Cranes, goats and chickens – not the animals I expected to find in Uganda

Last night, the small club down the hill boomed 1980s and ’90s music – early Whitney Houston, Bryan Adams and Boyz II Men – until the wee hours of the morning. It was like listening to the longest 8th grade dance ever. I fell asleep smiling … and singing along. Two chatty cranes roused me out of bed early on Day No. 4. Their electroshock squawk was a jolt to a system that remains slightly disjointed.My first thought of the new day (besides my desire for a pellet gun and a clear shot): Ugandan sunrises never fail to impress. Maybe it’s our proximity to the equator, the serenity of Lake Victoria or the emerald valley that surrounds us, but I am again awestruck.

Our international trek is over, but the travel is just beginning. Our team – Steve (Noble’s agricultural economist), Vicki (his wife), Watoto-Noble Fellow Sarah Hart and me – begins a weeklong tour of the Watoto children villages and farms. These eight locales are as close as a 45-minute drive and as far as a full day’s excursion.

(Side note: Before we leave, I apply my first layer of sunblock and grab my new broad-brimmed hat that makes me feel like Indiana Jones when I wear it. Seriously, I hear the theme music in my head.)

Assisting Watoto’s agricultural projects is our mission. Steve and Sarah will spend the week surveying each area and drafting a game plan with Moses, the team leader for Watoto agriculture, and Lianna, assistant team leader for agriculture. Steve will stay several more weeks to provide expert counsel (and a fair share of heavy lifting). The team will also draft a work plan for Sarah, who will spend all summer side-by-side with Moses and Lianna as part of her fellowship.As a recap, Watoto’s sustainable agricultural projects kicked off about two years ago. Steve was there on the ground floor and played a key role. Developing viable agricultural endeavors will make Watoto children villages self-sustaining. The farms not only provide necessary nutrition (fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and poultry products), but both house mothers and children will have an opportunity to learn new skills. Additionally, the ag products can be sold at market to provide a revenue stream.

Our first stop is Suubi (pronounced sue-bee), which is located about 40 minutes southwest of Kampala. Suubi is home to one of Watoto’s three children villages, one of three baby homes and a goat farm.
A new model

The Watoto model for housing orphans is far superior to the institutional format that packs children into a dormitory-style setting. Instead, Watoto provides homes that include a “house mother” who oversees eight children. Volunteer teams from around the world fund and construct each home, which consists of three bedrooms, a kitchen, living area and bathroom with clean running water and power. Clusters of these homes form the core of each Watoto children village.

Each of the three villages (located in various parts of the country) supports about 1,000 children and includes a primary school, high school, vocational training, a water project, medical clinic and a multipurpose hall for use as a church and community center.

Watoto accepts children from newborn to 12 years of age, and, once in Watoto, the children remain a part of their new family for life. The Watoto mission extends beyond simply saving as many orphaned and vulnerable children as possible. Watoto seeks to raise these children up and give them education and appreciable skills, so that they may become future leaders and bring change to a nation.

At Suubi, we first visit the Fabrication Unit. The concept of sustainability extends beyond agriculture and permeates the whole of Watoto’s thinking. Instead of purchasing a constant supply of furniture, Watoto’s Fabrication Unit is a hive of activity: sawing, painting, welding, assembling. The team constructs everything from the desks in the classrooms to the beds in the homes. The team is truly a testament to the Watoto philosophy.


A member of Watoto's fabrication unit welds part of a picnic table. The fabrication unit builds much of the furniture for the children villages and babies homes.

A member of Watoto’s fabrication unit welds part of a picnic table. The fabrication unit builds much of the furniture for the children villages and babies homes.


Gabbin’ about goats

We head up the road to the goat farm. It’s early, but the day is already steamy – not hot necessarily – just sticky. The amount of sweat I’m losing can’t be normal. It just can’t be.

