Day 3

Ruhiira Village Visit

  • Frances L. Shavers
  • Father Jenkins

Frances L. Shavers
Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the President


Uganda is a beautiful country. It is January, and the sun is bright and warm. Pelicans sit atop tall trees; the midnight sky is peppered with stars of all sizes; and as far as the eye can see, vegetation is thick and green. People are kindhearted and polite; some are perhaps a bit more curious than others to know what brings Americans to their area, particularly in rural villages. As an African American making my first trip to Africa, I have been curious to learn about a culture much different than any I have known growing up in Texas or now living in South Bend. In a few short days, I have been touched by the challenge facing many who live here and inspired by their faith and tenacity.

We spent today visiting Ruhiira, a small but densely populated area of Uganda located approximately three hours by car from Kampala, where a Millennium Village Project has been operating for approximately ten months. Compared to village projects in Ethiopia and western Kenya, this is a relatively young site. Despite this relative newness, there was progress and promise.

We were met on our arrival in Mbarara by the Millennium Development Village (MDV) team, which was led by John Okorro. Over twenty MDV staff, mostly Ugandans who grew up in or near Ruhiira, greeted us and presented an overview of their goals and efforts to date. Ruhiira, they described, was a village of high hunger and malnutrition, poor sanitation, inadequate water supply, limited medical resources, a high prevalence of infectious diseases, poor school conditions, and restricted access to wood, electricity and other fuel sources. These were only some of their challenges, and they only give, according to Mr. Okorro, a general understanding of the depth and breadth of the challenges that villagers in Ruhiira face on a daily basis.

Education was one of the Ruhiira project’s major goals but also arguably its greatest challenge. Resources are scarce; teachers are difficult to find and retain; demands to contribute to the family’s labor severely limit the time that students can devote to school and their energy levels when they are able to attend. Girls, on average, only reach the fourth grade while boys generally achieve a sixth grade education. One of the team members, Hilda, an energetic and outspoken Ugandan woman, explained that most young girls are encouraged to leave school and by their early teens, may be married and pregnant. Hilda continued to describe how she had been able to continue her studies because of the encouragement and support of her parents, both of whom were educated. “My mother,” Hilda shared, “instilled us with courage and my father refused to let us be convinced by others to drop out of school.” Today, she serves as the education coordinator for the Ruhiira project and also leads efforts to address issues of gender inequality. In speaking and laughing with her over lunch, I found a sisterhood, apart from the shared color of our skin. I was, in fact, reminded of many of the women I know, particularly Notre Dame students, who would like to determine their own path in life, perhaps choosing a professional career; perhaps choosing to have a family; perhaps choosing to do both. Despite growing up and being raised in markedly different settings and cultures, most of us, as Hilda described, wish to be heard.

Following the presentation and a brief lunch, our group joined the entire Ruhiira Millennium team for a one-hour drive aboard four-wheel drive trucks to the sites of the project office, school, health center, and a local farmer’s home. The narrow, unpaved dirt road that leads from Mbarara to Ruhiira winds alongside banana-tree covered hills and valleys, and is marked with large stones, roots and potholes. Throughout the drive, we passed women carrying large containers of water and men pushing bikes, carrying bananas or other fruits up steep hills. Bikes carried bunches of bananas like saddle bags strapped over horses as men bent to near ninety degrees to propel forward. Some wore shoes or sandals; some were barefoot. It was impossible to tell how far they had come or how much farther they must travel, but likely their day would be long.

Students at Ruhiira

Our first stop was the school site. Like each of our other stops, it quickly became apparent that this project had not been imposed on community members without respect for their wisdom and talents and without recognition of their cultural uniqueness. In fact, the work was led and supported by members of the community. At the school, the head master, joined by a group of approximately fifty teachers, parents, and students, described the school’s significant strides over the past six months. As wide-eyed, giggling children inched closer and closer to our group, we heard how student enrollment had increased from 250 to over 400 students. High absenteeism of both students and teachers was decreased significantly after the school began serving breakfast. Now, instead of arriving at the school at 8:30 a.m., school begins with a hot meal at 7:30 a.m. Efforts were underway to build more latrines, improve the school’s modest kitchen facilities, and level the road leading to the school. In all of these activities, members of the community were active in setting project goals, establishing priorities, and delegating the work among themselves. They dug ditches and carried stones for an extended latrine system; they made bricks for a new classroom building; and they identified and covered the costs to hire additional cooks and custodial workers. These men and women, many having walked miles up and down the same rocky road that we drove, wore their Sunday best to come share their work with us. When the project coordinator informed them that the Ugandan government had recently agreed to allow the school to hire new teachers, the group applauded vigorously. Their pride was apparent.

