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Stories from our Travelers

A Ugandan Widow's Story

by Rowland Ayulmoto

[From Summer 2008] When Margaret Odongwen's husband passed on, common sense would have it that she would concentrate on her own course of raising her five orphaned children. This was not to be. Instead, the senior nursing officer reflected upon the hardships of the impoverished Ugandan rural families in her area, who are constantly preyed upon by disease, starvation and lack of shelter. She resolved to help others like her. In 2004, she signed on as a volunteer field co-coordinator with Village Enterprise Fund, a U.S. based non-profit which sponsors mentoring, training and seed capital to poor people in rural East African villages to start viable small-scale businesses.

Margaret is proud of all the businesses she mentors, but there is one in particular which, when asked about it, has her break into a beaming smile. In 2005, Margaret began to mentor a group led by young Phillip Okello, then just a teenager. Philip and his group wished to start a poultry keeping business. Phillip’s father had died earlier, leaving him and five other siblings dependent on their mother. Their grass-thatched house would leak throughout the rainy season, disease (particularly Malaria) was a common visitor, they had no blankets or mattresses, and their diet was simple starch and protein. This is the reality that breaks the widows and orphans in rural Africa.

Margaret's mentoring involved raising the family's hope: "Yes, you can do something. Do not just resign to fate," is a statement Margaret echoes as having used on her regular visits. The family was convinced that they could start a poultry business, and with $50 received as the first installment of VEF’s $100 grant, they bought chickens from the local market. They reared some of the chickens and barbecued others for sale at the nearby trading center. The mother, Luciana Akelo, managed the business and after only one month in operation she was able to buy blankets and mattresses for the children and herself. To mitigate the cost of transportation she went to look for supplies on foot. Later, as the business grew, she purchased a bicycle. She has improved her business so much that she has savings in livestock. Her living standard has improved. All her children are able to eat well and go to school too, except for the first-born who is married and helps with the business. Margaret's ambition for the group now is to launch a savings program, so that Luciana, Philip and their family can benefit from a micro finance loan program in the near future.

Yet this is just one of the 80 families that Margaret has helped to move from a state of resignation since she signed up with Village Enterprise Fund. Asked what she thinks of her efforts, Margaret says: "Poverty can be a thing of the past if all of us consider the other person’s lot rather than focusing on our successes or failures. It is amazing how small sacrifices in terms of time and financial resources can change the fate of the under-privileged. Being a widow myself, and working amongst the sick, has made me realize this."


Visit Village Enterprise Fund for more information on VEF's work in East Africa.
Read the companion piece, In the Heart of Tanzania.

Rowland Ayulmoto is true to his motto: “Keep things simple and practical all the time.” Since 2003, Rowland has served as regional training director in East Africa for the Village Enterprise Fund, a non-profit micro enterprise ngo based in San Carlos, California. Before joining VEF, he spent more than a decade in sales and marketing for Guinness. Rowland has worked in market research and as a high school teacher. In this issue, he visits with a Ugandan widow whose determination has helped both her family and her community. Rowland lives with his family in Kenya.

Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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