UGANDA: Drought, hunger drive Karamoja children to beg in Kampala

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Agatha Locham, 23, sits with her two weak and malnourished children a few steps from the entrance to a bank in Kampala.

“Mpayo ekikumi [give me a 100-shilling coin]," the boy, his stomach distended, shouts at passers-by.

Locham and her children are among the increasing number of residents of the drought-prone region of Karamoja, north-eastern Uganda, who have travelled hundreds of kilometres to the city to beg to survive.

She said her malnourished child was weak because they had not had a decent meal in days.

Locham declined to reveal how much they made in a day, saying only that it was sufficient for a room in Kisenyi slum.

Up to 30 people live in rooms meant for five in Kisenyi, with children charged 100 shillings (five US cents) while adults pay 300 shillings (15 cents) per night.

"We live a hard life, but it is better than remaining in Karamoja where we lack food and security," Locham said.

She said she left her village in Karamoja's Bokora county because of "extreme hunger" and insecurity. The family's cattle were taken by warriors, known as “karacunas”.

However, she said life on Kampala's streets had other tribulations as her children faced threats such as abuse, disease and poor living conditions.

Most of the child beggars from Karamoja lack access to shelter and medical care, and most display signs of stunted growth.

Livelihood pressures

In Karamoja, the cow is the main resource, but many have been lost in the clashes, forcing locals to resort to other means of survival, including migrating to urban centres to eke out a living as porters, labourers or beggars. Charities estimate 90 percent of children on Kampala's streets under the age of five are from Karamoja.
The State Minister for Youth and Children's Affairs, James Kinobe, said: "There are push factors behind this exodus. The information we have is that some people go and bring these children from their villages and use them to beg on the streets, then share the proceeds. This is unacceptable."

The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) expressed grave concern. "UNICEF is engaged in concerted advocacy with national and local authorities in Uganda, with the aim of addressing the key factors which predispose children to risks like hazardous labour, exploitation and abuse,” Chulho Hyun, spokesman for UNICEF, said.

Life on the streets

Kinobe said the government wanted to stop one of the "pull factors" - easy money - by outlawing donations from pedestrians to these “abused children”.

"We want the Kampala City Council to pass a by-law outlawing helping these children on the streets; if we want to help them, we should do that at their homes so that we can get these children out of danger."

He said some of the children were being rounded up and taken to a probation centre where they were offered social orientation lessons, given resettlement kits including blankets, clothes and soap, before being returned to Karamoja.

"But there is an organised racket that exploits the children as those retrieved from the streets are brought back to the streets,” he said.

The minister said some of the beggars were making as much as $25 daily.

"This income keeps them coming," he said. "The money is shared between the person who gets them from Karamoja to outskirt towns like Iganga [eastern Uganda] and the one who connects the chain to Kampala."


But UNICEF said the cause of the migration from Karamoja to urban centres was not just about money.
"The past three years of successive shocks - droughts, floods and insecurity - have not only heightened poverty in an already food-insecure sub-region, but also led to a pronounced trend of out-migration to urban centres and a host of protection concerns for separated children.

"Our main response has been to lead the effort to ensure the voluntary, safe and dignified return and reintegration of separated children."

"Reducing vulnerability and deprivation is key to combating the risks to which children may be exposed,” he added.