By Aggrey Nshekanabo
Among the Luo of Acholi Sub region in Northern Uganda, bamboo is a highly regarded tree. It’s used in house construction because it is rarely attacked by ants. It is either green or yellow. Drought will not wither it. It is also said that by the time you see its shoot, it has already sent its roots down to the water table. You will be wasting time if you cut its shoot. It will resurrect again.
At the entrance to Akello Lilly Odoki’s compound, a strong thicket of green bamboo stands tall. Her chicken rest in between the stems to hide away from the scorching sun. A few of the members of Obol farmers group under the Gei farmers cluster in Nwoya District, to which Akello belongs have gathered under the bamboo shed. With their hands, they are shelling Akello’s groundnuts. The cracking of the nuts with bare hands is almost musical.
She will be selling some soon to complete school fees for some of her children. But also the best nuts are selected for the next planting. Suddenly, someone breaks into a low tone song and others take queue as the cracking continues. Music and singing is one of the tools that the women of this group use to push themselves while at work. As they sing in Luo, I ask Julie and Geoffrey who are the Extension Staff supporting these women to rebuild their lives what they are singing about as seem to I hear words like Send a Cow.
Julie tells me it is a praise song for Send a Cow for changing their lives. The group was given ground nut seeds among others and the harvests were good. These seeds have helped them drive away poor nutrition. They eat well and they all look Maleng (beautiful). Their children are going to school, their husbands now respect them and they themselves earn their own money. They are resilient and strong women like bamboo thanks to Send a Cow.
Meanwhile, Akello Lilly Odoki, 45, and her daughter; Ayet Juliet, 20, are busy in the kitchen. They are roasting some of the groundnuts and preparing tea for the groundnut crackers. Members of Obol go from house to house, helping each team member; yes, team member, that is how they refer to each other to either open up the land for planting, weeding, harvesting, building up homesteads or cracking the nuts.
Akello, a mother of 6 children is a happy woman. She even has a satellite TV set powered by a solar panel and battery. On some evenings, members of her group gather in her hut to watch news on national television or catch up on some translated telenovela soap.
Other than her first two elder children; Opio Denis, 23 and Ayet Juliet, who were not as lucky to complete school, the rest are in school. Her other daughter, Atimango Scovia, 18, is in a prestigious boarding secondary school in senior three (S.3) in Masindi District. The intention for Akello was to keep Atimango away from the distractions of the community so that she can concentrate on her books. Her fourth born son, Odoki James, 15, is in Primary five (P.5) at Koch Goma Central Primary School and so is Ocen Deo, 13, in the same class. Her last born son, Oola Richard, 7, is in P.1. She has even adopted other children, Ojok Polycarp, 13, and in in P.5 and Ojok Dominick, 16, who does not like school very much.
Akello and her husband Odoki were once abducted by the LRA rebels during the 20 year old insurgency in Northern Uganda by Joseph Kony when they were children. They were both lucky that they escaped from rebel captivity.. They met each other at Koch Goma Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camp. And had all their six children when they lived in the camp.
When the guns went silent, in 2012, they found their way back to this village of Obol with their six children. Life was hard. “You see, I had never held a hoe in my adult life while in the camp. We depended on UN agencies for food. Women used to vend their bodies to survive. I cannot say I was never involved in the vice. Many contracted HIV/Aids. It was a tough life. Others died due cholera, dysentery and malaria while in the camp,” Akello says.
With her husband traced this land on which their homestead now sits because of the bamboo trees. That is where Odoki, 47, was born and later abducted with two brothers by the rebels. So, the bamboo tree also helps one to find their roots. Odoki and his two brothers shared the land and he got 6 acres. Odoki does not know what happened to his parents. Maybe they were killed.
Two years after settling on this land, Send a Cow came into their lives. And it brought life. They received two indigenous heifers and because of artificial insemination, one of their local cows calved down a cross-bred bull. They also received early maturing bean seeds among others, which they planted and the harvest was good. They have since passed on livestock and seeds.
From their surplus harvests, they have acquired assets such as a bicycle, a solar panel to provide light at night and rewarded themselves with a TV set for entertainment. The prolonged dry spell has not affected Akello. At the onset of the rains she planted and she got a handsome harvest of beans, groundnuts, soya and maize. They sold some and kept some for the tough times ahead.
They have also gone into growing of high value vegetables such as cabbages, amaranth and okra. Their home is next to a swamp and they have harnessed it well. During the dry season, they dug up a water well from which, they would water their vegetables. The buyers come directly to their home and take it to Gulu town markets. From okra alone, they earn Ushs.500,000/- a season. Six fingers of okra are sold at Ushs.500/- right at the farm.From these high value vegetables and they get premium prices.
They have 10 local beehives made from tree trunks from which they harvest sour honey. A litre of sour honey is about Ushs.7,000/- at farm-gate. Every year, they sell about 100 litres of honey which, translates to Ushs.700,000/. They bought the TV set and its accessories from honey sales.
When her children return from school for lunch, they always find a nutritious meal of vegetables, silver fish and millet bread. And the joy with which the children enjoy the food is inescapable.
The Odokis also dug up another well for drinking water. They sunk it 10 feet and put in concrete stones and sand pebbles to purify the water. This water well serves about 15 families around their village. For the last 6 months, the well has not dried up even when they have not received rains. It looks like they hit a natural water spring.
Akello says that already, they have changed from local cows to a cross-bred animal. The programme allows that transition if the farmer shows ability to look after a cross-bred Friesian cow. They will not need to pass on another animal from the cross-bred Friesian as they had already done that with the local cows.
They sold the first cross-bred bull calving to raise money to send their daughter Atimango to a good boarding school. Akello is an ardent saver with the Village Savings and Loan scheme. By end of this year, she hopes to have saved enough to build an iron-sheet roofed house with many bedrooms. Their land stretches to the main road and in two years’ time, she hopes to put up rental shops. Her eldest daughter, Ayet Juliet who dropped out of school due to a pregnancy, is learning to be a tailor. Akello hopes to buy her a sewing machine after her course so that she can sustain herself and her son; Rwot Gift.
Her family recently hired 4 acres of land from another farmer, about 7km away, where they will plant more groundnuts, sesame and soya during this season. Her husband already is already working on that land with some hired hands. That land too is near a swamp and they have already dug up a well near their garden. They hope to get a manual water pump so that they will be able to water their crops even if there is drought.
She has even planted banana plantains, which is a new crop in the region and the bananas have put on excellent bunches. She has planted some fruit trees too, which in a year or two, they will begin fruiting. In the okra vegetable garden, she has also planted some egg plants and they are doing well. She bids us farewell together with her fellow ‘team members’ who break out into another Send a Cow praise song.