Issue #4: Bukonzo Joint
Sarah Genelle // Teddy Ithungu
As a thank you for continued support this year, we wanted to share a full interview from our current issue of Got a Girl Crush Magazine to show the breadth and diversity of women and issues covered. Each annual print magazine, closer to an artists’ book, is beautifully designed, features compelling interviews with women who are doing amazing things and filled cover to cover with work by incredibly talented artists. Got a Girl Crush is made by women, about women, for everyone. Please consider picking up a copy at shop.gotagirlcrush.com or from any of our stockists.
Nearly four years ago, Sarah and I were first introduced, not because of our (soon to be realized) cast of friends in common, but because we stood at the same bus stop in the morning, with our to go coffees from the same coffee shop, shared a kind smile and were bound to share the bus ride home after work. I don’t know that we actually shared a word until we had dinner at our mutual best friend Anne’s house. From road trips to West Texas and camping in New Mexico to scheming up day trips and travel plans on a daily basis, the three us became nearly inseparable. The instant connection with Sarah is one that anyone who has met her experiences, one that drew us to travel 9,000 miles to visit her in a small village in Western Uganda last Spring. After Anne and I visited Sarah, traveling around the country for two weeks and ending our time in her remote village, Kyarumba, at the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains, it was amazing to see the bonds she had already formed. As she walked us down the dirt road into her village, people greeted her in Lhukonzo, the local language, stating “You have been lost,” which she hears every time she walks back into the village even after just a few days away.
As a testament to the connections Sarah creates through her travels, I asked Sarah a few questions about her experience thus far, while she interviews Teddy, a local woman who works at Sarah’s work site, Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union.
Christie Maclean: Hi Sarah! Okay, so tell me: where did you grow up and where have you traveled?
Sarah Castagnola: I was born in Juneau, Alaska and moved to Northern California when I was two. I was ten when my parents accepted positions working at an International school in Spain. Between the ages of 10 and 18, I lived in Spain, Indonesia, Connecticut and the Dominican Republic. This was the beginning of my life long love of traveling. I moved to Oregon to attend university and stayed in Oregon for ten years with two to four months breaks in Argentina, Ghana, Nicaragua and Indonesia.
CM: So you joined the Peace Corps in April 2013. Tell us more about your work and day-to-day life there.
SC: In December 2012, I received an invitation to serve as a community economic development volunteer in Uganda. I now live in the town of Kyarumba (cha-ROOM-ba) in Western Uganda. I live about 30 kilometers from the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am working with a coffee cooperative with over 5,000 farmers called Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union. We are largely a women run organization, 85% of our farmers and the majority of our board are women. I live in cooperative housing built by the farmers. In front of the compound is our coffee warehouse. On market days, women carry 50-kilo sacks of coffee on their backs down from the mountain barefoot. My village is a 40-minute drive on a dirt road after you turn off from the paved road. If you drive into the village in the morning, women are heading to the fields with a jerry can balanced on their head, a plow on their shoulder and a baby on their back. It always amazes me how strong women are here.
When you walk by women cooking outside on their charcoal stoves they always call out, “Asa thulye,” which translates to, “Come let us eat.” It doesn’t matter how little food they have or if you are full, it is what you do in a village. You take care of your neighbors as though they were your own family. This type of generosity, despite overwhelming poverty is truly inspiring.
CM: What do you value most about your time in Uganda?
SC: The best part of my experience in Uganda is the relationships I’ve formed. Generally, women in my village are married by 18, usually younger and have their first child before 20. You are not considered a woman until you have a family. As a single woman with no children, I have become everyone’s adopted daughter. People take care of me, look out for me and check in on me. This is both a heartening and challenging aspect of living in a communal culture. This is very different from United States cultural norms. Personal space and privacy are nonexistent here. If I don’t open my door by 8 am on a Sunday, people knock on my door and ask if I am sick. I feel very safe and loved but if I need alone time, I take a weekend break away from the village.
While Anne and I were in Sarah’s village, Teddy welcomed us immediately, inviting us to her home for a true Ugandan meal. We sat with Sarah, Teddy and a few of their colleagues for hours, telling stories while people stopped by to say hello and welcome us to their village.
SC: Thanks for letting me interview you Teddy. I guess we will start with the basics, how old are you? Where were you born?
Teddy: I am 38. I was born in Bwete. Let me go get my documents.
[It turns out Teddy is 39, not 38. Her official documents also say she was born in Musasa not Bwete. This lack of information is common here. Details that most Americans consider important to personal identity is not really important here. This also includes spelling of names and towns. My town of Kyarumba is spelled three different ways. After two years here, Ive yet to find the correct spelling.]
SC: What do you do for a living?
Teddy: I farm. I have farms for coffee and bananas. I have 618 coffee trees on eight acres of land. I have a eucalyptus plantation and ducks, hens, goats and three pigs. I am a community worker and a Gender Action Learning System (GALS) trainer in Bukonzo Joint. I am a teacher at Musasa Primary levels 1-7 and all subjects at a government school. I own a motorcycle. I rent it out for 10,000 UGX ($3) a day. I buy and sell beans and coffee from others.
