire treaty between the Lord's Resistance Army and government troops in northern Uganda, a growing number of displaced people are returning to their villages. ICRC delegate Fabienne Garaud describes the experience of one woman who is restarting her life.

©ICRC/F. Garaud 
Janet, hard at work clearing her land 
©ICRC/P. Yazdi/ug-e-00269 
Apyeta village, Kitgum district. The formerly displaced inhabitants of this village are starting a new life with the help of an ICRC agricultural cash-for-work programme. 
©ICRC/F. Garaud 
Janet and six of her eight children in front of their new house, accompanied by an ICRC field officer 

Many northern Ugandans have long dreamed of the day they could finally return to their villages – mythical places that nourished their ancestors and where the Acholi (an ethnic group from the districts of Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum and Pader in northern Uganda) have stood the test of time, generation after generation.

For 37-year-old Janet Limpe and her family, the danger of the recent armed conflict forced them to live in refugee camps for nine years. They built their first hut in a large site called the ‘mother camp’. After spending six years there, they moved to a smaller transit camp closer to home where they spent another three years.

 Nothing left but a sacred stone  

The improving security situation eventually enabled the family to leave the transit camp in March 2008 and return to their village east of Ajok, near Omee in Amuru District. The village had been abandoned years earlier, and only a single trace remained: a flat rock lying in the middle of a field. This rock had been used for generations to crush millet and groundnuts into a paste. Janet says it has probably been there since the nineteenth century. Nobody ever dared move the rock out of respect for the elders.

 No longer displaced but huge challenge remains: nature  

The return movement currently taking place in the northern Ugandan countryside poses many challenges to the formerly displaced people. For the nine years Janet and her family lived in camps they received humanitarian aid. Now their struggle is with nature, which has taken over their village. They have their work cut out for them: they must clear and then plough the fertile land. Janet's oldest son, who is 18, cannot go to school this year for lack of money and will therefore help the family clear the land. They must plant beans, groundnuts, corn, rice, millet and sesame before the start of the rainy season, which usually lasts from March to May.

 Seeds, tools and a fresh start  

Awkward and shy, with her eyes cast downward, Janet pushes around the rich black earth with toes damaged from long, enforced treks on foot. She says that in the region of Acholiland where she lives, food is easily available from local markets. The problem is that her family does not have the money to buy anything. As a result, in March 2009 Janet received seeds from the ICRC to plant two hectares, which should be enough to cover half of her family’s yearly food needs.

Janet's family is one of more than 1,800 vulnerable families who were able to acquire seeds of their choice and farming tools from local merchants through the ICRC. Janet strongly prefers this new procurement process, as the previous year she was unable to select the seeds that she received.

 All hands to the hoe  

As Janet's family cannot afford cattle to help with the ploughing, every member of the family must till the soil with a hoe. Her eight children, the youngest of whom has just turned three, are quickly learning how to farm. On the path leading to the field there are ten-centimetre deep ruts dug at regular intervals with a hoe. Janet explains that the children did this to protect their groundnut fields, the ruts designed to act as small traps for night marauders!

Suddenly the sky turns threatening. We must work our way back thr ough the high grass before the storm hits. Janet says in a very determined voice that she plans to keep a part of the harvest to increase the number of seeds for the next season, so that she can buy tools and other seeds.

It is very satisfying to see the savannah once again tamed by the returning families. Hope has returned to the people, who lost years of their lives simply surviving in the camps. Toukouls – the traditional round houses in Acholiland, built of dried earth with thatched roofs – are sprouting like mushrooms, and more and more cattle can be seen ploughing the fields. Acholiland is finally breathing again, as life is getting a bit better every day.