Monday, July 18, 2011

TOMS Shoes

TOMS Shoes is a for-profit American company which donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes they sell, “one for one,” as their motto states.  TOMS partners with NGO’s worldwide to distribute their shoes to underprivileged children.  Before coming to Uganda I had decided that after assessing the need for shoes in the area, it would probably be a project I would want to undertake, as last year’s HELP team had started the project but never completed it.  From their report it sounded as if they couldn’t continue with the project because they lost all of the data they had collected, but little did I know how difficult this project would eventually become mostly due to bureaucracy, not lost data.

TOMS requires a preliminary qualifying assessment, which we did back in May.  After the preliminary assessment was passed, they sent us an extensive 11 page assessment to fill out and send back to TOMS for approval.  Filling out the assessment does not guarantee approval from TOMS, but if it is approved, they will then send an order form to fill out and return, and then you wait for the shipment to arrive!  Sounds easy enough, but we encountered three huge problems.

The first being storage.  We are expecting to donate 17,000 pairs of shoes.  That’s a lot of shoes.  And they must be stored somewhere.  After searching extensively for a partner capable of storing a huge quantity of shoes, we found Noah’s Ark Children’s Ministry-Uganda, an enormous orphanage which houses, clothes, feeds, and schools over 120 orphans.  They also use their facility as a private school to school and feed around 300 more children.  The orphanage was founded and is operated by an extremely wealthy Dutch businessman named Piet.  The vast facility is quite possibly the most inspiring sight of development work in Uganda I have seen thus far.  The gigantic compound is almost entirely self sustainable, as they grow their own crops and livestock for the meals prepared in their cafeterias for the children.  The kids have an incredible amount of room to play and learn in their wonderful classrooms and fields and jungles, all located at this facility.  When we met with Piet, he was not reluctant to let us use some of his storage space as well as a shipping crate for the shoe storage as long as we were willing to donate a mere 120 shoes (of the 17,000) to his orphans.  Of course we were willing to pay that small price.  Piet was reluctant, however, to partner with us because of the importation costs that would follow.  As an extremely experienced and successful businessman, he gave us a few invaluable tips and insights into the dreaded Ugandan bureaucracy, which brings me to my next point.

The most difficult situation we’ve had to deal with so far is that TOMS Shoes requires that the organization wishing to import TOMS Shoes has duty free (or tax exempt) status in the country of distribution.  HELP International is a registered and recognized 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit charitable organization in the U.S., which unfortunately doesn’t transfer across national borders.  So first off, we need to get HELP International as a registered NGO in Uganda.  Then, we can proceed to get the duty free status for our organization.  But here’s the problem (as Piet explained to us)—duty free status does not exist in Uganda.  There is no such thing as an organization being tax exempt in Uganda.  And I guess it makes sense when a developing country refuses to grant duty free status to an organization, because they want all the tax money they can get their hands on.  In short, if we were to import the shoes without duty free status, we would be paying thousands of dollars on import taxes and the shoes probably wouldn’t end up being free at all.

To remedy the problem, we were first told to make a visit to the URA (Uganda Revenue Authority), which deals primarily with importation and exportation of goods.  When we arrived there, they told us they couldn’t do anything about it and to make a visit to Parliament.  So, we made a contact with a Member of Parliament named Honorary Magyezi Raphael, who deals primarily in the Department of Education.  We set up a meeting with him and he loved the idea.  Just that week they had been discussing in Parliament that last month over 100 Ugandan school children died due to lightning strikes.  In Parliament, one solution they came up with was to get more kids rubber soled shoes, which will help decrease chances of death if someone is struck by lightning.  The only problem for them was that they didn’t know where to get the shoes.  Lucky for them we have a solution!  Honorary Magyezi was excited and scheduled a meeting for us to meet with the Speaker of Parliament, which I guess would be like the John Boehner of Uganda.

Uganda Parliament

On Tuesday we had our big meeting with Honorary Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Speaker of Parliament.  It went well and she seemed pretty committed to getting our import taxes paid for us when the shoes finally come.  The first step though, is to get the NGO status (which she will also assist in speeding along the process). 

Now, we just have to wait to get the proper documentations and then send off the TOMS application for approval.  And if it’s not approved by TOMS, that’ll be a huge bummer.  In any case, check out the TOMS website and buy a pair of shoes from them.  It’ll go to a good cause.

