Tag Archive | Uganda

Woman of Uganda: A Banda Bikes Assessment

Even though it was back in June, I still remember the familiar smell of burnt charcoal that filled my lungs as I stepped off plane and reacquainted myself with the beautiful land of Uganda.  It had been over a year, but I was finally back.   After a 27 hour journey, including a 12 hour layover in rainy London, the boldness of the Ugandan landscape was ever more stunning.  The lush leaves of the trees, the vibrant greens of the grass, and the incredible shades of reds and browns that blended into the soil all reminded me why Uganda is called “Africa’s Pearl”.   Upon arriving in Entebbe International Airport, I searched for my name in the sea of hand-written, cardboard signs welcoming the arriving passengers.   Through my blurred delirium of exhaustion, I finally found a sign that read: “We Welcome Song”. Jackson, my driver, greeted me with a smile that seemed all too familiar.  Of course!  Jackson was the same man who drove me from the airport just one year before.   But this time we weren’t strangers, and we happily caught up with our lives as we drove the 2 hour road to Jinja, Uganda.

With only seven days in-country to conduct a feasibility assessment for Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project, I made the best of the little things that would have otherwise driven me crazy – the scorching heat, the lack of clean drinking water, and most of all the aggressive mosquitos.   Those trivial things didn’t matter this time.   I was here for Banda Bikes, a Vort Port project which aims to train local Ugandans to build and sell their own bicycles constructed from locally-sourced bamboo.  Through these bicycles the endeavor hopes to provide disadvantaged populations, particularly women, with greater access to food, water, employment, education, healthcare, and ultimately a greater quality of life.   But in a country that continues to face strict gender norms, such that women are frowned upon for riding bicycles in some regions, implementing this project does not come without its fair share of obstacles.   Still, the benefits of providing bicycles to a community are astronomical, including the potential to increase a household income by 35% or more. [i]

Lukaya Village. Tree of Life Ministries school performance.

Throughout the 4 schools, 4 community-based organizations, and 8 village centers visited, every day was a new adventure.   While in Kibuye Village with Sharon Nyanjura, founder and director of Arise and Shine Uganda, community members shared their dreams of one day learning to build their own bicycles through the project.   Over and over again, the voices of villagers were translated to me, “we are here for you, we will be waiting for your return”.   Although words between us were rarely exchanged directly, our long glances to one another shared the same message, webale (thank you, in the local language).   “Thank you for allowing me into your community”, something I would think to myself throughout my entire journey.

With the support of Real Partners Uganda and Trees of Life Ministries in Lukaya, Uganda, I met brilliant students who shared their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, and teachers.   Among them was Iesha, who recognized the value of a bicycle.   She shared with me, “a bicycle is important to me because everywhere I can use a bicycle.  If I had a bicycle, I would use it to fetch water.”  Iesha was one of many female students at Trees of Life Ministries who could envision the asset of a bicycle in her life, despite the opposing gender norms of females riding bicycles in the surrounding community.

For decades it has been recognized by USAID and organizations alike, that women are a force that can transform an entire community.  We also recognize that “countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy”. [ii]   Women continue to have incredible influences on their families and communities, both in developing and industrialized countries, yet the gender gap in equality persists around the globe, including Uganda. [iii]   With the hope of addressing gender inequality with the Banda Bikes project, the voices of women throughout the villages became louder than ever.

Song meeting with the women of Lwanda Village.

In Wakiso District with Katongole Issa of Nansana Children’s Center, I met a single-mother, Fausta.   With her husband having passed away years ago, she is now burdened with raising four children on her own.  With Fausta as the sole financial provider for her children, every day is a struggle.   In a small room which served as the living room, bedroom, and dining room for the entire family of five, I sat with Fausta as she shared her many hardships.   When sales at her potato stand are low, she may make as little as $0.42 a day (US currency), which is the entire cost of her journey back home.  On those rough days, Fausta brings no income home to support her family.

