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Charity and Change in Masindi District; NGO field notes


Some of the children supported by the orphanage
Some of the children supported by the orphanage

From service provision to \'empowerment\', the NGO sector in Masindi District is thriving, as Nick Young and Elone Natumanya discovered on a recent visit.
Some of the children supported by the orphanage

Plugging service gaps for ‘disadvantaged groups’ is often seen as a classic virtue of NGOs.  That virtue is alive and well in the town of Masindi, where, without a shilling of support from any government agency, the Family Spirit Centre offers shelter, care and schooling to 189 children orphaned by AIDS or displaced by war and rejected by their communities of origin.

The most striking thing about these children is that, despite the cramped conditions, they seem healthy and happy.  One of the most striking things about Isaac Nyakoojo, the Family Spirit Centre’s founding director, is that he seems to know the name and personal history of every child in his care.  

Isaac is a school teacher who tested HIV positive in 1995. He joined a local support group for people living with HIV, the Philly Lutaaya Initiative.  “We used to go out and visit those who were bedridden,  encouraging them to go to hospital,“ he recalls. But, he adds, “In those days there was no treatment.  People were scared.  Even we ourselves were scared.” 

“By 2001 many of our colleagues had died and there were many children.  The father would die today, the mother would die tomorrow.  And the communities refused the children.  HIV was not understood in those days.  People were talking about witchcraft.  Even in the churches they would say that God has cursed the community.”

Five teachers in the Philly Lutaaya group, three of whom have since died, started taking in orphaned children.  From 2003, a year after its formal establishment, the Centre also began to accept children displaced by war in the north.  

Costs have been met by financial and in-kind donations from a wide range of individuals. Isaac mentions especially one “Doctor Chris,” an expatriate who worked for three years in Masindi District hospital, and Harold Sontrask, a lawyer and philanthropist from South Carolina in the United States.  

But the Centre operates on a shoestring, with careful economies in every respect. There is no computer in the little office and the only vehicles are one motorbike and a few old bicycles.  A rainwater collection tank helps save costly tap water.  In an outside kitchen, food is prepared over two large, energy-efficient stoves, to save on firewood.  An adjoining vegetable garden, which the older children help to cultivate, provides fresh produce to vary their diet, and the small back yard includes a chicken house, a pigsty and hutches for raising rabbits.  The Centre has now acquired 15 acres of farmland further out of town and this, Isaac hopes, will enable it to become nearly self-sufficient in food.

Key staff have risen from Family Spirit’s own ranks.  Susan, one of the first orphans taken in, has now grown into a young woman who serves as headmistress and house mother.   She has her own little room on the premises, but shares it with several of the youngest children who have not yet started in the kindergarten class.

During the day, the children attend classes ranging from kindergarten to Primary 7, taught by local volunteer teachers.  They are assisted by a regular supply of young volunteers from Denmark who each come for a period of three months.   

Asked why they did not try instead to integrate the children into mainstream primary schools, Isaac explains that beyond the Centre compound the orphans encountered deep-seated prejudice.  “When we started this, no other child was allowed to play with our children. Their parents would not allow it.”

Relations with the neighbourhood have recently improved greatly, Isaac says.  One reason he gives is that the Family Spirit children are doing remarkably well in their humble classrooms.  Their academic progress, he suggests, is helped by the fact that the children Tramadol come from several different regions and so learn to use English as a common language from the time they start to speak.  Now, he says, parents in the neighbourhood want to send their own children to the Family Spirit school.  Some have been accepted.  In return, people in the community have donated food and building materials for ongoing extension work.

On completing P-7, the Family Spirit children enter government senior schools and some of the older students move into foster homes in the neighbourhood.  At present, 189 children live at the centre, and a further 47 lodge nearby—some with HIV positive families, some with ‘normal’ families.  

Some of these youngsters are themselves HIV positive. Those who need anti-retroviral treatment receive it regularly from TASO (The Aids Service Organisation), Uganda’s largest non-government service provider in this field.    

Several of the older Family Spirit students are now preparing for independent adulthood, studying vocational courses at the local technical college or for a primary teaching qualification. 

NGOs often talk about “making a difference.”  Family Spirit is a down to earth organisation, whose leaders do not speak of “social change” or “empowerment.”  But it is hard to imagine what would have become of the Family Spirit orphans if Isaac and his now deceased colleagues had not stepped in where others feared to tread.   For more than 200 youngsters, they have made all the difference. 

Tobacco, oil and child labor

The Family Spirit Centre’s humble premises make a striking contrast with the campus of the Uganda Technical College Kyema, which lies just outside Masindi town.  Many of Uganda’s young universities might well envy the college’s ample grounds, its well-constructed and well-equipped classrooms. A spacious library houses more than 70 bran new flat-screen computers.  These are standing by for a first intake of Petroleum Studies students.

Kyema college, then, is a useful asset for the regional and national governments as Uganda gears up to become an oil-producing country.  Yet, curiously, this asset exists only because of the past efforts of an NGO working in partnership with the global tobacco industry.

The background  is explained by Patrick Mwesigwa, a programme assistant with the Community Development and Conservation Agency (CODECA) NGO.
Masindi, Patrick says, has long been a tobacco growing area, where smallholder farmers supply the giant company, BAT (once known as British American Tobacco), which manufactures brands such as East Africa’s ‘Sportsman’ cigarettes.  In the early years of the 21st century, such companies came under increasing fire from activist NGOs, including CODECA.

Tobacco, the NGOs said, is harmful not only for end consumers—addicted smokers—but also for the environment and for human rights.  The plants suck nutrients from the soils.  Precious forest resources are consumed to make drying stalls and in the wood-fired curing process.  And farmer ‘out-growers’ often send their children to work in the fields—rather than attending school—to maintain the flow of cash from this lucrative but labour-intensive crop.  

Companies like BAT found themselves struggling to adjust to a new century that expects ‘social responsibility’ from corporations.  In response, through an industry association based in Geneva, the tobacco companies agreed to work with CODECA to reduce child labour in the Masindi supply chain.  

The association made a lavish grant to build a college in Masindi, on land allocated by the local government, to teach vocational skills.  CODECA ran ‘sensitisation’ campaigns encouraging farmers to send their children to school, setting up village Child Labour Committees to carry forward this work.  In addition, these committees selected youngsters to attend the college for six-month courses in dressmaking, carpentry and construction skills. 

According to Ronald Ayesiga, a bricklaying instructor and vice principal of the college, more than 600 youngsters have now completed such courses.  

At the time of our visit a group of young men, nearing the end of their course in construction skills, were laying out pegs and string outside to mark a foundation trench.  Nearby stood right angle corner sections of wall which they had built to practice their bricklaying skills. They chose this course, they said, because it seemed the likeliest to lead to paid work.   Most said the course had been useful, but they were not confident about finding a job when it was over.  “You need to be in town,” said one, whereas their homes are back in the village.   

Yet Masindi town’s real estate and construction sectors are beginning to boom on expectations raised by oil. These young men may find opportunities as migrant workers, but they will likely have to compete with other migrants from further afield. 

Other trainees, on the carpentry course, were busy making simple stools. They had learned a lot, they said, and several hoped to stay in touch with each other and try to work together in future.  They also believe there would be a market for this kind of furniture in their home villages.  

Yet they saw a major challenge in finding cash to buy the tools with which to ply their new trade.  A basic carpentry set, they said, would cost around 600,000 shillings (USD 250). To kick-start any business they might need to link up with one of the many NGOs offering microfinance.  They could probably also use some training in basic business skills.

Despite the practical difficulties they will face, Patrick Mwesigwa is adamant that the trainees “were looked at as people who were useless in their communities, but now they have the skills to become role models.”

But this must have seemed only a modest return on such a big investment. In 2010, the college was handed over to the central government’s Directorate of Industrial Training.  Thus, from an amply funded project to deliver “non-formal” education to youth in tobacco growing areas, Kyema has, as Ronald Ayesiga puts it, “advanced from a vocational to a technical college.”  

The college is now enrolling students for longer diploma courses, from which they will graduate with a qualification that is more widely recognised and respected than the mere completion certificate which the “non-formal” students obtain.   The diploma courses cover traditional skills such as carpentry, construction, mechanics and tailoring, but Kyema is now also doubling up as a second campus for the less well-endowed Kigumba Petroleum Institute, some 30 kilometres away.  

