Hello Everyone, my name is Hamda Mohamed and this is my first blog post! This is long overdue, so let’s start from the beginning. I arrived in Mbarara, Uganda on July 2nd. Before reaching Mbarara, there is a couple of hours drive from Entebbe to Mbarara. After arriving in Mbarara, I met my advisor Annet, who helped me get settled in to my new surroundings. She made me feel very comfortable right away, and she invited me into her home and cooked lunch for Chris (another volunteer) and I. She was (and still is) a great local advisor and very welcoming.
I began my placement with local partners SNV and their partner, Agriterra shortly after arriving. Once my workplan was approved and the community members had been introduced to me, I could begin the implementation of my workplan. This included travelling to villages daily. Some villages were only a 20 minute drive while others would take several hours to reach.
While in the villages, I found wearing dresses provided me with better approval within the community compared to when I wore jeans. The way you present yourself absolutely impacts how well you fit into the community, and whether or not they will internalize and listen to what you are saying. Traditionally woman in the villages do not wear pants, which are Western. Therefore, the fact that I look like a local and dress within their appropriate attire makes trust and capacity building much easier.
During one village visit to Sanga, I held meetings with seven women leaders in their community. Within this group three woman owned their own yogurt business; there were also several female board members of the Sanga dairy co-operative present. The discussions focused on strategies for gender and youth sensitization, mobilization, and inclusion within the dairy value chain. Dairy and the dairy value chain is a central source of income for many communities here, so it is important to include women and youth who are typically excluded from income opportunities.
Local issues with the dairy value chain were discussed. One issues the women involved in yogurt production explained was a lack of support for market integration. Specifically, due to localization and lacking supports for transport and marketing of their product they experience barriers for growth. Many of these women have low income and cannot afford to implement the steps needed to market their yogurt. For example, selling yogurt in bottles is inexpensive compared to containers. However, people in the community prefer to buy yogurts in containers which results in a struggle to financially ‘break-even’ for these groups. On the other hand, it was also made apparent that these three yogurt groups were competitively vying for a market in one small area. Through our meetings we decided to take all three yogurt groups and make one united group, titled “Sanga’s Women Group.” Forming one collective group united these entrepreneurs and made it easier to implement marketing strategies and pooled funds. Sanga’s Women Group is collaborating with a local business ‘ Yoba For Life’ to assist them with marketing strategies.
These female leaders are keen to acts as ‘agents of change’ to help mobilize other woman in different areas in a similar way. They proposed the idea of travelling to field with me and advocating for the opportunity of financial empowerment as a role model group. These women had explained that extensive sensitization is required from community leaders as well. One female board member explained to me that I should rally all the female board members and ask them to join me in my youth and gender discussions. If the board members were to travel to different areas to advocate on the importance of decision-making power that is present within cooperatives, it would produce a stronger effect within these vulnerable groups because they would see the evidence for themselves.
Additionally, one female leader advised me to get church leaders involved, in collaboration with female board members. She explained that the support of pastors and husbands, would produce a domino effect of sensitizing the women as well because there would be a system of acceptance that would be felt holistically, in every aspect of domestic life.
I conducted a gender training meeting in Akatongole. The women who attended the meeting were interested in yogurt making but were skeptical about how fiscally responsible it would be to invest in yogurt making. Many women have to take out loans from their husbands which was a concern for them. The extension officer of Akatongole advised me to have another meeting in which I arrive with a successful women’s yogurt group and female board members as well. It was interesting to hear from many different sources that the women and youth in these rural areas require role models (Champion Role Model Group/ Champion role model female board members/Church leaders) to help advocate for empowerment.
The challenge has been that these church leaders/ female board members are quite spaced out geographically. These rural agrarian landscapes make it financially difficult for these change agents to travel and help sensitize the women and youth in remote villages.
I did however form nine group councils and 16 youth councils. These groups discussed a shared vision for their team in having additional income with the dairy value chain. Through the youth and women subsidies provided by SNV (a local partner of VWB) many of them were excited and are on track to increase their funds. Psychological empowerment of youth was another factor that I took into consideration for each group by discussing the innovative and fresh ideas that each member could contribute.
One thing that I kept noticing was the low number of women within youth groups and in board of cooperatives. I realized that it was hard to access women to appear in meetings due to the double burden of time present for them. Even if youth councils were free to join (compared to cooperatives), their time was still occupied. If I wanted to see and sensitize more women, I would have to travel to them individually, household by household.
Although I work hard, in my free time I hang out with my roommate who is also my co-worker and some of our local friends. We go swimming and horse back riding, and I enjoy being out with nature as much as I can. Of course, with a stable tropical climate such as Mbarara, we have all the beautiful sun you could ask for. I travelled to Lake Bunyonyi, which was also an amazing experience. It is several hours from Mbarara, and it contains the second deepest lake in Africa. It really was very relaxing being by the lake and canoeing. I had such a cathartic experience being there, it was a beautiful experience.
After the time at the lake, it was back to work!