Despite my familiarity with living conditions in the developing world no article, textbook, or lecture can ever prepare someone for the pain and emotion evoked in the eyes of one who actually lives it.   It took a good measure of effort not to shed tears for Fausta as she shared her daily struggles with me.   Fausta reminds me of my own mother and the challenges she faced raising me and my two siblings alone.   Still, two words make the difference between Fausta’s story and that of my mother’s – Government Assistance.  For Fausta, and single-mothers like her, government assistance is a rarity in Uganda, almost non-existent.  I asked myself, “who is here to help these women?”  Across the globe the majority of those living on less than $1 a day are women, regardless of hours worked.   The opportunities for women to earn a living consistently fall short of their male counterparts. [iv], [v]

Nevertheless, as Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project further develops, we have in mind the amazing women throughout our partnering communities.  The project will continue to recognize the gender gap and aim to create opportunities for women to learn about, be involved, and eventually build their own bicycles just like their male neighbors.   Until our next visit to Uganda, I will remember fondly the children at Trees of Life Ministries who shared with me their aspirations, and the inspiring people in Lukaya who are waiting for our return.  But most of all, I will often think about Fausta and her beautiful children who remain resilient through their daily struggles, happy and hopeful to have learned about Banda Bikes. The Ugandan communities have helped me recognize the incredible opportunity that exists when local people are provided with support to make a difference in their own communities.  It is their motivation, endless hope, and inspiration which continue to drive Banda Bikes and the people of Vort Port International.  Until my next visit – webale.

Nansana Town. Song with Fausta, children, and friends.

This blog post was written by Song Nguyen, a member of Vort Port International and the project director for Banda Bikes.


[i] Sieber, N. Appropriate transport and rural development in Makete district, Tanzania. Journal of Transport Geography, 6(1). 1998.

[ii] Hausmann, R., Tyson, L., Zahidi, S. The global gender gap report 2011: Insight report. World Economic Forum.  Available at:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2011.pdf.

[iii] USAID. Gender equality and women’s empowerment. Retrieved from: http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment.

[iv] Murray, A. F. From Outrage to Courage. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME; 1998.

[v] United Nations. Gender and Human Development. Human Development Report. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1995/chapters/.

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Connecting Sustainable Transportation and Access to Clean Water

Our global population has already hit almost 7 billion, and is expected to increase dramatically over the next few decades. Consequently, one vital source of life has been and will continue to be compromised: water. Our global water system has been impaired by heavy industrial and agricultural use, ineffective water management systems, and inadequate infrastructure for rainwater harvesting. These trends, along with global climate change, will lead to major challenges in meeting the world’s water demands both in developing and developed countries. Specifically, climate change is exacerbating the issue of water scarcity and clean water. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and changes in humidity, salinity, and wind have been linked to poor water quality and an increase in waterborne pathogens.

It has become apparent that water scarcity and access to clean water is one of the most important challenges that developing countries, such as Uganda, face. In fact, the UN’s seventh millennium development goal (MDG) includes “revers[ing] the loss of environmental resources” and “reduc[ing] by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 2.6 billion people or 50% of the developing world lack access to a basic “improved” latrine which inhibits sanitation, and 1.1 billion people lack access to a source of clean drinking water. 80% of those lacking access to safe drinking water reside in rural areas.  As a result, morbidity and mortality rates are increasing; approximately 1.6 million people die due to diarrheal diseases and other waterborne diseases (e.g., cholera) due to limited access to clean water and sanitation. 90% of the 1.6 million people are children under the age of 5.

The problem of access to clean water is evident in the target village of VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project: Kibuye Village, Uganda. The village is located in the Kamuli District in North Eastern Kamuli on the shores of the Victoria Nile. Kibuye has an estimated population of 60,000 people. Their livelihood is dependent on subsistence farming and barter trade within the village.  VPI’s potential partner organization, Arise and Shine Uganda, has documented the problems of villagers through a blog for the past couple of years.  Arise and Shine Uganda is a non-profit organization based in Jinja, Uganda focused on sustainable development through education.  As I read through the numerous entries written by various members of Arise and Shine recounting their own experiences, one message was consistent throughout: the people of the village have very little access to water and electricity.  A member wrote in December 2011: “The conditions in the village were very basic, as was to be expected.  There was no running water or electricity, and thus no sewage or apparent irrigation systems.”  Another member noted recently in March 2012 that there was “no water and no power” when they visited Kibuye, and said that they went to a well to get water.  Arise and Shine has really highlighted the source of the problem: the village initially relied on one public borehole for clean drinking water.  However, with just one source of water for 60,000 people, long lines would form everyday by villagers so they could provide clean water for their families.  Naturally, many grew tired of waiting, and turned to the nearby Nile for water, which only resulted in diarrheal and waterborne illnesses.  Furthermore, Arise and Shine noted that the village has one school with just two classrooms, accommodating around 600 children.  Children who get sick from unsafe drinking water are likely to miss school, which cause them to fall behind their peers.  This is partially reflective of the staggering statistic Arise and Shine reported: 80% of Ugandans over the age of 15 are illiterate.

