Thursday, January 30, 2014

Signing off from Kampala Uganda

I can’t believe it but it’s now been two weeks since I left home and like all good things, it eventually has to end.

Today was our last official day in Uganda. This morning all eight of us in-country left the hotel en masse and travelled the few short blocks to the downtown offices of the Uganda Cooperative Association. UCA is the umbrella organization for cooperatives in Uganda and the Ugandan partner organization to the Canadian Cooperative Association, the Canadian organization that funds and administers the credit union coaching program.

There were eight Canadian credit union coaches and the CCA African Program Director, and we were joined by our UCA counterparts; the executive director, the program manager, the micro finance manager and four field officers. Throw in the German cooperative association representative and the CCA intern who’s working in Uganda for three months and we had enough for two very cooperative, very diverse baseball teams! J

It was a great opportunity to compare notes and analyze the pros and cons of what worked and what didn’t for the in-country program in general, and the impact we had on the individual credit unions. Our hosts filled us in on their next steps and how they plan on helping the SACCO’s to implement our suggestions and recommendations and it was great to be validated. They really appreciate us volunteering out time, energy and resources and it feels good knowing that in our own small way we each made a difference.

I’m now at that awkward stage between still being here and heading out. We’re checked out of our rooms and we’ve moved our bags into two hospitality suites so we can shower and change if we want but really all we’re doing is hanging out and marking time until we finally load back up into our vans for the final drive out to the Entebbe airport at 9:00 to catch our eight-hour flight to London. I’ll be in London for two days because we have a final debrief with CCA representatives from Ottawa to examine the entire program. We’ll look at the effectiveness of the pre-departure briefing, the overall in-country program and the logistics of putting it all together. It’s an intense all day exercise and I wish I was just heading home but it's a necessary part of the process to ensure the success of the program going forward. I’ll have a little time for site seeing but I’ll probably spend a lot of the two days just hanging out and resting while I try to assimilate the sights, sounds and smells of the last two weeks.

It’s been an incredible experience and I’m truly grateful but more than anyone I have to thank my wife, Rosalie for her love and support. She’s my staunchest ally and my closest confidante and only through her love and support have I been able to take part in these incredible journeys.

So here’s a big heartfelt thank you to you Rosi, I’ll see you in just a few more days.

Signing off for the last time from hot, humid Kampala, Uganda!

Audry and I and Michael and Adad on the drive back to Kampala



Tuesday, January 28, 2014

My new mantra, don't let them see you cry

 Where to begin. Today was a bit emotional – more so than I would have expected. I didn’t embarrass myself, or worse, embarrass my co-worker or CCA, but I have to admit I got a little choked up and I was in a bit of awe with the story we were told and the member we met.  

We finished our two day coaching session with Koboko United SACCO this morning and keeping to the schedule CCA has established we finished our visit with a site visit to one of the SACCO clients so we could learn first-hand how members are benefitting from an avenue to establish savings accounts and access to much needed capital.

Today’s visit was just like the last; we were introduced to an entrepreneurial businessman who saw an opportunity and has used loans from the SACCO to buy equipment and material to start a business and through this, he’s improved his circumstances and those of his family and the community – but that’s where the similarities ended. For his story was much different than the last.

But first some background. I haven’t done much research but I’m sure a Google search or an inquiry to Wikipedia would reveal that this area was carved up fairly arbitrarily by the colonial powers of the time, France, Belgium and England, which ended up with The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan (and now South Sudan) and Uganda. The problem with an arbitrary demarcation on a map is it often has little to do with local ethnicity, familial ties or even natural boundaries. And so it is here. The border between Uganda and Sudan and the DRC is spoken of often but the reality is it’s a fairly abstract concept to the local inhabitants. People come and go as they please, families live on both sides of all three borders and both SACCO’s we dealt with have members in all three countries. And it’s within this context that we met David.

And I’m going to apologize in advance for what seems like informality but the Ugandan custom is to introduce yourself by your usual given name and so I don’t have David’s actual family name so that I can now show the proper respect that I’d like.

