the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Happy Birthday to you

My debut novel The String Games is one year old today. It’s been quite a journey from launch to anniversary and here are some of the things I have learnt along the way.

Book launches

fullsizeoutput_1dec

  • invite everyone you know and turn the launch into a party to thank all those who have shown interest in your writing . Make sure there’s plenty of wine and nibbles, and loads of books to sell!

Make the most of opportunities 

  • when I attended a Christmas lunch 2018 with the Society of Authors in Salisbury, I had no idea it would lead to an invitation to deliver a session at the Bridport Literary Festival 2019. Chance meetings are often the best!

Put yourself out there

Book is Judged by Cover-1

  • Press releases have enabled The String Games to feature locally, regionally and nationally in print publications and online features. I’ve also talked on local radio programmes several times. There’s nothing wrong with getting about!

Literary festivals

  • I’ve attended so many festivals as a participant but now I’m a published novelist it’s a delight to feature on programmes as an invited guest. Besides the Bridport Literary Festival, I’ve also delivered input at Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, Blandford Literary Festival and Stockholm Writers Festival. Get me, delivering at international events!

Finge Festivals

  • I write collaboratively as part of 3-She to develop comedy sketches. Last summer we took a show to  Shaftesbury Fringe. There’s such a lot to be learnt from the process of writing with others. Love a good gig!

Curry favour with your publisher

  • I’m delighted that Victorina Press have show confidence and commitment in me as an author and thanks to my publisher, I attended the London Book Fair 2019. My novel is also a finalist in The People’s Book Prize. Covid 19 permitting, there’s a black tie do to celebrate this achievement later this year!
  • The team at Wordsmith_HQ continue to promote my poetry pamphlet adversaries/comrades and share my writing successes across their writing community. Good eggs all round!

Read the rest of this entry »

5 Comments »

Global Day of Solidarity, 22 May 2020

To mark the Global Day of Solidarity returned VSO volunteers were encouraged to post an image on Twitter to convey a message of solidarity with the hashtag Stronger Together.

53A472DB-3A96-497D-B259-7EBE0A573C5C_1_201_a

This is the photo I shared. The picture was taken in Yumbe town where caregivers (teachers of young children) were receiving training on curriculum development. We were actually doing the Hokey Cokey which everyone loved and my colleague, Josephine, took the photo.

I’ve been back from Uganda for two months but my concern for the refugee families from South Sudan I worked with at Bidibidi refugee settlement grows as Coronavirus spreads. Although the Ugandan government has a strong track record of preventing outbreaks, such as closing the international airport on 20 March, the area in which I worked is particularly vulnerable. The settlement is in the district of Yumbe (also the name of the principal town) and is located in West Nile region in the far north-west of the country.  Borders with Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan are porous. Uganda has reported only 175 confirmed cases of Corona virus to date, but on 16 May there was a peak in reporting with forty-three new cases, all truck drivers.

In South Sudan there are fears for the spread of Coronavirus with reports that the virus has reached a UN refugee camp in the capital, Juba, where some 30,000 people have sought shelter and protection. One of the country’s four Vice Presidents, Riek Machar (read a little about Riek Machar and Emma McClune here) has contracted Covid 19. According to the BBC, ‘experts worry that decades of conflict has left South Sudan incapable of dealing with a surge in new infections’. There are also fresh outbreaks of violence with about 800 people killed in intercommunal fighting since a new treaty aimed at ending the country’s six-year civil war was signed in February 2020.

All this may have implications for Bidibidi where already the food ratio for refugees has been reduced by 30% which makes it hard for vulnerable families to maintain health and wellbeing. Further restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Coronavirus also impact on the host community. On 18 May 2020, President Museveni announced a further twenty-one day extension to lockdown but with the easing of some restrictions in the coming days and weeks:

  • Private transport with up to 3 people in a vehicle is allowed from 26 May, BUT NOT in border districts 
  • General merchandise shops can open from 26 May
  • Public transport at half capacity allowed from 4 June, BUT NOT in border districts
  • Education ministry to have an action plan by 4 June to restart school in some primary and secondary classes

There’s also published guidance on the use of masks:

In view of the restriction placed on all our lives due to this pandemic, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind the benefits of global solidarity and the message #StrongerTogether.

3 Comments »

E-volunteering and working as an author

Now that I’ve returned to the UK from my VSO volunteer placement at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, I’m getting back into the swing of my writing life. You can read about how I am collaborating with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on a children’s picture book called Pan-de-mo-nium here. But I’m not yet willing to relinquish my experiences in Uganda, so I’m very pleased to share the news that I’ve been appointed as a Psychosocial Support and Emotional Learning Expert E-volunteer. This appointment followed an online application and interview. I have a job description and an E-volunteer agreement which last six months and is renewable. I am very impressed with the thorough application process and the support offered by VSO in my new role. I’m also finding this work dovetails very well with my current writing project.

