How to make a friend in Uganda. business consultant, NGO worker, former Peace Corps volunteer, activist: searching for sustainable solutions to eradicate extreme poverty

February 20, 2011

Frustration leads to progress and success?

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 7:42 am

Our SACCO makes obscene amounts of profit on the back of 36% APR loans to poor farmers. I am championing change to this system. But all the motivation is currently placed to keep the system the way it is. The board makes large dividends on its disproportional shares, and the staff makes much of its salary from profit-based bonuses. Have we learned nothing from the failure of other financial systems?

My two capital improvement projects — an electronic database system and a front office redesign — are meeting great resistance from the budgeting committee. I could probably finance both projects out of my own pocket but that’s not the point of community development. My frustration comes mainly from a lack of communication. First, I am given figures that make little sense. Then, I hear that one or both projects have been pigeon-holed only to find later that there is still ongoing discussion of both projects. All of this is exasperated by the fact that I do not share a common language with most if not all of the board members. Ahh! I need to quickly draft some easily understood proposals to cut through this fog of confusion.

It is good that one doesn’t need money to solve all problems. Last week, our reenergized staff realized the insanity of members returning day after day in search of our loan officer without finding him at the bank. Why can’t loans be disbursed, applications received when the loan officer is at court or visiting clients in the field? So at our first staff meeting since at least October, we discussed solutions to this issue. Our loan officer will now post a weekly timetable of his activities for members. In addition, two staffers will be trained on how to properly record loan transactions and a loan disbursement schedule will be printed daily to ensure that no mistakes are made. No member will need to be turned away again. Common sense solutions to common problems, no?

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I had the great opportunity to teach at a secondary school on Wednesday. [My neighbor, Kenneth, helped me to make the introductions at the beginning of the semester.] I taught a class of S6 entrepreneurship students (grade 13) about sales promotion. My classes are always very interactive. I hate lecturing and like to make people think. But that was not happening at first. I asked the students for real-life examples of marketing in their communities and got no response. zero. zilch. After a period of silence and a drink of water, I returned to the chalk board and wrote “Marketing Mix” followed by 4 ‘P’s. Almost all the hands shot up in the air. They must have been drilled on this topic. I started having them list other marketing concepts. This worked for a while. Then I gave them an activity that no one, not even their teacher, understood. We spent 30 minutes on this. Then we went back to a discussion of how to apply the concepts we had listed earlier. No response again. So I had the students break into their preformed groups to discuss each topic for a minute or two. Surprised was I by their responses. These kids can process complex problems! Speaking out in front of fifteen other students is just a bit uncomfortable. I think I’ll be better prepared for class next time. Lessons learned.

February 7, 2011

brick by brick

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 12:24 pm

Just about every four or five days I hit a mental wall. I can’t take the isolation and loneliness any more. Then something happens that picks me right back up. I meet a potential new friend in the village. I talk to someone about a new project. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a trip into Mbarara and finding a package in the mail.

Thanks to those who have sent something. It really does make life out in the country a bit more bearable. Months ago Becca sent me a package with rockstar stickers … err, Jonas Brother stickers. I put a few select stickers on my phone and have a constant reminder of my live in Boston every time I check the time. Maps from home adorn the walls in my sit & stare room.

This weekend was a mzungu weekend. I travelled to Fort Portal and then stopped in Kasese on the way back to see some fellow volunteers. It was good to reconnect, get ideas for projects, and give advise for others. I wore my new jeans with some of my favorite t-shirts all weekend — what a release. However, my greatest joy as you might expect is in forging relationships with nationals.

If I do nothing else, I’d love to create a few life-long friendships. Those are in the making. As I wrote before, physicality between men is open and understood. More importantly, emotional intimacy is also somewhat easy to achieve over many months. I have found great trust and honesty in these relationships. The stories I hear sometimes break my heart. It’s not just travails of poverty but also of love, broken hearts, and assault.

Last week I had the opportunity to redesign the bank’s front office:

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