Where my story begins is when I walked into the African Food and Peace Foundation Annual dinner in 2009. It was then that I was first introduced to Uganda Rural Development and Training and their unique methodology and approach to development. My previous experience with development initiatives and projects in Africa had left me feeling somewhat disillusioned, as they were largely ineffective in bringing about sustainable, long term change.
URDT’s development model was not focused on solving a particular set of problems. It was Ugandan driven, established over 25 years ago and focused on the people being the key to their own development using resources they already have. Over the last 4 years I have talked about and believed in the work of URDT and African Rural University for women (ARU), but experiencing the people and this approach to development in action first hand was nothing short of life changing for me.
"I was extremely impressed with the infrastructure, curriculum and staff of the URDT girls school. It is considered an Elite Boarding School in the district."
While I was in Uganda, my counterpart Angela Christiana, Director of Operations at AFPF and our intern Prince David Okebalama were invited to attend the 2014 Harvard African Development Conference. Some valuable insights from the conference included the overall concensus that the Future of Education and Development in Africa lies in Creative Solutions, Learning Systems accessible to the entire community, the important role of vocational and technical training, entrepreneurship education and a focus on higher education. It was serendipitous. What they were learning from those leaders in African Development at the conference, I simultaneously felt I had been experiencing in action at URDT. URDT has been refining and slowly implementing this very kind of approach to education and development for 27 years, on the 80 acre campus in the various institutions and programs, as well as at the community and district level.
You have heard a great deal about the URDT Girls School. What you may not be familiar with are the URDT Community schools. At the KANYWAMIYAGA Community School, I witnessed a powerful example of what a community can do when they come together. When the community was no longer able to support the school which serves approximately 150 pupils from Primary 1-7
(K-6th Grade), URDT adopted the school. URDT saw this as an important opportunity to pilot their unique
2-generation approach in a community school setting. At first it was difficult for parents to understand the concept of a 2-generation approach, whereby the pupils and parents analyze their current situation and develop a shared vision for a better household and improved quality of life through income generating and joint projects. This example of Learning Systems accessible to the entire community, has been very successful at the URDT Girls’ School, where the creative orientation is a way of life. Many of you heard the inspiring URDT Girls School alumna Catherine Namwezi share her powerful story at the AFPF Annual Dinner last year.
URDT identified that there was a need for an interim step in relationship building with the community and invited parents to work on the school farm to provide much needed food for the pupils two meals per day. Rachel, one of the URDT Epicenter Managers, is giving the crucial guidance, education and leadership to this group of parents. Through this process of working together, learning new agricultural practices and building relationships with the parents, URDT's unique 2-Generation approach is growing roots and conversations with the parents about improving their livelihoods in their villages are now beginning to take place.
While I am still focused on the work in the villages, let me introduce you to two more of the 16 trailblazer Epicenter Managers on their village projects. These Epicenter Managers are African Rural University Graduates who have been hired by URDT as Rural Transformation Specialists and are working in the field with village groups. The way that I would best describe this Epicenter program after experiencing it first hand is comparing it to a residency or fellowship program for doctors at a hospital in the United States. This program is allowing these women to implement their knowledge and build experience in a relatively new profession with the support and guidance of URDT.
Mary Goreth and Resty are both working in facilitating Family Farm Learning Groups in partnership with Danish Organic and Nagamo. Seeing their impact in mobilizing villagers and training them in more effective organic agricultural practices was powerful. Each of these sixteen epicenter managers is working with 6-8 village groups on different projects to uplift the communities, which strongly speaks to the impact of this program. The URDT vision is to have at least one woman rural transformation specialist in every village in Kibaale, Uganda and beyond. The program is in the early stages of establishing itself, but the potential is enormous.
Back on the URDT campus, we spent time at the URDT Vocational Training Institute. Technical training and entrepreneurship education is often something left out of development initiatives. URDT is training students with both employable skills and the skills of starting a business. We had the opportunity to visit 4 of the URDT Institute graduates who have established businesses in Kagadi town. One of these graduates was Beatrice who inspired me with her leadership and presence. We met up with her at her furniture business in Kagadi town where she sells some of the items she makes including office chairs, shelves and coffee tables. She is the only woman to have majored in Carpentry in the last 10 years at the URDT Institute and is paving the way for more women in that profession as a powerful role model. Since 2011 when she was elected to be a District Counselor, Beatrice has been representing and serving women in the sub county of Rugashali. In her role as D.C. she advocates for women in policy issues at the district level.
It was great to get a tour from Dr. Mwalimu Musheshe of the Maize mill, known as the MEPE Project, which is continuing to establish itself and is now producing both human and animal feed. You may remember that a year and a half ago we shared the first pictures of the FAO maize mill machinery arriving on campus. URDT is now supplying high quality seed to rural farmers and working with them on effective agricultural practices in the effort to ensure value addition and supply the mill with high quality maize. Out of 3 sites that were identified by FAO and the Ugandan Government to be supplied with the Mill equipment by FAO, URDT is the only mill that is functioning at this time. This is due to the infrastructure URDT had in place, both human and institutional, and because AFPF invested in this income generating project at two crucial stages in its establishment. The other two sites neither had the infrastructure, nor a partner like AFPF.
URDT’s development model would not be complete without a strong focus on Higher Education. African Rural University is one of two universities for women in East Africa and the only one with a curriculum focused on rural technologies and transformation. We met with the faculty, staff and students of African Rural University and Martha Dolben and I were very impressed by these incredible leaders. In this phase of the university, ARU is focusing on publishing research, the E library is up and running thanks to a special gift by an AFPF donor and new strategies for recruiting students are being explored. ARU is also in the process of applying for their Charter License. On their first day, each ARU student is given a small plot to clear and cultivate. This serves multiple purposes. The students learn to farm and create a lab for new agricultural technologies and varieties including eggplant, irish potatoes, cauliflower, green onion, etc not commonly grown in the district. The plots serve as a Demonstration site for GS students, staff and the broader community who can visit. Their individual plots also provide each ARU student with Income generation. They sell their produce on campus to contribute to their tuition, books and supplies.
I want to close by sharing about a particular girl at the URDT Girls School called Wakisa. I noticed her one of the first mornings at the Foundation Course on campus. She didn’t have a uniform on and was very small and shy. She almost seemed out of place among the confident, articulate, energetic and outspoken students at the girls’ school. She caught my eye throughout the week and on the last day I found a seat next to her. I learned that she was 9 and a half years old and had recently come to the girls’ school. So recently in fact that her school uniform had not yet been delivered. As I sat next to her I was overcome with emotion…How different her life will be with the quality of education she will receive at the URDT Girls School. What a confident public speaker she will become through the drama and arts programs. How she will work with her family on a common vision to uplift their household with joint and income generating projects, and how she will become a respected and valuable resource in her community. Wakisa will raise her village with her leadership. I thought about how she will grow and change every time I see her on my future visits and am overwhelmed with gratitude that we, our African Food and Peace Foundation community, have the privilege and opportunity to be part of these powerful stories of transformation at the individual, family, community and societal level.
I look forward to serving all of you in a richer way following my visit in striving to connect you with the leadership and people of URDT and ARU in a meaningful, authentic and powerful way. In Uganda, they have a saying. On the first day you are a visitor, on the second day you are family, on the third day you are given a hoe and put to work. I look forward to picking up our "hoes" together as we work to continue to deepen our learning and commitment to our partnership. Thank you
Julia Pettengill, Executive Director.