PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — An Uganda Journey, Part 4

One of the key principles of South Sudan Leadership and Community Development is that we operate within the settlement camps through cooperatives. We have three organizers who work within the camps to focus on leadership training, which is part of our work this week, and on community development.

Our focus is to improve the lives of the women, children and orphans who have been most profoundly impacted by the scourge of a civil war by providing them with a source of hope and opportunity.

The life of a refugee is hard. In the past, a refugee was entitled to a patch of land on which to build a traditional round hut, a very small amount of money to build it, a very small plot of land to grow food and a ration of food, which is 2,178 calories worth of food a day. However, because of the influx of refugees in recent years, the United Nations has had to cut that in half, so they receive the equivalent of 1,078 calories a day. If they choose to take the financial equivalent instead of the food, they receive what amounts to $3.25 a month, on which to live. Once a year, they receive a small amount of clothing (maybe two items), and if they are lucky, a pair of shoes. That’s it. They can’t work. The only additional money they have is anything with which they were able to flee or support sent by relatives outside of the refugee camps. As a result, these are truly impoverished people.

Just as a point of comparison, South Sudan is the poorest nation in the world and Uganda is the 15th poorest. South Sudanese refugees are the poorest refugees in the world.  Seventy percent of the residents in the camps are hungry. Many of them are children.

One of the main ways that SSLCD uses the funds we raise is to help with the building of cooperatives to provide the refugees with enough funds to pay for school fees for their children and shoes for their feet, as well as to provide themselves with enough food, so they do not starve.

Among the cooperatives we have supported include a project to provide 50 acres of land to help grow food, so that they have enough to sustain themselves, a granary to mill food, a solar station to provide a place for people to charge their cell phones, if they have them, a salon for hair, a goat and chicken project, a  soap-making group and a place to make craft items.

The impetus for each of these came directly from the groups, formed and organized within the camp, and in true cooperative fashion, they share everything they make between them.

Today, we had a chance to visit several of the cooperatives at Mungula. We saw the granary built with the help and support of the Benton Harbor Rotary. It was incredible to see the teams of people working together and the activity of the granary, as well as the pride of the people working there.

They pool all of their money and share it amongst everyone within the cooperative. However, one of the biggest challenges are gaskets, which continually break and need to be replaced. The cost of a replacement part is about $20 U.S., but it cuts hugely into their profit margin. Unfortunately, people sell poor quality items that break easier, even though they claim to be the stronger gaskets. Personally, I think there is a special place in hell, if I believed in hell, for people who take advantage of refugees.

We also had an opportunity to see the hair salon and women’s gathering place and meet with the women who are part of the chicken and goat projects. They are resilient people, even though they lost many of the kids due to vaccination issues. We are hoping to raise some funds to help them get the proper vaccinations.

Finally, we stopped at the solar project. It is a solar panel on a building that provides charging for cell phones. Even in these parts of Africa, the cell phone is a vital part of a person’s life. But the lack of electricity makes charging it a challenge. Through this cooperative, they have been able to provide a vital service for the community as well as create funds.

As we interviewed individuals about their experiences in the cooperatives and asked them about what they did with the small amount of money that they made, one of the amazing things we found out was that rather than focus on themselves they continually referred back to the community and the lives that are transformed through their work together in cooperatives. So rarely, do you see such selfless individuals who recognize the power of a community working together to enhance the lives of all.

They truly get what the mission of SSLCD is all about. This is not about giving people a “handout.” Our work is about community organizing, empowerment, leadership development and working together to enhance the lives of all. The transformation it provided is awe-inspiring.

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