But For the Sky
7Feb/12Off

Seeing Uganda through the Eyes of an NGO

One of the main reasons we decided to visit Uganda--besides not feeling totally ready to leave Africa, and some scheduling particulars that made it make more sense--was because we have a connection in Kampala. Lynn, one of my parents' oldest and dearest friends some eight years ago sold the business she owned and started a nonprofit called Connect Africa, headquartered in the Namugongo section of Kampala. This fit in perfectly with our plans for Uganda to see some of the culture and interact with as many local people as possible, skipping the more popular tourist attractions the country has to offer: mountains, game parks, and the silverback gorillas--it would be hard to top Kilimanjaro; the Serengeti, Ngorongoro, and Kruger; and Gombe Stream National Park, respectively.

When we got off the bus from Sipi a few blocks from Lynn's house and gave her a call, she was out on an errand, but sent Emma, a young secondary school student (high school-age in US parlance), and assured us that we would be easy to find, as the only mzungus in the neighborhood. Sure enough, the meeting worked out fine, and later we heard that on Lynn's way back many people in the neighborhood let her know that they had seen some other Westerners, and assumed that we must be her visitors. Spending a few days with Lynn, who is very deeply ingrained in a community as far off the tourist track as any we've visited was an interesting and enriching experience for us. We've been to our fair share of places that are relatively untraveled, but in most cases our primary interaction is with the people that work in the rest houses and restaurants in these small towns, and those other people that we meet clearly know that we are only passing through. So it was a nice change of pace to be in a residential setting, and to have a guide who lives in the community; we were more able to see the neighborhood through a local's eyes than we usually are.

Us with Emma and Lynn at Connect Africa Headquarters

Us with Emma and Lynn at Connect Africa Headquarters

For a few days, we saw the village of Namugongo (really little more than a small rural village that happens to have been subsumed by the sprawl of Kampala) through the daily routines of an NGO. Lynn's house doubles as Connect Africa's headquarters, and in fact Connect Africa owns the other four buildings in the complex and all rent paid by the tenants goes directly back to CA's coffers. With this money, and funds from donors mostly in the US, Connect Africa helps children to go to school. Education in Uganda is a privilege, and not a right as it is in the US; families have to pay "school fees" for each child they want to enroll in school, and these fees escalate as the child progresses, often representing the largest expense in a family's budget. Connect Africa strives to find the best way to help families to make ends meet on a case-by-case basis. For children who have lost one or both parents (an all-too-common occurence in a country with a life expectancy of 53 years), Connect Africa may provide school fees with no responsibility of repayment, but for families with more potential, the aid more often takes the form of a loan-- for chickens, goats, or a cow, for materials to start a craft business, or perhaps for university fees to obtain a certificate in business, management, or the beauty profession-- whatever fits the family's situation best. Meanwhile, Connect Africa, and Lynn's house in particular, serves as an open space for the children to come and go, discuss any issues facing them, read a book, play a game, or work on a computer.

Nick and Prosper with an OLPC

Nick and Prosper with an OLPC

Most days, we awoke in the morning to find Lynn holding court in her living room, meeting with board members and current and prospective families receiving loans from Connect Africa, or, one morning, with a group of women who were in business knitting dolls for sale by an American small business. Most afternoons we left the house to pay a visit to a family to have a discussion about the details of their childrens' education. Without exception, everywhere we went, people were thrilled to meet us, proud to invite us into their homes and offer us a bit to eat, unequivocally appreciative and thankful of Lynn and the work she does for them, showering her in an endless barrage of hugs, I-love-yous, and thank-yous. Most of the heads of the households we visited were matriarchs (called jaja, or grandmother) of an extended family often consisting of over a dozen children. These women were some of the hardest-working, most passionate and loving people imaginable, yet also some of the most humble and selfless, working their fingers to the bone and not expecting anything for themselves except for more opportunity for their grandchildren.

See-saw at the Community Center

See-saw at the Community Center

The visit culminated with a very exciting moment for Connect Africa, the unofficial inauguration of a new community center, the nonprofit's second property. While the building wasn't completed, 25 local kids aged around four to ten, were invited to come explore the grounds, play on the newly-built playground structures, have a bit of porridge for breakfast, and to meet Lynn and Jackson, a Connect Africa graduate who is in charge of overseeing the community center's construction. The day started with introductions, each kid standing up and announcing his or her name and grade level, while the rest sat quietly and attentively (an unimagineable scene with an equivalent number of American kids), then a few children stood up to tell stories or sing songs, porridge was served, and they were set loose to swing, see-saw, play football (soccer), or shade (color). The kids took a little while to warm up to Claudia and me, but by the end they were climbing on us, braiding our hair, and hamming it up for the camera.

Kids Mugging for the Camera at the Community Center

Kids Mugging for the Camera at the Community Center

Living with Lynn for a few days, meeting her friends and Connect Africa coworkers, and especially seeing first-hand the tremendous impact she has on the community was an inspiring and humbling experience for us, and a perfect end to the African leg of our journey.

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Posted by Nick

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