In June, members from Vort Port International (VPI), including myself, will be traveling to Jinja, Uganda to conduct a feasibility assessment for VPI’s Bamboo Bike’s project. Last summer, VPI’s very own Project Lead, Song Nguyen, went to Jinja and worked with Restless Development, conducting research on youth-friendly sexual reproductive health services.  During her time in Jinja, she also volunteered with Arise and Shine.  From interacting with local community members for 6 weeks, Song found that most people in many districts of Uganda lack access to transportation.  In fact, one community member specifically mentioned to Song that a bike would prove extremely useful for their daily needs. When Song returned to the US, she was determined to provide her friends and local community members in Ugandan villages with a sustainable source of transportation.  Inspired by her experiences, she created the Bamboo Bikes project under VPI. This project is focused on empowering local community members in Uganda to build and sell bamboo bikes to others in their community, meanwhile providing greater access to basic resources through their bicycles.  The project will improve the business acumen of Ugandans, help them to gain practical skills, and ultimately develop a sustainable business.  Moreover, the bike itself will provide Ugandans with an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.  The bike may serve to improve their economic opportunity, increase their access to healthcare, increase their mobility enabling them travel to nearby cities to explore other opportunities and expand their businesses, and increase their access to basic necessities, including water.

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Song Nguyen visiting with in-school youth in rural Uganda.

It is clear that access to clean water is critical for the people of Kibuye Village, and many others across Uganda.  Efforts to create sustainable, affordable, effective, and applicable solutions to this problem are needed across Uganda and much of the developing world.  The benefits of investing in the problem outweighs the costs; WHO estimates that meeting MDG goal 7 could prevent 470,000 deaths attributed to lack of clean drinking water and sanitation, and could result in an extra 320 million productive working days every year.  For the children and families of Kibuye, this could mean a better education due to more consistent attendance, improved literacy, a greater ability to compete with their peers in their own district and in nearby urban areas such as Jinja, and allowing both women and men to lead more productive lives. Most importantly, it would mean children will have a greater chance of survival, lead healthier lives, and will be more likely to see their futures through.  It is our duty to help empower others to obtain what is their human right: access to water, sanitation, transportation, and education, among others. It is my hope that VPI can play an integral part in empowering the people of Kibuye, starting with providing villagers with access to transportation.  Moreover, as women and sometimes children are typically responsible for fetching water for their families and spend considerable time doing so, they may find the bikes useful for finding other sources of clean water that may not have been accessible otherwise. Bamboo bikes may also allow them to more easily transport water back to their families.  Most importantly, villagers may no longer need to rely as much on the unsafe waters of the Nile to fetch water for their families, which has been detrimental to the health of so many.

VPI’s members have started to brainstorm ways to successfully address clean water issues at our project sites, including Kibuye. The technologies for improving access to clean water that have already been developed seem endless; the key to success is implementation. VPI’s trip to Kibuye in June will allow us to better understand the problems that these villagers face, and develop and implement culturally sound, applicable, and affordable solutions to the challenges they face every day.

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To learn more about VPI’s Bamboo Bikes Project please visit: www.vortport.org/our-projects/bamboo-bikes, and check out pictures of the bikes our members have designed and constructed on VPI’s facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/vortport).  If you would like to get involved with VPI’s projects or have any questions, please feel free to contact me at shivangi@vortport.org.

The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” — Helen Keller

Shivangi Khargonekar, the author of this blog post, is the Internal Director of Vort Port International. Shivangi recently graduated with a Master of Public Health in Environmental Health from Emory University. She will be joining Deloitte Consulting as a full-time consultant in their federal practice; she will be a consultant for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shivangi currently resides in Atlanta, GA.

Patz, J.A., et al. (2000). The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Variability and Change for the United States: Executive Summary of the Report of the Health Sector of the U.S. National Assessment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 108(4): 367-376.

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability. United Nations Development Programme website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://web.undp.org/mdg/goal7.shtml

Health through safe drinking water and basic sanitation. (2012). World Health Organization website.  Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/mdg1/en/index.html

Arise and Shine Uganda. (2012). Arise and Shine Blog. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://www.ariseandshineug.blogspot.com/

Koolwal, Gayatri and Dominique van de Walle. Access to water, women’s work and child outcomes. (2010).  World Bank website. Accessed May 1, 2012 from: http://water.worldbank.org/publications/access-water-womens-work-and-child-outcomes

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