Urban-slumitisation of villages, land dispossession and food insecurity in Teso


In 1959, the Iteso were the second largest nationality in Uganda and by 2002 they were the fifth largest – making up at least 6.4 percent of Uganda’s population (Uganda Bureau of Statistics 2006). This paper uses the example of Teso (the area – in North-Eastern Uganda) and Iteso (the people) but the analysis herein contained can also be extrapolated and may be relevant in the context of other areas and peoples of Uganda.

The analysis begins with a commentary on the changing composition of atap – the preferred food of the Iteso of Uganda. Atap is often mistranslated as millet bread, because 60 years ago the composition of atap was 100 percent finger millet. However, the preparation of bread – requiring baking – is different from the way in which atap is prepared – adding flour to boiling water and mingling; thus atap is more similar to ugali than it is to bread.

Utilising the commentary on the changing composition of atap provides a deduction and an explanation of urban-slumitisation of villages in Teso which will follow. How urban-slumitisation of villages in Teso has occurred; how it is seemingly contributing to food insecurity and how it is stealthily changing the way in which land and food crops are utilised in Teso.

Atap – Changes in its Composition:

In 2012 a cultural survey was conducted as part of research into the association between food security and social economic institutions (Owaraga 2011). The survey participants, 275 adult Iteso (52 percent female and 48 percent male), who were selected at random from among residents of six villages, were representative of Teso. They were from villages in five districts in Teso: Akalabai in Atutur Sub-County in Kumi District; Obulai in Olio Sub-County in Serere District; Aroba in Tubur Sub-County in Soroti District; Emokori A Cell in Bukedea Town Council in Bukedea District; Moruokume in Agule Sub-County in Pallisa District; and Apuna in Kibale Sub-County in Pallisa District.

A question in the 2012 cultural survey asked Iteso to indicate one of their favourite foods. No food other than Atap was cited by more than 10 percent of those surveyed as their favourite food. Atap was the favourite food for nearly all the Iteso surveyed.

In the past, atap was mainly composed of finger millet (Eleusine coracana), which was the staple food of Iteso (Lawrance 1957). Researchers at the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), indeed confirm finger millet as the second most important cereal crop in Uganda after maize – in terms of meeting dietary and income needs (Oryokot 2001). Finger millet is believed to have originated from Uganda or Ethiopia. It is a nutrient rich cereal which contains nutrients that are crucial for human health and which nutrients are deficient in other cereals. NARO scientists (Oryokot 2001) confirm that finger millet contains: protein – eleusinin – which has high biological value with high amounts of tryptophan, cystine, methionine and aromatic amino acids – phenylalanine and tyrosine; that it contains calcium – 5-30 times more than in most cereals; and that it is high in phosphorus and iron. NARO scientists (Oryokot 2001), in fact, assessed that children from finger millet eating parts of Uganda suffered less from nutritional dieases as compared to those from banana eating areas.

During the last 40 years, however, the composition of atap has been changing. It changed from being composed of pure finger millet flour; to a mixture of finger millet-sorghum-cassava flour; to sorghum-cassava flour; and increasingly, lately, it just consists of cassava flour. The Iteso who participated in the 2012 cultural survey, indeed, when asked what they considered proper Iteso foods, 97 percent of them indicated cassava; finger millet and sorghum came second, each indicated by 87 percent of those surveyed.

Cassava is not indigenous to Uganda. It is believed to have been introduced into Uganda between 1862 and 1875, after which it quickly spread to the extent that it is now ranked as Uganda’s second most important food crop, after bananas, in terms of area cultivated (Otim-Nape, et al. 2001). Nutritionally, cassava is very low in proteins and it is therefore much inferior to finger millet.

Sorghum was introduced into Uganda in AD 350 (Ebiyau and Oryokot 2001) and has become the third most important cereal crop in Uganda; perhaps because of its ability to tolerate and produce good yields even in unfavourable weather, such as in drought conditions. Whereas, like cassava, sorghum mainly contains carbohydrates, it does also contain traces of protein and is rich in iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium and phosphorous (The Sorghum Trust 1997). Nevertheless, the subsitition of finger millet with sorghum lowered the nutritional value of atap, for sorghum does not contain some of the vital nutrients contained in finger millet.

The change which substituted sorghum for finger millet was not as nutritionally catastrophic as that which substituted plain cassava for both finger millet and sorghum as the composition for atap flour. So, how did it come about that cassava, the least nutritious food crop of the three, has become the main composition of atap, replacing the more nutritious sorghum and finger millet?

Photo credit @ Odongo Charles

Urban-slumitisation of villages in Teso:

During the same period as the composition of atap changed from pure finger millet to finger millet-sorghum-cassava to sorghum-cassava and then to plain cassava, other change processes were also taking place in villages in Teso. In particular, changes in the behaviour of Teso village dwellers from their traditional practices to those which mimic practices of Ugandan urban dwellers who have adopted practices normally characteristic of the global west.

One such change in behaviour is the habit of drinking in bars/pubs; basically drinking in a place away from homes. So, instead of taking their home-made Teso finger millet beer – ajon at home, as was the case in the past, these days Iteso village dwellers, mostly the men, go out to urban-slum-like centres in their villages to drink ajon which they buy from individual commercial brewers and sellers. There has indeed been a mushrooming of urban-slum-like centres in villages in Teso, which are characterised by small shops, small eateries, pork roasting joints and drinking places as there are in the slums of Uganda’s cities and towns.

Consumption of ajon is not only popular in urban-slum-like centres in villages in Teso, but it is also very popular in other areas of Uganda including in urban centres – especially in the slums. No wonder the occurrence of a noticeable rural-urban migration of Iteso women to slums in Uganda cities and towns in order to take advantage of the business opportunity to commercially brew and sell ajon.

Another change that has occurred in Teso villages that is relevant to this analysis is the increased availability of bottled beer in the villages. Teso, in fact, now has its own bottled beer, Eagle Lager, which is made out of Epuripur sorghum. Epuripur is a 1995 product of the Teso based Serere Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) and it is now widely grown by Iteso and other Ugandans for the main purpose of supplying it to Nile Breweries for the commercial production of bottled beer. This Epuripur development has been heralded as progress that has been brought about through public-private partnerships. In this case, the Government of Uganda’s SARI and Nile Breweries, working in collaboration with non-governmental organisations to promote innovations that increase farmers’ food security and incomes (Ebiyau, Arach and Serunjoji, Commercialisation of Sorughum in Uganda 2005). Drinking bottled beer in Teso villages is perceived as a significant status symbol which indicates one’s economic power – ‘he has made it, he even drinks bottled beer’ kind of sentiment. Yes, by this measure, Teso is ‘modernising’, some will insist.

Seemingly, therefore, the changes in the composition of atap are not necessarily because there has been a reduction in the production of finger millet and of sorghum in Uganda. It seems that the changes in the composition of atap are because of the change in the focus of how finger millet and sorghum are consumed – now consumed more in the form of commercial beer as opposed to in the form of atap. The main purpose for the production of finger millet and of sorghum has thus changed in Teso from producing food crops to producing cash crops. That is to say, those in Teso who grow finger millet these days do so mostly to sell it to the biggest buyers – those trading in ajon for the drinking joints. Similarly, those who grow sorghum do so mostly to sell it to Nile Breweries.

Land dispossession in Teso villages:

Land dispossession can be overt, such as cases when so-called ‘investors’ have pushed people off the land – labelling them as squatters who, presumably, they considered to be ‘underutilising’ the land. In overt cases the ‘investors’ are often heralded as intending to put to better use the land which they have acquired through the physical removal of its prior occupants. Whereas, overt land dispossession has likely occurred in Teso, this analysis does not focus on that kind of land dispossession; but rather it focuses on covert land dispossession.

Covert land dispossession rarely makes it to the mainstream media and moreover, it is often the case that it lays the groundwork for overt land dispossession to take place. Covert land dispossession is quite likely widespread in Teso, affecting thousands of vulnerable Iteso, especially the women. Covert land dispossession does not necessarily physically deny the dispossessed access to land, but it rather denies them the decision-making powers over the way in which the land is utilised and/or over the way in which the produce from the crops grown on the land is utilised.

Considering the content of atap these days – mainly cassava – it is not unreasonable to infer that there has been a change in the way land is utilised and the way in which the produce from crops grown on land in Teso is utilised. Case in point, who has benefited from the changes in the production of finger millet and sorghum from food crops to cash crops? Who has been dispossessed of their land to make way for commercial production of finger millet and sorghum?

