Working in Uganda

Most of us wake up, turn on our coffee maker or electric tea kettle, take a hot shower, and jump into our cars for the commute to work, perhaps spending a little time online to read our e-mail or survey the day’s news and weather while we sip our coffee.  It’s easy to take these conveniences for granted when you live in Boulder, Colorado, where One School is based, or in just about any town in the United States. But working in Kampala, Uganda or rural Kassanda, where One School at a Time partner schools are located, is a different experience entirely.  I spent a humbling two weeks living with One School’s Ugandan Program Manager, Hussein Tadesse, and his family this summer in Kampala, working with Hussein as he balanced day-to-day life in a sprawling East African city with his passion for One School’s mission—improving educational opportunities for the students at our partner schools.

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Hussein and his wonderful family in Kampala.

What are some of the challenges of working in Uganda?  The morning routine is a good place to start.  Life at home for Hussein is a partnership.  His wife, Afwa, and her helper, Monika, play a huge and largely unrecognized role in One School’s success by managing much of Hussein’s home life so that he can devote more of his impressive energy to our projects.  Before sunrise, they are out of bed to start a small charcoal cook-fire in the cooking alcove behind the house.  Breakfast is not taken lightly—at least not with a visitor in the house—and eggs, chapatis, potatoes, and fresh fruit are prepared as one by one Hussein, his four children, and one house guest (me!) emerge sleepily from our rooms.  Milk is heated for coffee, and water is boiled; laundry is piled in a plastic tub to be washed by hand later in the day.  Kids dress and get ready to walk to school.  Hussein lays out the day’s work plan.

The schedule during each day of my visit was dominated by one or two meetings along with a “short” list of errands—visiting the bank to deal with One School financial matters or negotiating chaotic markets to purchase supplies.  Normally, these activities require Hussein to walk from his house out to the main road in Ntinda, the chaotic “suburb” of Kampala where  he lives, to find a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) or matutu (minivan taxi).  Although ubiquitous in the city, these taxis are notoriously dangerous.  Boda-bodas weave recklessly in crazy traffic, squeezing through tiny gaps between massive cargo-laden trucks and cars jockeying for position in major unregulated intersections.  Matutu drivers are paid by the trip, so speed limits and “sane” passing strategies are often ignored.  And while the roads in Kampala have improved a little since I was there in 2009, they are still pothole-riddled obstacle courses that, along with the traffic, made progress slow even with the hired car and driver that I enjoyed during my visit.  In the rainy season this scenario is awash in tropical downpours.

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Boda-bodas with passengers in Kampala, riding past a misleading billboard touting fast internet.

Another huge challenge to productivity in Uganda is internet access, something that most of us assume that we’ll have just about anywhere we go. There is no widespread network of fast internet in Kampala, despite enthusiastic billboards suggesting the contrary, and most professionals who do have computers access the web using plug-in USB modems that connect excruciatingly slowly to the cell phone network.  In Hussein’s office at his house, just connecting to an e-mail provider could take 15 minutes or more before you even began to try to peck out a message.  And posting images onto One School’s Facebook stream, an activity I had naively intended to do regularly while in-country, was nearly impossible.

To sidestep this, our first mission of the day was often a trip to Garden City, a shopping mall about twenty minutes from Hussein’s house, where we could sit in a small restaurant with intermittent wireless service that was faster than Hussein’s cell connection.  We’d order coffee and desperately work to conduct online business as the wireless signal came and went.  In rural Kassanda, where the partner schools are located, there is no usable internet, and all business is transacted in person or on the phone.

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Hussein preparing for a meeting at Garden City in Kampala, a shopping mall with intermittent faster (but still slow) internet than at his house.

Malaria poses another formidable challenge.  During the two weeks that I was in Uganda, diligently swallowing my anti-malarial tablets every morning, Hussein worked while dealing with bouts of malaria suffered by two of his children, his wife’s helper, Monika, and Pius, the man who takes care of One School’s field office in Kassanda.  When we arrived at Kassanda, Pius jumped into action despite feeling horrible, and the next day Hussein spent considerable time and some of his own money taking Pius first to an impossibly overcrowded public clinic and then to a more expensive private clinic to get treatment.  Back home in Kampala, his kids had to be shuttled to the local hospital—in Uganda people go directly to the hospital rather than to doctor’s offices.

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Pius, diligently cooking in Kassanda despite suffering a pounding malaria headache.

These are just a few of the challenges to working productively in Uganda.  Complex bureaucracies, petty crime, corruption, and even shopping are time consuming activities.  And yet Hussein maintains an impressive focus and dedication to mission.  He is One School’s primary strength and the key to our success.

One night in Kassanda, as I sat around the dinner table with Hussein, Pius, and our driver, also named Hussein, thinking about how much I didn’t like having to pee in a bucket at night because it was too risky to go to the outhouse in the dark, Hussein, with typical eloquence, described a vision for education in rural Kassanda.  “We need to give these children skills to help them thrive in Kassanda,” he told me.  “Mathematics and reading alone aren’t enough if they aren’t tied to the lives these kids live.”

While I worried about the outhouse, Hussein had been thinking hard about learning activities that tied basic academic skills to the economics of raising chickens.

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One School’s Ugandan Program Manager, Hussein Tadesse, meets with teachers at the Kassanda Boarding Primary School this summer.

It’s easy to visit a developing country like Uganda for a couple of weeks and muddle through the inconveniences that are part of  life there.  It’s something else entirely to live these “inconveniences” every single day, while at the same time pushing relentlessly forward with an intensely focused vision for improving the lives of students.  This is the life Hussein lives and the vision that he brings to our projects.  We’re lucky to have him.

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