the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

After a week in Kampala

It’s my final morning at Sjarlot’s house where I’ve been living on and off for a month. Last night she invited some fellow volunteers for a farewell party and we sat on the veranda eating samosas and drinking beer. It was a fun time and they gave me a children’s school bag to pack the last of my belongings as a going away present.

The truck is loaded with furnishings for the house in Yumbe but I will spend tonight in Arua and then travel the final leg on Monday. The road to Yumbe is reportedly very poor, and I’m told the journey will be more like a ride on a waltzer. Already the driver, Dennis, has called round to say we’ll be leaving later than expected at half past ten. This delay has heightened my sense of excitement and nerves. It’s only thirty minutes and so I use this time wisely in composing this post.

Last week was a busy time in Kampala. I joined three days of planning meetings where I was able to pin down the activities I’ll be delivering at the Bidibidi refugee settlement. There will be some awareness raising talks about strategies parents can use in addressing the wellbeing needs of their children. To follow, I’ll deliver some workshops to build parents’ skills and confidence in supporting their children. I’m also responsible be developing safe space clubs for targeted children to share any worries or concerns. Further areas for development will involve working in partnership with other NGOs and local government in developing guidance material. That’s enough to keep me busy!

On Thursday and Friday, VSO Uganda organised communication training. I was awarded a VSO T-shirt my for my contribution to the sessions which involved a role play and a presentation of the communication plan developed by education teams across Uganda. Here is a photo of Gloria and I in our finery.

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Now I must pack my bits and bobs ready for leaving. Wish me luck for when I get to Bidibidi!

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Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

Although it’s never been one of my burning ambitions to join a safari, I’m very glad I did. Murchison Falls National Park is about three hours drive from Gulu and while Sjarlot and I had time off from our roles as VSO volunteers over the Christmas break, we made the trip along with Helen, Sjarlot’s daughter.

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We visited the national park three times and I was amazed each time at how the outlook changed according to the time of day. Sunrise gave a pastel hue and the chance to spy a small herd of elephants.

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Later in the morning, there was a hint of blue as a bird took rest on the back of a water buffalo.

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The evening light gave a honey glow that made our guide convinced there was a lion resting in this tree. He even went off road to check but in the end we saw no lions.

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Elephants plodding along made me laugh.

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And giraffes were endlessly elegant in their manoeuvres (apart from when squatting for water).

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At the campsite, there was even a chance encounter with a grazing hippo!

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So if you find yourself in Uganda, the national park at Murchison Falls is a great way to spend a couple of days.

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Now we’re in Kampala joining training in communications and media. Here’s a photo of the sunrise.

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Entebbe Botanical Gardens

Getting to my placement is proving very problematic so I’ve decamped to Entebbe for a few days. I was fortunate to get a lift to Kampala then a private hire car brought me to the most delightful guest house called Muti Garden Cafe. There are only three rooms available and I’m very pleased to be in one of them.

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Entebbe stands beside Lake Victoria and is the gateway to Uganda as all international flights land here. (In 1976 an Air France airbus was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists who held Jewish passengers hostage at the airport. A month later Israeli paratroopers stormed the building and all hostages were freed much to the chargin of Idi Amin.) It was the capital of the country during the colonial era and has a fantastic botanical garden as a legacy from that period.

The grounds of the botanical garden are huge and run alongside Lake Victoria so spotting an African Masked Weaver on the shore was easy. It was lovely to see the pendulous nests and a flash a yellow feathers.

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photo acknowledgement: pixabay

There are also many monkeys including the white fringed colobus.

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photo acknowledgement: pixabay

And I even managed to take a photo of these vervent monkeys.

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I was accompanied on my walk around the botanical gardens by a volunteer who took me to a spot which he suggested was the location for filming the early Tarzan movies. Looking at these vines, it would be easy to believe this was true.

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I’m in Kampala next week so please watch out for further posts.

