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MILLION PERSON PROJECT: Uganda

As the curator of The Million Person Project, an international project about love, globalizing relationships and supporting change makers, Heather Box is on a journey to Vietnam, South Africa and Uganda working alongside and chronicling her experiences with those fostering awareness on international climate change. This is just one of her powerful stories as a special contributor to STARK, about what compassion, global community, hope and connection can do for the human spirit across the globe.

Words & Photos: Heather Box

We weaved through the crowded taxi park of Kampala. Julian fit right in, carrying our bag on his head so he could be more agile. My feet were already so dirty, I wondered how I would feel after not showering for a day and hiking five kilometers through a forest to John’s village. The taxis really are vans, but everyone laughs at us when we call them van cabs. It must be like saying yellow, four-door vehicle for yellow cab or something. I’ve tried to get to the bottom of why people laugh, and they say it just doesn’t make sense and that we should just call them taxis. Anyway, the van cabs are not something Carolynn or Laura Box would approve of a single bit. We squeezed into the van with seventeen others and began our journey. Racing along the highway, we’d screech to a stop every 15 miles or so and fling open the windows so that passengers could buy essentials from people on the side of the road. Milk, bananas, newspapers or airtime for their cell phones. I passed the heavy, yellow, plastic container back to John as he passed up 2,000 shillings. It was so hot, almost too hot to touch. “Is that oil?” I asked. He laughed and said, “It’s milk.”

Julian, Geoffrey and John all slept. I couldn’t, it was too exciting. As we got out of the city and into the villages, I sat at the window waving to all of the kids. Kids would come sprinting from around their mud houses, screaming, laughing and waving. I waved back. I’m committed to waving back every single time. I spent years of my life playing “sweet and sour,” a game where I would wave at car windows, and count how many people waved back (sweet) and how many just looked away (sour). I never want to be sour.

John woke up and tapped me. It was our stop. The van screeched to a halt, this time we jumped out. “This is my home, you are very welcome,” John said. I looked around. I saw four buildings on either side of the road. Three women sat on a tarp in the sun laying out the grains they had harvested from their farm. Chickens roamed around the tarp eating bits. A girl sat nearby separating the straw out of a bucket of beans.

John greeted them. He then told us about three prominent farmers within his community; that with his assistance as well as his organization’s, the Kikandwa Environmental Association, one of these women had created an herbal pesticide that is being used across the region and now has enough money to pay all of her children’s school fees. Her story is not uncommon among the people John works with.

Four kids sat behind their moms whispering about me and Julian. They laughed at us. All the kids here do. It’s like we are embarrassing them. They usually point and laugh, wave and then run off. Sometimes we chase them, catch one of them and tickle them. They scream and laugh so hard, they think we are the weirdest. The times I’ve managed to make friends with someone young, I’ve asked them why they laugh so much. Their responses vary: my hair, Julian is funny looking or our shoes. I try to take it as a compliment. Mom always said that if people tease you, it’s because they really like you.

John, who is in his sixties, is fighting a case of Malaria so he is often really tired. Still he got up the energy to take us out to his village because he really wanted us to see the innovative work the farmers are doing locally. Their projects vary widely, from food security projects and reforestation efforts, to the school his community founded under the trees on his property. He had moved from his home village of Casajerre to the city some years ago, but he couldn’t ignore the fact that his community was really suffering and falling behind. People were going hungry, had no livelihoods and many of the children were dropping out because of the 14-kilometer roundtrip walk to and from school. He was so worried.

“Ten years ago, I just started to think, I’m getting to be an old man, but I think I can really make a difference if I go back and work with the community members. That is when I started the Kikandwa Environmental Association,” he said. The Kikandwa Environmental Association is an organization that is contributing to sustainable development, by supporting farmers to improve their livelihoods, connect to markets and engage in sustainable farming practices and natural resource management.

Julian and I exchanged so many looks of disbelief that day. It is incredibly hard to comprehend what has been put into action as a result of one man’s vision. As Julian dragged our luggage through the brush, I kept my eyes on the ground. John said when it’s really hot, sometimes cobras come out from the trees. (Yeah, cobras…) John stopped us at a vista. We looked out on miles and miles of young forest. John explained that ten years ago the forest was clear cut and the hillside was left bare. In 2004 he and his community started lobbying hard for the
forest to be replanted. They lobbied officials both locally and nationally, and organized people—village by village—to make their collective voice heard. He explained that they were focused on making their land and community sustainable by diversifying crops, innovating natural farming practices and starting small scale entrepreneurial projects. They also started to engage in community level advocacy for this forest.

“They listened to us. It makes me so happy to see these trees. It is really a forest now. The animals are coming back,” John said as he turned around and began to march away. I felt like such a wimp. Thirty years my senior, he has malaria and no water, meanwhile I already drank my weekend supply of water and I am hiding in the shade for a quick rest. Julian signaled me to come close to him. He whispered, “How has nobody written a book on this guy? He’s unbelievable. He’s like John Muir level.”

He really is! There is so much more to say about this trip, but I have to sleep now. The photos are a sneak peak of part two including, but not limited to: Arriving in the village; meeting the elders and innovators; the chicken/farmer/ termite partnership; how a storytelling camp fire turned into Julian getting picked up and brought to an impromptu wedding dinner for me and him; having breakfast in the main classroom in the school under the trees and our workshop with the farmers.

In the spirit of facilitating global relationships, if you find John’s work inspiring please feel free to email him to introduce yourself. Tell him you read about him and whatever else you would like to say: ekikandwa@yahoo.com. (Go on, don’t be shy…)

And be sure to check out his website Here.

Heather Box is a journalist and founder of The Million Person Project, an international project that supports global change makers on environmental policy issues, like climate change. These are her stories on the road. To Support her project, visit her site HERE.

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