However, the six month courses for rural youth will continue.  In the hand-over agreement, says Ayesiga, “It is clearly stated that this programme of non-formal training has to go hand in hand with diploma courses, and government also has to sponsor some non-formal training.”

The shift to ‘empowerment’

Whilst the vocational training project set out to help rural youth, many NGOs have increasingly turned to encouraging young people to help themselves.  Lawrence Musiige, 29, is both a beneficiary and a now a firm advocate of this approach. 

Musiige dropped out of school in Senior-4 when a relative who had been sponsoring him died.  “I spent some time in town there, loitering, doing nothing,” he recalls.  

In time he got to know Recreation for Development and Peace (RDP), an NGO established in Uganda in 1999 with the aid of a Danish sports association.  At first, RDP specialised in promoting sport as a way of bringing communities together.   From 2006, according to the NGO’s Masindi District Coordinator, Alfred Mwesigwa, they started to move into youth “mobilisation and empowerment.” One aspect of this was encouraging young people to form their own community based organisations, so that they could work together for common objectives and access local government funding. 

After attending an RDP training workshop, Musiige and 25 other young people in Pakan Sub-county formed and registered the Pakan Active Youth Group.  After receiving further training from RDP in “group strengthening,” Musiige says, they were able to obtain farm inputs and seed funding through the government’s National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) programme. 

Musiige proudly shows us rows of yellow bell pepper seedlings that, with regular watering through the dry season, he will be able to harvest in January when they should fetch a good price in Masindi’s market.  Behind the seedlings stands an acre of bananas that he planted last year on his family’s land.  A proportion of the profits will go back to a revolving loan fund that the Active Youth Group established with the NAADS start-up capital.

The Group’s activism is not limited to more productive and higher value farming, however.  They have, Musiige says, also been monitoring the sub-county’s government, especially the very small annual allocation—generally less than a million shillings—for Youth affairs.

For two years they wrote to the government asking for an account of how the money was spent.  They got no satisfactory answer. This year, however, they have been able not only to get answers, but also to influence the spending.  As a result of their efforts, says Musiige,  100,000 shillings from the Youth budget was spent on a modest Youth Day celebration, and a further 300,000 was spent on holding a football tournament for teams in the sub-county.

These are small achievements—and  NGOS often dress up small achievement in big words like “empowerment”—but they are significant.  For, as the Chinese sage, Laozi, pointed out 2,500 years ago, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Pushing out the HIV/AIDS scourge; a community initiative

Benson Obote can now smile again. Thanks to Woloko-Kwo Support Organisation, a local CBO which has supported him for over 5 years since he tasted HIV positive at Gulu Referral Hospital in Gulu district.

Benson the LCIII chairman in his sub-county was formerly married with two wives but now lives with only one. This was after testing and finding his two wives were HIV negative and one had to run back to her home. He has now settled with his youngest wife and they are living as discordant couples.

This couple is one of the 250 community mobilisers in Gulu district working under Woloko-Kwo Support Organisation.

Florence Opoka a retired nurse can see this as part of the great achievements she has had since she started the CBO in Gulu district. “I started as a counsellor in Gulu Referral Hospital, Gulu. We were offered training in counselling in Ghana in 1991.”

“As soon as I returned, I asked the hospital to give me a Rxleader pharmacy small room where I could practice my services. And with support of other bigger NGOs in Gulu, we were able to test and offer counselling services and that’s how the organisation started” she says.

Woloko-Kwo; an Acholi word which means “Let us change behaviour” started at the time it was needed most. In 1991, Gulu district had the leading HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in Uganda. As the group started the prevalence dropped from 11.4% to 13.4%.

The UNAIDS 2011 report titled “How to get to zero; Faster, Smarter, Better,” which has been released ahead of this year’s World Aids Day on December 1 shows that the total number of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped by more than 26%, down to 1.9 million [1.7 million–2.1 million] from the estimated 2.6 million [2.4 million–2.8 million] at the height of the epidemic in 1997.

In 22 sub-Saharan countries, research shows HIV incidence declined by more than 25% between 2001 and 2009.

The report attributes this decline in prevalence to the behavioral changes undertaken by the victims that saves their loved ones and the entire community.

“When we started, the message was always “stick to one woman” to help the men who were moving from one woman to another,” Florence narrates. “I started with 25 people who were counseled and trained in how to mobilize their fellow community members.”

