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Tuesday, 19 April 2016


In September 2015, world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 5 focusses on Gender Equality. One of its targets is about ending all forms of violence against women and girls in public and private spheres. This is something that is immensely laudable yet hugely challenging to achieve. Achievement of this goal requires a fundamental rethink on the social, cultural, economic and political imperatives that have a deep impact on the status of women and girls. A visit to one of our programmes in Kenya illustrated these complexities.

After a 3-hour long drive from the Kitale airstrip, through the West Pokot region, we reached Kongelai, which is part of ActionAid Kenya’s Local Rights Programme (LRP). It is difficult to spot the houses, spread sparsely across bush forests surrounded by hills. Largely inhabited by pastoralists, the rustic views can create an impression of peace and tranquillity. Yet, it masks one of the most heinous and ancient rituals that have a deep impact on young girls and women. According to one estimate, 200 million across 27 countries in Africa and Asia in the 15-49 age group have been affected.

“I always saw blood around” said Mary, a former ‘cutter’. In keeping with the local culture, Mary was a professional cutter who performed female circumcision soon after a girl enters into adolescence. A painful process conducted with scant attention to safety, it could lead to severe bleeding and even death. But as per the local culture, men would insist on marrying only those girls who had undergone FGM. For the parents, this was important as the man would pay the dowry or bride price. Younger girls who had undergone FGM would be married off to much older and much married men who can afford a higher bride price. “It was difficult. Some girls would die. But I had to perform this. Often, the parents would offer me alcohol to calm me down after the ritual”.

“I did not want to undergo FGM” said 16-year Christine. “But at the age of 13, I was forced by my parents and brother. My family threatened to kill me if I did not comply. And once I went through FGM, I was forced to marry to a much older man who already had four wives. When I resisted and pleaded, I was told that this is normal for girls in our culture. I wanted to continue my education. But I was told that once I had agreed to FGM, it also was a signal that I had agreed to marry”. Christine went to recount her ordeals after marriage. And after a couple of aborted attempts to escape, she succeeded eventually and is now pursuing her education in a centre for rescued girls. She is still not completely comfortable. Her parents and brother have signed an agreement with the local district administrative chief to allow her to study. But she feels that her family resent her because of having resisted the cultural practice.

FGM is not just a cultural rite. It is a symbol of controlling a woman’s sexuality, as Dina, an ActionAid Kenya staff who belongs to the local community, explained. Once circumcised, the vagina was sewn to allow only urine to pass. It was only at the time of her marriage being consummated that the stitches would be opened up. But sometimes, the hole was so small that it would be difficult for a man to penetrate. In such cases, an animal horn would be used to pry open the hole. And after child birth, they would be sewn again. It thus meant that the process of sewing up could be repeated several times in a woman’s life, exposing her to various forms of health risks.

It would also then create more problems at child birth. Maria recounted how she lost her child because the passage was too narrow for the child to be delivered. And after that incident, she was deserted by her husband and she has been childless ever since.

But winds of attitudinal change are blowing, thanks to the courageous work of the local women who have formed a local organisation. Their role is to make local communities aware of the risks associated with this practice and to enable girls and women to resist pressure. They also aim to target young men asking them not to insist that their future brides would have done FGM. As an ex-cutter who has resolved never to go back into her profession, Mary has inspired other cutters to stop this practice and campaign against it. With ActionAid’s support, they are also pursuing other alternative livelihood options.

This also involves them working with many of the local government authorities, traditional chiefs and the police as well. FGM cannot be done forcibly. The law does not permit it. Yet sometimes, the local authorities appear to be providing some implicit support as they are deeply mired in local beliefs, cultural values and practices. This is something that this group is focussing on. The women’s group has also set up helplines using mobile phones so that girls at risk can contact the community leaders.

The journey is long and tortuous as it is a complex mix of various imperatives. But in this unique partnership, ActionAid Kenya has played a huge role in supporting such women’s groups and to ensure that girls have access to continue with their education. Education and improved livelihoods is the answer alongside efforts to constantly change attitude towards women and girls, for which men and boys also have a key role to play. At the base of it, it is about a girl having her fundamental right over her body.

