Archive | July, 2015

Sustain This! Slums, Jiggers, and Sustainable Development in Jinja, Uganda, Part I

27 Jul

Sustain this!

Slums, Jiggers, and Civil Society in Jinja, Uganda, Part I

In July of this year, I fulfilled the field work component of Columbia University’s Global Competency Certification (GCC) program in Jinja, Uganda. Our recent project in Uganda involved working with four other teachers from the United States to help train a Village Health Team (VHT) in pedagogical methods to be used in community mobilization. VHTs are part of the Ugandan health system, and are comprised of people from local communities who mobilize their communities to combat health issues, promote sanitation and hygiene, and refer neighbors to health clinics. In Jinja, our VHTs are dealing with major infectious skin diseases in their communities, most prominently ringworm, jiggers, scabies, bed bugs, and lice. The conditions in their communities are deplorable, and both children and adults are afflicted with one or a combination of these maladies. The sad reality is that all of these skin ailments are treatable and preventable but that is not what is happening. To effectively deal with this requires a health infrastructure, a health mindset, and effective enforcement of sanitation and hygiene at the home and neighborhood level. In short, it requires an introduction of the horizontal linkages that bond together community. In turn, this requires local bylaws and accountability. In sum, to introduce hygiene and sanitation and to clean up the slums of Jinja requires something that is in short supply in Uganda: civil society. One major question that emerges is, therefore: how do we introduce civil society, or a civic consciousness, among some of the poorest people on the planet in one of the world’s most corrupt polities? In this blog, I will focus on our work in Jinja and some of the major lessons that I learned there. A follow up blog will explore the larger question of how development and civil society have to be related to be truly sustainable.

IMG_5872The slums we dealt with were at first blush horrifying. Without resorting to “poverty porn,” let’s just say that these neighborhoods included as accouterments most of the following: drifts of trash and debris; pools of standing filthy water; soils in which children played, defecated, and became infected; animals of all types, often living in houses with the people; temporary housing with a single room housing upwards of 10 people; and a hideous, smoke-belching still in the center of town stewing up the local brew, Waragi (war gin), a toxic grog distilled from locally grown sugar cane. Our job, after our community visit, was to list the assets that we saw. What emerged was picture that included countless small business. Everybody in the slum was selling something from his or her houses or from ramshackle storefronts. There was a hotel, restaurant, and several movie theaters, though these were of a very rudimentary order. Most children in the village now receive some kind of education. There was a metered spigot for water, though untreated. There were communal toilets, both a plus and a minus. There were no beggars. Children, and everyone, were smiling. People appeared to be fed, happy, and industrious. How, then, to best pitch in for a two week period to progress a community about which we knew little and with which our encounter would be transient? Enter Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD).


Our local fieldwork was coordinated by the FSD. The Foundation for Sustainable Development lists the following core values: Start with assets, not problems; motivate community ownership; generate enduring results and impacts; focus on the site teams; build capacities; be a bridge; change perspectives; and promote reciprocity. I would have to say that our program was definitely within the parameters of the FSD’s core working with Ugandan health officials to train VHTs, participating in the community mobilizations, and then helping to implement the health clinic at the Masese Childhood Development Center. We spent the first three days visiting the communities, and then working with local Ugandan Health Care officials to develop the program to both impart information about skin diseases, but also to expose the VHT members to pedagogical methods to better their engagement with their communities. The first day of the training was monumental info-out, with a district health official giving the VHTs good word on diarrheal diseases and preventative measures. In the afternoon, however, we participated in breakout sessions with the VHT members, in which they brainstormed sanitary conditions common to their communities and how they might work to prevent the spread of common diseases at the village level. The breakout session that I attended was revelatory. The community members developed a daunting list of at-risk behaviors in their communities and then began to examine common denominators. On the one hand, they all agreed that poverty was the underlying cause of much community health dysfunctions, but they also listed many specific behaviors that exacerbated unhealthy living: bringing animals into the house at night to prevent theft; children playing in dirt; sharing clothing; not washing hands after using the toilet; not helping to keep the communal toilets clean; not cleaning up trash; leaving food uncovered; not working to eradicate bedbugs; human-to-human contact. They then came to the conclusion that they had to develop a community health consciousness to start to alter these behaviors. They weren’t going to fix poverty, but they could help clean up their communities. This was a positive start.


