Each morning before heading into the field, I read the New Vision, a daily newspaper in Kampala. A few weeks ago there was a special article about a town in Uganda in which the men do nothing but drink, gamble and nurse their hangovers while the women work and tend to the house, children and their needy husbands. The article speculated that the men needed therapy to deal with their lack of motivation resulting from the extreme poverty they are living in.
Upon mentioning the article to my associates at work, they said that one of MCDT’s branches, Tororo, suffers from a similar situation and that I should go visit. With that, I found myself making the three and a half hour drive to Tororo from Kampala for a visit.
My first impressions left me with two questions as follows:
1. Why did we pass the town of Tororo forty minutes ago and we haven’t yet reached our destination?
2. Why have we passed two infectious disease trucks?
My visit provided me with the answer to both of these questions.
During our drive I noticed many things that were different from the Kampala slums I visit. First, instead of motorbikes that are extremely popular as a source of transportation in Kampala, there were mainly regular bicycles and almost no cars. Then I noticed that the majority of the people, from adults to the school children, didn’t have shoes. Finally, there was the realization that these people didn’t live in brick or even wood houses but rather in huts made of mud with grass roofs that leak when it rains. Even the slums in Kampala could not compare to the slums I saw in Tororo.
But, we weren’t exactly in Tororo as MCDT is the only microfinance institute (MFI) that serves the villages in the bush outside of Tororo (why we drove over 40 minutes from the center of Tororo to the first site). The centers are so spread out that it would take at least a day to walk from one end of the MCDT district to the other. It is truly incredible that MCDT even has the capacity to serve these people as many other MFIs have opened branches, but then closed them due to the high costs of serving these villages that are so spread apart.
Once we reached the first center, I was greeted with singing, hollering, dancing and hugs. The women were so excited to see me and I was quite embarrassed being the center of attention! This continued through all three center visits and I continued to turn red with embarrassment each time.
The women were just as amazing as was their singing and dancing. They face so many obstacles beyond husbands who do not pull their weight including domestic violence, HIV/AIDS (hence the infectious disease trucks) and famine. The woman are subject to a high level of domestic violence in this area due to lack of food and high incidence of alcoholism, for when their husbands come home after drinking and are hungry, they are often upset with the lack of food and beat their wives. However, with the MCDT loans, the women are better able to provide for their families and therefore MCDT has seen a decrease in the incidences of domestic violence.
The drinking and subsequent alcoholism has also caused the increase in HIV/AIDS infections as there is a high level of casual sex. The ramifications are horrendous as one woman mentioned she cares for her brother’s children who are infected as he and his wife have passed. In addition, a large number of the women are infected and even have children who have passed due to the disease. The loans help these women get access to the drugs that lengthen their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren.
In addition to the domestic and health problems, the women also face a yearly drought that causes a famine. Unlike Kampala and its immediate surrounding areas, the soil in Tororo is sandy. The combination of this and the lack of rain make it difficult to grow the vegetables and fruits that are so abundant in Kampala. Therefore, the women must purchase their food, making the act of providing essential nutrition a huge hurdle.
Yet, despite this, the women are happy and motivated. When I asked them how they are able to get up and work each morning, the women explained that it is difficult, but with the loans from MCDT, it is easier as they have seen an improvement in their lives. Before MCDT, the only jobs available were digging and even then the pay was infrequent and extremely low- never enough for school fees. Now the women can bring in their own money and help support their families.
Despite the many differences between the women in Tororo and the women in Kampala, there is one very striking similarity: like the women in Kampala they work so that they can provide their children with an education and hopefully a better life than they have had. Although they know they will not be able to send their children to university or even senior level schooling, they hope that by providing some education, the children will be able apply their knowledge of carpentry and agriculture to their own businesses and support their families. In addition, the women hope their children will care for them when they are older as they have cared for their children in their young age.
Upon returning to MCDT’s offices in Kampala, I relayed my experience to the women who work in the main branch. And after hearing about my experience, they asked me the question they face – How could we leave these women? I said the only thing I felt – You can’t.