the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Back to school in Bidibidi

As the new school term in Uganda starts on 3 February, this week I joined a back to school campaign with partner organisations working in Bidibidi. There is a really strong educational collaboration amongst NGOs working at the refugee settlement and I was pleased to represent VSO alongside UNHCR, Office of the Prime Minister – Government of Uganda, Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council, World Vision and Humanitarian Inclusion. The partnership lead is Finn Church Aid.

I delivered input at a meeting in village 7, zone 5. Parents and children joined a call and response which I used to demonstrate how simple songs and rhymes support the psychosocial wellbeing of children. Where children have experienced the flight to safety, educational settings and schools are very well placed to normalise lives. Even children born in refugee settlements may suffer from the intergenerational effects of trauma suffered by their parents. It is therefore very important to offer high quality early learning experiences for children to build their learning, skills, confidence and resilience. As not all children from three to five years of age are accessing early learning, the meeting was a great opportunity to share the benefits and encourage parents to enrol their young children.

At the meeting parents were encouraged to offer feedback on the educational provision their children receive. Schools on the settlement do not charge fees (unlike elsewhere in Uganda) so access to free education is much appreciated. Some learning resources are also offered.  Concerns are very similar to situations in schools across the world. For example, the issue of overcrowded classroom was raised. In UK schools a large class might comprise more than 30 pupils, the average primary class in Uganda has 53 pupils but in classes on the settlement there are sometimes 150 children trying to learn. (Children who arrive at school early get to sit in the classroom while others peer in from the windows.) The other contentious issue is school uniform. Parents want school uniform for their children but can’t afford to buy it.

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Later in the afternoon, I joined another session at Okuban village. There was a huge group of parents and children who contributed to the discussion. I came away much more knowledgable about the educational experiences of refugee children and the provision put in place by NGOs on the settlement.

 

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Bidibidi Refugee Settlement

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally made it to Bidibidi refugee settlement earlier this week. I was a pillion passenger on this off-road motorbike.

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Mine is the black, white and red helmet and I was very glad to wear it. The road from Yumbe is unsealed and the red dirt is so rutted that in places it felt as if we were driving over corrugated iron. I was surprised I didn’t crack any of my teeth from the juddering! Other times, we skirted around massive holes and rode up and down hills. My arms ached from holding tightly to the passenger handgrips and my thighs aren’t used to being stretched over a seat for what turned out to be an hour long journey to Zone 3. There are other hazards on the road, too. Whenever overtaken by a car or truck, dust swirls  into a plume of red and visibility is significantly reduced. I didn’t realise cattle were such a liability – they always have right of way.

We arrived at village 16, where a temporary structure has been erected for the VSO Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) centre that caters for children from three to six years. It only requires flooring to be ready for the new school year which starts at the beginning of February.

This morning I was working with my colleague Zachary to prepare training materials that will enable parents and caregivers to create displays and learning resources for the centre.

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The village was almost completely deserted but for this woman cooking beans on a fire. She laughed when I asked to take her photograph, but I loved her colourful clothes.

It turned out that most of the residents were at a workshop offered by an NGO at a nearby primary school. The organisation was promoting the use of briquettes to prevent conflict over firewood which is an ongoing issue at the settlement. Refugee women feel vulnerable while collecting firewood and accuse men of the host community of  gender-based violence. The Aringa men claim they have been misunderstood as there is no shared language between the refugees and the host community.  But they also need firewood to make charcoal and refugees collect it for cooking purposes. Firewood is a resource that is becoming more scare due to the 230,000 refugees that now live amongst the host community in the 250 square kilometre area that until the arrival of refugees was regarded as ‘hunting ground’. However, since 2016 when refugees first came, each family are given a plot of land with the expectation they will build a house and grow vegetables. The land around the villages in Zone 3 has such rocky soil it would seem impossible to grow anything and therefore refugees are dependent on food aid.

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We next went to village 15, where with the help of a megaphone, one of the community leaders alerted parents and children to our presence. The group comprised many children with disabilities, from hearing and sight loss, to speech and mobility issues. My colleagues are so concerned about the number of children with disabilities who are not receiving education or healthcare, we have developed a new enrolment form for 2020, which includes the Washington Group of Questions. By posing these questions to parents, it is hoped we can develop a database to share with health professionals so that children can receive the aids they need to enable access to education.

While I was with the parents and children, I decided to do share a story and used a rainbow string to help in the telling. String games are international and parents within the group were able to make the complicated figures that I struggle to produce.

The following day, Zachary and I visited village 11 where the temporary structure requires tarpaulin walls as well as a floor. Until the centre is ready, the four to six-year-olds meet in a church building while the three-year-olds play and learn under the shelter of a tree. The staff at the centre are keen to get back to work. I was so impressed with their team work, their ability to galvanise parental support and their commitment to the children in their care. Such a fantastic group of caregivers from both host and refugee communities, that I had to take a photo.

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I’m now approaching my first weekend in Yumbe. My colleagues are with their families in Arua and Kampala so I am alone. But I have activities to plan and writing to do, so I won’t mind too much.

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First impressions of Yumbe

Yumbe is the main town of the district which shares its name. Located in West Nile, its norther border is with South Sudan and surrounding districts include Arua, Adjumani and Moyo. Like these districts, Yumbe is host to a large refugee community. Bidibidi currently offers refuge to 230,000 children and adults fleeing conflict in South Sudan. The town itself is some distance from the settlement but many NGOs and government departments are located here.

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Yumbe is a sunburnt and windswept place. Red dust swirls the air and the main streets are vibrant with activity. The VSO office is found in a quiet backwater near to the mosque. Unlike most of Uganda, Yumbe comprises 80% Muslim residents, 20% Christian. (These statistics are reversed in the general population.) Christine, project leader for VSO Early Childhood Care and Education offers a warm welcome to all who visit the office.

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As part of the new VSO Education communication plan, we were tasked with developing a display to share our work with young children at Bidibidi. Here is the result of our efforts:

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The livelihood team is spearheading a campaign to raise awareness about our work by initiating #TuesdayTshirts. This means they are encouraged to wear branded T-shirts to work. In solidarity with my colleagues in livelihoods, I did the same.

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I’m attending a meeting this afternoon with partner organisations to develop a ‘back to school’ drive (the new school year starts in the first week of February). And tomorrow, I get to visit Bidibidi.

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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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