Famine Granaries – where did it go wrong?
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Food security – lessons from the past
Many so called nationalists will point figures to colonialism almost as a singleton source to Uganda’s past, current and even future problems. But let us face it, there some good, if not excellent ideas that colonialists left when we gained independence. In fact so good, that the real nationalists who took over power post independence retained during their governance. One such idea was famine food granaries.
A typical village life was subsistence farming-based basically revolving around growing food for consumption, keeping some livestock and birds, and growing at least one cash crop. Among the three major traditional cash crops, cotton was grown across the country, coffee was concentrated in the Eastern and Central regions, and tobacco was mostly in the Western region.
An ordinary person’s primary objective of a cash crop, particularly cotton was to pay poll tax. Apart from the household basics, any surplus was usually spent on three items: Giving the family a Christmas treat – new clothing and meat; to enhancing personal status – buying a bicycle, buying corrugated iron sheets; occasionally toping up school fees in those cases where the child(children) was (were) at secondary school. The luckiest were the coffee farmers whose cropped once planted became an annual cash generator even with minimal effort.
A household was by law required to set aside a famine food reserve. During harvest time a portion of the less-perishable principle hard food crop, usually dried maize, millet, sorghum or dried potato, cassava or banana chips was stored in a granary. The granary size was based on the number of people in the household. This granary was sealed in the presence of a mutongole chief (the equivalent of RC2?).
Under no circumstance would the granary be accesses in the absence of the chief, whose sole permission was a requirement. Every effort was made to ensure that even vermin had no access to the reserves. The top of the granary was sealed with mud, which in turn had a top lining of a pesticide in the form of cow dung. There was even a 24 hour security guard provided by the scariest thorns, renowned by their poisonous stings, which were stationed at the little entrance between the granary and its roof.
In the event of failure in the season, the reserves were released to the head of the household, but under a controlled manner by the chief. This ensured that, although rationed, there was food to fall back, through internal reserves, putting minimal if any burden to government.
If there was no famine during the cropping year, households were given a free hand to the reserves around Easter (April) time. This coincided with often a rainy period when the new crop was growing, but food supplies had dwindled because of the Christmas time hot and dry spell. Therefore, short of a natural disaster, a replacement reserve was almost a certainty within months.
Some heads of households took advantage of this arrangement, and also earmarked granaries for themselves. Effectively, there were three types of granaries – one which the wife (or wives) had free access to, another which belonged to the man of the household, and the famine reserve.
The man’s granary was used to serve any ‘manly’ emergencies that arose during the year, serving as a source of cash in some instances. In addition, come Christmas season when it was too hot to do anything apart from clearing field, it was used for the season’s local brew feasts. Families took advantage of X-mas and rewarded themselves for year’s hard work by feasting from weeks before Christmas well into the new year of in villages clubs involving a rotating local brew entertainment.
This colonial idea was abandoned in the mid-1960s. However, the cautious, or should I say wise families continued with a similar approach. But there were people, including one of my uncles, who took advantage of the freedom and foolishly sold their produce every year, some of it in the garden, the rest hardly a month after harvesting. They exposed their families to annual famine. My uncle’s wife laboured for other people in exchange for food year after year. Probably mostly due to this, she died a young women. The fellow has failed to get another wife due to his famine brand.
The economic sanction imposed on Amin’s regime meant that what was taken for granted as essential products, were not available in the shops. The high demand for almost non-existent products drove up the magendo (black market) prices of the products smuggled from bordering countries. The only way to afford this era, people faced financial hardship and started converting some of the food crops into cash – which were in turn smuggled into neighbouring countries. This trend continued through the Milton Obote II and Okello regimes.
However, the real turning point came through an official government policy. The NRM regime followed the globalisation trend by pursuing a programme of diversification into non-traditional cash crops – a program encouraging cashing in traditional food crops.
It coincided with an escalation of school fees, especially at secondary schools. It was an opening for a subsistence farmer who had no other source of income to cash in and support the family. But there has been no control. In some cases, nothing was left for domestic consumption. This exposed families to famine when the seasons changed or rains failed to come in time. Even people with regular income entered the same racket – supported by a world food programme, which started buying locally.
These days, some people sell their food in the garden – they do not even have to harvest it. The irony is that they use the money from the food to buy food! But can you blame them? People are pressurised by high costs of living – you need a small brother whenever you go – health care, education etc. To an extent, there is no food security anymore.
This is made worse by certain factors. While the arable acreage has remained static, except in instances where forests and wetlands have been encroached upon, the population has grown. This has led to high population density particularly in high density districts and high land fragmentation as plots of increasingly get divided across family tree. The quantity produced per mouth has reduced.
Surely, weren’t those the good old days, and these are the bad new days? Would such a system succeed under RC? It takes a political will.