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Cranes, goats and chickens - not the animals I expected to find in Uganda

J. Adam Calaway

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations

Posted May 31, 2013

Last night, the small club down the hill boomed 1980s and '90s music - early Whitney Houston, Bryan Adams and Boyz II Men - until the wee hours of the morning. It was like listening to the longest 8th grade dance ever. I fell asleep smiling ... and singing along.

Two chatty cranes roused me out of bed early. Their electro-shock squawk was a jolt to the system that remains slightly disjointed.

My first thought of the new day (besides my desire for a pellet gun and a clear shot): Ugandan sunrises never fail to impress. Maybe it's our proximity to the equator, the serenity of Lake Victoria or the emerald valley that surrounds us, but I am again awestruck.

(Side note: Before we leave I apply my first layer of sunblock and grab my new broad-rimed hat that makes me feel like Indiana Jones when I wear it. Seriously, I hear the theme music in my head.)

Our international trek is over but the travel is just beginning. Our team - Steve, Noble's agricultural economist, his wife, Vicki, Noble-Watoto Fellow Sarah Hart and I began a week-long tour of the Watoto children villages and farms. These eight locales are as close as a 45-minute drive and as far as a full day's excursion.

Assisting Watoto's agricultural projects is our mission. Steve and Sarah will spend the week surveying each area, and drafting a game plan with Moses, the head of Watoto's agriculture division, and Lianna, second in command. Steve will stay several more weeks to provide expert counsel (and a fair share of heavy lifting). The team will also draft a work plan for Sarah, who will spend all summer side-by-side with Moses and Lianna as part of her fellowship.

As a recap, Watoto's sustainable agriculture projects kicked off about two years ago. Steve was there on the ground floor and played a key role. Developing viable agriculture endeavors will make Watoto villages self-sustaining. The farms not only provide necessary nutrition (fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and poultry products) but both house mothers and children will have an opportunity to learn new skills. Additionally, the ag products can be sold at market to provide a revenue stream.

Our first stop is Suubi (pronounced sue-bee), which is located about 40 minutes southwest of Kampala. Suubi is home to one of Watoto's three Children Villages, one of the two baby homes and a goat farm.

A new model

The Watoto model for housing orphans is far superior to the institutional format that packs children a dormitory-style setting. Instead, Watoto provides homes that include a "house mother" who oversees eight children. Volunteer teams from around the world fund and construct each home, which consists of three bedrooms, a kitchen, living area and bathroom with clean running water and power. Clusters of these homes form the core of each Watoto Children Village.

Each of the three villages (located in various parts of the country) supports about 1,000 children and includes a primary school, high school, vocational training, a water project, medical clinic and a multi-purpose hall for use as a church and community center.

Watoto accepts children between newborn and 12 years of age, and, once in Watoto, the children remain a part of their new family for life. The Watoto mission extends beyond simply saving as many orphaned and vulnerable children as possible. Watoto seeks to raise these children up, give them education and appreciable skills, so that they may become future leaders and bring change to a nation.

At Suubi, we first visit the Fabrication Unit. The concept of sustainability extends beyond agriculture and permeates the whole of Watoto's thinking. Instead of purchasing a constant supply of furniture, Watoto's Fabrication Unit is a hive of activity: sawing, painting, welding, assembling. The team constructs everything from the desks in the classrooms to the beds in the homes. The team is truly a testament to the Watoto philosophy.

building furniture
A member of Watoto's fabrication unit welds part of a picnic table. The fabrication unit builds much of the furniture for the children villages and babies homes.

Gabbin' about goats

We head up the road to the goat farm. It's early but the day is already steamy - not hot necessarily - just sticky. The amount of sweat I'm losing can't be normal. It just can't be.

The goat farm rests on a gently sloping hill. Several acres have been sectioned into large paddocks that hold a dozen or more goats each. All totaled there are about 135 goats, which provide invaluable milk for the children.

Goats were the first agriculture endeavor for Watoto. Today, the program's growth is obvious: the number of goats has increased with several kids (baby goats) on the way; there are expanded and improved facilities; and additional equipment continues to pour in. They are on the cusp of moving to an automated milking system.

We meet up with Lianna at the goat farm. As the second in charge for Watoto agriculture program, Lianna spends most of her time in the fields, working with the ag team. She's thin, strong, and tanned from the Uganda sun. Her blond locks are pulled into a ponytail. She's ready to work.

On this morning, she surveys the goat farm with an expert eye. Steve and her run the gauntlet of goat topics - everything from fencing, the pending arrival of kids and cranky bucks.

I notice the thickness and height of the grass in the paddocks. Clearly they have just put the goats in these pens I think to myself. Clearly, I don't know what I'm talking about.

My knowledge of goats - while admittedly limited - includes a memory of watching my uncle's goats eat a field down to bare dirt in about 26 seconds, so my assumption seems logical. Steve explains that the goats have been located in the paddocks for almost two years. Some of the Ugandan grasses grow so fast (up to a foot a week) that the goats can't keep up with it.