Saturday, 9 April 2016


There is a perceptible sense of excitement in the air with elections around the corner, tinged with optimism and aspiration for the future. These elections are expected to be different with a more visible presence of Aung San Sui Kyi’s NLD party and her supporters, often seen wearning T-shirts with the red flag with a star and peacock in yellow or passing through open vans waving the flag of their party. This, we wee told, is rather unusual if one considered the situation just a few years ago. It is also interesting to see articles in mainstream media including some considered to be more sympathetic to the ruling USDP that covers protests and election rallies.
In the ActionAid Myanmar office too, there is immense optimism about a brighter future for the country, but for different reasons. After being in existence since 2006 (though in reality, programme operations started only around 2009), the team is bolstered by how some of the initiatives are now bearing fruit. “We had to make use of the limited opportunities that the local context provided to build confidence and trust among the local communities and the local authorities on what we are here for. We recognised that the policy space was opening up and we wanted the communities to benefit from these while also persuading the government to consider ways in which they can engage with the local communities”, says Shihab Uddin, the immensely energetic Country Director of ActionAid Myanmar who was asked to initiate the programme.
One of the proudest achievements for this team is the development of ‘Village Fellows’. “It was not a new concept for ActionAid because it had been tried in some other countries like Afghanistan, but we tailored it to the local context”, explains Shihab. The concept of Fellows is very simple. It is about identifying young volunteers who are keen to bring about change in their situation, working with local communities and engaging with the local authorities. They lead on developing village plans which are captured in detail in the ‘Village Book’. “Initially, it was not easy”, says a young woman Fellow. “The local authorities wanted to know why we are having village meetings. This was not usual. We had to be very patient and persevere, and explain that we are here to support the communities develop themselves”, explained on the Fellows. Initially, this was done in the villages that came under ActionAid supported ‘Local Rights Programme’ (LRP), six of them covering a little under 200 villages. “But now, the local authorities are so enthusiastic about it that we have trained even more Fellows”, says Orlene, one of the senior staff members. “Our Fellows now have the confidence of not just developing these detailed Village Books, but also negotiating with the local authorities to make sure that action is taken on some of the key issues, which often relate to education, electricity, water and health”. “Given the growing recognition of the importance of Village Books and how it helps local governments to plan and use their budgets effectively, this is now being taken up by many regions and states, with endorsement from the highest level including chief ministers and union ministers”, says Tauhid, the Head of Programmes. “This is a great opportunity to make sure that the process of decentralisation delivers to the local communities”, says Upendra who advises on governance issues.
Our visit to the Magway region was a great opportunity for us to meet several Fellows who have developed these plans and are using these as documents to constantly engage with the government. “This is very much framed within a rights based approach”, says Aung, who is the Regional Head for Magway regional programme of ActionAid. “These processes empower the local communities and give them the confidence to mobilise local resources and the government in their development programme”.
Another noteworthy aspect of the programme is their focus on enterprise development as a way to empower women and girls through an initiative called the Socio-Economic Development Network funded by a group of external donors. This programme creates marketing outlets for a wide range of handicraft products made by local women’s enterprise for their sustainable livelihood. An outlet in the tourist centre of Bagan, known for its archeological heritage is being further developed to take advantage of an estimated 300,000 tourists who visit Bagan. But this has also led the team to think of other opportunities. One of them is the idea of community tourism.
A couple of years ago, ActionAid supported the local community to build a small dam in this area also referred to as the Dry Zone, to serve as a water catchment. With water now available, the area has been transformed with lush green vegetation. The local community is now being supported to set up a small hotel which can host a batch of 16 tourists at a time, who will also be exposed to the local villages, their culture, traditions and food. In the first year, on a conservative estimate, they expect to raise $ 55,000 which will be used for local development funds. Of course, they also expect that the tourists will also be purchasing the SEDN projects which would mean an increased inflow of resources into the local community. They have tied up with the local Ministry of Tourism to promote this as a partnership between the government and the local community, and also with the local hotels and tour guides.
A theme that runs through very strongly through all the programmes of ActionAid Myanmar is their focus on women and girls. As part of the DFID funded ‘She Can’ project, they are implementing a programme on analysisng issues of women’s safety and using the information to negotiate with the local authorities on public services. “Men and women may have the same needs but for different reasons. We want the authorities to understand what the priorities of women are and why that is the case, as their voice is rarely heard”, says Melanie who advises on the project. Li Lwen, a team member of the women’s rights project concurs. “It is important for us to encourage women and girls to talk about some of their issues, especially the more sensitive ones around their safety and sexual abuse, and to discuss it at a community level to change attitudes of people”, she says, as she explains a community mapping project that was done in the peri urban area of Yangon to identify areas that are unsafe for women, and also identifying possible solutions to address these.
“Our work is built on developing strong relationship with the government, so that they are convinced about our approach and the rationale behind our thinking”, says Sitali, who is part of the programmes team. “It is all about relationships”, says Shihab. “In the context of Myanmar, it was not easy at all for an international NGO like ActionAid to start working. But gradually, by ensuring that our work is rooted in local communities, we have built trust, confidence and relationships. The government now sees as as a key resource as we come up with tangible solutions to addressing some key challenges. That is the reason why we also have a high credibility with a range of organisations from the NGO, international community and the private sector. And this needs to be sustained”, he says. With the energy, enthusiasm and creativity that I witnessed in the team, I am sure this will indeed be the case !
(Since then, the NLD party led by Aung San Sui Kyi has won the Myanmar elections and have formed a government)

