It’s my first day in the field. I’ve been imagining this moment for a few weeks now in preparation for my move to Uganda as the new resident storyteller for Village Enterprise. The night before my first field visit, I’m told to meet Zita (Village Enterprise Field Associate) at Custom Corner at 8:40am. She instructs me to find a man named Sunday upon arrival. I have no idea where Custom Corner is in relation to me, so the next morning I blindly approach a boda driver (motorbike) and ask him to take me there. Luckily, he knows where he’s going. As I disembark from his motorbike he says “Are you meeting someone here?” I tell him that I’m waiting for my colleague and then he rides off in search of his next customer.
Custom Corner is a point where minivans wait to take people to various locations. It’s a makeshift “bus” stop. There are people sitting on the side of the road selling snacks and home cooked food and there is also a collection of small general stores. I couldn’t tell how people knew when vans were departing or when vans were arriving in Gulu. It seemed as though everyone just knew this information by osmosis. As I waited, a man in a light and dark gray striped polo shirt approached me. He offered a seat in his van. “Do you know where Sunday’s van is?” I asked. “He left for Nwoya already,” the man responded. Then he told me I could get a great deal with his van. I told him I’d see what my colleague wanted to do once she arrived. As I stood there, the morning sun poured down on my exposed shoulders. I had on long pants and my “practical” sandals, which honestly look like they were torn from the “I’m headed to Africa and I’m going to have an adventure” catalog. But they’re comfortable and easy to walk in, which is important for a full day of travel.
After fifteen minutes of waiting, I call Zita. She says she’ll be there in a few minutes. I inform her that Sunday, the driver, already left for Nwoya. “No, he’s there,” Zita assures me. As I hang up the phone, a man in an orange polo approaches me and introduces himself as Sunday. Apparently, Zita texted Sunday asking him to look for the lost white girl who was helplessly standing on the side of the road. He walks me over to his Toyota van and invites me to take a seat. The car smells as though rain found its way into the interior one too many times, so I keep the door ajar. Eventually, Zita pulls up next to the van on a motorbike, she joins me in the Toyota, and we begin the forty-minute ride to Nwoya, a northern district of Uganda.
Along the road from Gulu, we drive through small towns every five or ten miles. We pass a massive sugar refinery and a crew of workers building a new bridge. We stop in a town situated on either side of the highway, and three people board. Each new person greets Zita and me with a handshake and a “good morning.” After forty minutes, the van pulls over in another town that encloses both sides of the highway, and Zita tells me to get out. The small town in which we step into is only a few hundred meters long. It has a general store where things like soda and toilet paper are sold, a shop where you can fill your internet, a seamstress creating custom creations in her studio, and a handful of men sitting outside a storefront which does not clearly advertise its services. I guess when you live in a place this small, advertising isn’t really necessary.
I’m led in front of the shops, through a small field, past a few goats, to a circle of huts. There are women busily working and children lingering by the entrance to their homes. Four plastic chairs sit waiting for us, and I’m told to take a seat across from Mr. Wilson, one of the owners of a silverfish distributing business. In front of him are three plastic buckets of silverfish, ready for sale. Mr. Wilson’s dog, who is kept on a short leash by one of the huts, eyes the baskets of dried fish with great temptation. We discuss sales, and then Mr. Wilson explains how he and his business partners plan to diversify their venture by raising poultry. A chicken and her baby chicks wander freely around the huts and peck at the ground. I interview him for a while, and then a man with white chalk all over his hands approaches and hands me a pumpkin. “It’s a gift from us to you,” Mr. Wilson explains.
Zita and I retrace our steps and return to the sleepy town. My next interview takes place with three women who own and operate the general store in town. The shop is small, about the size of a bathroom in which you could squeeze a bathtub, and shelving hangs behind the counter where Jacqueline, Irene, and Agnes display their goods. A basket of avocados and onions sit on the floor in front of the counter, and two benches which can comfortably seat three people line two of the shop walls. As I sit there waiting to begin the interview, a woman enters the shop and asks for a measurement of beans. Jacqueline takes a clear bag, measures the beans with a plastic mug, and then ties a knot in the bag. The business owners engage in conversation with their customer and soon laughter fills the small, dark shop.