Our team of Global Competency Certification (GCC) teachers conducted the training over the next two days. We worked hard to vary our presentations to showcase ways to make the distribution of information a bit more engaging. For instance, one of my colleagues, Claude, from Edina, Minnesota, worked to develop a game that they could play to simulate the spread of a disease in a community with little sanitation and no clinics. By the end of the fourth round, everyone was infected and most had several infections. This was simple and used scraps of paper and pencils to show when someone was infected. It was a huge hit, and the numbers of those with three, two, or one infections was eye opening for the VHT members. My GCC colleague Jen used walk and talk techniques, I used Band-Aids to illustrate the spread of ringworm, and the VHTs did skits to demonstrate some of the push back they might encounter from their communities. One point rang true: the VHT members were motivated and were ready to learn our teaching techniques to take to their communities. However, in my biggest learning moment, I misread my VHT and discovered that they were much farther along than I suspected. It also showed me the value of interrogating bias, and keeping one’s cultural baggage well stowed if one is to be effective interacting with other cultures.


The major roadblocks to my understanding of my Ugandan peers were language and culture. Because I had no knowledge of the local language, and I dealt with people with variable facility in English (though, overall, their language proficiency in English was advanced), I often missed verbal cues that would have given me some direction on their relative level of understanding. After the second day of training, we had a chance to meet with our VHT to work out their presentations for their community mobilizations the next week. I went over what I thought was a reasonable “lesson plan” with my VHT. Instead of nodding in assent, they instead began chattering away in Luganda (the local language) and seemed to be missing everything that I mentioned. My initial thoughts were “what the heck is so difficult about this outline we are going over?” Alice, one of the colleagues at Masese CDC, came over, listened to the conversation, and then sharply turned to me and noted that they were upset about the scheduled timing of the community mobilization the next Monday morning. Their community, Lakesite, was a fishing community situated on Lake Victoria, and the mornings were the busiest time for the village. If the community health mobilization were to go on as planned, they needed to inform their neighbors in advance of Monday, so that their neighbors could attend. At that moment, it became clear to me that my job was to impart some teaching techniques, to observe, and to critique methods. As a Mzungu (literally, white boy), I was the true outsider. The true experts in community health care matters were the locals. From that moment, I went forward as an engaged observer and mentor, not someone who had to dictate the format, much less the content of the mobilization.


The community mobilizations occurred on Monday and Tuesday. The first one, held in a field situated, courtyard-like, between houses on three sides and a school on the fourth, drew about 25 people from the surrounding community as well as the local councilman and pastor. After the obligatory prayer (Ugandans are extremely religious), the VHT did a nice presentation, though some of the community participants were a bit disengaged. On the other hand, they loved the simulation. I made it a point afterward to offer some small suggestions: Perhaps bring the flip chart closer to the audience by walking through the assembled crowd, as opposed to just standing and talking in front of them? “Meet and greet” people when they first arrive so that they feel welcome. This is also a great time to jot down names and contact information. Be clearer with framing the talk and work on transitions between sections of the presentation and between presenters. The next day, we doubled our turnout, and the VHT incorporated all of my suggestions into a much more polished presentation. When I left after three hours, they were still counseling and talking to nearly 20 people. They were poised, knew their materials and their audience, and were eager for hints on how to improve. The proof to the pudding was the nearly 200 people who showed up on Thursday for the health clinic, where community members and their children received free check ups and access to drugs to treat the myriad skin diseases that afflict their villages.


So, what was the lesson to all of this? One is what every teacher needs to understand: take a step back and trust your students to rise to the occasion in class. As the new canard goes, students (children and adults) need a “guide by the side,” not necessarily “a sage on the stage.” If the training and mobilization had been about me, then I needed to control everything from content to its delivery. In most cases, however, the real learning comes from students grappling with the material and presenting it in ways that make sense to them. This lesson is amplified when dealing with peoples from very different linguistic, cultural, and historical backgrounds. As Mzungu, what really was I going to tell the Lakesite VHT and their community about their problems and the solutions? Even if I had the answers, why would they listen to me, and what follow up and accountability could I impel, being there for a grand total of two weeks? Instead, it was much more effective to enter into a longer term process of building the local capacities to deal with local problems. Sustainability in development isn’t aid, as Margaret, our FSD mentor in Jinja, told us. Rather, it is contributing to small, incremental shifts in behavior that can help people lead better lives. In this case, my colleagues and I helped to motivate VHTs to go into their communities and to engage their neighbors in the task of taking ownership of their own health outcomes. As I will discuss in my next post, local ownership and capacities is one part of the path to development, but let’s not discount the impact of politics and tradition in Africa just yet.

