Thursday, December 31, 2009

Teka Teka

In Runyanchole, the language of southwest Uganda, "teka teka" means "to think". So, in these waning hours of the first decade of the 21st century (profound, huh?), I thought I'd give some thoughts about my first nine months in Africa.
  • Finding your place is hard - coming to Africa as an individual was undoubtedly the right thing for me to do, but it's been hard. I came with an unclear idea of my role or organization, and it's taken some work to be assertive in making a place for myself. I'm now doing some great work for ACTS, sharing in the design work for a new GFS project, creating new water testing equipment, and soon writing proposals and preliminary engineering for new projects. As with most pursuits in life, no one has guided me by the hand. This has been a tremendous lesson in self-motivation and determination.

  • Does the world need more NGO's? Last week I had an encounter with one of the many characters you'll find in Africa, the old male ex-pat. Married to a Ugandan woman, he was recently retired from work with the European Union and now helping his wife to run a small guest farm in western Uganda. After dinner, he came over to our table and whispered in conspiratorial tones about the underside of politics in Uganda, which is wicked indeed (and of course it is, or it wouldn't make a good story!). But the thrust of his discursive soliloquy was that in the last 15 years the number of NGO's has exploded across Uganda. Bloated, bureaucratic and unresponsive, he railed against the huge overhead they spend on ex-pat staff, wasting most of the donor's money.  And the government plays along, all to happy to relinquish responsibility for tasks it would normally handle in a well functioning state. Indeed, they also crowd out opportunities for the private sector. In fact, a friend of mine now just finishing their first year of university has told me of his great desire to work for an NGO, because that's where the best opportunities are. So, does the world need more NGO's? A hyperbolic and impossible question to answer in so short a space, but I'll say at least this - all effort should be put into finding private sector solutions to issues before resorting to the creation of another NGO.

  • The world is, uh, complicated - every action you take affects others in potentially a myriad of ways. This is especially true when you enter into a vulnerable environment in an effort to help. Bottom line is, think, and think twice before setting up new projects to help people. You may end up doing more harm than good.

  • Matoke, matoke! Ugandans LOVE steamed matoke. They love posho, and they love g-nuts. I mean, they love this stuff. I find it entirely pleasant, but I admit I'm putting together an epic list of restaurants to visit once I get back to Berkeley.

  • Goma is a strange place  - This city on the eastern edge of Congo, clutching the north shore of lake Kivu, is a study in constrasts. It's home to legions of mzungus, who work for an ABC list of NGO's, or the UN (MONUC). There's parties, bars, and fantastic restaurants. The incredible barricaded homes along the lake are just beautiful. In fact, Mobutu's (now Kabila's) notorious vacation villa is just a few hundred meters away from HEAL Africa's Maji Matulivu. And yet in those meters between, the destitute children of Goma que up on the lake shore to carry water in 5 gallon jerry cans, often many kilometers to their homes. The wooden shack is by far the most common home in the city. Because of the huge foreign presence, prices for basic items have spiraled up, putting them out of reach for ordinary people.

  • Corruption is killing potential - this isn't anything new to the cynics out there, but it's particularly depressing to see it up close. In Uganda especially, parents put a huge emphasis on education, sometimes going into crippling debt to pay school fees. And yet the hope of their children find a job is slim, because the managers in charge of hiring are looking for a 5 million shilling bribe ($2,500).

  • Music! A quick list of some of the music I've find during my time here: Maisha Soul (Congo), Khadja Nin (Burundi), Afrigo (Uganda), Yo-MalĂ© (Senegal), Moses (Uganda). I was blown away by the street music you hear in the villages of eastern Congo on a Sunday afternoon.

  • My New Year's resolution - the opportunity to be here and have the freedom to learn and participate as I wish has been a huge blessing to me. Occasionally I remember to really absorb that fact, but it slips away so easily. In 2010 I resolve to be more thankful for the people and groups I've worked with in Uganda and Congo. I don't want to look back with regret when I get home, wishing I'd appreciated more the chance I'd been given.
Heri za Mwaka Mpya!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Compulsory Community Involvement

Most development projects these days rightfully focus on community involvement, in other words, getting beneficiaries to contribute to the success of a project. This fosters a sense of ownership, which should allow whatever is being done to last far after the implementing organization has left. I've seen many failed water systems here in Uganda, most likely done in because the local community had no stake in the construction or implementation process.

The ACTS GFS project in Bwesumbu is following the current thinking by working hard to include the local communities that will benefit. There are 5 "cells", comprising about 8,000 people. One Ugandan staff member is dedicated to meeting with local government and religious leaders to encourage them to moblize their communities to contribute to digging (and there's a lot of digging to be done). While this has gone pretty smoothly on previous ACTS projects, it's proving to be a challenge here.

In fact, on several occassions the local police, in a happy show of their own authority, have set up a road block on the main road that winds through the hills. All travelers are stopped, and those living in the project area have been "encouraged" to get off their bodas or trucks, grab a shovel, and get to digging. And the work sure has sped along on these days.

The police set up a road block to gather workers
But unfortunately, while such tactics are popular here in Africa (the local police captain told me that Africans are "lazy". I nodded politely), they circumvent the entire purpose of community involvement - ownership. If the beneficiaries must be compelled to work, they clearly have not fully understood the benefits of the project. And compulsion fuels resentment.

I suspect this current project is moving slowly because of the sectarian split between the Church of Uganda (Anglican) and the Seventh Day Adventists. Neither wants to work unless it's clear that the other is also. We have therefore worked especially hard then to reach out to local government leaders. Unfortunately, there appears to be a talent gap in the local leadership department, which is hampering our efforts. However, we will be back in force after the new year, ready to redouble our efforts to convince the community about the enormous benefits of the project.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Spreading Light

UPDATE: The solar power manufacturer we used at the second clinic is Barefoot Power.

Recently, I heard a statistic that surprised me - 86% of Uganda is without power (granted, I have no idea where this comes from). While I find this hard to believe, I spend most of my time in Mbarara, which is a pretty well developed town in the southwest. Up in the mountains at the work camp north of Kasese, there is no power for at least 10 miles in any direction.

So whatever the statistic, power is a precious commodity in much of Uganda. And that's especially true when it comes to health care. Medical emergencies don't wait for daylight - some issues have to be resolved immediately. Delivering a baby or performing a C-Secion by the light of a gas lantern is a dangerous task.

Providing light is therefore important, and it is the primary goal of WE CARE solar. WE CARE works with clinics in several African countries to provide a packaged solar solution, allowing for quick installation and ease of use. The package comes with the solar equipment (panels, charge controller, breakers, etc) and a series of lights for use in the clinic (headlamps, overhead lights). It also comes with batteries and a cigarette outlet for using DC power cables (for use in charging mobile phones, for example).

My fiancee is partnering with WE CARE for part of her dissertation research, and so I accompanied her to a small town outside of Ibanda to explain to the clinic what they were receiving, how it should be used, and what they could expect from it. The owner was very happy to participate in my fiancee's study and to utilize the new solar gear. She will be working with the clinic for the next few months to observe how the solar items are used (and of course to conduct her own separate research).

On the way back from Ibanda, we stopped at a second clinic participating in the study. This clinic received a smaller commercial product called the Pawa Pack by Barefoot Power, which comes with some lights and a 5 watt panel. It's quite small, but it will be used only for lighting.