“Previously we were just sitting at home, but this business gave us a purpose. It keeps us busy day in and day out,” Jacqueline, the most loquacious of the group offers when we begin the interview. The women discuss the many ways that Village Enterprise has changed their lives; it is clear that they feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. As I listen to them speak, I wait to hear their words unlocked by Zita, who translates from Acholi to English. Even though I can’t understand them directly, I can feel the excitement they possess for their small business. They are so present and eager to share their thoughts and ideas. An idea that they return to over and over again during our conversation is the sense of community they feel because of Village Enterprise. “I used to be very isolated, but now I’m part of the community and saving money. I had never run a business before, but now I’m working with colleagues because of the training,” Agnes says with gratification.
The women are determined to keep their successful business running. “Our future plan is to save 10,000 shillings ($2.66) each a week. This is very important to us. We are saving for our children’s school fees. If we have saved money, they will not drop out of school. We want to see our children educated, so that is our motivation,” explains Irene. All three of them have this same goal in mind, which is why they are eager to support one another and to accomplish this dream together.
The interview ends with a photo shoot, and then Zita and I each climb onto a motorbike and zip off to our next location. The sun shines fiercely today. My shoulders are exposed, and I notice how red they have become from my reflection in the small motorbike side mirrors. As we drive along the road to Anaka, a town in Nwoya district, people wave and point at me. Today is Assumption of Mary Day, a holiday people in Nwoya district have chosen to celebrate (no other areas in Uganda seem to celebrate this day). There are many people dressed in their finest attire walking to church, and there are people selling cut meat along the road.
We take a motorbike from Anaka out to a dirt road, which eventually takes us to a distant village. At first, it seems as though we’ll be there any moment, but then twenty minutes pass. And then thirty. My bottom is aching from the bumps the motorbike goes over on the unpaved roads. We swerve around five piglets who are bathing in a muddy puddle. There are huts every few feet, but it’s hard to see what’s ahead because the grasses and other growth is thick and tall. We see a few people at home and along the road once in a while, but for the most part, it is rather quiet out here. Besides the bumps, being on the motorbike feels freeing and rather thrilling. After forty minutes of travel along the dusty dirt road, we arrive at a small clearing where four huts surround a massive tree. Underneath the tree, thirty business owners all dressed in the same green polo shirt with the Village Enterprise logo screen-printed in white, sit waiting for our arrival. They welcome us, I conduct a quick interview, and then Zita begins a two-hour meeting about cashing out their business savings.
Things get heated. People are unhappy with their interest rates. Some wonder why certain people get a certain amount of money. Zita answers their questions and explains the process. Zita has written out thirty different numbers which need calculating. She and Miriam, the group’s business mentor, add up the numbers on their phone. They get different amounts. Then Zita, Miriam, and our motorbike driver, Dennis, try calculating again. All three of them get a different number. This time I’m asked to add up the numbers, too. All four of us calculate something different. So, we decide to calculate ten numbers at a time and then add up everything at the end. This works. All of the business owners are quite amused by our inability to add up a few numbers. This was pretty funny.
As this meeting ends, so does my first field visit with Village Enterprise. We climb back onto the motorbikes, return to Anaka, and I get into a van which is headed to Gulu. The van is already full, except for the front seat where I am placed. The driver opens the trunk and sticks my pumpkin in the back. I hear a chicken squawk. I wave goodbye to Zita and then we’re off. On the way home, the driver plays soft Christian music and comments every once in a while on other driver’s skills. “Why didn’t he indicate that he was turning? Oh well…” As the sun starts to set and my sunburn becomes more prominent, I find myself feeling content. I think my first field visit was a success; I met some incredible business owners, traversed Uganda on a motorbike, and witnessed the Village Enterprise program in action. Being in the field felt right. Talking with business owners felt empowering. I’m ready for my next field visit. Next time, though, I’m applying sunscreen before I get on a motorbike.