“Tomorrow the sub-county committee is going to lay the budget, we have to be there. So please try to be at the sub-county office by 10 a.m.,” Frances Avakit Adong told her fellow Oseera community members gathered under a tree in eastern Uganda’s Kumi district. She was addressing the members of the Oseera Citizen’s Parliament, who had convened for a meeting.
Adong, who chairs the Citizen’s Parliament, explains that it is important for the members of the group to attend the budget meeting because it marks the beginning of the national budget process.
“This is the first step of budget preparation and if we want to get the services we need for our village like electricity, water and irrigation then we have to get these included in the sub-county budget,” she says.
Adong is a social entrepreneur, a change-maker acknowledged and respected by the community. Walking the streets of Kumi town with her is an experience in itself. In the morning as we leave her house and walk down the street the boda boda (motorcycle taxi), drivers want to know where we are heading and offer us a free ride into town. A neighbor passing by in the car stops to inquire if we need to be dropped off somewhere.
“People know that I go to Oseera and other villages almost every day to meet people and very often neighbors who own cars, take me along if they are going in the same direction,’’ says Adong.
For nearly a decade now Adong has been actively engaged in the Government of Uganda’s sub-district planning process as a citizen leader through Citizen Parliaments, also known as neighborhood assemblies, to mobilize her community. These groups operate at the community level, and organize people in villages to participate and share their views on community needs with government officials, empowering citizens and balancing centralized power in the process.
Activism sparked by tragedy
Adong, who recently turned 51, has come a long way. Widowed following the death of her husband from HIV/AIDS in 2000, it has been challenging to make ends meet and ensure that her four children are able to go to school and pursue their dreams. “It was not easy because the income reduced and expenses increased. My children were growing; I had to pay their school fees and manage the household with a limited income,” she says.
And while those personal realities have tested her, they have never stopped her from serving her community. In fact, her own challenges are part of what inspired her to activism in the first place.
She began her career working at Hope Children’s Village, a local orphanage. For several years, her job provided the income necessary to supplement her husband’s to fully support their family. But her husband’s untimely death followed by the eventual closure of the orphanage changed her life dramatically.
With the responsibilities of a sole breadwinner on her shoulders and an entrepreneur by nature, Adong began making and selling cakes and chapattis from her home. She soon built her household operation into a small eatery with her sister, but she craved to do more.
In the years following the loss of her husband, Adong watched as HIV/AIDS spread in the community, devastating other families like hers along the way. She had to do something. Using her entrepreneurial skills, she organized the women of her church into what would become the Oseera Women’s Effort to Fight HIV/AIDS (OWEFA). Together they went door to door educating families from their parish and other members of the community about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it.
During the course of the campaign Adong realized her community was suffering from more than just the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Oseera is a small village where residents are almost solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. The rains failed this year, and with no irrigation facilities, the land lies barren. For years, Oseera had no school which meant children had to walk miles to get to the nearest primary school. And the nearest health center was more than an hour’s drive away and there was no emergency transportation, which meant that very often – too often – people went without much needed care.
Sitting in the sparsely furnished house she rents in Kumi town so her children can go to school, Adong explains, “Working for people in my village and around is my passion. We have been struggling to access education, health and other services in this area. I have realized that if we are united and present our demands to the decision makers we can make our lives better.”
Becoming a parliamentarian
Incidentally, in the midst of her HIV/AIDS activism, Adong got the opportunity to join a training session organized by Ugandan civil society organizations the Public Affairs Center (PAC) and Citizen Watch-IT, a civil society network supported by Oxfam with financial support from the Dutch government. The session’s aim was to provide citizens with knowledge about governance and financial justice, and to give them the tools to assert their rights with their elected officials.
“The training helped me to understand issues of governance and social accountability. I learned about governance, budget making, service delivery and other issues that could change our lives,” said Adong. “So I used this knowledge to train other people and create awareness amongst them. I told them what they can do to influence decision making and demand their rights.”
The training gave her just what she needed to start making headway on the problems she and her neighbors had identified. Without it, Adong’s and Oseera’s stories may have been much different.
“I worked with the communities, monitoring performance of schools, health centers, and visiting villages to understand their problems. With the help of PAC I began organizing interface meetings between communities and government officials,” said Adong.
Not long after, she mobilized her community to elect a Citizen’s Parliament to solidify community engagement with their representatives.
“Most of the members of the [Citizen’s] Parliament are women, because I encouraged them to come forward. I believe that women should play a leading role in development, as they take a lot of responsibility both in the family and the community. Educating a woman is educating a community,” Adong said as she pointed out each of the female Citizen Parliamentarians at the meeting. Of the group’s 30 members, a majority are women and youth.
