What you need to know:
Okere City is like a story plucked out of an old African literature book – futuristic yet rooted in culture.
Okere City. Let’s start with the fact that there is no community, vision or ‘thing’ like it – anywhere. Ojok Okello, its vision bearer, is a middle-aged unassuming graduate of Makerere University and the London School of Economics, with years of experience in civil society.
He is well travelled and read, and in many ways, an antithesis of a rural boy. Yet, it is those ingredients that were crucial to nurturing the audacity that has leapfrogged his community into a future they would have had to wait for, forever.
Raised by a single mother, he lost contact with his paternal family, only seeking them out after his son started asking about their ancestry. He then went to Okere parish, in Otuke District, and asked around, and was shown a huge tract of bush – his inheritance – and told to do with it whatever he wished. The community is grateful to that little boy who prompted the father.
The city is located more than 400 kilometres to the north of the capital and currently sits on 50 acres of land. On that, Ojok has, through his savings and the generosity of friends, built a school, a health centre, a village bank, a grocery shop and community hall. Most of the structures are made out of local materials – grass, reeds, mud, etc – and there is nothing grand about the buildings. But boy do they serve the purpose!
The nurse at the health centre, for example, serves more than 20 people a day. Many of them know the limitations and shortage of supplies and simply come to consult. The Early Childhood Development Centre started with just eight children and exploded to 120 within four months. The primary school has an average of 50 children per class.
Many of the children have transferred here because the quality of learning is miles ahead of what they were getting from the public schools.
Ojok, understanding the value and feel of a good education, personally interviewed all the teachers before hiring them. Also, parents participate in whatever way they can, bring water, firewood, and food, to aid the learning process. This sort of investment isn’t the kind you encounter with parents in public or even private schools.
But that’s not all. The ravages of Kony’s LRA war ensured that an entire generation was unable to attend school because of the displacement and despair. To shift them along, the city also has an adult education school, where older folks are learning basic literacy, numeracy and civics.
It is easy to take it for granted that you can write your name, read or write a simple sales agreement; or tell the difference between a parish, sub-county and county (can you, by the way?). It is different when you have the chance to, in your 50s.
The city runs leadership development programmes for parish local leaders, skilling them on how to plan for and grow their communities. It is going so well that they are now the go-to consultants on enacting bylaws and that kind of stuff because leaders from other parishes aren’t quite schooled in the art.
As for the village bank, it is no more than a single room, which bana-Kampala captured to charge their phones from. But would you believe that within six months, and from meagre savings, members had racked up a lot more savings than they ever had.
It is not a city without a party and nightlife, right? Right! Every end of month is Okere Community Day – and it gets lit. Last weekend, there were more than 1,000 people in the “city square, central market and on the main street”.
Malwa groups, pork groups, performing groups, vendors, farmers, party people, everybody – till the wee hours of the morning. Again, not the sorts of things you see every day, anywhere.
Okere City is like a story plucked out of an old African literature book – futuristic yet rooted in culture. It is built around community and common good, yet so simply put together that it makes a mockery of those who complicate ideas and development. Incredibly, its sustainability is hinged on the Shea Tree, whose nuts produce cosmetic oil – an industry valued at 1.2 billion. We planted 50 trees last weekend and prayed to the heavens for increasingly elusive rains that are making life hard for farmers in the region.
Next week, let us explore opportunities for young people, focusing on rural futurism.
Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. @Rukwengye