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A Celebration of Change in Uganda

April 10, 2024

An elder lay in the dirt, too weak to stand, while a young woman fed him tiny scraps from a wooden bowl. Although this was just a scene from a short play, the actors were illustrating what actually happened in Uganda’s remote, sun-parched Karamoja region in 2022-2023.

That year, people in Karamoja couldn’t grow enough food for themselves because of a severe drought. When their pleas for government help generated only a partial response, they appealed to aid organizations. World Renew answered the call and, with and through local and international partners, organized several distributions of emergency food.

One of the communities that received a distribution was Kokuwam, where the play was performed. The elder, after being energized by the arrival of emergency food, rose to his feet and joined a group of dancing young adults in celebration. But the painful reality is that throughout the Karamoja region, 964 people – including some in Kokuwam – died from starvation in 2022.

Despite the tragedy, Kokuwam’s residents were joyful when a small delegation from World Renew and its partner organization in Uganda, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG), came to visit. On this hot, sunny day, they treated the guests to singing, dancing, and the dramatic presentation, all under the shade of a tamarind tree.

“Some of our people died of hunger,” a community spokesman said. “Thank you for coming and bringing food. The rest of us would not have survived without it.”

The food distribution convinced World Renew to work with PAG to ensure that the people of Kokuwam and other villages in the region can build greater resilience for when the next drought inevitably occurs.

Supporting mothers and their families with healthy resources

World Renew has partnered with PAG to launch the Kotido Child Survival Project, a Maternal and Child Health project that also includes elements of Peace and Justice, Food Security, and Economic Development programming. All of these elements are combining to dramatically improve the health of pregnant women and their newborns during the critically important first 1,000 days of life (from conception to two years old).

In response to World Renew’s invitation, 450 households in 20 villages in the Kotido district have signed up to participate. Each household has an average of seven children and adults, so about 3,150 people will benefit directly, with an estimated 1,350 more benefiting indirectly through the knowledge they gain from their participating neighbors.

The households – most of whom include expectant mothers – are starting communal gardens in which they will grow nutritious crops including carrots, eggplant, cassava, traditional vegetables, and amaranth grain. These varieties are healthful, fast-growing, and drought resistant. Volunteers will be trained as community resource specialists to teach sustainable agricultural practices.

Improving nutrition through community gardens

Agriculture is not a traditional occupation for people in Karamoja. For generations, the local residents raised cattle and other livestock. But when armed gangs began terrorizing communities several years ago, everyone had to adapt. Most households built stockades around their homes to protect themselves, but that didn’t stop the gangs from stealing their livestock and leaving them without an income source.

Large communal gardens are a welcome option – especially ones featuring highly nutritious vegetables. In Karamoja, improved nutrition will mean improved health for mothers and their children, enabling them to be much more resilient if food shortages occur again. Research shows that malnutrition in a child’s first two years can cause profound long-term harm, including “stunting” (failure to reach physical growth potential) and slow mental development.

Participating families will feed themselves from the gardens while also generating valuable income from the surplus produce. That income can purchase other food, medicine, and more household items. It can also cover transportation costs to ensure that women visit their local medical clinic regularly during pregnancy, and after birth with their babies for vaccinations and other medical care.

Each household will also receive seedlings to grow moringa trees. Moringa is a particularly useful tree because its seeds can be used to purify water, its leaves help lactating mothers, and it matures from a seedling in only about nine months.

Preparing for a healthy future

The child survival project also recruits and trains volunteer village health teams (made up equally of men and women) and mother care groups that encourage clinic visits, breast-feeding rather than costly formula, vaccinations, and the protection of water sources against contamination.

“We want to empower women to take charge of their own health and their children’s health,” said Raymond Mutava, World Renew’s Uganda director.

He noted that the project includes a component that is challenging gender roles in a region where women traditionally do all of the cooking, cleaning, water gathering, and much more: even gathering tree branches and building the protective stockades.

During a tour of the community, the World Renew and PAG guests talked to some young men doing something unprecedented: sweating profusely in the 36-degree Celsius heat to prepare the soil of their communal garden for seeding.

“We used to see this as women’s work,” said one man, Michael, who also acknowledged that during his wife’s previous two pregnancies, he never encouraged her – let alone accompanied her – to visit the medical clinic. “My thoughts have changed,” he told us.

Back at the community celebration, after the acting, dancing, singing, and prayers had concluded, 26-year-old Rosemary, who was less than a month from giving birth to her third child, stood in front of about 300 people and told the World Renew and PAG visitors: “We really welcome you to our community. You have brought us valuable lessons” about farming, nutrition, maternal and child health – and gender.

“Our husbands used to just lie under the trees while we worked,” Rosemary added with a smile. “Now they are helping us.”