Frances Adong - The development heroine
Frances Adong is a social entrepreneur, a change-maker acknowledged and respected by the community.
For nearly a decade, Adong has been actively engaged in the Government of Uganda’s sub-district planning process as a citizen leader through Citizen Parliaments, also known as neighborhood assemblies, to mobilize her community. These groups operate at the community level, and organize people in villages to participate and share their views on community needs with government officials, empowering citizens and balancing centralized power in the process.
With an entreprenurial spirit and a passion for her community, Adong has turned personal hardship into public good. She chairs the Citizen’s Parliament in Oseera sub-county, Kumi district; and advocates for citizen participation in local and national budget process. “If we want to get the services we need for our village like electricity, water and irrigation then we have to get these included in the sub-county budget,” she says.
Activism sparked by tragedy
The 51 year old is mother of four and lost her husband many years ago. With the responsibilities of a sole breadwinner on her shoulders, Adong began making and selling cakes and chapattis from her home. She soon built her household operation into a small eatery.
Adong lost her husband to HIV/AIDS and felt compelled to act as it spread in her community. Using her entrepreneurial skills, she mobilized women in her community into what would become the Oseera Women’s Effort to Fight HIV/AIDS (OWEFA). Together they started educating families about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it.
During the course of the campaign Adong realised her community was suffering from more than just the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There was no school for a long time which meant children had to walk miles to get to the nearest primary school. And the nearest health center was more than an hour’s drive away and which meant that very often people went without much needed care.
Adong explains, “we have been struggling to access education, health and other services in this area but if we are united and present our demands to the decision makers we can make our lives better.”
Becoming a parliamentarian
During her HIV/AIDS activism, Adong got the opportunity to join a training session aimed to provide citizens with knowledge about governance and financial justice, and to give them the tools to assert their rights with their elected officials. The training was organized by Ugandan civil society organizations the Public Affairs Center (PAC) and Citizen Watch-IT, a civil society network supported by Oxfam with financial support from the Dutch government.
Today, Adong uses this knowledge to train other people on the importance of influencing decision making and demanding their rights. She says, “I work with the communities, monitoring performance of schools, health centers, and visiting villages to understand their problems. With the help of PAC I began organising face to face meetings between communities and government officials.”
Not long after, she mobilized her community to elect a Citizen’s Parliament to solidify community engagement with their representatives. Of the group’s 30 members, a majority are women and youth.
Adong said, “Most of the members of the [Citizen’s] Parliament are women, because I encouraged them to come forward. I believe that women should play a leading role in development, as they take a lot of responsibility both in the family and the community. Educating a woman is educating a community.”
The Citizens’ Parliament meets monthly and through a process of consensus identifies priority issues to work on and delegates a member to lead the group’s effort. During one of the group’s first meetings, the members agreed to take on an issue that had been a primary concern of Adong’s: The lack of a local primary school.
“We knew it would not be an easy task because apart from constructing the school building, the government had to appoint teachers and provide facilities for students, and that involved a big budget. We pursued it and managed to get the school built, teachers appointed,” Adong said.
On a mission outside Oseera
Almost a year after setting up the Citizens’ Parliament in Oseera, Adong heard about the plight of residents on Tisai Island located in the middle of Lake Bisina, about an hour by boat from Kumi district. Members of the Oseera Citizens’ Parliament visited the island to meet with community members to see how they might be able to help them.
The people living on Tisai Island, much like Oseera, had no school, no health center, and were often attacked by tribes from the neighbouring Karamoja district for their cattle.
When Adong arrived and heard the community’s needs, she knew establishing a Citizens’ Parliament was the right first step. “Frances came here to meet us and told us about the Citizens’ Parliament in Oseera,” said Okoboi Jackson, resident of Tisai and now Speaker of the Tisai Citizens’ Parliament. “We heard about their success and decided to set up our own Parliament.”
Shortly after establishing their own group, the Tisai citizen parliamentarians organized to meet their first challenge, and primary concern: security. They approached the district administration and a week later welcomed the district police commissioner on a visit to the island. The commissioner helped to identify the location for a police outpost where armed police officers would be deployed to protect the people and their animals – bringing major relief to the community.
Under the tutelage of Adong, the residents of Tisai have gone on to have their own school built, and convinced the Church of Uganda to partner with them to set up a health clinic– remedying three of their community’s top concerns within just three years after establishing their Citizens’ Parliament. For them, it happened because Adong showed them the way.
Having assisted in setting up four Citizens’ Parliaments in addition to Oseera’s, Adong is now looking forward to influencing the sub-county, district, and the national government to help improve access to schools, health facilities, and drinking water throughout Kumi district.
“My struggle will continue as services are still poor and people have to join hands to demand these from the government,” she said. “We can do it by engaging constructively with the planning process and influencing the budget, while continuing to engage in a dialogue with the policy makers and political leaders.”