Hammocks!

I’ve started a little pet project of making hammocks from the brightly colored kitenge wax-prints that are ubiquitous to this region.  And by making I really mean I go to the market downtown, buy 60 yards of cloth and twenty sisal ropes at a time, take it all to the seamstress out in front of my apartment and ask her to stitch them up.  The costs break down to about $10 for materials, $3 for the seamstress, and a few hours of my time (worth an unknown amount at this point).  I’ve been selling them to expat friends for about $20.  They are not exactly flying off the shelf but I’ve sold 8 so far and I suspect sales will grow.  I’ve quickly learned that offering free installation helps – I guess some people need a little help with their lazy habits.

We’ve stress tested them to 400lbs. plus and they seem pretty stable – that said, it occurred to me that there’s very little upside of putting a label on an item that may one day drop someone on their backside.  With that strong endorsement, I will be taking orders for holiday shopping if anyone is interested.  And this is certainly not the last post that will be written from this hammock on the balcony.   (photos coming soon – as in, some other time when I bother to get out of the hammock)

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A Week Without Water…

… in Kampala.  Nope, not a shortage of water, not a burst pipe or anything, we just forgot to pay the bill and they shut us off.  Nothing says you’ve reached adulthood quite like failing to pay a water bill.  Of course we went down asap and paid the balance and then some but I naturally assumed they would just process it at their leisure and come open the tap again.  Wrong again.  Fortunately Matt had the good sense to call the toll-free customer service line (I didn’t know toll-free existed in this country) and they immediately sent a plumber – they even apologized for the delay – for a country where customer service is not really a thing we were mighty impressed – and very grateful for a hot shower again.  Also a nice reminder of how quickly I’ve become accustomed to the easy life in Kampala..

Yes, it’s been a long time without posts.  I’m going to try to ease back into it with more smaller posts which might spur larger more thoughtful posts from time to time.  

From Ghana

I’ve been away from the blog for more than a few weeks.  A friend recently shuttered her “life in Uganda” blog on the anniversary of her arrival in the country – I am thinking I will stick with this but am not sure how frequently or exactly what topics will come up.  Regardless of what I promise it will largely be a matter of when the mood strikes me, frankly I’ve got more going on now, both work wise and extracurricular, than I did for most of the spring.

I certainly have not kept quiet for lack of material.  Kampala has been interesting of late.  As I mentioned before, the government is broke.  Soon after the Shilling plummeted it was announced that the government has failed to pay private power companies the better part of the electricity bill for the last three months which led to load shedding throughout Kampala (and likely extended blackouts outside the city) which prompted the city’s merchants to call a two day strike.  The matatu drivers also struck for two days leaving thousands of Ugandans with no real economical means of getting to work.  Boda drivers doubled their prices and had a field day.  It’s so easy to talk about these things as “oh, life in Uganda” but really it comes down to the government having abused the treasury to ensure a landslide victory for the president in last February’s election.  And that glaringly obvious detail is something people are quite comfortable discussing and seem to accept.  Museveni actually wrote a rather wacky op-ed in the Monitor where he simultaneously proclaimed that a) Uganda would prosper through export led growth due to a weaker Shilling and, b) that Uganda must increase production and exports in order to ensure that the Shilling will rebound against foreign currencies.  I’m not a macroeconomist but neither is he.  Piece here.

Tomorrow’s the final day of the Ghana edition of IPA’s annual training for new staff.  IPA trainings are kind of like nerd camps for development types.  Try as we might, most casual conversations are interspersed with the words: survey, random, measurement, impact, data, sample, random, significance, field, random and power.  The five day program includes some beginning sessions on why we do what we do and then gets into some rather technical details on how we go about managing field research, specifically randomized control trials.  I came over in part to lead a session on electronic data collection (using computers / smartphones) which was pretty interesting and perhaps the only somewhat contentious discussion of the week.  There are two competing hardware / software solutions being widely used by IPA and the primary issue of contention is that nobody, myself included, understands both.  There’s the Blaise camp and the Pendragon Forms camp and trying to figure out exactly which is best in which instances, and the limitations of each, has been very interesting.  Frankly it sounds like if you have a lot of time and some programming experience you can do a lot with Blaise, which runs on netbooks.  That said, Pendragon is far simpler to program, runs on smartphones / PDAs, and there isn’t anything in a 1,000+ question survey that we cannot program.

