Unsuspected Site Visit

Receiving an email saying there is someone coming to your site always gives an initial knot in your stomach that being informed of an audit always does. Sure, even if you have been doing a great job and things are going well, you never know what the auditor, or in this case the visitor, may learn.

That knot came to me upon opening an email from not just Peace Corps, but also USAID indicating they wanted to send a photographer to document my Peace Corps life. Each year the US Mission to Uganda creates a “Report to the Ugandan People” outlining all the work the mission is doing in county. This report aggregates stories, projects, photos, and reports from the US State Department, USAID, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Peace Corps in Uganda, National Institutes of Health, PEPFAR, and the Department of Defense (DOD)… and the photographer was sent to capture my story in the hopes of adding it to the 2017 report.

Fortunately, the communications officer and photographer downplayed the assignment indicating they just were going to be in the area and were looking to get a glimpse of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer. Although I haven’t been all too busy at work and felt like I may not be the ideal candidate, I accepted their request to stop by for some photos and an interview.

Dorcus, the USAID communications specialist, and Karin, the contracted photographer, swung by the office on a busy morning as the team was preparing to host a prospective donor for a capacity assessment. With the chaos in the office, Karin recommended we head outside to sit down and discuss my work. Her questioning started with familiarizing herself with my technical work, but the conversation quickly switched as I talked about goal two and three of Peace Corps to explain how two thirds of my work pertains to cultural exchange.

As we discussed and the conversation deepened around goals two and three, my interactions and holiday celebrations with my homestay family blossomed as the essential element to my Peace Corps story. After sharing a few laughs of my Easter stage fright we took a walk around the office to get some “action shots.” The whole ordeal took only an hour before they were off to their next assignment for the day.

Peace Corps Volunteer Derek Smith-3

While sitting at my desk that afternoon I was thinking to myself that there is no way my story makes the report because the office photos don’t match the fun cultural exchange stories that came out in the interview. Just as I was pondering that thought my phone rang. It was Karin and she asked if I could organize a visit to my family’s house the following day since one of their assignments canceled and she wanted to capture those interactions I spoke of.

Although my host sister Maureen currently lives in Kampala, she still worked as my main point of contact to ensure that my mom would be home the next day for us to swing by for some photos. That initial knot of a site visit deepened as I thought about whether or not this visit would live up to my eccentric story telling…

Mum on the sigiri
First we cooked

Mum and I Cooking

Tasting the salt
Then I tasted
Family Lunch
And we ate

Neighbor and I

Meet the parents

Derek Brothers

The visit ended with some small drinks and hugs all around. Karin was welcomed into the family and Dorcus continued to giggle from the stories. Not only did the photos live up to the stories, but now my family and I have more stories (and photos to go along with’em). Perhaps even one day these stories will also be shared with the Ugandan people.

All photos were taken by Karin Bridger, a freelance photographer and videographer based out of Kampala, on assignment with USAID


An Easter Sunday Baptism

The Tuesday before Easter I received a call from my host sister, Maureen, asking if I had any plans for Easter. My initial response was to ask, “when’s Easter?” Once hearing it was the upcoming Sunday, I knew there was nothing planned so I committed to celebrating Easter in Iganga on the spot. The phone call was brief and I was thrown off about how soon it was so I forgot to ask some key questions such as when should I show up? How do you celebrate? What should I bring?

On Easter Sunday I was out the door as a storm cleared mid morning. I received a few messages from Maureen early in the morning letting me know that I was going to miss church and the baptism because I didn’t travel before the storm. I had to give my head a shake because I didn’t know that we were also celebrating the baptism of my oldest host brother’s first born. I made a mental note to never forget to ask the appropriate questions when committing to attend a celebration. Although I missed the ceremony at church I made it just in time for lunch to be served at home.

As I was walking up to the house I went from hearing to feeling the bass thumping and saw three party tents taking over the front yard. At Christmas there were about 15 of us at home celebrating, which is what I was expecting, but once I saw the tents I realized this was a bigger ordeal. Upon my arrival there were already over 100 guests eating their lunch.



The size of the event was larger than any I’ve been to before, but the structure remained the same. As everyone was finishing their meals to the pulse of the loud music, it suddenly cut to tapping and blowing on a microphone. In Uganda, its not a celebration without speeches. As per tradition, the father of the father of the baptized child (my host father) was introduced to welcome everyone to the event. After the welcoming remarks came a musical interlude before my host father was reintroduced back to the stage to call upon his close friends and brothers to join him and introduce themselves to the mother of the child’s family. Usually these introductions are short, but you can always count on at least one person to fully utilize their time with the microphone.  This whole ceremony was conducted in a mix of Lusoga and Luganda so in order for me to understand what was going on I needed to pay very close attention. Rather than take this opportunity to work on my language I was working on my peek-a-boo skills with the little kids around me instead.

