Good Work News, September 2007, By Rebecca Mancini
It was a fine June day and as the bicycles were lined up, the six women were raring to go. A determined group, these women were taking on the challenge of a race stretching about 10 km in total. Riding straight and hard for one hour over dirt roads filled with holes and mud puddles, the women arrived back tired but triumphant. It was the first time in Ugunja, Kenya that women had raced on the Ugunja roads and highways. They were sure to have attracted attention as they were making history. Two days later, people of all ages gathered in Waterloo, Canada to join in a parallel friendly ride to Kitchener, celebrating the partnership between The Working Centre and The Ugunja Community Resource Centre (UCRC). It is a partnership that has grown through exchanges of people and ideas.
The connections between The Working Centre and UCRC were initiated in 2004 when UCRC director Aggrey Omondi approached The Working Centre. Both grassroots groups agreed to begin a partnership to support each other through staff, volunteer, and cultural exchanges.With the financial support of Canadian Crossroads International, staff exchanges would be the foundation of the partnership.
Three years later, there is a growing community of people in Kitchener-Waterloo who have ventured to Ugunja. Living on traditional family compounds in the villages surrounding Ugunja town, five of us have dedicated a total of twenty-one months to UCRC. Sarah Anderson and Julian Van Mossel spent six months facilitating UCRC’s development of their own website; Katherine Bitzer and Noel Belcourt dedicated a year to working at the Technical Institute, the Health Centre, the Women and Bikes project and became involved in various other UCRC initiatives; and, for three months, I continued Katherine’s work on Women and Bikes and strengthened the accounting systems. During these months each of us has been able to gain a deeper appreciation of the Ugunja culture, of how UCRC works and how it affects the community.
The UCRC began in the late 1980s when a group of concerned farmers gathered together to develop their understanding of farming practices. They began looking for ways to build their knowledge and resources and found their solution in creating a library where people could access information. It was not long before a farmers’ cooperative and St Paul’s Health Centre came to fruition. With other ideas beginning to develop, The Ugunja Community Resource Centre was officially formed and has worked to facilitate further discussions and community initiatives. In a primarily rural setting with widespread villages and little opportunity for large gatherings, they provide people with mixed-use space and projects where they can gather, bump up against one another and build on ideas and momentum.
Over the years UCRC has grown to include not only the library, the farmers’ cooperative and the health centre, but also a high school, a technical institute, an early childhood development centre, a microfinance project, advocacy and networking groups and various IT related projects. At Nyasanda Technical Institute (NYATI) the Masonry students practiced their book learning by building a new home for a local widow and a maternity ward at St Paul’s Health Centre. While a core group of women are learning bicycle mechanics in the Women and Bikes project, they also promote the concept of women and girls accessing bikes by talking to people in the community, by riding their bikes and by teaching others the skills they are learning. These are the tools that allow people to engage society in creative and unique ways, what Ivan Illich would call convivial tools. These tools are helping people to move beyond basic subsistence living, while at the same time people are able to contribute and participate in the community around them.
The philosophical similarities between UCRC and The Working Centre have been obvious to the four UCRC staff that spent a total of ten months in Kitchener. Living with host families and at The Working Centre’s hospitality house, Charles Ogada, Rose On’ech, Sylvia Wombare and Aggrey Omondi joined The Working Centre community where they participated in our projects, and worked at developing community support. From their initiative, a new group has sprung up in the Kitchener-Waterloo community--The Friends of Ugunja network; a dedicated group of people who have strong connections to UCRC, personally or through family.
It is from these connections that the Women and Bikes project was developed to focus on providing women and girls in Ugunja with access to bikes, riding lessons and maintenance training. The bikes are essentially a tool for advocating women’s equality and the effects of this were obvious as the women arrived back at the finish line after the race in June. It was not only the competition of the race that excited them, but what it symbolized. On the other side of the world, people gathered after the ride from Waterloo to Kitchener and celebrated the women’s achievement. For UCRC and The Working Centre, our partnership has succeeded in building bridges between two vastly different cultures. The spirit that was evident on both sides demonstrates our most important connection, that of exploring and providing access to tools that give people the opportunity to build their community, their resources and, most importantly, their spirit.