Writing From Gulu,
I arrived in Gulu three days ago in the entourage of the Honorable Betty Ochan, Member of Parliament for the District. We came in a crowded jeep, crowded because Betty’s father had just passed away the same day and everyone else in the car was a family member traveling up for the burial. Earlier that week when the elder Ochan was still with us the plan had been for Jeff to come as well but under the present circumstances there simply was no room. When we arrived in Gulu I attempted to check me in to no one but 4 different hotels, but every single one was booked. USAID was about to open up an office the next day and there was also a meeting of something called |the British Council”, and the parking lots were glittering with hundreds of sparkling NGO, and IGO SUVs.
Sitting in the lobby of the fourth hotel I remembered that some folks in Kampala working with a group called Crouchet for Kids, that was teaching IDP returnees to crochet beanies as a means to earn income (don’t laugh they sell for $20 a pop in the US), was leasing a house for 4 months, that was capable of housing about 20 people. A few phone calls later and Betty had dropped me off at the residence. About 10 other folks are staying here all between the ages of 17-23, working for various groups: Crochet for Kids, a health car NGO called Renew that is building a hospital, and an advocacy and education group called Invisible Children. The place has a very college dorm sort of atmosphere, but everyone is very serious about their work and we wake up every morning and head out to our jobs. Action Against Hunger is right next door, I had a meeting with them in the morning of my first day here and they seemed very interested but were also very busy preparing for the opening of USAIDs office that day.
I spent the first day with the Gulu District Commissioner, a certain Walter Ochora, who invited me to come to the grand opening of USAID Office in Gulu, which would serve as a liaison for all of USAIDs work in rehabilitating Northern Uganda. I was put in contact with Ochora through the same individual that is attempting to set us up with a meeting with the President, George Piwang Jalobo, my Ugandan contact from Duke who is a tireless and passionate advocate for the North. The event was a very lavish affair, with probably 500 people present. Being the Commissioner’s guest was quite an honor, which has granted me some amazing privileges, namely the ability to sit down at a table with the US Ambassador to Uganda Steven Browning, Directors of USAID Uganda, Ministers of Defense, Health care Access, the Leader of the Opposition (who I had already met in Parliament), and MPs from all the northern districts. I sipped a coke as Walter Ochora, pleaded with our ambassador to send a US envoy to the peace talks in Juba. He replied that we were already engaged in a conflict in Iraq, and that a US presence would alter the talks dynamics. Later on we had cocktails at in another room and simply by showing them a few printed photos I was able to sell the project to the director of the Ugandan World Food Program who was perhaps more excited about the machine than anyone else. By the end of the evening USAID was requesting a proposal for the machines dissemination. That night I met with Walter Ochora, by the pool side of a very nice hotel he owns, we had tea with the Gulu Director of World Vision, who I also believe was quite sold on the project.
Yesterday I was supposed to sit down and outline a plan for USAID, but a friend called and said she wanted to take me out to the IDP Camps. We traveled with CARE International, that was setting up a remarkable program called the Village Savings and Loan System. http://www.vsla.net/ I could go own for about 4 emails about how incredible this system was. I saw one group of 30 women who had actually saved $500 between them in a refugee camp! But as remarkable as that was, the reality of there situation was also very disheartening. For the last 18 years 1.6 million people in N. Uganda have been living in camps with hundreds of thousands of people in each one, living in conditions that I can only describe as squalid. Huts that would normally be built acres apart now packed in a hundred to a square mile, all the same huts. Its strange suddenly being immersed in a world that you’ve only experienced vicarislouy through photographs and videos. Its different somehow when the kids with their bellies swollen from intestinal worms, and malarial eyes come close and hold your hand and smile at you. We sat down with these groups of women and watched them open their cash boxes. Each group gets one provided by CARE, and each box has three latches, with three locks, and three different keys. Thus it takes three members to open the box, and the box is only to be opened when all members are present, a fourth member without a key is charged with keeping the box between meetings. Who knew that there was even appropriate technology for banking? Through this simple system of checks and balances the funds are kept safe, and at every meeting a treasurer counts the funds, takes deposits, provides the loans and collects payments on loans that were already given out. Interest rates are decided by the group based on the risks associated with each loan. None of the money comes from outside, its all their own, whatever they could scrape together from growing food at the edge of the camps and selling it on the road. I asked these women how many of them grew groundnuts, and every single one raised their hands. I asked them how long it took for them to shell a sack, the answer came back: 14 days. I showed them a picture of our machine and told them it could shell a sack in one hour, the result in all the groups we visited was spontaneous applause. While walking around the camps, I made a few other discoveries. The first was that shea nuts grow all over the place in the camps, and people collect them, dry them, crack them open with stones, fry them and eat them. Very few get sold.
In Kampala Jeff and I met with a commercial farmer named Christopher Latutu, American educated and native of Gulu. He told us that he knew people in New York willing to pay $60,000 per metric tonne for Shea Nuts. I bought a pound from a woman in the camps for 400 shillings (about 25 cents) and she laughed at me as I gave her the money. She must have figured the shea was worthless, but by my estimate that pound was worth about $30. These refugees are living under trees dropping nuggets of gold and they have no idea. The people from CARE were very impressed when I told them we could also husk shea nuts with our machine. When I told them how much the shea sold for in the US I thought they were going to cry.
Tomorrow I’m supposed to take a machine that I brought with me to the Amurua District, traveling with me should be city officials and Walter Ochora the District Commissioner…well hopefully this is Africa and plans often change. I wanted to thank everyone for allowing us to extend our trip, I feel that the work we are doing here is incredibly key to this regions development. As the peace talks in Sudan continue, the refugees are beginning a slow migration back to their villages that they had abandoned 18 years ago. In the south the camps are down to 20% of their previous capacity, but closer to the border they are still 70% full. There are about 2 million in total now, and they are all farmers, and now that I have numbers from NAADs I know that the northern districts produce more peanuts than other districts by far. For the last 18 years these refugees have been almost completely dependent on the World Food Programme for their sustenance, but their funding for Northern Uganda has recently been slashed in half. I asked the woman from CARE International that I was traveling with what was going to happen, and she said that a certain amount would starve to death. She also told me this was particularly tragic because every year hundreds of tons of food spoils in the fields because they don’t have the capacity to process it. All the present efforts have been placed on improved seed varieties, and agricultural techniques, but almost no one has done enough work on agro-processing. I can’t think of a better place to be in the world then where I am. This afternoon I also will be meeting with the leaders of Grace Academy, which has a vocational program whose director is interested in working with us to produce our machines by teaching returnees (some of whom had been kidnapped by the LRA) how to make our machines…..
Its 6AM in Uganda, and the roosters are crowing, I don’t know what else to write.