How a remote Ugandan village became a hub of progress

Ojok Okello has transformed a small Uganda village into a hub of progress by listening to what the community needs. Episode 8 of our “People Making a Difference” podcast. 

Okere City: A Ugandan hub of progress

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Courtesy of Jjumba Martin
Ojoko Okello is the founder of the Okere City project, a multifaceted rural development effort, in Okere, Uganda.

Ojok Okello has two master’s degrees and has worked for international aid groups in Africa for more than a decade. 

But as a stranger returning to his father’s ancestral village in northern Uganda, he put all that experience aside. And he listened. “I became a student again,” says Mr. Okello. 

The villagers told him what they needed: a preschool. An adult literacy program. A local bank. A boxing club. And as the villagers rallied around each project, the Okere City Project, a hub for progress in a remote corner of Uganda, was born.  

“For me, it wasn’t about imposing my expertise and experience and skills and knowledge. It was about being a recipient of these ideas from the community and using my skills and knowledge to reshape and refine them,” he says. “So basically it was about respect, about involvement, and about learning.”

You might have seen the Monitor story about Ojok Okello’s work on Feb. 19, 2021. We wanted to check in with him, and take you a little deeper with an audio interview.

Episode transcript

Ojok Okello: I think that Okere City is built on resilience. It’s our most important quality because this is a community that does not even deserve to exist based on the plethora of challenges that they’ve had to go through over decades.

Dave Scott: That’s Ojok Okello. And the community he’s talking about is not yet a city, but a small village in Uganda. In a little over two years, he started to transform this community adding a preschool, a store, an adult literacy program, and a shea butter co-op, a boxing club, and more.

Welcome to “People Making a Difference,” a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.

I’m Dave Scott.

Welcome, Ojok!

Ojok Okello: Thank you very much.

Dave Scott: You’ve called this effort the Okere City project. We’re going to get into the remarkable details of all that, but let’s back up for a moment and talk about your personal history, the personal journey you’ve taken. What led you to that remote village of 4,000 people in Northern Uganda, where your father once lived.

Ojok Okello: So for over 30 years, Northern Uganda in general, but Okere village in particular, was embroiled in a civil conflict mounted by the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels that made the place almost inaccessible. So when I returned five years ago, I just wanted to get connected to my ancestors, to add a sense of belonging as an African man. But the community was struggling to pick up from the legacies of conflict and of war. Every social economic indicator of progress was ... it just wasn’t bearable. For instance, the children were not going to school because there wasn’t a primary school. So when I returned, I knew that I had to do something for the village.

Dave Scott: Ojok spoke to us from his home in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where you can hear some construction going on in the background. But he is uniquely qualified to “do something” for his father’s village. He has two master’s degrees relating to rural development, including one from the London School of Economics. And he spent more than a decade working for various NGOs. He started this project modestly, by building a small hut for himself on his father’s land and even a smaller adjacent hut or utility shed.

But that’s when the magic began.

Ojok Okello: Yeah. So when we started this construction project, many children came around to the compound [to] play around, on the grass around it.

So I asked the parents why the children were not going to school. And then they were saying, “we actually don’t have a classroom.” And I said, but we have this small, little hut, we could tap as our classroom. They bought into the idea, and we made a deal with the community. To make the school run and function, I couldn’t do this on my own. So we needed to pool our resources as a community to make this work. So yes, the parents were excited. We started with eight children and in three-month’s time we had over 120 children undergoing our early childhood development classes.

Dave Scott: And once the parents saw that the preschool was working for their children, then the community changes began to snowball from there.

Ojok Okello: So when the children return home, they’re speaking better English than [their parents]. [They told Ojok]: “Sometimes they say things we don’t understand. How about you also have a training opportunity for us?” 

That is how the need and the demand for our adult educational program arose. And again, when the parents found themselves coming to see the progress of their children in the school, to undertake the adult education literacy program, they also noticed that there was something that was already bringing them together. So they noticed that they could actually use their association – or this community of parents – to start up a village saving and loan association. So that’s how our village banking project began: Whenever we come to do our adult classes, let’s bring some money, let’s put it together in a pot and let’s lend this money amongst [ourselves]. Let’s serve [whoever] we can.

So that gave birth to a huge project, which we now call the Okere Village Bank, which provides not only financial literacy, but also access to credit to facilitate rural development in that village.

