Working at the “Grassroots”

When I think back to this time last year, when nearly everyday I would run for the fast Metropolitan line train from Pinner to Farringdon, squeeze in next to sweaty businessmen playing games on their iPhones and try not to fall over every time the train stopped for the next hour, my morning commute in Uganda is positively paradise. A relaxing 20 minute walk (everyone walks slowly here… what’s the rush?!) through a maze of dirt roads, small streams and swampy grasses that takes me past little shops, street vendors, small business and NGO offices… actually, a very large number of NGO offices!


“Good morning muzungu!” My little friend on my way to work

There are over 10,000 registered NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) in Uganda, many of which have their headquarters in Kampala, so they are about as ubiquitous as the rolex stands. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; on the contrary, NGOs play a huge role in supporting people at all levels of society, especially at the “grassroots”.

But what does “working at the grassroots” actually mean?

“Grassroots” is one of the most commonly used buzzwords in international development speak, meaning simply to work at an individual- or community-level with a “bottom-up” perspective.  Whoops, it’s almost impossible to describe it without using more buzzwords! I guess in practice it means putting initiatives into the hands of individuals and communities so that they can grow their own solutions and drive their own development, in all areas of their lives: farming, health, education etc.

Environmental Alert is one of these NGOs that has been working at the “grassroots” level since its founding in 1988, focusing on improving people’s livelihoods through agricultural assistance and natural resource management. When I found out what my project would be – making an ecotourism plan for a protected wetland that’s currently managed by a small community association – I was eager to get started and see what we could achieve.


A community meeting at Mabamba

Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems and what I wasn’t anticipating was the number of difficulties I would come across, from very obvious ones like the language barrier between myself and most of the community members, to much more complex issues of decision-making and underlying conflicts within their association. Without going into huge amounts of detail, here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt about working “at the grassroots”…

  1. Be realistic and manage expectations – To people living in small rural communities, depending on the land for everything from food to shelter to medicines and even clothing, the image of NGOs is generally one of wealth, education and most of all, ‘development’. Therefore their expectations for what NGOs can provide are often much higher than the budget or staff capacity can offer. For me, being a ‘mzungu’ automatically added another level of expectation that I was careful to address from the beginning.
  2. Communicate – With so many NGOs in the country, there are times when programmes overlap and two or three organisations have funding for the same area.  But without frequent communication, the vision for future development can become confused, especially for community members themselves, who may be told different things by different NGOs. This has certainly been the case at Mabamba, where the community have been drawing up budgets and proposals for various projects, guided by staff from NGOs with different interests and priorities.
  3. Look at the bigger picture – It is not enough to concentrate on the community-level alone, without identifying and considering Government departments and policies, private sector developments and other institutions such as the church, who might all have connections in some way to the community or area concerned. For example, the land at Mabamba is owned by the Catholic church, but the community are allowed to live there, provided they follow the rules of the Government’s Wetlands Management Department. Politics is a tricky subject, but one which NGOs must engage with if they want to create long-lasting change within communities. NGOs have the power to lobby and advocate for fair policies and decisions which benefit communities and set the conditions for their programmes to succeed. At Mabamba, sand mining is the biggest political issue, as the Government has recently started to give out licences for private companies and individuals to extract sand from the wetland to sell to the construction industry. Everyday, huge trucks come and go, removing the sand at such a rate that accidents happen as children and animals fall into the holes left behind, which can be as deep as 20-30m. The community have no influence and can only watch as they lose more and more of their precious wetland. But at least with the help of NGOs such as Environmental Alert, the community are not alone in their struggle and can put some hope in their joint efforts.

Mabamba Bay wetland in February

So despite all the complexities and challenges of “working at the grassroots level”, I’ve seen that NGOs have a significant role to play in community development, not just in providing critical services but, even more importantly, in providing a connection between community members and those with the power to influence their future.


World Wetlands Day Celebrations

Every year on 2nd February the world celebrates World Wetlands Day, marking the date of the adoption of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1971.  In true ‘Africa time’, the Ugandan Government held their celebrations three weeks later, on 25th February, so that local schoolchildren could be involved (the new term didn’t start until 3rd February).

With 11% of the country’s land area made up of wetlands, World Wetlands Day is an important occasion for the Government and Civil Society Organisations of Uganda. It’s an opportunity to share research findings, best practice wetland “wise use” initiatives, and to raise awareness of the importance of conserving and managing wetlands sustainably.

If you’re still with me, well done! I promise it gets more interesting from here!

Environmental Alert and MWETA (Mabamba Wetland Ecotourism Association) both had stalls at the wetlands exhibition so we left at 5:30am to pick up the three MWETA representatives (each holding a plastic jerry can containing different fish species they’d caught in the swamp!) before driving to Mityana, where the celebrations were taking place. For some reason I was expecting the exhibition to be indoors so I was amused to find ourselves outside, in a school playing field, with only a couple of wooden benches for our whole display! It worked out fine though, and the fish went down a treat with the kids!


While the stall holders were setting up (most people took the arrival time of 8:30am with a pinch of salt!) the chief guests went down to Lake Wamala to meet with the community and show their commitment to wetland conservation by planting new trees along the shore to establish a ‘buffer zone’ where fishing activities were to be prohibited. In response, the fishermen showed their commitment by burning a huge pile of fishing nets. I’m not sure the burning was really necessary, especially on a global environmental day, but it had the desired effect!


