With the chance to meet so many interesting people this past week, we’ve had just as many opportunities to practice a common, three-part handshake used in Uganda. It begins as you would expect – two people reach out and grabbing each other’s hands around the palm. But then, they change their grip so that their hands move closer, their thumbs interlock, and their fingers wrap around each other before returning to the regular handshake. Each position is firm and held momentarily as the two maintain eye contact, extending the last position for as long as it takes to introduce each other. The greeting is a sincere gesture of openness that many people have used even when first meeting us. As if to draw people in, the handshake seems to invite people in a sense of community we have seen throughout so many places here.
During these first few days, we’ve seen many examples of this community in the local town near Pam’s house. The streets are full of people and boda drivers, who while moving from place to place, still take time to greet and talk with each other. Outside their shops, storeowners sit and talk with other vendors while nearby those without stalls gather together on the same street corners. As we walk by, we see men discussing odds outside of sports betting bars, boda (or motorcycle) drivers stretched out on their bikes waiting for customers, and close to a dozen people crammed into a barbershop (even though only two or three need haircuts). If you wave to others as you walk, most will smile and return the wave with a, “How are you?” The closeness of the people seems to be part of the town layout itself with the shops closely packet together and surrounded by the housing areas in the immediate vicinity. Even beyond the outskirts of town, we still find people gathering in marketplaces and smaller villages. Wherever the opportunity presents itself, it seems that these pockets of community will create themselves.
This sense of community is even common out in the field. As we drove to the male and female youth groups, Sandra, GWED-G’s data specialist and communications director, told us about the history of some of the groups they work with. Those who had been together in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps typically formed groups with each other when they returned. Belonging to a community was beneficial because humanitarian aid efforts primarily sought out groups over individual cases to provide their assistance. Villages were encouraged to form groups to ease the process of government intervention and so that NGOs would have existing structures to work with. Many of the people we have spoken to told us the advantages that come from working with others. One of the men in the youth groups told us how a garden that used to take him two weeks to open now only takes a day when he works with others. However, these benefits of communal living extend far beyond the immediate ones of agriculture.
The Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) that many groups have started with the support of GWED-G allow many to start small businesses or take out money for farm equipment and seeds. When individuals profit from their businesses, they return the loan with interest so that the group’s savings increases as well as theirs. The VSLA also provides a way for the community to support individual cases of need – designed as welfare money – for emergency cases such as unexpected hospitalizations. For these cases, the interest that is usually required is disregarded. The practices we have seen this past week seem to come from a desire to support one another for the benefit of the entire community.
GWED-G also provides additional trainings to prevent gender-based violence by strengthening the openness of the community. Members trained to prevent GBV reach out to those affected by abuse and start a dialogue with both the man and woman. The sensitizations GWED-G holds also provide information on human rights and ways of reaching out in cases of domestic violence. As more women have been made aware of their rights and feel empowered to take ownership of them, more areas are reporting cases of GBV.
The communities offer an intimate connection to one another that allows them to deal with difficulties together. At the women’s group this Tuesday, we spoke to a widow who coordinates the group’s traditional dances. She spoke about her connection to the community and her closeness to it. If you want to know what the problems are in an area, she advised that you address the group. In her community, members are comfortable with one another and will share what they might be struggling with. She described how even though most people would think she is always fine, there are times when she gets depressed and would need help from others. In the group, she said that she allows others to know what might be troubling her because they can make her feel better. From her story and many others, we have found examples of how members of the groups GWED-G works with are very invested in one another and have become a support system for each other.
Empowered by the groups that they belong to, many are trying to draw others into their sense of community. Our first day out in the field, we heard of youth groups trying to mobilize nearby youth with soccer games. They believed it was an effective way to stay engaged and youth would afterwards share their knowledge of group practices like VSLAs. Another group of male role models eagerly explained their dramas, which initially attracted the curiosity of on-lookers by having male members dressed as women and children, but ultimately hit upon the dangers of alcoholism and its relationship to gender-based violence. These groups make use of the opportunities for community already in place in northern Uganda and that we have experienced in many of the places we have visited. As we continue to work with GWED-G and meet those that it works with, I am sure we will still find the same openness. For now, it has warmly invited us and shown us many of the ways GWED-G has successfully engaged different communities and we look forward to continuing to learn from these groups.