Rescued – twit twoooo

“Its a big bird” was the best the kids could do to explain their excitement. The velociraptor impression gave it away though. They led me to a mango tree stump


Notice the string on its wings at the back of the photo – They were tied up!


The poor thing couldn’t fly, its wings had been tied up. I really don’t know why. We had a meeting, and decided to snip the string and free the glorious creature


After being freed, it wandered back to the stump, and when we checked 10 minutes later, it was gone! Fare thee well my fawny feathered friend (apologies).


Twit Twooooooooooooo


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New Recipe for “local ownership?”

group photoBack in New Zealand over the summer, I remember proudly boasting that our community organizing group was ploughing ahead without me. That’s supposed to be the test, right? To start something that takes on an energy of its own, driven by motivated local leadership? Our chairperson reported that the group had successfully pushed the Chinese road company to add speed bumps outside our local hospital where trucks sped by on their way to Juba, occasionally crushing the odd patient or hospital staff. Thousands of kilometers away, I glowed with pride.

I arrived back in Uganda, congratulations ready on my lips. Sure enough, there were the speed humps. But every time I bumped into our members:

Angee: “Its been so long since we’ve met!”,
Florence: “No one ever called me to a meeting,”
Omona: “Is Wakonye Kenwa over?”

Group money had been spent by just one person. I’m still not sure if the speed humps would have happened anyway. Lack of action had festered into discontent. There was a resurgence of demands for things we’d previously operated happily without. Why not have snacks and drinks at meetings? Couldn’t we get more funding? What about an ‘allowance’ for this, or that?

While these questions only came from a few members, I felt waves of doubt. Had any of it been real last year? Had our members truly been fighting for change, or were they hanging around hoping the personal benefits would start flowing? When I thought about the sacrifice of personal time and the passion I’d seen, I do believe many of our members want to be change makers. That doesn’t mean many wouldn’t also happily receive a benefit here or there! But the real point was that our structures fell apart when I was away. That thing called ‘ownership’ wasn’t strong enough. We needed to try something new.

So heres what we’ve done.  Last year we had one big group with members from all over this map. We met once a month at church to discuss our one big issue and action plan. Now we’ve divided up into 5 village based groups:

Final locations

Three key ingredients

Geography In a largely vehicle-less community its incredible the difference that a few hundred meters makes. Our groups now meet frequently in each other’s nearby homes to plan their next steps to solve a local problem. This has already resulted in:

  • Member’s neighbors can swing by to check out the meetings and end up joining
  • Women talk more, perhaps because the meeting feels less formal
  • Meetings start faster because its easier to round up the key people needed
  • The more localized the problem we pick, the easier it is for our members to feel that winning the fight will directly help them and their families.

 Simplified leadership Instead of our old classic Ugandan ‘executive committee’ with many positions with vague responsibilities, each village group has elected a single key leader who calls their members to meetings, guides discussion and coordinates actions. The key points:

  • The key leaders (not me!) that call and rally members to meetings
  • All our members have a focal person they can look to for direction who lives within walking distance from their home
  •  Having fewer ‘official’ executive leaders leaves us freer to build up the leadership skills of ALL our member

My emotional detachment from success This is a funny one. Let me try and explain. When Wakonye Kenwa was working on just one big issue at a time (e.g. the alcohol sachet ban law), it was all too easy for me to feel like the validity of my presence in Gulu was tied to the objective success of our group’s work. It was all too tempting for me to take too much control. Accordingly, I’d do way too much for the group to try and ensure results. Its possible to know the real point is to grow a community’s ability to create change and still fear lack of tangible results.

Ideally I’d be wise/strong/balanced enough to not need results for my own validation whatever our group structure (!)  But I guess I’m a work in progress. Now we have five new issues to tackle, its certainly easier for me to emotionally detach from the success of any one of the group’s projects. By stepping back, each group has room to struggle, experience failure and learn. I can agitate, challenge, ask critical questions, even offer advice or new ideas. But if the group doesn’t act, nothing will happen. I have to be OK with that. Anything else defeats the entire purpose. Its up to them.

These new changes are just that- new. Time will tell if we have a new recipe for local ownership, or at least, a few more crucial ingredients.

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Sachet ban: Where are we at?

Anyone remember these? The 40% spirits packaged in a convenient little 100ml plastic sachet available in every single local shop for only 25 NZ cents?


Unfortunately, they are still everywhere. I biked to a meeting yesterday and the road was littered with them. I spied a 10 year-old sucking on one in her school uniform at 9:30am.

