From October 19th to November 1st, 2017 we were traveling in Uganda. More specifically, in the region around Kyamulibwa, in southwestern Uganda (Masaka district). There we started distributing the first 100 URIDU players (another 400 will follow in the upcoming weeks and months).
We went to Uganda for the second time; first time we had been there in April 2017 for evaluation and implementation of the first project steps. Our project partner in Kyamulibwa is Projekthilfe Uganda e. V., a German non-profit association based in Bruchsal-Büchenau (http://www.projekthilfe-uganda.de). In several decades, they have already set up a wonderful development project there, including schools, vocational training and even a small hospital. Their goal is to improve health care, facilitate basic vocational training and support better farming practices. All their projects are designed as self-help projects and supposed to work independently sooner or later. Of course, URIDU is a perfect fit for this approach!
On the second day of our stay we experienced (once again) how difficult health education in Africa usually is. Together with Thomas Mugisha, one of the health workers of the local hospital, we drove to a small neighboring village. We went on one of these motorbike taxis (called Bodaboda) which are the most important means of transportation everywhere. The village was really close by, but the arduous ride over loamy mogul pistes, muddy and slippery from the rain, still took us over twenty minutes. On the spot, Thomas picked up an old megaphone, mended a hundred times, and began to hold a speech about pneumonia and tuberculosis on the village square. He had printed out some of our URIDU contents and kept looking at his notes during his talk. Gradually, more and more curious people came to gather. After a while, about 40 people sat in front of Thomas and listened attentively to his words.
As soon as he was done, people fired questions at him - not just about the health issues that he had been talking about, but also about many others. The nature of the questions made clear how little knowledge people had, and how quickly half-truths and rumors tend to fill this information gap: "My blood type is zero, I've heard that this blood type prevents you from getting AIDS?“ - "I've been told that one can falsify the result of the AIDS test by drinking a Coca-Cola before taking the test, is that true?“ No wonder - very few of those present have access to all the sources of information that we use to take for granted: books, newspapers, internet. Not even radio and television are available here, due to the lack of electricity in this village. Of the adults, only a few have attended school, and if so, then only for a very short time. Thomas told us that the chairman of the village had been asking many times for somebody from the hospital to come to the village and inform the inhabitants about some common diseases, symptoms and local treatment options. Shortage of staff had made it impossible so far, and now after two hours Thomas had to leave again. Originally, only an hour had been scheduled for his visit here, but given the flood of questions and concerns of the audience, he sacrificed his free time to extend his stay as much as possible.
Imagine how laborious and at the same time inefficient this kind of health education is! No wonder that URIDU’s approach is so joyfully welcomed by so many aid organizations: Instead of only reaching occasionally very few people with great effort in manpower, our MP3 players permanently stay with the local people. They can listen to the information over and over again, at their own pace. A one-hour lecture like the one Thomas held in the village means pure information overload for rural people. Very little of what he said will be fully remembered in the end. Using our MP3 players, people can listen to our contents bit by bit, whenever they want to, as often as they want to. Even where there is no electricity. This way, lots of people can get lots of information on all kinds of health, family, and income generation issues.
But before anyone can listen to our contents, they must of course be translated into the local language and recorded by a native speaker. There are around 40 local languages spoken in Uganda. Luganda is widespread, spoken and understood by almost everyone in the southern and central parts of the country, and in Kyamulibwa as well. On the following photos you can see our "Studio Kyamulibwa“: Josephine, staff member of Projekthilfe Uganda e. V., supporting us in recording our texts on site, using a laptop and microphone donated by us. She was very enthusiastic! And she always laughed her head off when we came back from another player distribution trip and told her that her voice would now soon be heard all throughout Uganda!
In advance, we had already sent 100 of our MP3 players to Kyamulibwa, and when we arrived, they were already waiting there for distribution. The local Projekthilfe Uganda e. V. staff had already selected the women’s groups to receive the players. Together with Gertrud, Robert and Nicholas, we set out to visit these groups one by one, meet the women and bring them the MP3 players. Everywhere they awaited us with open arms - it was just touching!
Each group first told us a little about the participating women, the group's past activities and their current situation. The stories were all too often heartbreaking. Many of the women are either single parents anyway because many men in Africa tend to duck out of their paternal duties. Others are widows - AIDS is of course a common cause of death here, but serious traffic accidents are also commonplace and take their toll. Did you know that 90% of all fatal traffic accidents occur in developing countries? This is not really surprising given the horrible conditions of roads and vehicles and the almost complete lack of street lighting at night. A full family - father, mother, two or even three little children - on a motorcycle is a common sight (and none of them wearing a helmet, of course). Highly overloaded vehicles of all kinds are everywhere. Everything from the mattress to the coffin is transported on motorcycles, which can lead to very adventurous last-minute manoeuvres. Not all of them turn out all right. Surviving members of the family often are unaided women and children.
