Today’s post comes from Stephanie Sanders, the Project Manager for S.O.U.L. Foundation in Uganda. The organization works to foster economic sustainability in Ugandan communities through unique partnerships focused on education, women’s empowerment, food security, and health. Stephanie has spent the past 7 months working with the community programs in Bujagali Falls. You can read more about her work on her blog.
Lovina pointed and paced furiously.
Her voice raised to a level so much louder than any Ugandan I had heard, that suddenly her five foot stature felt intimidating. She needed supplies for her chicken farm, and I was the Project Manager responsible for providing these supplies. As the Ugandan Field Coordinators Oko and Phoebe rushed to translate her words, I scrambled to put the pieces together. But my presence, and attempts to help, seemed only to add to her agitation.
Before I knew it, Oko was asking me to just walk away from the situation. I felt lost, confused, and frustrated that I wasn’t being given a fair chance to work things out. Lovina seemed to hate me, or maybe just the idea of me, and I couldn’t help but feel responsible. What did I get myself into?
I was only three weeks into my new position with S.O.U.L. Foundation, based in a village in southern Uganda. My initial interest in S.O.U.L. came from a deep respect for their organizational mission: to be a grass roots organization, embedded within a community, that creates sustainable economic solutions through programs for women’s empowerment, food security, health, and education.
Lovina’s chicken rearing work was part of a micro enterprise initiative in our women’s empowerment program. We offer women like Lovina all sort of skills, like keeping financial records, managing a bank account, and tips for marketing their products. S.O.U.L. even provides an initial investment, so that after a few successful sales cycles, we can step aside and let women run their businesses independently. Considering it is such a supportive program, what was I doing wrong?
I realized that getting on the right track with Lovina had less to do with business and more to do with a personal relationship. So I decided to visit her group, Group D, almost daily, to start forming closer, more meaningful bonds with group members.
Over the next seven months I worked hard, and often felt that my commitment was being tested. But the more time I spent with Lovina and her twelve group members, the more I felt invested in their success. Slowly, the harshness of our first encounter began to dissipate.
When we had chicken markets, which required mornings as early as 2 a.m., I made it a priority to help slaughter with Group D. I couldn’t join in much conversation, but the women innocently laughed at my attempts to speak Lasoga and were impressed when I uttered new words. We may have lacked formal communication, but we started a bond by working together for a common cause.
Things really came full circle once I met Lovina’s son.
One afternoon, he entered the brooder and we greeted each other with a smile, his bashful and mine beaming. That day, I happened to have something that locals don’t see often – an apple. I generously handed it over, he quickly said “thank you” and ran outside.
It’s amazing how big a difference a small token can make. Culturally, gifts are signs of friendship, but I was surprised when Lovina greeted me with the most sincere smile. It was a nod of acceptance where layers of upbringing, culture and socioeconomic status were stripped away. What was left was connection in its freest form, arising from love and understanding.
Lessons like these I will carry with me for the rest of my life: that even the smallest efforts can lead to change on a much broader scale; that your world can transform when you embrace a new way of thinking; and that when you can’t rely on words, actions reveal true intentions. From this experience and so many others in Uganda, I have learned that working without ego gives me the chance to be open to these lessons, because it gives way for understanding and love to act as driving forces in my work. Though it is easier said than done, on the days when everything seems to be going wrong, these are the sentiments that keep me going.
As social activist Howard Zinn once said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” My relationship with Lovina, and so many others in our community, has allowed me to foster and practice the values of patience and understanding that help me focus on the small acts that end up making the biggest difference.