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Empowering Chicks

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"Nine miles out on the Hoima road," she said.

We had so many home interviews of potential borrowers to do that day, that I normally would have cringed at the thought of driving so far. But I'd met Josephine once already in the office, and had been enchanted. I was looking forward to spending more time getting to know her.

We passed through Kasubi market - carefully dodging the white mini-bus taxis that clog the roadside, escaping near misses with bicycles carrying their awkward loads. Carefully arranged piles of onions, tomatoes and green plantains collected the dust stirred up by our wheels. Twenty cents a heap - road dust free of charge.

Josephine sat in the back seat in silence as we entered the long, beautiful stretch in the direction of her farm. Abdul, one of the dedicated volunteers who help me run this small loan scheme, sat beside me as the landscape opened up brilliantly all around us. It was a crisp, clean morning after many days of rain. The green hills began to roll ever so gently, accentuated by proud banana trees lifting their showy leaves to the sun.

Dreamweaver

"Dreamweaver"
by Gilbert Williams

The last time I was out this way was 6 years ago, during my very first visit to Uganda. In those days, the road was a bumpy red dust nightmare that took hours to negotiate. It's now paved to perfection, a pleasure to drive. Funny how everything looks so much cleaner than it did then. Or am I looking through different, more seasoned eyes? I'd have remembered that two story school, wouldn't I? No, it must be new. Like the road.

We turn off at Kayunga to follow a track deep into the countryside. Through a tunnel of trees, past farms with acres of coffee shrubs planted under the protective shade. Fork right at the big mango tree there, just another half mile to go... past farm houses with lovely flowers planted out front, and cows watching passively as we make our way noisily over ruts in the road.

"You are welcome! Please come see my chickens," Josephine says. "You see how crowded they are, which is why I really need to build another shed."

Two hundred egg laying hens sit barely able to move in the tiny space. Another space - empty, just next door - is where her husband will raise his own chicks, since Josephine has already shown him just how profitable they can be.

"Will you work together and share resources like food for the chicks?" I ask. Oh no. No, no, no. In Uganda, a woman has to protect herself, she tells me. "He might take the money I need to repay the loan."

We settle down for the interview under a flowering tree in the yard. Roses, obviously tended with skilled loving care, surround us on all sides. Two cows look on from about 10 feet away, as Josephine enthralls us with poise and conviction. She struggles for words in English, until I encourage her to give over to Luganda. Abdul translates the parts I can't follow, but her body language says it all. Through the haze of the language barrier, I watch with awe as this Ugandan farmer's wife lays out her detailed and intelligent plan with incredible determination.

Five hundred chicks is the goal. First a larger shed, then more chicks. Then another space, and even more chicks. The growth will be financed in part by 2 - 3 micro loans she hopes we'll provide, and also by the business itself. She could have used a $200 loan now (the maximum allowed for first time borrowers) but she'd heard her chances of getting into the program would be better if she applied for a lower amount. She's asking for $130 this time.

"If I pay it off early, can I move on to a higher amount sooner?" she asks. There is urgency in her lovely dark eyes.

She points fondly to a boy across the yard, her first born of four. He's 14 now, and in his first year of high school. Her husband pays the fees for him to go to a village school, but Josephine wants better for him.

"I need 500 chicks," she says, "so he can go to that two story school we saw along the way."

Josephine's husband recently lost his job, and now relies solely on the farm for income. She knows he can't afford the better school for their son, nor for the other children later on. Since it's Josephine who really wants it, she has decided to make it happen. She needs her 500 chicks within the next year. If she could have access to a bit of credit, her dream would be within reach.

Josephine knows she deserves this loan. She's been careful and wise in her planning. She has spoken well. The interview is nearing an end and she radiates confidence, strength and hope. She is at ease with herself, knowing that she's done her very best. She is beautiful. The image of her looking at her son with so much longing for his future is one that will stay with me for a very long time.

Empowerment is a wonderful thing to be a part of, but it's also intangible, and so often hard to measure. That day on Josephine's farm, I felt as though I actually touched it, and it was pure magic. I saw her again when she came to find out the results Josephine's loan was approved.

She couldn't wait to go home, to tell her son.

Christina Jordan, of Kampala, Uganda, is Founding Director of The Life in Africa Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing international understanding of contemporary Africa, and to promoting the sustainable development and self-determination of African people through microfinance, or grassroots financial services tailored to the needs of the poor. An American living in Uganda since 1998, she is also the author of Letters from Uganda, a biweekly email publication from http//LifeInAfrica.com about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people in East Africa today. She can be reached at zungu@lifeinafrica.com

Also in Song and Story:
Call Me a Woman    Zarina's Castle   
Human Beings in the Mirror of the Universe   

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