Change in Uganda

21 Jul

Change in Uganda

Despite being a dynamic and evolving country, Uganda has an issue with change, especially in the economic realm. Several vignettes dealing with the economy stand out from my time in Uganda. Each one demonstrates, I believe, how certain behaviors that Ugandans take as a given, hinder the growth of the economy and the generation of civil society. I will also end with a note of hope that Ugandans are more than willing to change for the better.

My first hour in Uganda was a bit harrowing, in a sleep-deprived sort of way. I had arrived at Entebbe airport (yes, it is indeed the same airport made famous in “Raid on Entebbe”) at 4 am and was to have been picked up. Upon clearing customer, finding my luggage and schlepping it out front of the airport, a mob of would-be taxi drivers confronted me, none of whom displaying a sign with my name on it. After 20 minutes of finding the name of my hotel and triple checking that my ride had indeed failed to materialize, I hesitantly accepted a cab drivers offer for a ride to my hotel. Before we could leave the parking area at the Entebbe airport, however, my driver had to buy a ticket with which to secure our departure. When we approached the gate, the driver showed the ticket to a man in a booth, who failed to register any reaction, must less any signs of life. The gage stayed down. There we sat. For five minutes. Finally, without any suggestion of an animate life form, listlessly, a hand flopped over to flip a switch. The gate raised. We were on our way.

One of the ubiquitous occurrences in Ugandan life is the parking ticket. Local governments, such as the one in Jinja, subcontract out parking enforcement to private firms. In the case of Jinja, when one drives downtown to go to a shop or restaurant, the Ugandan variant of a meter maid (in this case, a scruffy individual wearing a green dayglow vest) will place a ticket under your windshield wiper. When this happens, you have to find the person who gave the ticket and pay him the fine, which is of the infinitesimally small amount of 200 Ugandan shillings (about 6 US cents). However, if you don’t pay within an hour, your fine goes up to a 1000 (about 30 US cents but enough to make a difference at Ugandan prices). So, whenever our bus driver Dan took us downtown to grab lunch or dinner, he invariably ended up spending at least 15 minutes trying to chase down the parking enforcer. Exacerbating this meaningless activity was the propensity of the “meter maid” to disappear once the car or van is ticketed, apparently with the hope that an hour or so would transpire and the ticket would rise in price. What is more, even if the driver is able to find the parking cop (for lack of a better name), chances are this individual will feign to not have the ability to make change for, say, a 1000 shilling note. The driver is then faced with the prospect of running to get change (chancing a higher fine for running out of time) or just surrendering to the inevitable and accepting that you have paid the equivalent of 5 fines. Only dogged determination can wear down the adamantine resistance of the Ugandan parking enforcer. I watched last Saturday, as Dan had to abase himself to get his 800 shillings back from the charlatan, who pretended to have no change, but ultimately relented and graciously returned the balance of Dan’s money.

As I noted above, change is an issue in Uganda. The consumer is overcome with a feeling of panic should he or she venture out without a pile of 1000 and 2000 shilling notes required to carry out 99% of the transactions in Uganda. Boda drivers, stores, restaurants, bars, discos, larcenous military personnel demanding bribes, all nourish themselves from a steady drip feed of small denomination bills that serve as a lubricant for economic activity. Denominations larger than 10,000 engender panic and delay, even at established businesses that should have the resources to make change. I witnessed this first hand on Sunday in Entebbe. Having dined at a beachfront restaurant and bar on a cheese pizza generously labeled Margarita and a cup of the worst Sanka that I have ever drunk, I endeavored to pay the bill of 25,000 shillings with a 50,000 shilling note. What transpired was my harried waiter moving from person to person throughout the entire beach resort complex trying to procure my change. Only after 20 minutes was he able to return successful. I had my change, and I could now go out and return to the economy. However, by that point (I had been in Uganda for 14 days), I had to let someone know how I felt, and I unloaded on a group of waiters and the bar tender about the merits of having sufficient currency on hand to conduct business transactions. They apologized profusely, but said there was little to be done about it. Once my bill was settled, I left the bar feeling pretty sheepish for acting like such an American. However, as we will see, this interchange was not without its impact. I will return to our waiter here at the end of this blog.

