Joseph Obonyo, 89, balanced himself on a stool in the dirt yard outside his family home as Kachapangole villagers gathered in the shade to listen to his memories about what the weather used to be like in their area of Uganda.
Back then, he says, rains came in January to cool the soil. In February, farmers plowed the land and planted seeds that would sprout in the March rains. With just a few exceptions, he and other farmers could count on the rain to continue until the millet, sorghum, maize, beans and sunflowers were grown.
Not so much anymore, says Christine Longoli, who lives in the same neighborhood. The temperature during the dry season has increased so much that she can no longer walk barefoot in the fields.
About 50 years younger than Obonyo, she doesn’t remember the January rains, but she does remember when they used to come in March. Now they are more likely to come in April and end between September and November.
In 2021, rains stopped in June and July — another thing that didn’t happen in Obonyo’s day. The dry spell destroyed her soybean crop and reduced her maize yield by about a third. Rains began again in July and continued into the fall.
The rains this year are minimal so far, says Henry Loboke, a Mennonite Central Committee project coordinator, so farmers in northeast Uganda again are expecting low yields.
But MCC’s partner, Dynamic Agro-pastoralists Development Organization, or DADO, is working with 150 local farmers to adjust their practices to the hotter, drier climate.
Protect the soil, vary the crops
Longoli digs holes before the rain comes. When the rain arrives, the water gathers in the holes, preparing the soil for the seed.
In the dry season, she increases her sorghum yield by fertilizing the seed with cow dung and keeping the moisture in the soil by covering it with compost.
After her corn is growing, she adds cowpeas, which help to protect the corn from disease and to provide compost when the peas are done producing.
To the grains she normally plants, she now adds eggplant, cabbage, onion and tomato.
“If rains fail, I cannot sleep hungry,” she says, “but I can continue harvesting vegetables that I have planted. I go to the borehole and fetch water to sprinkle on the vegetables, so I can harvest when it doesn’t rain.”
Increasing the variety of crops, instead of relying on one crop that could fail, is part of DADO’s teaching.
In a nearby town, Samson Dekeny grows sweet potatoes in addition to many vegetables, maize, cowpeas and fruit trees.
Dekeny is doing his part to address one cause of the climate problem.
“We know that rains come because we protect the environment by having trees,” Dekeny says. Therefore, he planted 50 trees, including mango trees to feed the family.
Granaries and bees
Protecting crops helps feed families in a time of scarcity.
DADO encourages farmers to embrace the wisdom of their elders by using granaries to protect extra food and seeds from rodents and insects.
The elders taught a group of artisans how to make traditional granaries, which look like overgrown baskets. They’re made of reeds covered in cow dung, which dries into an odorless sealant.
Beekeeping is another way to protect crops. The bees keep elephants from the nearby wildlife park from eating the grain out of people’s houses and fields.
Beekeepers work with DADO to establish hives along paths elephants use. When the elephants walk by the hives, they stir up the bees, which sting the elephants’ ears and trunks, chasing them back to the wildlife park.
The beekeepers eat and sell the honey and use the wax to make candles and soap. They contribute the profit to a savings group.
DADO has encouraged the formation of community savings groups for about 120 people. This especially helps female farmers, who have the primary responsibility to care for their children.
Longoli, who has six children, saves 15,000 shillings ($4) a week. If she must, she will borrow to pay school fees and for clothing and transportation. She pays the money back with a small interest fee when she can sell products from her farm.
But is it enough?
Using all the new techniques, Dekeny and Longoli manage to grow enough food to feed their families for nine or 10 months. The hardest time is while the new crops are growing but last year’s harvest has been consumed.
Dekeny is grateful for what he has learned from DADO. As a lead farmer, he invites others to see the crops he plants, how he protects his soil and uses intercropping to get the best harvest.
He fears that if the rains continue to decrease and farmers don’t change their methods, famine will come. Famine causes disease and leads people to steal cattle or migrate to the cities.
“Agriculture is the backbone of this country,” Dekeny says. He’s committed to keep learning and to teach his neighbors how to cope with a changing climate.
Linda Espenshade is Mennonite Central Committee U.S. news coordinator.