May 18, 2012
After meeting all of the GWED-G staff for the first time, we ventured out into the field for our first day of work. Lillian and Lexa were sporting their Crocs, Nicole was wearing her money belt visibly around her neck, Katelyn was carrying her half open, baby blue Jansport, and I was holding my awkwardly large Nikon. Ready to rock.
I hopped into shotgun of our truck, while Franny, Kristina, and the GROW team packed into the back. As we drove out farther from Gulu town, the roads turned to dust and the storefronts faded into greenery. Soon, we faced a vast, lush landscape in every direction. We came across a cluster of small huts and asked Franny if we had entered a village. She explained that in fact we were passing a former IDP (internally displaced persons) camp. During the civil war, Museveni’s government displaced over a million people into these camps to supposedly protect them from the war. It was crazy to see the IDP camps in person after learning so much about them. In Gulu, we often drive along roads or pass through fields with horrific pasts. Franny has a way of pointing out these super intense things with both gravity and light-heartedness. It’s eerie to be in an area so recently ravaged by violence, yet at the same time reassuring to know that this chapter in Uganda’s history has ended.
We arrived at the health center in Gira Gira, thrilled to finally put a human face on the projects we had started since 2010. Walking behind Franny, we parted a group of clapping, singing women and their adorable, fly-covered babies and sat down in front of them. These women were all HIV-positive and beneficiaries of our projects. For almost 2 hours, we did nothing but ask questions, listen to their feedback, and hear their stories. This is what I love; this is what I came here to do. They talked to us in very practical terms about the barriers they still faced to accessing healthcare. For example, one woman looked about 65 years old and had been infected by her husband. She was then kicked out of her home, but she could not benefit from the farming initiative because she was ill, elderly, and on her own. Others offered their stories of success. One woman described her ability to overcome her fear of telling others her status because of the sensitization sessions she attended. Today, she advocates for other women and encourages them to seek out the care and support they need to still thrive. These are the fluffier, harder to measure aspects of our project that really cannot offer hard outcomes. Empowerment is not an exact metric; rather, it manifests itself through the voices of women like this one.
It was so humbling to feel their strength, resilience, and sense of solidarity with one another. I had not “empowered” a single one of those women – with GWED-G’s support, they became agents of their own change. The challenges are immense, but their smiles are still wide.
Lillian (Lillian’s namesake!), “Black,” and Molly are three of the 30 women who benefited from an initiative for HIV-positive mothers. GWED-G provided these women with antenatal care, counseling, prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) support, and seeds to grow crops to enable them to earn their own income. Their children are alive today because of GlobeMed at Columbia and GWED-G’s programs. My friends and I joke about “saving babies” but this project is literally SAVING BABIES!
Another cool thing we witnessed was the Village Savings and Loan Association scheme in action. With our funding, GWED-G was able to start a savings/loan program for this group of women. They contribute their earnings from the income they make from the seeds, and can also take out loans (for example to buy goats for further income generation). They earn interest, so everyone has an incentive to save more, which in turn helps other women. There’s also a welfare aspect. In essence, it’s simple, sustainable, and somehow seems to combine an entrepreneurial spirit with collective responsibility.
Sorry this is getting long! Last thing is that we did five home visits. About the size of a typical American living room, these huts house entire families. One of the women whose homes we visited was named Molly, as in THE Molly of the miracle baby story. It warmed my heart to stand face to face with her and the little miracle in her arms.