Post-war farming in Uganda

As northern Uganda continues to recover from war, two agricultural experts are showing struggling farmers there is hope in God’s soil.

A whistle-stop tour of northern Uganda’s most inspiring farmers. It’s early and we’re bleary-eyed as we clamber into the car – BMS World Mission workers Genesis, Bernard and Joe, our driver-turned-camera-assistant Hannington, and I – and hit the road.

Rainy season is coming to an end and everything is bright, and green, and beautiful. Mothers walk along with 20-litre jerry cans of water balanced on their heads and babies slung low on their backs. We see a girl setting out for a day of school, exercise book clasped in her hand. Her red skirt billows in the warm breeze, perfectly contrasting with the long, green grass beside her. Her bare feet dance along the blistering, cracked mud.

I’ll discover today that the mud here tells a story. A story of war and loss, of determination and victory. The cracks in the earth mirror a fractured people. A people who had to live for years in Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) camps; forced to flee there by the government to protect them from the Lord’s Resistance Army and the soldiers who had the run of the land. People were born, raised and married in these camps – the younger generation never getting the chance to learn the skill of farming that would have to become their livelihood on leaving.

Acaye Genesis is a BMS World Mission worker helping Uganda's farmers break themselves out of poverty
Acaye Genesis is a BMS World Mission worker helping Uganda's farmers break themselves out of poverty

A decade ago, men and women returned to the same cracked soil they’d left in their youth to begin their lives again. Their survival and the survival of their children lay in the land they were forced to leave. A new battle was only just beginning.

Now, in peacetime, the two agricultural experts sitting with me as we drive have a dream to help their fellow Ugandans win their latest war. BMS workers Genesis and Bernard have a vision and a deep-rooted passion for the land and for helping farmers here to use it well to get themselves out of poverty.

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In Uganda, it is generally the man’s responsibility to earn money for his family – although every member of the family normally pulls more than their weight. “When a husband cannot make good money, the family is always in chaos,” says Genesis. “But if they are making good money, you find the children are going to school, medical bills are paid, they’re eating well.”

An estimated 90 per cent of people in Gulu District subsist by farming. The majority of these farmers are only growing food crops – like maize, cassava and groundnuts – which make up their staple diet but fetch a very low market price. The average salary is just over 1,500 Ugandan shillings a day. That’s roughly 33 pence.

Charles' home in Gulu, northern Uganda

“When you only grow food crops and you sell at low prices, you end up selling almost everything and you don’t have enough money,” says Genesis. “In June there is a month here called the ‘month of hunger’, when you’ve done all your selling and your family suffers.”

Banana, chilli and ginger – cash crops – are transforming the lives of 100 families here. Genesis and Bernard are turning their farmers into pioneers, introducing them to crops they didn’t know they could grow in their soil. Before, farmers in the area only grew small, sweet bananas; the BMS-supported farmers are now growing larger bananas, both in sweet and savoury varieties. Farmers were reluctant to try and grow chillies, because of low demand within the community and fears over handling them, but they’re now seeing huge benefits to growing the crop. And while the farmers were keen to grow ginger, without BMS investment, the initial cost of the seeds would have been unattainable for all of them.

This project has changed my life. When I was not doing this project my life was different. I used to do things that were not right. Now I realise that I have a lot of energy, and if I don’t use it now I won’t be able to get it back. So I am using it to work. I feel good, because I am not the way I was.

Now my vision is to expand my garden and have a farm.

Okello David growing ginger and doing well, thanks to a BMS-supported project

Name: Okello David    Age: 24    Profession: farmer    Crop: ginger

Bernard laughs as he explains how much a sack of export-destined chilli sells for, in comparison to a sack of maize. The difference is huge. It’s the kind of difference that equals a well-fed family, access to medical care and education for your children. It’s the kind of difference that is changing lives.

We drive around the district, visiting different farms and meeting farmers benefitting from the new crops. I shake hands worn hard by tough labour, pray in the huts of strong, gentle farmers, walk through gardens of precisely planted and well-weeded crops, and listen to stories.

