the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other authors

A week at Bidibidi

on February 9, 2020

Now that I’m feeling more confident in my role as a VSO volunteer with Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) at Bidibidi refugee settlement, Uganda, it’s about time I introduced the team. My colleagues include two exceptional practitioners who have substantial experience in teacher education. They are national volunteers, Zachary Alio and Josephine Lubwama. Both have come out of retirement and have given up the comfort of their family homes to support the children of refugees from South Sudan and national families living in the far north west of Uganda. We work under the guidance of our team leader, Christine Abala who offers brilliant direction and support. Christine has a background in social work so she is very well placed to advise on the needs of vulnerable children.


Josephine, Christine and Zachary

I am so impressed with the work my colleagues are doing in training, mentoring and supporting refugees and and local Ugandans to act as caregivers to young children attending ECCE centres. The caregivers are fluent in English and the local language of Lugbara or Bari which is the name for a group of South Sudanese dialects. The caregivers are educated to the standard required for students entering teacher training, but few have formal teaching qualifications. Therefore, the support offered by Josephine and Zachary is essential to ensure the safety, learning, play and wellbeing of children from 3–6 years enrolled at the seven centres in Zone 3, Bidibidi. You can read more about the settlement here.


Josephine training the caregivers

The caregivers attended refresher training delivered by Josephine this week. The session  involved planning of learning according to the National Early Childhood Development Framework. I loved the way Josephine offered training – it was full of empathy, passion and humour. Such a shame I couldn’t stay for the whole day, but I had learning to deliver as well.

My role at Bidibidi relates to psychosocial wellbeing. UNHCR uses the term mental health and psychosocial support to describe “any type of local or outside support that aims to protect or promote psychosocial wellbeing or prevent or treat mental disorders.” As I am working with young children, I started my programme of activities by delivering an introduction to the psychosocial support parents can offer their children in the home. This involved a two-hour session at each of the seven centres. I was ferried around the settlement by motorbike on some days, by a four-wheel drive vehicle on others. It was great fun working with the parents and the turn out at some villages was over one hundred and twenty people. (I shall never again have anxiety about addressing large groups!)


Temporary roof repairs meant everyone could sit in the shade.

Delivery of the training I had planned was challenging because everything I said needed to be interpreted by volunteers into the local language and Bari. I had to do a lot of thinking on my feet when the interpreter’s grasp of English was more limited than I had expected. Although the flip chart displays I had prepared included illustrations, the language was too advanced, so I had to adjust my talk to avoid use of technical language, complex sentence constructions and colloquialisms. The other problem with using flip chart paper was the wind. Most of the venues were church buildings with thatched roofs and half walls. I had to chase after one of my sheets when I gust took it! Everyone laughed, thank goodness.

At one of the more remote villages, I delivered input to a group sitting under the shade of a tree. On this occasion, interpretation was even more complicated as no-one knew both English and Lugbara. Eventually we found a solution. English was interpreted into Bari, then Swahili then Lugbara. It did make the session rather long but the women were a hoot.


The focus of the activity was to highlight how parents can support their children’s learning and wellbeing in the home by spending time talking and playing with their children. Strong family bonds and good lines of communication are essential when living on the settlement. Gender-based violence (often against young girls) and child protection  are two big issues. Where children are confident to share their experiences, worries and concerns with their parents, the appropriate reporting and action can take place so that safety and support is offered.  Many refugee women are head of their household and look after their own children as well as acting as guardians to others who arrive on the settlement unaccompanied.  They have a heavy schedule of work including the collection of firewood, cooking, cleaning, childcare and more. So I was delighted women had spared the time to come to the activity and many men were also present.

One of the activities all participants enjoyed was a call and response voice warm-up using made up words. (Genius idea as no interpretation was required!) Fortunately, through lots of practice, I can sing this one in tune and the huge crowds sang back. My aim was to illustrate the joy that singing in the home can bring to parents and children. It was a pleasure to hear the women ululating when the activity came to a close. During the feedback session, one group of men wanted to share with me one of the singing games from their childhood which involved passing five stones around the group. Such a thrill to watch. I only wish I’d had the wit to video them in action. But all I have is a photo.


For the next two weeks I’m on the VSO Twitter account @VSO_intl sharing my experiences. If you’re on Twitter, please look out for my updates. And, if you fancy tuning into Radio Solent’s BBC Breakfast in Dorset, you can hear me talking about VSO and volunteering at Bidibidi. Click here to find the recording, my interview starts 52 minutes into the show.





5 responses to “A week at Bidibidi

  1. Suzanne Goldring says:

    you are doing wonderful work. Keep it up! xx

  2. jim bates says:

    This is an amazing journal, Gail, and I am so glad you are able to share it with us. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Keep up the great work 🙂

  3. Angela Petch says:

    Really interested to read this. I used to live in Tanzania when I was in my 20s and taught in a little mission school as a volunteer. Keep up the good work and… enjoy the experience! Africa gets under your skin!

  4. Very interesting read, Gail. Also to hear the Radio Solent interview. Excellent work!

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