David is the owner, chief administrator and driving force behind the Eden Primary School, a private school offering education services in Koboko to students from 3 – 13 years old which includes kindergarten to P-7, the equivalent to our grade 7.

 David is a local Ugandan but when he was a young child his father was killed in the Ugandan civil war and he became the head of his household. At the time it was only natural for him to take on the mantle of responsibility and take him, his two very young, younger brothers and his mother, and move the entire family to Sudan and set up new roots. In Sudan he took on the role of head of the household and being extremely bright himself and a task master when it came to education, he completed his schooling and insisted both of his brothers do the same.

All three brothers completed their primary and secondary educations and David was doing so well he was poised to commence his university training as a doctor when fighting broke out again, except this time in Sudan and once again David and his family had to flee, this time back to their ancestral home, Uganda. And it’s here the story really takes off.

In 2003 David moved his family and all their possessions back to Koboko and he eventually became a founding member of Koboko United Savings and Credit Cooperative. David had to give up his dream of becoming a doctor but not his commitment to education so he acquired a Batchelor’s degree in education, obtained a teaching certificate and in 2008 he formed the private primary school, Eden Primary School. I also have to mention he just completed his Master’s degree and both his brothers have bachelors degree’s, with his brother Paul also teaching in the school.  

Public school is free in Uganda but it is underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with the demands put upon it. It’s not uncommon to see public school class sizes of 200 students and the quality of education isn’t anywhere near high enough to prepare students for continuing education. It’s because of this that private schools are so popular and it’s this market niche that Eden Primary school is looking to fill. And make no mistake. David is a businessman and Eden Primary School is a for-profit enterprise, just like any thriving business back at home. But just like our credit unions and the SACCO’s, profit isn’t the issue, it’s what you do with those profits that makes a difference and what sets you apart; and what a difference Eden Primary School is making!

The school started off small, just 300 students, but in 2013 they finished the year with more than 800 students! And they’re on track for more than 1,000 in the very near future. They’ve already acquired a large plot of land to develop a secondary school for their now graduating primary students and they have big plans, very big plans, for the future. But just like credit unions, a major part of their business plan is centred on giving back to their community. The school may be for-profit but it finds the time and resources to offer free tuition to over 150 students each year. These include orphans whose parents have been killed in the conflict in Sudan, the gifted children of poor farmers that can’t afford to send their children to a private school and the children of clergy working in their communities with very limited means. And free tuition often includes free board because the school hosts more than 100 students on a full time basis, offering them a safe haven and a structured home life they would never otherwise have.

We met the staff and toured the facilities and the moment that struck me the most was when we were introduced to the “gifted” new grade 7 class preparing for the new year’s classes. Apparently the school year doesn’t actually start until February and their teacher apologized to us because they weren’t yet in their school uniforms. Because you see, technically it’s illegal to start early so the students had to “sneak” into class and can’t put on their uniforms until classes officially start next week.

These students are gifted alright, but in ways they can never imagine.

Signing off in Urua Uganda and feeling oh so humble and just a little overwhelmed.

When you look at the pictures please understand the school is in the midst of last minute preparation for the student’s arrival next week. What looks undone will be ready and waiting for a mad rush of young people when school commences

New desks under construction

A school poster

The school playground

A list of teaching and non-teaching staff

Words some of our students would be good to learn

David, my inspiration!

Some of the teaching staff preparing for the new school year

The "gifted" students sneaking in to start class early

The new classroom being built with money from a loan from the SACCO

Our new friends! 

Final preparations on the dormitories

The school staff


Back in the saddle again......

Greetings everyone from hot and humid Koboko, where the rain is falling heavily and the sky is lit up in the most incredible light show and I’m definitely over my blue funk. I won’t be able to post this until tomorrow because of intermittent internet but I’m typing it now so I can get my thoughts out while they’re fresh.

