July 6, 2009

Welcome to Africa and Invisible Children (just a little late)

Blog posts:

The following is a "brief" excerpt from the journal that I am keeping here in Gulu. Though it is a little old, I believe that it will give you a good idea of where I am and some background on the organization I am working with. I hope you enjoy.

17 June 2009 (Wednesday)

I was up at about 6 today. Before taking my shower, I strolled outside and stood for a few moments on the front porch. I can't imagine ever not loving the sounds and smells of an African morning. To my right, on Pecce road, a small pickup truck packed with about 20 boys was heading to the big field behind Gulu Secondary School for sports competition. As they bounced along, they were singing in unison and periodically yelling out victory chants. As their noise trailed off, Celine Dion's smash hit, "I'm a lady" could be heard trailing out of the storefront four doors down. At this time of day, people are slowly crawling out of their huts, the women are sweeping the dirt around their living areas, men and school children are slowly filling the streets, and goat bleets, chicken clucks, and turkey growls drift through the cool morning breeze. Hello Gulu, I am home!

I strolled back into the compound and hopped into the shower to prepare for the day. I had forgotten exactly how cold a cold shower really is and I am sure that the gasps and grunts filtering into the courtyard made for an interesting conversation for my colleagues. I only say this because other grunts and groans could be heard coming from the doors on either side of my stall and even I had to chuckle to myself. If ever there were a way to conserve water, this would definitely rank high on the list.

Our first meeting of the day was at the Invisible Children Intern House (I stayed there last year when I was in Gulu town on the weekends), which is about a thirty minute walk from where we are staying. The path is fairly straight, but the walk is anything but as a person has to dodge an endless stream of boda boda drivers, pickup trucks, pedestrians, goats, and occasional burning garbage heap. All along the road there are little shops selling all of the wares that one might need for their stay in Gulu. Women sit by the side of the road on blankets with an endless array of mangoes, jack fruit, bananas, beans, rice, and other food stuffs. Store fronts (advertising shoes, DVD burning, and milk--talk about one stop shopping) are open and usually with two or three people loitering inside and catching up on the past days news. People are in transit, moving in every direction carrying large bags of charcoal on the back of their bikes, balancing baskets of various wares on their heads, and carrying live chickens draped upside down across the handlebars of their motorcycles. The sides of buildings are painted with advertisements for Nido powdered milk, MTN cellular phones, and myriad other big name brands of Uganda. People all along the way walk forward with purpose almost scowling but, when engaged with a friendly hello or nod and smile, slow down to return the gesture as their faces light up with a sense of familiarity and friendship.

Once we had made it through the town center, we left the main roads and continued on the path past Awere Secondary school, one of the partner schools of the Invisible Children Schools 4 Schools program. Awere is actually a village some distance outside of Gulu that was displaced during the conflict in the north with the LRA. They are currently making preparations to move back to the original school site soon, leaving the Gulu school behind. The buildings, like many of the schools in the north, are temporary buildings (Awere displaced site is on railroad land--though there are no railroads or train cars in sight--and is forbidden to erect any permanent structures). The walls are held up with timber poles fixed into the ground, and the sides of the building are covered with boards (from the first cut of the tree-slightly rounded and minus the bark) that aren't always straight creating more of a transparent screen than an opaque wall. The roofs of the buildings are corrugated steel, and the sound of rain pelting the roof is deafening, stopping classes for the duration.

The path continues on into a small market where you can buy various food items, have your maize ground into flour, or stop to "take a beer" and play billiards. The scene is similar to walking through the main section of the town, but the buildings are typically no bigger than a small walk-in closet and are constructed even more poorly than the temporary schools. Beyond the market is a water pump where it is not unusual to see a line of thirty jerry cans waiting to be filled and several women pumping water and laughing. I often say hello to the women who respond to the greeting and then make jokes in Luo with each other, elevating the laughing even more. After walking through the field behind prison primary, where we often see children playing European/African football with wound up plastic bags, we crossed the road to Lacor and arrived at the gate to the IC Intern house.

When I walked through the door, I was greeted by Michael, the incredibly nice guy who works around the IC volunteer house doing general maintenance and upkeep. He was in the middle of mortaring some bricks for the new guard room off of the from gate to the house. He was on a break from chopping a large tree into small pieces with a machete... I walked around the back of the house and saw Doreen, the cook for IC staffers in Uganda, and immediately sung a big "Doreen, so glad to see you," in my best baritone voice. Doreen greeted me with her huge smile and a very quiet "Matthew, so good to see you." I gave her a hug, and she settled back into her morning rituals.