The goat farm rests on a gently sloping hill. Several acres have been sectioned into large paddocks that hold a dozen or more goats each. All totaled, there are about 135 goats, which provide invaluable milk for the children.

Goats were the first agricultural endeavor for Watoto. Today, the program’s growth is obvious: the number of goats has increased with several kids (baby goats) on the way; there are expanded and improved facilities; and additional equipment continues to pour in. They are on the cusp of moving to an automated milking system.

We meet up with Lianna at the goat farm. As the second in command of the Watoto agricultural program, Lianna spends most of her time in the fields, working with the ag team. She’s thin, strong and tanned from the Ugandan sun. Her blond locks are pulled into a ponytail. She’s ready to work.

On this morning, she surveys the goat farm with an expert eye. She and Steve run the gamut of goat topics – everything from fencing, the impending arrival of kids and cranky bucks.

I notice the thickness and height of the grass in the paddocks. Clearly they have just put the goats in these pens, I think to myself. Clearly I don’t know what I’m talking about.

My knowledge of goats – while admittedly limited – includes a memory of watching my uncle’s goats eat a field down to bare dirt in about 26 seconds, so my assumption seems logical. Steve explains that the goats have been located in the paddocks for almost two years. Some of the Ugandan grasses grow so fast (up to a foot a week) that the goats can’t keep up with them.

What? (blink … blink … blink) What? This doesn’t even register. Goats can’t keep up with grass? Goats can eat an entire semi if they want.

I need to sit down. I feel like I’m still falling down the rabbit hole.

Steve (left) and Lianna discuss goat health and fencing during a stop at the Suubi goat farm.

Steve (left) and Lianna discuss goat health and fencing during a stop at the Suubi goat farm.

Simple experiences

Our last stop at Suubi is one of the baby homes. We’re greeted by Ruth, who knows all of the 99 babies by name. The babies stay here until they are old enough to be placed into one of the children villages.

The home is immaculate – spacious, clean and on the edge of paradise (it overlooks a Ugandan valley that tops anything ever captured by Hollywood).  Each floor of the two-story building is divided by a center hallway with classrooms and bedrooms off each side. At the far end is a series of shallow wading pools where about 20 babies splash around in sagging diapers. Countless attendees laugh (and closely monitor) as the tiny tots do their best to remove all the water from the pools. The amount of water being sprayed in every direction looks like a sprinkler exploded. You can’t help but laugh at the visual.

Ruth leads us through a series of rooms, each containing different ages of children. Some rooms are bustling with activities as teachers and helpers attend to a dozen babies. Other rooms are still as meditation. Nap time is just ending.

We enter a room swarming with children. Toys are flung. Giggles, cries and movement abound – all about knee high. I take a seat on the far end, and soon Isaac toddles over to me with outstretched arms and plops down in my lap.

Isaac doesn’t do anything. He just leans into me. Warmth radiates off of him. He wanted to be held. That’s all he wanted.

After a minute, I sit him up and he looks at me with soft eyes that are big black pools of tenderness. They absolutely stare right through me, and I realized I will never have to ask again: Why are we doing all this in Uganda? Why would we not expend the energy and resources in the U.S.? Why?

The right question is: Why would we not help? When your neighbor is hungry, you don’t go to a full stockroom and hesitate. You give.

As Isaac sat staring at me, the humanity of the organization and our mission swept away the fog of doubt and distraction. The Lord puts us on this Earth to love all people – not just those from our country, not just those with the same color skin or who speak or think the same way we do. He put us here to love everyone.

Simple experiences like holding Isaac for a few minutes make you understand the unspeakable, intangible connection that binds us together despite location and past. We all need more of these experiences.

I hold little Isaac at the Watoto babies home at Suubi.

Babies look at their reflection during play time at the babies home in Suubi. Almost 100 orphans live at the Suubie babies home.

Babies look at their reflection during play time at the babies home in Suubi. Almost 100 orphans live at the babies home. When they are older, they will move into one of the Watoto villages.

