Chapter 18: Mona and Omar’s Village

(Excerpted from Peasants Come Last: A Memoir of the Peace Corps at Fifty (2011), by Dr. J. Larry Brown, Country Director of Peace Corps in Uganda 2008/09)

Lungujja Kitunzi truly fit the image of a village downtown. The self-contained community sat on the outskirts of Kampala, a bustling city of nearly a million and a half. As our driver navigated us through the Friday afternoon traffic, the journey of only several kilometers took an unexpected forty-five minutes. Suddenly we turned off one of the city’s pot-holed roads and onto a dirt path, the approach to a small youth center where Mona and Omar Sharif, one of the occasional married volunteer couples, worked.

In their early twenties, the Sharifs presented an instant picture of a cute, happy couple, she with her smooth skin and piercing dark eyes, he with a head full of closely cropped black ringlets. First generation off-spring of Palestinian American immigrants, Omar and Mona brought to the table far more than a becoming young couple in love. Tremendously hard-working and effective Peace Corps workers in only their first year, they had been able to engage with their Ugandan co-workers and community residents to accomplish a lot.

Our lumbering vehicle moved across a spot of grass to nudge its nose near a rickety fence, behind which we could see the smart-looking but tiny stucco-covered youth center that was the Sharifs’ headquarters. Under a nearby tree sat a mother making beaded necklaces, while her one year old child played at her feet on the colorful blanket that had been spread beneath them. As a disabled attendant hobbled toward us to lock the chain around the gate, we saw Omar standing nearby, talking on his cell phone as Mona came out from the small building to greet us.

Judi and I stepped from the vehicle to engage with the Sharifs and their Ugandan co-worker, Bruce, a young, unmarried man who served as the manager of the center. Smiles were plentiful reflecting the big deal it is for volunteers to be visited in their sites and to have an opportunity to display their accomplishments. One readily apparent success stood nearby, a huge, two-story chicken house that had been built under the Sharif’s guidance right next to the youth center office. Soon after their arrival the young couple realized that the meager income to support programs for village youth needed to be augmented by economically self-sustaining activities. They and their Ugandan colleagues hit upon the idea of raising and selling fryers—three and a half thousand of them at a time to be exact.

Building plans came next, largely drawn by pencil on the back of discarded envelopes. The chicken coop then appeared only days later from donated labor and from mostly donated goods, largely rough-sawn planks that became the walls ventilated by planned gaps and occasional windows covered by screen wire. Supported by upright wooden poles, the roof was thatch, made of the papyrus reeds that are ubiquitous in the wet areas of Uganda. Two stories tall, the henhouse floors were covered with coffee bean husks, a useful locally-produced absorbent that can be re-used later as a garden fertilizer. I had already learned that very little is thrown out in this country, with even tiny bites of food carefully saved for a later snack and even bits of refuse from meals thrown into compost pits. The same was true, I saw, for remaining small pieces of lumber and other building supplies.

Now empty, the twenty by thirty-foot coop had been erected without stakes and with no measuring tapes, yet it looked perfectly square, an imposing two-story building next to the much smaller but tidy yellow-stucco youth center. With justifiable pride, Omar recounted their initial experiment of producing and selling thousands of chickens from baby chicks. The community venture was successful enough that they were able to pay for the construction of the coop and still break even. As they awaited their next arrival of tiny chicks, to be raised and sold in six to eight weeks, they anticipated a better profit for the operation now that all of their original capital outlays had been paid. One lesson they had learned, however, was not to raise so many at once. They now planned to cut back to twenty-five hundred chicks. Even with a maximum fatality rate of 15%, the flock could still turn a profit to support youth center operations.

I had come to see Sharif’s poultry project to better understand its mechanics and to be able to advise other volunteers how to replicate it in their villages. We also had arrived knowing that a key volunteer responsibility was to support youth center programs by engaging with counterparts. Volunteers organized activities that both promoted character-building and healthy habits among children and young people, soon to arrive at the doorstep of the world of HIV/AIDS. The poultry project, in a sense, was a side job to make youth center work possible, but it had grown into an employer of sorts in the area as help was needed from feeding to watering, and vaccinating to slaughtering.

Seeing all that this couple had accomplished in just over a year in country, we were astonished when Mona asked if we had an interest in visiting her health center. Only a five minute walk, we traveled along ocre-colored dirt paths and passed small plots of land worked by old women bent over the ground tending young banana trees. Exiting the path onto a large dirt road lined with dozens of small shops built of unpainted boards, wire and canvas, we traveled a hundred meters to arrive at the health center, a three room structure of only twelve by fifteen feet that had been built in 2005.

At the time of our visit the health center, an outpatient facility treating HIV, malaria, TB and other such diseases, was not operational. It had run out of medicines so the staff, an administrator, a nurse and a once-a-week doctor, were no longer able to work. Its short history had been off-again, on-again as limited funding took its toll both on its provision of services to the community and the health of its patients. Such a problem was not unusual in the developing world as external support often does not last and governmental and private resources do not always fill the gap. Many such empty buildings dotted the landscape of Uganda, memorials to great promises and good ideas that had run up against poverty and lack of infrastructure.

On the floor of this non-operational clinic, however, three women sat on a woven blanket with small piles of objects about them. They were part of a beaded paper necklace-making cooperative that Mona had organized to keep staff and patients busy and hopeful while efforts to resurrect clinic operations unfolded. The women cut colored paper into long strips, less than an inch wide at the bottom to a sharp point at the top, a lengthy triangle that they then tightly rolled from the bottom into a bead that is sealed by glue at the top. These colored beads were then shellacked, dried and strung into nicely designed bead necklaces, a handmade product that is finding markets among tourists as well as in some Western nations. The proceeds, in turn, went to the cooperative for remuneration of the bead makers and for collective projects like purchasing medicines.

The Lungujja Community Health Caring Organization was managed by Max, a Ugandan woman in her late thirties who spoke fast and clearly, partially reflecting her advanced education but also her trips to the West, once to speak at the United Nations. The respect and deep affection between Mona and Max was palpable as each praised the work of the other, Max noting that Mona was teaching the women never to be idle because there always were purposeful things to do. Meanwhile, Mona looked on with admiration as Max showed me clinic books and records, no small accomplishment in a nation where financial records often are not transparent if kept at all.

Walking back to the youth center, it was Omar’s turn to surprise us by further underscoring the productivity of this young couple. Our ambling conversation back through the banana tree-lined path somehow turned to the lack of economic institutions that villagers can utilize for credit and savings. I had recently attended a presentation by two other volunteers who had begun a number of savings and loan cooperatives in several villages, and I was keen to enable others to do the same where they lived and worked. It turned out that Omar knew a bit about such organizations himself, having already worked to initiate one and planning to start still others. I felt myself slightly shaking my head, wondering what more this Peace Corps couple did that they had not yet mentioned.

As we climbed into our vehicle to return to downtown Kampala, I noted that it was almost six on a Friday evening, no doubt almost time for one of the daily prayers of the young Muslim-American pair. But their mind was not on Islam at the time. They excitedly told us that they would be traveling that evening to the village home of one of their co-workers for the weekend. It was Easter weekend, and they had been invited to celebrate it in the village with Ugandan friends.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.