Fishing for self-reliance in the north

Lilly Ogwang tucked in her long skirt and stepped into the water to join the other women from her village in northern Uganda’s Lira District harvesting fish from their jointly owned pond.

Dragging their net from one end of the pond to the other, the women of Obanga Tek Itecere village soon emerged from the muddy water with a huge catch.

"We hope this project will bring about development for individual households and we can use it to look after these orphans of war under our care," Ogwang told IRIN. "If all goes as we hope, we shall be able to afford a good education for the children and to feed them better."

A mother of six, Ogwang is one of 109 people who own two fish ponds in the village. Until recently, she was living in a camp for displaced people due to two decades of conflict in northern Uganda between the government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

However, an improvement in security following on-off talks in the Southern Sudanese capital of Juba has encouraged thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to venture back to their villages.

In the camps, the IDPs relied almost entirely on aid but the agencies are scaling back wherever there is improved security and mass returns in the region. As a result, the returnees must learn to fend for themselves – a challenge that has pushed many to get involved in income-generating projects, such as fish farming.

"For a long time, more than 600,000 people in Teso and Lango [regions] were living in camps, depending on external support for things as basic as nutritious food. They now have an opportunity to reclaim their self-reliance," said Tesema Negash, Uganda country director for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which is supporting the IDPs to resettle in their villages.

"The projects propel a move away from relief support to recovery," he added. "Currently, we are still both in relief and recovery but the trend is to move away from relief supplies. It is vital to help people returning to their homes establish a viable way of making a living."

Fish to the rescue

An estimated 3,000 farmers in Lango and Teso regions have ventured into fish farming with the support of WFP, Samaritan’s Purse, an NGO, and the government’s Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF).

"We started digging these ponds almost a year ago and other donors helped us to get the seeds. I can now see the results that will include selling some of the fish to get money for my children’s school fees and other needs in the home," Anthony Okello, 26, explained as he pointed at four large ponds.

Photo: Vincent Mayanja/IRIN
Two former IDPs show off their catch from a fish-farming project in Obanga Tek Itecere

Aid workers estimated that 163 fish ponds have been dug in Lango and Teso. These are expected to yield more than 140MT of tilapia and catfish every eight months, worth 280 million Ugandan shillings [US$165,000].

"Pond owners will each earn an average of 187,000 shillings [$109] from the first harvest – if the fish is not smoked. If smoked, each member could earn a minimum of 560,000 shillings [$327]," WFP’s aquaculturist, Pius Kwesiga, told IRIN.
Paul Opoka, secretary of Atur young farmers, an association of 127 people of whom 103 are women, said half the proceeds from their harvest would go to the farmers while the other half would be used for re-stocking the ponds, especially the catfish that do not reproduce in the ponds naturally.

"We urge the farmers to re-invest their income from fish farming into other income-generating projects," he said. "We teach them about other opportunities."

Kwesiga said the returnees were being trained in a number of skills to sustain their projects. "We have trained them in book-keeping, net sewing, smoking, salting and preserving fish - all ensuring the sustainability of the enterprises," he explained. "We plan to replicate this in other areas of northern Uganda suitable for fish farming."

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency has joined the project by supporting the training and facilitation of some fish farmers to grow Nerica rice, a variety said to thrive in areas surrounding fish ponds.

Apart from fish farming, returnees have also tried their hands at planting trees or building teachers’ houses and classrooms. Others are working on roads, dams and other social structures.

Peace talk
Northern Uganda has been devastated by war since 1986; thousands died and about two million were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in IDP camps.

With talk of a possible comprehensive peace agreement soon, expectations are high that peace is returning to the region. On 11 March, President Yoweri Museveni said the rebels, if they surrendered, could face justice through traditional systems instead of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

ICC indictments against LRA leaders have been a stumbling block to a peace agreement, with the rebels insisting that lifting the indictments must be a precondition for a final deal with the Ugandan government.

Analysts also say the LRA has been weakened militarily to the point that it can no longer sustain the war.