When there is no meat at Christmas, in Teso it is a shame!

In July of 2014, I noted and wrote an opinion that Uganda’s 2014/2015 budget is a recipe for food and nutrition insecurity. Six months later and half way the government’s current financial year, sadly my prediction was confirmed. During the Christmas Holiday I was in Pallisa at my ancestral home and at my Alinga Farms and the signs that many are food and nutrition insecure were everywhere. The prices of everything went up and so most could not afford to celebrate Christmas as we have always done. My aunts are part of Christmas self-help savings groups and in January/February they each deposited with their respective group 40,000 shillings on the rationale that the group leadership would through the year grow the members’ savings by lending it out with interest – to members and others. Ideally, in November all loans and interest must be paid so that a cow or cows are bought for slaughter for Christmas. Depending on size, the cost of cows in October/November can range from 100,000 shillings to 150,000 shillings. Bulls are too expensive ranging from as high one million to 1.5 million shillings and so are out of the price range of my aunts’ Christmas self-help groups.

24th December is the day when cows are slaughtered and there is much joy and celebration as group members share the raw meat – all members in the group must get a piece of every part of the cow. The sharing method is intricate and fascinating to watch. Once the sharing is done, women will be seen carrying baskets of meat on their heads from the slaughter place – usually it is under the tree at the clan meeting point – to their homes for preservation. The older women still possess skills for preserving their meat for months, through salting and smoking. These skills seem lost to the younger generation who are instead seen cooking all their meat, fresh, and overfeeding themselves and their children for the short-term (the three days of 24th to 26th December); contributing to the rise in cases of upset stomachs during that period.

This past Christmas a group that two of my aunts belong failed to afford a cow and the leadership of the group returned cash – 60,000 shillings – to each of their members (at least that is what my aunts got back). Apparently, the cows on the market were small and overpriced.  Let us do the math, my aunts each deposited their savings – 40,000 shillings – for a period of 10 months on the assumption that they would each end up with 10 to 13 kilograms of meat for Christmas. At Christmas the prices of meat in Pallisa were in the range of 7,000 shillings per kilogram, meaning that my aunts would have gotten a good deal – nearly 100 percent return on their investment (meat worth 70,000 to 91,000 shillings). With the 60,000 shillings that they received back instead of meat, they were not able to buy 10 to 13 kilograms of meat at Christmas. So, even though they made a 50 percent return on their investment, their investment did not achieve its original purpose and so they technically made an estimated over 50 percent loss on their investment. This means that if they had gotten the meat, they had the choice to sell some of it and would have made a good profit – possibly of as high as 100 percent and more.

Lucky for my aunts, they had not put all their eggs in one basket and so at the end of the day they were able to access meat for Christmas. In fact, in my capacity as their business associate of Alinga Farms, I benefited from their business savvy for I too received gifts of salted smoked meat to last me a while, some is still double preserved in my fridge freezer as I write.  However, some of my aunts’ group members were not in the same position and you could see them agonize about what to do at Christmas. Among the Iteso, Christmas without cow/bull meat is just not Christmas. You may not have cow/bull meat throughout the year, but at Christmas it is not acceptable. Within Teso rural classes if you have no meat at Christmas you are among the absolute poor or the poorest of the poor and it is a shame on you and your family. Worse still if you do not meet your reciprocal Christmas gifting obligations, particularly among in-laws, where it is expected that a married woman will visit her parents shortly before Christmas, bringing along with her goodies – including live chickens, live goats, dried meat, bought fresh meat, etc; and on return from her parents she will come back to her home laden with Christmas goodies in a similar currency. Son’s in-law and father’s in-law loose respect when they are unable to participate in reciprocal gifting; and by association their wives, daughters, and mothers loose respect too. Many were shamed this Christmas and indeed there were cases of domestic violence related to there-was-no-meat-at-Christmas.

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