Liz Corbishley is the Chief Strategy & Partnerships Officer at Village Enterprise. She recently spent 24 hours in rural Uganda, staying with one of our entrepreneurs in their home and gaining a sense of the whole picture of Village Enterprise’s work and impact.
‘Do you want to slaughter the chicken?’
Harriet and Philomena are both looking at me expectedly as the bird wriggles under Harriet’s armpit. Behind them one-year-old Israel crawls back and forth across the immaculately swept floor of the compound, leaving little wet patches where he sits. Six-year-old Ken shimmies up the mango tree to attach a rope swing, completely ignored by his mother and grandmother as he balances precariously in the branches.
‘No thank you,’ I say, avoiding making eye contact with the soon-to-be dinner. ‘I’ve not done it before, and I think it’s best to leave to you. I can help with cooking though?’
Philomena nods, takes the chicken from her daughter, and disappears in the thatched hut that I believe is the kitchen and storeroom. Harriet frowns critically at my dress. ‘You need to cover up because of the fire,’ she tells me, and fetches a green scarf to wrap around my waist, protecting me from waist to ankles. I do as I’m told although this additional layer is vaguely torturous in the heat. In what seems like less time than it takes me to buy a chicken in Carrefour, Philomena is back with a dead, plucked animal.
‘I’m not actually a very good cook,’ I tell them both as I follow to the thatched hut that houses the charcoal fire. They both turn to stare at me, incredulous. I get the feeling they would be less surprised if I told them I had two heads than if I said I was a woman who didn’t know how to cook.
‘We can teach you!’ Harriet proclaims enthusiastically. Philomena agrees, but very quickly they decide that I am more hindrance than help. ‘Siobhan, take Auntie round the village with Chairman,’ Harriet instructs, shooing me away.
I have worked at Village Enterprise for the past six years, but this is the first time that I have spent a full 24 hours in one of the villages we serve. While I am passionate about our impact and team, can cite statistics, and have met many entrepreneurs we’ve trained, I learn very quickly in this visit to Opadoi Village that this is not enough. What I have been seeing is the Big Picture; but I have been missing the Whole Picture.
Let me explain another way. When I was a child I was given a ‘painting by numbers’ kit. This was a picture made up of lots of different small shapes, each one with a number in the middle. On the back there was a key that told me what color corresponded with what number. For example, all 1s were to be painted a spring green, all 2s a dark green, all 3s a deep blue, etc. The idea was that when the painter completed the picture, what had originally looked like a random collection of small shapes revealed a beautiful landscape.
At the start of the week I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what made up Village Enterprise’s beautiful landscape. However, impact, case studies, and drive-by field trips don’t capture the way that expressions flit across Philomena’s face like clouds across the sky on a windy day. They don’t capture the fierceness of Harriet’s hug, or the sweaty small of your back from dancing until the whole village collapses in exhaustion. They don’t capture the fact that although Village Enterprise is an important part of these people’s lives, they are not defined by their business success. It is almost as though a color is missing in the paint-by-numbers picture I had. I could see the Big Picture, but not the Whole Picture. I was missing the color that gives warmth, depth, and vibrancy.
I was missing the yellow.
Siobhan is seven years old and delighted to be appointed as one of my tour guides. She narrates life as only young children can; telling me so-and-so is fat, that those boys are definitely going to fall off the motorbike if they continue to drive like that, and all men like playing cards. A potentially unreliable guide on her own, she is joined by John, the Village Chairman. John was elected Chairman four years ago and takes his role extremely seriously. He is obviously well-respected by the village he serves, and seems related by blood or marriage to a good number of the households. As we walk I hear him remind a group of men sitting under a tarpaulin that bar-holes are not going to be open tonight, in honor of the visitor.
‘See! I told you!’ crows Siobhan as she notes the men are playing cards.
‘Yoga,’ I say, greeting the men who smile at me and gesture me to join their game, in spite of the fact I have potentially ruined any fun plans they may have had for later.
‘We need to keep going,’ John tells them, marching me forward. ‘We have a lot to see.’
There are a total of 114 households in the village, with an unpaved road running through the center. In the time I am there I don’t see any cars; most people are either walking or riding bicycles. There is no power (although plenty of houses have small solar lights and some also have solar radios), and jerry cans snake in queues as women gather at the water points. Most of the village is navigated by small, dusty paths that weave between homes and dry grass. ‘Climate change,’ John tells me. ‘It makes our businesses hard.’
The first house we visit belongs to Deborah. She sees us in the distance and starts running towards her compound, carrying a chair for me to sit on. Her home is typical of the rest in the village; a dusty plot of earth surrounded by small, thatched huts–each one a separate room with a separate function. Deborah shakes my hand and smiles shyly as I compliment her on her Village Enterprise t-shirt. She tells me that the Business Savings Group all saved to buy matching t-shirts. I am told to sit on the chair, and Siobhan perches on the tree trunk that serves as a second seat.
‘No Siobhan!’ I tell her, ‘Deborah is the grown up, so she gets to sit down!’ Siobhan rolls her eyes at me and disappears to play with some of the children that have been following us since we left.
‘I used to be the one who begged for food at my neighbors,’ Deborah begins. ‘But now that I have a business, I can feed all my children.’ As she says the last part she visibly grows in stature. I ask her what her business is, and she describes that after Village Enterprise’s training she interviewed her neighbors and found there was a demand for fish.
‘That’s right,’ John confirms. ‘Everyone comes to Deborah’s house now when they want to buy small fish.’
