tl;dr – I spent two weeks in Uganda this June, and fell in love with the country.
Uganda is a burst of color. The brash reddish brown dirt trampled under every public space is matched in vibrancy by the ever-present greens of tropical plant life. Pair these with the proud brightness of the locals’ clothing, and Uganda delights the eyes without fail. Charles and I arrived in Mbale after an eventful 50 hours of travel; our first time in Africa. What should have been a 30 hour trip extended for hours at the Entebbe airport when we realized our baggage had been left in New York. We’d pinballed from cancelled flight to missed flight – dealing with 6 airlines over 3 legs of flight. We stayed at a hotel in town that night (as it was 1am by the time we were out), and made the 7 hour trip to Mbale by car the following morning with our friends Mike and Deb Gilbert, founders of One City Ministries.
I had no idea what to expect here. Our family has known the Gilberts for years, and count them as family. Both they and Robyn and I share the pain of losing a son, and our bond with them has always been strong through this common tragedy. We have followed and supported their work in Uganda since they came here in 2008. Even still, while I knew their mission of bringing an end to poverty and human suffering by initiating innovative practices which bring about social transformation, sustainable economic empowerment and lasting self-sufficiency, I had no clue how those words transformed to technicolor life in Africa. I knew details – but you can’t experience this land through conversation and images alone. So, 6 years after they got here, Charles and I journeyed 9000 miles to know it for ourselves.
Poise. Poverty is a major problem in Uganda – a common phrase you’ll hear when talking with locals is “in Africa, we have a problem.” Yet as I drove these bold red clay roads, I found a people who returned every smile readily, worked the earth daily, and had such poise they carried larger loads atop their head than I knew was possible. A Ugandan will hold your hand the entire time he greets you, proudly sharing stories of his family, home, and country. A Ugandan will consider it an honor for you to eat at her home, heaping red beans and rice in their best bowls, paired with sugar cane, cassava, chapati and cabbage.
The roads are chaos and life, mostly red clay; paved on the major throughways. Lanes are non-existent, and you’ll often find yourself facing three trucks in a row coming right at you as they speed past one another, narrowly escaping collision as you swerve to the left (the side you drive on here). Motorbikes (boda bodas) are more present than cars, piled high with people and all manner of thing (I saw 5 people on one boda boda, and regularly noticed the strangest items balanced on the back of one). Bicycles carrying 400 pounds of bananas or 2 meters of 4 inch tree trunk slide in between any opening in traffic, and people will come within inches of every part of your car as they step out in the roads in the city. As you head out into the villages, the sides of the road are covered with shacks masquerading as shops, built with leaning branches and home-made bricks, plastered in Sadolin paint advertisements (Colour your world!) and MTN airtime signs. A steady flow of gathering, moving, and transporting is at all times present on these dirt arteries. Corn and sugar cane green the view on either side.
One City Ministries’ main project, the Light Village, is a 23 acre stretch of land near the village of Sibanga, in the valley of Wanali mountain (which, I was told by a local named Joseph, is “just a contour” compared to the distant Mount Elgon, visible to the east). We spent the better part of each day there, as the day we arrived they had been drilling and hit water, 50 meters below the ground. For years they’d been told there was no water on the grounds, until making the decision to do geological surveys of their own and finding it in two places. The well is in place, and by the time we leave, a 500 meter pipe dug 3 feet into the ground will bring its naturally filtered water to a 10,000 liter water tank, providing pressurized, drinkable water to the entire village and surrounding area.
Because of this incredible happening, rapid growth is visible at the Light Village. Mike and Deb are leaving their home in Mbale, 40 minutes away, and moving onto the property. A school and clinic are being built. Existing structures for their Africa TrAID program will now have running water. Africa TrAID is part of Mike and Deb’s sustainable economic empowerment vision. When they came to Uganda, they joined decades of foreigners who have come here and seen a people struggling in poverty, dying of preventable disease, living hard lives. It has become common for Americans to send money and goods in an effort to help – but this has hurt more than helped. Rather than give free band-aids for every burn, OCM is teaching not to touch the stove.
The majority of people in the villages are sustenance farmers – surviving off the food they grow, often walking miles for water (which is rarely clean), and working their land all day to grow enough to also trade for goods they may need. Chickens, pigs, goats and cows wander the land, with the larger ones tied by a single leg to a nearby bush while they graze. The routine is never-ending – wake, work, sleep, repeat.
Africa TrAID provides income-producing jobs for many locals, crafting artisan products which are sold in the US and online. Money goes straight back to OCM, and artists are paid fair wages directly. For many of the artists (usually in their 20s and 30s), it is the first time they’ve touched money. Teaching economy builds stability, allowing locals to begin to increase their sphere of focus beyond just their home and daily work. This has to happen for the cycles of poverty to stop in Uganda.
We have been in the village every day, with a people who daily work physically harder than most Americans will in a month. 70+ year old John, one of the “slashers,” stoops for 8 hours a day with a bent “panga” (a machete), slashing at the grass with 2 other men to keep it down. A typical mower would be destroyed in hours with the intense rocks littering the green landscape. A group of 4 teens dug 250 meters of 3 foot trench in an 8 hour day, with pickaxes. They were paid 350,000 shillings total, roughly $140 – considerably higher than the standard wage. More men are building a control room of local brick around the well site, while yet more plaster one of the buildings on the property, securing it’s bricks from the weather.
Affecting poverty is slow work, and Mike and Deb have poured into relationships here for years, with fruit beginning to show. On-site water is a major win – rushing the creation of more services and education at the Light Village. Construction is everywhere (and done without machinery, except transport). In Mike and Deb’s vision (with hints visible already), people will come here to learn, to teach, and to create economy.
50 years of independence under corrupt governments have brought a never-ending parade of foreigners trying to help, creating instead a mindset looking for handouts. As a “mzungu” (the Ugandan affectionate word for white person, which you will hear everywhere you go), handshakes in town come with a request for money. The pastors explain poverty is so engrained, the people have resigned themselves to it. Creating a path out takes patience; frustrating in its slowness.
John, the 70 year old man who slashes the land all day, will walk home an hour and a half tonight after his day of work. He, of all the people I’ve met here, has the biggest smile I’ve seen. He forces me, through my observances and interactions with him these past days, to refine my views of what is important, what is necessary. Of what is holy.
The people of Uganda welcome you every time they see you. “Hello, you are welcome here. Ok, please. You are welcome.” Last night, eating over a fire at Light Village, I looked up and stared at the Milky Way by naked eye, a first in many years. Bright orange spots dotted the dark green valley as people lit their evening fires as the sun went down. Joseph came up to us, and explained “here, our old men sit in chairs around the fire at night, and the children sit on the ground listening to stories of our culture and our lives. This education is very important. Do you do this?” We told him we do, but not as often as we should.
We have 4 days left, and I know we will miss Uganda. It feels slower, less complicated, even though their lives here are far harder than the ones most of us reading this online blog live. I will continue to come here. We should learn from the Ugandan response to hardship, and I hope their smiles continue to meld with OCM’s entrepreneurial spirit to better each of our tomorrows.