A sort of homecoming - actress Pandora McCormick's visit to Uganda
Photography by Mark Lee and John Bosco
'The landscape is what I expected. The food and climate are what I expected. The warmth and kindness of the people we've met and travelled with and learned from, is what I expected. But I've never met people who have had life that tough before. I've never spoken to somebody who has literally pulled themselves up from the point of nothing." So says actor Pandora McCormick (she played Claire Hennessy in Red Rock) on the fifth day of our week-long trip to visit projects run by Self Help Africa in Uganda.
Pandora grew up in neighbouring Kenya - "I was born in Dublin, but my mum and I moved to Kenya when I was four, so really, all of my childhood memories are of Africa. The minute I land back in East Africa, the smell and the colours bring back those memories so strongly; it's still a really big part of my heart." This is her second time in Uganda. "I came when I was very small with my mum to visit my godfather, Robert Law, who lived in Kampala."
"As a child," she says, "you are protected from the political and social realities around you. You're sheltered, you have rose-coloured glasses, because your parents keep things from you. Everything that happened that was shocking or dangerous, my mum kept from me. She only told me later on, when I was older.
"So it was really only after I left Kenya and went back - I tried to go back every three years, when I could save up for the flight - that I started to notice it. That - along with the fact that I think I've always quite enjoyed doing things for others - is what motivates me now. Doing something for others gives you some perspective on the tunnel that is your life; otherwise, you can become very introspective, very focussed on yourself."
Pandora's involvement with Self Help Africa came about when she was asked - because of her familiarity with the region, and her interest in social and gender issues - to be ambassador for the organisation. What really persuaded her, she says, was "the way they spoke about how to empower women. Women in traditional African farming communities have a tough time of it. They will plant the seeds, tend the fields and harvest; the man will sell, and he will control the money. Marriage is still the ambition for many women - that's their only value, their only pathway. Education is still a dream for many, even just primary and secondary, let alone university. What they can hope for is that their father chooses a kind man. Imagine having so little control over your whole being?"
Also on the trip are Domini Kemp, TV presenter and owner of Feast, Itsa Bagel, Hatch & Sons, Joe's Coffee and more; and Brian Montague, owner of the Woollen Mills, The Winding Stair and the Grand Social along with other business interests. As advocates for and supporters of Self Help Africa, they are here to see what actually happens, on the ground. They are here to see the change made to lives and futures by the remarkable work done in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and into West Africa. Because all the talking in the world cannot convey the extent of this work in the way that being here will.
So here we are, a disparate group of people with one aim. That of seeing for ourselves what can happen with a little help and a lot of support and expertise. This is not charity or relief work; instead, this is the kind of sensitive, sustainable, embedded, multifaceted input that changes whole communities.
We cover a lot of ground, physically (well over 1,000 kilometres), but psychologically, too. As we drive through landscape that is remarkably lush and beautiful, through the Murchison Falls National Park where we see elephants and giraffes, across the Nile, past busy towns and into remote regions where the red earth produces golden maize and green fields of onions, we learn a lot.
Every village we visit, children come pouring out to meet us, sprinting from between mud huts and tall crops to reach our van. They play a game of hide and seek, ducking behind walls and between mud houses, then peering out at us, and running away once we spot them. Mostly, they are dressed in worn and frayed T-shirts with Minnie Mouse or Hello Kitty on them, ragged pyjama tops, football shirts of teams they have never heard of (they can all do the dab dance move, even if they don't know who Pogba is).
The older ones are laughing as they run; some of the younger ones look genuinely terrified. In one village, a child has a the rim of a bicycle wheel to use as a play hoop; in a another, there is a car made of an empty plastic milk carton tied to four plastic lids for wheels. Other than that, they have no toys, not one. Not a single scrap of bright-coloured kiddie plastic, not a doll, not even a football.
They are fascinated by our phones, or, more accurately, with their own images on our phones. Taking a selfie with these children and showing them their face on the screen is mesmerising. Their incredulity and delight are boundless.
Everyone laughs at us. The children go off into helpless giggles as Pandora high-fives them, queuing up to do so. The grown-ups laugh at our voices - we sound very high-pitched in comparison with the much lower African voices - squeaking in good-natured imitation.
One woman, Saida Ismail, grandmother to 15 children, all of whom she is putting through school thanks to her involvement with her village savings group, tells us proudly that she is 67, then falls about laughing when Brian Montague tells her his age - 55. In the most charming way, she draws deeply unflattering comparisons between her own appearance and his; none of her mischievous delight is lost in translation.
The ways in which support is given here are many and various. There is the physical support - the bags of seeds, the fertiliser, the tools - but the reason for the success of the projects is far more rooted in other things, what the corporate types call 'soft skills', meaning knowledge, training and back-up.
