Learning from Community Professors in Uganda

by James Tayler

Housing Mock Up

By Noah Schermbrucker, SDI Secretariat

“In communities we know the number of settlements, services and origins of the people. We know how they spend their money and how they would like to develop their areas. You cannot plan from the office but if you go to the ground and speak to people and learn from them it can help you plan better”-Katana Goretti (Treasurer of Ugandan Federation)

The old adage that “knowledge is power” is particularly pertinent when it comes to traditional modes of development thought and planning. Who is afforded the right to speak? To what purpose do they speak and in whose interests? Who is included and, far more importantly, who is excluded? Far from being benign such narratives inform practices, models and interventions. They become a version of the truth ratified by officials, academic texts and practitioners. In this case the truth is not absolute it is socially produced within a very specific set of paradigms and engagements which all too often exclude the diversity, flexibility and value of community based knowledge. Surely those living in areas earmarked for development know their own needs best?

If we are to challenge current models of development to be inclusive of communities we have to confront the knowledge regimes that perpetuate them. These are housed within various spheres of society including the state, large development agencies and academic institutions. Through partnerships, negotiations and the setting of infrastructure precedents federations across the SDI networks attempt to create new spaces in which community knowledge comes to influence and inform development decisions. One such example is currently underway in Uganda where future city planners and geographers are being exposed to the knowledge and experience of federation members.

SDI has entered into a collaborative field project with third year planning students at Makerere University. Community members will accompany students in Kampala as well as 5 secondary Ugandan cities (Mbarara & Kabala, Mbale, Jinja and Arua) where students will conduct enumerations, transect walks, mapping exercises and other important community centered rituals. The students will be broken into groups with a specific focus for each member (e.g. housing, sanitation, education). In this manner students will have an in depth engagement around a core issue. Throughout the fieldwork process community members will assist, guide and teach the students about their communities and the obstacles that they face. Not only will future planners, geographers and architects be exposed to conditions of informality but also just as significantly they will come to see the intrinsic value of incorporating informal knowledge and practices in the planning processes.

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers

Community professor Zam explains savings schemes to the Makerere students

The outputs of the project will be detailed reports reflecting community challenges that will be submitted to local authorities that will also be drawn in throughout the process. Reports will validate enumeration data around key issues decided upon by community members at a meeting on the 5th of March. These issues include; water, toilets, roads, health centres, ownership of land and housing typologies. The verification of data arose out of community needs to present concise reports to authorities about their areas in order to create awareness and leverage resources. Importantly this is a demand driven process and not one determined by a top down intervention.

On Wednesday the 29th   February federation members visited the Makerere campus for the launch of the collaborative studio project. Katana Gorreti Bwakika Zam and Kasalu Ronald from the Ugandan Slum Dwellers Federation spoke to the students about savings, enumerations, mapping and how these processes had created social and political capital as well as solidarity within slum communities. The importance of knowing ones own community and the collection of information was also stressed. The students received the presentations enthusiastically and by the end of the meeting community members had taught the students the “Umeme” gesture popular amongst the East African federations (waving of the hands instead of clapping, a movement which does not exclude those who cannot clap).   

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers


Reflecting on the session over a cool drink in the University cafeteria federation members joked about becoming community professors and teaching students, a position that they never imagined themselves in. As the project progresses this is exactly the role that members of the Ugandan federation will fulfill. As students visit their settlements and become engrossed in the processes that they employ they will be the community professors whose experience, perseverance and knowledge begins to inform practice.  Katana tells me “ What I would like to see is the community, students and the government working together…as someone within the community we know best where to put the roads, drainage and garbage.”

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers

Community Professor Katana explaining the SDI rituals

Peter Kassaija, the enthusiastic teacher spearheading the partnership at Makerere stated “ We want students to go beyond sitting in the office and into the field in order to get to know the communities which they plan for. For the federation members the lines of communication are now open and they [the students] will learn as much from you as you will from them.” This is a welcome attitude and one from which many academic institutions can learn. Practical field experience of informal settlements not only debunks myths but exposes students to conditions and people who are normally excluded or given mere “lip service” in planning decisions about their own areas. During this process students will be forced to engage beyond the confines of the classroom with forms of knowledge that are not included in their curriculums but which are absolutely vital to the future equitable development of cities.

It is these types of partnerships that have the potential to not only create new spaces for learning but also enable informal community knowledge to become part of citywide slum upgrading processes. Across the SDI network tireless federation members are working to ensure that the knowledge of community professors is taken seriously and incorporated in developmental frameworks. If we are truly to change the segregated spatial form and exclusionary policies of future cities it is time that we all sat up and took very seriously the lessons which community professors can teach us. As Katana aptly sums up, “ An old broom sweeps better than a new broom. That is community members they have experience of all the corners and the problems in their communities.”

SDI will keep you posted as the workshop in Uganda unfolds. 

For more photos from Noah’s trip to Kampala, visit our Facebook page. 

Click here for more information about the Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation.