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 13, 2012

robbed of luxury

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 10:36 am

I wash my own clothes, clean my own house, and tend my own gardens. Yet, twice a week I make my way past the screaming kids at the adjoining primary school to reach a barber shop in town. It’s a cheap luxury. A shave costs about 22 cents and gives me ten minutes where I can close my eyes and tune out the world.

My current barber, Davis is an affable guy. Yet, he is so short that I have to slouch down so that my ass reaches the edge of the chair and the apron barely makes it to just above my knees. Lying back like this I also tend to fall asleep. Somehow this works. Davis, a former primary school teacher who switched professions for a more steady income, now makes about two dollars a day at the shop (when there is electricity), while his wife continues to receive a salary at a local primary school to contribute to the income necessary to raise their children. I look forward to our short chats and the loud music that drowns out the rest of the conversation and insults.

Last Thursday, Davis left his shop in the evening to visit his wife at the school where she lives with their children. Later, when he returned to his shop, he found his padlock broken and all of his tools and equipment either missing or damaged. The same night, thieves stole a bunch of bananas from a shop across the street. The crimes were brash and cruel. While the perpetrators grabbed little that they can trade for cash, it will take weeks, if not months, for the businesses to recover. Davis’ shop remains shuttered.

While I can and do easily float between the different stratas of Ugandan society, I am today reminded of those that struggle to afford a simple plate of posho and beans, and how easily one can slip from everyday simple poverty into that of desperate poverty.

December 6, 2011

NEW BLOG: Camp BUILD | a leadership camp for Ugandan boys

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 12:44 am

This week, I’m at a boys camp organized by Peace Corps volunteers. It’s been quite fun. I’m blogging over at Click through to read some fascinating stories.


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.

September 15, 2011

new site + picture dump

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 1:43 pm

I’ve moved. It’s so good to be at a place where i have the opportunity to make a difference. I’m set up with a grassroots community organization that is super eager to go. They applied for me in 2009 but didn’t make the cut twice. These 372 women are simply striving to keep their daughters in school. It’s a tough fight in this male-dominated culture. They have tried and failed at income-generating activities; so I’m here to give them advice on how to locate a good product and find the right market. We’ll raise cash for school fees and, then, somehow work on the bigger societal issues. My priest/friend/supervisor is turning out to be a major asset and partner. This might actually become the “hardest job I’ll ever love”, instead of the reverse.

A church unfinished. [The effects of hyper inflation on construction materials.]

What all the kids stare at.

A bit of privacy. A space for chores.

The middle room. For sitting and cooking.

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