Ugandan depths

In planning and anticipating this trip, I had envisioned that our first two weeks (in Arabia) would be the fun part. In Uganda, I expected something more challenging and not always pleasant: two 8- to 10-hour driving days (between Kampala, the capital, and the remote western region where the granny project is located) sandwiched around three intense days of traveling over punishing dirt roads to get to hours of meetings in poor villages. But as we were packing Saturday night for our return trip home, I reflected with some surprise that the Ugandan part turned out to be the best.

As much as I love travel, I’m often struck by how superficial it can be. You blow through a city or a country in a day or two, and even if you’re paying close attention and asking tons of questions, you leave with only the slimmest understanding of how things work. Our sojourn in Uganda was an effort to go a bit deeper. We were returning to Nyaka, the village we visited four years ago as emissaries of Women’s Empowerment (WE) in San Diego. At that time, we were seeking to determine if the Nyaka AIDS Foundation’s granny project might be a good partner to receive some of the money WE raises for micro loans.

Steve and I fell in love with the Ugandan grannies the first time we were greeted by a group of them dancing to salute our arrival. These ladies range from 50 to 100 years old and face challenges we found almost unimaginable. Many have lost their husbands, yet all are raising grandchildren who’ve been orphaned or abandoned by their parents. They often look somber and stoic, but when they break into dance, they display astounding energy. Dancing transforms them; turns them exuberant, even joyous.

Four years ago, in talks with the Ugandans who run the project and visits with three granny groups, we also were impressed by their fledgling micro loan program. Upon our return to San Diego in June of 2013, the WE board approved a partnership; Steve and I since then have served as the liaisons between the Ugandans and the Americans. From informal emails and regular reports from the Ugandans, we’ve learned a bit more about them over the years. But we’ve also come to realize the many limits on our knowledge. If you’d asked me a month ago how a 75-year-old widow with no retirement income could not only survive but also raise young children, I would have had no idea.

Thanks to the time we spent in Kigezi, I glimpsed how at least a few of these ladies do it.

One afternoon, we visited the home of 64-year-old Paulina. She’s raising 4 grandchildren ranging in age from 7 to 14.

Paulina with Vian Owamani, the microloan coordinator


Her most recent loan was for 300,000 Ugandan shillings (about $82), and she used part of the money to buy two piglets, paying about $11 each for them. If she can keep them for about a year, until they weigh 45 to 55 pounds, she figures each should fetch somewhere between $55 and $70. Paulina also was using part of her loan to buy ripe coffee beans from neighbors. She dries the beans and sells them to a local coffee mill. Like most older women in rural Uganda, she doesn’t have to worry about paying for housing. She lives in a humble dwelling, with no electricity or water, but it’s been in her family for a long time. She also raises a variety of crops; it’s a way of life here. If the people are poor in this part of Uganda, the land is rich, enabling folks to grow corn, beans, peanuts, sweet and “Irish” potatoes, millet, cassava, rice, yams, vegetables, sorghum, tomatoes, and a head-spinning variety of bananas. Despite the hardships she’d endured, Paulina seemed hard-working and organized.
Fifty-six-year-old Jolly, also raising 4 grandkids, raised her hand to share her story with us but apologized for not standing. She suffers from a lot of back pain, she explained. Jolly was a pioneer — the first of the 7000 or so NAF grannies ever to be deemed by her group to be worthy of a one-million-shilling loan (a whopping $275). She got the money in January and used part of it to buy a foot-powered sewing machine. With the rest, she was renting a little storefront in the center of her town (Buyanja) — $22 a month for a 6-month term. Tailoring wasn’t something new for her. She had learned to do it more than 30 years ago, and at one time had owned 8 sewing machines and employed a crew of girls to make clothes that she sold in the market. But her husband had died in 1994, and she had had to sell all her machines to support her 5 children.

Although Buyanja had other tailors, Jolly had also created a tiny retail counter and a tea shop in the back of her space. A couple of customers were in it when we visited.

