From service provision to 'empowerment', the NGO sector in Masindi District is thriving, as Nick Young and Elone Natumanya discovered on a recent visit.
Plugging service gaps for ‘disadvantaged groups’ is often seen as a classic virtue of NGOs. That virtue is alive and well in the town of Masindi, where, without a shilling of support from any government agency, the Family Spirit Centre offers shelter, care and schooling to 189 children orphaned by AIDS or displaced by war and rejected by their communities of origin.
The most striking thing about these children is that, despite the cramped conditions, they seem healthy and happy. One of the most striking things about Isaac Nyakoojo, the Family Spirit Centre’s founding director, is that he seems to know the name and personal history of every child in his care.
Isaac is a school teacher who tested HIV positive in 1995. He joined a local support group for people living with HIV, the Philly Lutaaya Initiative. “We used to go out and visit those who were bedridden, encouraging them to go to hospital,“ he recalls. But, he adds, “In those days there was no treatment. People were scared. Even we ourselves were scared.”
“By 2001 many of our colleagues had died and there were many children. The father would die today, the mother would die tomorrow. And the communities refused the children. HIV was not understood in those days. People were talking about witchcraft. Even in the churches they would say that God has cursed the community.”
Five teachers in the Philly Lutaaya group, three of whom have since died, started taking in orphaned children. From 2003, a year after its formal establishment, the Centre also began to accept children displaced by war in the north.
Costs have been met by financial and in-kind donations from a wide range of individuals. Isaac mentions especially one “Doctor Chris,” an expatriate who worked for three years in Masindi District hospital, and Harold Sontrask, a lawyer and philanthropist from South Carolina in the United States.
But the Centre operates on a shoestring, with careful economies in every respect. There is no computer in the little office and the only vehicles are one motorbike and a few old bicycles. A rainwater collection tank helps save costly tap water. In an outside kitchen, food is prepared over two large, energy-efficient stoves, to save on firewood. An adjoining vegetable garden, which the older children help to cultivate, provides fresh produce to vary their diet, and the small back yard includes a chicken house, a pigsty and hutches for raising rabbits. The Centre has now acquired 15 acres of farmland further out of town and this, Isaac hopes, will enable it to become nearly self-sufficient in food.
Key staff have risen from Family Spirit’s own ranks. Susan, one of the first orphans taken in, has now grown into a young woman who serves as headmistress and house mother. She has her own little room on the premises, but shares it with several of the youngest children who have not yet started in the kindergarten class.
During the day, the children attend classes ranging from kindergarten to Primary 7, taught by local volunteer teachers. They are assisted by a regular supply of young volunteers from Denmark who each come for a period of three months.
Asked why they did not try instead to integrate the children into mainstream primary schools, Isaac explains that beyond the Centre compound the orphans encountered deep-seated prejudice. “When we started this, no other child was allowed to play with our children. Their parents would not allow it.”
Relations with the neighbourhood have recently improved greatly, Isaac says. One reason he gives is that the Family Spirit children are doing remarkably well in their humble classrooms. Their academic progress, he suggests, is helped by the fact that the children come from several different regions and so learn to use English as a common language from the time they start to speak. Now, he says, parents in the neighbourhood want to send their own children to the Family Spirit school. Some have been accepted. In return, people in the community have donated food and building materials for ongoing extension work.
On completing P-7, the Family Spirit children enter government senior schools and some of the older students move into foster homes in the neighbourhood. At present, 189 children live at the centre, and a further 47 lodge nearby—some with HIV positive families, some with ‘normal’ families.
Some of these youngsters are themselves HIV positive. Those who need anti-retroviral treatment receive it regularly from TASO (The Aids Service Organisation), Uganda’s largest non-government service provider in this field.
Several of the older Family Spirit students are now preparing for independent adulthood, studying vocational courses at the local technical college or for a primary teaching qualification.
NGOs often talk about “making a difference.” Family Spirit is a down to earth organisation, whose leaders do not speak of “social change” or “empowerment.” But it is hard to imagine what would have become of the Family Spirit orphans if Isaac and his now deceased colleagues had not stepped in where others feared to tread. For more than 200 youngsters, they have made all the difference.
Tobacco, oil and child labor
The Family Spirit Centre’s humble premises make a striking contrast with the campus of the Uganda Technical College Kyema, which lies just outside Masindi town. Many of Uganda’s young universities might well envy the college’s ample grounds, its well-constructed and well-equipped classrooms. A spacious library houses more than 70 bran new flat-screen computers. These are standing by for a first intake of Petroleum Studies students.
Kyema college, then, is a useful asset for the regional and national governments as Uganda gears up to become an oil-producing country. Yet, curiously, this asset exists only because of the past efforts of an NGO working in partnership with the global tobacco industry.
The background is explained by Patrick Mwesigwa, a programme assistant with the Community Development and Conservation Agency (CODECA) NGO.
Masindi, Patrick says, has long been a tobacco growing area, where smallholder farmers supply the giant company, BAT (once known as British American Tobacco), which manufactures brands such as East Africa’s ‘Sportsman’ cigarettes. In the early years of the 21st century, such companies came under increasing fire from activist NGOs, including CODECA.