As part of my E-volunteer responsibilities, I’ll co-ordinate a task group with a focus on mental health, psychosocial support and emotional learning to help children and families in the poorest countries. Proposed work includes adapting advice material for parents to support the emotional wellbeing of young children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Already there is very relevant material published to support parenting, please see an example poster below:

english-tipsheet1-updated

There are six posters altogether covering issues such as managing behaviour and providing structure for children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Click here to access these in a worldwide range of languages.

I’m also part of a storytelling task group and from my experience as an author of a children’s picture book, I hope to contribute fully.

During the Covid 19 restrictions, there are challenges in terms of coping with lockdown but also opportunities in extending virtual support to others. It’s a time of working out what’s important as an individual, as a family member and as part of a wider community.

How have you found Covid 19 has affected your outlook?

 

5 Comments »

A wish for South Sudan: enduring peace

Before I left the UK to begin my placement at Bidibidi in Uganda (a settlement where refugees from South Sudan are offered a chance to rebuild their lives) a friend recommended I read Emma’s War by Deborah Scroggins. It tells the story of a young, glamorous aid worker, Emma McClune, who went to Sudan in 1987 with an ambition to do good. She embraced her role at Street Kids International and passionately worked towards improving access to education for children. Emma was also impulsive and headstrong: she married Riek Machar, a warlord, and became embroiled in politics. By the time of her death in 1993 in a car accident in Nairobi, Scroggins suggests that for all her courage and commitment, Emma did little to change anything.

91IrxA0qRzL._AC_UL320_ML3_

The backdrop to Emma’s story is the complex historic, social, cultural and political situation in Sudan. Following years of civil war, South Sudan became the world’s newest nation when it gained independence from Sudan in 2011. Peace was short lived and civil war erupted in 2013 when President Kiir sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of supporting a failed coup. An agreement to halt the conflict collapsed in 2015 and fighting continued, primarily in Yei River state. This is the area from which many of the refugees in Bidibidi fled in 2016. In Yei, the National Salvation Front (NAS), continued to fight government forces. By 2018, a power sharing agreement was signed between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar which led to the signing of a Unity Government agreement on 20 February 2020. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called upon members of the Transitional Government of National Unity to “fully adhere to the letter and spirit of the Agreement”, so that the people of South Sudan can finally realise the benefits of durable peace and stability they deserve.

Following the announcement of a peace agreement, the South Sudanese refugees I knew in Bidibidi remained cautious. None were ready to rush back to their homeland but instead adopted a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach. One of the caregivers (a teacher of young children) I worked with, Beatrice, talked about her life before becoming a refugee. She married young, had two children then was widowed when her husband was killed in a motorbike accident. Her father owned some land where she was able to develop skills of cultivation. She grew cassava, maize and beans. Then she married a second time (had two further children) and she continued to cultivate the land of her husband’s family. ‘My life at that time was very nice. I made money and paid for my children to go to school, paid for them when they were sick. I bought clothing for myself and my children. I had a very happy life in South Sudan. Then the time of war started and I had to save my life and my children. I lost everything: my land, my house, my garden. We were afraid as any person could attack you, rebels were everywhere. They would grab anything you have. They took things from my garden saying it belonged to them. If you don’t have luck they kill you, if you have luck they just let you go.’

IMG_4801

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment »

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.

6E141557-4AD5-413E-84FB-E3E6DBFCC12B

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.

Inside 'Snot' Turkey0001

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.

Turkey Iran Border0001 (2)

photo: Philip Wadds

Read the rest of this entry »

2 Comments »

Would you believe it?

I am in Kampala again as a result of a ‘would you believe it?’ moment. On Friday I travelled to Gulu because I needed to extend my tourist visa to provide cover until my work permit is issued. I was told renewal was a simple process, all I had to do was turn up at the office, produce my passport and pay a fee. After a six-hour drive from Yumbe, I went straight to the immigration office. I had heard from fellow volunteers based in Gulu that it had taken them five hours to acquire the necessary renewal. I wasn’t too worried because if I failed to get the stamp issued that day, I could always go back on Monday. But oh no. The immigration officer was away at a meeting.  He also had meetings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday so was unlikely to report at the Gulu office until Thursday! Back in Yumbe there’s a busy week ahead scheduled including an important visit from the VSO project manager on Thursday. “Is there anywhere else I can get the visa extended?” I asked. By this time, I was starting to panic. I absolutely need to have a valid visa otherwise I could face a fine or imprisonment! ‘Go to Kampala,’ came the reply.

After another seven-hour drive I am now in the capital. It’s good to be back. I know my way around the Tank Hill Road area well and the cooler climate in Kampala means I can sleep under a blanket for a change. I even have a balcony to enjoy the view of Lake Victoria.

IMG_4958

The only (slightly) troublesome thing about Kampala is mosquitoes. I have been very impressed that my regime involving the daily application of mosquito repellent and the wearing of socks, long sleeves and trousers in the evening has worked well. Other measures include sleeping under a mosquito net (and taking anti malarials) which have kept me safe. But, there’s no protection while taking a shower and one crafty mosquito managed to get me twice on the thigh. These bites have turned into huge, red welts and even antihistamines can’t stop the itching. I’m so glad that getting bitten by a mosquito is a rare occurrence. It was one of the things I worried about before leaving home, but with a rigorous routine, there really is nothing to be fear. Would you believe it?

