Kathryn Burruss:: Uganda
The travel alarm clock I purchased before traveling to Uganda has been replaced by my host family’s rooster. And I was recently told that I would be eating this rooster/alarm clock before my departure from Kampala, Uganda at the end of March.
After being aroused at, quite literally, the crack of dawn, I take either a matutu (taxi) or boda-boda (motorcycle) into the office. Both modes of transportation would fail every sort of safety inspection in the United States… but I’ve quickly overcome my fear of losing limbs. My internship office is located next to Mulago Hospital, and is associated with the Public Health Department of Makerere University. I am working with FANTA-II (the acronym standing for Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance) which is a project funded by AED and USAID. It is a body that offers consulting and support for different NGOs and government programs that are connected to food and nutrition. I spent my first two weeks doing research and looking at existing reports about agriculture, food security, and nutrition in Uganda. The particular research I am involved with is examining the impact that commercialized farming has had on food security and nutrition for women and children in the country. While my economics major has helped me to understand commercialized farming and business, it has been baptism by fire for the food security and nutrition focus. This last week was spent conducting key informant interviews with 4 organizations in Uganda; Biofresh, a business that exports organic, fair-trade produce to Germany; ACDI/VOCA which is an organization providing grants to NGOs; Mercy Corps, an NGO; and VEDCO, a NGO based in Uganda. These interviews were used to get a sense of what programs have been implemented in Uganda to deal with agriculture, as well as food security and nutrition. In the coming weeks I will be doing field work outside of Kampala, and conducting focus group interviews with the farmers who are the beneficiaries of these programs. In these discussions, we will be able to get a better sense of what programs, or parts of programs, have actually improved food security and the nutritional status of women and children. As much criticism has been leveled at the lack of consistency between an NGO’s mission statement and the ground level implementation, I am anxious for my first glimpse of how this really plays out.
While my typical weekday is spent in the office, and will soon be spent in the field, this has not limited my truly cultural immersion in Uganda. I was fortunate enough to get linked up with a host family (the father is the director of FANTA-II), a family who has been nothing but generous and supportive. After my 1 a.m. arrival sans luggage, and my mild state of incoherence, their warm welcome was exactly what I needed to begin my transition to a life in East Africa. My family, the Mwadime’s, are originally from Kenya, and so though their never ending family parties and celebrations (60+ people is considered a “small gathering”…) I have had a chance to meet people from both Uganda and Kenya. I am continually struck by the sincerity and genuine interest that people show in both me and my work here. And this does not end at family members and friends; random people on the street don’t offer just a “hello” but instead inquire, “how are you, how was your day?” There is a general friendliness that has no comparison in the United States.
Thus far, I have accompanied the Mwadime’s to a Pentecostal church service, eaten matooke and ground-nuts, seen a dance performance by the Ndere Dance Troupe, waded in Lake Victoria, and almost hit by a bicycle riding man and his sugar cane. While I can do nothing to blend into my surroundings, I feel fortunate to have found such acceptance and look forward to my future work, research, and experiences in Uganda.
As I’ve watched my supply of un-read books dwindle and become absurdly good at killing mosquitoes, I’ve come to realize that I will soon be departing from this place I’ve called home for the last few months. There is no doubt that I am more than thrilled to return to ice cubes, cross-walks, good coffee, and wireless internet, but at the same time, I know I am going to miss the random strangers who ask how I am doing, matooke, sunshine, and my adopted family. It’s hard to believe that almost ten weeks have gone by since I first touched down and was welcomed by Kampala’s humid embrace, but I know the experiences that color these last ten week will echo far into my future academic, career, and travel plans.