Monday, 31 August 2015


And of course, my stint with Wateraid was made all the more special with the fantastic colleagues I got to work with. In my role, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues across all our country programmes and Wateraid members. My travels meant that I could regularly meet them from time to time. And each time I met them or spent time with them, I was always struck by their passion, their energy and their optimism that change can and will happen.

 I cannot forget the animated discussion I witnessed among my Nigerian colleagues over dinner arguing passionately about sanitation policies or the East African colleagues discussing their annual plans and priorities during their morning and evening walks on the beach in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, or the fantastic 'programmatic approach' cake that the Malawian team baked with all enthusiasm during the Wateraid week, or the Bangladeshi colleagues pursuing every single opportunity to push boundaries for innovation and new funding. And whether it was the Sacosan in Kathmandu or Delhi, or the Africasan in Dakar or the Presidential water forum in Nigeria or the India WASH Summit, the manner in which our colleagues demonstrated political savvy to pursue our agenda of a higher priority for WASH was simply amazing ! 

Equally or even more amazing was how our teams put up a brave face in times of crisis - the Tsunami that affected parts of India and Bangladesh, the devastating floods in Pakistan during two subsequent years, the crippling Ebola crisis in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Abuja bomb blast, the rebels capturing last parts of Mali, the constant insecurities faced by Pakistan,  the massive earthquake in Nepal ......all these and others tested the resolve and resilience of our teams all the time and yet, they remained so focussed and firm !

It was also great to see the huge leaps we had made on some critical challenges on the WASH sector - on sustainability, on equity and inclusion, on rights based approaches, on sector financing, on working with the health sector, on water and food security, on being more confident and collaborative in our advocacy work. 

None of this would have been possible had it not been for the unstinted support from the thousands of supporters - the general public, who stood by us through thick and thin, raising funds - by running, swimming, climbing mountains, crossing the sea, singing, dancing, jumping out of planes, wearing poo and camel costumes, signing petitions...the list can go on and on, with supporters as young as 5 and as old as 80 ! There have been volunteers some of whom having been us for over 3 decades ! And the trustees who, despite their very busy work and personal lives, always had the time for Wateraid ! 

There have been great fun times too - during summer and Xmas parties, the staff summer games, during regional management team meetings, the various birthday celebration (with cake), the singing and dancing with communities and amongst ourselves, the various drinks in the pubs, the dinners and the constant snacking (yes, I gained 10 kgs in 10 years !).

