the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

On a road to somewhere

At a time when we’re restricted in our movements due to Covid19, it occurs to me that travelling by road is now something to savour. And there have been many journeys I’ve taken by road that are worth revisiting. From unsealed routes to highways, roads are symbolic of progress, a life path, even a map to the future and a way back to the past. But it’s the physical experience of travelling by road that I’m interested in exploring here. If you’ve followed my recent posts, you will be aware that the journey from Koboko to Yumbe in Uganda is along a red dust road. Travel behind another vehicle and visibility becomes a huge problem. Other hazards include cows (they always have right of way), motorbike taxis called boda bodas (which slip in the dust) and the inevitable potholes. The drive to Bidibidi refugee settlement is even worse especially when riding pillion on an off road bike. It felt like we were driving over corrugated iron and it was hard to believe the conditions could get any worse… but they did. With the arrival of the wet season in March, rivers of rain gouged deep tracks in the paths and on more than I occasion I got off the bike to walk rather than face negotiating another gully.

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Other occasions when I’ve walked alongside a vehicle include a journey from London to Kathmandu in 1981 with Top Deck. The travel company was started in the 1970s by a group of Australians who converted Bristol Lodekka buses into touring vehicles by fitting a kitchen and seating downstairs and installing bunks on the upper deck for sleeping.

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photo: Philip Wadds

On the mountainous roads across northern India and into Nepal, we were frequently required to walk in order to lighten the load on the vehicle. Doug Foskett’s footage shows instances of us doing just that. Another perilous road, this time covered in snow, was negotiated with the use of only two snow chains for the wheels. As we approached the Turkish border with Iran, the bus slipped and slid so much we passengers were like crew on a dinghy, lurching from one side to the other in order to keep the bus steady.

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photo: Philip Wadds

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Bidibidi Refugee Settlement: activities to support psychosocial wellbeing

This week I began the second in a series of activities offering support to parents of young children attending Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) centres on the settlement. The purpose is to strengthen the psychosocial wellbeing of children by encouraging greater parental involvement. The flight to safety from conflict in South Sudan has created a legacy of loss among families on the settlement. Loss of extended family connections – some have family members remaining in South Sudan, other families are dispersed across different refugee settlements in Uganda. Loss of home and land – some families have heard their houses are now occupied by others; there has also been much destruction of property and land during the conflict. Loss of a hoped-for future – parents who wanted to continue their education or further their careers now find themselves without educational or work opportunities. These losses can impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of parents who may find themselves increasingly unable to parent effectively given the instability of life as a refugee and the effects of poverty. (Although recently there have been encouraging signs of peace in South Sudan following  six years of civil war, refugees on the settlement have a ‘let’s wait and see’ attitude.) In terms of the psychosocial wellbeing of children, there is some research to suggest an intergenerational effect. Even children born in safety may share some of the wellbeing needs experienced by their parents.

As the ECCE centres are at an early stage of development, there are currently no referral systems in place to target specific support. (I am working on a database to address this by collecting information about children using the Washington Group of Questions.) For the time being, I extend an open invitation to my activities for all parents where ECCE centres are located in zone 3 of the settlement. Uptake varies according to the village but one session had over one hundred participants. In order to manage this number, I encourage skill sharing amongst parents so that those who engage with the tasks readily can support others.

‘Why play?’ is the title of the session and it considered the importance of parents taking time to play with their children. We discussed how play builds family bonds, opens lines of communication and trust which help to keep children safe, supports learning in the ECCE centre and is fun for the whole family.

As there are few resources on the settlement or money to purchase them, we focused on games that can be played without materials or using locally available materials. We made rhythms by participating in sound exercises using clapping and clicking games. Parents then worked in partners to do a mirroring activity (one was the leader, the other the mirror so the actions of the leader had to be copied simultaneously to imitate a reflection).