Building the ultimate chicken coop

The last stop of the day was the Buloba farm, which will soon be home to Watoto’s poultry operation. We arrive, and a worker on the far end of an expansive barn (30 feet by 300 feet, basically a skinny football field) stands on scaffolding painting the trusses. By the end of the summer, more than 7,000 chickens will produce 5,000-6,000 eggs a day, providing protein to the Watoto children villages and a product to the local market. The plan is to finalize the first chicken barn this summer with the potential to add another 5,000 layers. In the future, they want to replicate the barn three more times.

The chicken barn at Buloba will soon house more than 7,000 chickens that will produce 5-6,000 eggs a day.

The chicken barn at Buloba will soon house more than 7,000 chickens that will produce 5-6,000 eggs a day. The barn will eventually house up to 12,000 chickens. The hope is to build three more chicken barns of this size to provide eggs for the Watoto villages and to be sold at market.

Today, fencing is the focus. There are no wood posts here. Termite mounds the size of Coke machines line the roads, so if you dare put wood posts in, you might as well ring a tiny dinner bell and pass out miniature bibs. Instead, quality posts are made of cement. They are heavy and tall, but they will endure.

Unfortunately, a giant tree stump several feet in diameter impedes placing the last few posts. The Watoto crew has cut the tree down (by hand), but the stump still needs to be dug out. Here is where I’m introduced to a local saying, “Everything takes longer and is harder in Uganda.” It’s true. You don’t go buy a chainsaw at the local hardware store because there is no hardware store like in the U.S. So you buy an ax, but often you have to buy the ax handle and ax head separately and then assemble it. Just buying the ax could take all day.

Steve expedites the digging by unloading a Bobcat from a nearby shipping container and digging out around the stump. The crew will only have to chop through a main support root and then push it over.

Steve Swigert, a Noble Foundation ag economist, digs around the base of a large tree stump. Swigert has been working intensely with Watoto on agricultural sustainability for almost two years.

Steve Swigert, a Noble Foundation ag economist, digs around the base of a large tree stump that is preventing the finalization of a fence. Swigert has been working intensely with Watoto on agricultural sustainability for almost two years.

Buloba is also the location for three new grain bins that will hold 15,000 bushels of grain. The ability to preserve grain will save Watoto tens of thousands of dollars through the dry season when prices spike. Buloba will also have a feed mill to process maize (corn) for flour that can be used in the villages and for animal feed.

Buloba will soon be a major production center and key component of Watoto’s ag sustainability project. For now, construction continues and a vision nears fulfillment.

Day 4 ends much as it began – with a sense of awe. So much has been built so quickly. The lives of thousands of children have been redirected by one organization, and I truly believe they will help change the future of a country.

Tomorrow we begin the cross-country trek to Gulu (Goo-loo) in northern Uganda. I’ve been promised it will be a journey to remember.

I can believe that. It already has been.

7 responses to “Cranes, goats and chickens – not the animals I expected to find in Uganda

  1. You don’t know me, but I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and hearing about what God is doing! If you thought the roads are crazy around Kampala, wait till you drive to Gulu!

  2. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m praying for you! I know many lives will be touched by your work. -Jill Harrison

  3. Am loving en enjoyin reading about your experience… Having gone thru this. Have fun guys…its trully remarkable en sooo much fun.

  4. To take a leap of faith like you have by going to Uganda, will mark you for life. I was working as a volunteer in the Marketing department for Watoto for 5 months and it has truly marked my life. Thank you for sharing your experience with the world. Wish you all the best. Hot tips: Meet up with Solange Nolan. She is the leader for Marketing and she is the most remarkable woman of God I have ever met. Enjoy

  5. You definitely have our attention about these orphans…can hardly wait to read all about what you find out with the rest of your trip…


    gpa r gma p

  6. A warm blanket spread across my heart as I read this article. I am captured by what God is doing in Uganda. It gives me hope. Please, tell us more.

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