A marching band accompanied us back to the exhibition, where the chief guests did a tour of the stalls, giving each stallholder the chance to introduce themselves and their work over the PA. By the time they had gone round everyone it was coming up to lunch, but I should have known not to get my hopes up – this is Uganda where every kind of celebration involves speeches, and no-one can eat until all the speeches are finished!

There were about 12 speeches in total from various guests, including representatives from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Government Ministries, but the highlight for me was the ‘entertainment’ in between – watching the schoolchildren perform songs and poems they had made on the theme of wetlands and the environment. The final part of the day included an award-giving ceremony, with certificates for all the participants, followed by the launch of a wetlands game, similar to ludo but with education about wetlands (we’ll see if that one catches on!)

The day drew to a close at 4:30, only three hours behind schedule(!), but unfortunately we had to leave before the lunch was brought out to get back to Kampala – I consoled myself with a Terrific Tuesdays buy-one-get-one-free pizza with Michaela later!

Ecotourism at Mabamba Wetlands

This blog post is a little overdue – sorry to all those people who are still wondering what I’m actually doing in Uganda (apart from enjoying the sights and sounds of Kampala and its surroundings!)

For me, volunteering in East Africa is also important for gaining experience within the environment and international development sector; discovering what the challenges and solutions are for a country like Uganda, which is blessed with an abundance of natural resources but still suffers from chronic poverty.

One of the biggest issues for Uganda’s Government and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) alike is the question of how to protect the country’s vast equatorial ecosystems (forests, lakes, grasslands, wetlands) and incredible biodiversity, whilst at the same time contributing to economic growth and supporting a rapidly expanding population in the capital (currently estimated at around 5 million but growing all the time).


This is where Environmental Alert comes in, the NGO I’m volunteering with for the next six months.  For over 15 years, EA has undertaken research and piloted field projects to ensure that Government policy decisions reflect the priorities of the poor and promote the sustainable use of Uganda’s natural resources.  EA builds partnerships with like-minded institutions to scale up best practices, and strengthens smaller civil society organisations and local networks to engage in policy processes and hold duty-bearers accountable.

Currently, EA is focussing on halting the degradation of forests and wetlands by working at both Government and community-level to promote sustainable agriculture and livelihoods which help to improve the health of soils, increase food security and combat the onset of climatic changes such as low rainfall in the dry seasons.

So where do I fit into this? My task during my six months with EA is to research and draw up an ecotourism development plan for a wetland area called Mabamba Bay, about 50km from Kampala on the banks of Lake Victoria.  Part of the site was recognised as a Ramsar site in 2006 to offer protection to the 190,000 birds found there, the most notable of which is the globally endangered Shoebill, which I was lucky enough to see on my first visit there last week!

The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) Mabamba is home to just 9 individuals out of 250 in Uganda

The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) Mabamba is home to just 9 individuals out of 250 in Uganda

There are also important cultural sites in the catchment including 600 year old tombs, ancient forests and a cultural hill where people go to offer gifts so that they may give birth to twins (which are highly renowned in Uganda and considered a spiritual blessing).

Nansubuga Cultural Hill - offerings made for twins

Offerings made for twins at the top of Nansubuga Cultural Hill

But despite the numerous opportunities for tourism at Mabamba, so far the tourist numbers have been very small, with most visitors staying for just a couple of hours.  The community living at Mabamba hopes that with investment in ecotourism, they can afford to protect the wetland from destructive activities such as agricultural encroachment, sand mining, poaching and clearing of papyrus for firewood, which are already occurring on various scales.

I’ll be working directly with the community through an association of community members and bird guides committed to promoting ecotourism at Mabamba, who are all wonderful characters (more on these guys in a future post!)  For now though it’s back to work!

Environmental Alert

I first came across Environmental Alert during my internship with the Environmental Justice Foundation, working on a project called ‘Home Truths’ which seeks to raise awareness of the human rights impacts of climate change through photographic and video testimonies recorded by grassroots partners in various countries across the world. Fortunately for me, when it came to choosing a placement in Uganda for ICYE, both organisations agreed to form a partnership to allow myself and future ICYE volunteers to be placed with them.

I will be joining Environmental Alert as a volunteer for six months from January 2014, based at their head office in Kampala, the capital, but also travelling to their numerous community projects around the country. With a name like Environmental Alert, you may be wondering what they do exactly! All will be revealed in time but for now I have tried to provide a (brief) description from their website…


Environmental Alert (EA) is a Non-Governmental development Organization born out of the need to address the alarmingly low levels of agricultural productivity, high levels of food insecurity and low incomes in both rural and urban poor communities across Uganda, in addition to protecting against rapid degradation of natural resources on which community livelihoods depend.

Since its founding in 1988, EA has led from the grassroots up in Food Security and Enterprise Development, as well as Environment & Natural Resources Management policies and practices.  EA is a member of the Wetlands Advisory Committee, Agri-profocus among several other high profile technical committees, and also a member of the World Conservation Union IUCN.

EA’s mission is ‘to contribute to improved livelihoods of vulnerable communities by enhancing agricultural productivity and sustainable natural resource management.’  In these areas, EA promotes economically viable, socially acceptable and ecologically alternative livelihood activities in which wetlands, land and forests are sustainably utilized and increasingly delivering benefits appropriate benefits to meet the community’s social and economic needs.

Find out more about Environmental Alert on their website: