KBFS: Lessons from a week in Kitgum

Five members of the Village Enterprise staff in Kitgum, Kenya

The team in the field in Kitgum

I was hot. I was dirty. I was two hours from where I was supposed to meet my colleagues Winnie, Gerald, and Dan to continue to Kitgum, Uganda for a week in the field in Village Enterprise’s newest area of operation.

I pulled my sunglasses off my head and put them on, looking down at the very-broken-down-definitely-not-leaving-anytime-soon bus. After about an hour of hoping that the bus would be repaired, I left in search of somewhere to charge my phone. We were stuck in a tiny town about 100 kilometers from where I was planning to meet Winnie and the team. A few young guys who were running a small electronics shop were kind enough to let me charge my phone with their rechargeable battery pack. As I charged my phone, I explained the situation of the broken-down bus. One of them, Emmanuel, offered to walk me to the nearest petrol station to help me try and find a ride (any ride) to Kamdini where I would meet the rest of the team. As we walked we attempted (unsuccessfully) to flag down a few buses—all full to brim, bursting with passengers headed home for the festival season.

At the petrol station, after several tries, I finally secured a ride with a few consultants from Kampala in their almost full car. Two hours later, I finally met Winnie, Gerald, and Dan. Having waited for me for almost two hours, we continued our journey.

I would love to say that my getting stuck on the side of the road was the first and last of our memorable adventures that week. It wasn’t.

Gerald Kyalisiima attempting to open a car's sun roof

Gerald attempting to open the sun roof to hit the automatic lock.

After an awesome day of trainings and focus group discussions with our newest team in Kitgum, Dan, Gerald, Winnie, and I headed to the field on Wednesday with Anthony, our Kitgum field coordinator, to see our new youth program in action. We split up to make sure we could soak up as much learning from our visit as possible. Winnie and Dan at one training. Gerald, Anthony, and I at another. After maneuvering the car through a narrow footpath to reach the training venue, we introduced ourselves to a group of 15-24 year olds, who were halfway into their training on agribusiness and value chains. Gerald and I sat down and settled in to watch our young entrepreneurs soak up their learning as Anthony went to retrieve something from the car. After a few minutes, I heard the car alarm. We turned to see Anthony trying (and failing) to open the locked car door. The keys? Inside, lying on the back seat.

When the training was finished, and the sun was starting to slink into the horizon, Gerald, Anthony, and I gathered at the car. Anthony had gathered our tools: a long metal wire, a wrench, and a machete. We started with the metal wire in the driver’s side door. No luck. Then we tried prying the back window open in order to stick the wire through a crack to hit the unlock button on the keys. Again, despite nearly an hour of Anthony and I guiding Gerald’s maneuvering of the metal wire, no luck. Next, Gerald climbed on top of the car, wedging the sun roof open a tad with the machete to attempt to come in from above to hit the master lock control on the driver’s door. Due in no part to a lack of effort, this was also not going to cut it. We had about 15 minutes of light left when Winnie called. She listened calmly as we explained the situation, paused, and said with assurance and patience, “Just break the window.”

Thus, the next two days we drove our Prado, complete with a sheet of black plastic covering the now-broken back window to visit more trainings. We were inspired by our team as we watched trainings, and provided feedback and encouragement to our business mentors.

On Friday afternoon, after a long week, we headed back to Kitgum, prepared to begin our journey home. We sat in the car as Dan drove, swapping observations, inspirations, and ideas from the week.

Thump. Thump Thump. Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump. The car rolled to a stop. Flat tire. 20 kilometers from town.

We let out a collective sigh and climbed out of the car. Dan, Gerald, and Anthony began the process of changing the tire, only to find that our jack alone wasn’t going to cut it on the uneven road. Winnie and I hailed down an approaching driver. He offered to let us use his jack, and immediately got down on the dusty road with us, climbing under our car to help. With the help of this good Samaritan, we removed the tire and the four of them attempted to fit the spare onto the car.

It didn’t fit.

Dan Ouko, Gerald Kyalisiima, and a Good Samaritan replacing a flat tire.

Another collective sigh and another good Samaritan to be hailed down. Luckily, another Prado passed, slowed, and stopped. After a simple request, they allowed us to use their spare tire, and meet us in town so we could swap the wheel from the other tire with our spare.

After another hour or two, we were finally on our way. Black plastic flapping in the window, flat tire on the back of the car, sun setting over dry, dusty, beautiful Northern Uganda.

It wasn’t until later, when Winnie and I were debriefing about our incredible and adventure-filled week, that she reminded me about an email that Zach, our COO, had sent the week before. In his email to the team, Zach had offered these words of encouragement and advice to our team:

Be kind. Believe the best in others. Offer and receive feedback as a gift. Focus on solutions, not problems. KBFS: be kind, believe the best in others, feedback is a gift, and remain solution oriented.

I laughed, closing my eyes and shaking my head. This is one of the busiest times of the year, likely the busiest year in Village Enterprise history. Maybe we needed this week, full of obstacles and frustrations, to be reminded of this important advice.

When I was stuck on the side of the road, when it seemed inevitable that we would sleep in the field with the keys locked in the car, and when the odds seemed against us with a flat tire, we had to remain solution oriented. Resisting the temptation to submit to the dread of the minutes of day light slipping away, the frustration of being “stuck,” the temptation to play the blame game, we focused on the way forward, not the way we got there.

Our trip to Kitgum was about working as a team to ensure we are doing all we can to empower the youth with whom we are working in a way that sustainably allows them to lift their families from poverty. To do this, we had to embrace feedback as a gift. After the flat tires and broken windows, we spent our evenings brainstorming new ideas and reflecting on what worked and didn’t work, reminding ourselves to provide feedback with the same compassion and care with which you offer a gift—and receive feedback with the gratitude and humility with which you accept a gift.

When we locked the keys in the car, Winnie remained understanding, believing the best in us—patient in our honest mistake and confident in our ability to find a solution.

Last but not least, from Emmanuel walking to help me find a ride, to the patience and kindness our team had to have for each other, to the good Samaritans who gave us rides and helped us when we had a flat tire, we were reminded of the importance of extending kindness to others, and receiving kindness with grace. Without the kindness of others, our week would have looked much different.

This blog isn’t about is our incredible field team in Kitgum, our new opportunity to serve youth in order to end extreme poverty, or an exciting new partnership that allows us to expand operations in Northern Uganda. These are important topics for another blog. But for this blog, they are important because they are what brought us to Kitgum in the first place—and created the opportunity to learn from broken down buses, keys locked in the car, and flat tires.

My biggest take away from our week in Kitgum is that, at the end of the day, we are all people.

In fact, the Village Enterprise team is composed of just over 150 people, spread across Kenya, Uganda, and the United States, working day in and day out to make this world a better place. And while our mission holds us accountable, we, like any people working anywhere in the world, sometimes need a reminder to remain focused on solutions, not problems; to offer and accept feedback as a gift; to believe the best in others; and above all else, be kind. KBFS.

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