Visiting a beneficiary at her village home in Kumi
Immaculate addressing the Empower U beneficiaries at our letter-writing training session
Anna and Rebecca interviewing a beneficiary
“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.


“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.

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.

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.

No electricity, no problem
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

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