So, what do all of these have in common? These episodes illustrate the petty indignities that Ugandans perpetrate and live with day-in, day-out. They erode self-esteem, undermine civility, and, most importantly, suck time and energy from hard working Ugandans who hustle to make a shilling to better their circumstances and those of their children. Consumers, workers, and businesses suffer a “death by 1000 cuts” of time and energy expended conducting the simplest transactions, which in turn burdens Ugandans with additional discouragement whenever he or she enters the economy. An absence of officially sanctioned petty larceny, passive aggressive behavior, and adequate liquidity would free up time to tend to the next customer, or to visit the next store, or to get that piece of paper work processed so that you can get on with your life.

Now, back to my favorite waiter in Entebbe. Sure enough, I not only dined for lunch at the beach resort near my hotel, but I dragged my colleagues there for late afternoon elixirs and dinner. And, sure enough, I had the same waiter. After plying us with several malted beverages and yet another pizza, we asked to pay our bill. Instead of running off to find and calculate our individual tickets and procure change, he settled up with us on the spot. He was accurate and sure of himself, and obviously very busy with other customers. The alternative, he explained, would entail him to go run through four separate bills with the ever unseen bursar and that at least 20 minutes would elapse before we would be able to wander on our way, and before he could seat the next table and earn some more money. Instead, we gladly paid, left him a gratuity (uncommon in Uganda), unloading Ugandan currency before our flights that evening, and we went on our way. Admittedly, no 50 k notes were present, but that’s not the point. I would bet that this waiter and everyone else in this economy feels the same frustration at the purposeless series of inefficiencies and inconveniences visited upon both customers and businesses in this economy. My favorite waiter took it upon himself to try a different tact, either with or without my prompting. Either way, it shows that perhaps change is in the offing in Uganda, after all.

Notes on Ugandan Politics

12 Jul

Notes from Uganda

This is a complicated place. On the one hand, Uganda, the “Pearl of Africa,” is incredibly well-endowed with resources, an equatorial climate and rich soil that sustain the population seemingly with ease, and a communal sensibility amongst its people that is nearly beyond American conception. On the other hand, Uganda’s history since its liberation from the British has been a dreary cycle of coups, countercoups, and government corruption on a monumental scale. This last week’s news bore this out.

I arrived home to my host mother’s house at 8 pm Thursday night (July 9). Unlike all previous nights, I returned to find the gate locked, lights dimmed, and no one there to greet me despite the fact that I had texted ahead of time letting her know when I would be arriving. I was able to phone and Ruth, a live-in niece, came to let me in. Inside, I found a scene reminiscent of some kind of Graham Greene novel. My host mother, Lucy (not her name), was sitting listening to the news of the day blaring over the radio. She looked extremely tired, worried, and somewhat sad. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked her if she had any updates on the big political news of the day. She just wearily shook her head and exclaimed: “this is no good; no good at all.” There was tenseness in the air, the lights were dimmed, and I half-expected the arrival of trucks outside the compound to take us all away. The events of the day illustrated several of the big issues facing Uganda and other African nations: namely, what to do when a long time President/Dictator refuses to relinquish power gracefully.

President Museveni, leader of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), who has served as President since having deposed Prime Minister Milton Obote in 1986, is gearing up for another Presidential run. His major rivals, including former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, an NRM member, and opposition party leader Kizza Besigye of the rival Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) are gearing up to oppose Museveni in next year’s election. Mbabazi had planned to travel to Mbale on Thursday for consultative meetings for as a presidential aspirant. Before he arrived however, he was arrested and held for over six hours before his release late Thursday night. Almost, simultaneously, police blocked the campaign watch of FDC presidential candidate, Dr. Kissa Besigye. He was arrested physically removing a barrier that police had placed across the road to prevent him from leaving his house in Kampala. He, too, was later released.

Here is where this gets weird. Both arrests were based upon a law that had been actually been sponsored by Mbabazi when he was Prime Minister. This law, the Public Order Management Act (POMA), gives the police wide ranging powers, including preventing more than five people from holding a public meeting or protest without police permission. Because Mbabazi is not the recognized candidate for his party, his planned meeting in Mbale was illegal, hence his detention. How he can become the candidate without having secured the backing of his party, the purpose of his journey, is beyond me? His opponents gleefully pilloried him because of his sponsorship of a law that actually was used to keep him from launching his own campaign. The other detainee, Kizza Besigye, is the actual candidate for his party, thus stretching the security force’s already tendentious reasoning for arrest beyond the breaking point. When I raised this with a Ugandan guide at our weekend retreat, he just said he avoids politics because it “just makes me so angry. They just lie so blatantly and there is little that we can do about it.” Furthermore, he noted, you can get into big, big, trouble in Uganda if you talk about politics.

