Village Enterprise COVID-19 Tales: Norbert Otim

Selfie sent from Norbert Otim, Village Enterprise Business Mentor. Okello Patrick, the Local Council 1 of Paicho is on the left.

Paicho, Uganda, is a small town located thirty minutes outside of Gulu. It’s a simple place containing a few small shops that supply food items, gardening tools, and gasoline, and a rolex (an egg omelet and veggies wrapped in chapati) stand on the side of the road. It’s also home to Norbert Otim, a Village Enterprise business mentor. Norbert has lived here ever since we expanded our operations to the Gulu sub-region last year.

I called Norbert earlier this week to check-in on him and see how Paicho is handling the news of the global pandemic. The virus has not yet reached his town, but the uncertainty of when it will arrive hangs in the air. “People come to me for COVID-19 information,” Norbert explains, “including the community leaders.”

I hear some noise in the background, and Norbert explains, “Oh the LC1 has just dropped by.” In Uganda, villages usually consist of 50 to 70 households and may contain between 250 and 1,000 people, and each village is run by a local council — Local Council 1 (LC1). “Do you want to talk to him?” Norbert asks. “Sure, put him on,” I respond.

I introduce myself to Okello Patrick, the LC1 of Paicho, and ask him how he’s guiding the community at this time. “I’m telling people that they should keep calm and practice what the Ministry of Health is advising: stay home, wash your hands, and avoid social gatherings.”

I ask to know which questions and concerns he’s hearing from community members. “Within the village, people are fearful that the virus is hitting the countries where donations come from. They fear that they don’t know what will come after this. If God could allow the medics to easily come up with something that could sort this out, that would be good. People in Paicho fear the virus, and some act as if they are helpless.”

Norbert Otim is a leader in the community, a person people look up to for guidance and advice. This is no surprise since Village Enterprise business mentors are teachers in their villages and sources of information. “Okello asks me every day for news. It’s difficult to find authentic information, so I’m trying to help with that.” In Uganda, there’s a lot of fake news circulating about COVID-19. “People get this fake news because it is human nature to spread rumors,” Norbert tells me. “They don’t have time to ask questions and gather information. There aren’t reliable sources of information. A few days ago people were saying that if you drink a lot of alcohol, it will sort this virus and cure Corona.”

At this time, Village Enterprise staff are working across Uganda and Kenya to call all of our business owners and Business Savings Groups to determine how people are faring. When checking on his business owners over the phone, Nobert is addressing the lack of genuine and authentic information. “There are people just doing things out of fear. Sometimes we need to fear because it is a deadly virus. But we shouldn’t just fear to fear. There are people who are fearing what they don’t know and don’t know why they are fearing.” At this time, clear information is valuable, especially in remote villages where information typically doesn’t come from a reliable source.

Norbert misses the daily action of visiting his business owners and feels strange sitting in one place all day. “I wake up in the morning just sitting there. Sometimes I feel something just burning me up. You’re not sick, but you can’t go anywhere. I’m worried about my business savings groups and business owners and how the crisis will affect them. I fear that they won’t be working well once this is all over. But fortunately, in rural villages, our business owners are opening land and gardening. Within trading centers, people are just seated; there is no land to plow.

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