The Uganda food and nutrition policy and culture
WRITTEN BY NORAH OWARAGA
A person may be food insecure while surrounded by plenty of food, if the available food is not culturally acceptable to that person. Culture is a possible reason as to why Ugandans widely consume foods, such as cassava, that tilt food intake radically toward protein-poor, vitamin-deficient starches and fibre. For many Iteso, for example, food means a monotonous diet of atap. Over the years the content of atap has changed. Previously it was consisting of millet only, then it became millet with a mix of cassava, then it became a mix of sorghum and cassava, then increasingly these days it is cassava only.
The reasons for the changes in the food ingredients of atap are primarily economic. Millet is much sought after by the commercial brewers of ajon (local brew made out of millet) that is very popular among Iteso and also other Ugandans. In the case of sorghum, it has now become a major cash crop for it is used in making bottled beer. In which case, millet and sorghum have ceased to be ‘women crops’ grown for the purposes of subsistence and food security in the home, they have mostly been taken over by men who now grow them as cash crops. The fact that growing of the traditional cash crops, such as cotton, is no longer the norm in Teso, food crops have become the major cash crops. The resultant consequence that once a nutritious millet meal of atap has been replaced by less nutritious substitute of cassava.
Furthermore, for example, a survey of 275 Iteso, each representing a household, that I conducted in six villages – two in Pallisa, one in Bukedea, one in Kumi one in Serere and one in Soroti District. Revealed that overall 70 percent of Iteso acknowledge that there were foods which Iteso used to eat but no longer eat. For example in Bukedea, these foods no longer eaten included edible rats; an assortment of vegetables – echomai, akobokobo, emalakany, edioli; and other delicacies such as emaruk (mushrooms), potato leaves, emuna (mix of ghee and groundnut paste), pumpkin, shea nut oil, cashew nuts and abalang (ash salt). Some of these foods which grew abundantly no longer grow in Teso, likely because of the changes in land use. Land left fallow with bush cover is considered undeveloped and the norm is to clear all land for growing of crops. This completely negates the fact that many of our food sources thrived in bushes.
In Uganda there is general lack of appreciation for the importance of seriously considering Uganda’s indigenous knowledge systems in policy formulation and implementation. It is often the case that Ugandan knowledge systems are dismissed as backward and in need of changing. Government officials regularly profess their intentions to “educate” Ugandans on “proper” food and nutrition practices. Limited research has been done to document, quantify and develop Uganda’s indigenous knowledge systems. The kind of status quo that Nobel Laurete Wangari Mathaai asserted contributes to food insecurity because it facilitates the loss of indigenous plants and methods to grow them.
The provisions within Uganda’s food security policy are insufficient to address food insecurity that arises out of such issues that are related to social access to food – cultural food preferences and changing uses of food, for example. Further investigation of how taboos and other aspects of the Ugandan cultural syndrome affect food security would generate useful information that could be used to enhance the content and the formulation of the provisions contained in Uganda’s policies on nutrition and food security. How might the Government of Uganda design culturally sensitive food security interventions that are intended to encourage Ugandans to consume more of the foods that contain proteins and vitamins, and less of the foods that mostly contain starch and fibre?
The author is one of the founding Kigo Thinkers.