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

November 29, 2011

The toughest job you’ll ever love?

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 1:27 pm

‘The toughest job you’ll ever love.’ So far I’ve only experienced the first half and I’m determined to see this experience through to the end of the sentence. I’ve never worked harder with less to show for it. Now that I have a workable site (no, not ideal), I am trying every which way to accomplish our three goals: exchange technical assistance and culture +/-. Yet, I already feel the clock ticking to the end of my service.

Since arriving here in Uganda I’ve noticed a preponderance of poor design and construction (the 99%). There just doesn’t seem to be any appreciation of permanent, well-designed architecture. [Think of the wild wild west 200 years later.] So I’m building this cabana. Of late I’ve been thinking that it might be nice to see if there is any local expertise in thatching a roof out of the available grasses. To that end, I’ve spied a couple of thatched cabanas on the hill opposite the church. At dinner (an hour ago) I asked my priest if he knows who owns the land. He replies that it is the former MP. A big shot. Ok? I press the issue further and find that this ‘former’ member of parliament is “under custody” and it might look suspicious if I try to enter his property. Another dead end. Yet, every request I make seems strange. Stone for the foundation? But I thought you were using timber posts? Stack the wood off the ground? But why does it need to dry? This makes me wonder if I too will be put “under custody” for building the best damn outdoor kitchen in the district. +Build something beautiful and I might just find the smile at the end of that slogan, with or without the technical or cultural exchange.

November 10, 2011

a typical day

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 8:09 am

I wake up at sunrise and put on some water for coffee and oatmeal. Then, I switch on my computer and check my email while waiting for my coffee to brew. Mornings are never easy for me. If I had my way, I’d never schedule a meeting before ten. Unfortunately, I don’t completely control my own schedule. On this particular day I have a meeting scheduled after mass, which typically ends at eight but with the Holy Ghost conference in town . . . celebrations extend.

Lately, laundry has not been a priority. I pull my Calvin Klein suit out of storage. Don the trousers and a 1MX shirt. I ditch the tie and jacket in favor of a more relaxed look. As I wait, I wash some dishes which have been piling up in my kitchen and listen to a bit of pop-party hip-hop. By nine, the women arrive. These meetings always follow a familiar format: national anthem, prayer, word from the chair, word from the advisor, reading of the previous minutes, discussion. I speak about the sales process, which turns to a discussion of the product we launched last month — Afripads.

I love this product because it fits so well with our mission of keeping the girl child in school. Without an affordable hygienic solution, girls routinely miss class and exams to deal with menstruation. The locally-made reusable pads we sell are much more affordable than a disposable pad and are more hygienic than a random scrap of clothing. Sales in the first month have been slow. With the current school term coming to a close, I’m focusing an planning for a major push in February. My goal is for the women to sell 1000 pads in that short month and earn one million shillings, while create a cash reserve of 500,000 shillings for future ordering. It is is a bit of a stretch. The plan will require much organization and strong sales at each school.

Toward the end of the meeting one of the women shares a testimonial with the other twelve about her experience with the product. Three women pull out 5000 shillings each and buy a set. The meeting wraps, I say my goodbyes, shed my CK, and don a locally-tailored jump suit and hiking boots.

The rest of my day involves a bit of gardening, replacing the light socket for my security light, painting the name of my organization on the outside of my house/office, and typing up a job description for my replacement. By the time I walk over for dinner at the rectory, I’d changed into a long sleeve t-shirt I received at a Fair Trade Boston event a couple years ago (and Banana Republic chinos). I reflect for a minute or two on how my work as a community organizer is so different on this side of the pond. After 15 months of service, it is still difficult to navigate the various cultural issues to engage my community.

Today is a bit slower, as I send off email missives in my Polo shorts and an old band T-shirt, my boss stops by my office to thank me for my work on the job description. I’m thinking that much of my work for the next 8-12 months may be to prepare my community and organization for the next Peace Corps volunteer. And you know what? That’s okay.

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