All this is just a snapshot of my amazing decade with Wateraid. I could go on and on, but this was not meant to be a narrative about my time in Wateraid - it was more about trying to articulate why Wateraid has been so special for me and why the past decade will rank as my most professionally satisfying, nay, enriching decade of my life !

The icing on the cake was the last 50 days of my life with Wateraid. I tendered my resignation on June 1, 2015 (coincidentally, it was on this day in 2005 that I took on my role as Director of International Progammes), and my last day was July 20. And while 50 days did seem a long time on June 1, there was a sense of finiteness to my time with Wateraid, which was enough to get me into a denial mode. And that proved to be very difficult. I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by a huge number of absolutely amazing and touching messages I received from all over the organisation, across all the countries we work in. The lunches, dinners and drinks that followed had a strong undercurrent of emotions that I found it difficult to express, yet was very acutely conscious of. Leaving an organisation after a decade was never going to be easy, but I never imagined it to be so difficult. 

I have been reflecting on what made it so difficult. It was most certainly the fantastic colleagues and the thought of leaving them, accentuated further with the wonderful messages and wishes that I received from them during my last 50 days. But it was also about walking away from all the privileges that I enjoyed and experienced, just because I was with Wateraid. And that is what I have tried to capture in my blog post - the privileges of being a Wateraid person !

I will forever miss Wateraid and I can only thank all those who make this wonderful organisation for having provided me with this opportunity !

Sunday, 16 August 2015


But the most inspiring and enriching part of my life at WaterAid was the opportunity to meet with communities living in remote areas of their respective countries or in highly uninhabitable urban settlements. What was most inspiring about meeting them was how they saw hope for a better life, just because of access to water, sanitation and hygiene. 

There are several incidents that I can recount. There was a woman in Ethiopia who said that when she delivered her child during one of her routine 7 kms walk to fetch water by the wayside, for a fraction of a moment, she wondered if she should take the child home or the water as her three young children were waiting home for the water and she could not possibly carry both, the water and her new born kid ; an old and blind woman in Mali who had been living on the fringes of her village who said that her dignity had been restored because she now had access to water and threw aside her walking stick to sing and dance for us, just to appreciate our effort ; the nearly eighty year old blind woman chief in a village in Zambia who was delighted that once all houses had toilets, she had not seen a recurrence of diarrhoea or diarrhoeal deaths in her village ; of the bright teenager Dolly in the informal settlement in Korail, home to a million people in Dhaka who was running an enterprise with her young friends selling sanitary napkins and other itmes, who dreamed of a better education and career; of people living in an unauthorised slum in Kampala who said that they knew their rights and can negotiate with their municipalities; of a woman in Malawi who said that she wanted her children to know what rights are and how to hold their governments to account.

There were amazing leaders as well - the woman leader Jane in Accra, Ghana who transformed her neighbourhood with sanitation provision and was dedicated to pursue this even though she had lost a local election; a young couple who enthusiastically promoted ecosan in Malawi as means to promote better agriculture; of wheelchair user Amrita in Nepal who poignant story of her struggle with accessing education and basic facilities like sanitation reverberated through the conference venue in Kathmandu during the South Asian Conference on Sanitation ! And even some gender stereotypes that were challenged as in the case of a male teacher in Uganda who actively got adolescent boys to be engaged with promoting menstrual hygiene.

For that, I will forever be indebted to our various partner organisations, over 500 of them, who connected us to these communities through their programmes. Many of the partner staff belonged to the local communities and hence had a very strong rapport with them. Their knowledge of the lives, the culture, the traditions and the local history was so enriching and informative ! Most partners worked in very challenging circumstances - faced with hostile environments, inaccessible communities, poor infrastructure, difficultly in recruiting and retaining staff - yet, they chose to persevere and make progress !

