Motorbikes, Mbale, and Microfinance March 23 2012


I'm sitting on the curb when the shopkeeper at the fabric store shuffles out, dragging a chair behind her. She smiles encouragingly and I dust myself off before accepting the chair. Perry is perusing bolts of fabric in this closet of a fabric shop. It's a sensory overload with bulging rectangles of color shoved into every available space. Incense permeates the air as it burns steadily before a statue of a Hindu god and the sound of scissors slicing cleanly through fabric punctuates every word. It's intoxicating, but I'm not a shopper and before Perry has had the chance to pick out even one style of fabric, I'm already bored. I retire to the plastic chair.

Dust hangs in the air, muting the colors of Mbale. Its sharp colors, loud noises, and pungent smells are faded, like laundry hanging on the line after too many washes. The sun hits the crowded streets, holding them haphazardly in its light. Smudged white buildings are adorned with rough log scaffolding as taxis, overburdened with trunks and rolled up mattresses, rock precariously over the deep ruts in the road. Children are on their way back to school and their pressed uniforms seem out of place as they walk past the street vendors selling stack of pineapples, leather sandals, used clothing, and avocados. Two women load an enormous bundle onto the head of a young man. He steadies the load with his hand and slides forward through the crowd with an ethereal grace.

Ugandans walk past me, occasionally slowing down to gaze curiously at the mzungu occupying the cracked plastic chair in front of the local fabric shop. I gaze back at them unperturbed, strangely appreciative of our mutual curiosity.

Mbale has an inexplicable appeal to it. It's not Buyobo, but the chaos of its streets is something you can slip into. There is a rhythm here, a beat of the drums that locals instinctively move in time with while foreigners rock awkwardly back and forth, feeling the pull of it all, but unable to move as effortlessly in time with its music.

I first notice this while riding on the back of a motorbike, stuttering through the stop and go traffic. Chickens, pedestrians, trucks, motorbikes, buses, taxis, goats, and cows all fight for the right of way on the pockmarked roads. Eric constantly reminds us to watch out for the motorbikes as they leap forward into the narrow pockets of space between the buses and taxis. Frequently spinning out against the flow of traffic, they cause a high number of traffic accidents, and getting on one is tempting fate. It's also exhilarating, liberating, and perhaps the most authentic way to experience the busy streets of Uganda's prominent cities.

Sitting on the back, bouncing awkwardly behind the driver, dust flies into my eyes and mouth as I clench my hands and attempt to reassure myself with the fact that the driver has left at least two inches between my leg and the massive truck he's currently speeding around.

As I wobble precariously, I watch women weave through the traffic balancing enormous bunches of matoke on their heads. It's just one more reminder that I lack the grace and adaptability to slip effortlessly into the streams of people pushing their lives forward amid a slough of improbable odds.

Perry steps back out into the street with an enormous bag of brightly colored fabric, bold prints that defy the drab reality of a life tangled in poverty's grasp. They're the prints the women in Uganda favor and it emboldens my heart to believe in the chance these women have to extricate themselves from that cycle and build a reality more in line with the brilliant and bold patterns they adorn themselves with, a reality underpinned by choice rather than circumstance.

Back in Buyobo, Olive, Jacqueline, and Allan are demonstrating to me that hundreds of women, like them, within their community, are changing the game. With WMI's help, they're sending their children to school, they're expanding their businesses, they're running for office, and they're feeding my cautious flicker of hope diminished by years of watching firsthand how useless and inappropriate many top-down development programs can be for communities ravaged by war and poverty.

Making our way up the path to the comfortable house alongside Buyobo's main road, a little girl sitting in the dirt smiles and waves. As the evening light recedes from the valley, I wonder what her life will be like in ten years. It's hard to promise anything in this world, but as I look over my shoulder at Olive--strong, beautiful, and determined, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if the women in this community have anything to say about it, this little girl will be offered every opportunity. I smile back, offer my thanks to the world that women like Robyn and Olive exist, and let myself into the house.