The drive is six hours from Kampala to African Rural University, Uganda’s first all-women’s university. As in many African cities, Kampala’s congested city center gives way to surrounding slums inhabited, in large part, by previously rural residents who have left their villages for the city in hopes of finding work. Often, they’ve moved only to find their hopes of prosperity starkly juxtaposed with the realities of urban slum existence. The road must be traversed by Land Cruiser. The University’s founder, Dr. Musheshe, our wonderful driver, Edward, and I left in the early afternoon, driving at maximum speed, and arrived at around eight in the evening in the pouring rain.
Kigadi is located in one of Uganda’s poorest districts, evident in the deeply rutted roads long forgotten by the local authorities. Here is the home of newly minted African Rural University, officially awarded its higher education licensure in 2011. It is a part of the Ugandan Rural Development Training Centre (URDT), which started in 1987 as a nonprofit working with local communities on agricultural training and extension services and later expanded to include URDT girl’s school in 2000, which began with thirty students. It has expanded to an institution of more than three hundred. The University will be graduating its second ARU class this year. All University graduates receive certification to become Rural Transformation Specialists, immediately to be employed by ARU as Epicenter Managers. As Epicenter Managers they will live full-time in assigned communities, serving as rural development field officers facilitating strategic planning and community development emphasizing agriculture.
When you pull off Hoima Road, which is strewn with trash and brimming with honking cars, motorbikes, bicycles, you find a campus with the same feel as a UK or US university. The campus roads are dirt but the hedges are neatly trimmed. The small roundabout in front of the main building has manicured hedges that spell out URDT from above. Smartly dressed students carry their books with purpose and attention.
URDT’s motto is “to awaken the sleeping genius in each of us,” rooted in the idea that each of us has the capacity to envision and create the life we desire for ourselves, our families and communities, and our country.
I’ve worked in rural development for the past few years and have heard much of URDT’s success. In June, I interviewed Dr. Musheshe for Africa Agribusiness Magazine; he was in Boston receiving an award from Harvard University for his creation of URDT and ARU. “Come to see for yourself,” he said at the end of the interview. A month later, I found myself on the tarmac of Entebbe airport.
The Ugandan Rural Development Training Centre thrives remarkably in one of the world’s poorest countries. Important factors are: its visionary founder, Dr. Musheshe, the loyal community that works with him, and the employment of systems-thinking as an approach to human development.
The University is based on a simple, powerful way of thinking called the Visionary Approach. A series of questions provides a structure for achieving personal and community development. What do you want? What is your current reality in life? What are the action steps you need in skill level and education? What resources do you need to mobilize in order to move efficiently toward making your vision reality? Simple, not easy. This way of thinking has powerful effects. It moves people away from problem solving, getting rid of what you don’t want, toward creating what you do want. It is extremely empowering because implicitly it says to each of us, “You have the capacity, intelligence and creativity to make what you want a reality. Not only can you create the life you desire, but you are the active agent in your own development and future.” Each student has this mentality engrained in her everyday thinking.
One evening, as I sat on my stoop watching some girls play volleyball, a group of girls asked me how I was liking Uganda and URDT. We chatted for a few minutes about the universal questions: “Do you have a boyfriend? Is he handsome? Can we see a picture?” Laughing, I say, “Yes, yes, and yes.” “Why aren’t you married yet? You ARE 26!” The questions continue unrelentingly, but I’m happy to fire a few back: “What is URDT like?”
One young woman speaks up, “URDT has taught me to be honest about what I want, not what I think I can have. I want to build houses and be an engineer, so I take math, and physics.”
Another girls said, “URDT is about envisioning not just what you want, but what you want for your family. We are just about to finish up our permanent house which will be made of bricks, not mud. I created a plan with them on how we would achieve this. We’re close.”
A few days later I arrange a session with six school girls of different ages to learn more about how URDT is affecting their lives. They echo one another. “URDT is teaching us to envision what we want, have confidence that we can achieve it, and be clear about the skills we need to achieve these goals.”
ImageMost girls I asked will say they are working with their families to expand agricultural businesses, build permanent houses, send their siblings to school or start more businesses within the family. Students at URDT can articulate the purpose of their education and its direct relationship to their lives outside of school.
Sitting in the morning assembly, after listening to the lilting voices of the national anthem, I realized that the second song that they sang was the African Rural University Anthem, sung by the entire community, every day. It goes like this…..