Of course, there was lots of dancing and singing as well, which was part of the visits to communities, as their way of wholeheartedly welcoming visitors to their village. So whether it was Tanzania or Malawi or Burkina Faso, dancing was an absolute must - of course, I was always high on enthusiasm and low on talent ! Or the memorable experience in Timor Leste when a group of three middle aged women accompanied us all throughout our village visit playing the local musical instruments - a version of a girl band ! Nigeria always had to do things in a very special way. I was quite overwhelmed (and slightly embarrassed) with a couple of formal and rather grand welcomes that had been organised with professional dancing troupes who performed traditional dances from various parts of the country. One country where I did not dare to dance much was Ethiopia - it was too difficult to try any of their body moves without risking serious neck and back injuries ! My comfort zone was obviously in India, singing and dancing to Bollywood tunes !!!

(To be concluded....)

Thursday, 13 August 2015


'The next station is Oval' - the announcement on the tube was the one that I was used to for several years now. And as was my habit, I opened my bag to put back my copy of The Economist. Nothing unusual about that - but that, it was rather unusual. Though I had my copy of The Economist and even as I read articles and flipped the pages, my mind was elsewhere. There was a sense of surrealism about that day, that travel, that announcement - which, on that day, seemed to have a ring of finality about it, a definiteness, a finiteness. And it had to be - that was my last day with WaterAid after over a decade working and operating out of itsVauxhall office. 

As I got out of the tube, that one last time when I would go up on the escalator as a WaterAid employee and out of the tube station, I glanced at the 'Thought of the Day' at the Oval station, the plants, the books and stepped out to a rather bright and warm summer day. And as I started making my way, slowly, and a tad reluctantly to my last day with WaterAid, I thought of that rather cold and grim February morning of 2005 when I landed at Heathrow to join the London office of WaterAid after my one month induction with the Delhi office. I had a small temporary accommodation arranged by my colleague Oliver Jones at Wimbledon. By that afternoon, I was making my way to Vauxhall, having boarded the Waterloo bound South West trains to Vauxhall, walked up to the Prince Consort House to report. And what a journey it had been since then !

Crossing the pedestrian crossing at the main entrance to the historic Oval cricket stadium, I walked past it, and glanced to peer through the gates to see the lush outfield and the pitch, which was covered - again, a routine that I had got used to. And today, I knew I will be missing this walk past the iconic cricket stadium !

There was so much that I did during this decade that I had not done before. With a canvas stretching across sub Saharan Africa and South Asia, I had the remit of 22 countries, all of which I had the privilege of visiting (except Lesotho) at least once, and in some cases, 4-5 times. I had travelled to our offices in America, Australia and Sweden. I had also visited Timor Leste which was managed by our Australian office. In addition, work had taken me to Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland and Portugal. I was travelling to most of these countries for the first time, but more importantly, I had the opportunity to travelling to the interiors of many of those countries and see the real country, going beyond the state capital, a true lesson in culture and people and history. I had probably logged over a million miles in the air during this period and thousands of miles on road and some miles even by boats, not to forget the unique experience of travelling by a sea plane in Bangladesh  !

I had done some extra ordinary things - meeting the Presidents of Mali and Liberia, senior ministers in most of the African and Asian countries I had visited, civil society leaders, heads of international organisations, senior corporate leaders. I had the opportunity of meeting Prince Charles on three occasions, and seated next to him for a dinner on one occasion. I had met the Queen in the Buckingham Palace, and been to a garden party as well at the Palace. I had spoken at the UN on two occasions and on one of them, I had shared the panel with the Secretary General himself. I had met several tribal chiefs in some African countries. I also had some interactions with some celebrities and sports stars. All these were part of my regular work. 

Never before had I done a TV interview and here I was, being interviewed by CNN in their studios, live, during prime time news. And then there were others with BBC World and Sky as well to follow (one with Al Jazeera did not materialise !). There were many others, including an interview in Johnnesburg in the studios of SABC TV and a live radio show in Liberia. 

(To be concluded......)

Tuesday, 23 June 2015


The idea of flying by a sea plane was very exciting. I had never been on one before. Among the pre-requisites for the flight was advance information on our body weight. ‘Eighty five’, I said very reluctantly. Any discussion on weight does not make for pleasant recollections, at least for me and about myself !