 

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Anticipating Bidibidi and Yumbe

I arrived in Uganda on 7 December and in all the time since I’ve been anticipating what it will be like on placement with VSO at the Bidibidi refugee settlement near Yumbe. Whenever, I told anyone I was heading to Yumbe the response was invariably the same. A little sigh and a rubbing of my shoulder followed. One can interpret this in many ways. What I already knew about the area is that it’s been under-resourced for decades and that it’s fairly remote from any large centre. The people I spoke with also offered two other pieces of information about Yumbe:

  • it’s very hot
  • the road is very bad

Although I’ve undertaken further research about the area and the settlement, it’s difficult to imagine what it will actually be like to live and volunteer there. So, I’d like to share with you my first impressions of Yumbe and will fill you in with details about Bidibidi as I get to know the place. However, this won’t be for another couple of days. My scheduled departure for placement was postponed yesterday. I arrived at the office ready to load the vehicle with furnishings for my rented house and pile in my suitcases. Only the car wasn’t in the office compound. It was at the garage and hadn’t yet been fixed. It’s likely that I’ll now leave on Wednesday instead. So now I’m back at Sjarlot’s house and waiting … anticipating Bidibidi and Yumbe.

In the meantime, I have writing to complete. I’m working on a new comedy sketch show as part of 3-She. We’re hoping to get this staged in Dorset sometime in the autumn. WhatsApp video calling allows me to collaborate with my fellow writers Maria Pruden and Sarah Scally. During a recent video call the dogs in the compound were barking so much that the sound carried and unsettled Maria’s cat. Amazing that dogs in Uganda can make a Dorset cat arch its back!

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Through Arts Keep Smiling (TAKS)

Best known as an art gallery and installation (according to my Bradt travel guide to Uganda), TAKS is just a short walk from Sjarlot’s house in Gulu. It also has an internet café and garden restaurant so it sounded an ideal place to visit. The Twitter profile announces it to be ‘a centre located in the heart of Uganda. We have fun things for you to enjoy from Classic Gulu dance to a nice relaxing therapeutic environment.’ Dropping by seemed like a no brainer.

Founded by David Odwar, TAKS is housed in the former club house of the Gulu golf course. Although the fairways have since been turned in housing, there remains evidence of a tennis court, one of the posts still stands that formerly held up the net and court markings appear on crumbling asphalt.

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Inside the clubhouse, the internet café is particularly busy and I notice students applying for overseas scholarships while others are intent on their screens composing letters. I take my laptop into the meeting room where it is cooler. Around from where I sit is a garden installation which has support from the Arts & Humanities Research Council amongst other bodies. This showcases photography that tries to make sense of the difficult realities of displacement. Images are drawn from Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and DRC which show worn out shoes, water containers, cooking utensils and other necessities that make the flight to safety possible.

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It did make me reflect on the things I brought to Uganda and which bring me comfort as I find my way as a volunteer. Not least among these items is my favourite mug which shows the book cover of the Virago Modern Classic Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Suzann.

Although TAKS is an amazing community resource, it receives no funding. When David returned from living, studying and working in the UK he purchased the plot outright. Three units are let to provide accommodation which generates some income and David lives on site. He is very keen to raise funds to pay for a security fence to replace the current bamboo struts so that TAKS can be used as an evening performance venue for dance and music. For further information about TAKS, please visit the website.

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TAKS is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours writing. I hope I have made the most of my free time as come tomorrow, I start as a volunteer at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe. I have a couple of stories on the go and I find it productive to be around other people who are also beavering away at their own projects. Good luck everyone!

 

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About the Nile

I have long wanted to go on a boat trip along the Nile, but not where it’s like this:

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Here is a picture of Murchison Falls, where the Nile crashes over rocks as part of the tributary in Uganda. This was the destination of our boat trip which started in calm waters near the Paraa ferry crossing. From here we were able to see crocodiles, including this sunbathing beauty.

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And Water buffalo gathering.

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And a range of wonderful birds I couldn’t catch on camera, including the iridescent flash of Kingfisher feathers.

Along the river, you could spot hippos …

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… and our guide was so keen for us to get a better look, she directed the boat to steer really close.

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The disturbed hippos fled but this left us grounded on the river bed. All passengers had to congregate at the stern and rock it by leaping from one side to the other until the boat eventually slipped free.

When we began to see spume spotting the river, it was an indication we were approaching the falls. We were put ashore for a two-kilometre hike that brought us to the top of the falls. We were refreshed by the spray and treated to rainbows.

