Slow and Steady Wins the Race (#3)

Uganda’s culture is one of hope and thanks. In fact, the first words of Luganda I learned were the many ways to show appreciation. No matter the person, or circumstance in which you meet them in, it is always appropriate to thank them for their work—even if you aren’t sure of what that work may be. It’s been wonderful to work in a culture of appreciation and praise but, for the oblivious foreigner, this work culture can pose an issue of accurate self-assessment.  

During my training with the Foundation for Sustainable Development, the San Francisco based nonprofit that placed me with St. Jude, I was warned against waiting until the last moment to discover and address obstacles to successful project completion. Critical assessment at every phase of research is imperative to attaining reliable and complete results. As such, I decided to distribute an assessment to my teachers group to ascertain whether my teaching style was appropriate and if each trainee was grasping the concepts thus far. Unfortunately, the results were a bit disheartening. Of those assessed, only about a fourth scored well, another quarter average, while the remainder struggled critically.  

Although the results were not what I expected or hoped for, they did give me some insight on which concepts needed to be retaught. The insight, however, also posed a larger issue—having to spend a class session (or three) more focused on financial literacy would delay agro-ecology training which would in turn delay the start of individual agriculture ventures that would serve as the results I planned to observe for my research. So I was faced with a dilemma. Should I go ahead as planned, knowing the results I would yield would likely be unfavorable, but complete? Or should I take the time necessary to ensure each student had the financial skills to manage their projects effectively?   

I want my time in Uganda to mean something, both to me and to the people I work with, not just enable me to complete a research paper.   

I chose the latter. The research paper needs to be completed nonetheless, so I had to find an alternative observation method. Luckily, I had been working with a local women’s group that uses a similar group loan scheme that I encouraged Together We Can, my teachers group, to use. I’ll be collecting stories of success and setbacks from individual women as well as visiting their land. I hope to glean an idea of the effectiveness of the collective savings/ loan program compared to traditional bank loans for agriculture ventures. Not only will this provide observations for my paper, but it will likely yield practical advice for my pupils. 

My lesson plans were able to be adapted as well. My financial literacy training and agro-ecology training are no longer mutually exclusive. For example, while reteaching budgeting, we developed a real budget for a project involving poultry, so they were not only learning to budget, but also understanding the financial commitment of that particular agro-ecology venture (both the start up and the long term maintenance). Any agriculture training I am unable to complete with TWC during my time here can be taught by St. Jude in my absence, so I’m comfortable making financial literacy my focus. These skills are severely lacking in the community and, as we know, there can’t be true sustainability without economic sustainability on both the individual and community level. In the end, I’m certain my community will show thanks for a job well done rather than a job done quickly. 

The Small Beginning of My Big Project: Teaching My First Class (#2)

In my time in Masaka, Uganda, I’ve had the opportunity to address two pressing issues the country faces: food security and education. Although Uganda is a vibrant and rapidly developing country, many of its political policies and social norms stunt its growth. One such issue is the general lack of support for and payment of educators. Despite the country’s renewed focus on education, Ugandan teachers are regarded as second class citizens. These educators are paid poorly, their salaries are sometimes withheld during budget crises, and yet continue to be dedicated to delivering quality education to their students. Teachers are the true backbone of Uganda.  

For this reason, I have chosen to primarily work with a local teachers’ group to help improve the circumstances of the teachers themselves, their schools and their pupils. By training them to employ some relevant new skills, I hope they are enabled to improve their financial statuses and the wellbeing of their students. Through financial literacy training they will learn to better manage their income, and with agro-ecological training they will gain an alternative means to supplement their income. My hope is that, in time, these teachers will even be able to pass their new skills on to their students and schools.    

First Meeting With Together We Can Teachers Group
 

Many Ugandan students lack access to proper nutrition and are left hungry throughout the school day. Some schools attempt to field this burden but, in addition to the burden of orphaned children, children from child-headed homes, and children affected in some way by HIV/AIDS, feeding students can be difficult to manage. Thankfully, St. Jude and SCOPE have been working to mitigate the issue by working with communities to transform schools into functional landscapes. Schools in Uganda are often located on enough land for small-scale agricultural ventures that can have tangible impacts on the student nutrition. Through St. Jude and SCOPE, educators -including the teachers I work with- are being equipped with the knowledge to extend this agricultural work to their schools.

I have the privilege to work with a wonderful teachers’ group in my community called Together We Can. Their name truly embodies their spirit—they are clearly devoted to improving their students lives as well as their own. In our very first meeting, we were able to make significant strides. With my and my supervisor Josephine Kizza’s guidance, the group agreed to form a group savings account. A membership fee of 10,000 UGX was established as well as weekly dues in the amount of 2,500 to 10,000 UGX. In the future, members will be able to apply for loans to be taken out of the group account. The purpose of these loans will be to start individual or joint agricultural ventures supplementing their salaries.

