Story by Jill Vine
On the 20th of April I was able to fly into Arua, Uganda with our LDR 208 Cessna Caravan full of a variety of different partners. One was doing assessments in Rhino settlement; and another was being dropped off in Yumbe to help give training. After landing in Arua, I was able to talk to another partner from the same flight, Fred Mutenyo, the Country Director for Joint Aid Management (JAM) (Soon to be changing their name to ‘For Afrika’). He kindly agreed to allow me to follow him an hour and a half away to Omugo settlement, which is a newer extension of Rhino settlement.
JAM was founded in 1984 by the late Peter Pretorious, a man of great faith who found himself in Mozambique where he was moved to sell his tobacco business to help the most vulnerable. JAM has spread to 7 different African countries and hope to expand to 16 countries by 2024.
Fred started working for JAM in 2021 with 20 years of experience under his belt with other NGOs. Fred started flying with MAF in 2017…'Its quicker and smarter. I find the hospitality of MAF much better than other agencies and I find MAF is very smooth. I mainly fly from Kajjansi to Karamoja, Arua and Gulu where we work in refugee settlements in the West Nile and Southwest regions. We address health nutrition, livelihoods, education, social protection and water sanitation.’ Fred expounded on the ethos that first attracted him to work for JAM, ‘I love that we are genuinely helping. I just put myself in the shoes of these other people because I also had a humble beginning and know what it's like being poor and vulnerable. I like to see tangible results changing people's lives. When you help people, you're blessed and those we help are always blessing us.' The many ways JAM support refugees are never ending and seem to be evolving wherever needed, ‘We provide hot meals at welcoming centres when refugees first arrive. We’ve established village saving and loan associations for farmers. We’re helping with the emergency response in Kisoro with refugees from EDRC, because since 28th March there’s been an influx of refugees because of fighting inside EDRC.’
Fred and his staff have a busy schedule, but they made time to take me along with them while delivering harvest tools and seeds to refugee farmers from South Sudan. We also went to inspect 70 acres of land they’re hoping to lease for a community group of 30 refugees. Fred discussed with the head farmer about planting sim sim (sesame) instead of g-nuts because they’ve learnt which seeds don’t do well in the rocky terrain local farmers haven’t ever attempted to farm. The land surrounding refugee settlements is usually uninhabitable swamp or rocky land that host communities aren’t already farming, so JAM help advise crop selection depending on the terrain and season. These refugees have plans to plant for big yields and a strong future against the odds. JAM doesn’t oversee the agreement between the refugee and the landlord but instead the host community, refugees and landlords are in community groups that discuss how to promote peaceful coexistence between host communities and refugees. 30% of aid is given back to the host community, for eg, a local host will lease their land but receive 30% of the harvest.
I rode on the back of Field Officer, Charity’s motorbike as we travelled higher up to mountainous terrain that looked more like Australian bushland than Uganda. This is also how far you have to go to be able to talk face to face with refugees and where I met David Juma. He stood proudly on his newly leased land with a definite sense of hope and jubilancy.
Since arriving, David has come to learn and focus the positives of being in Uganda over longing for his more volatile South Sudan. ‘Before, we had livelihood partners, but they gave us smaller amounts of seeds. When JAM intervened, we had a small 40x40 plot of leased land which refugees are given on arrival and food distribution by the WFP had been reduced. JAM helped us with 6kgs maise seed, some of which we kept for our family from our 120kgs harvest leaving 150k (£30) of profit. They also gave us 10kgs of seed for sesame which reaped 150kg, worth 450k (£100) from just 1/8th of an acre. JAM also gave us seeds for onions and tomatoes. From the profit made I bought 300 watermelon seeds and rented a 1/4 acre of land. My profit increased to 6.220,000 UGX (£1,390)! This has enabled me to pay for my eldest’s university fees. Three of my children are at good schools in Jinja because of JAM supporting our agro business. They give quality seeds that produce yields for 3 years.’ David’s extended family are all scattered but he knows where his mother is, and his wife and 2 children are with him along with 3 of his brother’s children, due to him serving in the army.
‘Now we are not stressed worrying about how we will feed our families.’ JAM also gave an irrigation tread pump and solar powered irrigation pump for the dry season when prices are better. The group has a saving corporation and they lend to anyone in the group that needs money which also earns interest. They uphold a mutual understanding where nobody defaults. JAM support 50 groups of 30 farmers in each (1,500). JAM can assess and wean off 30 independent farmers but then take on more new groups.
Now that David’s family are independent and leasing 12 acres of land, next season JAM will move their support to other groups already on a waiting list who have been assessed. David concluded, ‘We are stronger together. Our groups agree on their own rules & constitutions. We are self-driven but helped by JAM who have supported us so much. My life has improved since I came to Uganda. I want my kids to finish their education and I don't want to return to South Sudan. Every eight years they're fighting. I believe the reason there isn’t peace in South Sudan is because everyone wants to be a leader.’
I could see a lady in the background hoeing the rocky earth. Betty Sabina came over to share with me some of her story when she also had to flea Yei in 2018. ‘My husband died in the war in 2019 when he was shot on the frontline. Since I came into contact with JAM, I can now provide for all of my kids. Before, I didn’t have seeds to plant but JAM provided my family with cow peas, sesame, g-nuts, beans, onions, cabbage and egg plants. The profit I made helped me buy household items and a female goat. Now it is ok…I've been able to stop grieving my dead husband.’ I asked Betty what she would say to other displaced people who are struggling? ‘We should love each other. When we left it was an emergency, but this made us more resilient. Also, development is key...the little money we get we should use for farming and paying for our kids schooling.’ When I asked Betty if she wants to return to Yei her reply was similar to David’s, ‘I feel at home here now. I want my kids to stay here and receive a good education. South Sudan cannot stabilise.' David butted in with a phrase westerners would probably misunderstand, but one that in Uganda confirms a sense of prosperity...’Thanks to JAM, she is now fat!’
There was a third character with a cheerful disposition I wanted to hear from. Andrew came from the outskirts of Yei in a village called Marabu. In 2017 he was chased out of his country by the opposition group, IO and the Government’s SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army). All of his family of 10 reached safely together to Uganda. A field officer from JAM approached him when he was digging in his garden. ‘They helped me plant maise and beans. We made 200k (£50) and enough food for at home. I would like to plant more maise, beans, sesame & watermelon. When I was chased, I was thinking about what I had left behind. But then I found that there were partners to help us with seeds. Let's sit down and forget those things that happened in South Sudan and cultivate the land.'
When I asked Andrew what advice he would want to share to Ukrainians that are living through running from their homeland, he said, ‘Cry out to God for Him to intervene. Come and live in peaceful coexistence. Refugees do have a hard life at first and you sometimes have to beg to receive things in the urgency, but eventually you will settle after 5 years to a safer and more sustainable life.' Again, I asked Andrew if he wanted to return to Yei or was he better staying in the settlement. 'I am settled here. Why would I go back when there are so many rebels there that can kill you?'
From what I could see and hear from these farmers, the South Sudanese are traditionally farmers, and it seems they’re determinedly figuring out the challenges of farming the most difficult terrain imaginable. It seems the South Sudanese refugees, with the help of organisations like JAM, are becoming a blessing to Uganda as they increase food production within the country and are valued for the giftings and strengths they’re able to bring to their host communities.