We began our fight to ban them at the beginning of last year. Our community organizing group Wakonye Kenwa campaigned on the radio. We presented our research to Gulu District Council. We lobbied Councilors and found them NGO funding from 8 different groups to fund their law making process. We found them a pro-bono lawyer to draft the law. We helped organize and pushed through all 6 law making meetings. When progressed stalled we collected over 10,000 signatures in support of the move to ban sachets, and organized our religious leaders to lead a public march to present the petition to Gulu District Council as a public statement of support for the process (and a wee nudge- kindly get on with it!).

This is Rose, one of our group. Last year she lost her son to alcohol. She has arthritis and HIV, but personally collected over 400 signatures. Here is one of her collection sheets

In January this year, Gulu District Council voted to pass the Alcohol Ordinance. It not only bans sachet alcohol, but introduces a whole host of alcohol restrictions. It will restrict drinking hours in that as Rose puts it ‘men actually go and do some work before they start sitting around drinking.’ It will restrict alcohol sale licenses to reduce the number of places that sell alcohol, stop under-age drinking, restrict marketing and advertising and much much more. In March, our law was sent to Kampala for the last step: the approval of the Attorney General:

ordinance snippet blog

But over three months later, still nothing. Our law is stuck in his office.Why?  We are still trying to find out if its sitting forgotten about at the bottom of a large pile of papers, or if its provocative content means they’d rather just forget about it. Central Government sees alcohol sales as a lucrative tax collecting method. So right now we are asking some questions…

Why is our law being delayed? Who do we know with the right influence to find out? Who can advocate on our behalf in this Kampala office? How can we influence the right advocates to take action? 

There is still a long road ahead… watch this space!

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Domestic Delights

Its just been over a year since we moved in, so we thought its high time to show off how things are growing…..

  1. Outside with our noble steeds. Note our glorious climbing vine tess outside
  2. I think we grew a mutant yam:Nick yam
  3. Flowers! (and Sir. Edmond)tess ed flowers
  4. A lush layer of peanut grassTess peanut gress
  5. Basil, rocket, Bok Choi and lettuce! Sir Edmond and Lucy’s cat Carlos are impressed. Kitties garden
  6. Edmond and Carlos have become best friends: kittycouch2
  7. Sir Ed. still enjoys his hammock. ednet2
  8. But he is a bit heavier now and sinks so low he is practically sleeping on us:ednet19. Whats Nick growing??Nick mystery10. Our bible study group comes to visit: visitors
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Health Center meets Flying Food – Video

This title could have many meanings. Oberabic is a top performing health center at the moment, and its deep in the village amongst the Lamogi tribe. Lamogi are famous for eating bats, but that’s not the flying food here.

The name “Oberabic” means “5 mosquitos”, so it could have been a play on words. But the flying food here is White Ants, a delicacy in Northern Uganda. This is the biggest loot of White Ants I have seen yet, and in addition to the creepy crawlies, you get a taste of the environment in Oberabic.


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Where am I?

Today I had my first shower since arriving back in Uganda. It was even hot. I went for breakfast and was faced by an overwhelming buffet; everything from hot waffles to fresh fruit. I’m passed by happy people carrying plates laden with meat, deep fried potatoes and cake. For breakfast!? I sat for hours writing blogs about farming fails, while incoherent jargon washed over my head. When we returned from another coma-inducing lunch, fresh rows of bottled mineral water wait for us on crisp white linen draped tables. A lady in a bow tie already laying out cups, sauces and snacks for the afternoon ‘break tea.’ When I finally get back to my room, I find that my once-used hotel soap has been replaced with a new wrapped bar.

Where I am I?

Where else could I be but a Ugandan NGO training on project management? This was a first (and hopefully a last) for me. Here we are, deep in debate:


Are we strategising how to eradicate corruption in our organizations?  Or how to help farmers focus on collective goals rather than NGO freebies?


We are debating the difference between the output and the outcome of a given activity. In our hypothetical scenario, our ‘activity’ is holding a training for farmers on mulching. Apparently the output is the “tangible deliverables resulting from a project activity,” while an an outcome is “what the project expects to accomplish at the beneficiary level.” Once we have identified the activity, the output and the outcome we need to match each one with an indicator (a quantitative measure to measure the change).

My fellow trainees are earnestly stewing over whether the output in this case was that farmers were trained (measured by attendance list), or whether the output was that they gained knowledge. But if we say that gaining knowledge was the output, argued one, then what on earth is the outcome? And how could we possibly measure gaining of knowledge? I coyly suggested we might give participants a practical/verbal test. This was quickly poo-pooed. Too risky. What if they got low test results? What would the donor make of that?

Most of the 3 days were spent in such a fashion. Implementation. Evaluation. Sensitization. Monitoring. Deliverables. Project tolerance. Transition planning matrix. Project vs. program vs. portfolio. Logical framework indicators. Assumptions vs. risks. This is the lingo of the international development world.

