The lost heritage of emergency relief

Local traditions of crisis management have largely been shed along the path to “development.” The age of COVID-19 is the time to recover them.

Image credit Mitchell Edwards.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the insidious impact of COVID-19 is being felt less in the lungs than in the stomach. From Nigeria to Kenya, the implementation of draconian measures has reportedly kept “confirmed” cases low, but at the disproportionate expense of those already struggling to make ends meet.

Yet, this is not a problem of “food scarcity.” The problem is affording the food that very much remains plentiful. Those involved in the daily face-to-face transactions that drive cash flow and keep economies afloat are at an obvious loss when quarantines, curfews, and lockdowns prevail. Inequalities enshrined in neoliberal political regimes continue to keep food in some mouths and not in others.

Such challenges demand alternative solutions. For far too long, hunger-generating crises on the continent have primarily served as an opportunity for powerful organizations and distant actors to experiment with market-oriented schemes under the banner of “humanitarianism.” Local traditions of crisis management—especially those resistant to predatory capitalism—have largely been supplanted and thrown by the wayside as a result, forcibly shed along the path to “development.”

Now is the time to recover the value of this lost heritage and put it to use in the present. The continent lays claim to a repository of underappreciated grassroots strategies that have proven effective at mitigating crises and ensuring sustenance. We must learn from them. We must appreciate their complexity. We must consider how they might be renovated and supported to best operate in the present.

I’m convinced of the need for this project because I continue to see it at work. When I came to north-central Uganda to conduct doctoral research six months ago, I had little idea that studying histories of disaster relief would become a topic of contemporary concern. Since then, however, the area’s wrestled with locust invasions, unprecedented flooding, and a global pandemic—a biblical confluence of calamities that has led people of all different walks of life to pursue self-sufficiency by taking up longstanding strategies designed to alleviate hunger.

One of these strategies involves “dero.” Dero are granaries, and for a very long time they served as the centerpiece of food security in Acholi-speaking Uganda. They look much like the thatch-roof homes found in this region, except they’re considerably smaller and elevated off the ground by wooden stilts. In the past, it was necessary for every homestead to maintain several of these storage facilities because they prevented droughts from becoming famines.

Dero worked by making sure enough food was available from harvest to harvest. They preserved agricultural yields for daily use and when needed most. Many elders now describe dero simply as “insurance”—material buffers aimed at lessening the weight of the extraordinary.

Image credit Mitchell Edwards.

However, the past 50 years have witnessed the disappearance of dero, and there is no denying that the decades-long civil war accelerated this loss. Hounded on either side by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Yoweri Museveni’s military, Acholi communities were violently forced from their homes into internal displacement camps that bore a close resemblance to open-air prisons. This was a protracted lockdown that wrought immeasurable disruptions.

Removed from the land, people had no choice but to rely on rations provided by international NGOs. Acronym-labeled sacks filled with grains from afar swelled congested camps and quickly became the mandated bulwark against hunger. Dependence was manufactured and imposed one meal at a time. Acholi communities found themselves increasingly entangled in globalizing systems that made sure they were “developing” along familiar paths and towards preordained destinations.

In today’s post-war landscape, sacks have eclipsed dero as the emblem of food security. Small-scale farmers now depend on cash generated from selling their packaged produce to roaming buyers and agents of industrial agriculture. Farmers’ co-ops have been dismantled, so exploitative pricing is not only a threat, but also an expectation. Against this backdrop, it is common to hear locals tell stories of farming families who rushed to sell their entire harvests and then lacked enough money to provide food for themselves. Whereas practices revolving around dero instilled prudence and sustainability, today’s use of sacks hastens decision-making, diminishes accountability, and deepens inequalities through patterns of extraction.

Moreover, at a very basic level sacks are just not as effective as dero at preserving food. Many complain of how grains that are threshed and kept in synthetic sacks have a shorter shelf life because they’re more vulnerable to pest infestation and mold. Grains stored in dero, on the other hand, are largely left intact and untouched, protected not only by their natural defenses but also by the local materials chosen to ward off vermin and allow for adequate air circulation within.

Attempts to restore the dero, then, should not be taken as some nostalgia for an idealized and indistinct “African culture.” It’s a tried and tested strategy that promises to bring real material relief to specific people in the here and now. By better preserving harvested crops, dero will ease the neoliberal push to sell at any cost and keep food in the mouths of its growers. It will open up possibilities for exchange that circumvent conventional markets at a time of indefinite closure. It will bolster self-sufficiency, and in doing so, help locals reclaim some of the power and dignity that characterizes acts of provision.

Most importantly, however, this project would recover living monuments that honor the usefulness of the deep past. Dero would once again become sites of learning where younger generations engage elements of an inheritance they’ve been denied. Dero would serve as venues where expertise is shared, debated, and improved upon. Because, like any strategy, dero are neither faultless nor complete. Their history is not one of fixed traditions and blind adherence, but rather one of dissent, struggle, and transformation.

Restoring the dero honors this heritage and contributes to the messy but necessary work of decolonizing strategies that have been forced to succeed at the expense of others.

Further Reading

Food is power

The World Food Program says COVID-19 will bring about a famine of biblical proportions, so it is a good time to revisit why food has never just been about the simple act of eating. Food is history. Food is identity.