Once all of my homestay father’s brothers and friends returned to their seats I heard, “something something children” in Lusoga. Unsure what that meant I continued to play with the little kids without looking up. One of my host brothers came over and gave me a tap on the shoulder and I saw all of my siblings walking to the front. Oh no! It was our turn to go up and introduce ourselves. That “something something children” was him calling up all his children. Since the mother’s side of the family was from Kampala and were openly speaking to each other in English, I ignored the initial panic of needing to speak since I knew I could grace them eloquently in English. As we went down the line of the 12+ kids up on stage everyone was greeting and welcoming the other family in Lusoga. Just as my host sister was passing me the microphone my host brother Derrick smirks at me and whispers, “in Lusoga, in Lusoga, in Lusoga!” That very moment was the first time I have ever felt stage fright and a loss for words. It was as if my brain was a car engine revving in neutral. Processing processing processing yet going nowhere. Eventually I found the words in the local language to greet them and tell them my names are “Derek Smith … Masanja,” which gave everyone a good chuckle to lighten the mood after the nervous silence that preceded.

My host brother, Joseph, with his girlfriend and baby boy accepting gifts.

This sequence of introductions with heart thumping musical interludes continued next with my host mother with her friends and sisters before the microphone was passed along to the other side of the family. During the musical interludes children were rewarded with sweats and face paint for dancing, which tactfully broke in the dance floor for the adults to join as they finished their drinks.


Music and dancing continued throughout the afternoon and roasted goats’ meat was prepared for an afternoon snack. With goats’ meat in my belly I said goodbye to my family and vouched to come by more frequently before getting into a mutatu headed home with ears ringing and mouth grinning. All the while, laughing at myself for forgetting how to speak.

Initial Programmatic Implementation

Now that the contracts are signed, the scope of work solidified, and action plans verified, implementation of our integrated health project has begun. Although this is a health project and I’m new to the health sector, I’m currently tasked to support my partner organization, Action for Relief and Development (ARD), implement. Through this USAID funded health program, implementing partners are tasked to support the Ministry of Health by strengthening community-based networks to increase access and continuous utilization of government health services.  The targeted health issues include HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), malaria, maternal, newborn, and child health (MNCH), reproductive health, family planning, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH).

Family Life School Approach

Although this task seems broad, our approach to achieving the objective is precise. Using Family Life Schools (FLS) we look to identify, mobilize, and refer patients in rural areas with these health challenges to linked health centers. A family life school consists of a group of women that have been joined together and targeted based on their proximity to one another and based on their pregnancy status or age of youngest child. As the base of the family and the most at risk to health challenges, pregnant women are the key target population. By forming groups of expecting or new mothers in rural villages we are able to work with them as a group to address their pressing needs and health challenges. Additionally, by working as a group, these women are able to learn together and from one another as we host a wide variety of health education sessions addressing the targeted health issues of the project.

Group Formation

Last week in the field we worked to create and solidify three family life schools in three different villages. Identifying pregnant women and mothers with newborns in remote villages seemed to me like a daunting task since we had no knowledge of our surroundings, but it proved to be easy with the help of Village Health Teams (VHTs). A VHT is a member of a rural community who works voluntarily with a health center to provide health education and medical assistance to their community members. Although they are not medical professionals, their core competency is their knowledge and the trust of their community members. By utilizing the core competencies of the VHTs, we were able to create three family life schools consisting of more than 40 women each in just two days. In addition to the VHT identifying our key target population and mobilizing them for group formation, they will also be the family life school instructor responsible for educating and referring their community members to program linked health facilities. In essence, we train the VHTs and they train their communities.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
Dr. Nelson, Health Team Lead, sharing a laugh with a FLS

At each family life school entry meeting, our team met with the newly formed group to give the women an overview of what they can expect from us over the course of the year. Our goal was to share with them the knowledge they will soon gain to motivate strong attendance to trainings and group adherence. Not only will these women receive various health topic trainings, but they will also receive tools, resources, and trainings in ARDs core competency, economic empowerment. These groups will be more than educational cohorts, they will also be Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) with supplemental income as we teach them about savings and investment, income generating activities (IGAs), fuel efficient cook stoves, and kitchen gardens.

Through this targeted group approach, mothers will gain the knowledge and skills required to raise healthy families along with supplemental income and savings to manage health emergencies as they arise.