What? (blink ... blink ... blink) What? This doesn't even register. Goats can't keep up with the grasses? Goats can eat an entire semi if they want. I need to sit down. I feel like I'm still falling down the rabbit hole.

goat farm
Steve Swigert, a Noble Research Institute ag economist, (left) and Lianna Scholz, assistant team leader for Watoto agriculture, discuss goat health and fencing during a stop at the Suubi goat farm.

Simple experiences

Our last stop at Suubi is one of the baby homes. We're greeted by Ruth, who knows all of the 99 babies by name. The babies stay here until they are old enough to be placed into one of the Children Villages.

The home is immaculate - spacious, clean and on the edge of paradise (this home overlooks a Ugandan valley that tops anything ever captured by Hollywood). Each floor of the two-story building is divided by a center hallway with classrooms and bedrooms off each side. At the far end is a series of shallow wading pools where about 20 babies splash around in sagging diapers. Countless attendees laugh (and closely monitor) as the tiny tots do their best to remove all the water from the pools. The amount of water being sprayed in every direction looks like a sprinkler blew up. You can't help but laugh along.

Ruth leads us through a series of rooms each containing different ages of kids. Some rooms are bustling with activities as teachers and helpers attend to a dozen babies. Other rooms are still as meditation. Nap time.

We enter a room swarming with children playing, toys are flung, giggles, cries and movement - all about knee high. I take a seat on the far end and soon Isaac toddles over to me with outstretched arms and plops down in my lap.

adam holding isaac

Isaac doesn't do anything. He just leans into me. Warmth radiates off of him. He wanted to be held. After a minute, I set him up and his soft eyes are big black pools of tenderness. They absolutely stare right through me, and I realized I will never have to ask again: Why are we doing all this in Uganda? Why would we not expend the energy and resources in the US? Why?

The right question is: Why would we not help? When your neighbor hungry, you don't go to a full stockroom and ponder your needs. You give.

As Isaac sat staring at me, the humanity of the situation was revealed. The Lord puts us on this Earth to love all people - not just those from our country, not just those with the same color skin or who speak or think the same way we do. He put us here to love everyone.

Simple experiences like holding Isaac for a few minutes makes you understand the unspeakable, intangible connection between people. We must do better.

baby mirror
Babies look at their reflection during play time at the babies home in Suubi. Almost 100 orphans live at the babies home. When they are older, they will move into one of the Watoto villages.

Building the ultimate chicken coop

The last stop of the day was the Buloba farm, which will soon be home to Watoto's poultry operation. We arrive and a worker on the far end of an expansive barn (30 feet by 300 feet, basically a skinny football field) stands on scaffolding painting the trusses silver. By the end of the summer, more than 12,000 chickens will produce 10,000 eggs a day, providing protein to the Watoto villages and a product to the local market. The plan is to finalize the first chicken barn this summer with the potential to add three more in the near future.

chicken coop
The chicken barn at Buloba will soon house more than 7,000 chickens that will produce 5-6,000 eggs a day. The barn will eventually house up to 12,000 chickens. The hope is to build three more chicken barns of this size to provide eggs for the Watoto villages and to be sold at market.

Today, fencing is the focus. There are no wood posts here. Termite mounds the size of Coke machines line the roads so if you dare put wood posts in you might as well ring a tiny serving bell and pass out miniature bibs. Instead, quality posts are made of cement. They are heavy and tall but they will endure.

Unfortunately, a giant tree stump several feet in diameter impedes placing the last few posts. The Watoto crew has cut the tree down (by hand) but the stump still needs to be dug out. Here is where I'm introduced to a local saying, "Everything takes longer and is harder in Uganda." It's true. You don't go buy a chainsaw at the local hardware store because there is no hardware store like the US. So you buy an ax, but often you have to buy the ax handle and ax head separately and then assemble it. Just buying the ax could take all day.

Steve expedites the digging by unloading a Bobcat and digging out around the stump. The crew will only have to chop through a main support root and then push it over.

Steve Swigert, a Noble Research Institute ag economist, digs around the base of a large tree stump that is preventing the finalization of a fence. Swigert has been working intensely with Watoto on agricultural sustainability for almost two years.

Buloba is also the location for three new grain bins that will hold 15,000 bushels of grain. The ability to preserve grain will save Watoto tens of thousands of dollars through the dry season when prices spike.

Buloba will soon be a major production center and key component for Watoto's ag sustainability project. For now, construction continues and a vision nears fulfillment.

Day 4 ends much as it began - with a sense of awe. So much has been built so quickly. The lives of thousands of children have been redirected by one organization, and I truly believe they will help change the future of a country. Tomorrow we begin the cross-country trek to Gulu (Goo-loo) in northern Uganda. I've been promised it will be a journey to remember.

I can believe that. It already has been.