Ruth Kiwanuka has combed the JEEP corridors for more than 30 years preaching the gospel of resourceful use of the environment. Her work has seen her traverse many corners of the country teaching people about renewable energy. Through her organisation JEEP, they have touched lives and transformed many communities and they seem to be just starting.
For each one of us, there is that one thing that stays with us for a lifetime. For Ruth it is teaching. As a little girl growing up in the 60s, she derived joy from seeing her mother, a teacher, prepare materials to use in her class. Later she sat in her class and fell in love the more. She delighted herself in seeing her mother start the creative process and delivering in class. That excited her. When her turn came, she never thought twice about it. She wanted to teach, and a teacher, she became.
Though she did not ply the classroom trade for long, the few years she taught in school were very gratifying. The passion was there as was the room to be the teacher she saw her mother as.
She had just been handpicked from Shimoni Teacher Training College to join Budo Junior School when a one Rev Benon Kiwanuka came calling. He asked for her hand in marriage. She said yes, a union through which they have been blessed with children and grandchildren.
In 1988, she used to volunteer with the Foundation for African Development, an organisation where she met the late Sylvester Sentamu Makumbi. Sylvester thought Ruth’s passion to teach would be better utilised at Joint Energy and Environment Project (JEEP). A conversation to this effect started and in 1991, she had her first desk at the Project. JEEP is an organisation that promotes renewable energy and tree planting.
On a Tuesday mid-morning when we meet for a conversation, Ruth is wearing a white polo JEEP branded t-shirt embroidered with a European Union logo. It is neatly tucked in a blue polka dot skirt and open black strappy shoes buckled by the ankle. But before we do, she takes me to their exhibition hall, to show me the different projects they have done over the years. It is a half open hall built up to window level. It sits behind the big brown-painted administration block. She shows me the different stoves that JEEP has designed and how they have evolved. In the lab are local refrigerators which are eco-friendly; a pot for preserving drinking water and a kirere, a gourd used for preserving yogurt. Outside the hall is a black plastic tank containing bio gas that connects to a modern cooking stove. Adjacent to it is a solar fruit drier built in a wooden cage roofed with a translucent tarpaulin.
She tells me these solutions have been adopted by the team which they have taught the different communities they have worked with to adapt to. Energy conservation is the centre of their work at JEEP. It is the reason for their waking up and going to work daily.
They have been to the ends of the country, teaching people about energy conservation. Ruth is so passionate about this subject. As we settle down, she tells me how she had to learn the mechanics of doing the job. Being a classroom teacher was good but not satisfying for her.
When she joined the team in 1991, her major role was to teach people about energy conservation. In 1993, she joined the administrative team which saw her work with many environmentalists who were very technical from their training. Their knowledge base was far different from hers.
When an opportunity presented itself in 1994 to purse a Diploma in Social Sciences at St. Xavier University in Canada, she went for it. This helped her to understand the science about the environment.
On her return, few of her colleagues had assumed different responsibilities elsewhere leaving gaps in administration. That was when she joined the top leadership team. They were very big shoes to fill, but she took the risk anyway.
The organisation lacked funding to be able to conduct the work they were supposed to do especially in Arua, Luweero and Tororo. It wasn’t until Plan International and MS, a Danish organisation came on board that work took off.
Other doors like the Nordic Folk Centre for Renewable Energy opened. Organisations like JEEP are able to run through partnerships like these.
It was a deep end for her to take on the CEO role because she had never done fundraising before. “It’s such an uphill task,” Ruth pounds a clenched fist of her left hand into her right making a loud thump as she emphasises in a lower voice with her eyes directly facing mine. It was only when the partners came on board that they were able to establish the solar energy projects in Arua, Luweero and Tororo. JEEP acquired their current home in Kyanja, along Gayaza road in 2005 through a partnership with MS. It is here in this green home that they still run most of their work.
Ruth has worked long enough to see the work of NGOs transform. At the time JEEP started operations close to 40 years ago, the work on environment was not popular. The HIV/AIDS scourge was rampant and most NGOs were coming up to fill up the gaps in that area. That meant organisations like hers had to struggle to get the attention of the funders.
She went globetrotting to pitch for funding. It was hard but worth it. “I always carried with me a tadooba, a little lamp made from a tin with a thread immersed in kerosene. I would light it up for them to see how it burnt giving off soot. This is how I was able to convince them.”
Things change. Time flies away and you cannot tell how it all quickly passed you by. Youth soon becomes the yester memory. Ruth has worked with JEEP for 31 years. She looks back with pride for the work they have done as an organisation. Sitting on a boat for about five hours to visit the women groups on Kalangala Islands is one memory that humbled her. It is one experience that questioned her motive of doing this. Her colleague Kevine Sebina with whom she started the journey has now fully committed herself to working with those women as they push forward the agenda of renewable energy on Lake Victoria islands.
They have visited schools, markets and various communities across the country teaching people how to make energy saving cooking stoves, fire stoves which consume less wood and how to make biogas from waste.
Whereas there is a lot of water that has flown under her bridge, there are tides that nearly washed her bridge away. In 2002, she had to go back to school to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science. She was consequently getting challenged in her work. The young people fresh from school were making it too hard for her to play in the field, she realised it was not their fault but rather she lacked in the knowledge, in certain aspects. So she went to pursue a degree. “At that time, I was at university with two of my children.” She laughs at the memory hiding her head behind the fence of fingers. She stays still for a moment before she continues, “I was on the evening program but it was hard.”
Until recently, the Ministry of Energy did not prioritise partnerships with organisations like JEEP. “They were comfortable doing their other work instead of pushing for policies to combat climate change.”
She wishes the government could come through to ease the work of the organisations since they are all working for the good of the community. “NGOs should be appreciated a little more. They are not government enemies.” They serve the interests of the people.
Sustainable energy solutions are a hard sale. As a means of sustainability, JEEP reached out to schools since they are the biggest consumers of wood to build for them energy saving stoves. In addition to that, they converted waste into biogas for cooking. They also run skilling programs in small scale green businesses, they have taken it upon themselves to eradicate the use of the tadooba replacing it with little sun solar lamps.
The organisation’s projects have been running mainly on donor funding. This means that their staff numbers have fallen and risen according to the same. “Training a member of staff and seeing them go when you can no longer afford them is a very hurting experience.” The calm in her voice is quickly replaced with a sombreness in tone as she tells me this. Without asking I can tell this happened a tad too often.
Passion has kept her going. It has made her stay when to give up was at times a better option. “When you are passionate about something, failing is not easy. It’s for that reason that JEEP still stands to date.” She says while pointing to the name of the organisation on the administration block.
From the time they started, things have changed. Technology has improved and in turn eased the way of doing things. There are various ways of passing the information around. Communication is a vital role in the growth of any organisation. “It is one area we did not pay a lot of attention to. Looking back, I think we should have gone out to talk more about our work.”
She is dismayed that the NGO landscape has shifted its mandate. Most people no longer work out of passion.
“It’s mostly about the money. People are after the money other than knowledge sharing and collaboration. Through sharing information you learn from others as they learn from you. Where there is no information sharing, there is no collaboration and there is no learning. It is through this collaboration that partnerships come,” she concludes.
This story was first published as a blog on ACTADE.