The group has since grown from 25 to 250 community mobilisers who have formed drama groups and support one another to live healthy lives.

Concy Laker; a member of the group narrates how she was bed ridden and had no hope until the members of this group identified, counseled and referred her to TASO for HIV/AIDS testing.

“I was very sick and bed ridden. I had lost hope,” Laker says. Today she is part of the team that carries out home visits to other HIV infected patients to encourage them access counseling and testing and take their drugs.

“If the patient is very sick and can’t move, we take her with our bicycle,” showing the commitment they have exhumed in this work. These bicycles are part of the support the group has received from other bigger NGOs like World Vision International, Save the Children, UNDP and ACODE. They are sometimes facilitated with Ug. Shs. 5,000= per month to support them as they do this work. Lacer believes that even without this facilitation, she would still carry on with the work because of the far it has brought her.

Indeed Florence Opoka the founder believes they have come this far. From 25 people she had counseled, the number rose to over 1,000 people and the hospital could no longer afford provide enough space for the clients and she was requested to move out. That is how they moved to the nearby town suburb in a small office.

PMTC services

Monicah Adokorach a young 20 year old mother of a handsome baby is all smiles having received support to go for several antenatal checkups to protect her baby from HIV/AIDS.

Her emotional story stems from having been infected by her former boss while offering domestic support at as a maid in Kampala. On retuning back to Gulu so sickly and receiving treatment, she regained life and is now married to Ochora Andrew who is also HIV positive. They received support from the group and so far their child is “safe”.

Providing PMTC services to pregnant mothers is yet another service offered by Woloko -Kwo Support Organisation. Florence states that of the 848 pregnant mothers they have referred for HIV/AIDS testing, only two babies have been born HIV positive.
“Sometimes, when support comes in, we provide Mama Kits and mosquito nets to the pregnant mothers”

With support from the community mobilisers, she can proudly say that she has contributed to the community health care system.

The challenges

Florence has been successful at this work but with several challenges.

“I was looked at as the bad one in society, one who came to show who is sick and who is not” she says. Though this attitude has changed over time but the war insurgency in Gulu has also caused other challenges. With a lot of hopelessness within the people who are trying to recover from the war, there is so much they can accept to change about their behaviour.

“When people used to live in the camps, it was worse. The men used to drink and sleep with any woman around. People were hopeless but we went there.”  She narrates how they used to supply condoms to the men and somehow reduced the spread in such a fragile time.

The other challenge faced is that most health centres do not have HIV testing facilities in the community. Since their office has moved to the town suburb, they have to refer the clients counselled to other service providers to be tested. This becomes challenging as most times the distances are too long and the clients fail to go for the check up after being referred. They refer them to TASO, Gulu Youth Centre or Gulu Referral Hospital which are all found in Gulu Municipality.

“I am still negotiating with some of our donors to bring us testing kits which we can use in our nearby health centre just across. This will go a long way in helping our clients accessing the tests,” Florence laments.

Therefore in a bid to support such a great initiative she has started, she needs quite a lot of support from government in taking Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT) services closer to the people in the community in order to push out AIDS out of Gulu district.

Tracking service delivery with Community Monitors to curb down corruption in Uganda

Joyce Yopa; the new Headmistress to Muni Primary School, Arua district has to keep her work clean. Only a month ago she was posted here and Lillian Mundwa has already started to frequent her office.

“We must be available such that things do not go out of hand,” Lillian states.

Lillian Mundwa on one of her visits to Riki Health Centre III For over ten years, Lillian has been monitoring service delivery in Muni sub-county where she lives. In this sub-county, she has been able to see services improve at a school where all her children go for education and the Riki Health Centre III which serves the community.

“We monitor pupil absenteeism, teachers’ performance and the number of times they report to teach and other school facilities.”

Global Integrity’s 2006 Report on Uganda estimates that more than a half of the government’s annual budget is lost to corruption amounting to $950 Million. (

This indicates that most of the service delivery in Uganda is affected by corruption which has rendered the public to lose confidence in the government officials. A 2005 AfroBarometer Survey indicated that majority of the citizens believed that most of the government officials whether at central or local level were corrupt.

