My entrance into rural Uganda touched me deeply

I am by no means a professional blogger and this thing of sharing your personal pictures, stories and emotions is quite new to me. So far I was adjusting to it quite well, that is until I needed to publish this post. 

It started to become a bit more personal, deep and different. However I have one serious drawback. I am a “promise” person and I decided to keep my promise. 

So, what does rural actually look like (from my personal perspective)?

On Saturday I met with “Kasana Mother’s Creation” women group. This time we couldn’t take “boda boda” (i.e. motorcycle taxi), instead we went by a car. We started driving along the highway until we took a sharp right. We entered a bumpy dirty road, less crowded, kids running around…it reminded me of those typical scenes portrayed in images released by the well known charity organizations. 

Eventually we arrived to our destination and I immediately felt a different vibe. Do you remember my discussion with Gerald about rural areas in Uganda? Without a doubt, I now realized this is very rural and that’s where I am going to work and even move in.

We entered a room, dark and unpainted, filled with women sitting on the floor. Everyone around me looked extremely happy, smiling faces abound. They seemed excited and curious. It’s typical here that Integrated Villages representatives, including myself, have a bench waiting for them to be comfortably seated during this welcoming ceremony. 

Kasana Mothers Creation group making recycled paper beads.

Rosie, one of the women representatives, stood on her knees and started to read in English. Her voice was proud, happy and excited. Rosie started to thank Shelby (the previous Canadian volunteer who has worked with them for two weeks) for her help via the sale of bracelets in Canada and continued with sharing the impact she made. She also bought them two piglets. The seated woman around us started to clap and even sing following this introduction. 

Suddenly I got hit by a wave of emotions and feelings. I don’t even fully recall what I was thinking. I don’t think I could even think at that time. That poor environment, the contradiction of the tired faces smiling and proud Rosie’s voice. It was enough for my tears to start falling.

She continued speaking about who they are, their famous recycled bead jewellery and how thankful they are for the previous volunteers to sell their crafts abroad. She continued reading that great speech, but my tears didn’t stop. I felt so weird, uncomfortable and simply awkward. 

You know, nothing sad has happened there. Thirteen women came to meet me. They were so happy and excited and yet that stupid visitor started to cry. Some rationality kicked in, so at least fulled by respect, I didn’t leave the room but continued crying and cleaning my tears. Thankfully I was armed with tissues. 

I don’t think they understood the reason of my emotional wellbeing, but they could somehow send me their positive energy, melting my feeling of shame away. Afterwards we were all laughing, making beads and getting aquatinted to each other. 

It’s the numbers that made me cry.

I didn’t know at that point why those tears were falling, but now I am sure it was the numbers. The point is that they are not starving here. Actually quite the opposite. They have plenty to eat and they really struggle to understand why I consume such small portions during lunch or dinner time.

Uganda has a rich soil, very rich! They grow so many things. Avocado, pineapple, pomegranate, jack fruits, watermelon, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, coffee, bananas, peanuts, you name it! Everything is fresh and really delicious. Basically people in the villages don’t starve, because they eat everything what they grow. They’re self sufficient. Some farmers only grow two to three types of vegetables, so their diet is not that rich.

So what is so sad then? Well, it’s going to be difficult to write about that driving experience, the room we were in and the looks of the faces of the woman. Those tired eyes, crying babies close by, dirty clothes and rough hands. 

Local shop in rural Uganda which sells salt, oil, soap and only few other goodies.

Let’s look at some numbers. Godfrey gave me two journals which belong to Kasana women group. I started to do the maths. There are fifteen women in the group who are creating recycled paper jewellery and a few other products. For the last sixteen months, their group revenue was 3.5 million! A huge number, right? Excluding one small detail that it’s Ugandan shilling which converts to about €840. Then we cannot forget 0.5 million in expenses. 

This means that each women earned €3 per month. The good news is that they don’t rely only on crafts making alone, but also do farming. This means on average they earn around an extra €14 per month, bringing their total income to an even €17 per month. 

Most of the women I met have a working husband, but interestingly enough they don’t know how much they earn. Since their men don’t tell their income, they don’t either. They have struggled to explain me why a cumulative family budget is such a secret. 

Anyway, one of the woman, whose husband works in construction, estimated that he earns around 72€ per month. Not bad! This makes their family income hopefully around 90€ per month. Each family is different, some have more whereas others less, but this is a pretty good average in that community.

When you have a farm and let’s say don’t need to spend much money on food, you could say it’s not too bad. They live in an African village, everything is cheaper, so you don’t need many things.

Well, this would probably be the case if they didn’t have children. Most of them have at least five kids and they need to go to school. Schools not only require uniforms, notebooks and pens, but there is a tuition fee too. Teachers get very low salaries in Uganda, thus education quality differs a lot per school. Parents here are not contemplating whether to buy an H&M or fancy brand shirt, their dream is to have educated kids who due to that will have a better life than them. The same women who has five children and pays 54€ per month for school fees only!

Godfrey’s proud mum displays the university graduation pictures of her eight children.
Godfrey’s proud mum displays the university graduation pictures of her eight children.

I can see their excitement.

They are not starving but they are living in small houses with concrete floor, unpainted walls and cooking on stone stoves. Not everyone can even afford brick stoves to ensure bowls are steadily positioned while cooking. I cannot even think about kids running around those stoves. By the way, Integrated Villages is also working on helping them to build wood efficient stoves, though progress is slow as they have 0$ funding. 

Their children go to school, but they don’t look fancy. Yes, many of those pictures from charity organizations are accurate. I hope you understand that luxury like a fridge, washing machine or dishwasher isn’t even considered. I mean, when I was a student I lived in a few shabby places, but a washing machine and fridge were always present.

Yes, they look happy and don’t cry how poor they are. But I am there with them, sitting in the same room with my Longines watch strapped on my wrist, two smartphones and a fancy camera in my backpack. I look them in the eyes and can see their excitement to see me. They have so much hope and expectations that I can help them to buy better shoes for their kids or maybe a chair for in their house.

How can I really help them?

Meanwhile I am thinking how I can really help them. Who is going to buy the products they produce? Even if there is a buyer, how do you ship them to somewhere outside landlocked Uganda?  Yes, they can probably reach European land in 30days, but who is going to wait so long? Even if someone made a bigger order, how can we sustain it? Lots of food for thought. 

I was just looking to them, that environment and those rational thoughts made me realise how hard it will be. One thing’s for sure, they really need my help and I won’t give up. I am sure my marathon mindset will help me again. I am just worried this is a triathlon like challenge and I haven’t finished one of those yet. 

We won’t give up!
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