Often, the first thing Self Help Africa does is not to give anything. Instead, they begin at the most basic layer - community organisation - and this can take them six months. They work closely with farmers and villagers, helping them mobilise into small savings and loans groups. The groups then work together, setting themselves targets - for example, to save $2 (around 10,000 Ugandan shillings) a week each - then issuing loans to members so that they can buy seeds, fertiliser, tools and more. They learn how to come together, organise, achieve goals, and deal with one another for the greater good.
These small village groups are the building blocks of much greater things. From there, supported and facilitated by Self Help Africa, the groups grow and develop, and broaden in scale. They send one member, chosen by themselves, to agricultural college, and he or she, in turn, trains 10 more members. These groups become the bedrock of farmer collectives, using the power of bulking to access bigger markets, command better prices, until finally, at the top of the scale, they reach the point where they can sell to large multinational corporations. For example, Diageo buys white sorghum used to make beer from Self Help Africa-supported farmers; Irish-owned animal feed company Devenish Nutrition buys cassava for processing into feed.
As for the why of all this - why it's necessary - the answers are many and various. Uganda's post-Colonial history (it was a British Protectorate) has been typically troubled. First under Idi Amin, who took power in 1971 and called himself 'Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas' (during his regime, an estimated 300,000 Ugandans were murdered); and later in the 1980s when Milton Obote overthrew Amin (some 500,000 Ugandans were killed during his reign, with 750,000 displaced).
This has meant a massive loss of traditional human skills, including farming know-how. Add to that the refugee mindset, the enforced sitting and waiting for food, for medical care, for help of any kind, and plenty of pockets of ongoing disruption.
As we travel North from Kampala, we pass through the town of Gulu, birthplace of Joseph Kony. Kony is the leader of the exceptionally violent rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army, whose modus operandi was murder, mutilation, torture, rape and kidnapping, forcing children as young as nine and 10 to become soldiers - to kill or be killed.
The LRA, still in existence, were very active here as little as a decade ago. In 2012, Bob Geldof said on the Late Late Show, "Give me a gun and I'll kill this man [Kony]... I will do it. Clear as day, this man is evil beyond measure." One village we visit is beside the site of a particularly savage massacre; an entire community wiped out in the most appalling way.
Knowledge that would have been passed through generations was lost and must be returned, but also changing climate patterns and global markets have meant that new understandings need to be gained, of what to grow, how to grow it, and how to sell - for example, chia and sesame, both hot property internationally, instead of cassava.
Throughout the West Nile region, this is happening under the direction of three of the most impressive people any of us have met - agricultural adviser Robert Gensi, project manager Julius Okwakol (who did a post-graduate in Development at Trinity College) and executive director of partner organisation Agency for Accelerated Regional Development (AFARD), Alfred Lakwo. All three have their own backstories involving war, poverty and displacement, but also, in the words of Alfred, "have had opportunities, and so we ask, what can we pay back?'"
A Woman's Place
Many of those we meet and talk to are women. Self Help Africa don't, of course, work solely with women - we also meet men, like Ben Aziku, who was initially very reluctant to join his village group, because he couldn't see the point, and now has 13 pigs, a brick house, a poultry farm and a motorbike. He employs five others, and has plans for a pork shack. We joke that he is the Richard Branson of the region, and seriously expect to come back in a few years and find him running an empire.
However, the knock-on effects of working with women are demonstrable. They are the ones who pay forward the help they receive, who lift the people around them as they rise. They put their children through school and university, and gradually lift whole communities out of poverty and ignorance. They start small - a bag of seeds, some basic skills - and keep working until they grow and succeed.
As Pandora puts it: "We are seeing such incredible women. I've been given such inspiration from the women we've met. Some have been abandoned, [for] some, the husband has died; they have children - and many have lost children - and other dependents, they have a tough lot, but they are nailing it, and that's what I wanted to see. That's why I'm here. I wanted to learn about their stories: Who is helping them? How are they being helped? And what happens when you help them? Because that's the wonderful part.
"Not a single person that we have met, man, woman or child, has asked us for anything. Instead, they showed us their homes, their children, their fields, their silos, the graduation photographs of their children, with pride. They had their heads held high - 'Look, this is what I am achieving. Thank you for the hand up, but this is me now; I've got it'."
She means women like 27-year-old Doreen, whom we meet in a village in the West Nile region, a place that is physically and psychologically remote from even the most provincial of cities. Doreen was born with a physical disability that meant she couldn't walk, until, she thinks, aged around four, she was taken to hospital by a medical NGO and operated on. By that age, she was already an orphan. She left school when she was 14 without any qualifications. In her own deeply understated words: "My situation was bad."
