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May 12, 2010

Some settling may have occurred. Please shake well…

By Alexandra Arch

I suspect that few things can shake the senses — the soul really — like traveling. More specifically, traveling to Africa. A first-timer to Africa, I have landed in Kampala, Uganda.
 
Drawing on my experiences in other exotic venues, I am no stranger to the daily trappings of life: the sheer multitudes of people, the chaos that some call streets, the assault of the senses leaving it hard to blink, the colors and beauty of women’s stature and clothing, the wily animals running amuck, the action of the markets. Somehow, every-how, this is different. The alternating verdant and dry landscape is riveting, but it is mostly the people I can’t tear my eyes away from. There is a rare and encompassing warmth exuded by the denizens of Kampala that has nothing to do with the fact that the heat has reduced me, at moments, to a puddle.
 
Being embedded with the folks of Opportunity International has brought several things immediately to light. First, my secret that I was hoping to conceal for several more days at least has been revealed: I am not a finance person. In fact, I know very little, to date, on the inner working of microfinance or the banking industry at large. It is apparent that I will not utter enlightening pearls or offer earth shattering commentary on loan interest rates during a roundtable discussion, but I am gleaning every piece of information I can from the discussions around me in order to better understand the initiatives and strategies of Opportunity. You see, I am a humanist. My brain clicks when I can translate these concepts to people and see how it affects their lives. And that end of the equation I can confirm — Opportunity is changing people’s lives. Handing up instead of handing out. I saw it today.
 
“I touch the future. I teach.” This quip was passed on to me by Opportunity International CEO Bill Morgenstern tonight. As of January 2009, Opportunity was serving 41 active school-owner loan clients in Uganda. We began reflecting on our experiences visiting two of these Opportunity clients today — the Kasubi Parents Primary and Secondary School and the Real Quality Junior School. There is no way to escape the remarkable evolution of these proprieters’ humble beginnings as compared to the relative successes they enjoy today as a result of thriving schools. Also as a result of microfinance.
 
Ms. Florence Senkungu is a soft spoken women with a big presence dressed immaculately in a red two piece suit and seemingly nonplussed by the heat of the midday sun. She is tired, overworked but indelibly committed to her job. We sat on a long bench outside of her office — much like where you would sit when you were in trouble and called to the principal’s office — and she began to tell her story. When her husband died in 1992, she  began a school in her meager home in order to generate revenue. One of those students was her son. Little by little, she began growing the number of students and began borrowing from Opportunity International six years ago to build much-needed facilities such as classrooms and dormitories as well as hiring qualified teachers. Underneath the metal roofs, the classrooms are dark, with single bulbs hanging from the rafters and rudimentary desks lined up two-by-two all facing the large chalkboard at the head of the classroom. Today, these classrooms hold 200 students in the primary school and 350 in the secondary school, and employ 39 people, 29 of which are teaching staff. In addition to a library, science lab and computer room on site, the school also operates a nearby farm to help feed the students.
 
What is one of Florence’s success stories? Today her son is a medical doctor. It all started in a one-room schoolhouse.
 
Our second stop was the Real Quality Junior School owned by the engaging Mr. and Mrs. Anatoli and Lydia Mbarebaki, whose smiles frequently light up the room. With the first of several loans through Opportunity International in 2004, the couple (he is a businessman and engineer and she is a teacher) began with crumbling facilities and approximately 60 students. They have quickly upgraded the buildings, but generated more and more students. Today they have more than 850 students ranging from nursery to primary seven class. The classrooms are warm and welcoming with examples of the students’ diligent work plastering the walls. The school employs 40 people, 30 of which are accredited teachers. Most recently, the proprietors have begun buying up the land around the school to add more facilities such as boarding housing as well as additional classrooms. “Our success is because of the work we are doing…according to the way [the students] were performing, people were impressed and they continued giving us children,” Anatoli said.
 
Which brings me back to the second thing that has bubbled to the surface: with only the briefest of time spent so far with the Opportunity team, it is difficult to not be bowled over by the sheer talent at the helm of the organization. These are folks that are passionate about helping, and that channel of helping is microfinance. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they are also major players in both the banking and business fields. Any coach would be thrilled to no end to see these folks sitting on the bench waiting to get in the game. Of course, right beside them are the strong-willed, intelligent ladies that serve throughout the organization in positions such as loan officers and have become the ambassadors of the organization to numerous clients — the true face of the operations and the epitome of the hard work and successes of clients who acquire the funds for a bicycle in order to get their goods to the market, those who start candy shops in their home, who build an addition to their schools. Many have turned drastic situations, however slowly, into profitable, empowering enterprises. It is people getting ahead — not just those who have money to make more money, but those who have no money being able to make money…and beginning to build a quality life.
 
Signing off with one of my favorite notions, and one that Opportunity International also supports: “Both men and women play substantial roles in African economies, but women represent the greatest source of untapped potential in Africa. Improving the economic status of women has an immediate ripple effect throughout the community and a lasting ripple effect through generations.” The effects of empowering women is akin to the sun breaking through the clouds during the monsoon season — educate women, and you educate a community. I can’t wait to see more of this in action tomorrow.

Check back in to Opportunity’s blog to read the next update from Alexandra Arch in Uganda.
 
Alexandra Arch sends us her reflections and insights from her Insight Trip in Uganda. Arch is a freelance writer based out of Bend, Ore. An avid outdoor enthusiast, she also is trying her hand at operating a farm and raising animals. The author is particularly looking forward to shopping in the African markets and floating on the Nile.