A scorching afternoon in a rocky area of village nine of Zone two in Imvepi refugee settlement in Arua district, perhaps against all odds, there emerges 63-year-old Ms Jane Agaba with broad beaming style.
From a personal observation, our small trek in the scorching heat had saddened our faces a bit as we approached these random arrays of mainly grass thatched homes.
But that discomfort of the heat was at least ignored as grey-haired Agaba ushers us to what became her home ever since she fled to Uganda because of war in her country.
The rocky soils here would have ideally made any chances of agricultural activity near-impossible, but that in itself turns to be a blessing to Agaba and a host of other women as they take advantage of the ‘Mandela’ vegetable gardens to grow a variety of greens for their households and for sale.
“After I was trained, I started putting up nursery beds for onions and later growing on my small plot, I obtained a basin and half,” Agaba explains as she moves through her garden fenced with local materials.
A stone-throw away from Agaba’s residence, we find Ms Mary Poni, in her late 20’s, she is particularly humorous explaining how the children and herself are now fat and healthy with the balanced diet made possible through the variety of green vegetables in her garden.
She interposes her ordeal to a hearty laughter before revealing that she did not only obtain shs60,000 but was able to buy school shoes for her two children currently enrolled in a secondary school.
Poni is quick to point that it had previously been difficult to obtain money in the settlements and worse with the dry and small plots allocated for settlement.
The Ayiki kitchen group
Beyond their individual home settings, a group of about 40 women in the same location have now teamed up to form a group, ‘the Ayiki kitchen garden group.’
Through a translator, we are told Ayiki means to “remind ourselves” whether this is about their plight or the war that brought them to Uganda. We are left guessing but the group less than two years is already making strides.
“The things we do may look small, but these things are helping us so much. We have now started a savings group with the ultimate aim of renting a bigger piece of land from the host population to expand our enterprise,” says Ms Lillias Onzia, the chairperson for the group.
Ms Jackline Amana, the group secretary appeals to well-wishers and organizations to support their cause through a financial boost to enable them achieve this target.
About the Mandela garden
“I developed the technology during my Diploma from Bukalasa agricultural college, we were told to use very little land and see how the crops will survive and that was during dry season,” Mr George Lukayi, a senior agronomist under Joint Aid Management (JAM), the organization that runs the gardens says.
“When I realised that my crops survived under very stressful conditions, I related it to Nelson Mandela who through years of imprisonment persevered,” Lupai added.
His explanation perhaps unsurprisingly was followed by a deafening laughter with the camp commandant later joking that Mr Lupai had strayed from science to politics.
Explaining the nitty-gritties of the garden set up and the variety of vegetables grown here, Lupai further said the site serves a very important purpose.
“Here we are serving two purposes; the training part and the supplementary feeding part. When we are done with training and demos, the produce we get is used to supply the kitchen for the new arrivals who are placed in at the reception centre for a period of time before their own land is allocated,” Lupai explained.
Through training at the demo site, over 3, 000 people have benefitted and are now practicing at their own homesteads.
To ensure fairly constant supply of vegetables through the hardest months of drought, Lupai says they did post-harvest handling to keep some of the excess produce to be used during the dry spell.
The JAM approach
Ms Ann Pretorius, the co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) JAM international during a visit to the settlement acknowledged that more needs to be done despite the tangible progress in the lives of the kitchen garden beneficiaries.
“I want our programs to keep expanding, I see that even as we keep touching communities, there is more that we could do in our core areas of nutrition, water and agriculture,” she said after a tour of JAM projects.
“Personally, the appreciation we have received makes us want to do more always, they welcome us and everybody says God bless you. I realise happiness doesn’t come from living in the palace but from changing tomorrow and we are grateful if we can be a vehicle carrying this message of hope,” Pretorius remarked.
Ms Amanda Koech Otieno, the JAM international Uganda program manager says the programs primarily target pregnant and lactating mothers and the vulnerable members of the society like widows, the disabled, child headed families and elders although men have also directly benefited from the trainings.
She says in line with the organizations’ expansion plan, the women groups will soon be trained to produce seeds that will in turn be sold to the organization.
The Imvepi settlement alone hosts over 64, 000 refugees, majority of them South Sudanese many of whom continue to live in dire conditions.
But for the 3, 000 that have benefited from the Mandela garden ‘magic’, the produce from the dry rocky land has put smiles on their faces.