Life Stories: Teddy Curran
The woman who brought engineering to the pastoralists
By Claire Shaw, Safe World Student Writer
The non-government organisation, AWARE-Uganda, was set up 23 years ago by Grace Loumo and a group of local rural women from Kaabong, a semi-desert, warrior region of Karamoja, in north-east Uganda.
The organisation works to empower the women of Kaabong through educational and agricultural programmes, better health care, training in trade skills, food security, and to teach about women’s rights.
Teddy Loumo Curran, 37, daughter of the founder has been working with her family ever since she was a teenager
Born in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Teddy attended school in the city, while taking regular trips to Kaabong to see her family. She spent one year in a Kaabong school when she was 12, before returning to Kampala to continue her studies.
Now married with a daughter, Teddy is an engineer by profession and lives in London.
Claire Shaw met up with Teddy in London to ask her about her childhood experiences in Karamoja, working with AWARE-UGANDA, and her hopes.
"I was the first female engineer in Kaabong, training young people, women, and constructing classrooms for the community.. I was in trousers and they did not accept it at first"
Early Years in Karamoja
What were your childhood experiences of Karamoja?
I studied in Karamoja for one year when I was 12 years old. My family wanted me to study at school there because my father came from that area. They wanted me to understand the culture more and be able to reach out to my relatives and cousins who had grown up there.
It was difficult understanding the culture of the different tribes, and for the people who lived in the village, to relate to your culture in the city.
When I first arrived, the children teased me because I did not know the language. The school was run by nuns, and I had to learn about the different culture.
It was interesting for me because I wanted to venture out and understand different cultures. I saw the importance of it.
The kids were so malnourished because markets only sell meat, and not really fruit or vegetables.
I only stayed there for a year because the standard of education was low compared to where I was coming from in the city. I was the best in the class and it was easy to be first. I was not getting challenged enough, and I had to repeat the same year again because they did not have enough places in the next year.
My parents were worried I may not get the level of education they had wanted me to achieve, because Karamoja as a whole was very laid back.
What was it like travelling from modern Kampala to rural Karamoja?
When I turned 12, my parents came to collect me and took me to Karamoja because it was too dangerous to go on the bus on my own. I felt safe with my family.
When I was working as an engineer in the Karamoja region, I had to travel by bus.
The tarmac ends after a while and you have to drive along a muddy dirt track. During the rainy season, the bus would get stuck, and everybody would have to get out and help dig the bus out.
It could take over six hours. Sometimes you would have to wait for the mud to dry out.
A 200 km road should take one hour, but it would take you two days instead. You had to keep digging out the soil.
On top of that, you had to stop the bus when the local warriors started shooting.
If the warriors had been out on a raid, and had not been successful, then then they would take out their anger and frustration on the bus and its passengers, unless they thought the bus might be carrying one of their own.
It was scary!
It is harder to travel in a private car because you have a higher risk of being shot dead.
But because buses carry more than 50 people, they usually let it pass.
I used to arrive at night covered in red dust from the journey. There was no electricity, so you had to look for candles and cook with charcoal over a fire.
First Woman Engineer in Kaabong
Why did you decide to get involved with AWARE Uganda?
When I was growing up, I watched my mum working on this project. Throughout my childhood, people would come into the house for food and to receive an education. I never really understood it at the time. After 16 years – when I had finished secondary school, I would try to help and serve food at the projects.
I trained as an engineer at Makerere University in Kampala, and with my training, I was able to really understand the whole project in Karamoja.
Working as a programme engineer in Karamoja for the European Union, I specialised in dealing with developmental projects within the community, covering projects including agriculture, environment, education, health, water, construction, and the credit scheme.
I was the first female engineer in Kaabong, training young people, women, and constructing classrooms for the community during my job as programme engineer.
The cultural differences were clear from the start. I was in trousers and they did not accept it at first. I had to explain to them that it was OK for a woman to wear trousers.
I used to talk to the women and help them with their skills, like brick-laying, constructing small projects, and teaching the women other local skills. This is important because all the work is left to women.
The women build the houses in Karamoja, while the men are out cattle rustling.
Men pay a lot for a bride price: they used to pay up to 200 cattle, but today, the number has been reduced to less than 100 cattle due to cattle rustling and cattle diseases. When the men sell the cattle, they then leave all the work to the women, since they have paid a high bride price.