Deborah has seven children, and is so proud she can now feed them and afford medicine. As we walk to the next house I ask John what this means for gender relations and whether it caused any problems. ‘Oh no. Actually, we men were having a lot of pressure to get money for the family and we are happy it is now a team effort!’
The crowd of children following us is growing in number and Siobhan takes my hand proprietarily. Emboldened, another little girl pushes forward from the group to take my other hand, and the rest trip along happily at our heels.
‘This is Janet,’ John says, introducing me to an older woman when we arrive at the next household. ‘She is also a Village Enterprise participant.’
Janet is enthusiastically whooping and waving her arms. She pulls me into one of her huts and my eyes take a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness. One side of the hut is portioned off with a blanket hanging down. She reaches underneath and finds what she is looking for–a plastic basket. Opening this she shows me a mat, some plates, and some mugs. John is poking his head in the doorway. ‘She is showing you what she bought with her SWAP savings!’
‘Wow! They are very beautiful!’
Janet nods in delighted agreement and wants to be photographed with her new belongings.
Siobhan meanwhile has badgered one of Janet’s adult children to shake some mangoes from the tree. ‘Shiv! They’re not ripe!’ the man says in futile protest, even as he starts shaking the tree. Siobhan just shrugs, concentrating on trimming her fingernails with a razor blade she found on the floor. A couple of mangos fall down.
‘I’ve just realized!’ the man says, handing them to her, ‘At dinner last night you said that expecting mothers like unripe mangos… your Mum is having another baby?!’
John smiles at this sideshow and turns his attention back to me and Janet. ‘Village Enterprise has really changed this community,’ he says. Janet adds something as I show her the photos I have taken on my phone. ‘She says she was the one playing the drum when you were dancing,’ he translates. ‘And she will do it again later.’ My big smile is swept aside by an enthusiastic hug before we proceed to the next household.
‘This must be the last one,’ John tells me. ‘Philomena will be waiting for us.’
Siobhan’s hand is now sticky from mango juice, adding to the layer of sunscreen, sweat, and dust I am coated in. ‘We are lucky because you have come to see us, Auntie,’ she confides as we trek along the path, side-by-side.
‘No,’ I correct, ‘I am lucky because I have come to see you.’
Siobhan pauses a moment, squints up at me, and then nods at the veracity of this statement. ‘Yes. You are lucky to come and see us.’
I recognize the owner of the next household from our dancing earlier in the day. Her energy and smile had been unmatched as she danced for joy, not for Instagram.
John says his greeting and then turns to me. ‘This is Alice. Her business is cassava.’
We walk thirty meters behind Alice’s compound and there is cassava drying in the sun, a machine for grinding, and several bags ready to take to market. I ask Alice about her business, and she tells me that this is something that she did before Village Enterprise. I am initially surprised, as we consistently refer to our participants as ‘first-time entrepreneurs,’ but of course. Of course people like Alice aren’t just sitting around waiting for help. Of course they are trying to do something.
‘What’s different now?’
Alice looks puzzled.
‘I mean, compared to before Village Enterprise?’
‘My children are in school and we eat different foods.’
I nod enthusiastically. ‘That’s wonderful! But what made the difference?’
Both Alice and John seem non-plussed by this question. It takes several attempts at asking it in different ways before Alice understands what I am asking. ‘We now make a profit,’ she tells me. ‘And if we are not making a profit, we know we need to change the business.’
‘So the business was not making money before?’
‘No–we didn’t know how to make money.’
‘Or how to know if they were making money,’ John adds. ‘Because they weren’t thinking of profit or record-keeping.’
Alice eyes up the bags of cassava. ‘But even now lots of people are doing cassava. We are thinking that we might change to millet to make more profit. And I have planted greens in my garden for my own household business.’
As we contemplate this decision an elderly gentleman approaches on his bicycle.
‘Ah, this is also John!’ John says. ‘John is one of our savings group treasurers and a village elder, and is joining us for dinner.’
John dismounts and greets us. We say goodbye to Alice, and John pushes his bike behind me. Siobhan has disappeared–hopefully to give some mangoes to her mother before she eats them all herself, although I have my doubts.
‘John has a very good business,’ John the Chairman tells me.
John the Treasurer nods. ‘I sell hides. Skins of animals.’
It’s hard work, he tells me, and no one else wants to clean the skins so everyone knows that he is the one to do it. He has been doing the business for years, but it is only since Village Enterprise that he has managed to make a profit. Before he didn’t know how to run a business–only how to clean hides. He is now doing very well.
‘So well,’ John the Chairman adds as we arrive back at Philomena’s, ‘That he managed to pay for his neighbor to take her son to hospital when he had a motorbike accident yesterday.’ John the Treasurer acknowledges this with only the slightest flicker of his mouth as he props up his bicycle.
Village Enterprise often talks about Ubuntu being our north-star value, and not for the first time I see how brightly this star shines in Opadoi Village. Obviously brighter than I am currently shining, as Harriet takes one look at me and instructs me to bathe before dinner. By the time I return from my bucket shower it is getting dark.
‘Switch off the light,’ Chairman John tells me. ‘We do it natural.’
I obey and the night sky above stretches out with an impossible number of stars. We eat in the moonlight; tearing the chicken with our hands.
‘The whole village says they are sleeping with Auntie Mzungu tonight,’ Harriet says with a laugh. She and Philomena are eating on a mat on the ground with the children, while the men and I sit on chairs in front of a low table. ‘But it is really only me, Ken, and Israel.’
I suspect the fact we shared a room for a night will be a story that Harriet tells for many years to come. And I know that it will be a story that I tell for many years to come.
For today is the day that Opadoi Village helped me to find the missing yellow.