They warn us in our pre-departure training about the highs and lows of international development work and yesterday I definitely hit the “wall”. A combination of too much sun, too much sweat, too much rich food and the shock of going from really basic accommodation to the height of luxury and then back again, coupled with back-to-back four-hour drives, and I was definitely at an emotional low last night. The water and toilet didn’t work, the power was out, my room/cell was an absolute oven and the hotel next door – which is normally so quiet I wondered if it was abandoned – was the site for a Rave to commemorate a local holiday. The disco music and live band cranked up, and I mean REALLY cranked up, at 8:00 and didn’t stop until 4:30. Audrey and I both have rooms that back right onto the music and if we got two hours sleep all night that was it.

So I should have woken up – if that’s what you call it when you never really got to sleep in the first place – in a foul mood and if anything even lower emotionally than the night before. But great things can happen with a little sleep (in this case very little) and some much needed perspective. We both woke up with a laugh about the whole thing and chalked it up to one more part of the experience. “This is Africa!” This morning the water was back on, the heat was just a little less oppressive and the eggs were fresh (thanks in part to the chickens that wander freely throughout the compound and on occasion into the restaurant)…… and so began another day in Koboko!

Today we spent the day meeting with the board and staff of arguably the most successful SACCO in the immediate region. They have sound books, great business practices and they own their own building and equipment. It may not be much by our standards; bare concrete walls, old furniture and the bare essentials, but to them it’s proof positive of their commitment to their community and their members. And I have to agree. Audrey and I spent a day being grilled over general and specific items and often had to really put on out thinking caps to give them the advice they were looking for.

Not everything will translate to a Ugandan setting, but some (and you’d be surprised how much) will really help them out. They soaked up like a sponge whatever experience and knowledge we could share but don’t think for a minute this was another example of the developed world showing their African counterparts how to finally do things “right”. Nothing could be further from the truth. This was an exchange of ideas amongst equals. This board and this staff are an experienced, educated group of professionals and it’s only by circumstance that it was us visiting them. With very little training and just some opportunity there isn’t one of them that couldn’t be a successful executive back in Canada and I felt honoured and privileged to be able to work with them. And more than a little intimidated. Several of the board members are full time teachers and professors by profession and sit on the board as volunteers. I was VERY away of my grammar and syntax when I was answering questions.  

Their version of English and ours may have differences, and their accents and ours may have gotten in the way or made us all repeat a few things, but the SACCO members in northwest Uganda are in very good hands. The board of Koboko Unitied SACCO told us their long-term goal is to grow to the point where they can compete with the commercial banks now doing business in this district. What do I think? I think HSBC should be afraid, very afraid.
Signing off under a mosquito net and typing by the pulsating light that only a Ugandan generator and compact fluorescent bulbs can produce. Hot, sweaty and tired but never prouder to be Canadian and REALLY glad I left Scotiabank 17 years ago to work for my first credit union.



Sunday, January 26, 2014

Luxury on the African Savannah

Yesterday and today; amazing, fatiguing and overwhelming, all at the same time.

We finished with our last CU on Friday afternoon and travelled the short but brutally rough stretch of road to Arua where we checked into a nice business hotel early so Audrey and I could write our report. And it was maybe at this point where my inner clock or whatever it is that guides our emotions started to tilt just a bit. Whatever it was, it started to bother me that here I was, in a nice hotel with electricity, running water and cold beer delivered on demand, when just beyond the walls of the compound was a teaming city, busy with commerce but filled with people that will never get beyond the gate, so to speak. Even our driver and the field rep from UCA; both educated full-time staff, weren’t able to stay with us and instead stayed in alternative accommodation in town. I know it’s the reality of the world we live in – and I’m eternally grateful to UCA and CCA for finding us the great hotels that they did – but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that on some level I’m not quite in sync today. Or as my brother-in-law would say, I’m just not feeling the love. (Stevie, I miss you!)

Maybe it’s just the heat and all the driving and I’ll be better after a good night’s sleep because what I saw yesterday and today was beyond amazing.

