Restoring hope after flash floods, thanks to UNICEF

“Whatever little assistance we got from UNICEF was extremely important because it gave us hope.”

By Joachim Buwembo
flooding, displacement, floods, Karamoja, diseases, UNICEF emergency response, emrgency supplies, health, water, sanitation, hygiene, education, nutrition, disease prevention, Moroto, Uganda
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe
05 August 2020

At 84 years of age, Hudson Loduk thought he had seen all the hardships and absorbed all the shocks that even an octogenarian would ever encounter. That was until River Namulo burst its banks on 2 May 2020 in Namulo Sub-County, Nakapiripirit District, in Uganda’s north-eastern region of Karamoja.

Mzee (‘elder’) Loduk, as everyone in Namulo town refers to the tall white-haired old man, speaks in a low but clear voice. He has spent half of his life in official retirement, because his retirement came abruptly when he had just turned 40 in 1977. That was probably Uganda’s deadliest year under military rule, which saw the multiple extrajudicial executions of the Anglican archbishop, the country’s first African Inspector General of Police, a cabinet minister, many distinguished public servants and numerous servicemen of Acholi and Langi extraction.

Loduk, who was well educated for a Karimojong at the time, was working as the chief for Amudat County (now a district). Being the top administrator of the district bordering Kenya, he had authority to issue identification documents for travelling across international borders in the region. The persecuted military officers and other elite from the Langi and Acholi communities learnt of the sympathetic civil servant and would find their way to Amudat county headquarters.

“Strong, well-built men would stream into my office and kneel down as if I was a Kabaka (King) of Buganda,” he recalls. “With tears flowing down their cheeks, these soldiers would beg me to save their lives!”

Loduk gave all who came to him documents and they easily entered Kenya. But after saving hundreds from certain death, it was Loduk’s turn to flee when he got a tip off that intelligence had got wind of his activities. After crossing into Kenya, he found himself in the same refugee camp with many Ugandans he had helped escape the murderous regime.  Returning to Uganda when the military regime fell a couple years later, life was not the same and after few brief jobs, Loduk called it a day and went into quiet retirement of small-scale farming.

Over three decades, life remained uneventful as children grew up and went away and Mzee Loduk started slowing down, until the recent fateful afternoon in May. It was 4.30 pm when the quiet, one-street town (trading centre) was shaken by a rumbling sound accompanied by screams of shocked residents of all ages. The sky was clear without a drop of rain falling, as a massive wave of water came hurtling downhill, enveloping everything on the ground with such force that the debris it carried along included huge uprooted trees and domestic animals like cows. Today, every eyewitness you talk to in Namulo describes the horrific waterflow differently. What they all seem to agree on is that it peaked after half an hour and started ebbing, very, very slowly.

Mzee Loduk remembers being involved in rescue efforts, pulling women and children from flooded houses. It wasn’t until midnight when he got some breathing space to check on his own three-roomed house, that the chilling irony struck him. While he had been busy helping others, some thugs had looted his home empty. There was practically nothing left in the house except the flood water!

Unlike his return from the Kenya refugee camp in 1979 when he had a proper home and family waiting for him, he was now returning to a ruined and robbed home, an old man no longer capable of starting afresh. His two-acre farm had also been completely swept away. He could not fathom how he was going to spend his last years or days.

flooding, displacement, floods, Karamoja, diseases, UNICEF emergency response, emergency supplies, health, water, sanitation, hygiene
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe

UNICEF’s helping hand

Life seemed to stop, but after a few days, a ray of hope emerged. Although the retired administrator is quite realistic and not at all excitable, he is deeply reflective and highly appreciative of UNICEF’s helping hand.

“Whatever little assistance we got from UNICEF was extremely important because it gave us hope,”

says Laduk

“When you realize that there is someone determined to help you survive, you get energy to fight on. Surrounded by nothing but ruin, we realized we were going to survive and started rebuilding our shattered homes.”

Indeed, we found Mzee Laduk working with a younger man resealing the floor of his house that has been flooded. In his bedroom, he shows us the walls that are still damp from the flood that struck ten weeks earlier! The relief blanket on his narrow bed obviously cannot cover his tall frame satisfactorily.

“They must have intended it for a baby,” he jokes with a faint smile, the first to cross his face since our interaction started two hours earlier. “But it keeps me warm.”     

An important item that ordinarily people rarely think about was there among the UNICEF-supplied items - gum boots. Navigating the soggy ground became bearable and obviously reduced the dangers of injury from sharp objects and infections. Probably even more critical was the purifying tablets also from the UNICEF kit. How else would people make water potable when everything including firewood was wet, making the boiling of water an impossible feat?

In Namulo, we also encounter 28-year-old Regina Lokure. Her economic status is obviously higher than most other residents’, and you could easily mistake her for a health worker or civil servant. But she is a stay-at-home mother of four, whose husband is a civil servant in another district.  Her two boys aged eight and six could as well fit any middle income neighbourhood of Kampala or Nairobi. They are home from boarding school since lockdown, like most other children in the world. 

Regina shows us what remains of her old house after the flood swept through it and tells how she narrowly escaped with her four children, including two girls aged 11 and 2. Luckily for her, the family was constructing a permanent concrete structure. So rather they repair the old one, they just rushed to complete the new one in which they moved. She too is greatly relieved with the water purification tablets from UNICEF, which she uses to purify the water at home. She is also wearing the gumboots provided to navigate the soggy ground.   

Blankets were also a welcome relief as Karamoja is as chilly as highlands can be, especially during the prolonged rainy season. And then of course there are the water, sanitation and hygiene materials to prevent the transmission of various sanitation-related diseases including cholera.

With ‘water everywhere’ mixing what is in latrines with water in wells, and not forgetting that open defecation still exists in the are to an extent, the risk for deadly diseases like cholera and typhoid is high. It would be tragic to survive drowning only to end up dying of cholera.

One woman drowned in the initial flood when the river banks burst. But over two months later, there has been no other death from the situation created by the floods. Timely intervention by the district leaders supported by UNICEF that provided relief materials thus saved the day. Items as simple as UNICEF’s gumboots made the clean up work manageable, encouraging even ‘classy’ residents like Regina comfortable with helping neighbours to clear the damage and the debris from their homes. 

As we bid farewell to Mzee Laduk, his face radiates renewed energy as a bright smile splits across his face and he gives a thumbs up salute, before returning to the repair activities. He has work to do!