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Visiting a beneficiary at her village home in Kumi
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Immaculate addressing the Empower U beneficiaries at our letter-writing training session
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Anna and Rebecca interviewing a beneficiary
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“Do you have cats?” Anna asked Immaculate as we gathered at her sprawling homestead deep in the Kumi village for a lunch of rice, Irish potatoes and chicken (plucked right from the yard, no doubt) after a full day with the Empower U beneficiaries. .

Immaculate nodded yes.

“What are their names?” Anna asked.

“I have no idea,” Immaculate said.

After some investigation, Immaculate returned with the answers to Anna’s questions.

“The cats’ names were Judith and Obama,” she said.

Were?

“Judith was killed because she was eating the chickens,” Immaculate explained. “Obama is in hiding.”

And other cheery thoughts.

Our group was gathered at Immaculate’s village home to celebrate a completed training session with the Empower U beneficiaries that day. We had interviewed each of the beneficiaries about their piglet projects, their progress and their future goals. In addition, we had conducted a letter-writing training workshop.

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Empower U training session
Cultural differences have affected Empower U in ways we had not anticipated, such as in our logo. Our newest logo (which is permanently in the working, with the one we are using right now developed for us by the Durham marketing company - Smashing Boxes) features a small outline of a piglet (see top of web-page). Immaculate pointed out that since many Muslims do not eat pork, the piglet logo might be offensive to Uganda’s substantial Muslim population. We agreed to remove the piglet from the Ugandan version of the logo.

African time is another (cultural??) difference.

“10am? Like, actually 10am?” Elizabeth would ask.

If we agree to meet in the morning, we know to show up a quarter past noon.

Another TIA (This is Africa) moment—Immaculate creating an operating budget with a line for police bribery for livestock transportation.

Unfortunately, we happen to be attempting to purchase goats, pigs and birds during a livestock quarantine in the region. We are left to search the villages for healthy livestock to purchase, because the markets are currently officially banned from selling livestock. Ah, the unforeseen obstacles.

Some of the cultural differences are a bit too much for me.

In the middle of our workshop to document and record the female beneficiaries’ progress, I took the girls outside of the open-air hall we were meeting in to take their photographs. Walking in the grass, I almost stepped onto a small white bundle in the field, as I led one girl to have her photo taken by a tree. Looking down, I saw that the white bundle was a baby, wrapped in white blankets and lying in the field.

To my distress, it was one of the beneficiaries’ newborns that she left outside of the hall so that it wouldn’t be bothersome. Talk about a gap in services for a daycare/baby-sitting. Needless to say, we asked the girl to take her baby into the hall with her.
This progress meeting brought news of some amazing successes as well.

For instance, we heard the story of Aguti, Janet (in East Africa, the last name precedes the first), who is currently studying for her Bachelor’s in human resources at Kumi University. The pig we distributed to her in 2009 first birthed 20 piglets, and then 15. The profit from selling the piglets was used to purchase a calf and to plant a tomato garden. The profits from the second project were then used to send Janet to university. What a goal accomplished.

It was amazing to see her father come to the meeting on Janet’s behalf, while she was away at university. It is empowering to see fathers invested in their daughters’ educations, because that is everything we are taught in international development theory to be unlikely. ‘The man will drink it all away and the woman will save,’ is hammered into us. Talk about exceptions and generalizations.

Sometimes I wonder if our micro-solution is the most efficient one for the Ugandan communities. While visiting the female beneficiaries at their village homes, we learned of Akello Betty’s involvement with a construction project. Betty was recruited to train as a supervisor for the hydroform brick-making machinery (we were told it was brought to Uganda from South Africa), but the government had yet to provide the machine to the Kumi region—typical governmental inefficiency.

Such a machine would cost about 70,000,000 Ugandan shillings—the equivalent of 35,000USD. But such a machine would create supervisor, operating and construction jobs to employ the equivalent of several villages—it could economically alleviate whole regions. After all, it is the lack of productive activity readily available to engage people that is the real economic problem in Uganda.

As seen by the amazing Chinese presence in Ugandan construction, Eastern Africa is being built up—that is where the money at.

And money is where all the questions are at. As we finished the ceremony of awarding the deserving beneficiaries with their animals or projects, one girl came up to Immaculate, Anna, Elizabeth, Rebecca and me, confused at having been the recipient of a goat.

But “I need money for school fees,” she said.

