the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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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Firm handshakes and a warm welcome to Uganda

One week into my VSO International placement in Uganda and I feel more grounded. I was surprised to find myself tearful on arrival and obsessively checking where all my stuff was in my super large hotel room in Kampala. The hotel staff are warm and friendly and enquire about my wellbeing with genuine interest. I will stay in Kampala another few days then set off for Gulu where I’ll spend the two-week Christmas holiday with Sjarlot, an international volunteer  from the Netherlands.  After that I’ll arrive at the Bidibidi refugee settlement for a three month placement.

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Sjarlot and me in the grounds of the Baha’i Temple, Kampala

In country orientation has involved meeting my project manager to get an overview of the work. My role is Psychosocial Support and Protection Specialist attached to twelve newly established early childhood care and education centres based in Zone 3 of the settlement. (I’ve written a little background information about the area here.) Levels of children’s learning is understandably low following a flight to safety. Parental support for learning is also diminished due to trauma and the everyday need to find food and fuel. Mothers are often head of households with their own children and frequently act as carers to unaccompanied children. I will work with staff in the centres to build the resilience of children and parents in order to normalise lives.

Of course, before planning any work, I need to get a better understanding of VSO in Uganda, the country and context of the placement. This began last week when I joined one hundred staff and volunteers at the annual VSO team building, this year held in Mbale. Participants were divided into four teams where we worked together towards a specified end. One task involved enabling a flow a 40ml of water to travel from one side of the field to the other using 5 pieces of guttering 50cm long.  Activities provided physical and/or intellectual challenges that drew upon the skills and knowledge of everyone. It was great to be in an intergenerational group and interesting that VSO attracts the young and the more mature. (In Bidibidi I will be working alongside two seriously experienced educators who became volunteers after retirement.)

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View from my hotel room in Mbale

The other thing that occurs to me about VSO in Uganda is that although hierarchies exist in terms of the management structure, in practice everyone appears to relate to each other on an equal footing. So refreshing to be team building and socialising with senior leaders, volunteers and paid staff from drivers to office workers. A great celebration was held at the end of team building with a huge barbecue. Good wishes for the holiday season were shared by anyone who had access to the roving microphone. Quite an occasion and I was very pleased to be part of it.

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At the party

I hope I’ve used my first week in Uganda wisely. I’ve certainly become accustomed to the handshaking ritual which sometimes involves crossing thumbs.

 

 

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Relationship Strings

I spent the weekend at the VSO offices in Kingston with nine other international volunteers. We took part in facilitation training to assist in the development of our roles at educational settings based in Myanmar, Rwanda, Nepal, Malawi and Uganda. What a lovely bunch of people! Our WhatsApp group is now buzzing with feedback.

One of the things we educationalists find it hard to get our heads around is the idea of ‘passing the stick’. That is, we should adapt our ways of working so that we allow participants in our programmes to take a lead on how input should be focussed and which ideas and strategies to share and develop. As teachers, we’re too used to coming up with questions to solve, but for ownership of the process, participants need to be fully involved with identifying the areas of learning and routes to acquiring skills and confidence.

Many of you will know, I like using string so much I named my debut novel The String Games. But string is also an accessible learning resource available anywhere in the world and can be used to facilitate discussion. As a mixed group of people, the purpose of my activity was to shed light on the things we held in common. Following the directions in the participation manual, we sat in a circle on the floor and as the holder of the ball of string, I was the first to speak. I held the end of string and rolled the ball to someone who I knew I shared something with, saying their name and what we had in common. It could be that we’re both mothers, teachers, shop in the same stores, like the same food … anything really. Upon receipt of the ball, the next person hooks the string over their finger and rolls it to someone else, saying their name and the thing they hold in common. In this facilitation, I appointed roles to each of the participants so we could imagine the activity being delivered on my placement at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. You can read more about the context of my placement here.

The photo below shows the string pattern that was produced as part of the activity, illustrating the links between members of the group. In terms of using this on my placement with members of host and refugee communities, it could prove to be a useful tool to inform analysis and planning.

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Another way to use a ball of sting in participatory training is to sit in a circle and roll the ball from participant to participant whenever they wish to speak.  Holding the ball of string gives a platform to the speaker and avoids interruptions. The web that is created by hooking the string after turn taking demonstrates whether all have contributed to the discussion and whether certain members have dominated. I’m keen to try this activity at some point. Thanks to trainers Wim and Sue for their input over the weekend and to everyone on the course for their friendly support, ideas and encouragement.

My departure date for Uganda remains unconfirmed but as soon as the visa is sorted, I’ll be off.

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Off again …

I’ve been advised that following publication, there are six months to promote a debut novel to maximum effect. So, I’ve been getting out and about with The String Games by offering input at Dorset literary festivals, including the BridLitFest where I shared a platform with Maria Donovan and Rosanna Ley.

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(I’m also at the forthcoming inaugural Blandford Literary Festival at the end of November.)

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I’ve given talks with Dorset Libraries (love a public library) in Dorchester, Poole, Wareham and Creekmoor. An author event in Wellington Library was a good excuse to spend a weekend in Shropshire and meet up with an old friend. There have been talks for ladies’ groups, workshops with writers, public readings and even performances (one in Loughborough and the other at Scratch & Spit in Bridport). The String Games won an award for its cover design and is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize (voting for the winners commences in March 2020). Phew! I hope I’ve used my six months wisely.

As this period comes to an end, I’ve decided to refocus and use my experience of working with children and families to volunteer with VSO  at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. I’m heading off at the beginning of December for four months to support enrolment of girls and children with disabilities in Early Childhood Care and Education as these groups are currently under represented. Uganda has a progressive policy in supporting refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan. Families are given a plot of land on which to build a house and grow produce. There is access to health services, adults can work and children are offered places in schools. After several years of working with refugee families in London, I’m excited to have this opportunity. But it doesn’t mean a hiatus in blogging and writing. On the contrary, I hope this experience will generate new and important work.

Indeed, writing plans for later in 2020 are already taking shape. I’ll be at the Stockholm Writers Festival sharing my experiences as a debut novelist in May. This is a wonderful event for new and emerging writers in a great city.  And I’ll be delivering a talk and a workshop at the Mani Lit Fest in October where reading and writing are celebrated at a town near to the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor. My children’s picture book Pan-de-mo-nium is currently with illustrator Fiona Zeichmeister and will be released next year.  The contemporary novel I’ve been working This Much Huxley Knows is nearing completion.

Watch out for post from Uganda in the coming months. David is incredibly supportive and is 100% behind me. I’m very lucky to be married to him!

 

 

 

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Three things …

The clocks have gone back, it’s a misty moisty morning in Dorset, but there’s lots for me to look forward to. Here are my latest bits of news:

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Thanks to your support, The String Games is a finalist in fiction category of The People’s Book Prize 2019. There will be a further vote March–April 2020 to decide the winner and a black tie do in London for all the finalists on 15 April 2020. Great stuff!

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In December 2019, I’m going to Uganda with VSO for four months as a volunteer at the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. The placement draws upon my experience of working with refugee families in London and the skills I developed to support parental involvement in children’s learning. I’ll be assigned to an early childhood care and education centre in order to aid recruitment to early education for girls and children with disabilities. You can read more about Bidibidi in this article from National Geographic. I’m looking forward to living, learning and contributing in Uganda.

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In May 2020, I’ll be in Sweden at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Last year I enjoyed this wonderfully inspiring event as a participant – next year I return as a faculty member. If you’re interested in attending an innovative writing festival in a fascinating city, you can’t do better than this. Booking opens (with a 15% early bird discount) today, 1 November 2019.

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