Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Gulu, my love!

Lugoro Tutte

My first project took place in Gulu with the organisation called Lugoro Tutte Disabled Group (LT). It is a small group which offers tailoring & knitting courses;  school uniforms; different accessories and lots of custom orders.

Generally, persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Uganda are  vulnerable  by  virtue of  their  impairment  and  negative societal attitudes arising from fear, ignorance, superstitions, neglect and lack of awareness. Two decades of war in Northern Uganda didn't really help with their situation and Okot, the founder, wanted to do something about it because he knows the struggles of the PWDs very well. So, back in 1994 he established this group with a sole purpose of helping the disabled and their families increase their living standards in the community. He is truly the sweetest person I have had a pleasure to meet here in Uganda

Anyways, when we got to the part of examining the organisation's needs and their expectations on me, their thoughts were all on one thing. Money. I had to explain them politely that I was not sent here to give or find them money but rather help them gain the needed skills, so they can make their own. That is something I really love about Mondo's approach. Mondo taught us that we should help the organisations help themselves. Share our skills, so that one day they will not need Mondo’s help anymore and can proceed self-sustainably on their own. 

However, my time in Gulu was very short. Only 1 month. So, I was tempted to do everything myself in order to achieve fast results. But this wouldn't have helped them in the long-run, right. So, I had to remind myself about the idea of more sharing than doing. Therefore, first it was important just to sit back, assess their business activity and then go step by step. 

In the beginning I was very optimistic. I remember telling my friend, “First week I will cover their finances and then go on focusing on marketing, teaching them basics and finding them new distributors.”  Haha, I was surely overestimating myself because in the end I didn’t get further than their finances. 

The problem is that, the things I considered obvious, are not so obvious here. It is not like everybody has had a chance to study the basics of business foundation and moreover how to manage their money, how to do the bookkeeping, how to do the product monitoring, etc. That is totally understandable and that is why I had to support them with all that knowledge I have.

For example, one of the simple mistakes they had was not having a system for income management. The money from the pieces sold, was given straight to the tailor who had made it. Therefore, the organisation itself was not generating any income.

When I asked them, “But how do you pay your bills? LT has around 200,000 UGX (50 EUR) worth of monthly fixed expenses.” The answer was, “We don’t know.” 

I realised that like many other SME’s in Uganda, LT is also relying on the foreign support, which makes them extremely dependent. That had to change. We gathered everybody and I made a proposal of 60/40 profit sharing. The discussion was long and intense. Of course, it is no surprise that people wouldn't like to give away a share of their earnings. Nevertheless, they decided to give it a try.

Other option could have obviously been increasing prices, but it is not that simple in this market. As everybody is selling the same products, you cannot just increase your prices. The locals will simply not buy from you because there are already so many others to choose from. I understood it when I visited  Gulu’s main market for the first time and saw so many tailoring shops, all selling the exact same things. 

What about product development? Again tricky. If you are in a business like tailoring, copying is very easy to come. Once you differentiate, you’ll have approximately 6 months before everybody else is doing the same. It is just a typical thing in Uganda or Africa. It is not like in Europe, where being unique and original is the goal.

Although, this doesn’t mean we have to just deal with it and not change anything. What I am trying to say, is that 1 month was clearly not enough to work on their marketing strategy. It was just enough of time to fix some of their core issues. And please try to understand that 1 month in Africa is a very, very, very little time to achieve anything. Everything takes soooo much time, that sometimes I don’t even know if I should cry or laugh. 

Overall, I really enjoyed working with them. They were such a kind group. Going to their office was the highlight of my day. They were smiling a lot, showing a lot of initiative, asking for my opinion, taking care of me and feeding me like crazy. Haha, they even thought that I was starving because I couldn't eat their enormous lunch portions :D

Sadly, my chapter in Gulu has ended and I wish the best of luck to the next volunteer that will work with this amazing group. I promised to keep helping them when needed and checking up on them after some periods of time. 

Until next time! 

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Boarding School Project of MONDO in Uganda

The boarding school system is very common in Uganda. Families like to opt to send their children to these kind of facilities as they believe the quality of education is better if the children are full time at the school environment. Most of the primary schools even make it mandatory at the last year of primary level.

In Kikooba Primary school an inadequate system was functioning. The school officially did not have boarding section however when I arrived to Kikooba I noted that eight kids are always at school even at night time. When I asked why these children are not at home the Head Teachers explained that the families cannot take care of them and asked to keep them at school. Despite the school could not provide basic tools like beds, blankets and mosquito nets the teachers agreed to let the children stay. The children were staying in very poor conditions sleeping on the floor lacking nets exposed to malaria but they never complained to me. They were smiling and asked me to escort them to fetch water every evening. Not to carry the heavy jerry cans for them but because they liked to sing for me and teach basic luganda language on the way. I learnt the names of animals and flowers through these walks very fast.

