Women and children danced and sang a traditional Ugandan song of welcome as we entered their small community of thatched clay huts, tucked away in the bush.
After this enthusiastic greeting their leader stepped forward to tell us about his group – People with HIV/AIDS for the Oyam District. They included the infants, toddlers and teenagers standing before us, smiling warmly.
Their homes are located on the outskirts of Kamdini, a town of 23,000 and a bustling centre for trade. Its main street is lined with modest shops, bars, restaurants and hotels that have started and expanded with loans from the member-owned Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization (SACCO).
The activities of the SACCOs, like credit unions in Canada, are guided by the seven principles of the co-operative movement, including concern for the community. It is in this spirit that the SACCO helps to meet the needs of the most vulnerable – the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and the AIDS-infected.
“We don’t just think about money,” said the organization’s chair in explaining its mission. “We look at the social aspect too.”
Needs are great
The needs are great. As the gateway to northern Uganda, town became home to an army base when political violence erupted here in the late 1960s. The prostitutes followed the soldiers to Kamdini and so too did the deadly virus. The sex trade, however, was only one contributor to the prevalence of the disease. Women, even children, were raped as a weapon of war, spreading the disease to its homes.
“People have suffered severely,” Kamdini’s mayor Herbert Ogwal told me as we walked through the littered and crowded downtown, filled with vendors hocking their wares to the passing motorists.
However, as our visit here confirmed, SACCO is helping to ease the town’s suffering by investing in enterprising residents that large commercial institutions regard as “unbankable.”
Invested in distillery
Among them is Santa Okello, a widow with HIV-AIDS. Even though she had little collateral she received a loan from SACCO to start a distillery, making liquor from sugar molasses that she sells to the Nile Beer brewery. Her enterprise now supports 10 households.
“Without SACCO I would have been dead,” she said, when asked how this community-led institution has affected her life. “It allowed me to start this business to look after the children you see here.” In addition, the mother of ten and grandmother of 10, whose husband died of AIDS eight years ago, is able to purchase medication to treat her illness with the income she receives from the distillery.
The savings and loans centre also assists the nearby collective of people living with HIV-AIDS, led by chair James Obongo, a grandfather of 30 with two wives. “Before SACCO came we were not even meeting basic needs. “
Its 43 members, including children whose parents have died of AIDs, make arts and crafts, to generate revenue, develop skills and a sense of purpose, as well as combat stigmatization. “We are very poor and our health is not so good,” Obongo acknowledged. The activity is particularly important for the orphans who cannot go to school because of lack of money to pay tuition fees.
Obongo said SACCO has given them hope, as did the visit by our team of Canadian co-operators.
“Now we are optimistic we will continue living with your coming.”
Note: Sadly the AIDS situation is not improving in Uganda. In fact, according to a study released in August of this year, Uganda is only two African countries, along with CHAD, where AIDS infection rates are on the rise. Nearly a third of Uganda’s population once had AIDS or the virus that cause it. The rate declined in the 1990s as a result of public health strategies. However, this latest survey shows that the rate has increased from 6.4% in 2005 to 7.3%. It found that one in 10 women will have AIDs by their late 30s, the same number for the men when they reach their late 40s.