African Rural University
The Cradle of learning
African Rural University
The centre for transforming
You educate a woman
Uganda to be prosperous
You educate a woman
Africa to be at peace
You educate a woman
The world to be free
You educate a woman
Humanity to be happy
You have a vision
That is inspiring
You have a mission
That is empowering
They come from the East
They come from the South
They come from the West
They come from the North
To drink on the well of wisdom
A report by Ugandan Human Services and international agencies shows that that over half of women in Uganda experience domestic violence, compared to the global average of 30%. In Uganda, like many African countries girls are pulled out of school to get married and/or because scarce family resources are used for boys to be educated. URDT girls school starts at primary five (around age nine) specifically to target girls who would likely otherwise leave school at this age.
Signs adorning the roadside say, “Beating my wife destroyed my marriage. Don’t do what I did.” and “Domestic violence is a criminal offense.” While “stay in school” plaques decorate high school lawns. But when I spoke with Michael Newbill, the Economic and Political Chief at the US embassy he noted, “Yes, these signs are important. Remember, though many are funded by international donors.” I wondered, if these are not locally inspired are these messages really taking root in Ugandan society? Patriarchy is a way of life here and women’s rights will not be achieved in any real way without a prolonged struggle. Needless to say supporting women’s education is hardly a top priority for many.
In the shade of a eucalyptus tree, Charlotte, an Epicenter Manager, sets up her “power point” presentation, a dowel wrapped in fabric with the facilitation “slides” she uses in villages. Charlotte was assigned to work in Kasambya subcounty after graduation. Earlier, in her third year at the University, she lived for a month in the village, working to understand the local challenges. She took this knowledge back to ARU to develop her research and skills before moving to the village after graduation. Each slide is drawn as well as written because of both the high illiteracy rate and the large number of local languages. Below are a few of the nineteen slides in her presentation.
“Know what you want: When you know what you want you gain great power”
“Foundation Choice: the three foundations for a happy life are freedom, health and being true to one’s self”
“The first act of creation is to imagine what you truly want”
“Remember your inner power will work like a sharp spear to get what you want. But you must direct it very clearly and firmly (focus).”
“In times of difficulty, tell yourself the truth of how things are and what you truly want”
“Reflect upon the water project as if it were accomplished”
“Anything which is truly important to you in your life is worthy of your life energy”
“Creating momentum. Nothing happens until you take action. There is often a delay between the time you do something new and you see results.”
“Point of most power. You create tomorrow today. Right now is the key to your future.”
I’m touched by the simple genius of the curriculum, which is like a condensed version of every self-help book, motivational course, and strategic planning workshop I had ever taken – no small number. Over thirty years, these slides have been honed by Dr. Musheshe, alongside Peter Senge, a top systems thinker at MIT, and Robert Fritz, an award-winning artist, author and leading professional in corporate change management. These are no ordinary “slides.”
To see the outcomes of this approach, we drive two hours to Safira’s house. We turn off the main road, a narrow track with high elephant grass squeezing the Land Cruiser, onto a shaded driveway that passes through a large grove of matoke, Ugandan bananas. This matoke is now part of the thirty acres Safira’s family owns. Before she entered URDT, her family of eight lived on a quarter-acre.
Safira is the first in her family to attend school. Her father beams with pride as he tells me, “Now all five children are in school.” When I ask Safira’s mother how URDT affected the family, she turns to the interpreter, “I never had an education. I dropped out in primary four, but when I attended parent visitor days I realized I wanted to go back to school. Now I have my high school degree just like my daughters.” She beams at me, and I wish I spoke the local dialect to tell her much I admire her and her family, but Charles, our excellent interpreter and radio manager, does the job.
I ask them, “How did you go from a quarter-acre to thirty acres? That’s a big farm!” Safira, now 24, says, “Well, all students at URDT have to do what we call a Back Home Project. We learn in school and then we have a project we implement at home. It is part of our education to work on a vision with our family. We have family meetings and develop a vision together, then we decide what each member will do to make this vision a reality. We kept our vision on a piece of paper near the kitchen table. Our vision was to have a permanent house and have everybody go to high school. With the agricultural and management skills I learned at URDT we were able to grow a variety of crops to sell at the market. Now we have expanded into other business such as mechanics and are working to open a pharmacy. Now all the children are in school, we have a large farm and a car, and are looking to buy more land. The Safira story epitomizes the Back Home Projects at work, radically changing family life and opportunities for the next generation.
I think to myself, “I wish my family could have such a clear vision!”