It was early morning in July 2013. A team of four which included me made our way to the Dhaka airport and at the assigned time, we were asked to proceed for boarding. Excitement mounted. Walking across the tarmac, we could see the sea plane on the far side. A tall, lanky American pilot and his young Bangladeshi co-pilot greeted us as we got into the 8-seater plane. And because we had no other passengers, it felt just like a chartered flight – a real privilege ! After a quick briefing on safety and security, we were ready for take-off. The sea plane was operated by an NGO supported by various international organisations. Given the frequency with which disasters strike Bangladesh, this was a vital and reliable link to get relief supplies to far flung areas cut off due to disasters like floods and cyclones.

After a short taxiing, the plane took off. The weather was just perfect – crisp, warm, a slight breeze and just a few light clouds. The view was amazing. As we fly over the Dhaka airspace and over the country side, the views were just gorgeously green and fresh, thanks to the rains that had lashed the country a few days earlier. The flight was meant to take about an hour. And in this little plane with the lovely views, one wanted it to extend way beyond that. We were flying to the Koyra sub-district in Khulna, in the south-western part of Bangladesh. The area had previously been hit by Cyclone Aila in 2009 and it was not the first time it had been hit by a cyclone. This area was disaster prone with floods and cyclones becoming a regular feature. Often, it led to water logging over extended periods of time. From up in the sky, our destination was clearly in sight, but what we could see was mostly water logged areas, with clumps of land which looked lush green and tiny habitations clustered densely on the patches of land. It was just water and more water everywhere. And that is why we needed to come by the sea plane, for it could land on water.

As we started our descent, the country side came in clear view. Boats ferried across the water bodies – one couldn’t say if they were rivers, streams, lakes, ponds or just water trapped because it could not go anywhere. Soon, houses were visible, tiny figures of people moving around, some cattle here, a few vehicles there. In a couple of minutes, we would touch down, on water and soon, we could see groups of people lined up along the shore. The sight of the sea plane landing would always evoke curiosity as one can imagine. Eager children and adults, all lined up just to watch the landing. With a huge swishing sound and a lusty spray of water, the sea plane docked itself on the water, like a boat, rocking gently with the waves caused due to its landing. And soon, we saw a motor boat come towards it to ferry us to the nearest village, a ride of about 200 meters.

Landing in such an exceptional way and in a geography that one had only heard of, itself, gave us an insight of what life might be. It was a dry day, but it had rained earlier. Everywhere, there was water – large water bodies. The habitations were perilously close to the water. One could see that a moderate rainfall was enough to cause flooding.

“So what is it like to live here, and how did you face the cyclone when it hit”, we asked a group of women. They pointed out to a temple which was built on a high platform, and to a toilet that too was on a raised platform. “Those were the only two structures that were not flooded. All the other structures, and this house where you are sitting, were completely flooded. We could just see roof tops in most cases, and the trees. Everything was under water”, one of the women said.

“We lost a lot of cattle, cows and goats. Some chicken perished. Some of our children were washed away in the tidal waves that gushed in. We didn’t have much time, much of a warning and even if we did, there was very little we could do to save ourselves”, said another. The memories of that fateful day, four years ago, were still fresh in their minds.

“It was night. I was sleeping on the cot. When I woke up in the morning, I felt my hair. It was wet. I wondered if water had leaked through the roof. That is quite common during the rains. When I looked around me, I was aghast and sprung out of my bed with a start. The whole room was flooded. And I had stepped into 3 feet of water. My first thought was – where are my children. Fortunately, they were safe on another cot. I woke them up and my husband too and we rushed out of the house with them in knee deep water. But when we came out, what we saw was absolutely frightening. The entire village was under water and like us, people had just woken up to this horror and trying to find out what they had lost and what they could salvage”, another woman said.

“You people live in the developed countries. Why don’t you tell your governments that they must do something ? We are told that all this because of climate change and that climate change is because the developed countries have caused the environment to change. We never experienced disasters so frequently in the past, but this is now a regular occurrence. Your governments must do something about it and must compensate”, another lady said. Not with anger, but with conviction.