Describe your role as AWARE Uganda’s Technical Director
Using my knowledge as an engineer, I wrote up proposals and helped to build a water borehole for the people in Kaabong because I knew about the technical side, and the type of environment they needed.
I created an orchard but, over the years, the trees have only managed to thrive during the rainy seasons. Many have died and those that have survived are struggling to bear fruit.
I have written a proposal for an appeal for more fruit trees, and for an irrigation system to help revive one of the first projects AWARE set up.
Part of my role is to train women and empower them. I wrote a proposal for animal traction, and I am now encouraging the men to get involved and handle the animals too.
I was able to cover all those different projects with my experience, because I can advise on all the technical aspects. I have taken many short courses in management and change policy, as well as courses on gender issues and leadership. This has helped me run every project that I am faced with.
Raids and Road Ambushes
Is it safe to work in Karamoja?
Disarmament has provided a conducive environment for people to get service provisions, though there are still some raids and road ambushes. Today Karamoja has attracted many NGOs, for example WFP (World Food Programme), Samaritan IRC, OXFAM, and Danish Demining Group.
More than ten years ago, when I was working in Karamoja, I had to use army escorts to travel. One day I was going to a cattle crush, which is used to vaccinate the animals, to repair the broken rails , when I got a radio call telling me the local people were planning to attack the army. But I was already in the middle of nowhere, and the car continued through to the cattle crush.
A man came up to me with a gun, but I explained to him it was not a government-run project, and that is how I survived. He said, “You’ve just survived us, otherwise we would have shot you.”
My mum has persisted to continue because someone has got to stay there and continue the work. She is really strong and passionate for change and progress in life.
Ugandan people are so caring of each other. When you walk past in the street you always say, ‘hello, how are you?’ Everyone is peaceful and not in a hurry, compared to London.
The People's Priority is Survival
What are the main problems you face while working in Karamoja?
Despite the education the people have received, it is still difficult to change mindsets and perceptions.Poverty is the main challenge, with the lack of basic food and shelter. They have to move a lot during the rains because their homes get flooded and are swept away. Sometimes there will be rain, but they will not have any seeds to grow beans, maize, and groundnuts.
Education is not seen as a priority by the people. They are looking for clean water, food, and health facilities to survive in the harsh conditions.
Alcohol is also a big problem in the area. The neighboring district introduced a local brew called lira lira, which is like vodka, and is more than 70 per cent alcohol. They drink this on an empty stomach. It ruins their liver and they just die. The government is trying to stop the illegal production and sales, but there are still some that are distilling it to make it even more pure for consumption, and it is causing high death rates. Productivity of the youth’s livelihood changes, and people get poorer and poorer.
Improvements - Girls Are Learning Their Rights
What positive changes have you seen in Karamoja?
Girls know their rights, and they are now allowed to go to school. They are educated on the option of being able to wait until they are ready to get married — we suggest 25 years old.
The tradition of being 'raped into marriage' is defined as a courtship process in Karamoja, and is still ongoing in the community. Traditionally, raping a woman gives the man the 'right' to ask for her hand in marriage.
This culture is very strong but with the message AWARE is trying to send out, the people are responding.
We teach boys as well as girls on this subject. It is the culture for girls to do all the work and build the houses. We tell them if they are educated, they will do better, become entrepreneurs, and be empowered even more to help their families.
Instead of cattle rustling, the men are now doing business, cultivation, marble mining and mineral mining.
AWARE-UGANDA’S Human Right’s Programme is helping women gain land titles, so they can retain the land from their husbands. Before, if a man died, the property was taken away from the widow by otther men in the family. Now women are allowed something, rather than everything being taken away from them.
We have taught women craft skills, including tailoring, weaving, beads, making pots, art, and jewellery to sell to at the markets, which are also popular with tourists.
Tell us about some of these women who have benefited from your work?
People with disabilities tend to have a very low status in Kaabong, and are therefore very vulnerable to abuse.
One story I remember is of Alice Theresa, a disabled lady who was raped by various men, who each then abandoned her and the children born from the rapes. She and the children were left homeless and ostracised.
AWARE-UGANDA built a house for her in the centre of the village, so she could live with her children. Her children were all under five, and now go to nursery, and she goes to adult literacy classes.
She now has hope, and her children will succeed and take care of her. She now enjoys catering workshops.