So came the conversation of given money running out, but a project and the ability to work toward a goal being something the beneficiary can carry on with her. It was very difficult to say no, but at least we feel like we’re backed by the whole world of international development theory.

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Akello Betty
Something else we have spent a lot of time considering is the breakdown of administrative versus operating costs—the administration/operations ratio. Rebecca and I are almost on the extreme ends of this argument. I am of the entrepreneurial sort, thinking I can run a multi-million dollar enterprise from my bedroom. Most times I feel administration is bureaucracy, and that too much structure holds a venture back. On the contrary, Rebecca understands the need for an organizational infrastructure, and has taken care of organizing what Empower U is outside of my mind. Together, I must say we are a great balance.

Most Ugandans are certainly not of the mindset that you can run a successful business just with a computer and litres of coffee—and no wonder, considering the minimal use of Internet. In North America, a business often doesn’t start thinking about structure until it’s pulling in some sort of income. On the contrary, we’ve been talking about office space, a stamp and letterhead paper for Empower U ever since we came up with the name.

And then we lament the millions upon millions of briefcase NGOs in the developing world. In my opinion, as long as the focus is on foreigner-initiated ventures and the importance is on office space, this will never change.

Not that I am discounting the importance of structure in organization. It is crucial—I just think there is a right time for it and a right person to implement it (aka not me).

Some thoughts on Kumi village compared to NYC.


According to Carrie Bradshaw (the Sex and the City heroine), in NYC, women are always looking either for an apartment, a career or a man. They never have all three.

In rural Uganda, our expectations are a little lower.

We are always looking either for electricity, running water or Internet. Obtaining one of the three is always a celebrated feat.

A lack of electricity has led us to spend some late nights working on developing Empower U concepts or organizing materials for the next day, sitting at our computers (RIP my laptop, which I craftily smashed in the back of a pickup truck) while wearing our headlamps in the complete dark like miners.



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No electricity, no problem
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Immaculate and Empower U co-coordinator Alice
Going back to Carrie Bradshaw’s musings, it would be interesting if a woman in NYC ended up with a career and a man, but no apartment. Ah, hello U.S. urban homelessness. Having lived in a Washington, D.C. homeless shelter (for the experience, promise), and wandered around the streets of countless U.S. towns and cities (including Chapel Hill), I know homelessness is often a reality that is one paycheck away for many Americans. In the D.C. homeless shelter, we met many young professionals who owned cell phones and laptops, and worked regular jobs, but didn’t make quite enough to finance the high rent fees of D.C.

Homelessness doesn’t seem to be quite such an epidemic in Uganda. Most people have much better family support networks than the typical American, with extended families to stay with and ancestral villages to go back to in any case.

This concept came to my attention at the first truly homeless man we encountered in Uganda. As Anna, Elizabeth, Rebecca, Immaculate and I sat in the Lake Kyogo Restaurant (where we “take tea”—as the Ugandans say—at least three times a day… We’re addicted) in Soroti, a man poked his head in and yelled at us to give him 200 Ugandan shillings (the equivalent of about seven cents). We did our best to ignore him, and insisted Immaculate not give him the shillings, giving her the conditioning and reward arguments that are hammered into our heads in the Western world.

Honestly, this man may have been the only truly ‘homeless’ man I’ve encountered in all my travels in East Africa.

Speaking of the Lake Kyogo Restaurant, we often wonder about marketing strategies in Uganda. Right next door to Lake Kyogo Restaurant stands the Nile View Restaurant (featuring no view of the Nile whatsoever)—serving all the same rice, beans and matooke. We make our selection of restaurant with a combination of ESP, rock-paper-scissors and pure whim. Many East Africans seem to have no brand loyalty whatsoever, especially when it comes to the local products and services—and that is largely because there is no marketing differentiation. For instance, how is one to choose one mosquito net over another?

Mosquito nets can be almost useless, as malaria-phobic Anna pointed out. Sometimes a small opening in your mosquito net means the bugs fly in and get trapped circling your head, and feeding on your blood all through the night. Teaching appropriate product use is just as i

- Jen

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Visiting a beneficiary at home, we find her piglets all grown up!
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Opening our Empower U Uganda bank account at the British Barclays Bank
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Akiteng Esther and her sewing machine - a new project investment by Empower U
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Immaculate asking the Empower U beneficiaries to sign for their new projects
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Anna addressing a primary school - some of the girls in the audience will be new Empower U beneficiaries

    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.

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