Museveni’s political domination has led to political repression. That much is clear. Democracy is a word without any real procedure power, and people have been denied their rights. In turn, this has led to the establishment of a Kleptocracy whose impact is felt down to the local levels and has heart-breaking consequences for some of the nicest people on the planet. To examine this, we need to turn no further than the other item from the news of July 9: the uncovering of a corruption scandal connected to the massive highway construction projects that are ongoing throughout Uganda. In a recent case, a government ministry was charged with dispersing reimbursements for the owners of land condemned to help clear the right of way. However, the payments, of around 20 billion Ugandan Shillings ($1 = 3500 Shillings) were dispersed to fictitious landowners, and the money eventually found its way into off shore accounts. This may not seem to be so much money, but in a country where families subsist on a per capita income of $570 per annum, this brazen corruption has horrible consequences.

When one visits a slum area in Uganda, one is left to wonder what would happen if the 20 billion shillings, instead of lining the pockets of corrupt government officials, had gone into a village initiative to provide running water, sanitary toilets, eradication of jiggers and other soil-based parasite, some paved roads, less mud, and perhaps a playground, and nutrition and education programs for all children. However, the democratic solution of “voting the bastards” out does not seem to be an option. This does not mean that there is not hope. As I am beginning to understand, Ugandans survive because of their incredible kin and community networks, and their unbelievable optimism and kindness. I have not seen starving people, and beggars are nonexistent. These people take care of their own, up to a point.

Ugandans have their flaws, but they certainly deserve a better deal than they have been getting from their politicians. The answer may not lie with formal politics, but at the community level organizations of poor people taking control of bettering their own lives. I’ll explore this in my next installment.

Every dog has his day…And night.

7 Jul

Every Dog has his day…or night

The rhythms of cities are often not discernable to the casual visitor. Different times of day belong to different people, or creatures. In Bozeman, Montana, where I’m from, the very early morning is the province of the crow and the “endangered” Magpie. Yacking, squeaking, and squawking punctuate what should be a pristine and still Rocky Mountain morning, and, what is more, they do it with impunity. You can’t call the cops against a Magpie, and even if you shoot them, a healthy fine awaits for your efforts.

Now on my third day here in Jinja, Uganda, I have learned, to my distress, that both humans and animal life disturb the otherwise wonderful evenings from midnight to 6 am. After the 10 pm Ugandan dinner, I retire to my room to try to recover from my rather impressive jet lag. In a time that should be filled with blissful rest, however, my efforts at sleep are shattered by the throbbing bass line issuing from the local discotheque, that doesn’t really get going until well after midnight and lasts until 4 am punctually (I checked). Contented that at least a few hours in the arms of Somnes beckon, I roll over only to learn that it is time for the animals to take over.

First, there are the dogs. Africans don’t keep pets. They may have animals, but coddling animals in a home is not the norm, at least not in Jinja. Instead, near feral beasts commence to yap and yammer when the disco shuts down. First one (right next door) begins to yip, and various interlocutors soon chime in. What is more, the local rooster adds to the cacophony that lasts until 6 am when the noise of humans, the rumble of trucks and the whine of the ubiquitous “boda boda” drown out the animals, who, satisfied with their performance, shut down until the show the next morning.

By this time, the return of traffic produces a white noise that allows some semblance of sleep until I get up at 7 ready for another day. However, it does bring up a few points about societies and law. Naturally, one can’t legislate away crows and Magpies. However, those who sour on local zoning ordinances and the constabulary should take heed of the consequences when those simple things are missing or corruptible. A disco in my parent’s neighborhood in Bozeman that opens at midnight until 4 am, would be a great time for many people (especially a younger version of myself). However, it would destroy what makes the neighborhood and would simply not be tolerated. On Main Street, yes, this would work. But not on Harrison Street.  My host family in Uganda doesn’t seem to mind the Disco, or the yammering dogs. However, I’m not sure that, even if they wanted to change, it, they could do it in a nation with weak institutions and corrupt officials. But that is the subject of future blogs.