The need of a boarding section was clear immediately due to the situation of these kids. In addition the school can ask a higher fee in the case they can provide boarding and meals. That could solve the financial struggles and help to pay the teachers’ salaries on time. Kids seems to like to move in to the schools as well. As most of them has 5-10 siblings it does not mean a sacrifice to share a room with their friends at school. In addition in the case of boarding school the children have sometimes better nutrition than at home.
Due to MONDO’s financial support and Ugandan Pioneers Association’s cooperation in two months twenty beds were ordered from the local carpenter. The boarding section now functions with three rooms; one for the girls and two for the boys with brand new clean mattresses and mosquito nets. In the future a new building is planned to be built to have better accommodation for the pupils. Thanks to the hard work of the teachers of the school, MONDA and UPA Kikooba Primary school could start a new era and provide better solution for the families.

P.S. When we hired a local minibus to carry the mattresses and nets from Kampala to the village the traffic police stopped us. It turned out that my minibus was not allowed to carry goods as their licence was only valid for passengers. What a mistake of mine! However when I explained to the strict police officers that we carry European donation to a school in a remote village their heart seemed to melt and let us go without paying any fee. In Uganda education is one of the most important things and the whole society from the wealthiest ones to the most vulnerable do everything possible to support in order to ameliorate the level of education.

Monday, 11 February 2019

So, now what?

Gulu travels

Obviously, I didn’t come here for a 6-month vacation. I came here to support different groups in need by giving them advice on business development and marketing. Well, let’s get started then. In order to do that, I needed to travel all the way up to the North. To Gulu, where my first project is taking place. 

Just before I get into details, I have to describe our journey up here. Haha, it was such a joke. It didn't go as planned and that is totally okay because nothing rarely does here in Uganda or in any other country in Africa. 

Let’s start with this, we arrived at the bus station 1 hour earlier because apparently that is what you should do just in case and I’m glad we did. It came out that we had to rebook it and that our 8am take-off is delayed for an hour.

“It's okay, no biggie,” we said tiredly. I was keeping my eyes on my suitcase that was literally pushed inside the bus with rest of the agricultural cargo and chickens, and then I got inside. It was very busy in there. The bus was full of traders in hopes of getting lucky by selling something to one of these travellers. I was too sleepy for all that hassle.

Finally, I put my sleep mask on and fell into a deep 2-hour sleep. By the time I got up, I was sure we were on our half way to Gulu. Haha, nope, we were still at the station because the front window needed replacing. The time was already around 11am and the sun was starting to get more and more intense. We were just soaking in our own sweat and praying that this will be over soon. Let me also point out that the traffic here is very dangerous and on these roads vehicles crash daily. So, when we finally got on our 300km journey, my enjoyment lasted just for few minutes until I saw how insanely they drive here. There was no chance of me getting back to sleep, as I was just crossing my fingers to make it alive to Gulu. In total with all the stops on the way, it was around 10-hour trip.

This is insane! Or should I say #TIA - This is Africa ;) 


As we were getting off the bus Enrico said, 
Welcome to Gulu city centre!” 
“You are kidding, right? That cannot be all." 

When people back in South told me that Gulu is very city-like, this was not what I had in mind. I mean how could this even be a centre? It is just a super cute little town with very dusty roads. And apparently it is the 2nd largest town in Uganda. Which is weird because its population is only approx. 150K but the whole population of Uganda is around 40M.  

Nevertheless, I do love this town. It is very special. What I like about this is that it is very compact – totally opposite to my experience in Nansana or Kampala. I also feel like I’m here partly on a relaxed vacation as it so vibrant and dreamy at the same time. My favourite part of it is that it is surrounded by nature. And as the town is developing very fast, you can find almost everything you need in here. There are even some Mzungu hangout spots and supermarkets with CHEEESE!!!
Which btw I never buy because it has a price of gold. 

Time for a history lesson

Gulu hasn’t always been so peaceful. It actually had one of the hardest hits during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict. Does the name Joseph Kony ring a bell to you? Yep, he was the one leading LRA and just recently, in 2006, he and his army were forced out of Uganda. Unfortunately, before that he succeeded to gain a reputation for massive human rights abuses since 1987. 

“Kony and LRA is responsible for Africa's longest running conflict. At its peak, the rebels' brutal insurgency displaced nearly two million people in large areas of northern Uganda. To date, the conflict has seen more than 10,000 people killed in massacres, while twice that number of children have been abducted by the LRA and forced to work as soldiers, porters and sex slaves. The group got so increasingly savage that civilians who were suspected of supporting the government or forming self-defence forces had their ears, lips, noses or other sort of limbs hacked off.”   
The Guardian, 2007.

Joseph Kony and mass amputations, imagine my face when I found out that I’ll be living in the North of Uganda for a month where that same war had just recently “ended”. Thankfully, after all this horror Gulu has become a town in transition. Locals are optimistic and ready to work, and NGO’s from all over the world are here helping to make Gulu stronger than ever.

What to do in Gulu?

As I said, Gulu is very popular among NGO's and that is why there are a lot of hangout spots. Gonna name some of the places I used to go: Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant - for amazing flavours of Ethiopia; Iron Donkey - for delicious bakery and warm customer service (not usual in Uganda); Coffe Hut - for good coffee, in my case ice tea, and amazing banana bread; O Cafe - for great internet and office vibes; Elephante Commons - for delicious western food and social entrepreneurship inspiration. The founders have built this community centre to serve the minorities in Gulu. They also have awesome Yoga classes; Comboni Samaritans & Palm Garden Restaurant - for grafts shopping and Italian food; Lightray Roestbar - for live bands; Bomah Hotel - for a pool day. You need it because it is way hotter in the North and gets around 38° in the dry season. Price: 10,000 UGX = 2,5 EUR. 

University of the Sacred Hearts

Funny thing is, that now I actually feel a lot safer here than back in the South. Especially because I live in an absolutely blissful place – in the University of the Sacred Hearts’ guesthouse. Which means that every day I get a chance to have breakfast/lunch/dinner with the priests and learn something new about their culture and history. I just love it here! It’s clean, nice, spacious, with a beautiful garden and HOT WATER!

One day me and Father Matthew sat around the dining table and I asked him about the LRA terror and how it had affected him. He told me how at that time the threat of abduction had become so great that tens of thousands of children from nearby villages marched into the town centres each night to sleep in schools, hospitals and on pavements – anywhere they could find safety in numbers. One of those hideouts was the same university and the guesthouse. I felt shivers down my spine while trying to imagine how the kids in total fear were all trying to squeeze in here just to live another day tomorrow. It really puts your life in different perspective.

That is it for this week. As I still have one more week to go here, I will tell you all about my 1st project and its progress when I’m done with it.

Until next time ;)

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Who am I and what on earth am I doing here?

Hi all!

For readers who don't know me, I’m Vici. Vici from Estonia, who somehow got an idea to go spend some 6 months away from her close ones and move to Africa. To be precise - Uganda. A country of which I’m afraid I didn’t know to be existing until I saw Mondo’s project proposal in my university’s FB group. A university where I hadn’t really learned much about humanitarian aid. To be honest, I think out of all the volunteers presenting Mondo, I’m probably least acquainted with the humanitarian world. After graduating uni, I didn’t have plans like this at all. In fact, I found myself in totally opposite direction - working as a marketing manager of a fintech company that I really enjoyed. So, how come I still found my way here, to Gulu, a Northern Ugandan town, writing a blog post in a laptop powered by solar panels, because electricity has been gone for a week now. 

The thing is, I truly liked the company I was working for but some of that routine made me too comfortable. I knew that comfort zone is something not for me and I started to wonder if corporate life ever was. But funny thing is that once I had admitted that to myself, admitted that I needed a change, I stumbled upon that very same project proposal from Mondo. “Looking for a volunteer with marketing or entrepreneurial experience to challenge her/himself in Uganda from upcoming January to July.” I know it sounds cheesy - if you ask something from the universe, it will give it to you. At this moment it really looked like it, yes. I saw that as a sign and said, “What the heck, let’s try this.” Few days later I had Skype call with Janika from Mondo and Sam from UPA - our hosting organisation here in Uganda.

I remember when she asked, “Do you even understand what you are signing up for?” and I said, “To be honest, I have no clue.”

Although, back then I did not know what do the terms Resilience and Capacity Building stand for, I knew that this project was exactly for me. I loved the thought of making an impact by supporting 4 different beneficiary groups to perform better and more sustainably thanks to my professional skills.

After this everything went fast. I informed my employers and they were awesome enough to encourage me on my decision. With the next 4 months I finished my responsibilities at work, spent lots of time with my loved ones, got vaccinated (and suffered the craziest side effects) and attended 2 trainings for this deployment - The EU Aid Volunteers training in Italy & Mondo’s training in Estonia - which were both amazing! The time flew by quickly and it was time to hop on that plane. It was only then when sitting in that airplane alone, I started to understand what I am about to do.

First days were tough. Not because my luggage got left behind in Amsterdam, haha. I think it was because I have never been so out of my comfort zone. The facilities are not as comfortable as they are back home, the food is not really for my taste buds, diseases are scary and the noise, yes noise, is crazy here. But most of all, I was and still am afraid about my own safety. During the orientation week in Uganda, I got terrified by all the stories that have happened to Mzungus (white people). In the first week I was sure that I will never leave the guesthouse. That was the only place I could feel safe. However, all the volunteers were saying this culture shock will get better and I’ll probably get used to most of it after a week or two. They were right. People do get used to things quicker than I expected. The most important thing is to remember to be conscious of the risks and be smart about them. And I learned that most of the people here are super friendly and nice. In addition to that, I realised that in order to make the most out of this experience, I shall not compare the living conditions here with the ones back home - that will not help me in any case. But hey, as they say, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone," right?

That is it for the intro. Soon I will write more about the projects that I’m involved with; life of Uganda; why is it called “The Pearl of Africa” and funny stories that are part of an expression called "TIA" - "This is Africa."