It surprises me how exciting it is to meet these newly trained farmers. My questions about the crops are answered with enthusiasm – I learn about mulching, banana suckers, spacing. I learn about things I’d never even thought about and now find fascinating. The pride on their faces is almost as bright as the yellow and green of nearly ripe bananas and the perfect red chillies they hand me.

Onen Charles is a farmer in northern Uganda

Name: Onen Charles    Family:  eight children
Profession: pastor and farmer    Crop: banana and chilli

Genesis and Bernard taught me how to grow chilli and bananas in the proper way. I am sure that, if I work hard, in the near future I will have some good money. My heart is happy and full of gratitude. I am happy for what God is doing in this region that has suffered war for many years. And I’m sending my greetings to the people who are supporting this work, praying that God will bless them.

In the interests of thorough journalism, I try a chilli – it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? It’s hot. Worse than I expected. And it gets quickly hotter. It sticks to the back of my throat and my eyes start streaming as I cough like an embarrassed idiot, which is how I feel. The laughter (from farmers and BMS workers alike) follows me as I choke and splutter my way back to the car. Cool and composed, as always. Do the farmers find them so hot? In disbelief, I discover that Allan, my chilli dealer, has never eaten a single one. In his entire, probably choking-fit-free life. He’s growing thousands of the things. Unsurprisingly, my reaction hasn’t convinced him to embrace God’s spicy masterpiece.

Allan has been growing and selling chillies thanks to your support
Allan, my chilli dealer

Nevertheless, God and his Church are central to Allan’s chillies and to this BMS agribusiness project. Genesis’ dream is to meet both the physical and the spiritual needs of families in the district, by using the Bible to equip farmers with the skills needed to grow these cash crops well. The 100 farmers (some of whom are Christians, others not) work in five groups, and each one meets and trains in their local Baptist church.

“When we meet together, we pray together,” says Genesis. “We are helping people understand how working, in the context of the Bible, is important. It looks like just agriculture, but when you come in, we share the gospel. We share everything. And we find their lives are changing.”

Some farmers have given their lives to Christ and joined their local Baptist church. Others often ask to pray with Genesis. Seeds becoming fruit, fed by God and his soil.

So many people are coming to me and asking if it is possible for me to go and train them – to teach them the knowledge I have on this ginger so that they can do what I am doing. This project is not just changing my life; it is also changing the lives of people around me.

I want to say thank you, and I want to appreciate the Christians in the UK for helping their fellow Christians in Uganda.

Peter is a farmer in Gulu, in northern Uganda. He is pictured here with his youngest son in his garden of ginger.

Name: Ongaba Peter    Family:  five children
Profession: pastor and farmer    Crop: banana and ginger

The dirt I am standing on isn’t dirt to Bernard, it’s opportunity. To Genesis, it’s God’s beautiful garden. And it’s a way they can follow God’s call to help the poor and share his story. Their infectious enthusiasm for agriculture is so powerful it has genuinely led me to plan a kitchen garden in my first-floor flat.

I probably can’t manage bananas, but chillies hanging from a pot plant on my windowsill could look good, and add a kick to my stir-fries (if used with appropriate caution). In this part of Uganda, though, they are changing lives. That’s possible because of God, because of farmers with reserves of strength and resilience I can’t even imagine, and because of you.

Farmer Onen Charles with his family in Gulu District, Uganda

The first humans God created were farmers, commissioned to look after his garden. Here, in the shade of a banana tree whose fruit is so much more than a meal, I am amazed afresh at the beauty and complexity of creation. Amazed afresh at the wonderful people God has created to tend his land.



Words and photos: Sarah Stone

Help us do more

“Northern Uganda has been in war for about 27 years, and since peace has returned this work has helped a lot of people to live a better life,” says Genesis. “It is possible because of your support. So please, I ask you to keep supporting. You are not doing it for me. You are doing it for God.”

Do you want to play a part in helping people in northern Uganda grow a harvest of hope? Give a one-off donation to BMS today, or sign up to give regularly by becoming a 24:7 Partner.

Thank you.

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