PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — An Uganda Journey, Part 7

One of the key objectives of our visit to the settlements was to meet the people involved in the South Sudan Leadership and Community Development cooperatives and share their stories. These cooperatives are what set SSLCD apart from most aid organizations because they are literally organized by the refugees and for the refugees, as we seek to empower their leadership and community building skills. They become active participants in their own economic development and income generation.

The first group with whom we visited in Olua was the soap-making group. Their ingenuity was apparent by the fact that they had moved from making bar soap to liquid soap during the pandemic because of supply chain issues with the palm oil that was essential for the bar soap.

Soap is a vital quantity in the settlements, especially during both the pandemic and the Ebola outbreak that just ended in January. But even though it is essential to survival, they are not provided with any cleaning products by the United Nations or other relief organizations, so this cottage industry was responding to a definite need.

Thirty women were involved in this cooperative. SSLCD provided the funds for their training and the initial start-up costs, and they poured the profits into buying more resources to make soap as well as sharing it with everyone in the co-op.

When I asked what they used the money for, the four women with whom I met — Mary, Monica, Adut and Mary — told me that it allowed them to feed their children and if their children became sick, to help pay for their medicine. Basically, it keeps their children from starving or dying of treatable infections.

One of the Marys told me, through our interpreter, that being part of the cooperative “really makes us to be responsible to other people to contribute to the well-being of our children. It makes me feel like I am able to be a provider.”

Monica said to me, “Life here is risky. It is hard to survive. This co-op gives me and my children a chance to survive and it helps me to feel like I am giving them the chance to live.”

Our next stop was the solar project, which in part focuses on charging cell phones. It may surprise people that refugees have phones, but they are essential to keep people connected with relatives who are still in South Sudan or those who have moved to other countries, some of whom provide additional funds to help with survival in the camp and which provides the money that exchanges hands in the camp.

Cell phone service in Uganda, and I believe much of the developing world, is different than in the U.S. and Canada. You don’t buy into a cell plan to get service. Instead, the best comparison would be to a car, roads and gas. You buy a car, you use the roads that are provided, and you pay for gas to keep you on the road. In Uganda, you buy a cell phone. I spoke to one woman who bought her phone for $1 three years ago and it was still working. The cell system is provided for free, like roads, but you buy usage time to place calls, just like you would with gas.

One of the other pieces of the solar project that I absolutely loved was that it was used to purchase an old TV that could get satellite service for soccer games, so that people (largely men) could gather in the hall to watch the World Cup or Premier League games. I loved this because it is such a powerful reminder that people are people. They love their sports and want to take part in these normal events. I believe understanding this is essential to grasping our shared humanity and why the need to respond to support is not driven by “pity” but compassion for people who are only where they are by the freak nature of where they are born and into what setting.

After this, I had a chance to visit with Nebol Deng, who worked with the chicken project, a woman with a true sense of what it means to be a small business person.  She spoke of the challenges they faced, including the struggle to obtain and to pay for vaccines and the poor quality of the feed.

She rejoiced in what the 12 women in this cooperative had been able to do with the chickens SSLCD helped them purchase while at the same time lamenting the challenges they faced. She hopes to expand their profit-sharing so that they are able to get more chickens and as such more funds. Her goal was simple. ”I want us to get more chickens so that we can get enough to eat and not be hungry.”

Our last visit was with the joy-filled bead and craft cooperatives. SSLCD helped provide the funds to purchase the supplies, but the 30 women provided the skill, eye for beauty and spirit that leapt off the embroidery and beadwork, making them works of art.

These women get what it means to be a cooperative and work together. When I asked how it felt to be  part of a cooperative, Rebecca responded, “One hand does not clap. It does not make a sound. When we come together to do our work, we all benefit from each other in times of emotional support, sharing ideas, expressing our joys and our shared experiences.”

Elizabeth was grateful to be able to do meaningful work because “just sitting idly be doens’t help us. WIth this we are able to do what we couldn’t do by ourselves. When some children couldn’t pay for school, before no one could help. But now, we can help ourselves. Together we can make a difference.”

Martha added to the conversation that “being part of this co-op has made us love ourselves and the love of this group makes us feel good about each other and who we are. We live in a very difficult situation. It is very hard and we don’t want to just be given something. We want to work and feel good about ourselves. This is the best support we could get. We use what we make to change our lives for the better.”

I left these visits overwhelmed and humbled by the things that unite us, like the desire to be productive and provide, as well as being reminded how fortunate I am to have been born in the time and the place I was. This is nothing but the dumb luck of the universe, not my own doing. And because of that I have a responsibility to them.

Recognizing my own privilege that is not the result of my own merit makes me even more committed to elevating the voices of these women and doing whatever I can to promote the work of South Sudan Leadership and Community Development.

These women understand that a co-operative means all people working together for the greater good, and I know God has called me to work with them to help them help themselves. That this is not my privilege, but my responsibility.

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