Masaka

I’ve fallen a bit behind on posts due to spotty internet connections and long days so I’m going to roll the two days we spent in Masaka into a single post.

Our first day in Masaka started with a nice buffet style breakfast with cereals, scrambled eggs, sausages and pancakes with tea and coffee (very good coffee!). After breakfast we headed to AfriPads – a local social enterprise making reusable sanitary pads. Many girls in Africa are not able to go to school for 3-4 days each month because they lack access to feminine hygiene products and for other families, the cost of pads takes quite a bite out of family incomes each month. AfriPads was started by a Canadian couple in 2010 and has grown to become the largest commercial supplier of reusable sanitary pads in Africa. Their current operation includes a large factory where women stitch together the pads, sew on the labels and package them for sale. The women (and any men who work for the company) are paid substantially more than the average daily wage and enjoy generous benefits and good working conditions (including 4 weeks holidays, maternity leave and pension). The factory was well lit and very clean and employee safety seemed to be a focus for them with a full slate of first aid attendants and safety messages. A couple of blocks away they have another smaller facility where men were cutting the fabric templates. The whole operation is highly professional and they produce a very high quality product that has enabled tens of thousands of girls to attend school regularly while employing more than 120 people in Masaka. The success of AfriPads as a business speaks to the success of social enterprises where organizations sell viable products and services instead of relying on donations to provide assistance.

After our tour of AfriPads, we piled into the van and headed to Kitengeesa to see where AfriPads was started back in 2010. We never made it to that spot but we did get a personal tour of the brand new factory AfriPads is building to put all of their manufacturing processes under one roof. The whole facility will cost about $1,000,000 and will provide room to grow as the company continues to expand. They’re also building a daycare and breastfeeding area into the construction and using natural light and ventilation to make working conditions as agreeable as possible.

After our tour of the new factory site, we headed over to the Kitengeesa Community Library – started by Dan Ahisimbwe (who also plays a huge role in Tekera Resource Centre which we are also visiting while we are in Masaka) and Kate Perry (not that Kate Perry) to support literacy and education in Kitengeesa. From there we made our way back to Masaka to have lunch then back to the hotel to swim and get refreshed before heading to a small expo (basically a traveling fair/market) in Masaka. It was not that spectacular… although the kids did get up on stage to dance and enjoyed meeting some of the local school kids who were quite fascinated by the muzungus. And there was a camel… a sad pathetic looking camel… but a camel… then it was off for dinner and back to the hotel for an early night…

Our next day in Masaka started with a 45 minute drive to Tekera – site of a village and a resource centre where we spent the day. The road was being graded and was in better shape than we’d been led to expect but was still bumpy and very dusty… On arrival at Tekera we were introduced to Maureen who manages the centre and who introduced us to the centre and explained the work they were doing with the piggery (we weren’t able to go in for fear of transmitting swine flu to their pigs) that is their ticket to future sustainability. They currently have 67 pigs and are hoping to expand to more than 400 in the near future. They can sell a mature pig for about 150CDN and being able to sell decent numbers of pigs each year will help to cover the costs of the entire centre… after the piggery we were shown the vocational classroom and one of the dorms and learned about the school routine (8am to 4pm usually but 5am to 10pm when they are preparing for national exams) our students had trouble wrapping their head around the idea that anyone would go to school at 5am!!! After that we were treated to tea and snacks in the outdoor staff room (Lambrick Park teachers take note!). The boiled bananas were not a particular favourite… they had the texture and consistency of a boiled potato and a mildly gag-inducing overripe banana flavour that sort of grew on you but not really enough to enjoy it… but the tea was delicious (local Ugandan black tea) and the sweet potatoes were filling.

After a snack we trekked into the backforty of the property to spread some mulch around banana trees and then headed back to the garden plot to transplant tomato seedlings (hundreds of them) then headed back to the staff room for lunch with the staff. Lunch was a carb lovers dream – a delicious offering of fresh pineapple (grown on site), beans, rice, sweet potatoes and gnut sauce – all cooked over an open wood stove in the facility’s rustic kitchen. We all needed a nap afterwards… but instead we were hustled off to the classrooms to observe a lesson. I ended up visiting a P7 class (basically Grade 7) and because the students were independently working on assignments and projects, I had a great chat with Steven and Isaac, the teachers. The students ended up visiting a variety of primary classrooms and watched teachers doing their thing in a variety of lessons…. No one will ever complain about their classrooms again… but the teachers and the students clearly loved what they were doing and I was blown away by the work ethic of the students I observed. I was a bit nonplussed by the clapping, hugging, head bowing, kiss blowing welcome the class gave me though… but chatting with Steven I was struck by how much teachers the world over have in common… we worry about how our classes seem to other teachers, we’re insanely proud of their accomplishments and genuinely want the best for their futures… Steven and Isaac were in their early twenties – Steven having become a teacher when he was 18… they were stunned that I had been teaching for almost 30 years…

After our lesson time was up, we observed a variety of song and dance routines that the students were practicing for an upcoming performance… the circumcision dance was a crowd favourite… then it was sports time… up first was a tug-of-war between us and the staff of Tekera. We smoked them! Then it was our girls against the female staffers. We dominated them again. But the Tekera students erupted in celebration when their male teachers beat our guys (they may have stacked their side with a few more than the 5 we had after it appeared they were in trouble)… After tug-of-war, it was volleyball time and while we weren’t really all that good, Bethany’s excellent serving and some lucky bounces saw us prevail 17-15 in extra time. Up next was football… we didn’t have enough players to field a team so they provided some ringers for us… thankfully… or we would have been completely and utterly destroyed. Our team consisted of some of our students who could actually play football, some of their students and staff who can really play football, and those like Marie and I who last played football when they used round rocks as soccer balls and dinosaurs roamed the earth… as it was, some superb goal-tending from yours truly (okay, if we’re being honest, pure dumb luck) kept us in it after a late push by Tekera and the game finished 2-2… so onto penalty shots… one of our ringers thankfully took over goalkeeping from me and promptly let in all 5 shots he faced… our team was unfortunately not able to score in penalties and the school erupted as the locals defeated the muzungus… a great time was had by all…

After sports it was time to say our goodbyes and head back to Masaka to clean up for dinner. Instead of dinner at a restaurant tonight, we were invited to a community dinner at Dan’s house to say goodbye to a group of interns from Douglas College in Vancouver. It was sort of like a high school dance with cliques sitting on different sides of the gym… only with ear-splitting music blaring from speakers set up on the lawn. For some reason, Ugandans love their music speaker-crushingly loud… the food was pretty good though and it was interesting to get a look at a different side of the NGO/volunteer world… and it was really cute to watch Dan’s young son Jude playing video games on the kids’ phones… but after a long day in the heat at Tekera, our group was fading fast by 9pm so we headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep because the next day we were driving 6-7 hours to Queen Elizabeth National Park…

Our time in Masaka has been very enjoyable. The experience at Tekera- especially the classroom portion – really resonated with our travellers who saw first hand how much education is valued and how much need can exist in a small community such as Tekera which depends on the resource centre for medical services, education and other services. Similarly, the visits to AfriPads showed how the social enterprise model of aid can provide good paying jobs while meeting community needs… in all it’s been an informative couple of days and ones that will leave a lasting impression on all of us…

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