We left Arua at 7:30 and drove approx. 1 ½ hours to hook up with some of the other members of our team where they’re staying in Nebbi. It was great to see familiar faces and compare notes and experiences and it just felt right that we were back together. From there it was another hour to the entrance gate of Murchison Falls National Park and then 25 klm to the Paraa Safari Lodge. OMG! It was like Out of Africa, replete with all the amenities you would expect at a luxury lodge in the middle of the African savannah. At the park gate we were greeted by a small group of Elephants and then on the drive in we saw all kinds of antelope and even some giraffe.

At the lodge itself we were greeted at the door by welcoming courteous staff and handed a moist cool towel and a tall cold drink of juice to help wash down the dust while we checked in. From there it was lunch and libations on the poolside deck, a quick shower to freshen up and then our first adventure; a luxury boat cruise on the Nile. The freak’n Nile! Can you believe it?  We cruised for over three hours from the resort to the base of Murchison Falls and back and we saw some fantastic wildlife; LOTS of Hippo’s, (they’re everywhere!) Elephants, Crocodiles and all kinds of Wart Hogs and Antelope. It was truly amazing and I had to pinch myself more than once.

After the cruise we headed back to the resort for a much deserved swim in the pool and a few more libations at the swim up bar. But it was a little surreal to think that I’d spent over 12 hours in a car over the past four days and not once since leaving Kampala had I seen anyone at all that would have been able to enter the gates let alone afford the prices. For the SACCO members I was dealing with this might as well have been Mars for as close as they will ever get to a swim up bar - and that bothers me. I’m not going to get on a soap box about the disparity of wealth in the world and I’m not convicted enough to forgo these luxuries myself, but it did make me feel a little guilty and it does cause you to pause once in a while to consider it, and it should REALLY make all of us grateful for what we have.

But enough maudlin introspection, the remainder of the stay was just as great as the beginning. We enjoyed a fantastic buffet dinner taken on the verandah and retired early because this morning we all got up early for a 6:00 start to a four-hour game drive through the park. It was amazing; Giraffe, Antelope, Birds, Wart Hogs and Buffalo – but the most amazing siting was a male Lion with a fresh kill! Pinch me, am I really here?!

But all good things must come to an end so we had a quick breakfast after our return and Audrey and I loaded back up with Michael and Adid and made the four-hour journey over rough roads back to Koboko where we’ll meet with the credit union board and staff in the morning.

Last night was drinks at the swim up bar and tonight it’s intermittent power, cold water and a VERY limited menu in the restaurant. And again, over four hours of driving thorough any number of towns and settlements and not one person who could afford the entrance fee to their own national park. But when you’re a six year old girl and you have to walk miles in the heat just to fetch water for your family, is a park entrance really that important?
If me coming over to offer advice and support to a local grass roots credit union helps in some small way so that someday that young girl no longer has to carry water, then it’s all worth it.

 Feeling just a little homesick in Koboko Uganda



Elephants at the park entrance

My new African friends

Just a regular drive to the lodge

The lodge pool area

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

River Cruise

Lion with fresh kill - unfortunately we could hear the deer still crying  
Murchison Falls
Our safari vehicles

Friday, January 24, 2014

What do you see?


What do you see?

What do you see? Do you see an older car? Something that needs repairs and much needed maintenance? Something we’d scoff at at home as too old, too drab or too much past its prime? Something to walk past at any car lot as a might have been rather than a might be?

Or do you see something else? Close your eyes. Consider for a minute if it was your only car – or your first car – or maybe even your future? Now what do you see?

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll see what Maneno Night and Ajiga Richard saw, and what they opened my eyes to. It’s not a car you see, its opportunity. It’s a future. It’s an education for your children, a business to employee your family and a much needed service for your community. And without the help of Koboko Town Council SACCO, who gave you the loan to buy this car, you’d still be walking and, as Richard told us, you’d still be idle.

