Uganda has dirt roads, terrible drivers, and lots of car accidents. Paul, our friend and driver from Kitovu Mobile, was late one day because he had come across an accident where several young school girls were struck by a car. He was their ambulance.
Uganda does not have streetlights, street signs, or traffic laws. If you’re going 110 kmph and have a loud enough horn, you have earned the right to swerve into opposing traffic at any time. Horns aren’t used to ask permission, they’re there to let you know that you’re being passed and you better be far enough to the left to avoid having your car taken out. The largest vehicles get the right of way, pedestrians get the least. Crossing the street is like playing high-stakes Frogger. Cars don’t slow down for pedestrians. You need to run.
Uganda does not have public transportation. It does have an extensive system of mutatus (small buses) and boda bodas (small motorcycles) that resemble public transit, though—Everyone knows where to catch a bus to Kampala, all the boda drivers hang out in the same few spots in town. On top of that, they all match: Buses are white with a blue “T” painted on the side, bodas are a mixture of Ugandan’s colors, black, red, and yellow. Both have a religious ode somewhere: Jesus is the Answer painted onto windshields, God is Good in swirly writing on license plates, the occasional Beyonce on back windows. It’s standard for 15 people to cram into an 8 person car, and for 4 people to cling to a 2 person boda. At first glance, the whole thing is mayhem. Yet people continue to hop onto crowded bodas, infants in their laps and a bed frame strapped to the back. When I first got here, I was convinced I wouldn’t leave our hotel…It was all so messy. But, things change: I just got off of a boda boda ride where Will, myself, and our three backpacks bounced up and down on a dark dirt road, a large african drum dangling off of the side (a souvenir from Kampala). Why do they—we—do this, when we know better?
The answer is simple: It works.
Uganda’s infrastructure can be argued as both the most or least inventive thing around. The argument for least is everywhere: Almost every town we’ve been to has the same few types of stores, repeated over and over again based on the size. For example, Masaka has about 20 cell phone company stores (all promising “air-time” and SIM cards), 15 restaurants with the name ___________ Restaurant and Take-Away (matching menus and prices as well), and textile stores with the same fabric and dress offerings. The hardware stores take it a step further: Not only are they all identical, but they are all on the same street, side by side. How do these stores stay in business, though, when there is no variety? That answer is also simple: Uganda isn’t driven by variety, it’s driven by necessity. And the same goes for its transportation. And for the hundreds of NGOs that call Uganda their home. Sure, Uganda is lacking a lot of the indicators for success that we usually look for. But it has its own successes that are inventive in themselves. We’re just not used to seeing them: They don’t make the news, they don’t benefit anybody important. I’ll happily make the argument that its infrastructure is inventive, but let me first take you through the journey of doubt that let me here.
We were out with friends when I asked someone if he thought things would ever really change in Uganda. This friend of ours has been in Uganda for a while now, studying and researching and working. Despite his persistence, he went with the least inventive argument—people don’t really want change, he said, they’re content with the way things are regarding the monochrome consumerist culture, cuisine, car situation, and utter lack of progress. “Look around,” he said, “the whole place is run by NGOs. When Museveni is finally out of power, the whole place is going to go to shit and have to start over.” We were at an outdoor club, and I looked around at the Ugandans drinking and having a good time, not a care in the world. I guiltily submitted to his view. I woke up the next day with a feeling of helplessness, wondering why the **** I was there if it wouldn’t make a difference, one way or the other.
The next day, I walked to work with the team, the usual yells of “Mzungu!” failing to humor me. We were finally starting our project though, so I thought the thrill of hands-on work would comfort me. Well…it didn’t.
The rest of the week felt like swimming against a tide. In order to assess women for their water and sanitation performance (and therefore reward the top performers with water drums, etc), each member of our team was paired with a translator. We were to visit the home of a participant, use our handy checklist, and move onto the next. But did I mention we’re in rural Uganda? And that the roads are barely wide enough for a motorcycle? And that we have 125 participants to reach?
We had underestimated the amount of time it would take to reach everyone, to say the least. First of all, we had no idea where everyone lived. Oh, and most of the names were spelled wrong on our assessment list, so we didn’t know if we were reaching the right person and had to backtrack. Oh, and I was told by my translator that “everyone wants to be visited by the mzungu,” so pretty soon we were adding participants to our already daunting list—the final number grew to 150. We thought we could do this all in two days…It took four. Hece, a rough few days. It was hot. We walked a lot. We were tired. At one point, Eliza and Will were driven around for 4 hrs without stopping to give an assessment, and never found out why. The whole idea felt pointless to me. But we trekked on.
