Two weeks isn't enough, by Paula Hunt

HuntP 1_0.jpgI came to Jinja, Uganda with the excitement that I would learn a tremendous amount about subjects such as Uganda history, economics, politics, and social and cultural practices by interacting with my host organization, host family, fellow FSD interns and co-workers, and locals whom I would come across.

I also eagerly anticipated working in an unfamiliar business line (micro-finance and micro-lending), and employment in a full-time capacity that contradicts my New York City rat-race, Wall Street-driven, high-tech software consultant career: Philanthropy.

My assignment is a short one – 2 weeks, including FSD orientation training. “How much can I accomplish?”, and “how effectively can I be utilized?” are questions on my mind, as well as my FSD Project Director, Margaret.

I’m fascinated by current world events, and alert to recent rebel skirmishes in eastern DRC just west of Uganda, violent political incidents in Kenya to the east, the incessant carnage and tragedy in Sudan to the north, the recent historical genocide during the ‘90s in Rwanda to the south-west, and Uganda’s own chronicle of tyrannous rulers and vicious turmoil of the 70’s and 80’s. And with all of these conflicts come human displacement, rampant disease, and suffering.

Fortunately, it seems the political and economic landscapes have stabilized in Uganda over the last decade, allowing the micro-finance industry – an overwhelmingly successful tool for empowering disadvantaged women around the world – to take root.

To get started, I received a number of FSD preparatory materials, including the final report of a previous intern whose project on the above subject I was targeted to continue, in advance of the trip for my absorption.

The project is a straight-forward concept: Carry on the work of preparing, through basic business skills training, a local, economically disadvantaged women’s group, the Walukuba Maama Development Association, to receive micro-financing loans to fund their own businesses, and make a website used to solicit external donations more visible and effective for raising capital for these members.

HuntP 2.jpgThis is accomplished by working with my host organization, Jinja Cooperative Savings and Credit Society (SACCO), who oversee the loan management and business preparedness of these women’s groups, along with paying visits to the Maama Groups to get their input on current needs and challenges.

Meeting these women was inspiring, to say the least. When greeted with a chorus of “You are most welcome!” and bestowed the title of “honored guest”, I could only respond with how humbled I was to be introduced to them. I was moved by the way they supported each other, worked as a team, and shared their personal experiences and struggles.

And to speak of the wonderful and unique craftsmanship in their handmade products – I explained that in the U.S., their work would be highly valued, especially considering how bland and uninspired today’s mass-produced goods are, and as compared to the brilliant colors, artistry, and precision they diligently put into their personalized crafts.

It is this point exactly which prompted appeals from many of the women to get assistance with expanding the marketing and advertising of their products. They had been trained in these business concepts, but could not reconcile how to formulate a strategy, nor develop partnerships with others who could assist them in a sustainable way.

As my time in Jinja is brief (and quickly coming to a close), I’ve focused on developing action plans and initiatives, along with documenting solution methods of my own into project proposals, so that the goals and objectives can be easily handed over to future FSD interns to follow through with.

I made a return visit to the Walukuba Maama group which produces beads and baskets and brainstormed the ideas I had developed, to get their feedback. They enthusiastically took to several suggestions, and were even more thrilled when I bought many strands of beads to take back to NYC and perform, what I called, an “experiment” – see what the price point and sales potential is for their product in that overseas market.

I promised to follow up with them in the near future to let them know how my experiment goes, provide further guidance on their marketing and advertising initiatives, and work on raising the traffic on the current website seeking donations for their businesses.

HuntP 3.jpgI extended my proposal writing to concentrate on the operations of Jinja SACCO as well, and developed some inventiveness around how they could scale their business to serve more underprivileged members of their community.

That they, like most businesses in the area, lack internet access and skills stands out to me as an opportunity to differentiate their team and accelerate on this advantage in developing new partnerships with large organizations for further philanthropic work. Once implemented (although not a simple task to get adopted, and one that comes with a considerable price), the internet will serve to expedite any research they perform, enable easier and more widely distributed communication amongst its partners and clients, and give them access to online tools for small businesses in order to replace a number of paper systems they currently use.

In other words, it will have a radical, positive impact on them, and the community they serve, in a sustainable way.

Volunteer work aside, another major highlight of my stay here in Jinja is the chance to live with my remarkable and welcoming host family, the Kintus.

To my delight, my host dad shares the same spirit as I do in understanding the world, seeking the truth, and challenging leadership and authority when their principles and values appear to be lost. We’ve had hours (maybe days’ worth!) of conversations and I’ve gained tremendous knowledge from him about a range of subjects that only an encyclopedia could encompass.

My host mom is the embodiment of poise and warmth, and graciously offers to help make me feel at home at all times. She is a fabulous cook, and keeps me VERY well fed with the local cuisine, sometimes trying to sneak even more food onto my plate! I’m not sure how I’ll wean myself off the delicious carbohydrate-overload I’ve enjoyed here, but I can guarantee you’ll see me in my local gym working out upon my return home.

The house also buzzes with their adult children and grandchildren coming and going, which is always a source of entertainment. They offer me a chance to practice my limited Luganda (the local language), which I think provides a source of amusement for them!

HuntP 4.jpgLiving with the Kintus has been a sheer pleasure, and I feel as though I have a second family that I’ve connected closely with, despite coming from worlds apart.

Lastly, forging new relationships with the FSD staff and my fellow interns has been rewarding and important in that we’re sharing the same momentous journey and fulfilling an adventure that will provide a lifetime of memories. This experience impacts not only us, but people we’re here to work with and for, who are as hopeful about living a happy, meaningful life as any person with passion and dreams would want.