Thursday was a day of traveling the highways of Uganda. We traveled from Murchison Falls Park to Buyobo, the headquarters of our micro loan program. The highway (that is two lane road) is pretty well paved but there are so many people walking on the highway and motorcycles that there are lots of distractions and hazards to avoid. There is little if any lighting and you are strongly advised not to travel after dark. There are sections of the road that are heavily marked with pot holes, many of them quite large. The leading cause of death in East Africa is auto accident and it is no surprise after traversing these roads.
We arrived tired but happy to be at the headquarters of the program. I was especially anxious to see many of the borrowers I had met on my last trip and to see the progress that had occurred in the village in the meantime.
Friday, we went to the local market where quite a few of our borrowers ply their wares. It was a hectic, crowded affair. The street was crowded with many vehicles hauling products to sell. There are a lot of fruits and vegetables, fish, used clothing, some new clothing, hardware, bicycle tires. You can find virtually anything. Many people are selling the same product and we’re told that they nonetheless usually sell out. The sellers increase their income by going to a different market each day of the week. We visit the sites of our borrowers. These are often just a spot on the ground where they spread a clothe and the items they’re selling. The vendors are shoulder to shoulder on the ground. Some have small, folding tables. As I look at a woman selling 15-20 bunches of small onions, I realize that this is a significant step up for this woman. I can’t help but wonder what this was a step up from?
Saturday is a graduation for 60 women. They transition from the two year, highly structured program to the new world of a commercial bank. Many of these women have never even set foot in a bank! The graduation will attract approximately 500 people from surrounding communities. The local high school band plays, the women will dress in the colors of their loan groups and march behind the band going up and down the main street of town.
The women are again given prizes for saving and each graduate gets a poncho to protect her from the rain. We all enjoy helping to distribute the gifts and congratulate the borrowers. There are local dignitaries who speak and I am asked to say a few words. I tell the women that we are honored to be there and that we are glad to be their “sisters” over the ocean. This last statement gets applause. I have heard this sentiment many times from the borrowers and indeed from our volunteers at home and it is a deeply held belief of mine. One women tells me “we are exactly the same, except for the skin color.” It is lovely to feel such a bond with these women. What an experience!
The women in my party are again taken by the gracious, loving reception they receive. With Ugandans, there are no pre-qualifications for a loving greeting. They don’t have to have known you previously. You don’t have to be a relative or friend. They simply extend a kind, warm greeting to all. One of our group was telling our driver that this is so unusual to us; that people in the U.S. are not simply, unconditionally loving. His incredulous response was “how can this be?” It doesn’t make sense to a Ugandan to behave any other way.
We spent the afternoon visiting the businesses of borrowers in the Buyobo Village. The highlight was a visit to the home of Allen (a woman’s name in Uganda). She was living in a concrete and stucco home with lovely furniture. She was clearly very proud of her home and furnishings. She became a micro loan borrower just two years ago. At that time, she and her family of 5 were living in a two room house. She expressed that she couldn’t quite believe that she was living in “this house”. She now has multiple income streams, selling coffee beans, vegetables, sodas from a shop across the street from her home, as well as raising chickens, cows and turkeys.
Tomorrow, we head north to the village of Bududa for another graduation ceremony. Before we leave, we say good bye to Susan Lawson and Alison Watase who will leave for home a day early. Our little group has been wonderfully compatible and it has been such fun to share these experiences with these lovely women. We will miss them on our final day in Uganda and we will head home the day after tomorrow.
At our last dinner together, we reflected on all that we had seen and experienced. There was universal agreement that the site of so much poverty, poverty that is so pervasive that it is the norm, is hard to take in. It is hard to absorb when the life you see all around you is so totally and completely different from the lives we lead. We all feel so much empathy for these people living in such deplorable conditions. While the comprehensive nature of the poverty is somewhat overwhelming, we are all glad that something is being done about it and that we are part of the solution.