Ghana is interesting, the food is a huge step above the Ugandan cuisine, Accra feels like a huge sprawling town with a good size middle class, and the beach, well, the beach is always nice.  Soon it’s back to Uganda and work, which is going well and I’ll write more about later.

Situation in Sudan

Mine is not the blog to read if Sudan is a topic of interest for you.  Maybe try: Enough Project blog or Peter Martel (of BBC)

That said, the issue is of interest to me.  From people on the ground there is ethnic cleansing of the Nuba people ongoing in Southern Kordofan, the southernmost region of northern Sudan.  This while the border region of Abyei captures headlines of various fonts as both north and south positioned themselves to fight for what seems to be largely a symbolic oil field.  That I first heard of all this via NYTimes is an indicator that I’m behind the times.  But it’s real, and really ugly.

To Read:

  1. NYTimes article
  2. Letter from aid worker
  3. CNN
  4. PBS Interview of US Envoy
  5. Lebanese Op-ed 

In other news, the dollar appreciated about 10% against the Ugandan shilling in the last two days.  Rumor has it the treasury is broke.  If I can actually figure out a better explanation than that maybe I’ll have a post for the weekend.  That’s one nice day for aid workers paid in dollars, likely followed by many hard days for everyone else.

Family Visit

Mom, Dad, Mike and cousin Alice, recently came to visit for a two week tour of Uganda and Rwanda.  It was great to see the family and introduce them to this place that’s now become familiar to me.  Two weeks of vacation wasn’t half bad either.  Here’s the highlights reel – after two consecutive red-eye flights they were pretty content to take it easy in Kampala for the first day.  Mike and Alice crashed in my new apartment and Mom and Dad were just up the road in a hotel.  For anyone wondering, there isn’t a ton to occupy a tourist’s time in Kampala.  The next morning we started out at the big Gaddafi Mosque and then ventured into the depths of downtown.  I guess I wanted them to get a sense of the chaos of the city, but I might have gone a little overboard with a walk past the old taxi park (image here).  But we survived and made it up to the big craft market, which mom proceeded to devastate.  My haggling skills, which I’d like to think have improved in the last year, were simply no match for the mzungu family premium.  Ethiopian dinner was a first for the family – dinner sans utensils was amusing.

Our first of many long drives was up to Murchinson Falls, probably the most prominent national park in Uganda.  Vacation in Uganda, we came to learn, involves a lot of early morning wakeups.  That said, the pre-sunrise departures were well worth it:

Three elephants

Leopard in a tree

After two days in the park we loaded up for a long haul – all told we spent 11 hours traveling from Murchinson to Kibale NP, of which a luxurious 20 miles were paved.  We stopped ever so briefly at URDT to stretch our legs and have a look around.  We made it to Ndali Lodge at dusk – the lodge is beautiful and set above two of the region’s crater lakes but felt, I thought, a bit like traveling back in time to visit an old colonial estate.  The following morning was chimpanzee time.  I did the chimp trekking last year but didn’t have a camera with me at the time.  We saw this guy in a tree for a while but learned that on the overcast mornings, such as that one, the chimps spend more time high in the trees.  Eventually he did swing down out of the trees and took off – seeing these animals move through the dense forest is a pretty awesome sight.

Chimp in a tree

Sunday (yes, just at the end of week one) we headed to Kamwenge.  I showed off my old apartment, checked out an installed and full BOB rainwater bag, toured the market, and then joined my friend Frank and his family for dinner at their house.  It was a pretty incredible experience for my family.  So often there’s no good way (but plenty of bad ways) for tourists to see how people really live and this was a chance to not just see how my friend’s family lives, but actually get to know them even if only for an evening.  After sharing three chickens and some rather poignant stories we headed across the street to the bar to shoot some pool, a national pastime.  The following morning we were back on the road headed to Lake Bunyonyi.  Booyna Amagara is a backpackers paradise on an island in the middle of this beautiful lake, and, as a plus, they also have some great thatched geodomes for a nicer campy experience.  We were all ready to sit and relax for a day or two and did just that – I have to admit that if the stress of learning to play bridge was the hardest part of the day then that’s a win.