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Given the many features of the Nile, I thought it appropriate to add a few facts here:

  • Although the Nile is mainly associated with Egypt, it flows through ten other countries – Tanzania, DCR, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda!
  • it’s thought to be the longest river in the world at 6,695 km, but some dispute this arguing that the Amazon is longer
  • the two main tributaries, the White and the Blue merge at Khartoum in Sudan then the Nile travels north to the Mediterranean Sea
  • At Jinga in Uganda, water pours over the Ripon Falls and there’s a narrow opening which is said to be the source of the Nile

Of course, the Nile is crossed in many places but it was at Paraa that we went backwards and forwards from our accommodation to the national park on the other side. The crossing itself was an adventure, with a line of cars queuing to cross each day.

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And there was ample entertainment watching vehicles rev, scrape and bounce aboard owing to the rudimentary boarding platform!

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Keep an eye out for a future next blog post where I’ll be sharing stories from my safari in the Murchison Falls National Park.

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Top tips for the first week as a VSO volunteer

For anyone who is interested in following my path as a VSO volunteer, here are some things to expect during the first week and some top tips for staying afloat.

If there’s no one there to collect you at the airport, don’t panic. You will have details of the taxi company included in your welcome letter. Just give them a ring – I found my taxi company very obliging and although the first driver had given up waiting due to the delayed flight, another one arrived within five minutes.

Top Tip #1

Check with your mobile provider that you’re able to make calls on your UK sim in your destination country. I added a few quid to make sure I could also phone home to let everyone know I had arrived safely.

 

I spent nearly a fortnight staying in hotels during my in-country orientation. If you’re like me a love a cuppa the next top tip is for you.

Top Tip #2

Take a travel kettle and your favourite tea or coffee. I had a wobble during my first few days and just knowing a cup of tea was available really helped me to calm down and remain focused.

 

Mosquito nets have a mind of their own and can swish about if the opening isn’t secured.

Top Tip #3

Take a few pegs. These are useful to secure the flaps of a mosquito net to keep you truly safe from intruders during sleep. They are also useful to clip any holes in the net. And they can also be used to attached washed socks to hangers for drying in the bathroom.

 

If you end up living out of a suitcase for two weeks, it’s worth organising your packing so that you can find things easily.

Top Tip #4

Use drawsting bags or cotton shopping bags to group items together. I had one for all things electrical, another for anything related to protection from the sun and a third contained items connected with mosquito bites and how to avoid them. The bags also double up as laundry bags or shoe bags once you reach your final destination.

 

I experienced a twenty-four hour water cut during my first weekend in Kampala.

Top Tip #5

Take wet wipes for such an emergency. Dry shampoo is probably another good investment.

 

When I knew I was going to Uganda, I checked with friends to see if they knew anyone in the country.

Top Tip #6

Follow up on any connections offered. A friend of a friend invited me to the North Kampala Rotary Christmas party. Quite the highlight of my first weekend. A fabulous band played.

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Splendid band at the Rotary Christmas party

I came down with a cold on day two of my in-country orientation

Top Tip #7

Pack your usual cold remedies. Thank goodness for Echinacea.

 

For those who don’t like eating in a restaurant alone …

Top Tip #8

Take a stock of your favourite snack bars, nut bars, cereal bars or the like. These are comfort food which will sustain you if you find one night you don’t want to go to the restaurant for dinner.

 

If you have trouble remembering names and faces …

Top Tip #9

Take a photo of the organisational chart in the country office. It will have photos of post holders and their names.

 

If you are likely to experience power cuts …

Top Tip #10

Take a power bank to charge your laptop and another charger for your phone. This belt and braces approach will ensure you can remain connected.

 

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Twenty-four hours at the Bomah Hotel

Rather than spend New Year’s Eve on my own in Sjarlot’s house in Gulu (she and her daughter had gone to Kampala to celebrate with friends), I decided to book a room at the Bomah Hotel. There were signs all around town advertising a party to take place that evening. Although only a block away from Sjarlot’s house, I figured it would be worth staying the night rather than risk getting home alone after the party. And so I checked in at noon to take full advantage of the facilities, which include a pool, sauna, gym and steam room. It was rather like having a spa retreat for one.

