Fun and friendship. Did you ever have one of those rabble-rouser friends from childhood that liked to joke, tease and turn any situation into a fun time?  Meet Stella Omuse. By the end of working together for just three short weeks across rural Uganda, I felt like I had reunited with my long-lost childhood friend.  “Positivity!!” That’s what Stella would sing with her beautiful Ugandan accent during our team’s long van rides whenever we were uncertain about a potentially negative outcome. Heavy rains and muddy road conditions – will we make it to Bussi Isand? Positivity!!  Drought this year, rising food costs, will the women’s microloan groups be able to repay their loans? Positivity!! You get the idea.

Visiting Stella’s grandmother in Tororro where Stella was raised.

Family, education and hard work. Here’s the thing. Stella has plenty of reasons not to be positive. But she is positive in the most innate and contagious ways.  Raised by her grandmother after her mother died young of HIV/Aids, Stella worked her way up through a university education and into her role as the Field Manager of IHA. For nearly eight years she’s been traveling rural communities overseeing community projects and assisting more than 35 women’s microloan groups.  Along the way she’s managed to have two kids, balance a family and home life, while also starting an IHA sister community-based organization (CBO) called Koliata Iduwe. In English Koliata Iduwe translates to Prosper Children.

Stella – working with microloan group at Menya School, near Iganga

Skillful Facilitation and Community Engagement. One thing that struck me most about Stella was her facilitation skills in large group meetings under the village shade tree or in the local classroom.  She’s seems to have a natural talent for putting people at ease and navigating sometimes difficult conversations. Honestly, she rivals the professional facilitators in the global north. One thing that helps, Stella speaks eight of Uganda’s forty-one indigenous languages. She also knows her audience very well, making in-home visits in her communities and collecting data on household size, conditions and health care needs. During our various community meetings, Stella always managed to bring the crowd to laughter.

Graduation ceremony – University of Utah certificate in Case Management, Arua Medical Center

Professional Development and capacity building. When I asked Stella how she came to be such a great facilitator, she modestly credited a recent on-line Case Management Certificate through the University of Utah College of Social Work. One highlight of our trip was getting to attend the graduation ceremony to see Stella receive her certificate from the University of Utah, along with about a dozen other social workers in the Arua district, many of whom serve families in the nearby Bidibidi and Rhino refugee camps.

Fun and games along the way – Murchison Falls National Park

Youthful Inspiration. On the way home from Arua, we decided to take the more scenic path through Murchison Falls National Park.  Stella acted as our guide – spotting giraffes, elephants, water buffalo and other animals on the horizon long before my eye could see. Just one more talent from this amazing new friend. In our time together Stella shared some heart wrenching accounts of the women she serves and the poorest of the poor in Uganda. Her optimism, humor, strength and skills in the face of the most daunting circumstances will stick with me long after my return to Colorado.  She’s also inspired me to get back to my childhood roots of finding fun and playfulness in life’s everyday encounters.