Next stop, northern Rwanda for gorilla trekking.  I felt a different vibe almost immediately upon crossing the border – Rwanda is crowded, people fill the rural roads and barely bother to step aside for passing cars.  The lodge bragged about a fireplace in each room and big comforters – being (moderately) cold has become a refreshing experience.

Gorillas.  We first walked through terraced farm fields for maybe 45 minutes, I was feeling the altitude (I like to think).  We then entered the forest and followed a series of small paths to nowhere and then proceeded to bushwhack for another 30 minutes before finding the trackers with the group.  As we approached we saw one through the undergrowth, and then two more directly on the path, and then, as if on cue, this group of 14 gorillas assembled in a small clearing and posed for us for nearly an hour straight.  I think I took more photos in that one hour than in my previous year in Uganda combined.

Gorilla

Silverback with baby / fluffball

That evening we continued on to Kigali – between the size of the country and the incredible road network crossing Rwanda from north to south is probably no more than an easy five hours.  The following morning we ate breakfast at the Hotel des Milles Collines, of Hotel Rwanda fame, and then managed to walk all of downtown Kigali in under an hour.  Kigali is small, orderly, clean and growing.  That afternoon we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial.  The memorial is very well designed and informative but I really wasn’t moved as I had expected I might be.  I guess for me, especially being there for just a few days, it’s still nearly impossible to internalize that the genocide actually did take place on those streets and in my lifetime.  While there are now dozens of books on Rwanda, we read A Thousand Hills and I would say it’s definitely worth reading before a visit.  It’s probably a better book about Rwanda than any written on Uganda.  That Saturday evening we flew back to Uganda – a 33 minute flight rather than a 12 hour drive – and spent the night in an airport hotel.  The following morning it poured rain, a rarity in June, as I dropped the family at the airport and headed back to Kampala.  And then I slept.

Family on safari

It was a blast and although not someplace they would have otherwise visited I think the family enjoyed the experience.  More visitors are welcomed..

On Currency

This is one of several old blog post ideas that I never got around to.  Maybe only marginally of interest:

The current exchange rate is 1USD : 2,392UGX (Uganda Shilling).  A one-thousand shilling note is the smallest paper bill; I generally just think of the two-thousand shilling note as a dollar but know that I’m actually paying less, whatever.  The largest bill is the fifty-thousand which now comes to just over $20.  Uganda, like most comparable countries, is an entirely cash economy, which necessitates that people sometimes carry large amounts of cash in thick wads bound with rubber bands or in a count-and-fold system that the locals have mastered and the rest of us struggle with.

That’s not the interesting part though.  What is interesting, especially in the rural areas, is this: the smallest coin in wide circulation and regularly accepted is the one-hundred shilling coin.  Worth about four cents, these are not coins that I dump on my desk at the end of the day; in the village, one coin would buy a bunch of small sweet bananas, an avocado, a cup of tea, or a chapati.  In Kamwenge town, two would buy a chapati or an avocado, three got a bunch of bananas, five got me a boda ride home, eight a small pineapple.  Of course one hundred shillings doesn’t go as far in Kampala, which is funny because produce in Kampala is very cheap compared to prices back home but feel high to me now relative to what I was accustomed to paying in Kamwenge.  Point being, while few in America these days ever buy something for a nickle, sellers have the option of setting prices to the precision of a penny; in Uganda, the smallest unit of currency, widely accepted, is also the unit price of many common items.

So what to do when prices start creeping up?  These days Uganda, as the newspapers have made abundantly clear, is going through a period of significant inflation, especially in food and energy commodities.  Take flour for instance – I can’t actually tell you exactly what a kilo of flour is today or what it was six months ago – but suffice it to say that the price did not increase by 50%.  But the price of chapati in Kamwenge did – because that’s the only unit of change available to the vendor.  And that wouldn’t be a problem if we were buying in bulk, but when the single unit cost of an item usually bought one by one is equal to the smallest denomination, well, that’s the recipe for an inefficient market.