I’m certainly not against careful planning, and I also like tools that help me think clearly and critically. But these cumbersome concepts and categories simply get in the way of applying good old common sense. Such jargon only encourages development workers to think in boxes and focus on using the right words words to access more money.

The conversations I sat in on during our lavish lunches rotated around what organizations and individuals were accessing which projects from which donors. No one was talking about lives they had seen changed, or problems in the community they were rearing to tackle. No one was talking critically about what has worked, what hasn’t, and why.

Activities, outputs and outcomes are not going to change Uganda. Real analysis, persistence and a healthy dose of love for people would be a better start.

Oops, got to go, time for another ‘break tea’ and pinwheel scones.

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Farming Fail turns fiasco: attempt 3

After our first attempt belly-flopped, Paul (a member farmer) invited me to chew it over in his carpentry workshop. I listened, ankle deep in wood shavings.

“The farmers from our church are not serious farmers. They have other work, like me! Their farms are all far away from each other, so they struggle to think collectively. In my home village, I have over 60 farmers who want to join us. They are so poor. Farming is their ONLY livelihood, and their farms are all side-by-side, they can see when each other plants, weeds, harvests. They need this. They will work together.

A week later I found myself cycling behind Paul and our chairman Ocen along Juba Road, passing scattered huts, spiky tuku trees, the odd sunflower field, under Gulu’s glorious domed sky. An hour and a half later, we arrived in Jimo village. My eyes opened wide – within half an hour 66 people materialized under the designated mango tree. Paul nodded happily. Ocen lead a brief bible study on forgiveness, which bizarrely prompted a public reconciliation between two ladies who had been fighting over a goat-crop eating incident.

We explained the seed loan system, then fielded the usual flood of questions. So the seeds aren’t free? Why? What about free Cows? Hoes? Tarpaulins? We explained this is a cooperative, not an NGO. 59 farmers signed up, appointed some key leaders, and promised to bring their membership fees when we convened in 2 months to prepare for the planting season.

And so, we found ourselves starting a new group in Jimo (attempt 3) at the same time we launched attempt 2 with our church farmers. Proper rural, full-time farmers, larger scale, one location…I had a good feeling about it. Take note: feelings are misleading.

 Drum roll……..what happened?

  • We biked out again 2 months later with 59 maize seed loan forms. We waited for hours under the mango tree. No one. Just the odd goat.
  • I went back to Paul, trying to find out what happened. Turned out a lot of people lost interest after finding out there weren’t any freebies involved. But Paul insisted we should give it another shot, there are some who are keen.
  • The next week, after waiting over an hour, 6 farmers came with their membership fees, and filled out seed forms, and discussed our game plan. Fine. Lets start smaller.
  • Training day went well. But when I went back to measure the spacing between rows and plants I found all the advice had been ignored. The spacing was huge and irregular. Why? The seed had been given to their children to plant. Go figure.
  • I had to leave for NZ just before storage time. We located a small store in Jimo, and I left the group’s leader with group money to pay the rent and the ‘permethrin dust’ to protect the maize from weevils.
  • I returned from NZ, and called our Jimo leader, who called a group meeting. I biked out…and yet again, just me and the goats. I wandered around, and eventually found a young guy who offered to jump on my bike and round up the members of the group. He located everyone but the leader, who was nowhere to be found. The leader had not told the other farmers about the meeting…. In fact he hadn’t communicated anything to them in a long time. No one had brought any maize to the store. Yet again, they sold the maize early.
  • None of the farmers from Jimo have repaid their seed loan. They’ve told me they will pay it in August when their next crops are ready.
  • I visited our treasurer from the original church group to check our account balance. She told me she had ‘borrowed’ the money to complete construction of her house.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. We have entered into the realm of a fiasco.

Why the fiasco?

If we try again, we would plant chili or ginger. Lucrative crops that are not eaten in bulk and have an external market. Would that make all the difference? Perhaps.

But there is a deeper problem. Ultimately, most farmers here believe ‘farming groups’ are primarily about accessing free stuff, rather than working together to increase profits. Our group must have been viewed as a fairly lame- nothing free, just a loan. There was very little interest in improving planting methods, little interest in collective storage and sale.

I’m aware there are plenty of farming projects in Gulu, run by NGOs, not by farmers themselves. The farmers receive free seeds, free fertilizer. Often, the NGO itself collects the crop, stores and sells it. If they leave or end the project (which, at some point, they will), will those farmers be able to run the show by themselves? I’m dubious, but oh so very eager to be proved wrong.

That, my friends, is an abbreviated but true account of my fumblings in farming to date. Will there be an attempt 4? To be honest, I’m not sure. If there is, it will look radically different. I’ll keep you posted.

PS For a definition of fiasco, please listen to this truly fantastic podcast:

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