Since my last reflection, I have seen, heard, and smelled the far reaches of Uganda, as my field work has taken me deep into rural villages to conduct interviews with farmers. The three areas I visited—Luwero in the Central District, Lira in the North, and Mbarara in the Southwest—were vastly different from one another, and I kept having to remind myself that this areas were in the same country. Lira lies about five hours north of Kampala is one of the areas that was severely disrupted by the twenty year LRA insurgency. While I’d read about how the north of Uganda has been somewhat marginalized compared to the central area, I didn’t realize how visual and apparent this disparity would be. The week prior I visited pineapple farmers an hour outside of Kampala, and while their lives are undoubtedly difficult, they have relative security in their living situation and welfare. In the north, almost every home is made from clay or stucco and has a thatched roof. As I traveled about 45 minutes out of Lira and into the village, and as the number of motorized vehicles was slowly surpassed by people on bikes and their own two feet, I had a slight existential crisis. I couldn’t wrap my head around my actual presence in the type of place most people see filtered through the lens of National Geographic.
The village, in many ways, fit to the stereotypes of an “African village”—shoeless children with distended bellies, pregnant women with an 18-month old in their arms, toothless men in worn Kansas Bulldogs t-shirts, and chickens and goats moving in and out of gardens and homes. On the other hand, none of the stereotypes capture the hope or resilience that these people continue to exemplify in the most trying circumstances, whether seasonal drought or the LRA insurgency. The farmers I talked to are former IDPs and were resettled in 2007. If trying to rebuild your home wasn’t a task in itself, now farmers face a prolonged drought that has led to poor crop yields. Yet, as I walked around with one farmer and the translator/nutritionist Denis, every plant, building addition, and tool was pointed out for me with a certain sense of pride. These farmers have a sense of ownership, they want to do everything in their power to better their condition, and they have ideas about how to do so.
After my visit to northern Uganda, I also spent some time in southwestern Uganda in a town called Mbarara where I interviewed apple-banana farmers who are exporting through a company called Biofresh. My two days here were marked by good food, breath taking scenery, and farmers who were unfathomably friendly and generous. Time and time again, I am taken aback with the reception I receive when I visit these farms. I would imagine farmers to be somewhat NGO and research weary—those of us in the field pop in and out, questioning and noting, but hardly bringing about any tangible change. There is no reciprocal arrangement here, it is just me coming and peering into people’s daily lives. It would be easy to be jaded and skeptical, but instead, these farmers welcome you into their home, share their breakfast, and give you a tour of their plantation and a run down of everything you ever wanted to know about bananas.
Mbarara and most of the southwest is relatively developed, and has been fortunate enough to be the beneficiaries of development and public works projects as President Museveni hails from this area. It was in my travel to this area that I first witnessed any sort of (much needed) road construction going on. Besides making me aware of the regional disparities that exist within Uganda, my farm visits have also increased my interest in both business and agriculture. I’ve never really thought about where my food comes from, the beginning of the supply chain, or how agricultural markets work. In all honesty, I think I’ve always taken availability and access to food for granted. Yet I find myself laughing now, because when it really comes down to it, food is a basic necessity. And when you are working in a country like Uganda, where 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture as a livelihood, you wonder why there isn’t more focus on this sector. These farmers know how to farm, but it’s a lack of financial power and viable markets that keeps them in the poverty trap. As one farmer in Mbarara told me, he has more food than he knows what to do with, but he has no market where he can sell at a fair price. As I have witnessed how a socially responsible, fair-trade business can have a tangible positive impact upon the welfare of those at the grassroots level, I have a renewed interest in business as a development tool. Especially in countries like Uganda, where corruption has infected every aspect of society and development projects become entrenched in the quagmire, business may be a more feasible alternative. The cultural and societal change that needs to take place to rid Uganda of corruption will not happen overnight, and many Ugandans have learned and chosen to circumvent the system entirely. Because of this, I think business, which is not only profit driven, but has a social welfare component, could be a means of poverty eradication. When a business invests itself in its suppliers, not only financially, but with the goal of bettering the lives of those they are doing business with, then there is opportunity for development.
It is hard for me to identify the ways I’ve learned, changed, and adjusted, but I suspect that my awareness will evolve over days, weeks, and years. I will be returning to Seattle slightly tanner, severely jetlagged, but with a new sense of where my passion lies, the challenges and opportunities for development, and how to channel both of these into my academic and career pursuits.