Come the evening, I donned my usual long sleeves and long trousers (plus socks!) to avoid getting mosquito bites and headed down to the bar. I was an early diner but enjoyed fish and chips while staff around me arranged chairs for the entertainment. In the garden a band prepared to play and out back by the pool there was music pumped through huge speakers. I opted to stay with the band ­and enjoyed the music but didn’t recognise any of the songs. As midnight approached everyone but me clutched their mobile phones ready to record the explosion of coloured lights. The firework display was pretty and offered a few big bangs and screeches but all were drowned out by the noise from the crowd. I’m used to hearing oohs and aahs during a firework display at home, but there were no gasps in Gulu. It was all cheering and ululating. Such a wonderful sound. I was completely embraced by it and really felt part of the crowd celebration. Then the singer started up again, impromptu words sung in tribute to 2020.

Just one more bottle on Stoney (ginger beer) and a few greetings of happy new year later, I headed off to bed where I sent messages to family and friends. This morning I write after a breakfast of fruit and pastries. Now there are only five more sleeps until I leave for the Bidibidi refugee settlement. I wonder what these next three months will bring during my volunteer placement. But one thing is for sure, the start to 2020 was delightful and I’m glad I invested in a night at the Bomah Hotel.

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Gulu: a thriving town with a troubled past

I’m staying in Gulu for the Christmas holidays and it’s a good place to be. There are lots of volunteers to socialise with and a good range of cafés and restaurants to idle away the hours. The town has a bustling centre with shops, banks and a good market. I’m staying on the outskirts where there are long avenues lined with government and NGO offices, newly built compounds with smart housing and a clutch of reasonably priced hotels. The town is now the main hub of north Uganda having expanded considerably since the 1990s. It will be recognised as a city in the not too distant future.

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The current prosperity masks a troubled past. The north of Uganda has traditionally supported the south but has not enjoyed the same rewards. In the 1980s tensions in the area deteriorated into tribal conflict and bloodshed. Upon gaining power, President Museveni sent forces north to establish his authority. Opposition to this became fertile ground for the development of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Following the defeat of Alice Lakwena’s rebellion (who led a troops under a banner of Christian and Acholi rituals), Joseph Kony seized control of the rebels and introduced a doctrine where it was legitimate to abduct children and induct them into the Lord’s Resistance Army where the massacre of villagers was a regular occurrence. After years of dominating the area and following a lengthy peace process, Joseph Kony fled into the Central African Republic (CAR). It is believed he is still at large in CAR although he is rumoured to be in South Sudan or elsewhere. Members of the LRA where reabsorbed into society through traditional ceremonies of cleansing and forgiveness and eventually given amnesty by the government. There has not been any conflict in the north since 2005. But as I walk the town centre amongst the shops with wide verandas, it’s shocking to realise this was where 15,000 children slept each evening as an escape from the LRA. And, it’s sobering to think that the child soldiers who once served the LRA now have families of their own and somehow have to live with the autocracies they committed.

During the long drive from Kampala to Gulu, our driver (I’ll call him Paul) shared his experiences of growing up during the reign of terror inflicted by the LRA. He was approached by the LRA on three occasions and managed to escape by answering their questions with a clear head and by keeping calm throughout these terrifying experiences. He knew the chances of escape were slim: three of this brothers and his father had been murdered by the LRA. Each time he was released, he managed to hide amongst trees until the danger had passed. One time, he was walking home from school for the holidays. He had heard rebels were in the area so headed for his aunt’s house. Once there, he borrowed his cousin’s bicycle to make a speedy visit to his mother. On the way there, he was stopped by rebels. The latest arbitrary ruling by Kony included a new law banning the riding of bicycles. He watched the rebels chop the bike to pieces and then burn it. Later he was allowed to leave and he hid until the rebels had moved on and he was able to make it home on foot. Later, when he told his aunt what had happened, the family decided that the bicycle was new and had to be replaced. Paul didn’t want this debt hanging over him, so instead of using money to pay his school fees, he offered this as compensation. Without classes to attend, Paul developed his skills in tending a vegetable garden. Fortunately, the school allowed him to resume his studies when money permitted.