Hygiene Education - Toilets are Seen as a Curse
You mentioned that sanitation and the lack of toilets are a problem. If so, what is AWARE UGANDA doing to improve the facilities and help reduce preventable diseases?
There is a myth about toilets in Karamoja. If women go to the toilet they would be able to have kids, and if they are pregnant – their children will fall in the hole and die.
The hole in the toilet is associated with a grave.
Others don’t use it because if various people use the same toilet, they believe their relatives will die. They go to the bush instead of the toilet, but during the rainy seasons, the children get sick from cholera and diarrhea.
We ran a Water and Sanitation Hygiene programme (WASH) to educate them on the importance of hygiene and clean areas. We found the best way was to build a demonstration pit latrine at the centre, and encouraged the members to build next to their homestead and in schools, to avoid diseases.
HIV/AIDS is looked at as a curse or witchcraft.
We led a massive campaign to educate them that it is not a curse, and it can be treated and prevented.
We train the women to care for their sick, and live a positive life. I think around two per cent of people in Kaabong are affected by the disease.
Drama shows performed in the village and at the local market show how family members are affected by the disease, how the disease eats you up, and the solutions.
It is a better way to cut through the illiteracy, and the message is reaching out.
'I would like to see...'
What would you like to see happen in Kaabong in ten years time?
I would like to see everybody owning a piece of land.
I would also like to see all the girls educated and for there to be trees planted in homesteads, to cover the bare environment.
I also like to see people having learnt developmental skills. This will enhance them in their standard of living, and in different aspects of their lives too. To see this happen, I would like to build a technical institute to train and use these skills.
And do you still visit Uganda?
I always go to Uganda every quarter with my husband and daughter. Laurel is four and she loves Uganda. She always says, “I want to go back, I don’t like the winter”.
It is important for her to see Uganda, and she loves her freedom there. When she visits her grandparents, she can just go out and play. It is so different from here (London). She can embrace the outdoors and be free and walk to the shops there and back on her own, which she cannot do here.
When I say, to Laurel we going to Uganda, she is so kind, and will try to pick out old clothes and toys to give to others over there.
Karamoja: Uganda's Most Isolated & Disadvantaged Region
Located on the north-eastern edge of the country, Karamoja lies on the border of neighboring countries, Kenya and Sudan. With more than 27,000km of arid savannah and bushland, Karamoja is the most isolated and disadvantaged region in Uganda.
Its harsh, dry climate, with little annual rainfall, makes pastoral life challenging for the people who live there, forcing many families to keep on the move in search of food and water. Overgrazing, deforestation, erosion and desertification, means many parts of the region are becoming uninhabitable.
In Uganda, there are over 52 tribes, and in Karamoja alone, there are around eight different tribes. Tribes cross from one region to next, raiding animals, shooting and killing other tribal people. They kill women and girls who go to fetch firewood away from their homestead, and in a revenge attack, the rival tribe will go back and kill others.
Families often live in traditional huts made from mud and sticks, with floors that are sunken into the ground – to protect them from rival tribes’ bullets.
The non-government organisation AWARE-Uganda, was set up 23 years ago by Grace Loumo and a group of local rural women from Kaabong, in the warrior region of Karamoja.
With over 150 members, mainly rural housewives with little or no formal education and opportunities to improve their quality of life, AWARE-UGANDA has made it its mission to empower the women of Kaabong through educational and agricultural programmes, better health care, training in trade skills, food security, and to teach about women’s rights.
The organisation hopes this will help secure the livelihoods of Karamojon families, and create sustainable initiatives to ensure a prosperous community.
Until recently, there has been little or no infrastructure in the area. Karamoja has suffered a long period of neglect since Uganda’s independence under various regimes.Only recently efforts have been made to enable Karamojong’s to participate in government development programmes.This also includes primary education and national immunization.
With high rates of illiteracy, cases of women and children being forced into marriages, alcoholism among the men, human rights abuses, diseases, and violent tribal conflicts, the support AWARE-UGANDA offers is life-changing for the people in the area.
Claire Shaw is a postgraduate student studying Journalism.
"For me, journalism is not just about informing the public, but encouraging people to have an active interest in what is going on around them; to engage in freedom of speech, and use journalism in its multimedia forms as a springboard for discussion, debate, and spreading information."