Last year we bought a van for the children’s home in Uganda. I knew when I was told it was built in the late nineties we were signing up for an endless stream of repairs. I figured we would spend about what it cost us to buy it just to get it safe and working well. We are well on our way towards that figure. And it is in the shop again for $2500 dollars of more work. Robert hovers around every minute they are working on it to make sure they use the best parts that we paid for and not the cheaper junk so they can keep the difference. He also wants to make sure the parts that are good remain in the car. He collects receipts and signatures for every purchased part so the hard earned funds we raise doesn’t end up in someone’s pocket. So far it seems like we have overhauled everything on this van and replaced all that could be unscrewed. It would have cost me a lot less perhaps to hire a full time mechanic at the purchase of the heap.
What’s interesting to me, a foreigner, is I would see Robert hanging out all day talking with the mechanics and I would think, “does that guy have nothing better to do?” And everyone is friendly, laughing having a good time so I would assume they are all friends. It looks like a party. No. Someone is usually in a social situation making sure there’s no thievery. In silence they all know the true motive, but the issue remains unspoken. There’s so much polite social pretense. To an outsider it is all so enjoyable to see people get along so well and use good manners and polite thoughtful speech with one another. Ha. Phiona and Robert always explain to me after a social interaction what was REALLY going on, the under current, the subtext. The suspicions, utter distrust, and flow of ulterior motives coupled with a foreign language are all obstacles to foreigners trying to do some good there. That’s because people can lie for ages with the straightest face and purest emotions. There is no possible way a single foreigner could understand it if all the Ugandans around them decide to get a hold of some resources. Without Phiona’s loyalty Kirabo Seeds would have crashed and burned with our first case of fraud.
This is what we get when we buy a car in Africa. This old junker was from the “new” lot. Most Ugandans in their lifetime will never buy a vehicle. Really, most never even see it as a possibility. There’s not a big market for the shiny off the line cars we see on every corner in America. However, there are people with substantial wealth in Uganda, they are primarily employees of the government. Some pastors of large churches also live large. And believe me I have seen the castles on top of the hills in Kampala. I have stayed in the resorts owned by those at the top. And I know they aren’t buying cars built in the nineties. They have to import brand new vehicles from Europe. I have even sat in a conversation where someone was getting a new car and complaining about the high import tax that had to be paid. It is never easy to digest when a rich person complains about the cost of luxuries. Someone slap me if I ever do that.
People ask me all the time, “aren’t you afraid to travel to Africa alone?” I shrug and look confused and say, “not really.” Uganda is not Somalia. The violent crimes are rare in Uganda, especially to foreigners. We are too useful to them. They aren’t going to hold up a knife to my face and demand I empty my bank account. They have the luxury of time to get what they want out of me. Instead I have learned by experience (twice) it is more likely they will become my best friend, my most trusted person to assist me promptly with my every need. And as a foreigner there, I have a lot of needs and depend heavily on advice about how to do business there. As soon as they have my trust they help themselves to most of the money in the business transactions. It is a tried and true scheme. One scoundrel even told me, “it is easy to be everything the mzungu wants me to be for just two weeks while they are in Uganda, and usually they don’t come back but I remain their best friend ever in this country and some day they will even pay for me to go to America.” Not to me, not any more because I have had enough education in this corruption. I had a long hard boot camp experience with fraud, thievery, manipulations, lying and pretense.
For example, when we were buying our van George was helping me with the purchase. There was no way in the world I could go in negotiations to buy a used vehicle there without a Ugandan. George really is my friend, and I trust him, he’s proven himself over and again that I can trust him. He explained to me what the used car salesman was offering him in their language. The guy said to George in my presence, “hey how much do you need to get out of this mzungu in this deal and we’ll set the price there.” Everyone assumes that everyone will steal. George explained to me that a person we both know was responsible for buying a vehicle for his church and it was found that he was able to get for himself a few thousand dollars in the deal. That’s the way they do it.
Craig and I have learned the hard way when money is changing hands some of it falls in everyone’s pockets if they can manage to get it there. This is NOT true of our team employed by Kirabo Seeds in Uganda. We track every dollar with two separate accountants here in America looking at every signature and every receipt from Uganda to make sure each dollar is used to help the children. This is not because we don’t trust our team, it is to protect them from false accusation and temptation. It is possible a Ugandan would think about forcing our financial controller to open up the vault. Everyone in Uganda would point their fingers at the controller and say, “of course you help yourself to that money”. And we can prove this person doesn’t because the records balance. Also we only send what is necessary for one month’s work. This is to protect our team and they know it. It is so difficult for them to work there though because they have access to the finances and people assume they will help them get some of it too. When the controller is seen paying for things people notice. It is challenging to repeatedly say no and go against the culture, not making any friends along the way, and feeling alone while doing the right thing in the eyes of God. This is why the job is so incredibly difficult. As it is I know our team members give away most of the salary they earn to family and friends who have great need and no means to earn. It is the way their culture works. Everyone helps everyone. It is a cycle that is nearly impossible to break.
I read about a peace corps worker who went to Africa to teach the men how to farm fish. It was a great challenge and such hard work for the men to dig the ponds. The fish have to be guarded night and day or they will be stolen. So finally when it was harvest time, the worker’s friends and family all showed up for their free fish with open newspapers. The worker solemnly handed away eighty percent of his fish. The peace corps worker was furious because this was supposed to help the worker understand how to earn money, reinvest and save. There were only twenty fish left to sell at market. When he asked the worker, “why did you give it all away” he replied, “that is what we do.” Not matter what the peace corps worker tried to teach he would never change their culture. We must be smart and work in sync with the culture and still be safe.(for the record I think it is wrong to go into a new culture and think we have it all figured out and we will teach them…first we must learn their way…and if possible share what we know, with humility, not a strutting arrogance. The people are not poor because they are stupid, they are victims of a corrupt government. And they don’t have freedom of speech to speak out against it.) Truthfully, learning to work in a foreign culture is fascinating, and I love it.
All I know is it is incredibly hard to raise funds for a nonprofit. I am not gifted with skills for fundraising. I only have the grace of God who moves hearts generously to help us help these orphaned children. I am willing to work hard and sell goods from Uganda to pay for these needs we have in our orphanage. I run a good sponsor program connecting families in America with our children. They share inside stories and prayer requests. The children really love getting to know their sponsors. And I seek donations from foundations who are set up to help organizations like ours. I protect those funds and make sure they help the children be safe and well. The most dangerous thing that could happen to me or our children could happen every time we get in a vehicle on their roads in Uganda. Car accidents could kill us long before a person would threaten us with a weapon or take us hostage. That’s why I’m sending $2500 dollars to get the van fixed. Buying a better van only means we will replace everything in that one over and over again. May as well stick with what we’ve got now and keep it as safe as possible. Sigh. It seems everything is a struggle there to give the children an open opportunity to have the basics in life met for them. They need their ride to church and hauling the amount of food they eat requires transportation. And God provides as we trust in Him.