Iteso, like other Uganda nationalities, are grappling with dual and conflicting land tenure systems. On the one hand there is Uganda’s state law which recognises and contains a bastardised version of traditional land tenure laws of the first nations (Owaraga, Land grabbing in Uganda is sanctioned by state law 2014). And on the other hand are the traditional land tenure laws of the first nations. The latter, in the context of the Iteso, allocate land ownership to a family, whereby the family head is obliged to ensure that all within the family have equitable use of the land for both food production and for income generation. In other words, Iteso land tenure had culturally embedded rights and responsibilities over land for both men and women as they derived them from being a member of a family.

Teso land tenure directly contradicts with the popular application of Uganda’s state laws which generally allocate land ownership to an individual or to a corporation. State law effectively disenfranchises women for it is often the case that the ‘individual’ ownership of family land will be claimed by the male head of the family and in whose name the title is often written. This status quo thus reduces women’s rights by giving them access to land at the pleasure of the father or husband whose name appears on the title deed (Maathai 2009).

It is not farfetched, therefore, to infer from the changing composition of atap that there has been covert land dispossession in Teso in which the dispossessed are likely the women. It is indeed feasible that once the commercial and economic value of finger millet and sorghum went up, Iteso men inevitably made the decision to utilise family land for the production of these crops more for cash as opposed to for food. So whereas, for example, Nile Breweries did not overtly dispossess Iteso of their land, its need for cheap local inputs for the production of its Eagle beer has resulted in the covert dispossession of Iteso women of their land; and with the knock on effect of diminishing the nutritional value of atap – the drastic change of composition from sorghum to cassava.


From a utilitarian perspective it is clear that the consequences of urbanisation, slumitisation of villages, modernisation, wealth creation initiatives, etc., in Uganda have not necessarily produced the maximum good (pleasure, economic wellbeing and no suffering) for the Iteso. It seems, for example, that what Iteso earn from selling millet and sorghum is insufficient for them to afford to buy food of similar nutritional value as contained in the millet and sorghum that they sell.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that the pleasure that the Iteso who consume bottled beer get morally justifies the suffering that the majority of Iteso are experiencing due to their insufficient access to their culturally acceptable nutritious foods – finger millet and sorghum. How then can we categorise some of these public-private partnerships as development as for example that of Epuripur?

Uganda’s planners – technocrats and politicians – need to be consciously awakened in order for them to more deeply interrogate the assumptions behind the plans and budgets that they make for the development of Uganda. Otherwise, if their plans and budgets are such which promote public-private partnerships such as that of Epuripur, deprivation for Ugandans is counter indicated. An urgent question, therefore, that needs to be asked and answered is: What kind of agricultural production does Uganda’s 2015/16 budget support?

Works Cited:
Ebiyau, J., and J. O. E. Oryokot. “Sorghum (Sorghum Bicolor (L.) Moench).” In Agriculture in Uganda Volume II Crops, by National Agricultural Research Organisation, 42-54. Kampala: Fountain Pubishers / CTA / NARO, 2001.

Ebiyau, J., T. Arach, and L. K. Serunjoji. “Commercialisation of Sorughum in Uganda.” African Crop Science Conference Proceedings , 2005: Vol 7. pp 695-696.
Lawrance, J. C. D. The Iteso – Fifty years of change in Nilo-Hamatic tribe of Uganda. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Maathai, Wangari. The Challenge for Africa – A New Vision. London: William Heinemann, 2009.

Oryokot, J. O. E. “Finger millet (Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.” In Agriculture in Uganda Volume II, by National Research Organisation, 29-41. Kampala: Fountain Publishers / CTA / NARO, 2001.

Otim-Nape, G. W., G. N. Semakula, A. Bua, Y. K. Baguma, and S. Ogwal. “Cassava (Manihot esculenta).” In Agriculture in Uganda Volume II Crops, by National Agricultural Research Organisation, 194-228. Kampala: Fountain Publishers / CTA / NARO, 2001.

Owaraga, Norah. Adherence to social economic institutions and food security among the Iteso of Uganda. Doctoral (PhD) research proposal, Kampala: Unpublished, 2011.

—. “Land grabbing in Uganda is sanctioned by state law.” Daily Monitor, August 27, 2014.

The Sorghum Trust. SORGUM SA. 1997. http://www.sorghumsa.co.za/index.htm (accessed June 23, 2015).

Uganda Bureau of Statistics. 2002 Uganda Population and Housing Census. Analytical Report, Kampala: Uganda Bureau of Statistics, 2006.

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