By Richard Drasimaku
Children as young as eight years old forego school to go and pick mairungi leaves from gardens to get money.
They are paid about sh1, 000 for what they call “cutting charge” for mairungi harvested. This practice has brought down school attendance to low levels and increased late school arrival.
The worst hit schools are in Kijomoro sub-county, Maracha district where Okokoro trading centre infamously nicknamed the mairungi capital city is located.
Lamila parish in the same sub-county is nicknamed the “world trading centre” for mairungi.
Middlemen on motorcycles and taxis head to these trading centres between 8:00am and 10:00am to purchase the narcotic leaves.
They buy it from a set of agents, mainly women, who buy it directly from the farmers.
The cyclists and taxi operators then distribute the mairungi to numerous trading centres along the Arua-Koboko-Yumbe-Moyo- Adjumani road.
Others proceed to Elegu, Nimule or Oraba and Yei in South Sudan, while the most audacious traders board buses to distant areas to market it.
The Kijomoro LC3 chairman, Yuda Bileti, said the last time they inspected schools, they found only 150 pupils at Oriba Primary School out of 1,047 who enrolled at the beginning of the year.
The district education officer, Flavia Osoa, said attendance in other schools in Maracha is not any better, adding that some children even chew the mairungi.
She said because the pupils and their parents feel mairungi generates more money, the emphasis on education has also gone down.
The negative impact of mairungi on the population, however, goes beyond education as idle youths roam in trading centres chewing the toxic leaves.
“It renders them non-productive while taking a toll on their health,” said Dr. Alex Adaku, the in-charge of Arua Hospital psychiatry department.
He disclosed that substance abuse including mairungi, constitutes 26% of all cases of mental illness received at the hospital, which is 21% increment since the unit was launched in 2010.
In other hospitals such as Moyo and Adjumani where no such units exist, patients with mental illness are admitted together with other patients in the general wards.
Local leaders complain that they would want to fight off mairungi production but there is no law to back them up since mairungi is not illegal under Ugandan laws.
Bileti said some people even prefer to reserve their gardens for growing mairungi as a cash crop, ignoring crops like cassava, groundnuts, mangoes and onions.