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Jon with his dear friend Jacob. Note Jacob wears his cell phone on a cord around his neck.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating piece on the spread of cell phone technology throughout the world. I, of course, was most interested in its focus on sub-Saharan Africa.  It’s a story that has been told over and over in recent months: mobile phone use has spread rapidly throughout Africa and there are a thousand different ways that mobile phones can be used as a tool for development.

This article tells the story from the perspective of a guy with basically the most interesting job ever: traveling the world to observe how people use their cell phones and talking with them about design.  One of the things I really liked about this article was that it went beyond describing possible development projects based on mobile phone technology to highlighting the fundamental ways that cell phones change the way people live, which in turn impacts development.  For instance, the concept of “just in time,” which is the ability to make decisions with little advance planning.  A great quote:

Something that’s mostly a convenience booster for those of us with a full complement of technology at our disposal — land-lines, Internet connections, TVs, cars — can be a life-saver to someone with fewer ways to access information. A “just in time” moment afforded by a cellphone looks a lot different to a mother in Uganda who needs to carry a child with malaria three hours to visit the nearest doctor but who would like to know first whether that doctor is even in town. It looks different, too, to the rural Ugandan doctor who, faced with an emergency, is able to request information via text message from a hospital in Kampala.

And of course, I loved this article for the descriptions of cell phone use in Africa I have come to know so well.  Sending money via text message (our friend Hellen would do this all the time). Cell phone entrepreneurs (kiosks are everywhere, selling time on a phone or selling an hour to charge the phone).  Small businesses transformed by immediate access to information, or immediate contact with their customers (we would call up our boda boda driver, John, all the time to see if he was available to drive us.  And we’d ask him to bring along however many bodas we needed to move whoever we were with).

Cell phones have become a mainstream part of the culture in a way other technologies haven’t yet, at least in Uganda.  Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that mobile phone technology will one day, in the future, encourage development in sub-Saharan Africa.  It already is.

Want to be inspired? Check out this trailer for a documentary on women-owned craft businesses. It focuses on two groups, one of which is Uganda Crafts. It’s a beautiful piece and really gets the ethos of Uganda Crafts down in just a couple minutes. Additionally, many of my Ugandan friends and co-workers can be seen throughout the piece. AND a couple of my basket designs make the cut too! 🙂

The filmmakers were planning to go on to Haiti to learn about and film some similar work being done there. These types of businesses are more important than ever after the tragic events of last week’s earthquake. Please consider checking out their site and donating to help them capture the story of women’s businesses in Haiti.

Enjoy the film!

I recently came across this article, via the NY Times Motherlode blog, which describes the frustrations experienced by the mother of an autistic child. Her frustrations lie not with the travails of raising an autistic son, but with the world around him and how his peers respond to him: not through empathy or care, but as if he were their charity project. Worse still, they are self-congratulatory about the many ways that they have “helped” her son, through participation in an alternative sports club. A few key passages:

One Saturday morning last year, Marc and I sat in the synagogue listening to a boy we know from our town deliver his bar mitzvah speech. “For my mitzvah project I’m so proud of all the work I did for the Alternative League,” he said. “I’m really good at sports, so I was able to share all my skills with those kids.”

There it is again. Those kids.

“I hope I helped their lives in some way,” he added.

Marc leaned in. “Did he come to any of our games?” he whispered.

“I saw him there once. Maybe twice?” I whispered back.

Here’s what particularly galled me: this kid, all self-congratulatory smiles, actually lives in our neighborhood. He’s close in age to our son Mickey. But in all these years, this boy has never – – not once – rung the doorbell to ask if my son wants to come out and play.


My friend Susan, the parent of a child with a disability, tells me that last year some boy on her block who had an assignment for his church’s confirmation class asked to “borrow” her son Jacob. They played basketball in the driveway for ten minutes, till the boy’s mother came running to document the event with her digital camera. Susan showed less forbearance than I. “I’m sorry,” she said, stepping firmly between Jacob and the camera. “I feel very uncomfortable with you photographing him. My son isn’t a project. He’s a person.”


I’m tired of other parents who expect me to go all soft-eyed and grateful because their kids spend one hour a week on a soccer field kicking a ball around with my son. My child isn’t a mascot. He isn’t a charity case. He isn’t a community project. He’s a kind-hearted, teen-age boy who enjoys having friends. And he happens to have autism.

This article hit me really close to home as I read it. As the older sibling of two kids with disabilities, I respond pretty viscerally to stories like this. I remember watching my brother and sister (they’re twins) enter high school freshman year, when I was a senior. Watching them, with heartbreak, from afar as their peers teased them, ignored them, or talked down to them. I would’ve been enraged if I knew that people used them for their own self-promotion. That by “befriending” my siblings, they would gain access to scholarships, get into ivy league universities, etc. I can completely sympathize with the mom who wants people to view her son as a full person – not a project.