The kids here in Uganda suffer from a lot of different ailments due to not wearing shoes.  If you’re interested in some light reading about the health impacts shoes would make in Uganda, here’s an excerpt from our project proposal to TOMS about why these kids need shoes.

a.            Disease prevention
Hookworms are a major problem in many rural communities in Uganda.  Most people use squat toilet latrines which tend to be extremely unsanitary, especially when people are barefoot and already have cuts on their feet.  Because of the urine and fecal matter which can be all around the squat toilet latrines, hookworms can easily enter the body through the soles of feet through minor cuts.  These problems could be easily prevented if people wore shoes while using the latrines.
Another problem arises through the extraction of jiggers.  If unclean tweezers or other tools are used to extract jiggers, it may also facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS.  By giving shoes to children and decreasing the jigger infestations, the spread of HIV/AIDS in conjunction with jigger removal will also be greatly decreased.
b.            Other health impacts
Jiggers, or Chigoe fleas, are often found in tropical climates, such as Uganda.  They tend to live in soil and dirt, thus making them easily transmittable to impoverished children who live in unsanitary conditions, sleeping on dirt floors, and sharing living quarters with chickens and other domestic animals.  Jiggers cause itching and pain, but are most dangerous because they can lead to severe inflammation, fibrosis, ulceration, lymphangitis, and gangrene, which can cause death.  Through education about jiggers and if the children had shoes, jiggers could be easily prevented and treated.
According to recent news, over 100 school children in the last month have died due to lightning strikes at schools.  Schools are unequipped with lightning rods which help divert the lightning.  Even Uganda’s Parliament has begun to discuss ways to get children rubber soled shoes which can help to greatly reduce the chance of children being killed by lightning strikes.
c.             School attendance
Children with jiggers often find it nearly impossible to walk to school due to the pain and itching.  Many children actually end up dropping out of school because of the problem.  In an article published last year in IPS Africa, Michael Wambi states:
“According [to] the national Department of Education, only 20 percent of pupils who enroll for primary education end up completing Grade 7, the highest level in Uganda’s primary education. Although the department does not have statistics on how many children drop out of school due to jiggers, it acknowledges that the sand fleas are a key contributor to the problem in rural areas.  Some education experts believe the flea epidemic is actually hindering the country from achieving Millennium Development Goal 2 of achieving universal primary education by 2015.”
Not only this, but many children drop out of school due to the stigmatism placed on those with jiggers.  The same article states:
“Eight-year-old Derick Ntalo from Mayuge district in Uganda’s east is one of the many jigger-infected pupils who refuses to go to school because he feels discriminated by his peers. ‘The teacher and the other children are laughing at me,’ he explains why he dropped out of Grade 3 eight months ago.  Local government councillor Charles Mukiibi confirms that absenteeism at schools is high because of the stigma attached to the epidemic: ‘The children are teased because they keep on itching their hands and feet in class and cannot concentrate.’  He believes many more children would be attending primary school in eastern Uganda, if the health department would bring the epidemic under control.”

A picture we took of the consequences of a child not having access to adequate footwear

A picture from the internet of the impact of jiggers on the toes

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bugadu Village

This week I spent living in a small rural village called Bugadu with a local partner NGO called FREDA Africa.  We left Monday afternoon and took a two hour taxi ride north and then another 20 minute boda boda (motorcycle taxi) ride to the village.  Kirk and I packed a duffle bag for the both of us equipped with our mosquito nets and clothes for the week.   When we arrived, we were greeted by the local villagers and a tasty dinner cooked by a Muslim family who provided us with room and board for the week.  Kirk and I were accommodated in our very own grass roofed hut for the week, with mattresses and everything!  The sounds of the rats scampering around and squealing in the roof at night was a little unsettling at first, but we soon got comfortable to the sounds of our rodent housemates as we settled in for the night.

hut on the inside. pretty nice, eh?

