Strike and chickens

There are those days that perfectly depict the singularities of our engagement in Uganda. Two days ago was one of them. Writing a brief article about it seems appropriate in order to close this… erm, colourful, year.

The local NGO where I have the pleasure to work manages a farm of moringa, a plant loved by Westerners who are interested in natural food. From the office in Gulu, it takes a good 30 minutes’ drive to reach the plantation and the drying moringa leaves’ facility, lost in the middle of the Ugandan bush land. There, Wilfred, a former inmate who is quite funny, does his best to handle the local communities hired to work on the field.

Wilfred is devoted to his task and does not mess around with quality. Yet, 16 years behind bars did not provide him with the needed management skills to effectively excel in his duties. In front of him, the very poor communities often make it complicated. The project is already running late and the first harvest should come as soon as possible, otherwise a huge part of it may be lost. Communities’ leaders have clearly understood that they may be in a good position to take advantage of it and get a little increment, enjoyable during these festive days where the spending absurdity reaches even the most remote areas.

Thus and despite the agreement made the day before, the 8 people supposed to start the harvest decided to go on strike, and I haphazardly was met with the occasion to attend the conflict’s resolution! Protected from the burning sun by the shadow of a huge mango tree and surrounded by a few vernacular huts with grass roofs, negotiations go on. On one side, several women represent the workers, on the other side three members of Advance Afrika try to minimize the costs. It is Angela who leads the conversation, despite her having no decision power. She has to call regularly the manager in Gulu, but the network is weak and communicating is difficult.

The bargain is in Acholi language; therefore I don’t understand a word. Robert does his best to translate and I do my best to get the point. As usual, I am still not sure if I don’t understand all the details because of linguistic issues or if that is the local logic that I struggle to catch. Probably both. Yet, I provide a few recommendations to Angela, who manages to find an agreement after an hour of talk. The workers will be paid 50 cents more per day, a sadly significant amount here.

It is already 1pm. I am hot and look forward to be back in office, especially because I am thirsty as hell.  When we board in the vehicle, I quickly understand that I will need to be patient. After ten months in Uganda that is all but a surprise, but I was naively hoping that we would turn back to the office quickly. That was without taking into the spending mood of my colleagues, who are now looking for charcoal and chickens to bring back for their families for Christmas. It seems that quality and price are unbeatable in the country.

After an unsuccessful quick look at the market in the village, we start driving around to visit many compounds of tiny huts in the area. Roads become more and more narrow, pinching into paths, definitely not made for cars. Every time we take a break, a new chicken is stuffed in the trunk of our truck, when it doesn’t run away in the high grass, leading to hilarious chasing scenes. I do not miss the occasion to remind my colleague that a vegetarian diet, in addition to be good for the planet, also allows avoiding such hassles.

Three hours later, we have picked up enough chickens to feed half of the country. We finally start to head back, with a few breaks on the way, just to be sure that a fat chicken is not hiding somewhere. In short, that was just another normal day in Uganda, with its laughs, astonishment and a little bit of frustration, without which life would probably lose its sparkle.