Kampala, Uganda: Resilience in the face of COVID-19: A single mother’s story

In Kampala, Uganda, Sandra Coote follows a  single mother’s journey in search of income and wellbeing for her family during the country’s second wave of Covid-19 – to see what it tells us about personal savings and governmental support for households. It is one woman’s story of building up resilience for herself and others.

This is the forty-seventh in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

USAFI Market, located in Katwe, Kampala was acquired last year by Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) as a space to host vendors previously operating on city streets. It has a current capacity of 3,000 vendors.

Namubiru Harriet Milly is a 37 year old woman residing in Ketwe, Kampala, Uganda, who has worked  as a food vendor at USAFI market for seven  years, selling fresh cowpeas and beans.

Having dealt with many seasons of suffering before, Milly learned a very important lesson in her early youth: “nobody has responsibility over you, but you”. As a young mother, Milly suffered domestic violence in her marriage until her mother visited one day to extract her from the difficult situation. She left her three children behind, including one who was only nine months old.

Since then and in the years before the Covid-19 outbreak, Milly sought work without prejudice to  any job, because supporting her children was her driving force. When she started earning, she immediately started sending financial support to her mother-in-law who had taken care of the children. After ten years, she reclaimed all her children. Once she got her children back, she finally started saving money through mobile banking. It was such savings that helped Milly and her children to not only survive, but thrive through the first wave of Covid-19.

Resilience is about building mental muscle: It’s a journey, not a destination

In order to protect the communities from Covid-19, The Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) conducted regular sensitisation using community radio and megaphones to inform about the signs and symptoms of Covid-19 and encourage people to follow good hygiene practice, such as handwashing. The lockdown forced the adjacent taxi stand of the USAFI market to close, but the government declared the food vendors as essential workers and so  allowed them to carry on business. However, the vendors were not permitted to leave the market during the lockdowns, hence, they had to sleep inside the market.

When the first Covid-19 case was announced in Uganda in March 2020, Milly was filled with fear. “I am a father, a mother and a worker. I was affected so much by the first wave because I had to decide whether to be a mother or a worker. I chose to be a mother” she says.

In order to protect her children from Covid-19 and give them a secure place to live, she decided to shift to a new house which is very far from the workplace, and therefore did not work for close to three months. “I paid attention to securing my home, but this affected my daily earnings and I was forced to withdraw some of my money which I had saved in the bank and stock food supplies. I was saving this money for wiring electricity into my house but I had to withdraw it so I could take care of my children” she adds.

Knowledge is useless if it is not applied

During the second lockdown she had no savings so decided to leave her children at home and stayed at work. “When I returned to work from the first lockdown, I didn’t have money. Our work is based on cash at hand, the retailers who sell to us also get the produce from farmers only after paying cash. So I had to secure my work by not taking out any profits. Additionally, my customers had moved on to other suppliers while I was away. It took me a month to re-establish myself. It felt like I was starting afresh” she shares.

As breadwinners, market vendors had the challenge to ensure that they continued to earn a living to keep their families fed. It should be noted that market vendors largely survive on a daily income. Where there is no income, there is no guarantee for food. Furthermore, they are exposed to contracting Covid-19 due to their high contact with people and cash. They therefore have a huge responsibility to minimise this risk, by building knowledge and understanding about how to prevent and their clients from getting the virus.

Communication about Covid-19 had both fake and correct news. It was difficult to tell which news was dependable. So, Milly consulted a friend who works in the largest hospital, Mulago, for advice on how to keep herself from contracting the virus. For her, Covid-19 was a wakeup call to take responsibility.

At the workplace, Milly sits closest to the entrance. She acts on this responsibility to remind all that walk into the market, to observe the  hygiene procedures. Thanks to KCCA, the market has ready supply of water and soap. At the entrance, anyone entering the market must wash their hands, but many do not want to. She always reminds them, even when it attracts abuse from some. When customers approach her stall, with her mask on, she welcomes them and reminds them to wear their mask properly.

She appreciates KCCA for their vigilance in educating the market community about Covid-19 and not wavering in supplying them with basic services including water, soap and nets. KCCA has also helped with regular surveillance.

“Covid-19 came as a wake-up call for all, because it affected the rich, the poor, the educated and uneducated – all categories alike. Many people, including my uncle, died because of Covid-19. Hearing but not applying the knowledge is therefore useless” she concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The economic empowerment of women is key to building preparedness against crises such as Covid-19 that impacted everyone at the same time. No job should be considered shameful, but have a larger goal in mind to drive you. Single mothers have unique challenges as they lack support from a partner. If she falls sick, the whole household is negatively impacted, especially if they feed only by the daily earnings. Encouraging a saving culture amongst workers is very important. As a Least Developed Country, Uganda still has a very low saving culture.

Government’s support is very critical. The services offered by KCCA such as sensitisation, handwashing facilities and nets lifted a burden that could have been borne by Milly and her fellow market vendors. Therefore, the government needs to have emergency funds to quickly support the most vulnerable when disasters strike.

About the Interviewer

Sandra Coote is a 26-year-old community development advocate working with ACTADE as a Programme Officer facilitating citizen participation in public decision making in the central region of Uganda.

About the Interviewee

Namubiru Harriet Milly is a 37 year old woman residing in Ketwe, Kampala, Uganda for many years now. She has been working as a food vendor at Usafi market, where she sells fresh cowpeas and beans.