Our slate at the IC house was pretty full. Our morning started with a conversation with Erica-the IC Public Relations person in Gulu, Jolly Grace Okot-The IC country director for Uganda, and Jarred-Director of programs on the ground. Jolly started with an introduction to the teaching situation in Uganda. She described the plight of Ugandan teachers as a way of explaining some of the complications with the school system in Uganda. Teachers are employed by either the government, or the local PTA. Government teachers earn about 200,000 Ugsh (about $100) a month. PTA teachers earn significantly less. Often, teachers have to maintain houses in multiple villages because they (teachers on the government payroll) can be transferred to any school in Uganda by the government at any time and are allowed to spend a maximum of ten years at any one school. This often forces teachers to maintain a home in their home village as well as their teaching village. When that is compounded with the fact that the public perception of teachers in Uganda is that they fell into the profession because they were unable to complete studies and achieve a better job, motivation is not plentiful.

Jarred followed with a discussion of the why IC chose to support secondary education system in Uganda. He pointed to the Invisible Children's philosophy of "do one thing, and do it well," as the reason why IC has chosen to focus on secondary education in Uganda. Most of the NGO's in the north are providing assistance to primary schools. This year, IC is one of three programs that support secondary schools. The need for this support is great. Currently, only 7% of the population of Uganda graduates from secondary school (the proportions are heavily weighted towards the south), and only 1% of the population currently continues on to study at university. In order to have the most sustainable impact, IC wants to elevate access to and quality of education in the north so that they can create a system of sustainable change from within. In order to achieve this, IC has created several programs (along with the teacher exchange program) to meet this end. IC has a visible child program that sponsors several students by paying school fees. They currently sponsor 60 students at University and 590 students at the secondary level. They also employ about 30 mentors (who are professional teachers) to periodically meet with all of the sponsored students and assist them with their studies and life counseling. IC also has the schools for schools programs that pairs partner schools in the U.S. with schools in Uganda (there are currently 11 Uganda partner schools) to create fund-raising programs to support infrastructure projects. These projects range from building new classroom blocks and science laboratories, to providing textbooks and science materials, and even the construction of dormitories for partner boarding schools. Of the money raised in the Schools for Schools program, 90% of the funds are put back into the schools with only 10% being used for administrative purposes--very respectable.

Erica was the third to speak, and she talked about IC's other programs that less directly impact the schools but also work towards facilitating economic independence in Uganda. IC's newest program is the organic cotton initiative. At one time, Uganda used to produce very high quality (ranked 3 in the world) cotton, but because of the war in the North and the move to IDP camps, the cotton farming industry and infrastructure went away. The program, still in its initial stages, has signed up approximately 4,000 farmers for the program. These farmers will receive training in organic and sustainable practices so that they are able to produce high quality cotton that meets current public demand. IC has paired with cotton industry partners in Uganda who will buy the cotton at a fair wage price and process the cotton before sending it out to be fabricated. IC has also partnered with Eden, an organic cotton clothing line developed by Bono. Not only will this greatly increase the marketing power of the cotton initiative, but Eden will open facilities in Uganda to create the textiles allowing the entire process (from seed to finished product) to occur in Uganda. IC has also successfully launched the MEND program. One of the major vocational skills training programs in Uganda provided by rehabilitation programs for war affected youth as well as by NGO's is tailoring. Unfortunately, the market in Uganda is so saturated with skilled tailors, that many people who do receive this training are unable to make a living wage in their trade. MEND takes women who are war affected, provides them with design training, and produces designer handbags and messenger bags that are currently marketed through IC's website. MEND hopes to promote a global demand for this high quality product. The third economic initiative that IC has developed is the bracelet campaign. This was one of the initial economic programs that was developed, and it involved employing several hundred (at its peak) bracelet makers from various IDP camps to produce a product that not only provided them with a living wage income, but also created a product that would help to promote Invisible Children internationally. Purchasers of bracelets also receive a DVD depicting the life story of a child in the north. They are able to wear the bracelet and share the story with anyone who might ask.

One of the coolest components of all of these initiatives is the Savings and Investment Training Initiative (SITI). Participants receive training in all aspects of running a business including budgeting, accounting, investing, and saving. After they have completed their tenure in one of the financial initiatives, participants are able to use this knowledge, and the money earned while a part of the program, to start business ventures of their own (some of the participants earnings are held aside until the end of the program). Many of the participants have started their own micro-finance programs, and quite a few successful (and creative) business adventures have resulted.


If you have made it this far, I commend you on your persistence. I will continue trying to update this blog (hopefully with more frequency than I have been updating with so far), but I will be changing from my traditional format. Instead, I will write about my collective experiences as I feel so inclined. Stay tuned for posts like "Toads, Cats, and Flying Ants," "Billiards Beer and Best Buds," and "On Taking a cold shower in Africa."

Best to all,

1 comment:

  1. I love to read your writing...especially about Gulu. I feel like I'm right there with you. Keep it up! D & I talked about you while on the trail. Hoping you're loving it even more this year.


Please remember this is a public forum. Your comments will be visible to all readers of this blog.