POLIS Master's student Rachel Muter reflects on what it means to do development work in Uganda, and some of the practical and emotional challenges it entails.
"If you really want to get involved in development work then be prepared to be made vulnerable, to ask more questions than have answers for and be in it for the long haul. The rewards are enormous.
I have been supporting a Ugandan led Christian NGO that works in Masese for five years now, and have just returned from my ninth trip. I’m always slightly bemused as to what I actually do there when I reflect back on the trip, and I question my usefulness, but I do believe my understanding of what ‘development work’ is deepens every time.
Macedonian Vision Africa (MVA) was established and is headed by Pastor Adundo Alfred, who in 2005 felt God calling him to support and transform the income-poor community living in Masese, Jinja, Uganda. With his minimal savings he paid for approximately 50 children to go to school. Although Universal Primary Education is in place in Uganda, in reality even in state schools, you either have to pay some fees, or contribute by bringing reams of paper, maize, toilet rolls etc, which is prohibitive for many living in absolute poverty. Eleven years on, he has 147 children in the programme in primary, secondary and vocational education. MVA has just moved in to their own property on their own land in Masese, and not only does it support children in education in local schools, but it has an emerging vocational institute, a sexual and social health group run by his daughter Nabwire Christine (see our work on Sanitary Towel making and skills teaching http://macedonianvisionafrica.org/macedonian-africa-youth-initiative-mayi/) and supports microfinance groups. (Without land tenure agreements many in Masese are unable to get microfinance loans elsewhere; MVA offers them loans at an affordable rate).
I first met Alfred when I visited in 2011, he inspired me with his faithfulness. On my return to the UK I reflected and prayed about whether to offer my support. You don’t go in to these things lightly, because lives are at stake. In 2012 I returned and offered my support. In practice what does that mean apart from a significant financial and time commitment? I’m a drama teacher by profession, and use drama with marginalised communities here in the UK, and have attempted to use drama in sexual health training when in Uganda. Each time I do, I underestimate the cultural differences in education. With many class sizes of approximately 80 students, the majority of teaching in Uganda is by rote; group work and explorative work would be unmanageable and impossible in the classroom. I am much more used to students exploring ideas for themselves, and so my experience of teaching in Uganda is challenging. In fact, interestingly I met a Ugandan woman this trip who works for UNICEF, and is researching how to improve and generate more active learning among students in the classroom.
In addition to my attempted teaching, I support Alfred with the governance and management of MVA. Hopefully I’m more successful at that! A number of years ago I established a community co-operative in the UK, learnt a lot through the process, unaware that skills accumulated through this would then become useful for work in Uganda. In 2014, Macedonian Vision Africa (UK) was formed. We generate income to pay for the Child co-ordinator role, we have secured funding for a programme manager in MVA, and funding to create a football field.
MVA (UK) also runs a sponsorship programme. ‘Child sponsorship’ I hear you cry! Yes, I know. Compromise and pragmatism creeps in to the work. It’s not ideal; it doesn’t encourage independence or a self-sustaining model, but it is wanted by MVA. I believe the principle of it is challenging. Nabwire Christine talked about when she was a sponsored child, and her sponsor stopped supporting her. She said it took her years before she accepted it wasn’t because she did something wrong or didn’t write the appropriate thing in a letter. She begged Compassion who she was sponsored through, to let her write just one more letter to try and persuade the sponsor to continue supporting her. What a responsibility we have to manage that situation well, a responsibility to communicate to the sponsors back home that these are real people with feelings, and lives that shouldn’t be messed about with. Also a responsibility for Julius (MVA Child outreach co-ordinator) to manage things at his end. However, I am in the privileged position of knowing many of the sponsors and also seeing the children who are sponsored. I know their names, meet them, and see their faces as I give them the letters. Wow. I met a girl called Lovisa, my dad sponsors her. I asked her if she knew the name of her sponsor and she does. I heard a boy Zacharias read out loud the letter that his sponsors sent him. He’s over the moon. I wanted to cry. Should a letter from a sponsor be so important to them? The world is unequal and unjust. The power dynamic between sponsored child and sponsor is all wrong, even though many sponsors also get attached to the kid they invest thought, care and time into. But at the moment this is one of the best efforts to ensure the project can continue to fund children to go to school. If it didn’t they wouldn’t go. The harsh realities and decision making of grassroots development work.
Another harsh reality is the discovery that someone you have worked with over there for five years earns 80p a day. Senga has three dependents, works a 12-hour day and is a cornerstone of the project, however, due to lack of funds, MVA can only afford to pay her less than a dollar a day. One less bottle of wine a week, a packed lunch instead of buying out, skip the coffee and cake, the money saved would almost double her income. So, what can we do about it? What am I prepared to do about it? Studying development teaches you much about the macro level theory, of history, economics and shifts in focus of policy, which is all valuable stuff and enriched and expanded my understanding of Masese and its inhabitants. But it does little to prepare you for the reality of absolute poverty and what it means day to day. The fundamental lack of economic security for those in poverty is relentless.
In addition to my normal work when in Uganda, I also had the opportunity to conduct some research for my Masters dissertation, into possible ways the Christian faith influences how women in poverty negotiate the moral economy of earning a living in Uganda. Informed by the Global Inequalities module (POLIS), it was an extraordinary experience, one that I hope I can have again. Being invited into people’s homes and places of work in Masese to ask them about their lives, and how their faith influences how they earn a living was such a privilege. My understanding of the area had already developed through studying for an essay about informal settlements and the informal economy, but to be brought in to the intimate space of home and faith, was humbling. Five years building relationships allowed for those interviews. I hope my dissertation does the women justice.
To conclude, this was a significant trip for me. Through my interviews with the women in Masese, and the time spent with the children, I feel the depth of understanding I have of the Masese community, the complex nature of living in poverty and the agency the community has to improve their situation, has hugely increased. I am convinced more than ever that Macedonian Vision Africa’s holistic approach to transforming the lives of the Masese community is the right one. It is not perfect, and finances are not secure, but Macedonian Vision Africa brings peace, calm and stability to many whose everyday lives are far removed from that. It is a place of trust. Our vision is to transform a community out of absolute poverty; for long term impact. How we measure the success of that impact will no doubt be decided by the community itself.
What of development and my part of it? Like a lot of things, the difficult can sometimes outweigh the deep satisfaction and joy of being part of something. Even after a profound and interesting trip I still doubt the use I am in Uganda. At times the progress we make and the steps we take are frustratingly small, but then we hear of individual lives that have been changed for the better. I am convinced the best kind of development work is based in relationship, and each year my understanding of the relationship matures."
Rachel is a part time taught masters student in the school of PRHS, studying Religious Studies and Global Development. She also works as the Education Officer for the Manchester based charity Acting on Impulse, which uses drama workshops and film to support homeless and marginalised communities in Greater Manchester https://www.youtube.com/user/Lozzetomfilms