"I have an erection... of the heart."

29 June 2015

Photos by Herbert Kalungu, ACTogether Uganda

By Skye Dobson

That get your attention? Yes, well it got ours too. It was late on the third day of an international conference in a slightly stuffy hotel in Kampala. Delegates were giving closing remarks and I wont lie, I was checking emails and I think my colleague was reading the news. Unbeknownst to us a prominent Kampala politician was handed the microphone. Standing up he stated in a bellowing voice, “I have an erection” [2 second pause – in which my colleague and I dropped our phones and clutched each others arm in delightful disbelief] “… of the heart.”

The honorable politician was emphasizing just how happy he was with the partnerships between communities and government that were emerging in the various countries represented.  From that day – about five years ago – my Ugandan colleagues and I have used this phrase to describe our feelings for any big achievement related to our work.

And so it was yesterday when we drove back to Kampala from a day in Jinja aroused by the energy and the progress being made by the SDI Alliance in Uganda. It was overwhelming to witness just how seamlessly all the elements of the SDI “toolkit” are being deployed by the community, allowing us to witness the holy grail of development: an authentic people-driven holistic urban development process. The federation has remarkable agility for a community movement – an agility that is the result of a long hard slog and methodical refinement of its skillset. Like a talented boxer it makes everything look so simple.

We had gone to Jinja to visit the Jinja Materials Workshop in Walukuba. The project is in the final stages of its last phase of construction.  On a 1,800m2 plot, secured through negotiation with Council, the federation first constructed a building materials production center with a basic shed, curing pit and storage container for the fabrication of Interlocking soil bricks, ladies (prefabricated concrete minislabs), t-beams, pavers, tiles etc. In the second phase a demonstration house was constructed using the low cost materials fabricated by the community on site. And in this, the final stage, the federation has constructed a three-story building with a community center on the ground floor and a guesthouse with 18 rooms on the upper two floors for students undertaking training and visitors of the federation. This three-story building has been under construction for a mere two months and the progress is outstanding. The site is also home to a biofill worm digester toilet, which was as the first of its kind in Uganda and was built by the federation about 18mths ago. Today it is as clean as it was back then, despite being used by a construction site full of youth every day. The toilet does not smell at all and the flapper pan ensures a neat and tidy toilet for the community. These toilets have now been replicated throughout Kampala and the worms for the toilets are bred on-site by the federation.

Now this all sounds great, but it is not the full story. What I have described could have been achieved without affecting any kind of change in the community and without any potential for transforming business as usual in the urban development process. The land could have been purchased. A developer could have constructed the building. An NGO could have hired a consultant to manage the trainings. A contractor could have been hired to build. And nothing would be different in Jinja. But things are different.

The project and its potential cannot be assessed in isolation from the messy, tireless process of movement-building from which it sprung. It’s a process that began in 2002. The stories of the members mobilized throughout the years are captured exquisitely in a collection of mini-memoirs compiled in a book entitled: 10 Years of Okwegatta: A History of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) Narrated by Members It details the mobilization of members by federation members from Kenya, India and South Africa. It documents the growth of saving groups, the networking of these groups at the settlement and municipal level and the way peer-to-peer exchanges with other federations taught the Ugandan federation to use profiling and enumeration to understand their community better and to negotiate with government from a position of greater authority and collective capacity.

As documented by Nyamweru and Dobson (2014), the introduction of the TSUPU program in Uganda provided the federation and opportunity to scale their process in unprecedented ways and the Jinja federation seized this opportunity with both hands. It quickly emerged as a learning center when it came to: city-wide profiling, to initiating and sustaining municipal and settlement development forums, and undertaking small upgrading projects in partnership with government. By 2011 the federation had emerged as a highly competent player in the urban arena, ensuring Community Upgrading Funds targeted communities in greatest need (as identified in profiling), were demanded by the community (through forums) and would be managed by the community (through its savings groups and project management committees). It convincingly demonstrated the dramatic cost savings to be achieved through the use of community contractors.

And now, as construction of the Jinja Materials Workshop nears completion, it is clear to anyone that has watched this federation grow, that the project is utterly infused with this history and this energy and it is that which makes it a game changer.

Our trip to the project was motivated by a request from Jinja to add a solar component to the innovations at the workshop. They had learned of the “Solar Hub Model” from the SDI Council (which unburdens the poorest from the responsibility of investing in the trunk infrastructure required to set up a solar system through establishment of a central hub where communities bring rechargeable batteries that power a simple solar home package.) SDI’s solar projects officer, Charles Hunsley, was there to explore the idea further with the local affiliate. The discussion around solar illuminated the game-changing x-factor very quickly.

First, the federation members steered the conversation. They did not defer to the professional visitors, but interrogated their ideas and suggestions in a way that enriched the ultimate conceptualization of the project. When assessing the viability of the project the federation members made reference to the existing energy options in the various surrounding settlements – information they had gathered during profiling, but also regular engagement with groups in each area. They explained how the poor often pay more for power than more wealthy city residents and often expose themselves to grave danger illegally tapping the main supply (too often resulting in electrocution by live wires), or mixing kerosene with diesel to prolong it’s use, exposing themselves to high respiratory risks and fires that can wipe out a settlement. Fishing communities along the banks of Lake Victoria in Jinja live in such conditions, with wood shacks offering little protection from highly flammable an unregulated energy. Their stories exposed the energy injustice SDI’s solar agenda seeks to combat.

In order to gather additional information about present expenditure on energy the federation decided it would conduct a mini enumeration to rapidly assess affordability across Jinja’s informal settlements. For communities requiring a loan for the purchase of fittings or batteries the federation noted that SUUBI (Uganda’s federation-established Urban Poor Fund) could provide loans that would be monitored by the local SUUBI loan team in the same way they monitor sanitation and livelihood loans.

The federation members were excited by the prospect of communities coming to the center every four days to charge their batteries. This, they agreed would enhance the dialogue between the federation and communities across Jinja around their incremental upgrading needs. Some slum dwellers may begin with an energy upgrade and move on to upgrade their sanitation situation or the permanence of their house using the low-cost materials available on site. During visits for charging the community can explore the materials center – which may eventually more appropriately be called a Resource Center for Incremental Upgrading and view various prototypes or create their own. In the process the dialogue and practice of incremental upgrading will grow, wholly driven by the local community.

The skillful athlete had blown us away with his left and right hooks and came in for the knock out punch. Head of the Jinja federation’s negotiation committee, Joseph Sserunjoji stood at the end of the meeting to challenge the professionals: “The question is not if we are ready, but if YOU are ready?” And that’s when the … err … heart got excited. This community is in charge of a precedent-setting project for incremental, in situ, affordable, inclusive urban development and is impatient for the rest of us to catch up.

Activity photos: