Talkative Mama

by James Tayler


By Skye Dobson, SDI Secretariat

“The challenge of a radical democratic practice was both a personal and an organizational one. Group relations had to be reorganized, but individuals had to grapple with personal changes as well. The process of building a movement for social transformation had to allow for, encourage, and nurture the transformation of the human beings involved. Individuals had to rethink and redefine their most intimate personal relations and their identities” (Ransby, 2003; 369).

The above quote explores the transformation of individuals within the Civil Rights Movement as described in Ella Baker’s biography. I thought it would be interesting to examine the same phenomena within the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) movement.

This blog will be the first in a series of blogs on the individuals who make up the over 1.2 million slum dwellers that comprise the SDI movement.  The series will explore the tales of individual transformation that are woven amongst the story of the evolution of the movement at large. These individual transformations, multiplied by over a million, are what give the SDI movement its dynamism and in turn feed a cycle of transformation at the individual and movement-level.

At the end of the series I hope to synthesize these tales into a more analytical piece on the topic of individual transformation within social movements.

This first blog will introduce a woman SDI president, Jockin Arputham, calls “Talkative Mama.” Her name is Katana Gorreti, the national treasurer of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU). Katana explains this moniker as follows – doing a perfect imitation of Jockin whilst quoting him it must be noted:

Mr. Jockin is good because he really wants to hear the voices of women. He always tells me, “You talkative woman, you go and look for things you can do. You do things on the ground” … He is always saying women put things in the right way, they see that things are done.

Katana is a tiny little firecracker. Her diminutive stature is but a momentary guise for this tireless, bold, and dedicated 36-year old mother of six.  Katana possesses absolutely no ego and is humble and generous in her authentic praise of others. Recently I watched as she worked right up until the day before giving birth to her last born, Justus. Two hours after giving birth she was discharged and got on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) with her newborn and went home. The very next day she and Justus were back to work.

Life before the federation

Katana grew up in Bweyogerere, Kampala. She recalls wanting to be an accountant because she did very well in math at school. She was unable to pursue this goal, however, as she could not raise the school fees required for high school and her family was unable to find a sponsor for her. “My father did all his best for us to get education” Katana says, “he took me to good schools before he was bankrupt. He tried his best for all of us.”

Katana’s father went bankrupt after being falsely arrested when a generator was stolen from his workplace. He spent time in Luzira Prison until the real thief was discovered. The incident took a heavy toll on the family. Her father, who had been a storekeeper and bookkeeper took to farming when he was released from prison and found it difficult to make a living.

Despite being forced to drop out of school, the local Women’s Council noticed Katana’s dedication and capacity and in 1996 she was nominated to be their secretary. She worked hard for these women and in 2001 she was elected general secretary of the local council in her area. It was in her capacity as LCI secretary that she was introduced to SDI by a support professional working to build a federation in Uganda.

Enter SDI

Katana said that when the SDI methodology was explained to her she agreed to try it in her area. She organized a meeting of 13 women and asked the professional to come back. “We told these women about savings on the 21st of July, 2007” Katana recalls, “and Cathy came with the savings books and we started saving. Then we started getting visitors from SDI, like Rose Molokoane and other groups started coming to our group to learn about the federation.”

The benefits of Federation membership truly became apparent to Katana when she and her neighbors in Kamwokya faced an eviction threat.

There is one mess I didn’t tell you about – that really convinced us to join the federation. In 2008 we had a serious eviction threat. It was claimed that all our land had been bought. When they came we had no information – we consulted the federation’s supporting professionals – they advised us to form a committee to follow up on these issues. We formed a committee and gave each person a responsibility to get information. I was one of the people who had to go to the Ministry of Lands to ask for the title for the land so we could see who really owned it. We asked for the title and we found out who the rightful owners were. It was not the person that was threatening to evict us even though they had even come with graders! We met the RC [Regional Councilor] and we informed the community and they were aware. When the land grabbers came the community was so mad – the police had to stop them from killing the land grabbers. We saved the major part of the land. We saw that working together could be very important.

This event was a victory for the movement and for Katana it crystallized in her mind the value of being part of a federation. It was more than just savings. Katana began to learn more about the other SDI rituals to see how these could make a difference in the lives of people in her community.

In 2008 – around August, we started settlement profiling. We visited Jinja and did profiling. I was in Kimaka settlement. I was not one of the leaders by that time, but because of my hard work I was selected to be part of the profiling team. We completed the whole of Jinja.

Working as part of the profiling teams gave Katana a richer understanding of the SDI movement. She interacted with members from other SDI countries to conduct the profiling and she learned about the lives of slum dwellers in other parts of her country. She began to truly feel part of a movement. As this sentiment grew within Katana she became a key mobilizer for the federation and was selected to be part of the team that would mobilize 5 new municipalities into the Federation in 2009.

