Portrait of a Business in Northern Uganda

Individual stories give us great insight into what the poor face on a daily basis but they also can distort the picture because we assume the stories we here are everyone’s story. As you can expect most stories we hear are the most extreme or interesting because stories are meant to grab our attention. Here is one such story of own of our original workers at Bits who has seen many of the ups and downs of poverty.

Lamunu Agness is around 30 (actual ages are hard to know in a post-war area) and lives 3 miles to the north of Gulu, Uganda. She and her family settled in this relatively remote area after the civil war a decade or so ago. As is common in post-war areas thousands of people are displaced from their villages and when the war ends they find a new area to settle because home is either destroyed or too far away. Agness and her family found an area of open land and acquired the land through using the land and declaring what is theirs as is commonly done. Though very poor by any stretch of the imagination they “own” a good size piece of land, perhaps an acre or so. Keep in mind that an acre costs about $300 to own. Land is abundant in northern Uganda.

Lamunu Agness at her home

Lamunu Agness at her home

Agness had been employed at 31 Bits for five years and in her last year began a business selling groceries from a stand in her village that she ran full time upon her graduation at Bits. Her business was one of the most successful of all the graduates and was starting to acquire assets to further enhance her business. The shop was equipped with speakers and the store was expanding in terms of product offering though slowly. Times were still tough as her husband’s health was not the best and went through bouts of odd behavior that people attribute to evil spirits out here but progress was certainly happening.

She was experiencing every bit the slow climb of entrepreneurial success we at Bits want for the women and then that success collapsed on her. The shop became successful enough that her success was known in the area. Not just to her clan but neighboring clans. The day her troubles really started was when a death occurred on her property by a member of a neighboring clan. All rational accounts reveal that it was a suicide but when you are poor and opportunity knocks you take it.

Thus as you can expect Agness was targeted as the cause of the man’s death. Details are still a little uncertain how it all went down but it seems as though the neighboring clan tried to directly implicate Agness in the murder but when that didn’t hold it was attributed to evil spirits on Agness’ land which still holds Agness responsible. While she was in town dealing with the legal authorities and away from her village and shop, people broke into her house and shop and stole many items. Her business in every sense was torpedoed because of her success. She did everything right and everything anyone could have asked of her yet it wasn’t enough but the story doesn’t end there.

Upon hearing what happened to her, 31 Bits took her back and employed her to get her and her family back on their feet. She was employed on a 6 month contract that was later extended another 6 months to pay off her legal fees, obligations to the neighboring clan, and getting her business going again. Agness has 5 months left at Bits and has put in a request for a loan to invest in her business. She is selling out of her home and needs capital to build a structure for the shop as the old structure was destroyed by looters.

Area for her new shop. Richard our Business Manager looking it over.

Area for her new shop. Richard our Business Manager looking it over.

Our business manager and myself went out to visit Agness and see the progress. Her husband, who appeared in good health, was doing the tough and labor intensive process of making bricks for the structure. They are growing cassava (root like crop that is a staple in the diet) which is reading to harvest. An area is cleared out to start building the structure and they have started to acquire materials to put the shop back in full operation.

They also have plans of moving their entire house (hut) because of the curse put on that piece of land because of the death. People believe strongly in the supernatural and you cannot convince them otherwise. They plan to move their house no more than 50 feet so they will no longer have the stigma of the death associated with them.

Brick making just outside of her home

Brick making just outside of her home

The last piece that is hanging over their head is the ruling by the clans upon how much Agness owes to the clan of the deceased. Tradition holds that everyone in Agness’ clan contributes to what is owed but Agness’ contribution will be more than the others. The price of the contribution is in terms of cattle because the price of money changes with inflation while a cow is always a cow. The ruling could be handed down at any moment so Agness to working hard to have enough to pay off whatever is required of them.

Her story is one of progress, tragedy, and resiliency. A story that is shared by so many others in poverty. The details always vary but the path out of poverty has twists and turns every time. Success for Agness is still in relative terms. Even if things return to where they were before the future only holds so much for her. Agness has two small children and while she will be able to send them to primary school it is doubtful that she will be able to send them to secondary school (middle school) because of her low income. Her business does well because there aren’t many options in her village but the remoteness of it causes other challenges. There isn’t a well close by and schools are far.

With Cynthia Bridgette. Agness' daughter.

With Cynthia Bridgette. Agness’ daughter.

With all that said, Agness is doing well. Challenge is an all too common concept out here and people learn to take it on the chin and more on. It is tough but by no means if life hard and depressing for Agness and her family. She constantly has a smile and is not phased by everything that has happened.

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