Tuesday morning we rose at 8 o’clock to be ready for the first class we were going to be teaching to the villagers at 9:00; however, we failed to remember that African time is a little different from Muzungu (white guy) time.  Most everyone showed up at their leisure an hour or two later than the scheduled time, but we taught an important class on sexual health.  This class proved to be very beneficial because we became aware of many domestic problems that seemed to be running rampant within the community.  We tried to emphasize that the man and woman were equal partners in a marriage, but African tradition and culture is still very negatively chauvinistic, where it seems okay for a man to beat his wife, kick her out of the house whenever he wants, have sex with her when he wants, etc.  To many men in the village, a wife’s role is to be barefoot and pregnant and cooking all day long.  Teaching about sexual health in such a society is so important because the men live according to a local legend where a certain man had many, MANY children and one day, one of them got rich and he was then able to provide for his parents in their old age.  Therefore, men do what they can to spread their seed, including polygamy and adultery, thus making room for lots of sexual diseases to spread like wildfire.  We addressed these domestic issues as best as we could and emphasized loyalty to one’s spouse.

class turnout

That night we enjoyed spending the entire evening with the village children.  They taught us songs and danced for us for hours on end.  Maybe due to the loss of a strong cultural identity in the United States, we felt like we had nothing cool to teach them from America.  The only thing that came to mind was the Macarena—which isn’t even American—but turned out to be a big hit!  The kids loved it!  Even by Friday the kids were still walking around humming the song and dancing.  Right before bed one night, one little girl walked by humming the song and said in her tiny voice speaking broken English, “Thank you for your song.”  Who knew the Macarena could change lives?!

Wednesday we taught classes relating to economic development to help boost their small economy.  We presented many small business ideas which were widely applauded and hopefully FREDA Africa can get them set up with the materials they need to get started with their businesses on future visits to the village.

That night we went to the closest town for dinner and ate some crazy pork stuff.  It was good, but I paid the price for it later.  The next morning I woke up super tired (even after sleeping a good ten hours or so) and not at all hungry.  By lunch, my appetite was gone and was feeling rather queasy.  I stayed in the hut that afternoon instead of going out with the group to teach about basic sanitation issues.  While they were gone, I ventured out near the latrine feeling that I might vomit sometime soon.  The lady who was cooking us our meals for the week noticed I was hanging out there and asked me what was wrong.  She pulled something off a nearby tree, opened it up and gave me a handful of dry seeds to eat with water.  I did so rather willingly.  I was excited to try some cool local remedy.  Unfortunately it all came back up about three minutes after, thus decidedly ending my proud four year streak without puking.  She then made some tea and gave me some bread, which I also couldn’t keep down for longer than a few minutes.  I sat around in front of the hut sipping water and feeling absolutely awful.  My stomach hurt like crazy and I felt almost delirious.  Around dusk the rest of the group came back with a Coca-Cola to help my tummy and Travis, the FREDA Africa founder, went off to the nearest town for some medicine from the pharmacy.

path to the latrine.  i threw up all around here

While he was gone I spewed another time but a large congregation began to form around me.  All the village kids were worried about me and said it was a boring night without me around to dance with them.  Finally Travis returned with a bunch of medicine, including charcoal pills, which apparently help with diarrhea?!  I took them reluctantly, and for good reason, because soon after I decided to swallow them, they made a comeback.  While I ventured out into the forest to vomit that time, I leaned against a tree and a mango fell on my head and splattered all over!  If ever throughout this story you wanted to feel bad for me, this would be the time.  I was covered in mango and vomit in some tiny village with nowhere to barf except the forest, and nowhere to use the restroom except this dirty squat toilet:

latrine outside view

latrine on the inside

I went back and got cleaned up and by this point it seemed that half the village was there with me sympathizing for me.  They sat with me the rest of the evening.  They said a prayer for me, put their hands on my stomach and blessed it, sang me a hymn, and sent me to bed.

I woke up in the night not because I was feeling sick, but I woke up marveling at the love these people showed me.  Me, a stranger, a Muzungu, but they showed the greatest amount of love and affection and concern that anyone could possibly demonstrate.

The next morning we went to teach our last class.  Many of the villagers (most of whom weren’t even around the night before) showed up only to see if I was okay and to tell me that they were praying for me.  Clearly the faith of these great people did something miraculous for me, restoring my physical and spiritual health, and exemplifying to me their incredible humility and love towards their fellow man. 

We left that afternoon, although I wish I could have stayed forever.  At the beginning of the voyage I hoped to change the lives of the African people.  I don’t know how much I’ve impacted their way of living, but they have clearly impacted mine.


kids carrying even small kids

cute kids

more cute kids

lady with our bag ON HER HEAD!!!!!

Sunday, June 5, 2011


I have been spending the past few weeks building a piggery!  It has been a great first project for the team to get their hands dirty in some manual labor in behalf of the pigs.  It was also a good first project for me as the project leader.  I learned a lot about managing a team and a budget. was a dirty job.

