Yesterday we had a long hot 8 hour drive from Jinja to Murchison Falls National Park. Today I am meeting Opira, he works for Soft Power Education and is based in their field office in Ngwedo trading centre. One of his roles is to work with the communities around the National Park and help run the People & Parks programme. The purpose of the programme is to promote environmental conservation through education and sustainable community driven initiatives. After the extensive poaching of the 1980’s the park is slowly recovering, but the who people live around the park still need materials and food, which they would have previously sourced from the park. Entering the park is dangerous, ‘the rangers patrolling are armed and will shoot’ one villager told me.
Soft Power Education is currently working with 56 community groups, providing the means to purchase livestock, seeds for trees and many other community initiated projects.
First the community group puts together a proposal for what they feel is needed in their village. This is submitted to Soft Power Education. Once the proposal has been agreed, members of the community group attend training days that help them learn the skills to manage livestock, or grow the seeds and then transfer the seedlings to the ground. The charity then provides the means to purchase what they need. It is important the groups make the purchases themselves, they are then responsible for the quality of their own stock. Soft Power Education will visit the groups every month throughout the first year to support them, offer any additional guidance and make sure that the communities are managing their new resources well. With resources at their fingertips there is less need to poach or log.
This is the part of Soft Power Educations work that I have been most excited about seeing. So when we arrive at Mubaku, our first village of the day I’m nervous about how I will be received, who I will meet and what I will see. Waiting in the van at the side of the road, a motor bike pulls up and off steps and man wearing the biggest, thickest jacket and helmet. It’s 30 degrees and humid, I’m sweating in just a loose shirt and light trousers. Opira introduces himself with a big smile and my nerves start to subside a little.
He leads me through the village, between the homes to a small clearing with the shade of a large tree. Here there is a row of chairs, a table and huge blanket on the floor. As Opira introduces me to the group leader, Annett, all the women of the village appear one by one and sit in front of me on the blanket. I feel quite uneasy I am not quite sure what the village is expecting from me. I was there to photograph the projects but this felt a little like a press conference. Anyway I went with it and we talked about the project, what the community were doing, the resources they had purchased, how their goats were doing and what the People & Parks programme means for them. From the 9 goats they started with a year earlier, they now have about 18. They also grow trees in an area away from the village.
I ask them if they would let me photograph them, and I get a few shy smiles. I spend some time photographing them and their livestock. As I finish, they all gather in front of me and one of them starts to sing. Opira tells me this is a song they have prepared to thank Soft Power Education for their work. I’m completely caught off guard. I feel very honoured.
I can instantly see why they value Soft Power Education’s support. The communities are not receiving charity, but the resources that enable them to be self sufficient and that is more valuable than just giving them money. We say our goodbyes and I’m no longer nervous but excited about meeting the people of the next village.
Khartoum is a very similar village to Mubaku and we are here to see the trees they have been growing right next to the village. They also have goats. We sit in the shade of a huge tree in the centre of the village. This time there are a lot more men in the community group. They are also comprised of a wider age range. We talk about the resources they have and how they are working with them. They want to show me the trees and lead me out the back of the village through a small patch of scrubland. We emerge to an area full of young trees, maybe 10-12 feet high. The entire group have followed, maybe 30 people. It is clear they are very proud of what they are growing. I’m told about how the leaves and branches are used for fuel and roofing, then when the trees are big enough they will provide building materials. Although the trees do offer some short term benefits, this is a long term project with the real value in the wood as a building material. The growing of trees is an important investment for the villagers to make in their future.
We head back in to the village and they are keen to show me their herd of goats. From the original 9 they started with, the community now has 36. As I take more photographs I’m introduced to a young girl holding a goat. Opira explains that she was given the goat to fund her education. She takes extremely great care of it. The value in having these resources doesn’t just mean meat, they give the village communities commodities for trade, the money then enables education. That can only lead to a better future.
I thank Matongo and the rest of the villagers and as I am getting into our vehicle I hear a drum. Looking round the villagers are all heading towards me carrying a giant basket of fruit atop of a woman’s head and singing. Their kindness and hospitality is overwhelming and I don’t know what to say.
Our final stop of the day is a village called Gotlyech. We are here specifically to see the pigs they are rearing. So far during my time in Uganda, I’ve seen no pigs. Goats and cows appear to me to be the prime cattle of choice.
We arrive and are met by Otim, the community group leader. We sit in the centre of the village and talk about the program and how it is helping them support their community. Otim tells me there was no specific reason they chose pigs over goats, but I suspect my question is lost in translation.
The village are also growing trees, but they are on a piece of land away from the village. We move through the huts and quickly arrive at the back of the village, on the edge of a field of crops. There is a roofed pen made from tree branches, and pegged up at the back of the pen are 3 pigs, each with a litter of piglets. I get the impression they are less open about their participation in the project. As I ask questions about them and the pigs, Otim appears very guarded. I get the impression he believes I’m checking up on them. Opira tries to explain the purpose of me being there to photograph them, their village and their livestock. He starts to relax and we continue to photograph.
Back at the village centre the women of the group sing. Only this time it’s not one but 4 songs, the last in English.
On the long drive back to the lodge I try and think back over the day. It has been more rewarding than I would have ever guessed. The truth is I have only witnessed one percent of the villagers’ lives and hardly scratched the surface of the projects and how it affects their lives in the long term. I feel very lucky to have met the people I did and caught a small glimpse of lives of the people of rural Uganda.
I hope you’ve found the forth instalment of my trip interesting, and if you would like to help support the charity directly please visit their website here
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All photos and text Copyright © Jhy Turley 2014