Another interesting anecdote: the variety of items commonly available in rural areas is minimal.  Within a given town or region, nobody ever asks the price of a bottle of water, a bar of soap, a pack of peanuts, a stack of five tomatoes, or, as in the case above, a chapati.  People are shocked when prices do change, and I expect this partially explains why the price of a 1.5liter bottle of water recently changes from 1,000 to 1,200; they could have increased the price in two incremental shifts but throughout the country one store after another made the same 20% adjustment.  My read on it is this: producers are so rarely afforded the opportunity to change their prices that when they get the chance they seize the day, and we end up paying nine cents more for that bottle of water.

Life / Work Update

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind.  I recently applied to transition from my current position on the Rainwater Storage Device evaluation in Kamwenge to a new IPA project in Kampala.  The project is a little different than the traditional line of work for IPA, namely rigorous impact evaluations, instead we plan to work with NGOs to support and improve upon their Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) systems.  Two weeks ago I got the new job, last weekend was spent looking for an apartment in Kampala, and the past four days were spent running around Kamwenge putting things in order before my departure.  Yesterday I packed up my life and hitched a ride with a government truck headed into Kampala.

And with that I said goodbye to Kamwenge.  While this is a transition I wanted, and am very excited for, it was oddly strange to leave.  Many of the things I loved about Kamwenge in the first six months lost their glow in the spring (eg: doing my laundry by hand on Sunday mornings went from a refreshing chance for some mental housekeeping to a monotonous chore).  At first the pace of work kept me preoccupied but this spring, with a more regular work schedule, I definitely hit the doldrums from time to time.  I had all the time in the world to read and cook and play soccer.  If I had decided to I could have set myself to studying the local language or volunteering in one of the nearby schools.  I never did either of those things; partly because I wound up not being there for much of the last three months, but mostly because I wasn’t comfortable initiating a commitment I couldn’t keep.  In the end I had three good friends in Kamwenge.  They are all guys who are young, smart, and eager to succeed and I’ll miss seeing them around town and learning from them.  While most of the town recognized me as the mzungu who lived “up at Balaam’s place”, to them I was still just that, another mzungu.  And after another year in Kamwenge, or even three, I’m not sure that would have changed.

One thing sank in this spring: in being the only outsider in a community it’s easy to forget that there was another before me and there will be an endless stream of others that follow.  For the first several months last summer I was frequently called Stuart around town.  Each time I corrected them, No, Stuart was a Canadian man and he left Kamwenge several months ago. Frequently I also had to explain that not only were we not brothers, I had in fact never met the man.  Similarly I imagine that anyone who shows up in town this summer will hear my name from time to time.  We outsiders operate much like a revolving door, turning over in time with the projects we come to implement.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to live and work in a rural setting.  I don’t think I would have been content if my first position had been in a developing capital.  That said, I am ready to live in Kampala, ready to have colleagues in an office and share an apartment with a roommate, ready to have the regular amenities of a city (supermarkets with perishable items, sandwich shops, tennis courts, live music, decent internet, etc.), and the daily interaction with other expats.

Professionally, I’m excited for the new challenge.  The M&E project is still very much an abstract idea: NGOs often want or need to evaluate the impact their projects have on beneficiaries.  IPA does really great impact evaluations but the methods we employ are sometimes simply not feasible for certain NGOs and are not appropriate for certain types of projects (eg: first pilots).  That said, excluding a long and expensive RCT style evaluation, what is the best method for NGOs that want to evaluate their projects?  What data should they collect?  And, ideally, how should they interpret and use the data they collect?  We don’t know all the answers to these questions and therein lies the challenge of this new initiative.  Personally the appeal of the project is this idea that we can help bridge the gap between rigorous evaluations and actionable M&E work.  Hopefully the partnerships that we form and the systems we propose will build upon current best practices and help NGOs better understand their current projects and use this knowledge to implement better projects in the future.

Quick Trip to Juba

Easter in Uganda is a four day holiday and Kampala quickly purges itself of expats who head in various directions for the long weekend.  Matt Lowes and I decided on north.  Juba is the capital of the soon to be independent country of South Sudan.  Neither of us knew/know much about South Sudan so we emailed a couple folks who have recently worked there.  Here’s a taste of their responses:

“You’re probably looking at a near 24 hour journey by bus.”

