In July 2009, a cry for help went up in parts of northern and eastern Uganda as many people succumbed to the severe and persistent drought that swept across half of the nation. Soroti district was one of the localities that was hardest hit. However, this cry was not new to this part of the country.
Every year Soroti district is listed as a statistic for emergency help. It is said to be one of the districts with the highest levels of poverty in the country, with a very low education level and inhabitants ignorant of cultivation skills. Many have painful memories of war.
With unpredictable weather, from hot and dry conditions that lead to drought and famine, to strong winds and rain that destroy homes and crops, the inhabitants of the land never know what to expect of fickle nature and how to overcome the damage left behind.
To the local inhabitants, the hunger and famine that come with the changing seasons is a leopard looking for the helpless and hopeless to devour. But for a few people in the community, it is time to fight back.
For the beneficiaries of the Asuret and Victory Outreach Orwadai Child Development Centers, it is time to hunt down and chase the “leopard,” and banish it for good.
Mary has watched three of her children die of disease, neglect and ignorance. Her family has been brought to its knees with no hope. Being HIV-positive with no money for treatment, both she and her husband Emmanuel had no strength to work for a living, and even then no one to take a chance on them. Life was hard with hardly enough food to eat. Most nights the family went to bed with empty bellies.
Despairing and wracked with disease in 2004 when her husband lost his eyesight, Mary set aside her pride and dignity and resorted to begging on the streets and public buses coming in from outside of town. Her husband stayed at home with their remaining two children.
For four years this was the life she knew. She woke up every morning praying to God to touch the heart of one person whose generosity would extend to her, so her family would have something to eat that night.
In 2008, the Victory Outreach Orwadai Child Development Center opened a few meters from Mary’s home. Mary and her family were one of the first families whose children were identified to benefit from the sponsorship program.
As part of the assistance the family received, Mary and Emmanuel were given 50,000 Uganda shillings (about $27) to start up a business that they could manage. With this money they bought one pig and firewood, and started to sell fried pork to the community members in the town center.
As demand for their food has grown, the duo’s business has moved from selling one pig in two days to currently two pigs a day.
Whereas before they had no food and depended on the mercy of good Samaritans, the family now is able to have three meals a day as well as a variety of food in their diet.
Out of the profits of the business, Mary and Emmanuel bought a bed, a goat and a sheep. They also joined a ”savings” group of people like them benefiting from the program, and were able to save enough money to buy a second sheep. The family hopes the sheep and goats will reproduce, and that they will sell them and expand their business.
“We have so many plans. We are planning to expand the huts in the eating place and add Irish potatoes and cabbage with tomatoes,” says Mary, who is excited at her future prospects. “We have great hope in the future.”
Life was not so different for the community of Asuret village, located about an hour away from Soroti town. They too experienced the harsh weather and stalking hunger and famine. When the Asuret Child Development Center opened, the prayers of many were answered.
When given the 50,000 shillings to start up their individual income-generating activities, the beneficiaries of Asuret Child Development Center decided instead to pool their money and start up a group activity. This helps also take care of the elderly and weak, who would not be able to maintain their own individual projects.
The group started a chicken and piggery farm, and the members each take turns tending to them daily.
All the beneficiaries in the group are HIV-positive, and being a part of this has given them a lifeline to hold onto.
For many, the profits from the project have enabled them to start their own individual income-generating activities like tailoring, selling charcoal, and small-scale agriculture.
“My children are now happy because I can now go home with something for them every day, unlike before,” says Naome, a widow with seven children, the youngest of whom is HIV-positive and also in the Asuret Child Development Center. Naome started a tailoring business that is now thriving.
The success of the group income-generating activity as well as each person’s individual activities are helping many group members pay for their other children’s needs, even those who are not registered in the sponsorship program. Most of the group members have also returned the initial investment given to them by the church.
The group’s success has filtered into the community, and the association had had requests from people who are not HIV-positive to join in the investment.
With the weather erratic and difficult to predict in this region, a more sustainable solution found in the income-generating activity programs seems to be the answer for the beneficiaries of both these development centers. They are determined not to remain a statistic, but to be the exception when the “leopard” comes calling next year.