The piggery was built on the property of a local woman named Christine.  She’s a school teacher, entrepreneur, and founder of a local private secondary school called Equator College, which was also built on her property.   She wanted to construct an extension to her very small already existing piggery to transform it into a demonstration farm; so that she could teach her friends, neighbors, and some local women’s groups how to alleviate their own poverty through raising pigs. 

Christine, me, and James

Piggeries are incredible income generators in Uganda due to their high turnover rate.  They are cheap to buy when they’re babies, sell for a lot when they’re mature, and they give birth to very large litters.  Not only that, but just about anyone can raise a pig.  The beauty of pig raising is that you can buy a piglet and raise it without having a piggery because they can live just about anywhere and in very little space.  You can start with one pig and raise money to build a piggery by buying and selling their piglets.

I tried to show the progress of the piggery by taking a picture in about the same spot every time.  For all you who want to build your own piggeries, here's how you do it:  Step one is to build a trench and throw big stones in for a foundation:

Step two: start laying bricks and cement on top of the stones:

Step three: put a roof on it!

Simple as that!

Friday, May 13, 2011


A picture of the Lugazi team the morning of arrival!

Uganda is a tropical paradise.  It is right on the equator but high enough in elevation that it is perfect in temperature and humidity…well it’s a little hot.  But it’s not that bad, really.  It is far different from the savannah cliché most normally associated with Africa.  Uganda is very lush and green with rainforest everywhere.  It’s a beautiful country!

We are working in a town called Lugazi, which is some 40 miles east of the capital city, Kampala.  The population of this town is somewhere between 39,000-40,000 people.  By the looks of it, there is a lot of work to be done in this community for the elimination of poverty. 

Although English is the official language of Uganda, it is much less common than I had expected.  For most Ugandans, English is their second language, with their first being Lugandan.  Lugandan is the language most widely spoken and most people seem to get a big kick out of us white guys trying to speak it.

Every morning when we leave the house we are greeted by a mob of little children chanting, “Muzungu! Muzungu! Muzungu!” which means, “white people.”  It’s pretty adorable at first but after walking three or four blocks and little children are still popping out of the woodwork to join in the chanting, it gets pretty ridiculous!  I feel like a celebrity who doesn’t want the attention.  However, the Ugandan people are extremely friendly.  They are very excited to have us work with them to solve some problems not only in Lugazi but also in the surrounding towns and villages.  Here's Kirk fetching some water the Ugandan way in a small village we visited this week.

This first week has been spent in meeting after meeting with community leaders and heads of local nonprofits and NGOs.  We want to collaborate with them on their projects so that we can invest our human capital in sustainable, worthwhile projects that will really make a difference in Lugazi.  We want them to show us which projects will help them the most.  This weekend we will be making decisions as to which projects we want to pursue and which might not be best for community development.  So far, it looks like I might be starting a piggery and then I’m hoping to find a small village which would be best for a TOMS Shoes shoe drop.

Of course, prepping for all the work, we spent last Saturday seeing the source of the Nile River.  The Nile originates in Uganda, flowing north out of Lake Victoria.  The big stone thing is the exact spot where they begin counting the length of the Nile.  On the left of that stone block is Lake Victoria; on the right is the Nile River.  And you can swim in it too!

Mind the Gap

The big journey commenced last Wednesday morning (May 4, 2011) when me and a few other volunteers, including my good friend Kirk, flew out of Salt Lake City to Chicago, where we boarded an overnight flight to London.  After chowing down some airplane food and a few sleeping pills, we finally arrived Thursday morning to gray skies in beautiful London where we enjoyed a 12 hour layover.  We hurried to get through customs so we could hop on “the tube” so I could get my first glimpse of Europe.

After touring the downtown area seeing Big Ben, the House of Parliament, Westminster Abby, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and Piccadilly Circus (and experiencing London’s finest fish n’ chips), it was back to London Heathrow Airport for a power nap before boarding yet another red eye flight from London to Nairobi, Kenya. 

Friday morning we arrived in Nairobi airport and then finally on to our final destination: Entebbe, Uganda!  After our final flight we were greeted in the airport by our Country Directors, Ari and Jesse.  They arrived here a few weeks ago and have been busy setting up meetings with potential partners, finding a house for us to live in and cooks to make us dinner every night.