Jolly’s tailoring and tea shop. Phionah is the name of one of her daughers, who helps out. And people call all sorts of businesses “hotels.” Don’t ask me why.
Jolly showed us one of her recent creation.

Most of the granny loans are nowhere near the size of Jolly’s. Mauda, 72 and providing a home for three grandchildren, had recently borrowed 50,000 shillings (just under $14). She used the money to buy 2 hens, and she had allowed most of the eggs they laid to hatch. Now she has 12 hens, and besides looking forward to a handsome profit from selling some, she was also using their droppings to fertilize her garden. Although her loan was only a 20th the size of Jolly’s, she looked just as proud of what the money was helping her to achieve.

Over our three days upcountry, we met with 6 of NAF’s 98 granny groups, and sometimes it felt like we were hearing the same story, with minor variations, over and over: granny borrows $7. Or $27. Or $137. She uses it to buy a pair of rabbits. Or a goat. Or hens. Or she buys a bale of used clothing to resell at local markets. Or she rents a stall in the local market and sells vegetables in it. After four months, she repays the loan money (plus 14% to 20% in interest.) She feels extravagantly grateful, because that rate is so much lower than what she would pay to alternative lenders. Assuming she makes a profit (and most do), she usually directs it to paying what it costs to send a child to school. (Even the “public” ones in Uganda cost about $25 a year in fees, plus around $9 for a uniform and another $2-3 for books and supplies.)

Along with these common tales, I learned one thing after another that surprised me. One woman stood up and testified as to how grannies used to be despised in their villages, considered worthless because of their “boozing” and general lack of value. With the formation of her granny group, she and her comrades had acquired self-respect and hope; their status in the community had soared. Steve later asked one of the team members if this woman had been joking; the vision of drunken grannies seemed comic. But the NAF team members assured him she’d been serious; overwhelmed by the difficulty of their situation, the women often had succumbed to alcoholism and despair.

I was surprised every time the ring of a cell phone interrupted our discussions. Most grannies now have cheap ones that they use to communicate with family members.They also rely on battery-powered radios for daily announcements about deaths in the community — or word that a special granny group meeting was being called (to receive the likes of us, for example.)

I was surprised to hear how much the grannies worry about theft, even though in many ways, the rural communities are safe and honest places. When a small backpack belonging to our driver fell out of the van, unnoticed, a villager retrieved it, asked around for the phone number of one of the Nyaka team members, called, and carried the pack to us. But grannies also talked of having to defend against thugs who might steal their chickens, their crops, and their kitchen items. We asked if they used watchdogs. But dogs cost money to keep, and persistent thieves don’t shrink from poisoning them.
Not only the grannies told us things that astounded us. One day during lunch at a simple roadside joint, the topic of malaria came up. The Ugandans who work for the foundation are smart, well-educated, sophisticated. But every one of them was infected with malaria. Everyone is, they said. We pressed them, and they told us how they dealt with flare-ups. They shrugged it off, but it sounded a lot more painful than the common cold.

Ronald, our driver, was similarly matter of fact when we asked about his background. His father had been a doctor, but he had died when Ronald was 6 months old. Then his mother died a year and a half later. Rather than care for 2-year-old Ronald and his 8-year-old sister, the villagers treated them like pariahs (“ghosts” is the term Ronald used). If their parents had been cursed, the children were likely to be cursed also. So Ronald’s sister had somehow raised him. How does an 8-year-old do that? How did Ronald grow up, save money for driving school, and turn himself into the steady, sharp, and competent driver he is today?

On our final drive from Kampala to Entebbe to catch our flight Dubai Monday morning, gazing out the window of our taxi, I saw hundreds of reminders of how hard life is here: guys hawking packs of toilet paper to folks stuck in the hellish traffic, women carrying heavy loads of eggplants and other vegetables on their heads, a kid scrambling to drag in the furniture displayed on the lawn outside a shop before the rain got too heavy. So much more. But with all the evidence of struggle and suffering, there’s so much heroism — stories like Ronald’s of mind-boggling perseverance. You don’t have to dig very deep to find it.

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