BY ROB FRIDGE, CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
What are the first words of advice people give when you travel to a third-world country? Say it with me: “Don’t drink the water!” It’s so common now, it’s a cliché, almost a joke. But how often do we really consider that millions of people have to drink that water, wherever they can find it — often a mile or more from their home—and it’s no joke? Americans often believe that almost any problem can be solved if you throw enough money at it. A Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called Kibo Group has a different approach to solving water, health and economic problems in rural Uganda, and I was honored to spend a couple of weeks of my vacation seeing firsthand how they do it.
I have been aware of Kibo Group, and have even done a little of their bookkeeping, for several years. At Drury, I’ve had the pleasure of working with several students from Africa. One student, Ann Njoki from Kenya, kept telling me, “Rob, you must go see Africa!” In the spring of 2017, I was given the opportunity to travel to Jinja, Uganda with one of the founders and board members of Kibo Group. The trip changed my thinking about how we attempt to help others, whether those in need are in America or 8,000 miles away on the equator of Africa.
We required a bit of preparation before we left Springfield. Along with our own suitcase of personal items, we each brought another 50-pound suitcase full of supplies; in my case, Mama Kits. In Uganda, if a woman desires to have her baby in a hospital or clinic, she must bring all the required sterile supplies with her or she will be turned away to have the baby at home. Friends in Springfield put together hundreds of Mama Kits for us to bring to give away in the villages.
The other preparation was a little language training. Greeting and speaking with the Basoga people in their own language greatly helps to earn trust and friendship. In the mornings, every person we encounter shares a traditional greeting that begins with one person saying, “Wasuz’otya?” which means, “How was your night?” The other person replies, “Bulungi, ssebo…Wasuz’otya?” which means, “Good, sir. How was your night?” The greeting usually continues on for a few minutes, each asking about the other and shaking hands the whole time! Of course I could only continue a few exchanges before running out of vocabulary, but my poor attempts at their language always brought smiles and laughter at the “Bazungu” (white person).
Uganda’s median age is 15, the lowest in the world. Put another way, 50 percent of the population is under 15, and 70 percent is under 25 years old. Once referred to as “The Pearl of Africa,” Uganda has struggled to rebuild its government, infrastructure and identity after the devastating regime of Idi Amin in the 1970s. Even 35 years later, his influence continues in many ways except one: the ethnic diversity he tried to eliminate has returned to Uganda.
For instance, each morning at about 5:00, the loudspeakers from the local Muslim mosque would begin the call to prayer, and I would watch from my window as the faithful walked to begin their day in prayer. About an hour later, the Hindu temple would begin playing loud music calling their faithful to worship as well. By sunrise, the streets were full of children in uniforms walking to school and parents walking to work. A popular (and dangerous) morning commute might include one of the many “boda bodas,” which are motorcycle taxis racing down the streets. I often saw an old woman in full headdress riding side-saddle down the street, or a family of four all piled on with the youngest perched on the handlebars.
One of our first visits was to a village called Buwologoma, which Kibo began working with in 2009. While Kibo visits a village every week for months in the early phases, they had not been back to this village in several months. I must admit, I was totally expecting to see hundreds of poor, starving people living in huts with dirt floors. Instead, we drove up to a handmade brick house with a concrete porch. In front of the house was landscaping, including a lawn kept manicured by a goat, brick edging, flowers and fruit trees. The chairman of the community could not wait to show us their water well that Kibo helped them develop, and have me meet his local team, whose job was to maintain and raise funds to keep the well in good condition indefinitely. It’s estimated that Africa has up to 40,000 broken or abandoned water wells because of inadequate training and funding for long-term maintenance.
The chairman showed us his orchard where the team is growing cocoa, mango, banana and orange trees. What’s more, they have their own nursery where they grow thousands of seedlings to sell to other villages and a second water well the government has drilled for them strictly for irrigation! Next, they took us to their chicken coops and hog barns to explain how each home would eventually have its own hogs and acres of feed corn to sustain a food supply year round. We saw more than one house with a solar panel on the tin roof. They believe the extra hours of light at night will transform the village culture. This village is talking about someday having running water and electricity directly into their homes.
I had to ask the chairman, “How did all of this happen?” Without hesitation, he said, “Kibo Group and 90 goats!” Back in 2009, Kibo helped organize the community, and taught villagers how to work together as a community to solve their own problems. They began with a program of growing mvule trees for an entire year. Mvule is a giant, beautiful African tree that has been deforested over generations. If the community could plant and sustain hundreds of mvule trees for a year, they would receive 90 goats from Kibo. With thriving trees and their 90 goats, the villagers spent the next several years increasing their capital. Breeding and multiplying those goats led to investments in cows, hogs, crops, brick production and other projects that have changed the lives of hundreds in and around this community.
While the year spent growing trees had some practical purpose (shade and restoration), the real value was the year of teaching and working together to form a strong community. Kibo believes that long-term success does not come by handing out money or things, or simply solving problems for the community. Success comes from working with the community, building relationships side-by-side for months and years so that they learn how to solve their own problems without the help of Kibo. We visited several other villages in various phases of Kibo programs as they addressed health and sanitation issues, building safe ovens and kitchens, strengthening relationships within families and between neighbors, conflict resolution and other life skills.
I witnessed a small group of about 25 Kibo staff, virtually all from East Africa, investing their lives in the lives of others by actually caring about them and building total trust with them. Quite frankly, it’s the same long-term, relationship-driven philosophy that Drury faculty and staff use to teach our students about the love of learning, the virtues of life and the joy found in helping others. I travelled to Africa with the idea that I was going to help someone else, and I guess, in some small way, I did. However, I came home from Africa with the knowledge that transformational change cannot be purchased, does not come quickly and requires putting all my faith in the person I’m trying to help; not an easy lesson for this old dog.
If you would like more information about Kibo Group, visit kibogroup.org.