Koboko sits just about right on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is within a short drive of South Sudan and people from both countries come to Koboko and often on to Arua, Koboko’s larger neighbour to the east, for much needed supplies and staples. And to do this they need transportation. Most people here in Koboko, and in Sudan and the DRC, have no cars. A car is much too expensive a luxury when you spend 90% of your time just taking care of the bare necessisties that we take for granted, so you walk. You walk in 35 degree heat and 85% humidity, sometimes for miles, just to fetch water for your family.

Menano Night and Ajiga Richard saw this and saw opportunity. If they could just buy cars they could start car for hire businesses that would help themselves and help their neighbours at the same time. And to do this they turned to their SACCO for help. And help they did. With the car loans they were given they each purchased one and then a second car, and they now both run busy car for hire businesses in Koboko. They’ve provided jobs for their families, are sending their children to better schools and are improving the lives of their neighbours – all because of the help they received from their credit union.  

Yesterday was another busy day for Audrey and I as we finished up our visit with KTC SACCO. We spent all of yesterday meeting with the staff of the SACCO to discuss any number of issues that drilled right down to day to day operations and specific files and scenarios. Audrey was able to provide some great advice and direction on HR and Finance issues and I hit it off with the three loans officers. It turns out we have far more in common that you would think and they were eager for my advice. It was a long day but the most rewarding yet.

Then today we were taken out into the town to meet Richard and Maneno. Maneno is a full time school nurse but she also owns a small drug store and now operates two cars for hire and is able to employ two full time drivers. And Richard, who did odd jobs before and told us he was far too idle, now has his own two-car, car for hire business that employees he and his brother.  And both say it was only through the support of their SACCO that they were able to achieve the success that they have.
We then drove out into the countryside …….. WAY out into the countryside, to meet Mr Aleh Ben. Mr. Ben is a founding member of the SACCO and a retired government agent and is the elder of his family. He and his family are practicing new ways to approach sustainable farming and he gave us an extensive tour of his home, his farm and introduced us to some of the members of his family. His wife prepared a lovely meal and we've never felt so welcome.  

But all good things must come to an end. We zigged on the way back when we should have zagged but we eventually made our way back to Koboko to pick up our bags and hit the road for Arua where I’m now spending the night. This is just a stopover however, on our way to Murchison Falls National Park in the morning. CCA is giving us a day off and is taking the entire team to a national park and game preserve for a day of R&R! I can’t wait!

More to come
Signing off from Arua in western Uganda
Meeting with Maneno Night at her drug store 

Maneno and the SACCO staff in front of her new car

Richard and his brother


Meeting Mr Ben at his farm
The lovely lunch served by Mr Ben and his wife
We were quite a novelty and children came running to catch a glimpse of the Mzungo 

 More kids came running to see us!
 The drive into Arua - at last, warm running water and electricity!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Earning my keep

Today was our first real day on the ground and where we truly began earning our keep.

I’d like to say I greeted the day with a smile but the inviting and refreshingly cool shower of the evening before had somehow turned into a grimace producing ice cold shower this morning. But that’s OK, as I’ve been told more than once since I arrived, this is Africa J

The power was on when I got up but apparently it only stays on from 6:00 until 7:00 in the mornings so just as I lathered up to shave the lights went out and the room went dark. Not pitch black because it was getting light outside, but just dark enough that I had to stumble around looking for the headlamp that I so carefully packed in the one place I’d be sure not to look when I needed it. But this was all just a very small bump in an otherwise extremely rewarding day.

Our driver Michael, and the local district field officer Adad, both from UCA, the Uganda Cooperative Alliance, picked us up right after breakfast and drove us the short distance to the Koboko Town Council SACCO, a Savings and Credit Cooperative, or what we would refer to as a credit union.

