I thought I knew what to expect when we arrived in Uganda. We’d been to Africa before – to Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia – for six weeks as part of a round the world backpacking trip. I fell in love with the continent then, and vowed to return. Next time, I promised myself, I’d do something worthwhile there, rather than just appreciate Africa’s beauty with the eyes of a traveler. It took a year, but my husband, Adam, and I have returned. And that worthwhile thing we’ve found is to become Kiva Fellows at Pearl Microfinance in Kampala, Uganda.

So after spending a week here, and only three days at Pearl, what surprises have I had? Do I dare share my insight after such brief exposure to both the country of Uganda and my first glimpse of microfinance in action? I do, I do, but with the disclaimer that things will be turned on their head soon enough. With every new experience, no doubt I will deepen my understanding of Uganda, the Ugandan people and the reality of microfinance in the field.


First Impressions

I could write reams about the wonderful landscape of Africa. The lush greenery and gentle golden light are part of the reason I am drawn here. And coming from the harsh land of Australia, all sun burnt and drought-stricken, the intensity and number of different shades of green and the rich red soil, this really is paradise found. But Kampala is a bustling city of one million people, so would it be fair or sensible to expect it to live up to my glorious expectations? Well, yes and no. The city centre is bumper to bumper cars, trucks and buses, most of which pump out huge plumes of black smoke which look and smell like they’re instantly reducing your lifespan.

This heavy traffic is known in Ugandan English as ‘jam’, an abbreviation of ‘traffic jam’. Obvious, you say. Well, not so clear to this Muzungu (white person), who is only just starting to tune her ear to the different African vowels and new words that pepper the English spoken here. So not only will we attempt to learn Luganda, but we’ll be learning Ugandan English while we’re here too. One word which I have heard many more times than I expected was ‘sorry’. Ugandans have broadened its meaning so that now it is used as an expression of concern and sympathy. It’s been said to me when I’ve dropped something or slipped, to a barman who smashed a glass, and as a outcry when our mini-bus taxi drove passed a car accident. What a lovely adaptation of a word that so many of us have so little time for is our busy western lives.

So yes, there is traffic and pollution in the city centre. Yet the people in the streets are all smartly dressed, with their clothes pristinely clean and perfectly pressed. They certainly put our wardrobes to shame! And cleanliness is a thing that requires much work here. Kampala is covered with fine red dust that gets into everything – eyes and ears, under finger nails, into computer keyboards, cell phones, you name it, there’s that red dust there. The dust has even found its way to the peaceful suburbs which lie a mile or so to the north of the city center. But there it only seems to add gentleness to the landscape, tempering the stark blackness of the bitumen roads. Here, there are gentle hills (which prove to be much less gentle when navigated on foot in the heat of the midday sun), and beautiful views over the city center as well as other equally picturesque hills which make up this part of town. And this is where our microfinance partner is located, which I must admit did come as a surprise. I had hoped to be able to walk to work, but never had I dreamed it would be along paths which meander around hills covered in dense greenery, with the busy city center of Kampala at their feet. We are lucky enough to have found an apartment (with minimum of fuss), which is half an hour walk from Pearl Microfinance, so we wake up to a most pleasant amble past smiling, friendly faces on our way to work. It hasn’t really rained since we’ve been here, so I’m not sure I’ll find the journey as much fun in the mud slides that are bound to result. So I’ll cling on to my fantasy a while longer.

We’ve been out of Kampala on two field visits, to the town of Jinja, at the source of the Nile and to Mukono, which is about 30 miles away. The drive took us through the most vivid green landscape, through forests and plains, with that vast African sky always overhead. When we stopped to buy some water and grilled bananas, we were descended upon by a swarm of vendors, who stood as close as they could to the car windows, gently presenting their goods. There was no pushing or aggressive selling you might expect with such a horde, but the Ugandans appear to be a most polite and considerate people. Not once have I heard a raised voice, or seen anything other than consideration for others. Not on crowded 14 person mini-bus shared taxis, on streets jammed with cars while motorbikes navigate the traffic around pedestrians side-stepping open man-holes. There seems to be enough room for everyone, never a need for a push or a shove. There’s even thoughtfulness from the motorbike taxi (boda-boda) drivers, while touting for business. Ok, so pulling up on the pavement right in front of where we’re walking isn’t the most polite way to get our attention, but when we decline the offer of a hair-raising ride through traffic sans helmet, we’re simply smiled at, and allowed to walk on in peace.