SC: How did you get your land?
Teddy: I sold coffee. I also got a loan from Bwete cooperative, a cooperative of Bukonzo Joint. I bought this land for 1.5 million UGX ($500).
SC: How many children do you have and how old are they? Where is their father?
[After a 20-minute conversation in Lhukonzo with friends observing our interview, she tells me the age and dates of her four children and changes them a few times. I ask to see papers to verify her oldest child’s age, however they were lost during the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) war. ADF attacked this area until the late 90s and forced many people to leave their mountain homes and head down to the town for protection. Many of the mountain homes and farms were ransacked and burned.]
Teddy: I have four children. I don’t know where their father is, he’s just in the world. He left when Mary was six months. I hear he’s marrying other wives, then he goes and he marries another. I don’t know.
SC: Does he help financially with the children?
Teddy: No, I have educated my children. I do business. I have sold everything, except tobacco. Sugar canes, beans, sweet, fish. From that process I have survived. I learned how to make profits and seasonal calendars. Like, this is the time to buy beans and you wait for the right time to sell your commodities. Like today I have bought beans and I’ll keep it and then wait a time and sell that. I also look at quality. Beans and coffee if you have quality you get high price.
SC: Who lives with you now?
Teddy: I live with Masereka Gofred. He is an orphan from Kitabona. Masereka is living with me because he had no parents or place to stay, so I brought him here. Christine Ithungu is a daughter to my step-mother. Her school is 12 kilometers from home to school. They request she stays with me so she is near the school. In our culture we usually do like that. We stay with people from different areas. They stay like my family. Like an orphan, how can you say that he should pay rent?
SC: You volunteer on all sorts of projects in the community. How did you get interested in volunteer work?
Teddy: During 1996-1997 I took a course called Change Agent for six months. I learned about savings groups and how to volunteer in the community. I also learned how to plan time from morning to night. After that course I got a loan through my cooperative for a teaching certificate. My volunteer activities have created friendship. I volunteered for five years at Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA). Now they contacted me and I passed a test. I will start to teach good agronomic practices.
SC: What’s your daily life like?
Teddy: I wake up at 5:30 so I can I get water and put in pottery filtration system. (This is another one of her many community projects she started during a typhoid outbreak during floods last year. Most people drink water directly from the river causing many water borne illnesses). I put water over fire and sweep. I wash the plates from the night before. I water the coffee seedlings in my nursery bed. I prepare water for the ducks and hen. By 7:40 I am at the school in class. It’s a 15-20 minute walk to school. I get home from school at 6 pm, collect wood for the fire stove and prepare dinner. I fetch water from the river Nyamugasana. I eat around 9 or 9:30. I prep for school or I do work for my organization (Musasa Lower Cooperative). I go to bed at 10.
SC: Is your life like other women in Kyarumba or different?
Teddy: It is somehow different. It is different because I have to cater myself by myself only. It is all provided by one, it’s Teddy.
SC: How did you get involved with Bukonzo Joint?
Teddy: I started with Bukonzo Joint in 1997 during the Uganda Change Agent course. After finishing this course, my colleagues and I sat together and thought of bringing our mother organizations together and we started a savings and credit scheme in 1998. Bukonzo Joint started in 1999. Bukonzo Joint provides microfinance service to its members and has over 72 active savings groups. I was a multi-purpose trainer. I trained in bookkeeping, Gender Action Learning System (GALS), agriculture and group formation. That was through the effort of Baluku Paineto, he was the one who mobilized us to join Change Agents. Paineto is the current Managing Director and Founder of Bukonzo Joint Cooperative Union. I also work a lot with my dear friend Joseph Kasibirehe.
SC: Why is it important for you to work with other women?
Teddy: What makes me important to these women is I am an educated person so I have to give them the skills I have. In my marriage I suffered, so I help them. I help them with savings and guide them to save money. I teach those who are suffering in marriage to be self reliant. When you are empowered as a woman you can stay without a man, and leave and do things on your own, and support others.
SC: What are the biggest struggles for women here in rural Uganda?
Teddy: Women have a heavy workload. Women access land but they don’t control it. You can bring up animals, you can dig on land but when you want to sell it the man will say it’s not yours. There is coffee you care for but you cannot pick it. The man can give to another wife.
Government policies aren’t being implemented. They can say a woman has a right to this but they don’t cater for human rights. Those laws are not working but they are there. Government policies say we have a right to land. For instance, they say women have a right to have half the land in divorce. But if a woman divorces, women have no right to the land. If you go to government officials, they look like this: (scowls). Most of the men here are polygamists. They have two to three wives. When a man has multiple wives he cannot cater for them or give children education. Women are suffering paying fees to children. Out of 100 men, 30 can pay but 70 do not. Gender education has helped a lot or women would be seriously suffering.
SC: What are you of the most proud of?
Teddy: I am proud of my education because I have been educated at an old age with my children. I am proud of Bukonzo Joint because Bukonzo Joint has helped me up to where I have reached. I have my own house and land. My land is in the name of Ithungu Teddy.