In most places, food is distributed to refugees as a handout. They have little say in the process. But here in Ikafe, something different is happening - which puts the refugees in charge of getting their own rations.
The man shakes his fist in my face. He is tall and white-haired with rectangular glasses and an air of authority. 'There is a big problem here. We are supposed to get 15 kilos of maize and you have only given us 13.5. How are we supposed to survive on this for a month? You say it has been replaced with sugar, but we only have a tiny amount of sugar. This cannot replace the maize. What are you going to do about it?'
Next to me, Peter al Haj, the youthful camp chairperson at Point J, near Yoyo Base Camp, murmurs rather sadly. 'This will be the first time I have tasted sugar since I came to this camp a year ago. Can you imagine - not even sugar in tea.' And he looks wistful.
The midday sun pounds down on our heads and makes me feel dizzy. We are in the middle of a food distribution. A combination of bureaucratic delays and the fact that the Kampala road is controlled by rebels has meant that some refugees have had no food for 15 days.
Beside me small children pick up maize grains that have dropped on the ground and squirrel them away. Maize is the staple. It is ground and cooked with water to make a dense white mixture called posho.
Because security may make food deliveries difficult again over the next few weeks, the refugees are supposed to be getting enough to last them a month. But the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) - which is responsible for providing Ikafe's food - has cut the amount of maize by 1.5 kilos per person. The cut reflects the fact that WFP is facing difficulties in securing food from major donors.
But here on the ground the reasons are immaterial; the fact is that the refugees have less food. And people are angry.
Four or five men lift the big white bags of maize and the yellow jerrycans of cooking oil off the trucks, sweat streaming down their backs. Then come the long yellow bars of soap, the bags of beans, salt and finally, the sugar. The pile of items grows and everyone watches carefully. They know that it has to last the 1,427 refugees at Point J for at least a month. They make sure that it is carefully checked and counted. When they find that one bag contains only half the amount it should, there is a discontented murmuring. They are also short of maize, so the truck soon revs up and roars off to get the remainder.
Handing over as much control as possible to the refugees has been a guiding principle in running the camp. But it has not been without controversy: in fact it has been a constant bone of contention between Oxfam and the WFP.
I talked to Peter Muhangi, a small dapper man with a little moustache and lots of energy, who is responsible for food distribution in Ikafe.
'WFP prefers to distribute food directly to family heads, whereas we distribute it to elected refugee representatives. If you do it the WFP way then you need to employ a lot of non-refugees to hand out the food. We believe it is fairer - and cheaper - for the refugees to do it themselves. If people feel a chairman or woman isn't distributing fairly they can vote them out in the next elections.'
He doesn't point out another obvious advantage - if agency staff are evacuated at least the refugees would know how to distribute food themselves.
Both the Ugandan Government and Oxfam are hoping the refugees will be able to grow enough food to sustain themselves. But last year's harvest was poor because of drought, and rocky soil in many parts of the settlement makes it hard to farm even when weather conditions are good.
'In Sudan,' says Michael, a community worker in southern Ikafe, 'we ate three meals a day - breakfast at 10, lunch at two and dinner at seven. Now most people just eat one meal at midday, with perhaps a little maize porridge for breakfast.'
In some parts of Ikafe the amount of land allocated is too little to support a family. This is partly because the same amount of land was given to each family head regardless of family size. So a family of three got the same land as a family of 10. That problem has now been recognized so that in the newer areas, Imvepi and the Northern Extension, land is distributed on a per capita basis.
Elsewhere too, refugees with large families or poor land are being given extra plots. At the same time there is pressure from the Ugandan Government and UNHCR for Ikafe to take more refugees, in which case the amount of land available would inevitably shrink as more people are crammed into the same space.
Even in the best circumstances, with enough land available, there are some refugees who are unable to farm. James Anyang, a young Dinka, was shot in the foot in Sudan, and taken to Kenya where he was fitted with an artificial limb below the knee. But this has now worn out and there is no replacement. James is now on crutches. 'When these wear out,' he asks, 'What will I do then?'
But most of the refugees are growing at least some of their own food. As Theodor, my translator, pointed out: 'What you have grown in your own fields with your own hand gives you some self-esteem. To depend on someone else is not good. If we can work towards self-reliance then when at last we attain our freedom we will go back to Sudan knowing how to survive, how to build ourselves up again in a relatively short time.'
When food runs low the refugees have to find other ways of feeding themselves. I ask Grace Iata Amulu further down the road at Point I (where they are still waiting for their deliveries) how she and her husband manage: 'We do leja-leja (work in the fields in return for food) for the Ugandan nationals.' She waves her arm. 'My husband is over there at the moment, digging the fields. He will return with some food.' She shrugs. 'Or we go hungry.'
Back at Point J, people have abandoned their fields, at least for the duration of the distribution. Until now, the crowd has consisted mainly of men. But as Peter al Haj checks off and signs the final list, the women start to appear. They come from all sides, walking down the road and through the bush in their brightly-coloured clothes, swaying slightly to balance the assortment of empty pots, pans, old teapots and other receptacles that they carry in larger containers on their heads.
Now the food is being measured and divided up, first into piles for each village and then into smaller heaps for each 'Block'. Measuring is a problem. A large group of people is gathered around the two pairs of weighing scales, which are hung rather precariously on the branches of small trees. These are used for measuring larger items, like maize and beans; but with only two scales for everyone, it takes a long time.
According to an internal Oxfam report, giving women control over food means that if they do sell their rations, it's usually to purchase salt, vegetables, meat, sugar or clothing. When men sell off their share, it is often for tobacco or alcohol.
The sugar and salt for each family have to be measured out in the red lids of the jerrycans. Everywhere people are now gathered in the smaller 'Block' groups, with one person carefully apportioning the right amounts to each family. In one group, two men are waving their fists at each other and shouting. 'There is some problem over the sugar,' says the man standing next to me. 'There may be a fight.'
With several hundred people milling around the whole process looks like an ideal recipe for any number of fisticuffs. But miraculously, the problems seem to be resolved without violence. The two men are slowly calmed down by their neighbours and the allocation of food continues.
The whole process takes only a few hours from beginning to end. As each family receives and checks its full entitlement the women laboriously lift the full containers onto their heads and begin to drift away, in ones, then twos and threes and finally in little processions, carrying home their booty in the assortment of receptacles that are now heavy and filled to the brim with the next month's nourishment.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 NI Home Page Issue 283 Contents
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