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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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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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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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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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Summer Break

I’ve been quiet on this blog over the summer because I spend a fortnight in Edinburgh each August. This is a wonderful city and delightful to visit when the Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing and during the two weeks of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Each morning at the book festival there is a free session called 10 at 10, where on the stroke of ten o’clock a visiting author provides a short reading of their work. It was during one of these sessions that I was introduced to the fabulous short stories written by Wendy Erskine.

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by the castle with friends

Wendy’s stories are set in East Belfast where she lives and works as a teacher. They are drawn from the people and place but reflect a wider narrative around challenges associated with love, isolation and the everyday obstacles that can floor us. I was intrigued by the snippet from a short story Wendy shared so I bought the collection Sweet Home and attended a Q&A session later in the day at Golden Hare Books, located near where I stay each summer in Stockbridge.

In her introductions, Wendy explains that she hasn’t been writing for long and credits a course run by The Stinging Fly magazine as instrumental to her development as a short story writer. She also claims her only previous publishing success was having a recipe for baked banana printed in a newspaper. (The instructions involved nothing more than putting a banana in a hot oven until the skin turns brown and then eating it.)

Sweet Home is a remarkable collection of ten short stories that fizz with tension, sadness and humour. The dialogue is outstanding which makes attending a reading such a pleasure. If you’re looking to dip into a collection that shares dark themes which are illuminated through everyday interactions, then this is the one for you.

 

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Round up​ of the summer so far …

As I am a ridiculously target driven writer, I thought I’d share with you some of the writing milestones from June and July 2019.

Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, 15 June

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In this the inaugural year of the festival, I was delighted to have a place on the author trail which involved running a stall in Joshua’s Coffee Shop so that I could chat to customers about my publications. I felt honoured to be part of the trail as Gillian Cross one of my favourite children’s authors had a stall elsewhere in the town. (The only problem was I didn’t get a chance to say hello to her!)

Later in the afternoon, I offered a workshop titled ‘a sense of place in writing’ at the library. I was delighted to work with many talented writers and receive feedback from the workshop in the form of this tweet:

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London Launch of The String Games, 22 June 

This took place at Housmans Radical Bookshop and I was so pleased to welcome friends, family, fellow Victorina Press authors and readers to this unique venue. I was delighted that every copy of The String Games sold.

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The People’s Book Prize, June 2019

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BIG NEWS for the summer. The String Games has been longlisted in this unique literary competition where the public decides the nation’s next bestsellers and writers of tomorrow. Find out here about The String Games and cast your vote to enable me to reach the next stage. All you have to do is scroll down to add your details, tick a box about receiving the newsletter and submit. Thank you to all those who have already voted.

Scratch & Spit, Lyric Theatre, Bridport, 24 June

Here I am strutting my stuff during a ten-minute performance slot. What am I going on about? The analogy between writing and running!

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Loughborough Poetry Event, 28 June

Alongside Rachel Lewis (who also had a poetry pamphlet published by Wordsmith_HQ), I was billed as a headline act at the launch of the Purple Breakfast Review Issue 8. It was great to spend an evening with so many accomplished poets and to read from adversaries/comrades.

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Shaftesbury Fringe, Saturday 6 July

As part of 3-She, I co-write comedy sketches with Maria Pruden and Sarah Scally. This summer we took a group of gifted West Dorset actors to the Shaftesbury Fringe to perform our comedy sketch show Big Heads & Others. What a lot of fun we had! The next show will be staged at Dorchester Arts Centre at 8pm on 18 September 2019.

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Meet the Author talk, Dorchester Library, Saturday 20 July

I had a fabulous audience for this 90-minute talk about the inspiration behind my poetry, short fiction and The String Games. They asked probing questions and we enjoyed a lively discussion. I’ve now been asked to offer further talks at Dorset libraries, so watch this space!

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Friday Freebie with Patsy Collins, Friday 26 July

This is an online event where I share information about my debut novel and there’s a chance to win a free signed copy of The String Games by leaving a comment on Patsy’s blog – you’ve got until midnight BST on 31 July to do this. Why not pop over for a read? Just click here.

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What’s next?

