Rebecca, Elizabeth, Anna and our favourite form of transportation
Rebecca and that looking-into-the-distance/pondering the complexity of community development gaze that our group has trademarked
We have spent the majority of the past week in the back of a pick-up truck.

Well, not quite. Monday we travelled westward to the DR Congo border to shadow Immaculate’s work with the microfinance support centre while she prepared to take time off her work for us all to go together to her ancestral village of Kumi and conduct the main portion of our Empower U project. The preparations for our project in the village have included arrangements with the Empower U local board of directors and the local microfinance institution, the planning of workshops for both male and female community members, and agreements with local farmers to purchase livestock. The main part of our project begins tomorrow, as we move toward northern Kumi.

But back to this past week in the field with Immaculate.

Aside from the boda boda (a motorcycle or bicycle) and the matatu taxi (old-fashioned minivan), the back of the pick-up truck is one of the most popular methods of transport in Fort Portal, and in Uganda in general. My rule of thumb when choosing local transport is to look dead into the eyes of the driver to determine whether he values his life that day. Never choose one who looks whimsical or reckless—with the haphazard Ugandan traffic, you can never be too careful.

Our week shadowing Immaculate was very much reminiscent of the summer I spent interning for the microfinance support centre in 2009—especially with the field visits. In Fort Portal, the microfinance institutions are widespread and many. In order to ensure accountability, Immaculate must visit each one on a regular basis. Elizabeth, Rebecca, Anna and I piled into the back of Immaculate’s official microfinance support centre pickup truck to accompany her for a visit to the remote institutions in the Rwenzori Mountains (close to the DR Congo border).

The trip included a climb up the Bungi Bugyo (otherwise known as a narrow dirt path along precarious cliffs) into the mountains, a soaking in a thunderstorm, a trek through a lush jungle, a weave through wild and bloodthirsty (yet super cute) baboons and a million stops to ask for directions… all to find out upon arrival to the small village in the mountains that the microfinance institution was closed for the day and that the manager was out. Typical Wednesday afternoon on the job. Immaculate used her usual mixture of sweet persuasion and not-so-veiled threats to insist the manager rush back to meet with her—as the manager did.  

On our way back through the mountains to Fort Portal, we were stopped for three hours in the evening by road construction (or what I like to call random trucks throwing huge rocks all over the place). From the time of seven to ten, as we waited for the construction to finish and clear, more than a dozen matatus, bodas, trucks and cars were backed up on the road. The only detour being off the cliff, we all waited (not so) patiently.

It’s interesting (and not surprising) that almost every single construction truck we come across is branded with Chinese Mandarin, and most of the supervisors are from China (overlooking a largely Ugandan workforce). Just like the mzungu “humanitarian aid” in Kampala is apparent, so is the Chinese investment in Africa. Modern colonialism?

The thunderstorm ends - happiest girls in the world
Microfinance Support Centre Limited - the mission
In speaking of colonialism, upon visiting a school by the Fort Portal crater lakes, the children welcomed us by song. To reciprocate, Elizabeth, Rebecca, Anna and I looked among each other, not knowing what to sing - somehow I didn’t think a Drake rendition would be appropriate. Anna and I instead chose to sing the Canadian national anthem “O Canada”.

But this was not my singing debut in Uganda. As a side note on Ugandan pop culture, my 'premier' was in Kampala in 2009, when called on-stage at Club Rouge with Ugandan rap artist Chameleon. That is pretty much my street cred in Uganda's music world.

As we head into the Kumi village, I'm thinking of my favourite George Bernard Shaw quotation:

"Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people."

I love all favourable ways of explaining unreasonable action.

- Jen
Just balancing over a hot spring of temperatures steamy enough to boil an egg, no big deal
The Female Hot Spring of Rwenzori Mountains
Summer nights
She wanted my earrings
The Rolex assembly line
Product of the Rolex assembly line 
Immaculate hasn't changed much - I'm used to seeing her in her ancestral village and thus wearing traditional dress with her hair natural and cut short (in contrast to the woven braids worn by many Ugandan city women). We met at Mokka in Kampala (something of a central hangout for us), where she recognized me immediately. Now Immaculate was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with her hair grown out to her chin and her daughter - Angel - in tow.

"You look good!" she exclaimed. That was heartening to hear - if you can count on your Ugandan friends for one thing, it's to tell the truth. If they're telling you that you've 'fattened', they're really not trying to hurt your feelings, it's just that you've fattened. An observation, not a compliment or an insult. It always strikes me how much less Ugandans attach their appearance to their self-worth in comparison to many Westerners.

