On the 25th March 2023, as a side-event of the UN water conference held in New York, Women from XR Global linked live to three regions in Uganda to listen to voices rarely heard: the women who live on the frontline of climate change. The technical challenges were significant: the most impacted areas are remote, there are language barriers, a lack of technology and bandwidth, and limited electricity supplies. The women had to travel many miles on foot to locations where they could be interviewed.
This is just one of the stories from that day.
Miriam is in Karamoja, a region of northeast Uganda, bordering Kenya, and a twelve-hour journey on public transport from Kampala. The women she has come to interview live on the shifting margins of poverty and conflict, but more crucially, they live on the boundary of two distinct climatic zones that meet along the border between Karamoja and Kenya. The Ugandan side is classified as tropical savanna, and the Kenyan side as hot semi-arid. The indigenous communities that have thrived on these lands for generations developed farming practices to suit their respective climates, but of course the zones are moving. On a planetary scale, the changes are minute, but on the ground, 1.4 million people live here.
In Karamoja, it’s the women who are the farmers. Many of the men have left, crossing the border to Kenya to find work. Little money is sent back. The land is all these women have.
Miriam sits alongside the women and translates their words.
‘I have never given up on farming,’ says Akullo, the first speaker. ‘I keep ploughing but the rains do not come and when they do, we have the problem of pests and diseases. It’s not that we do not have soil, it’s just that we have a problem of drought that even when you plant with hope, you actually do not get the harvest, and this is why we are starving, this is why we are dying in large numbers.’
The older women remember before the droughts began to bite. ‘There was a time when Karamoja had a lot of food … that was way back in early 1990s,’ says Loumo Rose. These women have lived on the frontline of climate instability for more than 30 years.
In the 1990s, temperatures began rising rapidly in Uganda. Rainfall became erratic, flipping between extended drought and intermittent flooding. The heavy rains now bring swarms of locusts and armyworms that can devastate vast fields of crops overnight. Last year, over 700 people died of starvation in the region and over a half million were at serious risk. This year is likely to be worse.
‘How do you stay strong?’ asks Ines, listening in on the live zoom link from the UK.
Miriam translates again, and tells us the women have had to take on poorly paid casual labour to support themselves and their families.
‘But of course, I also have to add my voice. This is my voice,’ Miriam says. ‘As much as the women say they’ve stayed strong, it’s not really the situation, because there are a lot of child migrants from Karamoja who are going to bigger cities like Busia, Mbale, Kampala. There are a lot of street children from Karamoja.’
They are losing children.
Though she is loath to put words into these women’s mouths, Miriam is well qualified to speak on their behalf. She is from Karamoja herself, where she has seen famine, walked kilometres to collect water, and firewood to make charcoal, and even taken on casual labour to support her family. Girls like Miriam are often pulled out of school from as young as seven when times are hard.
Now, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and Community Development, a Master’s Degree in Rural Community Development / Food Security, and a Master’s Degree in Local Governance and Human Rights, Miriam has returned, eloquent, professional and passionate to tell the stories from her place of birth, stories that are not being heard.
The women interviewed are happy to speak out. They know the event has not been organised to raise funds for them, but there is one thing they all ask.
‘In case you can do anything for us,’ Akullo says, ‘even if it means praying to God so that we get rain … and we stop losing our children, losing our fathers, losing our parents and our elders to drought, to hunger, to poverty, even if it means praying to God to give us rain, please pray for us.’
It is singularly convenient for the global north that colonialism still drags its tendrils through these people’s lives, that missionaries have taught them to pray, to submit to God’s will, no matter how punishing.
While global corporations like Exxon knew about the impact of burning fossil fuels well before harvests began to fail regularly in Karamoja, fuelling local conflict, many of the people living on the precarious edge of climate change are still lacking in basic climate science. And awareness is critical to survival. If people are aware, not only are they more able to adapt, they also don’t have to wait for someone to speak for them, they will start fighting for themselves – like Miriam.
Call to action: Events like this demonstrate that we have the technology and networks to cross continents without flying, so we can listen and learn, and reciprocate by empowering people on the ground to speak for themselves. Karamoja has been on the frontline of the climate crisis for over thirty years and it’s a grim precursor of what is to come – eventually for all of us. But in countries where climate instability is already undermining generations of indigenous farming knowledge, let us keep these women at the heart of our activism, and above all, amplify their voices.
You can watch the full event video online here.
Sandy Winterbottom is a former academic in earth and environmental sciences, and author of The Two-Headed Whale, published Birlinn (UK) 2022, and Greystone (Canada & U.S.) 2023. Women’s Climate Strike @womenscs #WomenRiseUp