Now, thanks to the youth projects run by Self Help Africa and her own hard work, Doreen is a person of substance. She has a two-room brick house, savings of around 20,000 Ugandan shillings (around €4) "at any moment", and three goats. Best of all, Faith, her beautiful five-year-old daughter, is, she tells us, "at school. She is in the top class". The pride with which she says this, and with which she watches as Faith drops us an exquisite curtsey, says everything.
Then there is Daphne Owechi (24) mother of Edison, (one), and Louis (four), who started with "nothing". She took a loan to buy beans, held on to them until beans were scarce and the price rose, sold them, paid back her loan, and, with the profit, is diversifying. She has plans to buy a silo next, and more land. She is, in the words of Domini, "a natural-born businesswoman".
Or Margaret Kemba, who bought a silo in which she stores beans, and owns the finest house in her village; who introduces us to her seven-year-old daughter Shelma, and says, "My four children are at a very good school. My daughter is at university. I am building a new home". When asked if she is married, Margaret says, "I was, but things failed out".
Betty Lamwaka, a widow in her late 20s, is the mother of six children, aged two to 16. She is also responsible for her sister, her grandfather, a nephew and niece. Ten people live in her small, clean, bare mud hut with its thatched roof, and all are dependent on her and what she can produce from her four acres of land. "Without this project," she tells us, "you can't improve your social standing. Every year you remain the same person. With this, children go to school, we eat better, we have healthcare. It gives me the confidence that I can uplift our standard of living."
These women are, as Pandora says, "so capable. They are smart, hard-working. They need a lift, as everyone does. Everyone needs a hand. They are not asking for pity, or charity, just an opportunity. When we talk to these women, they list the challenges they face - but also their hopes. To see women speaking out at their community meetings, rising to the challenges, becoming ambitious, wanting to be a person of substance, that really got me."
Ugandan women don't fidget. They don't giggle or chatter. They stand straight and still and answer questions clearly - although they mostly look down, demure, discreet. Until they get older. It is Pandora who spots it first. "Women can't be outspoken until they are elderly. All the younger women, they look away and they look down. But maybe once they've got their land, their businesses, younger women will start using their voices - speaking out, feeling confident. That would be my greatest wish."
We watch one of the savings groups in action. Fifteen villagers, predominantly women, are sitting in the shade of a jackfruit tree, conducting a weekly meeting in which they discuss with deepest seriousness where they are and what their next steps must be. A roll-call is taken (with sanctions for those who are late), every action is recorded in the official book, alongside details of loans paid out and paid in.
This group was set up in 2012 with 18 members, and currently has 45 members, and 9m Ugandan shillings (that's nearly €2,000), of which 8m is out in micro-loans. Through it, these people have bought plots of land, built houses, bought farming equipment, sent their children to school, and diversified into different crops.
The group also issues welfare loans, in cases of sickness or other calamity, and these are repayable without interest and on a different timeframe to other loans. That is their safety net in times of need, one they have established themselves in the absence of anything from the state.
As we listen and talk to these villagers, one thing crops up again and again - climate change. It's like the Irish version of the property-price conversation - it underpins everything else, and is the barometer of current success and future hopes. Uganda used to have two rainy seasons; now, it has only one. This is the frontline of climate change, the place where everything that we in Ireland vaguely know and fear has already begun to happen. One woman we meet puts us all on the spot. "When we see the whites, we expect a lot from them," she says. "So is there anything you can do to help us fight against climate change?"
As Pandora puts it later: "That really shook me. Because not only are we not doing much to help them, we are causing it. They are living on grain and beans, tending their fields, they are not contributing to the destruction of our environment, but they are suffering - it is the be-all and end-all of their livelihood. If the weather is bad, their crops die, and then their families die."
On our last day, I ask Pandora for a final reflection.
"I think a lot of people in our part of the world look at Africa as a kind of problem," she says. "As a troublesome, difficult area, and it always makes me laugh, because I come back here, and I think, 'This place is heaven'. All we see are images of famine and violence. You never see people living ordinary, happy lives. I'd love more people to see that Africa is fun, friendly, warm, beautiful. There are difficulties, but there are possibilities, too."
It is something Alfred Lakwo echoes: "With your hands, all together, we hope we can make a difference." The modesty of this statement totally belies the remarkable difference they are already making; the gentleness of the appeal is astounding. Having seen what Self Help Africa do, how they do it, the practical help they give, the sense of pride they instil, the futures they change - not one of us can resist.
"My main concern coming on this trip," Pandora says, "was, what if I'm just another white person going in, shaking hands, taking pictures… Am I really going to make a difference? How can I do that? And then I thought, 'Look, see what you can do, trust the project, see what happens'. And what I have found is that this is different. It's not a handout, instead, they give people a means to provide for themselves. It's support, knowledge, training, not charity."
It's a life, and a future.
Self Help Africa merged with Gorta in 2015. For more information, and details of how to support the work, see selfhelpafrica.org
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