One of group leaders, a woman in her 50s, impressed us very much. She told us that her son had died and left three grandchildren behind. Both she herself and her husband were HIV-positive and desperately poor, living far from any civilization in one of the countless miserable mud huts of the area. A hopeless situation. But then a VSLA group formed in their village (the acronym stands for Village Savings and Loans Association). In these groups, women organize themselves (usually under the guidance of social workers) and start saving together. Of course, there are only tiny amounts that the women can save on a weekly basis, but these are paid into a common fund and jointly monitored and managed by the women. Should one of the women now need a loan for a major purchase (e. g. a goat), she can apply for it from the group’s collection fund. Payback modalities are negotiated among the group members and also strictly controlled by all of them. Thus, women are able to make smaller investments without having to pay the usurious interest rates that banks or local shylocks would charge them.
This group leader we were talking to had taken the opportunity to buy a small grain mill (similar to our former iron meat grinders) to grind collected seeds and grains into a kind of tea powder. She packed it in small plastic bags (which she welded with the help of a wire heated over a candle) and sold them at a nearby market. Doing so, not only did she succeed in sending her three grandchildren to one of the local boarding schools, but she was even able to build a small brick house for the family instead of the mud hut, which she proudly presented to us. In the midst of this house, the family had left a single wall of clay - as a reminder of how much worse they had been living before ... Moments like these remind us of the huge difference that really simple knowledge and skills can make in the lives of so many people. This is why our MP3 players are so important!
During two weeks, we visited numerous women's groups in the region of Kyamulibwa and heard many, many similar stories. The following pictures were taken during these player distribution trips. The distribution of the remaining players will be handled by the local team of Projekthilfe Uganda e. V. and be made in the coming weeks. Of course, we will continue to report!
In addition to the MP3 player distribution, we also launched a small spin-off project during our Kyamulibwa stay: the first installation of our URIDUPEDIA for Schools! As already mentioned, Projekthilfe Uganda e. V. have already set up several schools in Kyamulibwa; including two primary schools (St. Kizito and St. Leonard, grades 1-7) and a secondary school (Holy Family Secondary School, grades 8-13). The latter also has a small computer room containing about two dozens of Windows computers. Here, the students learn basic terms in dealing with computers, but there is no Internet access.
Since the computers are networked, installing an English version of our URIDUPEDIA content (slightly adapted to the needs of the students) on a central server was easy. In addition, we also installed the freely available WIKIPEDIA for Schools (a curated version of Wikipedia, containing about 6,000 articles about topics such as math, languages, science, literature, art, and more). Now, Holy Family Secondary School students can use these contents as if they were accessing the Internet. They will learn how to use an internet browsers as well as how to search online for, use and prepare information. Key skills they will surely benefit from a lot! School leaders, teachers and students alike were thrilled with these new opportunities. And we are pleased that our first pilot project URIDUPEDIA for Schools has started!
Another URIDU spin-off project very dear to us also took place during our stay in Kyamulibwa: a two-day workshop for girls and women teaching them the production of reusable sanitary pads. Most European women will hardly believe it, but monthly menstrual hygiene is a huge problem for women in many developing countries. Disposable sanitary products (sanitary pads or tampons) are generally not available at all. And even if they are (for example, in supermarkets of larger cities), they are completely unaffordable for most women. So they have to meddle with less-than-ideal solutions that are neither comfortable nor working well. On the contrary, these solutions almost inevitably lead to genital, bladder or kidney infections: dirty pieces of fabric, leaves or grass, for example. No wonder that girls in Africa miss an average of four school days a month just because they prefer to stay home during their period!
During our stay in April, we had established contacts with a small organization that, among other things, holds workshops for women and girls, teaching them the production of reusable sanitary pads. We spoke to the management of Projekthilfe Uganda e. V., and agreed that such a workshop in Kyamulibwa would be a good thing, not only for students, but also for women from the surrounding area. Thanks to the existing premises in the Holy Family school, the space problem was quickly solved and Projekthilfe Uganda e. V. also shouldered the costs of materials and trainers. The success of the workshop was overwhelming - we had expected about 50 participants, but in the end over 100 women and girls attended! For two days, they eagerly learned how to produce sanitary cotton pads. The sanitary napkins consist of various layers: a layer of cotton, a waterproof underneath (made of simple plastic, if necessary, even a piece of a garbage bag can be used here) and easily replaceable, washable and thus reusable inlays. As a result, these napkins are not only cost-effective, but also sustainable. And what’s more: they are hygienic!
In passing, many traditional myths and taboos about menstruation were also discussed and questioned during the workshop. Menstruating women are stigmatized in most places of Uganda - as they are in many developing countries. They are considered to be "unclean" and not allowed to do many things (such as harvesting fruits or vegetables or cooking food). The workshop leaders discussed all these topics with the participants. They also provided women with valuable knowledge about menstruation: why menstruation is important and a sign of health, what exactly happens during a menstrual cycle in a woman's body, and what to do about menstrual cramps. At the end of the two days, not only did each of the participants take home their own set of sanitary pads, but all of them were even more than motivated to pass on the newly acquired knowledge to the women in their respective environment. And so the main goal of URIDU - the spread of knowledge - was fully reached again!