Tobacco, the NGOs said, is harmful not only for end consumers—addicted smokers—but also for the environment and for human rights. The plants suck nutrients from the soils. Precious forest resources are consumed to make drying stalls and in the wood-fired curing process. And farmer ‘out-growers’ often send their children to work in the fields—rather than attending school—to maintain the flow of cash from this lucrative but labour-intensive crop.
Companies like BAT found themselves struggling to adjust to a new century that expects ‘social responsibility’ from corporations. In response, through an industry association based in Geneva, the tobacco companies agreed to work with CODECA to reduce child labour in the Masindi supply chain.
The association made a lavish grant to build a college in Masindi, on land allocated by the local government, to teach vocational skills. CODECA ran ‘sensitisation’ campaigns encouraging farmers to send their children to school, setting up village Child Labour Committees to carry forward this work. In addition, these committees selected youngsters to attend the college for six-month courses in dressmaking, carpentry and construction skills.
According to Ronald Ayesiga, a bricklaying instructor and vice principal of the college, more than 600 youngsters have now completed such courses.
At the time of our visit a group of young men, nearing the end of their course in construction skills, were laying out pegs and string outside to mark a foundation trench. Nearby stood right angle corner sections of wall which they had built to practice their bricklaying skills. They chose this course, they said, because it seemed the likeliest to lead to paid work. Most said the course had been useful, but they were not confident about finding a job when it was over. “You need to be in town,” said one, whereas their homes are back in the village.
Yet Masindi town’s real estate and construction sectors are beginning to boom on expectations raised by oil. These young men may find opportunities as migrant workers, but they will likely have to compete with other migrants from further afield.
Other trainees, on the carpentry course, were busy making simple stools. They had learned a lot, they said, and several hoped to stay in touch with each other and try to work together in future. They also believe there would be a market for this kind of furniture in their home villages.
Yet they saw a major challenge in finding cash to buy the tools with which to ply their new trade. A basic carpentry set, they said, would cost around 600,000 shillings (USD 250). To kick-start any business they might need to link up with one of the many NGOs offering microfinance. They could probably also use some training in basic business skills.
Despite the practical difficulties they will face, Patrick Mwesigwa is adamant that the trainees “were looked at as people who were useless in their communities, but now they have the skills to become role models.”
But this must have seemed only a modest return on such a big investment. In 2010, the college was handed over to the central government’s Directorate of Industrial Training. Thus, from an amply funded project to deliver “non-formal” education to youth in tobacco growing areas, Kyema has, as Ronald Ayesiga puts it, “advanced from a vocational to a technical college.”
The college is now enrolling students for longer diploma courses, from which they will graduate with a qualification that is more widely recognised and respected than the mere completion certificate which the “non-formal” students obtain. The diploma courses cover traditional skills such as carpentry, construction, mechanics and tailoring, but Kyema is now also doubling up as a second campus for the less well-endowed Kigumba Petroleum Institute, some 30 kilometres away.
However, the six month courses for rural youth will continue. In the hand-over agreement, says Ayesiga, “It is clearly stated that this programme of non-formal training has to go hand in hand with diploma courses, and government also has to sponsor some non-formal training.”
The shift to ‘empowerment’
Whilst the vocational training project set out to help rural youth, many NGOs have increasingly turned to encouraging young people to help themselves. Lawrence Musiige, 29, is both a beneficiary and a now a firm advocate of this approach.
Musiige dropped out of school in Senior-4 when a relative who had been sponsoring him died. “I spent some time in town there, loitering, doing nothing,” he recalls.
In time he got to know Recreation for Development and Peace (RDP), an NGO established in Uganda in 1999 with the aid of a Danish sports association. At first, RDP specialised in promoting sport as a way of bringing communities together. From 2006, according to the NGO’s Masindi District Coordinator, Alfred Mwesigwa, they started to move into youth “mobilisation and empowerment.” One aspect of this was encouraging young people to form their own community based organisations, so that they could work together for common objectives and access local government funding.
After attending an RDP training workshop, Musiige and 25 other young people in Pakan Sub-county formed and registered the Pakan Active Youth Group. After receiving further training from RDP in “group strengthening,” Musiige says, they were able to obtain farm inputs and seed funding through the government’s National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) programme.
Musiige proudly shows us rows of yellow bell pepper seedlings that, with regular watering through the dry season, he will be able to harvest in January when they should fetch a good price in Masindi’s market. Behind the seedlings stands an acre of bananas that he planted last year on his family’s land. A proportion of the profits will go back to a revolving loan fund that the Active Youth Group established with the NAADS start-up capital.
The Group’s activism is not limited to more productive and higher value farming, however. They have, Musiige says, also been monitoring the sub-county’s government, especially the very small annual allocation—generally less than a million shillings—for Youth affairs.
For two years they wrote to the government asking for an account of how the money was spent. They got no satisfactory answer. This year, however, they have been able not only to get answers, but also to influence the spending. As a result of their efforts, says Musiige, 100,000 shillings from the Youth budget was spent on a modest Youth Day celebration, and a further 300,000 was spent on holding a football tournament for teams in the sub-county.
These are small achievements—and NGOS often dress up small achievement in big words like “empowerment”—but they are significant. For, as the Chinese sage, Laozi, pointed out 2,500 years ago, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.