Our first stop on this Uganda scoping trip was Kalangala, the largest town on the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria. Stephen, the president of SHED (Ssese Health Effort for Development), submitted a comment on the Global Grassroots website in 2009 and was ecstatic to finally welcome us, the first Americans to visit their project. From the instant he met us at the dock after the 3½ hour ferry, he spoke rapidly about their work and the challenges facing the fishing villages on the islands. We talked our way along dirt roads, winding slowly on his motobike, until we reached his office where he spread out pictures and began describing HIV orphans, anti-domestic violence meetings, and the solar drying racks they financed for fisherwomen.
Kalangala (Kah-LAHN-gah-lah) is home to 50,000 people that Stephen described as a hodgepodge of tribes, rebels, and migrants from all over Uganda. Former child soldiers from the North and others journey to the island, anticipating wealth in the fishing industry, but are usually disappointed. Although most people manage to scrape by fishing and in shoreline villages at boat landing sites, life is difficult. Nearly a quarter of the population has HIV. The situation is not helped by the gender ratio (almost 3 men for every woman, according to SHED), and the consequent spouse sharing and prostitution. Of the island’s 3,000 orphans, many are HIV positive. Although wives are scarce, gender-based violence is the rule. It even trickles down to children: Stephen showed us a photo of an eleven-year old girl raped and impregnated by her father. I was afraid to ask her HIV status.
Visiting SHED felt like meeting Global Grassroots’ Ugandan cousin. Listening to them describe the importance of participatory development and working with stakeholders felt like talking into the mirror. They invite community members to meetings to discuss local issues and encourage them to develop solutions. “Sometimes, their ideas are just brilliant,” one of their leaders said. “The community members know what they need, you know?” Oh, yeah. They have helped students form clubs at schools to promote human rights, they work with police to respond appropriately to rape reports, and they provide mosquito nets to HIV positive orphans. They took us to visit a landing site where, after the women asked, they funded construction of racks to dry fish, which increases profit. Now twenty of the community’s most vulnerable women share the racks and have improved their standard of living. I forgot my camera cord in Rwanda, but there will be plenty of pictures posted when we return!
There is so much more to say about SHED, but we just checked into our hostel and need to head out to a meeting with the Program Director of the Uganda Women’s Network. Hoping this goes equally well!