Dave Scott: The Okere City Project was off to an impressive start in just a few months. The preschool, adult literacy, and village bank were up and running. But Ojok was an outsider. Yes, it was his father’s ancestral village, but he’d been gone for decades and Ojok hadn’t grown up there. So he really was a stranger. I asked him how he gained the respect of the villagers and got people to listen to him.

Ojok Okello: By listening to them. So I was very conscious of the fact that I was a stranger, a foreigner.  I didn’t know almost all of them. And none of them knew me. And so to gain that trust. I knew I had to listen to them. I knew I had to respect their views and their perspectives. And thankfully for me, I had worked in the northern part of the country. I had worked with NGOs and these kinds of organizations that do development work in the region. And I knew how they treated the local community. 

For me, it was a unique opportunity for me to do things very differently. And so when they noticed that I could involve them in all major decision-making processes – from the color of the uniform, to the badge of the uniform, to the motto of the school, to whatever food children could eat whenever they come to school – they thought that there was something very unique and different about how I approach things.

So basically it was about respect, about involvement, and about learning. I put aside my 12 years [of] development work experience and post-graduate training and became a student again in the community, and to understand from the community, what is most important for them?

And for me, it wasn’t about imposing my expertise and experience and skills and knowledge. It was about being a recipient of these ideas from the community and using my skills and knowledge to reshape and refine them. I guess that is why it worked.

Dave Scott: Ojok helped refine ideas and work with the villagers during many community meetings. And then the idea came to start a shea butter co-op, or cooperative.

Ojok Okello: This wasn’t even my idea. I was thinking about all sorts of ideas, but during one of the meetings, a community member said, “Hey, how about we come together as a community and start up a cooperative society that adds value to this resource that we have?”

Dave Scott: And in this Ugandan village, women do most of the harvesting of the shea nuts and make oil out of the nuts for their own use. Then, they sell the rest to middlemen at regional markets. So, the co-op was seen as a possible path to pool resources and reach economies of scale. And they’ve already had some success.

In July of 2020, during the pandemic lockdown, the village co-op marketed a shea butter hair product – mostly through social media. By December, they had made a net profit of $2,000.

Ojok Okello: That is a significant feat for a small business started up in the middle of a pandemic. And this has really raised optimism, a desire, and a belief by the community that if we can do little within a short time, what would we achieve if we continued with vigor, with energy, in the long term?

Dave Scott: But the shea butter co-op is well, it’s more than a business. It also helps the women build a more sustainable income and save the shea trees. In other words Ojok says there’s a direct correlation between the shea butter co-op, more gender equity, and [in] reducing deforestation.

Ojok Okello: Yes. So women have traditionally been custodians of shea trees. The livelihoods and societal infrastructure of the village is built around the shea trees. It’s completely a women’s affair. But when shea nuts have been turned into shea butter, which is a valued and economic product, then you see women’s role beginning to shift to the periphery. The men are the ones who will sell the shea nuts to the middle men, who come and offer money for the product. And so in addition to the cultural practices around the production of shea butter, the local knowledge, the intergenerational knowledge, it’s passed on from from the mother to the girl-child, and all these things.

So this makes shea butter, basically, a very essential resource when it comes to gender and the economic empowerment of women. When we noticed this, we knew that we had to make sure that women were not left out of the equation, to the extent that they only participate in the collection of the nuts and [are] not benefiting from the value that comes from the [refined] product. We had to, again, make a very deliberate decision as a community to ensure that 80% of the membership of this cooperative society were women. 

When it comes to deforestation, culturally women are regarded as people who should protect the shea tree with their lives because they’re the ones who collect the nuts from the tree.

Dave Scott: I know it’s early days for the shea butter co-op but you’ve actually stopped some trees from being cut down. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ojok Okello: So they have seen that there is value that can be got from the resource. But then, they also add a completely different mindset. The community members have come to report other members of the community who cut down shea trees. There is a significant reduction [in trees cut down], not only because community members see the trees as a resource, but also because there is now a reporting mechanism where somebody who is involved in such a heinous crime is brought to justice. Because, in fact, cutting down a shea tree is illegal according to relevant laws of the Republic of Uganda.

Dave Scott: Starting and especially sustaining a social enterprise like the one in Okere City is difficult. Ojok has been paying for many of these programs out of his own pocket. I asked him if that financial burden was sustainable.

Ojok Okello: Of course, the major obstacle has been around financial resources because we have to construct classroom blocks. We have to construct a medical facility. We need to construct housing and we need to construct and to construct. And this has massive financial implications.

Dave Scott: In fact, Ojok has written more than 100 grant proposals, seeking outside funding for the Okere City Project. But all but one, have been rejected. Most donors, he told me, didn’t believe that some “crazy guy in the middle of nowhere” was accomplishing all this.

