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.

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.

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.

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