Then, as suddenly as my doubt had set in, it was lifted. In fact, it was blown out of my world. It all started with the community surveys.
I forgot to mention that there was another part of our field work: An SHG community survey. Basically, we sat down with our translators and different Self Help Groups and interviewed members about the needs of their community. We asked quantitative questions: What percent of your community has been tested for HIV? What percent uses a mosquito net? How many meals a day to people generally receive? We also asked qualitative questions: What is the biggest challenge your community faces, and how do you think it can be best overcome? To our surprise, the women didn’t just answer our questions: They were animated, passionate, and forthcoming with their thoughts. For the first time, I saw how smart these women were: They cared, wanted to see change, and wanted us to know. I felt like a real resource to these people: We were the journalists of their needs, translating them into numbers and scribbled English. They trusted us to spread their stories, to get them help. I felt needed. I felt responsible. I felt scared. It was exciting.
In one instance, a woman told us that “There used to be very poor sanitation, but a group called GlobeMed came and installed pit latrines.” They didn’t realize that WE were GlobeMed. We saw from a third party perspective that our work was being acknowledged and appreciated. We did something. That was a great feeling, to hear from a beneficiary that progress was being made. And isn’t it her opinion we should really be listening to?
There was still work to do, though: Schools still didn’t have a clean water source (children need to bring their own water from home), there was no soap, and every SHG agreed that their fresh water sources were still too far away. The water source issue seemed to seep into all other aspects of the community. For example, one SHG told us parents were petitioning to shorten the school day so children can fetch the family’s water. Amiazi, amiazi, amiazi. Water, water, water. The water issue—long discussed in all of our meetings back in Boston—presented itself as a living, breathing reality. All of the SHGs said the best solution would be the construction of wells. Finally, a clear goal.
While we all wanted to dive into our plans for a well, we reflected on the success of our partnership. We had contributed to the hygiene and sanitation of schools. Toilet coverage had drastically improved (Eileen told us that most of the people they assessed last year didn’t know what a pit latrine WAS, let alone have one). Most of the women had installed tip taps, and were using them. Best of all, they trusted us. And we trust that wells are what they need.
NOW: I will make the argument that Uganda’s infrastructure is, in fact, very inventive (I bet you’d forgotten that part!).
Yes, Uganda is incredibly underdeveloped. And the government sucks. And most of the progress that’s been made has been made by NGOs (Kitovu Mobile included), all operating under their own set of standards and goals, criss-crossing and sometimes blind to the work of their peers. And while this doesn’t seem sustainable, I’d like to say that, like the bodas, the restaurants, and the cell-phone stores, it works. Instead of operating under a corrupt system, NGOs go around it and with it where it makes sense to. They don’t look at things on a big, administrative scale, but on a small, personal one. It would seem that many people would be left out: NGOs only have so much reach, and so much strength with the money they have. But Kitovu Mobile is the perfect example innovative care: Instead of waiting for the government to send workers into remote villages, Kitovu Mobile employs the villagers themselves. They become self-sufficient, taking the burden off the Kitovu so they can move on to the next village. Why should Ugandans wait around while its sloppy government tries to figure it all out? And why not experiment on small, NGO scales, to see what works best?
On the surface, Uganda looks like a mess: Its government can’t tell the difference between mosquito and fishing nets (true story, according to some confused recipients). But underneath the chaos are the grass-roots organizations that know what their communities need, and would rather spend time figuring that out then waiting for the government to generalize the very complex issue of extreme poverty. The NGOs make their own network of development and progress. Diddo the transportation system, which—despite the apparent danger—manages to deliver people from one place to another. And diddo the businesses, too. Sure, there might be a cell phone store on every corner. They stay in business, though, so who cares? I doubt the addition of an Apple store to Masaka would do much for its economy. And sure, the restaurants are all the same. But the food is always served fast because Ugandans have bigger things to worry about than whether their chicken is free range or not. Ugandans are too busy living: They drive too quickly on boda bodas, party more nights than not, and still find time for work. It’s not that Ugandans don’t care about long-term change, or that they don’t want to see change in their community. They do. They’re just wise enough to start with what’s in front of them and move on to bigger things when they’re ready, when they think it’ll make a difference. The whole thing is slow-moving. It can be frustrating. But I’m happy to be a part of it.