Health Center Capacity Assessment

Forming the family life schools through a targeted approach is our method for identifying, mobilizing, and referring women to health facilities to fulfill our objective to increase access and utilization of government health services, but we also need to ensure continued utilization.  This part requires us to confirm health facilities linked to various family life schools have the resources required to perform their tasks. While visiting newly formed family life schools in the field, we also spent considerable time reviewing the records of the linked health facilities and listening to the challenges they have. By doing a capacity assessment at each of the linked health facilities we are now able to advocate with them to receive the resources and training required to properly fulfill their tasks. We look monitor these health centers to see if obtaining resources and training will create positive health care service experiences for their community members to subsequently ensure continuous utilization.

Rosette, Nutrition Officer, leading the Health Center capacity assessment.
Next Steps

With 3 of our targeted 96 family life schools securely established we have plenty of work ahead of us. As new groups in different geographic locations are formed we will also focus on supporting VHTs to provide weekly trainings and referring community members to linked health facilities when required.

Race for micro-finance by Haley Block


Last weekend I had two exciting events happen. First, I successfully ran down a bus in dress flats. And two, I represented my organization at a FinTech for Agriculture event in Kampala. (FinTech = Financial technology)

I’ll start with the bus.

I found out about the event in Kampala a few days before it was going to happen. It looked like an  interesting networking opportunity for my org and after talking with my supervisor, we decided I should go try to build some connections. However, in order to go, I had to get approval from Peace Corps.

Friday morning, the day of the event, I get up thinking I’m going to have a normal day at work. As of that morning, I still had not received approval from Peace Corps. The event started at 2:30 PM and Kampala is a 5-hour bus ride from my site – it seemed like a lost cause.

However, as I am setting up my desk to begin my day, I refresh my inbox. To my surprise, there’s an email saying I have approval to go to Kampala. It’s 9:00 AM and buses aren’t exactly on demand. So, thinking I still won’t be able to make it to Kampala in time, I go tell my supervisor. He had a different opinion.

I quickly pack up my things, rush home, put on some dress pants, and throw the makeup I haven’t touched in two months into a bag. Now, looking fresh in my business casual uniform (it felt so good to be wearing my black dress pants again) I’m standing at the paved road that goes through my town asking when the next bus to Kampala is. With the help of my supervisor, we figure out that next bus won’t pass through until 11 AM. But, if I were to catch a ride to Kamdini I might be able to catch the bus coming down from Gulu.

At around 9:45 I’m in the front seat of a mini van to Kamdini. At 10:20, I arrive in Kamdini – just as is the bus from Gulu to Kampala is passing by. I toss my schillings to the driver and jump out of the car waving frantically, but the bus doesn’t stop. So, I start running. As I’m running, people are cheering, laughing, pointing, and I feel like the Macy’s Day Parade. Just as it reaches the edge of the town, the bus finally stops. I jump on, out of breath, but trying to hold it together. The man I sit next to doesn’t seem too pleased with my presence but I’m ecstatic. I’m officially en route to Kampala.

The event.

The event was called FinTech4Ag hosted by the UNCDF at the Kampala Design Hub – a swanky, restored warehouse building full of 20 something’s with laptops and plaid shirts. It felt like I had stepped back into the States.

The meat of the event was a panel of leaders in the micro-finance industry in Uganda: a FinTech startup founder, an international trust executive, a micro-finance banker, a finance software company executive, and a manager of an invoice-financing firm. What followed was a very interesting discussion about the role of each of these organizations in the industry, market trends, and how to reach the “missing middle.”

However, as the discussion continued, a few people in the crowd became agitated. Here we were talking about how best to improve access to financial services for rural farmers yet there were no farmers in the room. Nor was there anyone on the panel who worked directly in rural communities. Of all the SACCO managers in the country, (arguably the only bankers who live and work in rural farming communities) two were present in the crowd.

Continue reading “Race for micro-finance by Haley Block”

Ugandans for Uganda – a fixer

Through the series Ugandans for Uganda, Ugandans I meet and work alongside will receive the spotlight for their efforts leading, supporting, teaching, or helping Ugandans in Uganda. This ongoing series was created after being asked, in our Peace Corps reporting tool, to finish this sentence: “The one thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is…”

My immediate response was…  there are many Ugandans tirelessly working to better the livelihoods of the disenfranchised in Uganda. Ugandans for Uganda looks to bring action to this sentiment.

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset
Sharif guiding a team through a SWOT Analysis

Sharif, previously introduced as a driver is everything including a driver. At ARD and Uganda in general people wear multiple hats at their multiple jobs from their multiple income streams. The population is extremely entrepreneurial. In addition to a main career, most people also have a small business or do consulting work on the side. This leads many people to be a jack of all trades. Sharif is one of them.