Ugandans are softly spoken and hushed even in a crowd. But that quiet countenance lights up as you greet someone in the street. Not necessarily with a simple ‘hello’, as we greet each other in the west, often passing by before waiting for a response. Ugandans seem to ask “How are you?” and show genuine interest in the response. They will wait for your reply before continuing on their way, and reward you with a huge smile if you ask them yourself. I feel as though it is a culture that times itself on a more human scale than we do in the west, so things take as long as they take (which is usually longer than we’re used to), but in a way that the human element is not ignored. I think we can learn much from this, and perhaps it’s something that the ‘developed world’ has forgotten on its quest for, well, development.


I had expected a strong sense of modesty and propriety that I’ve experienced elsewhere in Africa. So of course, I packed modest clothes and planned to behave myself. But the Ugandan sense of physical modesty seems to concern itself with legs and not shoulders or even breasts, as I had expected. While the long skirts were an obvious choice, I am thrilled to know that I can wear sleeveless tops in this hot and humid climate, but slightly less pleased that I didn’t actually bring any. The greater surprise, where correct behavior is concerned, is the way a husband and wife can interact in public. Not only are public displays of affection perceived as mildly pornographic, but hand-holding or even just close proximity to one’s spouse may cause offense. Not that anyone has actually told us that they’re offended, or reproached us in any way. We’ve just been met with nervous giggles and down turned eyes when we’ve commit such a faux pas. I discovered this first when we squashed into a shared taxi, with four of us expected to share three seats. The obvious solution (to me at least) was to squash up next to my husband and sit almost on his lap. Surely this would be less awkward than cuddling up to the stranger next to me? That’s when I experienced 13 embarrassed Ugandans giggling uncomfortably at us two inappropriate Muzungus. It was a gentle, yet effective way to tell us we had crossed over that imaginary line.

Encounters with microfinance

So was our first trip into the field – our first window into the reality of microfinance – what I had expected? Yes, on first glimpse, it is just as I had imagined. We met a group of 31 men and women in Jinja, each of whom runs their own business, who were receiving their group loan on the day of our visit. We were greeted by a round of polite (and gentle, always gentle!) applause. We were the Muzungu face of Kiva, the source of their much needed funds, which have found their way across the globe to their group in Jijna.

These were hard working people, many with several businesses but still struggling to meet the rocketing costs of school feels for their children. So many of them care for nieces and nephews who have been orphaned by AIDS, in addition to their own children, and it was not uncommon to learn of 15 people living in one house. Everyone we spoke to was determined that all of their children, as well as their other dependents, complete school. And school fees are incredibly expensive here, so this seems to be a key reason why they’re seeking loans. We asked some of them what they did in their spare time and were met with blank faces. When I’m not at work? I’m asleep of course. And we think we have it tough with our annual leave and public holidays! Yet they were positive about the future and all had dreams for their children to find professions they enjoy and live an easier life.

So has my first glimpse of Uganda shaken my preconceptions, my high hopes for a land of beauty and a warm and gentle people? Incredibly, I can say that the experiences of my first week in Kampala have been overwhelmingly positive. No doubt there will be people and events that will challenge my idyllic view of life here, but today I am so delighted to be here.

And what of our purpose here – of microfinance and Kiva in action? So far, I can say that It’s most certainly worthwhile and it really is changing people’s lives. I feel so privileged to be able to meet with these strong and hard-working people, to talk with them and learn about their experiences. It’s not something that can really be done as a traveler and I’m excited to be able to share it with the Kiva lenders.

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