What better way to start a visit to a Catholic mission school than to attend the Sunday morning mass! And what better way to be introduced to the community of devout parishoners than to say hello at the village church? We sat shoulder to shoulder and knee to back with children from the school on low wooden benches while Father Godfry led mass, students sang and drummed, and a special troupe danced up the aisle and back. Ugandans are very religious in general and are predominantly Catholic. The Sisters of Notre Dame are well respected in the local communities and are entrusted with the care and education of many local children. If children can't afford the school fees (often paid in firewood, ground maize, matoke bananas, or farm labor) then they attend the government primary school across the road. There is a significant difference in the quality of education they receive, however, so parents often go to desperate lengths to afford SND.
We were given an official school tour by Sister Bernardi, the local coordinator of the school while Sister Judith is away. The grounds are impressive. Maybe the best gauge of the scale (to an engineer) is that they have 180 tanks in their water supply system. There are 500+ students living here during their studies, and take off 2 months for their longest break. There is a primary and a secondary school, and the Sisters plan to construct an additional 90 student A-level school within the next few years. Along the way, we meet Michael and Tusabe from BCDC who remind us to attend their meeting around noon.
BCDC is the Buseesa Community Development Center, run by Nicholas Smith with a lot of help from local staff like Matea and Winnie, some of his first borrowers. Nicholas is an amazing person who started this microfinance venture four years ago as his PhD project at UCLA. There is much more specific information available at his website. He came here originally when his father was doing humanitarian work in Uganda, and has grown his project by quite adventurously making contact with more and more villages deeper and deeper into the bush, simply driving his dirt bike up narrow trails and gregariously introducing himself to people that sometimes haven't seen a Muzunga (white man) in their entire life. He seems to have won over many villagers' trust and respect with his charisma and energetic personality. Villagers apply in groups (peer pressure ensures a nearly 99% repayment rate) for microloans of about $87 each, and use the capital to make improvements to their homes, pursue entrepreneurial ideas, expand their farms, or add to their livestock, for a few examples.
Our group of EWB engineers were greeted with reverence at today's meeting, and discussed via interpreter some of the needs of different villages. Our goal is to get additional ideas for local projects that we can complete in addition to the SND biogas project and expand our aid efforts as effectively as possible. No one was shy about asking for help... the list of hardships is long, and these were resourceful people with ideas of ways to better themselves. Predominantly, since it is the dry season now and rain is overdue, people asked for help with water improvement projects. Water supply, water quality, and water for irrigation. Some also asked for help with food processing equipment, bridges, and expressed interest in personal biogas units. It was amazing to be face-to-face with people whose reality includes deadly diseases like malaria and yellow fever, who are asking so humbly and sincerely for help. The cost of helping any one person would be trivial, but the cost of helping everyone is substantial. BCDC's goal is to support motivated individuals to achieve their own goals, and attempt to foster a strong and self-reliant community.
Lunch today in the school cafeteria consisted of stewed goat on rice with a sauce. This was a special meal, as meat is served only every other Sunday. Most of our group enjoyed the taste experience, but the goat sat better with some than with others.
Though John Baginski had gone to great lengths to avoid the necessity of any of us travelling by boda boda during this trip, our afternoon excursion was best accomplished by a quick hop on the back of Nicholas's bike, and the bikes of his friend Casey and Matea. We shuttled down to a stream water source in someone's backyard. We observed a stagnant pool of water where a family drew all of its water from and used untreated. A noisy hornbill called from the tree above, and the children from the house gleefully shadowed us along the trail. We soon scooted over to the local maize mill, owned and operated by Father Godfry, to discuss one of Nicholas's development ideas. He felt that by providing a local power source to the mill (it currently runs on "hydroelectric", which refers to the powergrid that is fed far away by a government dam project, but is only available half of the time), the cost of milling maize could be reduced and villagers would be able to sell their maize flour to wholesalers at a slightly higher margin... enough to maybe pay for school fees for a year.
After a final boda boda ride back to the school, and a hike up and over the rocky ridge, we all visited the home of a truly amazing mother. She came trotting out of the brush herding two cows (a significant accomplishment), wearing rubber boots, a work apron, and a pink silk shirt, and smiling ear to ear. As a single mom, she raises her three children, tends livestock, and cultivates 3 acres of crops. She is on her third successful loan cycle, using the latest money to grow an acre of tobacco as a cash crop. Her drying barn was full of the recently harvested tobacco, and Nicholas filmed footage of her speaking proudly about her harvest and how she used her money. Roaming around her hut were ducks, chickens, a sow pig with piglets, and the dog.
We relished the sunset on the walk back across the ridge by lingering on the bare outcroppings and taking photos. Nicholas peeled a native aloe plant spike and offered it to salve anyone's sunburned necks or faces - we have a couple of those!
After a spaghetti meal with goat meat sauce at the convent with the Sisters, we "hung out" with Nicholas, Casey, SND teacher Maria, and Matea at the BCDC office. Talk ranged from prospects of future development plans to local customs to plans for the next day. Tomorrow was to include something even more exciting than the boda boda rides! We returned to the SND site later at night but by curfew, when the gates are locked and the watchdog is set out.