Uganda has a population of 17 million people, 90% of whom live in rural areas. After two decades of conflict the country is experiencing a period of political and economic recovery under the National Resistance Movement. Agriculture is the main basis of the economy, with 80% of export earnings coming from coffee (though more than half of this currently disappears on debt servicing).
The literacy rate is officially 55% but is widely assumed to be lower. Women's literacy rates are even lower (officially 45%) reflecting the status of women in society. As in most countries women have lower incomes and reduced access to education and health care. The large number of households (approximately 40%) that are headed by women, are thus particularly vulnerable.
However, national policy has increasingly put women's issues on the agenda, and the essential contribution of women to the development of the country is widely discussed.
Uganda is a multi-lingual country; the three main language groups being Bantu, Nilotic, and Central Sudanic. The official languages are Lugandan, and English. Most people understand and speak languages other than their mother tongue.
The pilot project area, Bundibugyo, is situated in the extreme South West of Uganda along the border with Zaire, approximately 400 Kms from Kampala. It is separated from the rest of the country by the Rwenzori mountain chain, and is accessed by one steeply winding road. Physical isolation is one of the most striking features of the district.
The District is divided into Ntoroko and Bwamba counties, and ACTIONAID works in the latter. Bwamba has a population of 92, 300 divided between the highlands (40%) and the lowlands (60%) The area is thus divided by its topography, and even within the lowlands the land is crossed by steep ridges made by fast flowing mountain streams. Population density is very high (261 per sq.km) because most of the county is forest reserve which only the few remaining pygmies are allowed to inhabit.
Bwamba's economy almost wholly consists of a large number of self sufficient family farms, mainly operating at subsistence level. The increasing population density has led to land fragmentation, soil exhaustion and food insecurity. The area produces a great deal of Uganda's coffee, but prices paid to producers have always fluctuated -and usually not to the growers' advantage. Goods from outside are very expensive due to transport costs, and physical isolation makes profitable trading difficult.
The two main groups of people in Bundibugyo, the Bamba and the Bakonjo, have been dominated by the neighbouring Batoro people for a great part of their history. This has exacerbated economic problems as the development of the area was always neglected by the ruling Batoro. There are very few schools, roads or any other services.
Women have a very low status in Bwamba, are not allowed to speak before men (with no voice, therefore, in decision making), and are universally regarded as valuable human beings only in terms of their ability to produce crops and children. One of the ways in which this low status expresses itself is in a woman's powerless position in marriage negotiations (bride price is paid to male relatives who thus have a vested interest in the arrangements) and in marriage (particularly as there is widespread polygamy). In addition, women have no right to assets, and although most adult women have their own micro economic projects, they need access to land to grow food for their children. It is estimated locally that just 25% of women are literate (and in some parishes fewer than 10%) compared to about 50% of men. Initial research revealed that this was seen by both women and men as a reason for their exclusion from decision making.
Rutoro, the language of the dominant Batoro, has been used for all official purposes - in offices, hospital, churches, schools - and most salaried posts have been held by Rutoro speakers. Literacy and education and power have all been confined to the Rutoro language. In fact the languages of Lubwisi and Lukonjo had not been systematically written down until the REFLECT literacy programme started. The languages are therefore still developing in their written form, and are a focus for local identity.
ACTIONAID spent four months in early 1992 on intensive research at village level in Bundibugyo aiming to develop a relationship of trust; understand the nature of people's lives; and find out their priorities for ACTIONAID'S work over the following ten years of the programme. Participatory Rural Appraisal was one of the research methodologies used. The development approach recommended following this research was as follows:
In many respects Bundibugyo was an ideal area for piloting the REFLECT approach. Learners' enthusiasm for previously unwritten and underprivileged languages; the lack of disillusionment with literacy generally (quite different from people subjected to mass literacy campaigns); the political environment in Uganda, and the high calibre of ACTIONAID staff can all be counted as assets.
The less positive factors must not, however, be forgotten. These include the irregular attendance of learners (vulnerable due to their low income, poor health; heavy workload and extraordinarily difficult terrain); lack of external support for community actions from official agencies, the low status of women (majority of the learners) and the lack of reading materials in the mother tongue languages.
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