This week I received an email from my publisher Victorina Press who want me to start working with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on the children’s picture book I’ve drafted which has the working title Peta the Panda. This is an exciting new project and I can’t wait to get started!

 

 

 

 

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Copenhagen, Stockholm and the Writers Festival

I don’t watch much television but David and I thoroughly enjoyed the Scandinavian noir crime series The Bridge.  With Saga Norén as the lead detective (it is suggested she has Asperger’s), audiences follow collaborative investigations between Sweden and Denmark.  Before this programme, I had never been aware of the significance of the Øresund/Öresund Bridge in linking the two countries and this seeded an idea for a visit.

It was from a tweet by writer Lizzie Harwood, that I became aware of the second Stockholm Writers Festival (SWF) scheduled for the beginning of May 2019. The programme included writers I was keen to meet and became the incentive I needed to book a trip to Denmark and Sweden. Once the flights were organised, we left it to the last minute to find accommodation in Copenhagen and by chance, we ended up in a good hotel located close to the Langelinie promenade. Each morning we took a run to visit the Little Mermaid statue, then followed a path along the ramparts of the fort then bought pastries for breakfast which we ate on the rooftop of the hotel.

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After four nights in Copenhagen, we travelled across the bridge by train to Stockholm and stayed at an airbnb in the city. The SWF began on Friday afternoon with a celebration of winning writers from the First Pages competition, followed by a literary quiz and mingling in a bar. The festival brought together English language writers in Sweden and participants from other countries. On Saturday and Sunday there were a range of workshops offered, panel discussions, talks, opportunities for networking and one-to-ones with agents. I attended two workshops that were particularly empowering and they have enabled me to revisit pieces of flash fiction and develop them for publication. (One of these stories has since been accepted by FlashFlood, the National Flash Fiction Day journal which will appear on the website on 15 June.) The first workshop was delivered by Jessica Lourey who shared strategies to identify powerful emotions from personal history to feed fictional stories. The other was a workshop on developing dialogue delivered by Cassie Gonzales which highlighted elements of the said, the unsaid and the unsayable. The two inputs dovetailed to create a valuable resource in plotting fiction.

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Now I’m back at home and I’m delighted to be able to apply the new skills I developed at the festival. I’m also thrilled to be part of a new writing community and have connected with many participants at the festival through social media. Thank to you to Catherine Pettersson, founder of the festival, and all those who have supported it to make the event so successful.

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Birthday visit to Northern Ireland

My mum and my son share a birthday in April. Mum is now 85 and expressed a desire to visit Giant’s Causeway. This provided a great excuse for a family trip to Northern Ireland.

We arrived on a beautiful Saturday morning. Our airbnb was situated near to Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens and the Ulster Museum. So our first outing involved a wander in the sunshine …

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and lunch where my son ordered a dessert intended for two and managed to scoff the lot.

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On Sunday we were collected at 10am for a black cab tour of the murals of West Belfast. I was a little unsure about supporting this type of dark tourism which focuses on The Troubles, but I did learn an awful lot. Here is a photo of us standing in front of a section of the peace wall which separates the Loyalist and Protestant neighbourhood from the Nationalist and Republican. Some peace walls are up to 8m high and roads linking communities are secured by gates which are closed at nights.

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In the afternoon we visited Titanic Belfast which is a marvellous exhibition that really gives a sense of the scale and extent of industrial Belfast and the ramifications of the sinking.

The next day we headed for Giant’s Causeway. The coastline is beautiful and we stopped at Cushendun on the Antrim coast for photos.

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Further along we came to Carrick-o-Rede and crossed the hanging bridge first erected by Salmon fishermen in 1755.

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Giant’s Causeway is a remarkable sight and on a sunny day was packed with visitors but we still managed to find quiet places to sit and contemplate the stories and history of the place.

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In the evening we celebrated two birthdays with a special meal.

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Tip: if you’re a member of the National Trust remember to take your card to Northern Island and you’ll get free entry to the hanging bridge and Giant’s Causeway plus other places.

 

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