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

August 17, 2011

why I left

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 1:28 am

First off, I want to send out a big “Thank you!” to all the staff and community members who made me feel like a welcome part of both Sheema District and Kigarama Farmers Financial Savings and Credit Cooperative Society. Your support and encouragement made my work in a foreign place quite possible.

I haven’t updated this blog in some time because I have been going through quite a bit of transition here in Uganda. In the time since I last posted I went to many parties, attended some great and not-so-great local concerts, and took a holiday on the sesse islands. Yet I could’t write about all of that. It would have felt somehow fake. Behind the joy, the fun, the new friendships a dark cloud loomed.

Corruption and mismanagement of resources at my host organization made my continued stay untenable. My program manager and I decided a couple of months ago that I would need to move out of my village as confronting the situation could be a risk to my personal safety. So, about a week ago, I said goodbye to all the people that I was beginning to think of as friends as well as those who cared for me like family. It was difficult. Several people were angry. Others sad. We went through the motions of making future plans that we knew will not be fulfilled. I wasn’t sure what to feel. Relief? I packed all my things into suitcases and rice sacks, loaded them into a land cruiser, and rode away.

Why? Instances of major fraud date back several years and continue to this day. Its actually kind of hard to tell this story in this forum because much of what I want to say involves illegal actions by my org’s board of directors. Consider this the PG-rated version or the story. I’ll keep the R-rated version for dinner party conversation.

Just weeks before I arrived at my site, the bank manager was fired and put in jail. Only after many months was I to begin to understand the extent of the fraud that took place during his tenure with the organization. According to court documents, he is accused of stealing 28 million UGX that can be directly traced to forged documents. Additionally, auditors have discovered that another 47 million of cash is simply missing from the safe.

I was willing to help Kigarama Farmers move past this unfortunate experience until I saw corruption continue.

In the months that led up to our annual general meeting, I noticed unusual requests for allowances from board members. These allowances are now at rates twice that at other SACCOS. Some volunteer board members take more in allowances than employees make in salary. In addition, analysis of our loan portfolio shows that board members continue to take out large loans without paying them back on schedule. Portions of these loans merely roll into new loans at the end of the term without any interest penalty or payment.

At our annual general meeting, I yearned for change. Yet, business is not as usual. It is becoming worse. Shortly after the meeting, the new [retracted] of the board of directors walked into the bank with a known moneylender. A deposit slip was written for 11 million but only 10 million in cash was handed over. This was a clear attempt to retain a one million shilling interest payment off the books. The staff refused to process the transaction. I was proud of the actions of my staff but disillusioned by the continued illegal actions of the board to which I reported.

Weeks later, the board decided to settle with the former bank manager for [much less than that which was stolen] and pretend that all had been recovered. As with accepting money from a moneylender, it was explained that a lie like this is just how business is conducted. How can we build trust through deceit? I felt that the work I was doing is not helping the people of Uganda but instead corrupting it for the benefit of a few individuals. This is the problem with SACCOS. The motivation is all wrong. If the institutions are really about delivering financial services to the poor and creating wealth for the members, why do only a few individuals profit?

I am now situated in a village just a couple of hours north. The former bank manager is free of jail and at home. No money has been repaid. Forty percent of our staff left this summer. A new bank manager was hired. The same men sit on the board. I have high hopes that the institution will fail before I complete my service.

I’ll be updating again soon with all kinds of info about the new place. Next week I join the new trainees to teach them about business skills. Then its off for some training of my own. When I return, I’ll only have about one year left. Hmm. Its a good thing that my new org is ready to make change happen.

2 month later . . .

Remember when I wrote about all that corruption at the community bank? Well I’ve left and am loving the opportunity to work with a new organization. However, I a friend shared an update (confirmed) that I just have to share.

Shortly before I left, the new xxxx xxxxxxxx disappeared while several employees were at lunch. He had been acting as cashier. As is customary during breaks, he locked the cash drawer and left one million shillings with the account assistant to conduct transactions. However, he never came back that day.

At the end of the day, unable to reach the xxxx xxxxxxx, employees broke open the cash drawer and found x million shillings missing. Later, the xxxx xxxxxxx boasted that he had taken the money to a counterfeiter in hopes of doubling his money.

Six weeks passed and then the board of directors met to discuss the issue. Was he fired? Nope. I guess he is their kind of guy. The culture of corruption continues.

June 18, 2011

when a teacher beats a child

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 1:05 am

Hearing a loud commotion behind me, I turned to see a teenager girl curled up on the floor. My eyes bulged and heat crept up my face as the teacher continued beating the child. I quickly told her to stop. Yet, not sure if she would, I walked over and grabbed the switch out of her hands; snapped it in half; and threw it out the door. Calmly as I could, I resumed my conversation.

June 7, 2011

the post in which I talk about actually doing something

Filed under: Peace Corps,Uganda — Jeff @ 12:16 pm

or alternatively titled: “I was not lazy today.” How do I know this? The (new) acting bank manager and loan officer told me so.

I wrote several months ago about designing a new front office for my organization. Guess what? It’s complete. The renovation provides members better access to staff, space for newly hired staffers to complete their work, and, most importantly, safer control of cash. Plus it allows tons of light into the office and greater freedom of movement. Throughout the task I have tried to make the new space as functional as possible. That was the goal. However, what’s wrong with gallons of bright blue paint to make it snap?

The project is one that I have been championing for such a long time that people are forgetting that it is my counterpart, Wycliffee, that first proposed it. After a lot of back-and-forth with the board, my budget was approved and I asked to manage the project with volunteer help rather than contracting it out. They acquiesced. Originally scheduled to take place over two weekends, my acting manager and I decided to just go for it and complete the work as quickly as possible.

On the first day, I worked with the staff to move all the furniture to the back office and boardroom so that they could continue serving customers during the week-long renovation. I then disassembled a few wood partition walls and the built in furniture. I was hoping to get at least one of the new partition walls built on that Friday but the first of my helpers arrived at around 3PM to rescue me from the frustration of sawing through dry 2X4s with a Western-style hand saw. After a bit of sight-seeing, Sinead and I travelled back to my place and cooked up some potato masala — a new variation to one of my favorite foods. We talked about her service in Ethiopia and the frustrations I am currently experiencing with my organization.

The next morning, we met Jesse and Tom — 2 current volunteers — at the community bank. They worked their asses off. In just two days we smashed out a brick wall and then repaired the damaged walls and floor with concrete. We also built a partition wall and reinstalled the teller desk and window. Staffers got involved pounding nails and cutting plywood. Two long, hard days of work. Yet, we ate well that weekend. Barbecued pork, pasta, french toast, and matoke were all on the menu. Shout out to the manager of our newest hotel! He serving us beer after each long day of work, even allowing us to take two or three for the road.

After the last of my visitors left Monday morning, I remained alone to finish some minor construction and paint out the entire office. Maybe, just maybe, I was starting to feel that I had taken on two much of this work myself. On day 5 of the project, I painted the walls with four or five coats of white but the yellow still peeked through! The next day I discovered my mistake: I was trying to cover an oil-based paint with a water-based paint. Props to the professional painter that stopped by to confirm my suspicion. One coat of oil-based paint and a few touchups and I was ready to paint the floor.

UPDATE [19/06/2011]: We’ve moved in even though there is still a bit of finish work and painting to be completed. Members and staff seem to be somewhat appreciative of the new space. +finishing this project has helped me gain more respect with the board; I am currently helping the new human resource committee to choose a new manager and loan officer.

[right click on any of the images in the gallery below to open full-size in a new tab.]

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?


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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