At hunger’s ground zero in Uganda, an aid worker counts her sacrifices, and blessings
During a rebellion in northern Uganda, then-school student Celina Auko dreamed of working for the World Food Programme (WFP). Reaching her goal has taken her, now a mother of six, on a long road toward zero hunger
Story by Lydia Wamala
When Celina Auko arrived in December 2018 to start her new assignment as head of the World Food Programme (WFP) office in Ka’abong District in the remote northeastern region of Karamoja, she brought her own food with her.
“I had been told how hard it is to find food in Ka’abong and that the nearest fruit market was 280 kilometres away,” she says. “So, I bought fruits, vegetables, sugar, dry beans and corn, processed fish and meat to take me through my first weeks.”
‘“Every drop in rates of malnutrition encourages us, as does every child who finishes school because of WFP school meals”
With the food, she had just a suitcase, a laptop, a mosquito net and cooking pans after being driven 650 kilometres from the Ugandan capital Kampala.
She was expecting her sixth child at the time and knew there was one hospital in Ka’abong with a single doctor. But the posting was too good to miss. WFP had closed the previous office she led so this was her chance to work again as a team leader.
Someone has got to work here
Celina, 43, leads 11 WFP staff working with more than 200,000 rural people in Ka’abong including the Ik, a tribe that UNESCO had listed as near-extinct.
She left her five children, aged between five and 14, in Kampala with a relative because her husband was away as well. He works with the relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
More than 18 months later, Celina is the thick of her assignment at the house that WFP rents as an office in Ka’abong town. She briefs Red Cross volunteers before they head out to assist WFP in distributing take-home food rations to school children.
“Someone has got to work here, representing WFP close to the communities. I am proud to make that sacrifice and I pray it positions me for higher responsibilities.” Celina says. “Every drop in rates of malnutrition encourages us, as does every child who finishes school because of WFP school meals.”
The food supports the children’s home learning while schools across Uganda are closed under restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am urging the volunteers to observe the national public health guidelines on COVID-19 because it is important that we do not take the virus to the people we assist and do not get infected ourselves,” Celina says.
“We are also discussing WFP’s code of conduct, which includes zero tolerance of abuse and exploitation of the people we assist.”
“I said to myself, ‘I must work with these people when I grow up, so I can contribute to relieving communities of hunger’”
She washes her hands at every turn before heading out to take part in the distribution. Her team and volunteers plan to assist 1,700 school children at four schools in one day. Given the huge crowds expected, WFP invited government workers to come and vaccinate adolescent girls against cervical cancer and tetanus and de-worm them and test younger children for malaria.
Refocus on malnutrition
Until COVID-19, school feeding was one of WFP’s main projects in Ka’abong, providing a daily hot meal to 30,000 children to attract them to stay in school and improve their nutrition especially in the lean season between March and July.
WFP’s focus now is on treating life-threatening malnutrition among young children and pregnant and nursing women and educating them on good feeding. Because of COVID-19, WFP suspended non-life saving programmes such as agricultural and market support to smallholder farmers’ groups.
“We fear for our lives because there are reports of murders almost daily lately”
Karamoja is the poorest and most food-insecure region on Uganda. It has the highest rates of malnutrition and has droughts, floods and environmental degradation in part due to climate change. Poverty and illiteracy are at very high levels in Ka’abong, which exacerbates the malnutrition challenges.
So far this year, Karamoja was also hit by locusts, cholera and foot-and-mouth disease and then the COVID-19 lock-down, which slashed family incomes in a lean season without school meals. Ka’abong suffered from a flare up of violence and cattle raids among the Karimojong tribes between Uganda and Kenya that led to 15,000 people being displaced and unable to grow food.
“We fear for our lives because there are reports of murders almost daily lately,” Celina says. “Plus, we are under pressure having to now work fewer hours among the communities, in conformity with tighter UN security regulations.”
Celina’s journey into WFP began during the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in the 1990s. From 1992 to 1998, she was a student at Sacred Heart Secondary School in Gulu, which Joseph Kony’s rebels attempted to attack to abduct girls.
Dedicated to helping others
“I saw WFP cars take food to the Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps and I said to myself, ‘I must work with these people when I grow up, so I can contribute to relieving communities of hunger,’” Celina says.
Celina joined WFP in 2003, as a Field Monitor for a refugee operation in the West Nile region of Uganda. She had her first daughter during that time. In 2006, Celina was promoted to Senior Programme Assistant in Kitgum District in northern Uganda. She had two more children and worked in 42 IDP camps.
Now a Programme Policy Officer, Celina admits it is challenging to raise children remotely, especially with COVID-19. But she calls them in Kampala daily from the quarters in Ka’abong where she lives with WFP staff and other aid workers.
The school meals programme in Uganda is currently funded by the Governments of Ireland and Germany. An in-kind food donation from the Government of Uganda is also being used for part of the take home rations.