We Will Not Have Begging Widows

In more than thirty years as a widow, I’ve never seen a group work with widows like this. Never.” - Kristin Lokwea Bungatira, Gulu District

Traveling through northern Uganda last week, the long rural roads led us to groups of women, typically waiting under the shade of an enormous tree. They had assembled together because we asked them to meet us as part of our survey of TCON’s agricultural initiatives. In March, we coordinated maize and bean seed to reach over 30,000 similar women- mostly widows, caring for children and orphans, working to rebuild stable lives in this post-conflict region. Now, with the first planting season of 2012 in the books, it was time to see the results of the seed given.

Access to seed is a treasured gift for these women. It is the most immediate way they can begin creating for themselves the means to stand on their own and provide for those in their care: Farming. The symbol of seed, though, is also not lost on these women. A single seed is a picture of the possibility of new life springing up out of nearly nothing: Hope.

Its hard to begin to fathom the impacts of the civil conflicts that extended nearly twenty years in this part of Uganda. We’ve documented the facts and figures elsewhere, but that’s all very different than meeting a woman here face to face and hearing stories of what she endured and lost to war. Unfortunately, I have come to realize, our western image of these people is often stuck in the very conflict that they are trying to rise up from. This debate is ongoing among journalists who cover the region and wonder how to tell Africa’s story differently. (see this great piece from Jina Moore) But when headlines like “Uganda’s Rebels in Murderous Spree” and “Africa’s Forever Wars” dominate the narrative, its no wonder some people begin to believe that countries across Africa will be perpetually helpless in conflict, poverty, and disease.

But the widows I met would like to provide a different headline.

In Lira town, I was greeted by Helen, who leads and organizes the widows we partner with in this district. Lira could be viewed as the gateway to Uganda’s far northern region, at the crossroads of former IDP camps, Karamajong cattle raiding, and LRA atrocities. Helen maintained an understated, kind presence as we spoke about the progress in Lira since the war. Because of TCON, 5,000 women received maize seed here in March, and the results in one season have been very strong. It didn’t take me long, though, to understand how Helen has done much more than just help us coordinate seed recipients.

A pattern emerged among many of the women of Lira. They were very intentional with how they used the harvest: A portion was saved for food at home, another would be used to replant for second season, and some was taken to sell at market where profits would pay children’s school fees and possibly medicine and other needs. Successive seasons with good yields have the potential to dramatically impact a single widow’s poverty and dependency on handouts. This has always been TCON’s strategy concerning agriculture. Even though there were exceptions, the group in Lira largely seemed to be visualizing that progression. “How have these ladies gained perspective beyond today’s needs, and further into the future?” I asked Helen.

“That’s simple,” Helen responded. “We will not have begging widows here. We tell them that from the start. Their mindset has to be towards self-sufficiency.  That’s the model: No begging widows.”

Helen went on to explain the power widows have in numbers to begin to change the culture that has marginalized them. Land disputes are a critical issue in Uganda right now, and far too often widows are chased of their former husband’s land by in-laws that consider them a liability. Helen recently began showing up with groups of widows at these homes and telling them, “This woman will not be scared away. We will pursue legal channels if you try and threaten her.” Helen is boldly determined to challenge past assumptions about a widows place in society.

TCON’s country director Elotu Joseph has often said, “There has to be a commitment from people to come out of poverty in our projects”. I’ve observed a different philosophy in many NGO’s and organizations who believe that the primary commitment must come from the west and donors. No doubt, TCON depends on the generosity of donors to provide the capital for these kinds of programs. But without commitment at the recipient level, that investment will certainly be lost. After a week of surveying gardens, visiting farmers, and interviewing beneficiaries, it is clear what these women are capable of doing.

I’m not naive to the complexities that exist in our mission to fight poverty in Uganda. I’m still just beginning to learn the impact war had on the people in this context, and I would never assume to fully understand. Perhaps that is why these women’s resilience and courage to work for a hopeful future beyond their inconceivable trauma is so inspiring. It is the narrative worth telling above the other storylines. It is the headline I hope to share.

We will be sharing more about the 2012 Agricultural Initiatives in the coming weeks on the blog.  Check back for updates and keep up with more regular TCON news via our twitter feed @TconUganda