School planning

Before our departure, a group of women, all members of one of the school’s multiple planning committees, bid us farewell with song and dance. The chorus of the song, as translated to us, welcomed us to the school and expressed gratitude to God for our visit. As we shook hands with our hosts, the drummers began playing, and the women continued to sing as two young girls enthusiastically performed a dance.

These days in Uganda have been remarkable. I have learned a great deal about this country and the Millennium Village project and most importantly, about how the project works collaboratively with community members to seek lasting change. It is true that much work must be done. The Ruhiira village is a wonderful model for the work that lies ahead for the village that will partner with Notre Dame. We are heartened as we continue this trip.

Father Jenkins
President of the University of Notre Dame

Fr John with children

On Monday, January 8, we took a three and one-half hour trip to Mbarara in Southwestern Uganda, not far from the border with Tanzania. We checked into a hotel, and met with members of the Millennium Village team for lunch and a brief presentation on their work with the community of Ruhiira Village. We then took a 45-minute trip south over dirt roads, avoiding pedestrians, bikers, and cattle, winding up switchback roads, to the highlands of Ruhiira. We happened to arrive on market day, when the village center was full of shoppers and vendors selling everything from produce to racks of colorful cloth. We were immediately surrounded by onlookers who stopped to observe the strange visitors, and particularly by the ever-present flock of small children for whom we were the day’s entertainment. We met in a room and spoke of the challenges and successes of the Millennium Village Project, which began only ten months ago.

Most impressive for me is the way the Millennium Village Project works hard to involve the local community in discussing challenges and seeking solutions. The process is slower and more difficult this way, but has a much better chance of achieving sustainable change. The community elects a Millennium Project leadership council, which includes both women and men, and there is much discussion with them and with the wider community about the major problems and possible solutions.

David Siriri

David Siriri, an affable Ugandan with a Ph.D. in agro-forestry, is the science coordinator for the project and he lives in the village. He explained that the major immediate challenge for the community is the lack of potable water. There is sufficient water available for irrigation, but it is too mineralized with iron and fluoride to be drinkable. The villagers now pay 500 shillings (30 cents) for five liters of water. In a village in which nearly half the people live on less than a dollar a day, this is a great burden. David explained that they are now looking at pumping water, which they could do for roughly 50 to 100 shillings (3 to 6 cents) for five liters. This is the sort of practical challenge for which solutions must be found if the villagers are to rise out of debilitating poverty.

Another issue is the introduction of effective agricultural practices to increase the yield for farmers from limited land. The local farmers are generally not well educated, and are skeptical about introducing new techniques. We visited the farm of a farmer who had been a school teacher and spoke excellent English. He had set aside a plot of maize and on one swath simply broadcast seeds; on a second, he planted the seeds in rows; in the third swath, he used only one type of fertilizer; and in a fourth swath, he used two types of fertilizer. The size and health of the maze was dramatically better in each successive swath, and the yield dramatically improved. The fact that this experiment was conducted by a respected local farmer will, no doubt, be highly persuasive for his fellow farmers. It is this kind of education for farmers that will likely make lasting change possible.

Ruhiira farmer

Similar efforts were being made in education, health care, and micro-financing. Whether these interventions will be successful in lifting this village out of poverty is yet to be seen. But the interventions make good sense, and the villagers have responded enthusiastically. The Millennium Village project set a goal of funding their effort with 70% contribution from outside the country, 20% from the government, and 10% from the village itself. Although the contribution of the village community is relatively small, it is important that they show their commitment through such a contribution. Yet the response of this community has been so enthusiastic that in the school renovation project, which is now underway, the community’s contribution in goods and services was near 25%. The community is not a passive recipient of benefaction from elsewhere. They are eager to take steps to improve their lives. Nearby communities are now clamoring for similar measures in their villages.In this village we saw the positive changes which can be made, and the hope and enthusiasm which can be generated, in a relatively short time. The Notre Dame village will begin soon in the district of Nkozi, which we will visit on January 9. We look forward to the project which begins in March.

children at health center

Our last stop in Ruhiira was at the local health clinic. As the doctors talked about improvements in health care, I scanned the group of children who were looking on and occasionally giggling. One girl who looked about seven years old caught my eye. She was very thin, but her belly was distended and on her scalp were sores. She was obviously suffering from severe malnourishment. All the data about poverty in this land were not as powerful as the eyes of this young girl, playing and laughing, in a rural community so desperate for a better future. It was a privilege to witness their efforts and seek ways to contribute.