Building respect and Red Cross branches in Uganda

Published: 3 June 2013 11:32 CET

By Rebecca Lefort, British Red Cross

Just a decade ago, only a few people had heard of the Red Cross in Kalangala, Uganda. With no permanent home, the humanitarian organization’s five members moved around the islands of central Uganda like nomads. Despite the best intentions of the volunteers, they were often unable to respond when emergencies struck.

Today, the picture could not be more different. The Red Cross branch now has a large office in the heart of the district, there are 200 active volunteers, and they have a huge presence and impact on the lives of the 60,000 people, who live on this collection of 84 islands in Lake Victoria.

“I remember when we had one bicycle which we used to get around the islands. We used to hold our meetings under trees or in a gym. Now look at what we’ve achieved,” said Musoke Francis, Chair of the Uganda Red Cross branch in this remote community.

Musoke, who is also deputy principal at the local school, beams with pride as he explains how in Kalangala the Red Cross has been transformed thanks to a programme which focused on building the capacity of local Red Cross branches in the Lake Victoria basin.

“I’ve been with the Red Cross since 1985. The difference is amazing,” he said. “Thanks to the help we’ve had, we are now able to assist so many more people. When there are accidents, we can respond. We have trained people in first aid. We promote volunteering among young people and teach them about HIV. We help keep communities clean and healthy. People respect the Red Cross so much more now. When there is an emergency, they know where to run and where to turn. That feels good.”

The Lake Victoria Programme was set up in 2003 to help communities in the lake basin countries of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda tackle the high HIV rate, the large number of water-based accidents, and poor hygiene and health. The innovative cross-border programme also made strengthening local Red Cross branches a priority, so they would be able to carry out the work themselves.

In Kalangala, the decade-long investment has resulted in the branch being able to buy land in the heart of the community, and spend 40 million Ugandan shillings (15,273 US dollars) to build its 150-person-capacity hall.

“We want to be self-sustaining. We want to bring in our own money because we know the programme won’t be here forever. The hall will help us do this because we can rent it out,” adds Ssenyonga Ibrahim, manager of the branch. “All the money came from the Lake Victoria Programme, apart from the glass in the windows, which was a contribution from our members who wanted to be part of something special. We’ve invested in the branch for the good of the community. We want to be able to look after ourselves and still respond to the community. This is long-term thinking.”