TWC discussing the financial proposal
 
We felt it was important, before funds are distributed, that all members fully understand debt and how to manage their finances to optimize their ventures. Therefore, in our very next meeting, before dues were even collected, I taught my first round of financial literacy training. I opened with a discussion of their individual goals, then demonstrated how budgeting could help them reach those goals. I then taught them how to account for both fixed and variable expenses as well as accommodate savings. After we establish the basics of budgeting, I moved on to the basics of interest. Together they calculated both the simple and compound interest of loans and savings deposits at various points in time.

First Training Session with TWC on Finanical Literacy
 
Although I had prepared, making lesson plans and activity sheets, I was still nervous. When I was finally in front of the class, seeing the lightbulbs come on and their excitement grow as they learned, I was thrilled! Unfortunately, in my own excitement about teaching money management, time management flew out the window while teaching. We ran out of time before delving into banking services, but I couldn’t be too disappointed, because we all left with high spirits and renewed confidence. My supervisor sat in and was pleased, asking that I teach the same lesson to our staff and to a local women’s group I’ve visited with. I came, I taught, I conquered! I’m off to a great start!
 
First Training Session with TWC
 
 

A Mzungu in Masaka (#1)

Busense. Matooke. Kizza. Those are the names of my new village, staple food, and family here in the Masaka district of Uganda. Luganda is the language of the Buganda people, and my newest challenge. So far I’ve barely mastered traditional greetings and the environmental terms for work, but Masaka’s community is warm and encouraging, so I practice daily with flashcards because I want to be a good Mzungu.

Mzungu is a Luganda term that refers to all foreigners, though it loosely translates to “white man running around.” Apparently, when the first European settlers arrived, Ugandans were quite amused by all their rushing about. On my walk to work, schoolchildren will yell out “how are you auntie Mzungu” and sometimes accompany me, wanting to hear all about my life in America and asking me to teach them Spanish words. To get to work, I walk about 2 kilometers from home through hilly pastures to my make-shift office. The walk is refreshing and, even when it’s not, the view from my office makes it worth it every time. It’s nothing short of breathtaking.

 

the view from my office

 

I am the latest intern for St. Jude Family Projects, an impressive NGO that focuses on integrated organic agriculture. St. Jude began small in 1997 but, as need for training became more apparent and the successes of previous trainees became more evident, they expanded their capacity. In 2011 the agricultural training center, St. Jude College of Agro Ecology (SCOA), was completed. Now St. Jude can train 100-200 students at a time in classrooms and on 15 acres of agro-ecology demonstration area. Most students travel far to reach the college, and some training sessions last several days, so the College has housing accommodations and a dining area on site that sleep and serve up to 100. Room 24 has become my quasi-office because the Wi-Fi is stronger in here than in the actual offices, and I’m an impatient Mzungu.

SCOA empowers people of all ages and educational backgrounds to become self-sufficient, but greater emphasis is placed on rural women as they are most often the primary food producers in their families. St. Jude also emphasizes working with schools, children, and the youth to combat malnutrition. Through in-class and hands-on experiences with agro-ecological projects and animals, farmers learn to boost soil fertility, increase crop productivity, and create healthy micro climates. As a result, families and schools increase income and nutrition while preserving the integrity in the land.

The last two paragraphs of this blog flowed seamlessly from my fingers because most of my time has been spent learning about and writing concept notes for St. Jude. Grantwriting is, however, only one of my duties. I’m also tasked with reworking our website, improving our record keeping, and working the land. I can use ‘our’ because everyone here is family and they’ve adopted me as the new baby. In addition to my regular duties, I’ve also begun my own project working with a local teachers group.

Uganda is home to some of the happiest people in the world, but also ranks fairly high in poor payment of educators. Not only are resources for schools minimal, but Ugandan teachers barely make enough to send their own children to decent schools. Sometimes months pass without pay, and yet they stay dedicated to their cause. These teachers believe education is every Ugandan child’s birthright and they are intent on delivering it. In order to help supplement their incomes, I will be teaching them agro-ecology and financial literacy. The hope is to have them implement what they learn at their schools so not only can their students learn these skills, but the schools themselves can help supplement students’ diets. It’s hard to keep the attention of a hungry child.

While Uganda has made immense progress in the past few decades with the help of its citizens’ hard work and optimism, food security and education remain hard-pressing issues. I’m primarily here to learn, but I hope to make a difference, even if small, while I’m at it.

the dormitories
the dining hall

 

field behind the offices

 

reception area and offices