In 2009 the TSUPU [Transforming Settlement of the Urban Poor in Uganda] program began and we conducted a massive mobilization effort in Jinja, Arua, Mbale, Mbarara, and Kabale. I went to all of them. Kabale was the most difficult. When we went to one cell, they chased us and wanted to beat us. They thought we were an organization that had come before and taken all the people’s savings. They were calling us thieves. But we kept coming back and talking to local leaders and eventually they came on board.  A team that went to Mbale had also failed. But, we came again with Celine and a new team and we organized to meet the Community Development Officer. We then managed to mobilize them. When we went to Arua it wasn’t difficult to mobilize them. We found them already saving in their boxes and giving three people a key. We shared the SDI methodology and how it could help them improve their savings and more. In Mbarara they thought we were going to give them money, but they came to understand and even the mayor started saving.

An emerging leader

As Katana became more and more involved with the federation she found herself being groomed to take on a leadership position. Katana speaks with tremendous affection and respect when telling me about the NSDFU chairman, Hassan Kiberu. “Hassan taught me to remain calm and keep quiet. He told me, ‘You are a leader. You have to be an example, not bickering here and there.’

She explains that sometimes when others would argue with her she would get angry, but the mentoring she received from Hassan helped her to understand that, “It takes no matter to stay calm. You don’t lose anything.” Katana learned to listen and she learned to respect the views of those who disagreed with her. “I leaned the responsibility I have as a leader, both as a community and society. As a leader I have to see what benefits others and not to think of me. I can think of what will benefit the majority. What do the majority think of me?“

She came to see that harmonizing the very many views within the community and helping the community to work together was part of what being a leader was all about. “When we work as a team we can get many things. We can’t sit back and say ‘I’m poor I can’t do anything.’ No. You have to start small and you get big.”

She tells me she was inspired by other women in the Ugandan federation and in the SDI network, “I saw these strong community women leaders speaking and I thought I can also be a leader. I saw Rose Molokoane talking about traveling all over the world as a leader and I thought, yes I can do that.”

She realized from these women that to be an effective leader you can’t just talk. You must work hard. Katana felt she was well positioned to invest heavily in the federation. “I’m hardworking. Me I do every job. I got that spirit from my mother. She is a hardworking woman. She suffered a lot of domestic violence in her last marriage so she works hard. She focused on her work and becoming a business woman to support her children.”

It wasn’t long before Katana was appointed the role of National Treasurer for the National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda. In this role she is able to use those strong math skills that had once inspired her to want to be an accountant. But her appointment to this position was more about her dedication and commitment to the federation and her trustworthiness. Federation leaders are not elected in Uganda as NSDFU does not want politics to poison the membership. Instead, leaders that exemplify the values of the federation and lead by example are groomed for certain positions of responsibility. “In my area I used to maintain the funds for the public toilet. From my area I had already been trusted to handle resources safely. This made me a good choice.”

When one sees the level of dedication to the federation Katana exhibits on a day-to-day basis it is easy to wonder whether she ever views her leadership role as a burden. I asked Katana and she responded that, “It depends on how you handle issues. If you handle it alone it becomes a burden. If it’s in your head alone, banange …”

Empowered Woman

Today Katana explains that she has a different kind of confidence and this has an impact not only on her work with the federation but upon her home life and her self-perception.  

Through the small I have, I have done something. I am proud. Today I sit together with my husband and we together send the kids to school. Since I work so hard I get very tired.  When I can’t do any work at home my husband helps and if I have to travel to Arua he takes full responsibly for the children. This never happened before I was in the federation. Before, we were parallel. Now we work together. He has also changed you see. He now says ‘if we assist women they can also assist us.’

She contrasts he husband’s view with that of other Ugandan men she has encountered. “In Uganda there are still many men who think women should not lead” Katana explains. “Someone can ask you, ‘You as a woman, you are talking?  You are just a woman. You are urinating while squatting, what can you say?’” Katana has a response to such degrading insults, “What I always say is that the world is changing. Development makes many changes. When you empower women you empower the nation.”

Katana has seen the way women are changing in the federation. “With the federation women we are thinking big – we want businesses, we are also planning, we can buy a piece of land, we can acquire a loan, we can become a society and do things for ourselves. We do not have to wait for begging.”

She is inspired by her fellow women federation members, especially, she tells me, Sarah Nandudu – the Vice Chairperson of the Federation. “I really appreciate the way Sarah handles her issues as a woman. She takes the issues slowly, but steadily. She always has answers. She always tries to cool down the house. She can identify where the issue has come from and how it can be resolved without fighting each other.”

Talkative Mama

Today Katana thinks of herself as supporting the movement at large, not only her community in Kamwokya. “You know one time Medie [support professional] told me, ‘Katana you need to think country-wide’.  Now, when I go home I think about what will happen tomorrow for the whole federation. What will happen in Arua? In Mbale? In Jinja? Like that.”

I asked Katana what advice she would give other federation leaders and she told me:

Work as a team and love your federation. We are doing this out of love. If you don’t love what you do you would stop. You reach home and you are so tired you don’t eat supper. You make the federation part of you. That is when you mobilize even your husband. Today I told him I would come late and he is looking after the children. When you make something part of you everyone around you, everyone can understand. That way I can’t say it is a burden because it is part of me. I have to do it because it is part of me.

Katana concludes by telling me, “Whenever Jockin visits Uganda he asks me, ‘Are you still talking mama or are you doing something?’”

To this Katana says she only has one answer these days, “I say to him ‘Mr. Jockin, there is no time for talking. It is time for action.’”