It’s a small office in a small rural Ugandan town. It’s hot and dusty outside and lacking many of the modern accoutrements inside that most of us – probably all of us – would absolutely insist are necessary for the running of a financial institution; electricity and modern computers just to name a few. But just like the TV advertisement at home likes to say, those people would be what we like to call, wrong. Because what they may be lacking in modern conveniences and amenities they more than make up for with perseverance and professionalism.

The board and staff of KTC SACCO provide necessary savings and loan services to rural farmers with no other access to capital. Capital sometimes needed for farm equipment but far too often needed for things we take for granted like medical expenses and schooling costs for their children.

And they do this just like any credit union at home: with a dedicated board, a professional staff and well established policies and procedures. What they were looking from us was advice. And not general, “why is the sky blue, kum buy ya, we’re a cooperative so let’s hug advice”. No, very specific advice and recommendations on a broad range of topics and real-time issues facing any credit union today, whether it’s in Summerland, Vancouver or Koboko Uganda.   

What was amazing was the juxtaposition between what we were discussing and where we were discussing it. In a small dark storeroom, in back of a rented facility with a dirt floor and the roar of a generator in the background, where we were often interrupted mid-sentence by the crowing of the resident rooster (which I have to admit only Audrey and I seemed to notice) we were grilled all day about our thoughts on capital adequacy, loan default procedures, board governance and human resources policy, just to name a few of the topics covered. And all this by board members with more combined education than most Canadian small towns.

I’m exhausted! I feel like it should have been us asking for the advice, not the other way around.  

But by the end of the day some great ideas were exchanged and Audrey and I were able to give some specific advice and concrete examples the board of KTC SACCO can now consider as they move forward to strengthen and grow their credit union. Tomorrow we do it all again but this time with the senior management and I’m already a little intimidated.

It’s getting late as I settle in for my second night at the Hotel Di’Ambiance. We’re in a secure walled compound and the hotel is full tonight but other than Audrey and I the rest of the patrons appear to be Ugandan aid workers. There are lots of 4X4 four-door Mitsubishi pickups that seem to be the vehicle of choice and lots of people in various uniforms of one sort or the other. We saw a UN truck yesterday and there lots of Red Cross teams here this evening. The generator is on but it’s been sporadic and the water isn’t running. But no worries, this is Africa J The staff already brought me a Jerry Can of cold water and they delivered a Jerry Can of hot water earlier so I’m good to go. I can work by headlamp and my memory stick thing gives me great internet so what else do I need?  

Signing off from Koboko Uganda



Children outside our gate this morning
 The loan department
 The Koboko Town Council SACCO
 The Cashiers
 Audrey and I answering questions
Some of the SACCO board



Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Koboko - the jewel in the crown!

Hello from the jewel in the crown, Koboko, Uganda.

Today was a loooooong, nine-hour drive from Kampala to Koboko in the north-west corner of the county. I can’t say anything yet about the town itself because truthfully, I don’t have a clue. We left Kamapla this morning at 8:00 and we didn’t arrive here until 5:00, and the hotel is on the outskirts of town so all I’ve seen is the inside of a compound. The road was paved for a lot of the trip but a lot of it was under construction so it was graded dusty gravel – and some of it was still paved but it VERY rough condition, which is worse than unpaved. When the pot holes threaten to swallow whole villages it’s time to hunker down and grin and bear it.

But……………. and this is what made the entire experience more than worth the price of admission – we came around a corner and on the side of the road we pulled up right next to a group of elephants! Not in a game reserve, not on a guided tour, no…..  right on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. How freak’n cool is that!

And how do you know you’re truly in Africa?
You leave a hotel in the morning that may have faded a bit with the passing years but is still a very nice business hotel the likes you’ve seen in any city. With a lounge, restaurant and uniformed staff at every corner – and nine hours later you arrive at something most recently frequented by Stanley and Livingstone. Where the water is cold, the lights are dim, the mosquito net and coal oil lamp is definitely NOT decorative, and the power is dependent on the generator that is roaring comfortably in the background ..... but the staff are just as inviting and if anything you feel even more at home.

Signing off, happy and excited from Koboko Uganda