But, just as much as Kupferberg’s article reminded me of my own brother and sister, it reminded me of much of the workings and attitudes within the development world. When the poor and the marginalized become projects – absent from real relationships – we fail to do our jobs. When we make a group of people into “those people” who should consider themselves lucky to receive the charity we’re giving them, we’re reenacting the dynamic that Kupferberg describes in her article on a large scale. If we think that working with “those kids” or “those poor people” is a reason for us to congratulate ourselves on what wonderful people we are, we are sorely amiss. There is another subtle message in this article, which is that Kupferberg’s son, and others like him, have a lot to offer their peers. This mirrors what the asset based community development school of thought says about poor communities: there is much knowledge and value in these communities, and this value should be central to any development that takes place.

Put more simply: the “other”-ing of both individuals and communities for our own gain is not only harmful to the individual/community, it also prevents us from learning something new and useful.

I feel a bit of irony writing about this, as I have benefitted greatly on account of the work I’ve done with various communities: from my admittance to Northwestern to my Mitchell scholarship.  So the article hits me very personally as well.  But I think Kupferberg’s main point is about the attitude with which we engage these people and communities.  Is it for our own gain, where we possess all the knowledge and are mostly working to advance our own careers?  Or is it for collective gain, where everybody learns and everybody teaches, for everybody’s benefit?  I hope that I can continually strive to work towards the latter.

Reading this reminded me of the pain experienced by individuals who are made into a project.  I want to keep re-reading it, to remind myself of that danger in my own work, and the very real consequences it can have.

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Betty surrounded by baskets and artisans

Whenever I see Betty, usually seated outside Uganda Crafts with a line of visitors waiting to be seen by her, she greets me like this, “Banange, Nabukalu! Nsanuse okukulaba!” Which basically translates into “My goodness, Lauren! I’m so happy to see you!” I am the happy recipient of this warm greeting whether it has been a month since I’ve seen her, or just a few days.

Betty Kinene is a indeed a very warm and special person to me and to hundreds of other people.

Betty was born in the 1950s and contracted polio at the age of 3. As one of 35 children from her father (yes, THIRTY-FIVE), Betty struggled to pay for her schooling, but managed to get by, and was one of the top students in the country.

After schooling, she made a living as a shopkeeper in Kampala. She lost her husband during the Amin regime, but managed to continue working and caring for her children on her own.

In 1983, the president of Uganda, Milton Obote, allowed Indians who had been expelled from the country under Amin to return to the shops they had lost. Betty turned up to her shop one day, and found it locked and all of her merchandise seized. It had been an Indian shop before and was being reclaimed now. Shocked by her loss of employment and merchandise, Betty sat down on the steps to cry. A woman named Marilyn Dodge, who had been a faithful customer of the shop, happened by, and saw Betty crying. Marilyn, who was an American working with UNICEF, had an idea for Betty: start a new shop which employs disabled people through crafts. Betty and Marilyn began planning, and Uganda Crafts was born.

Uganda Crafts began as a small non-profit shop, which sold a variety of handicrafts to tourists in Kampala. Dozens of men and women, some disabled, some widowed, and some simply poor, began to sell their work to Uganda Crafts for money. The non-profit grew and grew, and in the 1990s, Uganda Crafts began selling baskets to Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade shop in the United States and Canada. It was then that Betty learned about the concept of fair trade and started incorporating it directly into her work with Uganda Crafts.

Today, Betty continues leading Uganda Crafts as the managing director. Uganda Crafts became a for-profit business in 2000, in an attempt to “stand on our own” as Betty puts it, and become self-reliant, not depending on donations or charity. It turns out that Betty was ahead of the curve as some of the current trends in the development world include social entrepreneurism and a backlash against dependence on aid. Uganda Crafts now exports crafts to numerous fair trade retailers in the US, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Canada, and beyond.

In addition to running Uganda Crafts, Betty is a counselor in her home district of Mpigi. She helps settle disputes between community members and even within families. She’s involved with many different organizations which work with people with disabilities. She also started Papula Paper in 2006, a community based organization which I’ve written about recently. Always an entrepreneur, she recently opened a hostel near her home for students attending a new art university.

In person, Betty is warm and funny. She loves teaching me about Buganda culture, and was quick to adopt me into the family by naming me Nabukalu (meaning either clever woman or difficult woman, depending on who you talk to). This name signifies that I am a member of a particular clan, the clan of Betty’s husband, making me a sister to her children.

Betty is one of the people I will miss the most when I am gone. She’s an inspiration to me and to so many women and people with disabilities working in Kampala today. I’m proud to call her a friend.

