GUEST BLOG BY TAYLOR WASHBURN AND EMILY CHANDLER, GLOBAL AMBASSADORS FOR ROCKFLOWER
July 22, 2018: Kasese, Uganda
We had now been on the ground in Uganda for 10 days. We spent nearly a week with SOUL Foundation and Mama Ali’s family in Bujagali and completed three Rockflower partner visits in Kasese. In that time we had learned about and experienced the joys and challenges of life in rural Uganda. We had seen the impact a grain mill can have on a community, how education transforms the lives of young people here and how vocational skills empower and enable women to support themselves and their families.
We were nervous and excited about our work for today: to host a listening session with over 50 potential Rockflower partners from the greater Kasese region. Our hope was to bring together leaders from these organizations not only to meet with us but to share ideas, experience and knowledge with each other. For this Sunday gathering, we arranged a catered meeting in the White House Gardens in downtown Kasese. We asked Biira Mary, from the Rwenzori United Group for Life Improvement (RUGLI), to help us with translation throughout the day. While the majority of the Ugandans we met could speak and understand English, more often they speak in their local, native languages. We have a tendency to speak quickly and that, combined with our American accents, could be difficult to understand. Mary did an exceptional job translating throughout the day and it is in large part thanks to her that this meeting was successful. With over 60 people attending the meeting, we were able to break out in groups focused on each of Rockflower’s Five Keys: Peace & Security, Maternal & Reproductive Health, Access to Food & Water, Education, and Economic Empowerment.
The spectrum of ideas these groups are working on is as impressive as it is diverse. As we moved between the different groups we heard enthusiastic, cheerful conversations taking place. The Maternal & Reproductive Health groups discussed ideas that included emergency motorcycle (boda boda) transport for women in labor, increasing access to reusable sanitary pads for adolescent girls, eliminating obstetric fistula and reducing maternal and infant mortality rates in rural Uganda. The Economic Empowerment and Access to Food & Water groups discussed a broad spectrum of projects, including: installing wells in communities to increase access to water in drought-stricken Kasese; brainstorming projects to train women in growing vegetables, sunflower, cassava, and other crops; they talked about how to raise livestock. They talked about the importance of protecting pollinators such as black bees, and the benefits of bio-briquette production. The ideas and projects these groups are proposing and taking on are important, critical work to empower their families, communities, and regions. Further discussions focused on making reusable bags from banana fibers, arranging for group savings and loan schemes for young women and girls, and sustainable tree nurseries to combat deforestation and create economic opportunities for women. The depth and breadth of these projects were impressive and inspiring.
The listening session was an opportunity to bring groups and individuals together to discuss the challenges they face and how they might collaborate to bring their work to fruition. For example, there were multiple groups in attendance making reusable sanitary pads for women and girls. This critical work enables girls to continue their education more seamlessly and effectively. To make the pads, however, requires training in how to do sew them and access to the right materials, which are quite costly. Our hope is that these groups could connect, share information, and potentially work together to increase the scale of their production and reduce the cost of materials. Service projects, such as making sanitary pads, are challenging because there is rarely an easy way to generate income from this work. Combining service projects with other efforts, such as gardening or baking, could perhaps bring in revenue to more easily purchase the materials required to make the pads.
After the first formal breakout session, we paused the conversation for lunch. The White House Gardens Hotel put on an impressive spread of chicken, matooke (mashed starchy bananas, like plantains), Irish potatoes which grow well in this region, rice, avocado and fruit. The meal was delicious and everyone seemed to enjoy the opportunity to talk more casually with new acquaintances and old friends about the work they are doing. Most of our attendees were women and were likely taking time away from their families and cooking responsibilities to be with us. The opportunity for us to provide them with a meal, that they could sit and enjoy while sharing ideas with other like-minded people, meant a great deal to us and likely also to them.
After lunch, we continued the idea-sharing and information exchange work in smaller groups and then came back together for a larger sharing session. While there was no way to hear about each individual project in the larger group setting, it was a great opportunity to hear some highlights from each group. As the conversations continued, there were increasingly comments such as “I’m doing that too, and I’d like to talk with you more about it.” While many of these people live in close proximity to one another, they do not necessarily know or regularly communicate with each other. It is an example of how, by forming connections between like-minded groups, Rockflower can serve as a conduit between these individuals and thereby build a network of knowledge, skills, and experiences to improve communities not just locally but also on a larger, more global scale.
The meeting was a tremendous success. We are grateful to Biira Juliet from Hope for Rural Women for her help in organizing the day and to Biira Mary from RUGLI for serving as our translator. The White House Gardens staff were also critical in accommodating many more people than we anticipated and making sure they all received a delicious meal. It was a great day of forming new connections, building friendships, and identifying potential partners while sharing ideas and experiences in how to better the lives of women, their families and their communities in the greater Kasese region.