Hunger and Hope in Northern Uganda

June 1, 2018

Rebecca Middleton, Executive Director of the Alliance to End Hunger

I noticed the father first. Looking exhausted, worried and resigned, his head hung low as he held his daughter’s fragile hand, his body hunched toward the hospital bed as if he could transfer his limited strength to her tiny body. The doctors and nurse were measuring her heart rate and breathing while exchanging concerned looks. The girl, only 11 months old and weighing just a few pounds, had been admitted five days earlier for severe acute malnutrition. Her mother died of AIDS five months earlier and since then her father had been struggling to keep her alive. The emergency treatments – high calorie therapeutic formula known as F-75 and F-100 – were not working – they were passing straight through her without providing any benefit. The visiting physician shared that they believe the child has a resistance to the cow milk base of the formula and said they she probably needed a soy based treatment. When I asked where they would obtain the soy based treatment he looked at me with a long face and shaking his head slowly simply stated, “I don’t know.”

I have never seen a child who was obviously dying until this day. The concern on the doctors faces and the deep sadness on the father’s all showed resignation to what was almost certainly inevitable.

Resignation.  This is a word that is hard to convey to people who are not living the day-to-day heartbreak of watching children like this 11-month-old child waste away. A resignation that is almost used as a coping strategy to deal with the stress and anxiety of doing everything you can, with a father looking on with that unmistakable look of knowing in his eyes. And it is a resignation that is all too common in this hospital in the northern Ugandan town of Kitgum and many others like it in the region.

As I traveled through northern Uganda with our partners from the Eleanor Crook Foundation in April, the historical suffering of these people was apparent.  While the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army, which had ravaged this part of country for decades, was officially over, schisms remain.  A wedge between the northern and southern tribes of Uganda that has survived since independence continues to hum with tension beneath the surface. Peoples like the Acholi – the predominant tribe in the LRA – continue to be viewed with a wary eye.

To add to stresses, there is a civil war to the north in South Sudan, continuing violent conflict to the west in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and an influx of people from these regions. Northern Uganda is a microcosm of the effects that violent conflict and the threat of famine can have on a region.  And with active conflict and famine threatening South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, and increasingly the DRC as well, it is easy to see how national tragedy quickly becomes regional, and even global.

World Food Programme Distribution Queue (Rebecca Middleton/Alliance to End Hunger)

But even with myriad challenges in the region, glimpses of hope are plentiful.  With the blessing of the World Food Programme, I had the opportunity to visit the Palorinya refugee resettlement to meet some of the people and view a food distribution operation. Some commodities, such as salt and corn/soy blend meal, were scarce, but overall there was a feeling of thankfulness on behalf of the people for the kindness and generosity of UNHCR and WFP, and donor nations such as the United States.

And then there are programs sponsored by the Eleanor Crook Foundation, including one run by Food for the Hungry in Kitgum, which studies the potential impact of treating maternal depression on improving child malnutrition.

Sister Rosemary (Rebecca Middleton/Alliance to End Hunger)

And then there are angels like Sister Rosemary, who started a mission in 2002 to help girls who were rejected by their family during the LRA conflict. Many were abducted, raped, and tortured, and some were force to commit acts of violence against their own families and villages. Many were also pregnant with the children of LRA fighters. One woman who is now the cook for the community was one of Joseph Kony’s “wives.” It was powerful to see firsthand the effort to provide education and vocational training for these young women, as well as education for their children.

From the child in the Kitgum hospital to Sister Rosemary, I can’t help but reflect on how far the region has to go to ensure everyone is afforded the life, health, and dignity they deserve; but also the fact that we know about and have the tools to address these extensive needs. Returning to the United States and my work at the Alliance to End Hunger, I am once again convinced that the only thing standing between need and assistance is the political will from governments to put the right policies, research, and investments in place.