The not-so-itsy-bitsy spider: Undertaking communications work in Africa

DeborahIf you told me you could send me this very minute to one of the poorest countries in the world, Uganda, I would take you up on it. Recently I toured northern Uganda as part of a small team of volunteers with the Canadian Co-operative Association (CCA). Each of us was selected to interview Ugandans whose lives are being lifted out of poverty though membership in a rural co-operative, so that upon our return to Canada we could showcase CCA’s international development work.

The differences between doing my job in Canada and Africa really hit home one hot day as I was videotaping the manager of a Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO) in her back office. The room was full of motorcycles that had been reclaimed from people who’d defaulted on their loans. People were talking in the front room and we had to close the door. There wasn’t any light in the room so I made use of the light from the window. To get the right angle I had to place myself close to a spider that was on the wall behind my shoulder. The spider was big, nearly as large as the palm of my hand. When I finished the video, I turned around to find the spider gone – a chilling moment – but a quick check of the room showed it had skittered to the opposite wall.

The table below outlines some of the other differences I encountered as a Canadian communicator in a Third World country.

Let's Compare:CanadaUganda

I kept longer hours in Uganda, yet I wasn't tired, probably due to adrenaline and endorphins

6AM-11PM 5AM -2AM
Work Potentially anything communications-related, with a focus on storytelling and strategic planning Interviewing, blogging, photography, videotaping
Meetings Location Boardrooms Under trees, inside lobbies, on verandahs, in a van, on farms – pretty much anywhere
Meetings Agenda Display on screen and jump right in

Read aloud and make constant reference to the agenda during a meeting

Style Mostly casual, generally fast Mostly formal, except for individual interviews. Featuring the occasional musical performance/dance routine
Language English English, but often through translators, which makes for funny misunderstandings
Applause Rare After every introduction
Prayer None Opens every meeting
Spectators Rare; sometimes guests from another department Children, other townspeople, sometimes nearly an entire village
Background noise White-noise machine, sometimes traffic and/or sirens Traffic, animals, roosters, children, sometimes sirens, music, people passing on the street, people in nearby shops
Travel One hour each way in a 2008 black Honda Accord V6 on paved roads, with free parking Several hours, several times a day, in a safari van on mostly rough roads. I loved it! But we all had a few bruises.
Technology Generally excellent; sometimes we need batteries for a remote Sporadic Wi-Fi; near-ubiquitous cell coverage. My cell phone bill upon my return to Canada was nearly $3000.
Culture Friendly, polite, forthright Very friendly, polite, gracious, hierarchical, respectful of elders
Supplies Plentiful and readily available Scarce, even down to garbage cans, which made one very careful not to be wasteful
Climate Climate-controlled; sealed windows Hot and hotter, except when it was hot and raining
Clothing Business casual Long-sleeved blouses and long skirts. With Skechers Go Walk shoes. Loved the shoes; hated the clothes; felt like I was carting around a hot and ugly tent for two weeks.
Team 14 smart, wonderful, skilled women Eight women and two men who are all smart, skilled and wonderful. I miss them. 


About 80 per cent of Ugandans are rural farmers. To help them out of poverty, the Uganda Co-operative Alliance(UCA) has created the Integrated Finance and Agriculture Production Initiative, which CCA supports with training and funding. This initiative helps farmers increase and diversify their crops through rural producer organization co-ops, get a better price for their crops through marketing co-ops, and access funds through savings and credit co-operatives (SACCOs). 

We visited co-operatives and farms in the towns of Masindi, Lira, Nebbi and Arua and every day we witnessed terrible poverty. But every day we also heard inspiring stories from co-op members whose lives are turning around thanks to this integrated approach to rural development.

Upon our return to Canada in December, our volunteer team of communicators began the work of spreading the word about CCA’s international development work. We have each of us managed to garner coverage in a variety of media, from major newspapers to television and magazines. My article in The Province, Two Inspiring Weeks in Uganda, was also published on the websites of the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette. It tells the story of Salvatore, who was tortured by Joseph Kony’s men and has since rebuilt his life with help from his local SACCO.

As an employee of Vancity, every day I hear and tell stories of the impact the credit union has on British Columbians. And that is incredibly rewarding. But Vancity has been doing this for 66 years—it has a lot of experience and is very good at it. Also, in general Canadians have comparative prosperity to start with. It was a powerful experience, therefore, to hear from Ugandans who had nothing themselves that their fledgling co-ops were able to help them improve their lives.

I feel like my two weeks in Uganda wasn’t enough time for me to completely appreciate how inspiring this experience was. I want to go back and gather more stories, and remind myself of how good the world can be when people are good to each other.

Deborah Chatterton is a Communications Consultant at Vancity and Vice-President of CPRS Vancouver. Read Deborah’s trip blog, Lessons from Uganda. Read blog entries from other team members