The rising cost and scarcity of grass is threatening the housing of the rural poor in Bukedea district. At least 60% of Bukedea’s nearly 300,000 people still sleep under grass thatched houses. This as they cannot afford to build permanent structures due to poverty and the rising cost of building materials.
Once cut for free, grass has been the alternative for the poor to put a roof on their heads for decades, if not centuries. However, lately it has also become a burden to bear for household heads in Bukedea district after its scarcity has forced it to turn into a priced commodity.
This has left many poor residents sleeping under leaking, dilapidated roofs while others spend fortunes to make repairs or build new houses. Cases of the vulnerable like the elderly and disabled lacking shelter in the district are on the rise with those affected taking refuge in abandoned old structures.
Agnes Ajilong a resident of Kachonga village in Malera Sub County who is currently building a new home says she has sold two cows to buy grass and to hire a truck and motorcycles to ferry it from Akakaat village in Kamutur Sub County, nearly 40 kilometers away from her home.
She says that she had to go up to Kamutur because the traditional sources like grasslands and swamps in her village have all been turned into farmland and areas of settlement.
The mother of seven says that to fix her three round huts, she has spent Shillings 700,000 to buy 600 bunches of grass. She says she also spent Shillings 480,000 on transporting it to her new home. This as the price of the now uncommon building material quadruples in the past two and a half years.
She is not alone, Mr. Sam Oboi the local council one chairman Kokwech village in Malera Sub County lamented that a housing crisis has hit his village caused by shortage of grass. He said many family members now crowd in small huts because they can barely afford grass to thatch many or larger houses.
“The limited housing is no wonder escalating cases of domestic violence and when you investigate many, the husbands accuse the wives of denying them sex but the women reason that chaos erupts because the grown up children they share a house with would still be awake at the time,” Mr.Oboi said noting that a 78 year old woman recently died in his area after an old structure she took refuge in collapsed on her.
Mr. Bosco Oduut a builder from Kakungur village in Malera blames the rising cost of construction materials to the increasing housing crisis at the district.
He explained that building a traditional grass thatched house now costs between Shs. 1.5million—2.5 million, while a low cost two bedroomed house costs between Shs.6million—10million.
According to Habitat for humanity, the housing deficit in Uganda currently stands at 2.4 million housing units, out of which 210,000 units are in urban areas and 1.395 million units in rural areas. An estimated 900,000 units are substandard and in need of replacement or upgrading.
While the latest figures from Bukedea district planning unit indicate that a total of 29,110 households are housed in temporal structures sheltering 60 percent of the district population. There are also 21,175 permanent houses in Bukedea district. By rank, the worst affected sub counties in the district are Malera, Kabarwa, Bukedea and Kolir.
Mr. Steven Ongaba the district planner said those affected are stuck in poverty and therefore cannot afford even the most basic needs, let alone be able to afford building materials to put up a descent house.
“This is the reason many of them resort to Mother Nature to provide for them alternatives like grass, banana leaves, reeds among others for shelter,” Mr. Ongaba told Daily Monitor.
He said much as government recently declared the country to be in a middle income status, poverty indicators in rural communities like lack of proper housing and failure to afford basic needs exposes the gap therein.
The district planner explained that due to population explosion at the district, the increasing demand for land for settlement and farming has worsened the situation by people clearing sources of thatching grass, escalating the crisis for the poor.
What can be done?
Mr. Ongaba has then called for affirmative action to enhance housing especially at rural level. He suggests that government should provide grants, not loans for the poor to construct permanent housing.
“At national level; policies should be enacted to subsidize the cost of building materials, reduce taxes like in the army so as to help the poor try and meet the putting up descent and durable housing,” Mr. Ongaba added while also advocating for international housing organizations to give a helping hand.
While Jackson Ojekede the Sub county chairperson Kamutur demands that government should move in to enforce against swamp degradation done by rice growers which he says has affected the source of grass.
“As local leaders we cannot do much on the ground to stop people to destroy swamps where locals would get grass, this is where government needs to step in before it’s too late,” Mr. Ojekede said.