“In any case, do not walk at night! The odds you’ll get mugged while walking at night are near 100%.”

“There is nothing to see.  [My other friend] risks his life climbing around on the Jebel [nearby mountain] because he is so bored..”

“You should drink beer by the Nile. Visiting Rejaf is fun too. And don’t forget to sweat. Lots.”

With that we were sold.  Wednesday we visited the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) office in Kampala and were very impressed by how simply and efficiently they processed visas.  Thursday afternoon we purchased bus tickets from a rickety picnic table under a umbrella in the bus park and promised to return that night for a 10pm departure.  By 7am, after eight glorious hours of rocking out to blaring Ugandan hip-hop (yep, all night long), we reached the border, stood in some lines, ate an overpriced rolex, drank some tea, and tried to take in what seemed like dozens of languages being spoken all around us.  We finally made it to Juba by around 2pm and I distinctly remember saying to Matt, “Hey, lets go find an ATM, grab some water, and then head to the hotel to rest for a bit.”  Fateful words.  We took bodas across town to one ATM, and then the next, and then the third and final ATM in Juba, no luck.  Plus, it was Good Friday and so everyone assured us, oh, don’t worry, the banks will reopen on Tuesday…  Finally we headed back to the hotel with no Sudanese Pounds and some thinking to do.  We decided it was as simple as calling our parents (yeah, that’s our first response) to have them call the banks and to enable our ATM cards to work in Sudan.  The reply from my mother was priceless and at least a little bit surprising: “You clearly didn’t do your research before going to Juba!  American ATM cards do not work in Sudan, period.”  Whoops.  Unfortunately that wasn’t a piece of advice shared by any of our informal trip advisers/detractors.

We took stock of our supply of Ugandan Shillings and calculated that we could now afford only a two night stay, instead of three, and probably no souvenirs (not that any were readily available).  That settled, we crashed in our cramped, overpriced, air-conditioned, pre-fabricated room at the Sunflower Inn for a few solid hours.  We reemerged in the evening and headed to Juba Town to wander around and get some dinner.  Mzungus on foot is apparently a pretty rare sight because people frequently asked us what we were looking for or if they could help us.  All in all nearly everyone we bumped into was very friendly and ready to give some guidance to two wanderers.  The food was great – fool, a flatbread called Kisra that is essentially a thinner version of the Ethiopian injera, lentils, and beef in sauce.  Every restaurant, no matter how small, had an array of fans which were much appreciated even at 8pm.  At this point we had fed ourselves and were content with this small victory and called it quits for the day.

Saturday we walked across town to see what we could see.  Highlights include an exchange with a woman at the market:

How much is that pineapple?

Seven Pounds [$3].

Seven Pounds?!

Yes, it comes from Kampala.

Oh, we came from Kampala just yesterday.

Oh.

Where are you from?

Kampala.

We met more Ugandans, Kenyans and Somalis than we did Sudanese.  Boda drivers, restaurant owners, women in the market, transporters – everyone sees South Sudan as the best place to make money now.  No one we spoke with plans to stay for too long but everyone insists that if you have some capital or business connections, now is the time to work in Juba.  They also discussed that the Sudanese are none too pleased with this arrangement but in reality these foreign arbitrageurs are needed because they are the only people with enough capital to start businesses and engage in international trade.  On a more tender note, multiple very articulate foreigners raised the issue that thirty years of war, a generation of war, has bred a culture that they, as outsiders, find difficult to understand.  One exasperated restaurateur, a Somali who grew up in the Netherlands and worked in hotels in the UK before coming to Juba to open his own shop, seemed resigned when he said “for them, what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right.”  It’s impossible to pass judgment on these sorts of attitudes during such a brief visit but it was an interesting sentiment.

