By Shmim Saad
It was her dream destination. She had heard of nice stories about Kampala. She had not only been told of the beautiful high rise buildings but also that she could earn enough money by just begging on the streets.
So when Santina Munyesi, a teenage Karimojong girl boarded a Kampala-bound bus from Moroto, her dream was of beautiful accommodation and an easy life. But she arrived to a rude shock in Kampala.
First, there was the language barrier. With nowhere to go, she spent the night on the streets, which was to become a daily routine for a couple of days. She realised Kampala was not the bed of roses she had expected when she discovered many of her tribesmates were simply street beggars.
She decided she would not beg, but rather look for a job. To her, going back to Karamoja was out of the question. “I was forced to go to Owino, which was the only place I thought I would get a job since I am not educated,” Munyesi says.
Today, she spends her day on the backbreaking job of sorting groundnuts for a fee of sh5,000 per 120kg sack at St. Balikuddembe Market, Owino. While she can only manage one sack a day, at times the pay is not guaranteed. If the sorted groundnuts weigh less, then she loses the entire day’s pay.
However, Munyesi feels lucky because at least she has a job unlike her colleagues, who just beg for money. “It is also better than being a maid in someone’s house,” she says.
Munyesi’s employer Naki, is all praises for her and the other Karimojong women she employs.
“I have never found any problem with them. They are hardworking. I would rather employ a Karimojong than my people,” Naki says. But life is still tough for Munyesi. To avoid sleeping on the streets, she was taken to a shack in Katwe, where she shares a room with 15 others.
Each of them contributes sh3,000 per week for rent. Feeding is a challenge too. To economise, they pool resources and cook in groups. Each group does not share food with the other groups, although they live in the same tenement.
The story is similar for other Karimojong who were lured to the city by beautiful stories. They mostly live in the slums of Katwe and Kisenyi, many of them beggars.
In Kisenyi adults pay sh1,000 for accommodation per day, while children are charged sh500 and up to 50 people are crammed in a small makeshift structure. The room where they sleep is like a warehouse constructed with timber. They have no mattress or beddings and sleep on the floor.
But like Munyesi, Angelina Muya, 35, says she would rather live and beg in Kampala than go back to Karamoja. Muya says she left Moroto because she and her family were about to starve to death. “We come as early as possible on streets to beg because we need food and money for rent,” she narrates.
Muya considers this her work and only goes home after collecting enough money. Agnes Moru paid sh40,000 bus fare from Moroto to beg in Kampala with her daughters. She said she was forced to leave Moroto following the death of her husband and she had no one to help with the family needs.
Moru lives in Kisenyi with other Karimojong. She leaves her abode with her children before 7.00am to beg. Sometimes she goes to Owino Market to pick up raw food that has been thrown away to prepare a meal for themselves.
Some Karimojong women also deploy their children as beggars as well. It is a common sight on Kampala streets seeing infants sitting with their tiny hands stretched out for alms. Their eyes droop from fatigue, resulting from a combination of poor feeding, lack of rest and hunger.
Their mothers or older siblings stay out of sight in some tree shades and promptly appear to retrieve the alms as soon as some passerby drops a coin in the baby’s hand.
While alcohol consumption is high among the Karimojong, the LCs in Kisenyi and Katwe say they are clever and do not spend all their money.
They disclose that they send financial assistance back home from time to time. Some of the women are believed to have been sent to Kampala by their husbands.
Barbara Nekesa, the state minister for Karamoja Affairs says the Government had put in place programmes to improve the food security situation and living conditions in
Karamoja. She said tractor hire schemes had been put in place and last year, for instance, 1,570 acres of land was ploughed.
She further said the Ministry of Water had constructed six big valley dams in Kotido and old boreholes were rehabilitated to improve water supply to mitigate the effects of drought.
While observing that the Karimojong were free to live anywhere in Uganda, Topher Mugumya, director of communications at Save the Children says the conditions under which they live should not violate the rights of their children.
Mugumya adds that the international charity had put in in place strategies to improve food security in Karamoja through provision of improved seeds. He adds that the country needs to focus more on the urgent issues in Karamoja rather than treating the symptoms.
He explains that Save the Children is working together with the Police and social welfare NGOS to establish a system of monitoring vehicles leaving the region.
“These children are not criminals to be taken to Kampiringisa. All they need is care, counselling and protection,” he adds.
Peter Kaujju, the spokesperson for Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) says it is not safe for the children to be on the streets. That is why they plan to relocate them.