Ojok Okello: Maybe we will be able to prove them wrong. In the future, we’ll keep building, putting one brick [in place] every day. I’m very hopeful and I’m very sure that we’ll prove the many skeptics wrong.

Dave Scott: At one point Ojok became so discouraged about seeking outside funding that he just stopped writing grant proposals. He found it too discouraging. But in recent months, he got some media coverage: In the Guardian in the U.K. and in The Christian Science Monitor. And that [attention] has helped lift spirits and attract a few investors.

Ojok Okello: Most of the community cannot even read English. So what I do, for instance, I translate the articles into the local language. And then we’ll read it aloud in community meetings and then we’ll pin it on our community notice board.

When the community sees this they know that we are on the world map! People actually think that what we are doing is good. People are taking interest. So lately, I go [to Okere village] with guests. Almost every weekend, somebody wants to come. [It] could be a friend of mine or a journalist or this weekend, I’m going to go [to the village] with someone from Israel because they want to explore farming possibilities. This past weekend, I was with somebody from Japan who wants to work with us to grow sesame. So if I do not return to the village with a guest over the weekend, people are asking, “Why? Why haven’t you brought us a visitor this time around?”

So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of hope. The Monitor and the Guardian have helped to make people believe in the idea of Okere City. And in the process, [they are] giving the people in Okere a very strong enthusiasm and hope that what we are doing is not a waste of time. And that what we are doing will yield some fruit in the future.

Dave Scott: As he’s worked with the villagers and they built everything from fresh water wells, solar electricity panels, and a community cinema and church. I asked Ojok what qualities he’s seen in the villagers that have contributed to this progress.

Ojok Okello: I think that Okare City is built on resilience. It’s our most important quality, because this is a community that does not even deserve to exist based on the plethora of challenges that they’ve had to go through over decades. 

And they still have to contend with extreme weather conditions. The village still experiences over 90 days of no rain or of drought every year, but still people are resilient. I also think that the other quality that the village has is our collectiveness. So despite the highly capitalistic society in which we live, where individualism is the most important currency,  as a community we still try our best to do many things together, to live as a family. I think that this, these two qualities really set us apart.

Dave Scott: Given all that he’s accomplished, I asked Ojok what advice [did he] have for those who want to be agents of change, people who want to bring hope to their communities. And what’s needed to keep his project going.

Ojok Okello: Yes, to be a change agent, you must be devoted. You must be very resilient. And you must be able to overcome the many challenges that come along the way. So you must have an idea which you must absolutely believe in, because if you believe in this idea, you are going to be able to rally many people around the idea.

When I started preaching the gospel of creating a city in the village – and for me, my concept of a city was a place where people come to have access to social and economic opportunities – many people thought I was crazy. How do you think that you could create a city out of this? It’s not possible. But when you really believe in an idea and you work towards it and you embed it within your DNA, other people start to believe in this idea. And of course, you have to be ethical. You have to have standards. You must be committed and you must practice what you preach.

Dave Scott: And if our listeners are interested in supporting your work?

Ojok Okello: We still need a lot of resources to construct classroom blocks. We need to construct medical facilities. We need to make sure that we have good solar installations in the village that can power even more activities than what we have at the moment. You need a lot of money to do this.  

To support our work, you can go to our website, which is www.okerecity.org. We also have a volunteership program. You could be a nurse. You could be a teacher. And you might be interested in providing your professional services. Or you could be a student. We want to create relationships. Yes, you can donate to us, but we want to interact with you. We want to create a meaningful relationship with you because we believe that the most important things in the world are built around reasonable and realistic relationships.

Dave Scott: Ojok has accomplished a lot in his father’s village in just a short amount of time. But what impressed me was the power of his humility and his willingness to listen. He put aside his master’s degrees and outside experience, and let the community brainstorm, steer, and execute. He filled the role of facilitator, recognizing their strengths and nurturing their dreams.

So here’s this week’s challenge. Ask yourself: “What would I do to help in the city or town or village where my parents or grandparents grew up? Do you know that town? What do they need?”

If you’re not sure, you might check the website volunteermatch.org. The site may offer ways that you can help out in your ancestral city or town. Then, let me know how it goes. Call me at (617) 450-2410 and leave me a voice message about what happened. That’s (617) 450-2410.

Thanks for listening to “People Making a Difference,” a podcast about people who are, step-by-step, making a better world.

Produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2021.

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