Over coffee (for Elizabeth and me) and mango juice (for Immaculate and Angel), we discussed our upcoming plans. Immaculate is taking the next few weeks off of her post at the microfinance support centre to host Elizabeth, Rebecca, my sister Anna (who had been interning in Kenya and will be joining us for the Empower U project starting today) and me at her ancestral home in the village. Together we will evaluate current beneficiaries' projects: did they return to school? Are they members of microfinance institutions? Did they pass on an offspring to a new beneficiary? 

We will also invest in new beneficiaries, mostly at the discretion of the local Ugandan board and of Immaculate.

First we are travelling with Immaculate to Fort Portal in western Uganda, where we will plan out our project and shadow some of her work with the Microfinance Support Centre Limited

- Jen
Old Kampala Taxi Park
Rebecca and her Rolex
Unloading Matooke at the Iganga market
Among the rapid development and progress seen all across Uganda, I have noticed that many things have not changed. For instance, I am still awoken at the crack of dawn by the Islamic call to prayer. Some of my most beautiful memories of Uganda (apologies for the overt sentimentality here) are of sitting in my backyard, overlooking the mini-forest of jack-fruit trees and watching the red sun rise, while listening to chants from the Qur'an. If you haven't heard this, there is little to compare it to - these chants really are a musical experience.

The first-timer Rolex addiction also certainly has not changed, as Rebecca has taken to eating some variation of the Rolex for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A Rolex (not the watch) is Uganda’s signature street food, which consists of a burrito-type structure made of Indian-style chapatti (a thinner form of naan, if I must compare) stuffed with fried eggs. Sold everywhere on the street, this is quite the profitable business, with materials often costing fewer than 100 shillings per Rolex, and sold for 1,000 shillings per Rolex. Talk about profit margin. In my past visits to Uganda, I’ve heard young men swear they made their fortunes selling Rolexes.

In other areas, the progress and change are nothing short of astonishing. Peanut butter and WiFi - I can't get enough of either and the development of both in Uganda is remarkable. As I wander through the (largely Indian- and Pakistani-owned) 'supermarkets' (aka convenience stores), I see the jars of peanut butter that would have made my cravings so much less intense had they been there two years ago. I even enjoyed a peanut butter and Nutella chapatti at an African Grocery that advertised itself with the slogan of "It's like there is a chapatti in your mouth and everyone's invited!!" (I question Ugandan companies' marketing strategies - my dream consulting job right here.)

As for WiFi, upscale cafes from the Source of the Nile coffee shop in Jinja to the Mokka coffee shop in Kampala's Oasis Mall all proudly boast "WiFi Here" signs. Since the U.S. is somewhat behind much of the developed world in our wireless coverage, might I make the bold bet that in fifty years' time East Africa will catch up with us? (I don't really mean this, but for a country that skipped right over telephone landlines and to cell phones and subsequently iPhones, what an interesting idea non-the-less.)

As Elizabeth and I were stuck on the side of a Kampala highway waiting for the fender bender in which we found ourselves to smooth over (our matatu rear-ended the car in front of it, so all of the drivers involved were out on the side of the road yelling at each other in Lugandan, with no end to the spat in sight - at least not until the matatu drivers would offer up a bribe large enough), Elizabeth turned to me and said, "I really want to look into the future fifty years and see how all this will turn out." 

And she wasn't referring to the fender bender spat (although at the rate the drivers were moving toward a solution, I wouldn't be surprised if they were still fighting fifty years from now), but to the development of Kampala and Uganda. The Kampala we know today was more or less built from the ground up in 1986, after the current president - Yoweri Museveni - took power. How much would change in fifty more years? I thought of Uganda turning into a smaller version of India - if I may be so bold as to judge that India is attempting to build a sturdy mansion on a shaky foundation. When I lived in Delhi, my apartment building (accommodated with electricity and running water) was right across the street from a large slum but among tall sky scrapers. There was no sewage system, no garbage disposal system, few paved roads and no real road rules. In fact, India has more traffic accidents annually than any other country (a statistic I was lucky to escape in my time there). Would Uganda be the same mesh of sky scrapers without a sewage system for support? Would East Africa be home to megacities with populations equal to that of all of Canada (a la Mumbai)? Oh the strife of urban infrastructure development.

Finding myself in Uganda and traveling with two other mzungus (the term used affectionately here) has been very much a different experience from being totally immersed in the community with a host family, as I had been my past two times here. It's interesting to see the other side of the experience, as I always wondered about the lives of the Westerners who came in to work on specific projects rather than simply to learn about the communities. (In my humble opinion, you really can't have the former without first having the latter, but who am I to talk.) I notice this time around I'm much more comfortable taking photographs of daily life, wearing the large rhombus earrings I bought at the Jinja craft shops and wearing the long dresses I bought from a Kampala clothing store. Aka I'm more comfortable looking like your typical tourist in East Africa. In the past, I would have felt like a fraud, but as I am here mainly to work on project implementation, perhaps I am a type of a 'fraud'.

