Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Simple happenings in Northern Uganda

It is a very exciting time to work with Mango Fund.  The impact-investing fund based in Kampala, Uganda was started in 2011 in an attempt to fill the “missing middle” - a reference to the large financing gap left between the micro-finance organizations and large institutional lenders.  The vast majority of Uganda’s SMEs (small/medium enterprises) are left capital starved as the large banks consider them to be too risky for investment.

This past week, my co-worker Grace and I rode with Mercy Corps 12 hours north, to look at investments in Uganda's Karamoja region near the South Sudan border.  Mango Fund has partnered with Mercy Corps to assist us in identifying impactful investments in the region, and attempt to bring sustainable development to a region that has become increasingly reliant on substantial grant aid and hand-outs.  The small, modest businesses in the area rarely fit within Mango Funds' traditional portfolio, yet there is an opportunity to make a tangible impact on a place that seems removed entirely from the 21st century.  While we traveled deep into this region, Grace explained a Ugandan proverb, “we can’t wait for Karamoja to develop” - used when something / someone is taking a very, very long time.  The region is entirely cut off from the electric grid and relies on solar to power its minimal energy usage. During my visit, this energy seemed to be primarily used to watch the world cup in crowded, dimly lit bars.

Over the first few days, Grace and I conducted interviews with local businesses during the day and enjoyed intensive chess training sessions in the evening.  Grace is the Ugandan national chess champion and travels the world to compete.

Karamoja is the most remote place I have ever been, and I was eager to explore.  After finishing up with my interviews in the town of Kotido, I borrowed one of Mercy Corps dirt bikes, went off the main roads, and seemingly stepped back in time.  I placed a star on my starting location on Google-maps and cruised along a curvy dirt road that seemed to extend out towards the distant mountain range.  After riding for a bit, I stopped to take a picture of these women and their village.

When my eyes left my camera, I was startled to find a Karamojan man frantically waving his arms and sprinting towards me.  My first instinct was to jump on my bike and escape through the fields, but even from a distance I could tell he was smiling widely and seemed very eager to meet the mzungu (white man) that had improbably wandered out his way.  His steps became more cautious as he came closer, and I patiently waited for him to approach.  I introduced myself with my Karamojan name given to me earlier that day, Iriyama (the one who welcomes all) Lokiro (the one that brings the rain) - but no matter how many creative approaches I took, I couldn’t get my new friend to share his name.   After a while we both tired of the exercise and I decided I would call him George.

George pointed at my bike and then out towards the mountain.  We understood each other for the first time, a good first step.  I nodded in agreement and pointed for him to jump on the bike behind me.  After a while, he managed to clamber on behind me but insisted on reaching around me to grab both handle bars.  I shook my head in disagreement – trying to explain that we couldn’t possibly drive while he held the throttle.  I pointed for him to grab the metal backing on the seat, but he disagreed and opted to hug me firmly across my chest.  We were finally ready to go.  I started the bike and headed in the direction of the mountain.  The path that started off relatively smooth quickly turned rugged.  George began to hold me so tight I could barely breathe and he laughed wildly as we splashed through shallow creek beds and swerved through the thorny underbrush.

A short time later I hopped off to photograph a picturesque village with the mountains as a backdrop.  It became clear that George didn’t necessarily have a destination in mind and he sat confidently and patiently on my bike. Some local children had worked up the courage to approach and introduce themselves by 
smiling and taking turns bouncing down on one knee in front of me in what seemed to be a sign of respect.  I kneeled in response and paused to take their picture while on the ground.  I then showed them each the picture and slowly zoomed in on each of their faces.  For the second time on my journey, I was startled as they started screaming in delight and rushed to line up and pose for a picture again.  The kids and I continued to giggle as we practiced our new game of posing for a picture, rushing to view the picture, and screaming in delight during photo viewing.  During these few minutes, George had begun curiously tampering with every button, knob, and lever on the bike.  I, unlike George, am no motorcycle mechanic and when I returned, I had no clue how to start the altered bike.  People frequently talk about how dangerous the Karamoja region is, but this was the first time I felt vulnerable.  I was now on foot in rugged terrain several miles from our small Karamoja town with no water and completely reliant on my GPS.  I did have my small “dumb-phone” with a bit of service, but I was very intent on not calling my hosts at Mercy Corps to come rescue me.

George astutely realized he had done something wrong and insisted on running and pushing my bike as I sat and steered.  The photo-kids loved this idea and they pushed George while he pushed me.  Our conspicuous parade attracted the attention of all that we passed, and several others came to join.  We continued along for some time until we hit a large creek bed & I hopped off to ford the stream.  I think at this point my friends tired of me and when I looked back across the stream, everyone had mysteriously disappeared.  In what will ultimately be an anticlimactic ending to my afternoon adventure, I hopped back on my bike, located the emergency cut off switch that George had engaged, and cruised back to Kotido, Karimoja.  

I had thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon adventure and continued my explorations whenever possible as I traveled throughout the region:

Locals of Abim are convinced that “Chief Rock” (seen above right) cannot be climbed. Many have attempted the feat and all have either perished or mysteriously disappeared. I have obtained permission from the clan’s elders to one day try my luck and disprove the myth.

Above is a picture of David, my quiet, mysterious 10 year-old guide that I met on my way to hike a mountain and scope out the "Chief Rock" above.  David and his friends hunt for birds and snakes in these mountains with their homemade bow & arrows.  On our long journey through extremely dense brush and over large rocks, David drank no water and wore no shoes (he now owns two pairs for being a fantastic guide).

Kids that I met during a meeting with an agricultural business in town near the Sudanese border.

When returning from our agricultural visit, I persuaded my Mercy Corps friends to take a detour.  We drove through the remote Kidepo national park and took a game drive until we were surrounded, and then pounded, by a heavy storm.

We stayed for several days in the town of Kabong, a rock climber’s paradise.  Regardless of my discretion, most climbs ended in the town pausing to wave and call out to the “crazy mzungu”.

I continue to ride out and wander whenever possible.

Thank you for reading!

Until my next tough week on the job ;)


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