A typical day at a Community Network (CN) center in Uganda

Omoro District: The gentleman in the photo is a regular user of the facilities. The ladies were part of the team who visited that does trouble shooting at the sites. They were testing the internet.

My father has very many children and little money, which has made it impossible for us all to go to school. I decided to volunteer as the caretaker of the ICT center. In return, I take part in the ICT and skills development trainings such as tailoring that take place here.”; said Akello Vicky, a 16 year old school drop-out, who is the newly recruited office attendant of Gwokke-Keni ICT Center in Patongo town council, Agago District in Northern Uganda.

Akello Vicky is one of the key volunteers who are contributing to keeping the purpose of community centers alive. She ensures the center offices are opened & closed, premises clean, facilities safe and accessible at appropriate time.    

The unregistered success stories of Community Networks (CN) in the communities are numerous. It is evident that right from the start, the communities receive the concept with a lot of enthusiasm. This is also displayed in the names of the community centers which are attached to a meaning. The meanings evidently reveal a community determined to exploit the opportunity to better their livelihood; an indication of a need to achieve, learn or have their lives positively changed by the concept. For instance:

1) Wang -oo –“Fire place”; a traditional African setting where children would learn life lessons from their parents at a fire place around the evenings/night  as they waited for dinner and bedtime

2)Atyang- Waroco kwo, meaning “We are creating our livelihood”

3)Gwokke-Keni: “Take care of yourself”

The staff and Access to facilities:

Unlike the other centers, the lack of supportive staff at one of the centers which supports a group of women with HIV/AIDS is to a greater extent due to the stigma of those living positive. Potential volunteers shy away from volunteering at this facility because the rest of the community views anyone working with this group to be HIV positive. Few people easily associate with them because they fear to be the talk of everybody in the community.

However, there are few volunteers; either full time or part time volunteers, most of whom are always on the lookout for better opportunities elsewhere, for instance new graduates who do not yet have jobs. The full time volunteers are present most of the time and on a daily basis. The part time volunteers show up when needed and when they are available. For instance an accountant professional who might have a stable job elsewhere but opt to use her weekends to assist the CN in the accounts management.

Other full time volunteers are those who retired from work but offer to be present at the centers at most times, for instance as the office front desk receptionist/officer who in this case may be able to speak in detail about the office activities.

The office can be opened anytime starting at 7 to 10am or so. It all depends on a lot of factors; mainly health condition of the person, weather or responsibilities back home. Other volunteers also arrive at the office premises around the same time and for similar reasons. But generally, the foot-dragging is most likely because there is no guaranteed financial motivation. However, some of the full time volunteers like the office assistant benefit by participating in the skills development trainings such as ICT, tailoring and beads making at no cost.

Closing is normally at 6.00pm or later –depending on activities that the staff are meant to accomplish.

Noted also was that, the communities where a man is responsible for opening and/or closing the CN office premises will most likely have less access to the facilities as compared to those whose access are controlled by a woman. This is attributed to the fact that men will easily face interruptions for instance where there is an urgent opportunity to close a better deal or even a need to catch up with soccer somewhere.

July/August happened to be a farming season. Most of the people in the community start returning from their gardens from midday, proceed to prepare meals (for the women), have lunch and then think of possibly visiting the center from 2:00pm! Some centers would be opened, waiting for anyone interested in accessing the facilities even when the attendants may not be present. The reverse is true during dry seasons, as the centers register a higher attendance around this time because the people tend to have a little more time in their hands.

The youth (10 to 24) and young mothers are the main groups that are interested in using the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) facilities at the center. YouTube is a favorite tool accessed at three of the centers I have visited so far. The older age group tend to prefer other skills development activities such as soap-making, beading and/or any other quick income-generating activities.

Young mothers during a skills-training in Tailoring at a community Network in Patongo, Agago district in Northern Uganda

Whereas other centers are focusing on providing ICT-related services only (such as photocopying, typing and trainings on fundamentals of ICT), there are centers which are fully registered as independent NGOs and are getting external support for other skills development activities to benefit a wider community. Particular days of the week are scheduled for particular activities. In Gwokke-Keni for instance,

  1. Wednesdays: The Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) day. This attracts young mothers, older women and the differently abled group too has its own VSLA group.
  2. Fridays & Saturdays: Tailoring, beading or soap making. This is when the community is implementing such externally-funded projects.

Atyang- Waroco kwo ICT center is involved in sports activities over the weekends. They earn some little money when the community converge to watch soccer on the TV screen available at the center.

Superstar Football club ICT Center has more potential to earn some income when the government employees within the same shared building subscribe to their internet services. However, even with internet running, the site has spent close to 3 months without operation because of faults in the charge controller and inverter, which need funds to either repair or replace. Lack of easy-to-reach technical support is also experienced at Gwokke-Keni, where an unknown community member locked one of the computers with a password only known to him and because of this, this one computer has not been in use for months because none of the community leaders can get it fixed. Another common challenge across the centers is that there is no control measure to the free Wi-Fi access which could avoid sharing of passwords by potential clients and enable the centers to charge some fee.

The sites management probably need comprehensive training on governance, sustainability among other needs. However, conflicts among leadership is evidently a huge challenge which, if not tackled, affects the sustainability of the CNs especially when the conflicts are leading to closure of facilities. Once the leadership fails to resolve conflicts from within, it becomes difficult to gain back the trust of the community.

Noted was that, much as the CNs are by the community and for the community, for the case of a few sites in Uganda, their existence seems to have been as a result of an individual initiating the conversation to an institution such as BOSCO Uganda, who then acted and took this technology to benefit the identified community as a whole. The policies and community involvement in the leadership thereafter seem not to nullify the fact that “someone” initiated the conversation and therefore s/he has an upper hand in all decisions. Should any misunderstanding arise among the leaders, this attitude eventually affects the involvement of the rest of the teams! A site has suffered unplanned closure because of this.

Question: Unity among the leadership is a key component of sustainability of CNs. How best can the CN movement address the issue of the rising conflicts among the leadership in CN communities?

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