Just as we were warned, Juba is a sprawling hot dusty city with wide roads – some paved, some in progress – positioned in the first stage of a massive construction boom.  Interesting sights include: many empty small plots of land with thatched fences being constructed to demarcate boundaries; a recently constructed and very clean market area at the foot of Jebel mountain with large stores on solid concrete slabs; a slew of UN and GOSS ministries along the main paved road leading towards Juba Town; some really great grilled chicken restaurants; the requisite third-world-capital Chinese restaurant; and finally, a sign of the growing pains of development, two large plots of land adjacent to the current Juba University, scattered with the razed remains of hundreds if not thousands of temporary homes.  The government has recently moved to reclaim the land to rebuild the university and, as one boda driver put it, life for the former inhabitants “it is very hard these days.”

Sunday morning we hitched a ride to the bus park in the back of some NGO truck for our 6am bus headed south.  We saw the sun rise over the Nile as we headed out of town and made it back across the border with about $15 in our pockets.  All in all it was a fascinating if brief experience.  Matt’s Arabic was a big hit but you can certainly get by in English.  Wiki-travel should update their page with a large bold warning regarding money access, but I imagine / hope that will change soon.  As I said before I went, I wasn’t expecting to see much but I don’t know when the next time we’ll get a chance to see the birth of a new country and that wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to pass up.  And for a souvenir I have a copy of The Citizen, South Sudan’s daily newspaper, from April 23rd, 2011.

Unrest in Kampala

The NYTimes and BBC have recently posted a flurry of poorly written articles (here and here, respectively) about a series of demonstrations in Kampala and Gulu throughout the last 10 days.  After two months of near silence, several of the opposition leaders from the February election have staged a “Walk to Work” campaign ostensibly to protest the rising costs of food and fuel in the country.  The participants in these walks / protests / demonstrations have numbered in the hundreds and have been certainly attracted the attention of the police and the army if not the wider population.  One police officer was seen casually tossing tear gas canisters into residential compounds that happen to line the roads being used by protesters, so that’s no good.  In the NGO neighborhoods (where I stay when in Kampala) the only indicator of unrest is the occasional siren and maybe a SMS forwarded from the UN listing roads or neighborhoods to avoid.

The headliners seem to want this to be a big deal:  “On Thursday, a former presidential candidate and leading opposition figure, Kizza Besigye, was shot during street demonstrations in Kampala, the capital.”  Thanks NYTimes, now the western world would likely assume Besigye is seriously wounded, if not dead, when in fact he claims to have been shot in the hand with a rubber bullet while he was sitting in a roadside ditch refusing to cooperate with the police (but check out the size of this cast!).  As you can tell, I’m a little skeptical.  Certainly I believe in the importance of civic engagement and the need for an opposition that has a voice and takes a stand, but the individuals leading this campaign and the methods being employed hardly seem appropriate.

Besigye has run against Museveni and lost in three consecutive presidential elections.  In each contest he has failed to capture the imagination of the general public or in any way lead a passionate charge for change; I posted here about seeing him speak in Kamwenge.  Yes, I and many other more credible observers believe that Museveni largely bought the election but at the end of the day if you manage to buy 70% of the vote, well, then apparently you win.  Three strikes you’re out doesn’t translate too well but I’m disappointed to see the opposition party continuing with same old faces and same old tactics.  I’m somewhere in the midst of reading Nelson Mandela’s very long “Long Walk to Freedom.”  In it Mandela provides great detail of the slow but steady and thoughtful processes that went into all the ANC protests of the 1950s and 60s (I haven’t made it to the 70s yet).  If the opposition parties of Uganda are in fact as thoughtful and organized as their southern predecessors they have certainly done a fine job of hiding these efforts from the public.

Yesterday my uncle emailed to ask if IPA has a policy on our employees participating in public demonstrations, with regards to protecting our reputation as an apolitical NGO and an objective body of researchers.  In short, no, we don’t, but none of our employees are even the least bit interested in getting involved in politics at all, much less political demonstrations.  Most of them view politics as a troublesome business that leads nowhere good in a hurry.  In general most of the young and well educated Ugandans I’ve met would rather keep their heads down and take care of themselves and their families – hard to blame them, but obviously not an optimal situation for the advancement of good governance and democracy.

