Adventure in Uganda: A little help goes a long way

20:10, Oct 28 2012
Simon Thomas
FIRST AID: Simon Thomas and colleagues at the MTCEA office in Iganga, Eastern Uganda.

The thieves entered easily through the back door but must have left with somewhat more difficulty, laden with our computers. Despite such setbacks, a lot of really effective work in Uganda is done by small non-government organisations (NGOs) like the Multi Purpose Training and Community Empowerment Association (MTCEA) that I'm with for three months.

Challenges like that one are regular and offer ample opportunity to test my normal, cheery, glass-half-full disposition. And we'd only just finished upgrading those computers.

Sometimes, being part of the development process is one step forward, one back, but behind every challenge, as they say, lies an opportunity in disguise. Witness, tomorrow: In something of a coup, we're hosting our local MP and a clutch of dignitaries in the hope of attracting sufficient interest to start afresh. Of equal importance, the occasion marks the official re-opening of our once-crumbling MTCEA office after the major renovations that I sponsored.

In addition to computer training, MTCEA's main efforts are aimed at farmers' groups that have been working in the African dark ages; unmechanised, hand-hoeing of small areas to produce enough maize or rice for their families but nowhere near enough to afford obligatory school fees, medical help or new clothes. Now, through our micro-loan project, farmers can buy a pair of oxen and a plough, expanding their production tenfold, lifting them from subsistence into commercial farming, at least on a small scale.

These farmers have now begun to repay their loans, for others to benefit in the same way. They just needed an empowering kick-start, a low-interest loan and some training.

Why not a tractor as well, I hear you thinking, just as I did at first. Well, apart from the cost, there's a good reason effective revolutions generally evolve step by step.


Westerners who act with good intentions, as catalysts of change, have to resist the temptation to impose our methods and standards, rather than facilitating genuine long-term sustainability. Tractors will come; one step in the agricultural revolution at a time.

All this requires a good deal of work of course and, while the farmers have been doing just fine, the project itself has been running on the smell of an African rag. Rent, power, motorbike fuel and administration costs have been met largely from the poorly resourced pockets of our five staff themselves.

Because martyrdom has limits I launched an appeal to help with operational costs and boost morale. And it's working; I've been thoroughly heartened by the support of those generous souls who've made some extraordinary donations.

The appeal has already made great improvements to the working and living conditions of the team. I never thought that tea and toast in the office would be such a popular innovation.

It's curious how quickly one becomes acclimatised to conditions here. No running or hot water, but bucket showers, long drops, smelly rubbish accumulating everywhere and a seemingly interminable diet of boiled green banana, rice and beans.

They do have a healthy equatorial rainfall that, together with a constant temperature akin to Nelson's summer and rich, fertile volcanic soils, means they can grow, if not eat, just about anything.

Within 10 days of my arrival, I had the chance to experience the local medical facilities first-hand.

It only takes one female mosquito bite to begin the inexorable decline into full-blooded malaria, but I must admit that seven days after being unable to eat, stand or feel anything but ragingly hot, the little doctor's room with cockroaches and a holey mosquito net brought me right back to life, largely thanks to the intravenous delivery of several litres of good old-fashioned quinine. It's given me a whole new level of respect for tonic water.

Others I've heard of, without funds, haven't fared so well. A nearby 300-bed hospital without running water recently turned away a woman in labour because she couldn't pay for the delivery; she died. A neighbouring 9-year-old boy with a eye infection was rescued by my stash of antibiotics; his family certainly couldn't have paid for treatment.

Such stories are common and remind me how fortunate we are in our developed world, not to suffer at the hands of a disorganised and corrupt system where social welfare simply does not exist.

Saying that, many Ugandans I've met are really their own worst enemies, conservative at best and often unwilling to try new ideas. It leads to some amusing, if frustrating, situations.

Conscious of the aforementioned warning about imposing my own ideas, I thought I should cook for my large and often extended host family a reasonably simple meal and give the maid a night off from the strictly females-only task. When the reality of a male demeaning himself so comprehensively had finally sunk in I set to work on my bean-burgers with tomatoes and spaghetti.

I'd made the mistake of not doing the shopping myself and the 2 kilograms of tomatoes I'd asked for were surely interpreted as being an erroneous and wasteful demand. I got two. Tomatoes. The cooking oil and onions fared worse; at least I did get some tomatoes.

And though it's freely available in the market, they'd never seen garlic before and thought it a very strange-smelling onion. Suspicions were heightened when I explained I was putting chopped up leaves of a bush called rosemary into the mix. They were reasonably polite during the meal but I think I'll stick, both figuratively and literally, to bananas and rice next time.

Which just goes to prove that you can only give so much. And no matter how much that turns out to be, the long-lasting friends I'm making and the memories that I'll take back to Nelson may well be greater. That's development.

If you would like to help, details of the appeal are at my travel site published in the blurb below. Look for the Appeal link on the right. A little goes a long way.