Therefore, mechanisms of monitoring service delivery have to be engaged to curb down this evil. The communities must participate in monitoring service delivery to make sure services reach those they are meant for.

Lillian does not work alone. She works with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) to access information about available services from government and tracing whether they have reached their local primary school. Their recent success was the recovery of 203 iron sheets from a member of the school management committee which have completed a once stalled building process.

They also train pupils in monitoring their teachers’ attendance and fellow pupils’ attendance. Through this, pupils who had dropped out of school have managed to return to school and the teacher attendance has improved. The school which has 1,353 pupils with 771 girls and 682 boys now provides all the enrolment lists and teacher performance statistics and the received funds from government since the monitoring process began.

Community monitoring

“We are always called upon when the drugs arrive at the Health Centre,” says Richard Butele the Chairman of the Health Management Committee for the Riki Health Centre.

This is the only health centre in the whole sub-county where Lillian also does monitoring. Unlike Lillian who is a retired nurse and has received extra training from bigger Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) like CARE International and MAYANK Anti-Corruption Coalition (MACCO), Richard was just selected by the government officials to monitor services at the health centre.

Civil societies have embarked on training community monitors who monitor service delivery in areas where the monitors also benefit. 
“When CARE phased out their project, we were handed over to MACCO to continue supporting us in this process,” says Lillian. The training and support is given by several CSOs who may need to monitor particular service delivery in the communities.

“We provide training to all the key influential people in the community. These may not be for MACCO or CARE but will support community service delivery in the end,” commented David Onen; Executive Director MACCO.

The training normally helps the participants acquire information on available services and how to work with fellow community members on how to track service delivery by government and thus curb corruption.

One of the challenges Lillian faces is that the civil societies who trained her have not provided her with transport facilitation to monitor services in some of the areas which are far from her home.

David Onen challenges this and encourages the monitors to work in areas where they benefit.

“Do you need transport to monitor services in a school where your children go for studies or a health centre where you go for treatment?” he rhetorically asks. This means that the community members are being empowered to monitor their services.

“They need to see the value of their work by initiating changes in service delivery within their communities,” he goes on to say.
Therefore with the effort civil societies have put in empowering the community members, it is important that issues raised are followed up to cause real impact in the community.

Government and Civil Society in working with monitors

Lillian’s recent allegation is the embezzlement of funds by the former Headmaster who has been posted to another school. She claims she has evidence to pin him down.  with such an allegation and the claimed evidence in her hands to prove her case, one wonders her next step.

“Sometimes they think they can manage on their own and after no solution is offered they come back to us” says Onen. “We give them chance to devise solutions as a community and bring up the unresolved issues through our structures until we push them to the policy makers who intervene to bring lasting solutions. This normally takes less than a month.”

Richard, the government selected monitor agrees there are many loopholes they have found out from the health centre but a few solutions have been provided.

“The drugs packed do not much the number of drugs listed on the delivery note and most of the medicine does not much the diseases the community suffers from,” he laments. “During the inspection, we have the DISO and Police officers who witness these complaints but nothing much has resulted.”

His position is not any different from Dennis Obinega’s who is the Senior Nurse that manages the health centre.

“We wish we could be able to request our own medicines according to the number of people and the ailments they suffer from,” he goes on to say.“The medicine runs out nearly after two weeks because most people come to take medication even when they are not sick since they are not sure when the medicine will run out.”

Richard also agrees that as a committee they have managed to solve small issues like causing the drunkard gateman to be fired since he was not performing. Surprisingly, the issues discussed by the Team he heads are not discussed with Lillian yet both groups work to improve the same community’s service delivery. This could mean that civil society monitors may miss out on issues realised by the government monitors.

The government recently commissioned Barazas through the Office of the Prime Minister where community members can track service delivery by the government officials. Barazas are open meetings between communities and their leaders to provide feedback about service delivery and tracking implementation of programmes.  Civil societies have also implemented the Citizens Manifesto which will help empower citizen voices to interact with their leaders irrespective of their political or cultural background. These are useful in citizens monitoring service delivery and following up on political leaders’ delivery on their promises and responsibilities.

Such initiatives if well implemented could bring together community members in tracking service delivery hence combating corruption in their communities.

For corruption to be fully kicked out of communities there is need for a unified monitoring by all the community members as the end result will benefit each and everyone.