There was more for us to see. The tidal waves had made their fresh water sources totally undrinkable. The water had turned saline. That affected some fish varieties that thrived in fresh water. Fortunately, a local NGO and WaterAid had worked together to make the water fit for human consumption.

The waters that surged inland caused immense devastation for over a year, before much of it receded. But it left behind a trail of destruction - to their agriculture and livelihoods. To make matters worse, many businessmen from the nearby city of Khulna moved in to convert some of the arable land into shrimp farms, which further polluted the waters and rendered the land unfit for cultivation.

With their livelihoods threatened or destroyed, many of them moved to cities like Khulna. We met some of them settled in an informal settlement, a slum, with no basic services. Living in a city which tended to be more alien and hostile was hard in itself, but to make a living in a city was even more difficult. They had to find work in a range of unskilled, low paid physical labour to keep them going.

But as in the case of many such communities around the world, they discovered their resilience and are trying to cope. They have formed disaster management committees at the local levels, which can interact with the local authorities at the district level, to be better warned and better prepared. They are trying to adapt construction of their houses, toilets and water points in a manner that can withstand normal flooding. They are trying to identify technologies that can be effective in the face of such disasters. There is a lot more that needs to be done, but one thing was sure – they were not just sitting back and waiting for help. They had decided to take control and identify solutions ! 

Monday, 30 March 2015


“We want to develop this into a bustling town – and that is why, we have constructed the district offices a little away from where this town is actually located”, said Moses, a senior district official of Napak district. He was very sincere, and there was ambition in what he said. Even if it was difficult to fully be convinced about it – a glance out of the several windows in his office did not give a clue on how this wide, open space, beautiful as it was with some trees and open grazing land, could ever be transformed to a bustling town. 

Napak has population of 200,000 and is located in the north-eastern region of Uganda called Karamoja. The people of Karamoja faced several challenges – conflict, disease, flooding and poverty being some of them. One did wonder what would be the economic base around which a bustling town could develop. But the intention was very clear.

In a way, Moses was just reflecting a growing aspiration that is so evident in Uganda. This country with a population of 34 million and known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ for its beauty, aspires to be a middle income country over the next decade or two. While it is predominantly agricultural, very poor and near the bottom on the Human Development Index, the newly found oil and gas is providing immense hope to this landlocked country, and combined with relative peace and political stability, the hope is very alive and real. It was thus interesting to also hear the Executive Director of the recently established Kampala City Corporation Authority (KCCA), a body that brings together various authorities, departments and organisations responsible for Kampala’s development, talk about building a Kampala ‘that every Ugandan can be proud of’.

Meeting the local community in some of the informal settlements in Kampala, there was a different kind of hope and aspiration. May and Care are two such community leaders who have grown up and live in the local community. Articulate and passionate, they dream of a better tomorrow. “We now know our rights”, said May. “The threat of eviction from our houses is still very real, but we know how to negotiate. We cannot just be taken for granted”, she said. “We are at war with our local community to get them to address internal challenges instead of waiting for others to come and solve our problems”, said Care. “We want to make sure that our surroundings are clean and our children are educated. We want the local community to engage with the municipality so that our issues can be addressed”.

But the most heartening cause for optimism came from a group of women, all of whom were HIV positive, who had come together as a mutual support and solidarity group. Initially, their focus was on HIV/AIDS, on improved awareness, education and treatment. But gradually, they realised their strength in just being together and providing peer support and counselling. They started working with a local NGO on housing issues and soon, started addressing issues of water and sanitation. Many of them also made a range of lovely handcrafted products which they sold in the local market, right outside the room where we met them. Oh yes, we had to make a mandatory visit to the market and yes, we did spend quite an amount during our impromptu shopping.

“We now have a bigger vision”, one of the women said. “Because we know our rights, we can talk, we can negotiate, and we are free”.

Well, if a nation is built on the aspirations and hopes of people, then surely Uganda is on the right track. We also had the opportunity of meeting the Prime Minister in his office together with a number of ministers and other senior government officials. Clearly, Uganda was open for and ready for business and one does hope that the Pearl of Africa can truly become a thriving and prosperous country !