Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Learnin' Route

After a very exciting week in Teso, I was pretty happy to return home and find sleep in my own bed. While I enjoyed the week away, I was also content to stay put. But this was not meant to be. Less than 24 hours after I’d returned to Kampala, I received a late night message informing me that in just a few short hours, I’d be hitting the road once again. I’m not going to lie – this last minute communication really tested my flexibility and adaptive skills. And, even though I knew what the week ahead had in store, the exhaustion and lack of recuperation from the previous week, made this news a bit harder to swallow.

So, once again, I packed my bags (with limited clean clothes, at that!), and met up with the gang that I would be spending the following week with. This time, our entourage was far bigger than the group of three that travelled together the week before – and we were from a mixture of organizations, such as Action Aid Uganda (our partner in making this experience come to life) and Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE), to name a few. We were also travelling with two representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF).

We had two key stops on this trip – Soroti (where I’d been the previous week) and Gulu, a town in the northern part of the country, not too far from the South Sudan border*. But the purpose of this trip was different than what we’d been doing in Soroti before. This time, the focus was to learn from those on the ground about the challenges faced by farmers in relation to the newly implemented Single Spine Agricultural Extension approach. But, as with the trip the week prior, our time was split between dialogue meetings and farm visits.

I will say this, the dialogue meetings were, once again, quite interesting. Similar themes began to emerge within both, and in comparison to the ones held the week before. The involvement of MAAIF made them a little more interesting, as the two officials we had with us seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of the participating farmers. This, really, was key to the success of this week, as the farmers weren’t simply “preaching to the choir” but rather having an opportunity to voice their concerns to someone on the inside! But the real substance of this trip was found in the farm visits!

In both Soroti and Gulu, three farmers were visited – and there was quite a difference between the two areas. In Soroti we met with a woman who had built a really successful citrus orchard, consisting of tangerines and two different varieties of oranges. Hearing her story, her struggles, but also seeing the pride she had for what she had been able to achieve was pretty inspiring. And, of course, being surrounded by this beautiful, massive orchard was incredible!

The orange orchard!
Evidence of disease...
Thanks to my pal, Nelson Nelly Malcolm for snapping this
photo of me standing awkwardly in front of  an orange tree.

We also met, with a gentleman – who I’d actually had the pleasure of sharing tea and some good conversation with the day before, unaware that I’d be visiting his farm – who lived with the mantra of Work like a slave, Eat like a king!.  This man blew us all out of the water. It was evident that he was passionate about his business, and his positive outlook helped him focus on the task at hand, rather than on the challenges he faced. But, perhaps, what was most inspiring about him was that he did all of this work almost entirely off the grid! What I mean by this, is that he actually harvested his family’s… “waste” to obtain the methane which he used for cooking gas, and the manure to fertilize his fields! It was amazing!

A little demonstration!
Explaining the methane capturing process...
The final farmer spoke of his involvement with his community’s savings group, his own achievements, and the disappointment of support from the government. He shared about the difficulties he faced with producing oranges – both in terms of finding buyers and preventing disease. He also took us to two of his fishponds, where he produces catfish for sale!

The final day of the journey was spent visiting three fish farmers in the surrounding areas of Gulu. These visits were not as inspiring, as they lacked the same motivation for success that the farmers in Soroti expressed. The majority of the fishponds we were shown didn’t even have fish in them – an operation that was undertaken with the understanding that government would be providing them with the fish to get them started. And, this, for me, was the hardest aspect to take in – the general disconnect between the will of federal policies and the responsibility and ownership of one’s own making.

A visit to one of three fish farms in Gulu.
A grain store house.
Ground nuts, affectionately known as 'G-Nuts' 
Feeding the fish!
I asked the farmers if they named their livestock and fish. They told me "No."
I told them they should consider it, so they told me that this cow's name was Michael...

In no way am I trying to place blame on any one party here – there is a certain degree of accountability that needs to be accepted by all parties involved. What I’m actually trying to get across is the heartbreak, and in some cases, desperation, that I witnessed first-hand from many of the farmers who are putting in the foundations of what could be – at some point – a productive means of income. But, there comes a point when one has to step back and re-evaluate one’s actions. For example, on the final day, one of the farms we visited has continued to build these fishponds over a number of years, but had yet to produce a single fish to inhabit any of them. Another farm, from the first day of visits had continued to produce a particular crop, in addition to what he was already producing, despite not having buyers for the original harvest. I can understand wanting to cash in on a deal that was proposed by the government, but one also has to recognize when it’s time to call it a day, so to speak. This gap between expectation and reality is frustrating to see as on outsider, and I can only imagine what it must feel like for those who have made significant investments. To me, it seems like plain logic, but to others, it’s all they know how to do in order to survive.

I am really thankful for the experiences that these two weeks outside of Kampala have afforded me. It has been humbling, trying, and inspiring all in one complicated little package. Gaining this understanding has enabled me to better understand agricultural life in Uganda. It has also allowed me to make the connections between the agricultural sector both here and at home. There are so many similarities between the two – and similarities that just should be a thing. Farmers fighting to provide for not only their own families, but their communities and country at large. Farmers are said to be the backbone of Uganda, but I would argue that they are the backbone of the world**. Without farmers, we have no food. Without food, we have no means of survival… and Wow (!) this just turned into an unexpected rant about the need for farmer appreciation!

When life gives you road trips, you take ridiculous photos... and sing '99 Bottles of Beer' in its entirety! 
Anyway, it's back on the road again this week - this time I'm leaving the country and heading to neighbouring country, Kenya! Will keep you posted!

-the Orange Canadian

*No one seemed to be as interested in taking a little detour to Sudan, as I was…
**All farmers, not just Ugandan farmers!

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