Were currently in Gulu–our last trip here. The purpose of the visit is a combination of saying goodbyes and having a few meetings related to our work for

Yesterday we had dinner with a Catholic priest who has become a friend and host for us on several visits here. During the meal he recounted a recent visit to his home village in Pader District. He was asked to moderate a dispute between a new widow and extended family over how to handle her late husband’s estate (apparently this problem is global).

Father also told us another thing that was on everyone’s mind in his home village–the recent influx of iron sheets, farm implements and other “resettlement packages” that the government is currently handing out to local communities in the conflict-affected areas. At first I was happy to hear that government is doing some of this. But, then Father explained how the process is unfolding. According to the people Father spoke with, government officials were handing out the items to selected people with the clear quid pro quo that their “support” was expected in upcoming elections. When Father suggested that maybe the people should be pragmatic and accept the much-needed items but then refuse to support the government at the ballot box, he was told that the gifts were being given with a “clear understanding” that government would be following up to see which recipients had “followed through on support” and which had not.

It is this sophisticated use of patronage and fear that keeps the government here going strong. Slowly but surely, they strategically distribute development gifts (usually paid for with aid money) that people desperately need. Logically weighing short-term need over long-term principles, people accept them with open arms. Then, once people are bought, government strong arms them into maintaing the regime while making threats of a return to past violence or new forms of future retribution.

I suppose this form of government functioning is not altogether unique…sounds quite like many governments in the world and is not so different from the way Chicago worked for decades, albeit to a lesser degree. But, that still makes it unfortunate and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Fifteen years ago, Rwanda was a week in to its now-infamous genocide, which lasted a remarkably short amount of time.

To my knowledge, this fact hasn’t been too widely written about in the US. But there are two articles that came out recently which are very much worth reading, both which capture Rwanda fifteen years later.

One is a beautiful piece, written by a blogger/journalist I really admire. It tells the story of a genocide survivor making peace with her attacker. At times it is hard to read, but the story comes directly from the mouths of both survivor and attacker. It is a breath of fresh air to read about peacemaking from the people who are actually doing the peacemaking in their own lives.

The other article is a report on Rwanda’s plan for economic development, a venture undertaken by Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame. In a lot of ways I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of Kagame’s proposals and ideas. And as a tourist in Rwanda just over a month ago, I can see how some of his ideas are working on the ground. The tourism industry can especially take root in a place that is as clean and safe as Rwanda is now. However, there is a lot of concern over the heavy-handedness of the Rwandan regime, the suppression of dissent, etc. So it is hard for me to give my full support. Regardless, the article is well-written and important. (HT my dear friend Nathaniel for this one).

Please check these out – they are too good to pass up.


Last week, Jon and I got the chance to visit the Maganjo Progressive Women’s Group, a small group of artisans in the Kampala suburb of Maganjo. The group isn’t all women, but women definitely have a central role in the group.  Since 1993, they’ve existed as a network of about 25 active members. Together they make and market their crafts and support each other in a lot of quieter ways as well.  The group members who welcomed us to the homestead of  one of the members seemed as close as family.

Apart from their handicrafts, which run the standard gammut of recycled paper beads, woven mats, and hand loom cloth, the group has a number of little innovations which they use individually and spread to their community.  Jon and I were quite dumbfounded at all the little things this group has invented or adopted to make their lives a little better.  The house we visited seemed to be home to about a million little innovations.

First, there was the solar cooker.  This little contraption dries food using just the heat of the sun.  Inside they had tiny eggplants (which are a bitter, but much loved, food here) that get mashed up into a paste.  I also had the chance to have a little bit of dried cabbage, which they also use as a condiment.  Mmm. 🙂

solar cooker

solar cooker

Next, the refrigerator.  This was a small box with charcoal walls.  There were banana stems on a small shelf inside near the top of the box.  Sitting atop the box was a plastic basin filled with water.  Apparently, to keep the contraption cool, you just pour water into the box from the top.  I have no idea how this has a cooling effect… but it does!



To improve sanitation, the group invented a sink using a jerrycan and some wood.  Now when people are done in the bathroom, washing hands is simple and clean.



This group did not stop there.  They even came up with their own form of coffee or tea… crushing small seeds from a local plant and then adding hot water and sugar.  They let us try this too… and it was quite delicious!

seeds for tea

seeds for tea

Jon and I left feeling quite energized by the ingenuity of this group.  Not only have they come together to do craft work and market their products, they are constantly innovating and sharing ways of making their lives better.  This kind of “development work” hardly gets any play… local, smart, inexpensive development happening under the radar so that it rarely is seen.  It made me wonder how many other cool, innovative things I’ve passed by in my time here…


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