Paul’s experiences chime with an excerpt from a non fiction book I’m reading called Aboke Girls by Els de Temmerman which describes the abduction of 139 girls from St Mary’s School in Aboke in 1996. One of the sisters followed the rebels into the bush and asked for the girls to be returned. Surprisingly, 109 girls were released. The book records what happened to some of the 30 who remained in captivity. Here is a horrifying event observed by Sarah:

…the rebels spotted a man riding down the path. He tried to get away but the rebels had already grabbed him. ‘Why do you ride a bicycle?’ Lagira questioned him. Didn’t he know Kony’s law banning the riding of bicycles? The man pointed at his leg, which was swollen and smeared with some local medicine. He couldn’t walk and was on his way to the hospital for treatment, he stammered, and he pleaded for mercy. But Lagira coldly told him that his leg would be cut off, according to the rules. At that moment, a woman accidently bumped into them. She too was grabbed by the rebels. Lagira ordered her to kneel down and bite off the leg. If she refused to do so, she would be killed. With horror, Sarah witnessed how the woman did as she was told. But of course, she could not get through the bone, so Lagira gave her an axe. Even then, it took all her strength to cut the leg in two. Both were left behind on the road, crying.

When I asked Paul, how it was possible to be reconciled with people who had committed such horrors, he just referred to the amnesty. And then he said it was important to celebrate the memory of those who had been put to death by the rebels. To commemorate their lives rather than dwelling on murder. And so Paul is able to find a way forward.

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Tracking back to find the root of an idea

It’s long been my ambition to volunteer with VSO International. I received the vacancies newsletter for many years and have enjoyed browsing the range of educational opportunities available for one or two years. The problem has always been I can’t commit to that length of time. My husband has no interested in joining me, so I figure that if I want to stay married, the longest I can be away for is a few months. Back in the summer I noticed a position in Ethiopia working at a teaching training institution from April 2020 for six months. At last my time had come. I spent a couple of days working up an application and when I came to submit, the vacancy had vanished. After getting all fired up about this new possibility, I searched the VSO website for any other potential jobs and submitted several applications.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a Skype meeting for screening. Once successfully through this, it was explained that I needed to pass a situational online test and a panel interview to join the VSO bank, where I could wait for up to eighteen months for a short term vacancy to arise. My details would then be submitted to the country office for a further interview. During October, VSO suggested I apply for the post of protection and psychosocial support specialist working with early childhood care and education centres at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. The position had originally been for one year but as funding was due to end in March 2020, this made a perfect short term position for me. I applied, was interviewed and offered the post to begin 8 December 2019.

This role really appealed to me because I had spent several years in Wandsworth working as an advisor for refugee pupils. During that time my work involved curriculum development to promote a greater understanding of the plight of refugees. The aim of these sessions was to enable pupils in mainstream classrooms to develop greater empathy and understanding for new arrival children from refugee backgrounds. One of the resources I used was a publication called One Day We Had to Run! which collected the stories of unaccompanied boys fleeing war to find safety at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The boys were also encouraged to share their memories, experiences and hopes through painting. The material for the book was collected by Sybella Wilkes, then a young aid worker at the camp who now works as the senior communications officer with UNHCR. I remember thinking at the time that this was a great thing to do and I wondered if there would ever be an opportunity for me to do something similar. And so, I guess the seed or an idea or ambition was sewn.

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When I thought about this further, the actual ambition to volunteer with VSO goes back much further. I lived in Papua New Guinea for two years following marriage to my first husband in 1982.  Tom got a job in Wabag, Enga Province and I accompanied him there. While he trained a National team at the Department of Works and Supply, I volunteered at a pre-school. Amongst the expatriate community in this far flung town was a Caribbean poet called Archie Markham. He was a VSO volunteer attached to the Department of Information as a media coordinator. As a working poet, he also established a series of poetry readings which became a highlight for the community. He went on to write a memoir of his time in Wabag titled Papua New Guinea Sojourn: More Pleasures of Exile. It seems to me, this is the deeper root of my wish to become a VSO volunteer. It’s possibly something to do with reclaiming that young woman I once was and combining it with the experience of my more mature years as a teacher and writer. Who knows? Like Archie I may find inspiration to write from working with refugee families at Bidibidi.

Before I get ahead of myself, it’s important to remember I’ve only been in post for two weeks. The in-country orientation in Kampala has involved briefings on the role, an introduction to administration systems, IT support and health and safety. Accommodation has been found for me at my placement and I’ll be joining my new colleagues at the office in Yumbe on 6 January. In the meantime, I’m staying in Gulu over the holiday period which will give me a chance to obtain furniture and furnishings for my new temporary home as well as celebrate Christmas with other VSO volunteers. Although there’s a lot going on at the moment, it doesn’t stop me from looking forward to starting my role at Bidibidi.

 

 

 

 

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