Step one of Operation Piglet (as we have decided to dub our mission to get our Empower U project this summer off the ground) can be reported as a success. Elizabeth, Rebecca and I travelled to Iganga, where I navigated my way to my old host home from memory. I was never more ecstatic than when I found my host Mom - (known by many names, but by Biti to me) -  sitting on the porch of her home in the middle of the day, as Elizabeth, Rebecca and I literally appeared out of nowhere. Hugs and giggles later, Biti gave my former program coordinator from Experiential Learning International organization - Michael - a call, and he came rushing up on his motorcycle.

After the typical conversation of—“Ssebo, oliyo tiya?” ("Sir, how are you?")

“Ah burungi nyabo.” ("Very well, madam.")

“Mm.” ("Mm.")

“Mm.” (Obligatory.)

And a long roundabout conversation about how he didn’t know I would be coming back and how happy he was I came back and how happy I was to be back, I asked him to give Immaculate a call.

“But I lost her number,” he said.

Ah the typical Ugandan resistance—as if saying, "no, don’t call Immaculate, stay with me". Eventually after a few times of Michael insisting he did indeed lose Immaculate’s number, he gave her a call. She was ecstatic to hear from me and we immediately arranged to meet in Kampala Saturday to get started on project evaluation and next steps.

Such a way of doing business might be considered nothing short of ridiculous in the States. Although I went through intensive cultural appreciation classes prior to my first time living as a volunteer abroad all the way back in 2006 where I was taught never to use adjectives such as 'ridiculous' or 'crazy' to describe my experiences abroad, I have since reintroduced these words back into my international development vocabulary. I mean them in a comparative manner, not as an absolute term. To think that a business deal could be closed in the matter of minutes, and a business partner located through a friend of a friend is simply not reasonable in the U.S. But TIA.

Our next step is to travel up north to the village with Immaculate, where we will proceed to engage first in project evaluation, then in the selection of new beneficiaries and training workshops. Can't wait!

- Jen




I did not expect to be quite this happy to be back - my third time around in less than two years. The hospitality is nothing short of ridiculous, the weather is no less than the perfect balance of hot and dry, and the matatu and boda-boda rides are the lovely combo of bumpy and fast. Obviously I'm all the way up on the top of that 'U' of cultural adjustment, and will probably have a few downer thoughts along with caffeine withdrawal and the bout of malaria I'm bound to contract. 

We do have to sheepishly admit thought that our project begins as somewhat of a Nancy Drew investigation. But TIA (This is Africa) - it is what it is. Rebecca, Elizabeth and I are now charged with locating our Ugandan business partners on somewhat of a cross-country journey. In our prior communications, Immaculate (the Ugandan director of Empower U) simply told us 'we will meet'. No need for further elaborations, details or scheduling. On her part. Us kindled Type-A souls would have preferred a little more planning. Alas...

Now in Uganda's capital of Kampala, the three of us plot our next move. The plan is to head about four hours east toward Iganga and Jinja tonight, where several key members of Empower U's board of directors reside. We will meet with them and get in touch with Immaculate through them. We will then move toward Kumi, by backtracking (as always seems to be the case) through Kampala and then about six hours north. The majority of our project will be carried out in the rural Kumi area, where we will stay with Immaculate.

I would like to preface any conversation about our project by saying that Elizabeth, Rebecca and I do not claim to be anything more than the mzungus (foreigners) that we are. We do not expect to fully understand the complexity of the issues in the communities we work in. However, it is our close friendships and great partnerships with community members that give me hope for our project. They are really the ones who lead and make decisions for their own communities - we're here to learn from them and to invest the funds we were fortunate enough to collect from our supporters.

- Jen
Elizabeth, Rebecca and I will be spending the next five and some weeks hanging out in rural Uganda. We will do our utmost best to keep this blog candid, informative and frequently-updated.

This is the fourth overall trip of Empower U consultants to Kumi in northern Uganda, and we have big plans, high expectations and every reason to think nothing will go as planned. 

Our goals for the summer project are as follows:

1. Monitor the initial forty beneficiaries and their pig projects, as well as the local Ugandan board of directors

2. Conduct career and financial workshops for the current beneficiaries
3. Invest in forty new beneficiaries by working with the community for selection
4. Create a documentary 
5. Have so much fun

Thank you for taking the time to check out Empower U! We really appreciate all of your support - be it your time, your donations or your positive vibes.

- Jen

    Elizabeth, Rebecca and Jen

    The three of us are spending July and August on the Empower U project in Kumi, Uganda. We will be recording our (mis)adventures here.


    August 2011
    July 2011