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Teaching people more than just how to read and write

In the Kisowera parish in Uganda, the clothing on people's backs is oftentimes the only thing they own. "It's like nothing you've ever seen before," said Karen Smith, who travels there this week.

In the Kisowera parish in Uganda, the clothing on people’s backs is oftentimes the only thing they own.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” said Karen Smith, who travels there this week. It will be her fourth visit to the area.

“They have a mud hut for a home and don’t even own a blanket to sleep on.”

The town of 50,000 doesn’t have a hospital and only few people can afford electricity or clean, running water.

Most people have never seen any cash in their lives and a majority eat only what comes out of their garden.

This is where Smith decided to do literacy work back in 2005.

For the first few years, she managed a family literacy project with her non-profit group, Hungry Minds Educational Society.

Then she started hearing from people who wanted help with their living needs.

So Smith and co-founder Joyce Nairuba organized a meeting asking people what sorts of things they wanted to see improved in their community.

Clean water was the number one item mentioned, said Smith.

That night when she was leaving the meeting, a man grabbed her arm.

“He said to me, ‘We need water,’” said Smith.

“And I said, ‘I’m an educator. I don’t build wells.’”

But he made a persuasive plea.

“You’re the only white person I’ve seen in my life and likely the only person who knows how to build a well,” he said.

“If we don’t get a well my kids will die.”

It was hard for Smith to argue with that.

“If people’s kids are going to die of waterborne illnesses, are they really going to care about learning to read?” said Smith who has been an adult educator for 25 years.

When she returned to the Yukon from Uganda she started fundraising for a well in Kisowera.

Three separate rotary clubs - the Midnight Sun Rotary, Whitehorse Rotary and the Barnaul Rotary Club in Russia - all offered to pitch in the $6,000 for the well.

Smith also wanted to build a demonstration village in Kisowera.

People there wanted to learn how to build inexpensive homes that were sustainable, and find alternative ways to cook their food.

So Smith started gathering tools and information on how to build low-cost housing and cooking stoves.

She travelled to Thailand to learn how to make earth-bag homes, shelters constructed entirely from bags filled with mud.

“I was trying to get away from wood,” said Smith. “There’s a wood scarcity in Kisowera.”

The earth-bag homes will feature iron window and door frames and furniture made entirely from cob, a mixture of clay and straw.

“The cupboards, the beds, seating - everything will be built with cob,” she said.

The homes will also feature a composting toilet, a container for rainwater harvesting, a root cellar and a solar oven so women no longer have to cook over open wood fires.

Smith is hoping an entire home can be purchased for $3,000.

It’s a lot of money for people who never see cash in their lives, said Smith.

“But people borrow and find ways,” she said.

“It’s like here (in the Yukon), nobody has $300,000 to buy a home, but somewhere they come up with the money.”

Smith will stay in Uganda until next spring.

With the support of two local Ugandan groups she hopes to have the two wells installed by Christmas.

She enjoys the work she does in the Kisowera region, but it comes with it’s own set of pressures.

“It’s stressful because I’m seen as the solution to everybody’s problems,” said Smith.

“I can’t walk down the road without being asked for money, to solve a problem or to take somebody to the hospital.”

However, she works to change people’s attitudes.

“I tell people I’m not ‘White Person,’ I’m Karen and I’m not a millionaire.’”

“I want to integrate into the community, not just deliver money.”

Complicating things is that Smith needs an interpreter everywhere she goes.

Nairuba speaks two of the country’s native languages, otherwise Smith relies on Ugandans who can speak basic English and translate for her.

That’s easy when she’s working with men, because they’re more likely to speak English, but much of her work involves women.

And sometimes, when men are doing the translating, they won’t translate things that challenge the predominate male culture, said Smith.

She’s had women come up to her after a talk and tell her that some phrases were purposely left out.

When she holds meetings with both men and women, the women won’t speak.

So Smith has to act like an intermediary.

She holds meetings first with women then she’ll meet with men to tell them what the women had to say.

As a foreigner, it’s easier for Smith to get past these cultural rules.

But she still cautions, “you need to know who to trust.”

“Otherwise people view you as a target.”

For more information about the Hungry Minds Educational Society or to donate go to

Contact Vivian Belik at