To give you an idea of some of the roles Sharif played while on our trip to the field I’ll list them all before diving into a few. Driver, mechanic, translator, negotiator, student, educator, mobilizer, logistician, financial manager, cross cultural liaison, safety and security manager, advisor, colleague, and friend.

Since heading to the field with Sharif was the first time I was responsible for all the activities, I heavily relied on him for assistance. As my work colleague and cross cultural liaison he was always proactive in ensuring everything always worked out for us. This meant being the liaison between me and the field staff to ensure the trainings went as logistically sound as possible, between me and the cooperative executives ensuring the training was properly translated and understood, between me and the lunch caterers ensuring timely delivery of everyone’s lunch at the trainings, between me and the guest house managers ensuring I did not pay too much for my room, between me and the office in Jinja ensuring I had the resources and support required to execute the activities. In essence, anytime I was unsure of something he was always there to provide an answer, but most of the time he was there to fix a problem before I was even aware there was a problem arising.

Continue reading “Ugandans for Uganda – a fixer”

East Welcome Weekend – Sipi Falls



A Peace Corps tradition during the first three months after swearing in is for the older volunteers in your region to throw a welcome weekend for the newbies to meet everyone around. The east is blessed to have Sipi Falls nearby, so to follow tradition, our welcome weekend was located there to hike the waterfalls.


Traveling from nearly a week at work in the Central region all the way east to Mbale for the welcome weekend felt exhausting yet exhilarating. Perhaps there is an adrenalin kick that makes constant movement exciting, or the joy of seeing new places and new people each day, or perhaps even the movement itself creates the energy, but being constantly on the move is somehow both exhausting and exhilarating.

Continue reading “East Welcome Weekend – Sipi Falls”

Ugandans for Uganda – An Extraordinary Community Mobilizer

Through the series Ugandans for Uganda, Ugandans I meet and work alongside will receive the spotlight for their efforts leading, supporting, teaching, or helping Ugandans in Uganda. This ongoing series was created after being asked, in our Peace Corps reporting tool, to finish this sentence: “The one thing I wish Americans knew about my country of service is…”

My immediate response was…  there are many Ugandans tirelessly working to better the livelihoods of the disenfranchised in Uganda. Ugandans for Uganda looks to bring action to this sentiment.

Job Shadowing Patrick Sangi

Patrick leading a project overview discussion with a farmers group in Kiboga.

As I was moving into my new home in Jinja, two days after swearing in, I got a call from Joseph, my supervisor, asking if I would like to head to the field. I explaimed, “sign me up,” without even thinking to ask questions. I jumped on the offer since the idea of traveling out to our programs and learning on the job would be more enjoyable and educational than easing myself into a role at the organization by sitting around the office. After agreeing to go out to the field I was informed to pack for two weeks and to be in Kampala the following morning where I would meet Patrick to head out. The called ended and my first thoughts were two weeks? Where am I going?  How do I pack for two weeks? What will I be doing? Why didn’t I ask these questions before agreeing? but the timing of the call ended up being perfect. Rather than packing for two weeks, I put my 38L pack I had been living out of for the last two weeks back on my back and was ready to go. With packing no longer a concern, I was off.

I met Patrick Sangi briefly a few months ago at my future site visit and learned about his role as the head of the agriculture and livelihoods team within the organization, but I did not learn of his talents until joining him in the field. Joseph also designated Patrick as my counterpart on the agriculture and livelihoods program team at Action for Relief and Development (ARD), meaning he would be my entry and contact point to the ongoing agriculture and livelihoods activities. Once meeting again in Kampala, we quickly grew accustomed to one another as we chatted and I was informed of our upcoming work on the four-hour drive from Kampala to Mubende.

Mubende was our initial destination where we kick started the implementation of the project. This project spanning three neighboring districts (think of districts as states in America) in the central region of Uganda (Mubende, Kiboga, and Nakaseke) is led by Patrick with around six to ten support staff. The support staff are employees living in each of the districts contracted to help mobilize and train the organized farmers’ groups that have volunteered to participate in the pilot program.

The primary objective of this World Food Programme project, that through partnership ARD is implementing, is to mobilize and support small scale maize farmers to organize into groups and cooperatives in order to provide them trainings in the benefits of group formation and leadership, financial literacy and savings methods, and enhanced post harvest handling techniques. The end goal of forming these groups and cooperatives and providing them adequate training is to facilitate the sale of their high quality grain directly to the UN WFP.

Side note: The UN WFP has been known to respond to humanitarian crisis with food aid around the world, but this program is looking to also support development by sourcing their food aid from within Uganda to respond to the refugee crises in northern Uganda.

Continue reading “Ugandans for Uganda – An Extraordinary Community Mobilizer”