Similar to Safira’s story is that of Charles Kisembo Goodyear, a student at URDT Institute, the only area of the organization that enrolls boys. Charles’s neat house resembles the URDT campus. Meticulously maintained hedges ring the house, and the dirt yard is swept clean. Charles is a savvy entrepreneur and equally skilled farmer. On the tour of his farm, he explains in minute detail the intricacies of biodynamic farming, the expansion of his passion fruit crop, and his steadily growing swine business. With direct enthusiasm, he says, “I have started farmer’s cooperatives and groups in this area to teach others the best practices I learned at URDT.” He, like Safira, is spreading the word through his commitment to his business and family, and also through his strong “pay it forward mentality.” To list his bustling farm’s activities would require a lengthy case study; in short, he is adding value to sugarcane using machinery he designed and built in his URDT metalworking classes. Additionally, he has extensive mango groves, and even transports his produce to Juba, South Sudan, to fetch premium prices. No grass grows under his or his lively wife’s feet. His manner and speech resemble that of a TEDster delivering the classic eighteen-minute talk in Monterrey California.
Dr. Musheshe is a leader with awesome vision and crystal clear purpose who embodies the values he instills in his students. URDT and ARU are products of his vision and his committed team of educators, who put their hearts and souls into maintaining and growing these schools. “I’ve always been an activist at heart,” he says. He was tortured as a political prisoner under Idi Amin for being a leader of student protests while at Makerere University. Later, an attempt was made on his life by a grenade thrown into his house. He says, “I might not have started the URDT if that hadn’t happened. It had the opposite effect they wanted. It made me determined to stay in my country and help my people forever. Uganda has come so far. Back then it was a very violent place.” He has received prestigious awards across the globe for his achievements, as well as the Golden Jubilee Medal from the President of Uganda for the creation of African Rural University.
URDT’s programs and activities range from a burgeoning TV station and exchange students from the US, to a long-standing and award-winning community radio station. The radio station, broadcast to over three million listeners in Western Uganda and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is particularly impressive. One evening over a Nile Special, the local Ugandan sorghum beer, Dr. Musheshe told me its story.
“I attended the Rio Earth Summit in Brazil in 1987, the first global summit on climate change. When I returned to Uganda I wanted to start a radio station along with four other countries. We called it Eco News Africa. The idea was to combat desertification in Uganda. When I told this to a UN Development professional the man laughed uproariously, “We don’t have desertification in Uganda. Are you kidding me?” I said, “Yes, that’s the point. We don’t have desertification YET, but if we don’t provide education on deforestation and environmental protection measures we will in twenty years.” Now twenty years later, western Uganda, where URDT is located, sees few issues with desertification. The same cannot be said of Northern Uganda.
The radio station is wildly popular in the community. After a breakfast of matoke and coffee deliciously prepared by Kadija, the cook and mother of everybody at URDT, we bundled into the land cruiser to visit a “farmers’ listener group” that convenes weekly to listen to the agricultural program broadcasting up-to-date research, technologies, and market data, all of which help them to improve their farms. For half an hour, farmers introduced themselves to me through Charles, the radio manager and my translator. Their testimonies tell not only many challenges, but a deep sense of appreciation for the radio station that provides them with information that they could not be accessed otherwise.
I asked the farmers how they communicate to the station the topics they need the program to cover. They point to Catherine, Kyanaisoke subcounty’s Epicenter Manager who is standing quietly to the side of the group. “She comes to our meetings, plus she is around. We tell her and she lets the station know. Sometimes people from the station come to us.” The feedback system works: there is currently a mango blight, and next week’s program is on prevention methods.
After a week at URDT I accompanied an economics Lecturer, Emmanuel Sunday, on a recruiting trip for the University. We were recruiting at high schools in Kibale district, near the border of Rwanda, a nine hour drive south through Queen Elizabeth Park. We went to three high schools, where each headmaster kindly rallied the students to hear Professor Sunday explain ARU’s mission of developing women leaders who will focus on rural transformation in Uganda. Each time Professor Sunday noted the University is for women, and women only, there was a considerable stir in the room followed by a young man asking, “Why is this place only for women?” The answer: “Women are essential to changing society because they effect the family. Unfortunately girls are often taken out of school early, before boys, and therefore do not gain the knowledge and skills to positively affect their families and communities. Women interact with the family more than anybody else. When you teach them about nutrition, health, and economics, they are a good investment for uplifting the family. When you educate a woman, you educate her family.”
In each school, the teachers and headmasters knew of URDT, and particularly they knew of Musheshe. Their eyes showed deep respect. One headmaster put it so succinctly that I scrambled for a pen and a piece of crumpled paper: “If we had a hundred URDT’s, Uganda would be just fine.”
As the African Rural University Anthem says, people come from the North, South, East and West of Uganda to URDT to “drink on the well of wisdom.” This is a bright light in a country whose 32 million people are hampered by high HIV, unemployment, a particularly violent history, and low development levels. URDT is a rock causing ripples that spread further and further each year. These ripples make their way into every valley and every mud hut, to families who dream of having a brick home with neat hedges. URDT is changing Uganda one mind at a time through the dedication of Dr. Musheshe’s vision.