“We had a number of problems in the community. She came to us and conducted training on rights,” said David Omongot, one of the first Oseera residents to join Adong in her efforts. “She guided us to hold a meeting and elect a leadership to set up the Citizens’ Parliament, which became the voice of the people.”
As with many new institutions, setting up the Citizens’ Parliament wasn’t without its obstacles.
“Initially we were challenging the government and local leaders looked at us as a problem. The police found out about the first meeting and wanted to arrest us,” said Omongot. “So we invited the [community] leaders to attend the meetings and this changed their attitude towards us. Now they appreciate our meetings and engagement.”
The Citizens’ Parliament meets monthly and through a process of consensus identifies priority issues to work on and delegates a member to lead the group’s effort. During one of the group’s first meetings, the members agreed to take on an issue that had been a primary concern of Adong’s: The lack of a local primary school.
It was a challenging task for such a new group to begin with, but Adong and her colleagues were not intimidated.
“We knew it would not be an easy task because apart from constructing the school building, the government had to appoint teachers and provide facilities for students, and that involved a big budget. We pursued it and managed to get the school built, teachers appointed,” Adong said.
For the school to be established, provisions for its construction had to be made in the budget; so the members of the Citizens’ Parliament engaged with the sub-county officials and the district leaders to secure it.
“It took a lot of efforts to convince the sub-county committee to include the school in the budget and then we had to persuade the district officials to approve it. In the end it was worth all the effort and time,” says Adong
Without the training that Frances received from PAC, it would have been difficult for her to mobilize the community and engage with the government on such a detailed proposal. Adong’s success from such a training program shows that when donors support programs that empower people and local organizations, they can produce results that far outweigh and sustain the initial aid investment.
“Such trainings are important because they strengthen the capacity of the communities to seek change,” she explained. “I was able to set up community organizations that help people express their needs to the government and ensure service delivery. International organizations have helped organizations like PAC in Uganda to build the capacity of community-based organizations like the Citizens’ Parliaments.”
On a mission outside Oseera
Almost a year after setting up the Citizens’ Parliament in Oseera, Adong heard about the plight of residents on Tisai Island – a small island located in the middle of Lake Bisina, about an hour by boat from Kumi district. Members of the Oseera Citizens’ Parliament visited the island to meet with community members to see how they might be able to help them.
The people living on Tisai Island, much like Oseera, had no school, no health center, and were often attacked by tribes from the neighboring Karamoja district for their cattle.
“They come with guns and threaten us, then take away our cattle. Security is one of the biggest problems we face here besides the lack of clean water,” says Ibere Perpetua, a community member.
When Adong arrived and heard the community’s needs, she knew establishing a Citizens’ Parliament was the right first step. “Frances came here to meet us and told us about the Citizens’ Parliament in Oseera,” said Okoboi Jackson, resident of Tisai and now Speaker of the Tisai Citizens’ Parliament. “We heard about their success and decided to set up our own Parliament.”
Shortly after establishing their own group, the Tisai citizen parliamentarians organized to meet their first challenge, and primary concern: security. They approached the district administration and a week later welcomed the district police commissioner on a visit to the island. The commissioner helped to identify the location for a police outpost where armed police officers would be deployed to protect the people and their animals – bringing major relief to the community.
Under the tutelage of Adong, the residents of Tisai have gone on to have their own school built, and convinced the Church of Uganda to partner with them to set up a health clinic– remedying three of their community’s top concerns within just three years after establishing their Citizens’ Parliament. For them, it happened because Adong showed them the way.
Having assisted in setting up four Citizens’ Parliaments in addition to Oseera’s, Adong is now looking forward to influencing the sub-county, district, and the national government to help improve access to schools, health facilities, and drinking water throughout Kumi district.
“My struggle will continue as services are still poor and people have to join hands to demand these from the government,” she said. “We can do it by engaging constructively with the planning process and influencing the budget, while continuing to engage in a dialogue with the policy makers and political leaders.”
A humble leader
Despite her commendable achievements in mobilizing communities to claim their rights, Adong is extremely humble – the mark of a true leader.
“I shared the knowledge I gained in training with the people in different communities, and I am proud of what they have achieved over the years. People of Oseera got a school and a health center, and the people of Tisai went a step ahead and built their own school, appointed the teachers and now all set to get a health centre. I give them the credit for these successes.”
Of course, there is no doubt that Adong feels proud of the fact that she has been able to use her knowledge and experience to establish multiple Citizens’ Parliaments - all of which are bearing tangible results. It’s their successes that keep her motivated to do more.