Constance Okollet on Transforming the Lives of Osukuru Women

As part of #WorldEnvironmentDay2022ACTADE went out to celebrate a few individuals who are out to conserve the environment.

Constance Okollet is the champion of Osukuru United Women’s Network based in Tororo. Through her, the network has broken ground for replenishing a once deteriorating environment by encouraging members to plant trees. Little did she know that his would culminate into a bigger project whose impact would be felt at the family and individual level.

I first heard about the story of Jesus and his disciples in Sunday school. I learnt that Jesus had 12 disciples with whom they went about doing good. I guess you also have an idea of that story. What you don’t know is that Constance Okollet, like Jesus, teamed up with 12 of her fellow Village Health Team (VHTs) volunteers and they went about Osukuru sub county doing good.

They mobilised the community for immunisation, encouraged proper hygiene in homes and growing of food to feed their families. The team got a bigger impact and it stretched its work from doing just that to encouraging parents to take their children to school and more.

Constance’s is a story of little steps taken deliberately. It is a story of a small team’s effort to transform their community. It is a story of women taking charge of redefining the community they want for themselves.

Osukuru in Tororo is a farming community like many other Ugandan communities. In 2004, Constance observed that the rain season was no longer coming in on time as it did before.  On the other hand, the droughts were getting longer and the effect was way worse. Hoes were bouncing off hard surfaces and the land was getting harder to till. Food security was in question.

She turned to her husband Stephen who used to be away most of the time for work. But he too did not have answers. Instead, he advised her to go to the sub county to inquire from the government officials on what they could do.

She went with her fellow 12 VHTs and they were told about this climate change thing which could only be addressed by planting trees. They were given tree seedlings which they planted and today, there is more shade than before.

In all this, the community has registered a lot of growth. Constance and her team have come together to do more. Each of the 12 members came from a different village. So they went back to their villages to mobilise women to become the better advocates for their families. The focus was mainly put on providing food and making sure that homes were self-sustaining.

The women who were members of the VHTs noticed that most of the problems women were having in their homes and in the communities were mainly brought about by poverty. The women would only till the gardens and waited on their husbands to fend for the rest.

When the VHTs went to the sub county, they started having weekly meetings where they would be educated on different topics especially around government initiatives. These conversations were opened up to all women. For every seating, there was a woman attending for the first time. Each woman reached out to one. It occurred to them that they all shared similar challenges.

As a community that largely depends on farming, the drastic changes in seasons affected them all. However, at home, the challenges were also similar. Most of them had no income. They depended on their husbands for provision. Whereas that was the case, the husbands spent most of their time in bars drowning themselves in alcohol. They decided to come up with the idea of forming savings group which they could get the women in the different communities to be a part of.

This was spread to the different villages that women come from. On top of that, they started inviting different experts to teach them about improving their livelihoods.

Each woman was tasked to do something for herself and her family. Each household was forced to have a kitchen garden so they could have vegetables to prepare meals for their families. Each of the women was tasked to be accountable to another. That is how they were able to lobby the government to give them seedlings for food. They also started to trade in small businesses.

Lucy Achieng, one of the members, with a smile on her face tells me; “When they introduced adult education, I took part. Today, I can write my name and count money.” Lucy runs a retail shop in her village.

“When a woman has some money in her pocket, she will not wait for her husband’s support. The husband also fears to beat their wife because she has a choice,” reveals Constance. This is how domestic violence has been dealt with. “Couples used to fight over very small things like not having salt at home.”

Florence Adkin shyly confirms this; “I didn’t know that as a wife, I could contribute to my family financially. I always thought that was my husband’s responsibility.”

This growth has now gone from just being able to sustain the home to thinking commercial.

Thereza Amoit sternly discloses to me, “I was connected to NAADs and they gave me two oxen which I now use for ploughing the garden.” Thereza is among some of the members who benefitted from the oxen project. On top of that, they have been given a tractor to help them in tilling the land.

From 2004 to date, Stephen and Constance Okollet opened up their home to be the official address for all these community engagements. Over the years, their home, a fenceless unassuming bungalow with a well-manicured large green litter free compound, has been the conference centre for all the trainings and meetings.

Today, the district headquarters in Tororo know about Osukuru United Women’s Network. Recently, the network was chosen to be the beneficiary of the World Bank project to build a cassava processing plant and a bakery which are established across the Okollets’ compound on a piece of land owned by the network. The tractor that was given to the women’s community is also kept at the Okollets home.

Constance’s work has been recognised globally. She has been invited to speak at different world summits because of her open heart in transforming the life of Osukuru women.

Constance had no idea what the movement would evolve to. As VHTs then, they did not know how much will power they had to create impact in their communities. With her fellow VHTs, they were ordinary women without phones riding bicycles miles apart to rally each other to come for meetings.

Because they meet and talk so often, theirs has been zoned off as a safe space. They share all kinds of issues affecting them. Osukuru United Women’s Network is a bond that brings all women together. Their cup overflows with unity and love for the sisterhood.

When husbands saw that their women were evolving into independent individuals, they were concerned. They too wanted to be a part of it. They loved what they had but were too proud to ask. Overtime, men acknowledge the work of the group. Some have even joined.

“When I take long without coming for the meetings, my husband gets concerned yet he used to beat me before for coming. He has seen the difference,” says a happy Thereza.

As a young girl, Constance grew up in a home that welcomed people. In her father’s house, there was always a guest. Another guest. And another guest. And just one more other guest. Yet they took care of each and every one of them.

When she got married, it was her father-in-law who forced her to attend the trainings on HIV/AIDS Noeline Kaleeba the founder of TASO, was holding in Tororo.  Her father-in-law sent to learn so she could come back and teach the rest of the other women. At the time, there were so many myths about the disease. But unlike many of the other women in the community at the time, they had not gone through school. But if she came to talk to them, they would easily believe her.

From the time they got married till his retirement, Stephen always worked very far away from home yet he always found time to support Constance in her work. “There’s no day I ever stopped her from doing whatever she wanted.” And she has always been doing a lot of work. Having this support system around her from the men in her life encouraged her to pursue her dreams. She never felt restricted.

18 years later since they started Osukuru United Women’s Network, a lot of water has flown under their bridge. Hand held hoes held them back only tilling the land during the rainy season. Before they could clear the land, it would be dry season again. Now, they have oxen and a tractor. The government has awakened to be involved in their work and other women’s work.

That Friday afternoon as Susan Nanduddu and I sat in conversation with Constance and some of the women under a shade, I could not fail but recognise that Constance’s energy of youth had waned. Constance is a bit relaxed now. The mantle is upon the younger women like Thereza, Josephine and men like Bonny, to drive this cause forward. The new generation is less afraid. As they gear up toward commercial farming, cassava and rice processing and a bakery they are confident they will achieve more.

Just like Jesus and his disciples, Constance and her fellow VHTs have imprinted a mark on Osukuru. She is grateful. And there is still a strong will to see this network touch another woman’s life. Together with Stephen, they are still planting more trees under whose shade they may never sit but they are doing it anyway.

This story was first published as a Blog on ACTADE.

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