I should add that these are just some casual personal reactions to what I’ve seen and heard around town, not at all a researched post or representative of wider views in Kampala.  Which, in reality, makes this no more valuable than the Times or BBC pieces but I hope that if I did this for a living I’d take the time to gather the opinion of some Ugandans before claiming anything about “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

The Uganda Rural Development & Training Program (URDT)

Tucked away in Kagadi Town, Kibaale District, is the Uganda Rural Development & Training Program (URDT).  I first heard of URDT through my mom after she was invited to a fund-raising event in Boston.  I had checked out their website but Kagadi is a bit off the beaten path so I hadn’t gotten a chance to visit until late last week when I traveled from Hoima to Fort Portal – a casual trip of 200km and 5 hours.  The website suggests they run a girl’s school, a radio station, a farm with progressive and even organic practices, a technical institute, a microcredit project, a land rights center, a recently established “rural university”, and more.  From all this I was a little doubtful, it just sounds like t0o many initiatives for one NGO to do well, and arrived expecting to find a local NGO with a comprehensive if half-way plan for addressing all the various aspects of rural development issues.

I was blown away; my idea of a 30 minute walkabout turned into a 24 hour layover.  Enoch, the Farm Manager, gave me what he called the “marathon tour.”  Not only does URDT actually have each one of those programs but the staff and faculty that direct the various initiatives are exemplary leaders, are passionate about their professions and rural development, and truly buy into the URDT ideology.  URDT is founded on the belief that rural development should focus on achieving goals rather than solving problems.  Sounds simple but in reality that is the difference between single-entity project oriented development and a comprehensive systems-wide approach to transforming lives.  The first says, people don’t have access to clean/enough water – let’s fix that problem and development will follow.  It’s about removing constraints.  The second says, this 13 year old girl comes from a very poor household and she wants to go to university and then go on to do [fill in the blank].  How can we make that dream a reality?  The answer to that question lies in the multitude of complimentary programs and initiatives that URDT has put together both on their beautiful 80 acre campus and in collaboration with the families and communities from which their students come.

The Girls School is home to 30 students per class, grades P5 to S6 (essentially middle & high school), all of whom attend completely free of charge.  Girls are selected based on their needs and the willingness of the family to buy into what they call the “Two Generation Model” where the girls come home during each break with a specific project or series of lessons to pass on to their families and communities.  Anecdotally it appears to be working.  The new African Rural University will open it’s doors this September to a class of 30 young women who want to become rural development professionals.  It’s an attempt to keep talent in rural areas and prepare young women for jobs that exist in the context of rural development.  The faculty has been involved in a five year curriculum development effort and are all excited to welcome the first official class of students.  I sat down with the University Secretary Jacqueline Akello and essentially asked, how’d you guys do all of this?!

While a good portion of the funding comes from outside sources, URDT was founded by two visionary Ugandan men and an Italian woman and started with a small office in Kagadi town in 1987 and they’ve been taking one small step after another ever since.  The Rural University is the capstone in their vision of creating a center that promotes rural development for girls, young women, local professionals and the community as a whole.  Co-founder and CEO Mwalimu Musheshe is an Ashoka Fellow and recently was asked by the Government of Uganda to serve as the director of the National Agriculture Advisory Services (NAADS) in an effort to clean up one of the historically corrupt institutions of this country.

One story that hit home for me: every morning the entire campus comes together for a one hour “Foundation Course” led by one or two members of the faculty, staff or student body.  Topics can cover just about anything related to URDT initiatives or rural development in general.  That morning the course was covering the different appropriate technologies being studied and promoted by the URDT teams.  It was an interesting summary of technologies, including modern bee-keeping techniques, rainwater harvesting, a bio-gas installation, homemade pesticides and a handpump mechanism for collecting water from underground tanks.  At the end of the hour there was a Q&A session and one man stood up and said Thank you for this, but many of us are already aware of these technologies.  Now we need to discuss how these technologies can be used for development, how we can integrate these technologies into the community.  That is what is really important. It was an effort to push the conversation to the next level and to me it spoke of the passion and determination of these individuals to really promote rural development in a way that many groups only talk about.  The question, I later learned, came from the man that directs the solar electrification courses at the technical institute.  Yeah, they do that too.

Check out their website but I will say in their defense that they are well aware that the site is dated and could use some work.  It sure beats a flashy website and a hollow NGO – and there are certainly plenty of those.

About

A collection of observations, thoughts and experienced going back to 2010.