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Chinese foxtail millet offers hope in semi-arid NE Uganda

KOTIDO, Uganda, (Xinhua) -- When a prolonged dry spell hit semi-arid Karamoja region in northeastern Uganda last year, the locals faced a food crisis.

The situation was exacerbated by an attack of the Fall Army Worms which ravaged gardens, leaving nothing for the farmers.

Roger Lochole, in Modokony village of Kotido district, is one of the farmers that faced the wrath of the food crisis that saw their granaries emptied.

“My hands were tied that year, we had nothing to eat,” the father of two told Xinhua in a recent interview.

“I also had to raise my children’s school fees but I had nothing in the garden.” he said.

To address the recurrence of such food crises, the government is now training locals to practice modern farming methods so that they can adapt to climate change.

Through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and China South-South Cooperation program, the government introduced the foxtail millet in Karamoja. Through the program that will be renewed, according to Uganda’s ministry of agriculture, Chinese experts trained over 3,000 farmers and 80 technical staff.

A pilot project in 2016 was rolled out by the Chinese agriculturalists, who were jointly working with district local governments in Karamoja region.

Lochole was among the 50 farmers chosen as pioneer beneficiaries of growing foxtail millet.

The idea was that, after harvesting their millet, the farmers would give back thirty percent of the harvest to newly recruited farmers.  

‘MIRACLE SEEDS’

Foxtail millet did wonders, flickering a ray of hope to many frustrated farmers, who referred it as ‘miracle seeds’ due to its drought-tolerant and fast-maturing nature.

The yellowish millet variety, named after its color resemblance like the tail of a fox, takes two months to grow, compared to the traditional brownish finger millet that takes three months, according to experts.

The first harvest was huge for Lochole who reaped six bags of foxtail millet from five kilograms of the seeds he had planted in his garden.

“I could not believe what I saw in my garden,” Lochole reminisces with fondness.

“My millet had matured back. I was able to replenish my food stock and my situation improved for some time.”

SUPERSTITION

At the onset of the rainy season this year in March, this time around, farmers who had planned to grow foxtail millet missed out on their first rains because they were waiting for their cultural elders to flag-off the planting season.

So, the likes of Lochole were left in dilemma yet food shortage was still a potential problem.

“We could not do anything but wait for our elders to direct us,” Lochole explained.

“We sat silently and watched as the rains passed away but we could not lift our fingers.”

Among the Karamojong communities, cultural elders are regarded as traditional ‘weather forecasters’, with powers to dictate when farmers should start planting.

Failure to obey their instructions would lead one to punishment, which is then followed by a ritual cleansing known as ‘Amedo’, where a bull is slaughtered to prevent a bad omen.

By the time the cultural elders gave a green light to farmers to plant their crops two months later in June, unfortunately there was a ‘pseudo rainy season’.

“It was too late for us to grow because the rain took long to fall,” said Lochole.

“When it did later, it flooded our gardens for days. Our seeds were washed away and crops failed to sprout.” he said.

Farmers who had disobeyed their elders were punished but their attitudes came with benefits: they ended up harvesting food for their families and farmers like Lochole had to bite their lips and suffer silently.

ADAPTING TO CLIMATE CHANGE

Karamoja experiences one short rainy season that is highly erratic, unreliable and inadequate. This has made the region to be continuously stalked by hunger, sometimes famine, thus causing food insecurity.

District local governments in Karamoja are planning to train local farmers on modern farming methods so that they can adapt to climate change.

“The program will begin early next year when farmers will be trained with fact-based modern farming through our extension workers,” Bernard Obin, Kotido District Agricultural Officer told Xinhua in a recent interview.

Obin said the trained farmers will act as ‘change agents’ in the communities that still rely on superstition when farming amid the changing weather patterns.

As such plans are still in the offing, Mark Tony Ochen, an agricultural officer at Panyagrara Sub County, in Kotido district, is training farmers on modern farming methods.

“I began by training six model farmers who are also teaching 30 people,” said Ochen, who has been distributing foxtail millet after receiving training about the variety from Namulonge Agriculture and Animal Production Research Institute, earlier this year.

Lochole is one of the recent graduates. He has opened his field where he is growing crops like foxtail millet, maize, and peas.

“I don’t want to have a repeat of last year. I have to apply the knowledge (in my garden). I have learnt to provide for my family,” he added.

CULTURAL LEADERS TAKE CLASSES

Gabriel Logwe, a cultural elder in Panyagrara sub-county also completed his training from Ochen’s classes and he is now training other farmers in modern farming.

His classes are conducted thrice a week, mostly in the evening when farmers are free from work. Some of the people in his class include cultural elders.

“I use practical examples so that everyone can understand certain concepts that are hard to discern,” Logwe said.

Logwe’s goal is to change mindsets of people who are still using superstition to deal with climate issues and also ensure that they are sustainable in terms of in food production especially during the times of crisis.

             

 

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