The Value of a Dollar in the Slum

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IMG_6228In Kampla, Uganda, one American dollar will buy you three liters of water, three mangoes, or about a pound of rice. One dollar will also buy you a few minutes with a sex worker in Bwaise, one of Kampala’s poorest and most densely-populated slums.

AFFCAD (Action for Fundamental Change and Development) runs a tour of Bwaise slum and two of the founders, Richard and Muhammed, were my guides there recently. We bought a few kilos of rice at a local shop and delivered bags, one kilo at a time, to residents of the slum. We visited these women in their homes, my guides translating as I asked the women what they were cooking (cow’s lungs in one hut and matooke, Uganda’s ubiquitous banana dish, in another, both to sell at a small profit to other slum residents). We bought a soda from one woman and chatted about her hopes to restock the small bar she runs from her house. Her plans were dependent on a micro-loan from AFFCAD.

IMG_6240Slum tours are often criticized for being exploitative, voyeuristic, possibly dangerous, but a well-run slum tour has the potential give participants a glimpse into the lives of the slum residents. Richard, one of the founders of AFFCAD, explains that the difference between a slum tour that exploits the community and one that benefits it is what the money is used for. The slum tour is the main source of funding for AFFCAD’s community projects, which include a school for children affected by HIV/AIDS. The school is AFFCAD’s answer to the overcrowded government schools, which may have a student-teacher ratio of 200 to one and are the only option for families who can’t pay private school fees. While AFFCAD’s schools are still overcrowded (70 to one student-teacher ratio), they are an improvement over government schools. Families pay what they can, which is sometimes nothing at all.

AFFCAD recently graduated their first class of 557 students from their Bwaise Youth Employment Center, a training facility built with an $870,000 grant from the US Embassy. Young adults from the slum study video editing, food service, fashion design and, by far the most popular, cosmetology. The founders, four friends who grew up in Bwaise slum, have also been honored with the Mohammed Ali Humanitarian Award, Kafka International Youth Icon Award and Slum Ambassador for Youth and Children.

IMG_6245My private tour reached the bottom of the hill and Richard told me to put my camera away; the women here do not like to be photographed. These were female sex workers who worked out of their homes. AFFCAD could do little for these women. At $1 per session and an average income of $5 per day, they had some of the highest earnings in the slum. All AFFCAD could offer them were condoms and education, and they did this without judgment or idealism.

As I was leaving, I asked Richard if he still lived in the slum. “I choose to live here. If you ignore a problem it will never go away.” A slum tour may sound like a depressing way to spend a Saturday morning, but I went away feeling optimistic about the work and the dedication of these four friends.

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Anna Snider

Anna Snider

Anna Snider is a development professional and an AgTraIn PhD candidate at CIRAD, Montpellier, France.

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