Here’s the reportage that Giacomo Buldrini realized in August 2018 in Karamoja, the poorest region of Uganda. Giacomo tells about how economic interests and form of explotation are going to annihilate a population that is already weakened by alcohol abuse. In the article there are some photos that he has taken during his staying in Karamoja that show the region and his population’s situation . The reportage has been realized with the help of the Diocesan Health Department of Moroto, that has provided precious information and data.
Today Karamoja is the poorest region of Uganda; this region is located on the border with Kenya and inhabited by about one million inhabitants.
The aridity of the land and the lack of the basic infrastructures, needed for the start of a possible modernization, have forced the Karimojongs, the local population, to live in precarious conditions and to depend on humanitarian interventions of NGOs and intergovernmental organizations for several years. Starting in the 1980s, the rest of Uganda advanced in terms of human rights and economy, but the Karamoja, abandoned by the State, remained anchored to a culture and a model of archaic sustenance: arranged marriages, genital mutilation, and raids of cattle are just a few examples. In the early years of the new millennium, the discovery of numerous mineral deposits could have represented an opportunity for enriching and implementing a healthy development model, which combined respect for local traditions with progress in both the economic and human rights field of Karamoja. The reality, unfortunately, has instead seen again the prevailing of the economic interests of the few over a population incapable of defending itself, annihilated by poverty and in the case that I will analyze in this article, from the abuse of alcohol.
To understand what is happening today in the Karamoja region it is necessary to retrace the history of the local population, which since its origins has distinguished itself due to the abuse of alcohol, with the traditional consumption of infusions such as kwete, produced by the fermentation of corn, and the ebutia, from the fermentation of sorghum. These alcoholic drinks, which reached a maximum alcohol content of 4%, formed the basis of a small market controlled by women. Since the 1960s, and throughout the next thirty years, Karamoja experienced a period of great instability: the region was the scene of bloody murders, conflicts, and shootings; all consequences of the ritual raids of cattle that took place among the villages. Cattle, the main source of livelihood for the local population, is one of the cornerstones of the Karimojong culture: the prestige of the family is proportional to the number of controlled cows. These raids were often carried out with the shots of Ak47, sold at low cost even by the Ugandan army, and became an integral part of the local identity.
The situation did not change until, in 2002, the discovery of minerals in the Tapach area attracted the attention of the State and several companies. The Ugandan government, understanding the economic potential of the territory, started a process of disarming the local population, which was concluded between 2012 and 2013. The area, no longer the scene of lootings and armed conflicts, was at that point ready to open up to national economies, offering very low-cost mineral resources and labor.
The incoming funds did indeed cover the costs for the construction of numerous infrastructures, but they also ended up feeding the alcohol market. Re-elaborating the official data from the Ugandan Ministry of Health, in the last 7 years the abuse of alcohol in the Karimojong population has grown at a frightening rate, leading to dramatic fallouts: liver cirrhosis has quickly become the leading cause of death in the hospital of Matany in Karamoja, between 2017 and 2018, more than 4,000 outpatients were treated in health centers for problems due to alcohol abuse. Furthermore, the number of ethyl comas has grown exponentially, as has the number of cases of domestic violence. The consequences of the spread of alcohol do not spare even the youngest: already during pregnancy, the addiction of mothers can cause damage to the fetus; there is also the habit of replacing children’s daily meals with alcohol. Therefore, addiction starts early as evidenced by many cases of pediatric alcoholism and ethyl coma among the very young.
But where does this alcohol come from? And why is it so harmful? Most of the infusions come from southern Uganda, from small illegal distilleries in the areas of Jinja and Iganga, where molasses are extracted from cane sugar from which alcohol is obtained. Such alcohol will then reach Karamoja in large jugs.
In part it is methyl alcohol, not purified and whose alcohol content varies from 40% to 70%, and therefore seriously harmful to health. Since many years methyl alcohol cannot be sold regularly in Uganda, but nevertheless, trucks full of cans of the so-called distillate waragi, arrive in the region without problems. Among the factors that contribute to the undisturbed spread of the drink is the corruption that pervades the world of law enforcement and the administration of Karamoja, a world that has no qualms about accepting bribes from truck drivers carrying waragi jugs.
As a matter of fact, this is not the only alcoholic that arrives in Karamoja: if we look in the small neighboring villages or in the major population centers of the region, we could not fail to notice the countless plastic bags scattered around the streets surrounding the houses. Those sachets full of alcohol arrive from Kampala distilleries, and are to be sold individually for 500 shillings, equivalent to about 20 euro cents, in Karamoja. In addition to the environmental damage caused by large quantities of abandoned plastic, these alcohol sachets, given their low cost, often replace the meals of a population that lives below the minimum poverty threshold, mitigating the feelings induced by hunger. One wonders why, given the obvious data, the state has not intervened by prohibiting the consumption of sachets or by initiating awareness-raising actions on the risks due to alcohol abuse. Apparently, the government led by President Museveni would have no interest in solving the problem, also because most of the alcoholic beverages that come from the distilleries in Kampala would appear to contain substances of import: we are referring to the remains of bovine innards coming from India. Such remains go to constitute the raw material of the spirits that arrive in the region, and whose import is a source of great income for the coffers of the government in the form of taxes.
The situation becomes even more dramatic in the areas of the Tapach mining excavations, on which government and multinational companies have set their sights given the seemingly infinite potential of the deposits. The Tororo Cement was the first to take an interest in the mineral resources in the area; the Ugandan company producing cement subcontracts the operations of transporting minerals to other small companies that send their trucks to the sites of Tapach: here, for some years, the miners, who were considered independent workers and therefore without contract and protection, have been paid in alcohol. If thanks to strikes and claims carried out by local personalities, this barbaric practice has ceased to exist, other forms of dramatic exploitation have replaced it: today the Tapach workers are paid in groups of two or three people approximately 100 thousand shillings, equivalent to 25 euros, to load 20 to 30 tons of stones on trucks to Tororo. Given the meager remuneration, miners prefer to buy low-cost alcohol to alleviate the symptoms of fatiguing labor, which has claimed many victims over the years. Faced with the problem of alcohol, to which is added the problem of child labor, rape, and accidents at work, Tororo Cement has denied any responsibility, leaving it unscathed.
The Karamojongs unable to assert their rights and weakened by alcohol, they find themselves facing uncontrollable and dynamic powers that are bigger than them. Will they be able to repel a widespread plague-like that of alcohol abuse, will they be able to preserve a culture that has ancient roots in the face of the interests of great economic giants? Probably, without outside help, they won’t succeed. For the moment the only credit note goes to the diocese of Moroto, the only local entity to have implemented a program focused on community awareness and treatment of alcohol addiction through the formation of groups of “anonymous alcoholics”. Interventions by other organizations would be welcome.