Read the rest of this entry »

2 Comments »

Visiting Arua

During the last month in West Nile region of Uganda the weather has been hot (it’s called the sweltering session for a reason). This weekend I decided to head south for some R&R. Yumbe is the town where I live, (it’s also the name of the district where Bidibidi refugee settlement is located) and Arua is the nearest town which has facilities such as a bank with an ATM, supermarkets, cafes and even a hotel with a swimming pool. These luxuries make Arua a desirable destination.

My colleague Zachary accompanied me on the bus to Arua. We had a full day of work on Friday with training for members of the Male Action Group  on gender-based violence, child protection, social accountability and inclusion. It was difficult to get away promptly so we caught a later bus than planned and every seat was taken. The journey to Koboko is on an unsealed road and the bumps made me gasp so loudly my fellow passengers laughed. After that it was a smoother journey and we reach Arua in about two hours.

On Saturday I woke to a sunny day and considerably cooler weather. I have a room at the White Castle Hotel which is a charming place. Accommodation is in bungalows around the gardens and tucked away is a tempting swimming pool. After the sunburnt, dustbowl of Yumbe, this really is a delightful change. Even the scenery around Arua is distinctly different. The town is close to the border with Democratic Republic of Congo and apparently the undulating landscape is more like DCR than the flat planes of West Nile.

IMG_4856

Taking a weekend of R&R also means some indulgences. I went to the supermarket and bought treats including crystallised ginger (it’s amazing the idiosyncratic nature of stock in remote places). I also bought a few basics including nuts and seeds. Now I’m sitting by the pool enjoying a glass of wine. The first dry white I’ve had in months.

I was ferried around Arua not by a boda-boda (motorbike) but by a tuk tuk.  (I actually hate riding a boda without a helmet and this would have been much too cumbersome to carry on the bus.) Only smaller towns in Uganda licence tuk tuks as in a city like Kampala these additional vehicles could become a hazard. But in Arua they are a fine way to get about.

Sending greetings from a relaxed VSO volunteer to all my followers.

Update:

I wrote this post yesterday and just needed to insert the photos. Before I managed this, I came down with a vomiting bug and I’ve been laid up ever since. It’s now Sunday evening and fortunately I’m feeling better. But the training planned for Monday will have to be postponed as I need to move around slowly and will take the bus back to Yumbe tomorrow afternoon. Not such a great R&R after all.

 

 

5 Comments »

A week at Bidibidi

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

187B6039-3AF0-4476-96E5-F49056CD4C4F_1_201_a

Josephine, Christine and Zachary

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

IMG_4774

Josephine training the caregivers

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

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

IMG_4787

Temporary roof repairs meant everyone could sit in the shade.

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

Read the rest of this entry »

5 Comments »

Meandering and thinking: a post about Idi Amin, chapatis and red dust

AD050D18-BDAE-4964-9F02-8506F8266A70_1_201_a

Christine, ECCE project leader, reads my office display about systems to support violence free lives

I walk to the VSO office in Yumbe each morning. Often it’s an early start because it takes an hour to drive to the distant villages in zone 3 Bidibidi, where the Early Childhood Care and Education Centres are located. It feels like I’m a minor celebrity as people call out ‘Sister, good morning!’ and I return the greeting. During the last couple of days there’s been rain in Yumbe, which is unusual for this time of year. December, January and February are known as the sweltering season with rain arriving in March. I’m told February is the hottest month and temperatures reach up to 40 degrees. When it’s hot and dry, the red dust is a real nuisance. It stings my eyes and gets between my toes, even when I’m wearing trainers. I’m very glad of the eye drops and athlete’s foot cream I brought with me.

It gets light in Yumbe around 7am and and that’s when I take the opportunity to have a run around the town. Usually goats are the only obstacles but on this occasion they sheltered under a porch.

A7079F39-42C8-42DF-8EFF-DB5F40B1DF41

Goats are seen as a wise investment for refugee families living on the settlement. If they are able to earn some shillings, for example, from making bricks out of soil and water for house building, the money raised can be put towards buying a goat. The animal is then fattened and kept until a big expense arises. School uniform, the voluntary fee imposed by school PTAs and supplies of school equipment are a major concern where families have several children.

In restaurants all over Uganda, goat meat is on the menu. We ate it at the VSO team building barbecue in Mbale back in December, and I’ve seen goat curry on offer in several hotels I’ve stayed in. It’s interesting that the food of the Asian minority (who where expelled from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin) remains popular. Vegetable and beef samosas are available everywhere and chapatis are cooked but served differently to Indian ones. In Uganda, chapatis are rolled into a cone with the outer layers brushed with oil.

Asians, mainly from Gujarat, settled in Uganda during the time of the British administration. By the 1970s many ran businesses or farms. When Idi Amin issued the notice of expulsion they had only ninety days to leave the country. Asians were forced to abandon their properties, cars and possessions. Businesses were reallocated often to people who had no experience and these subsequently failed. When President Museveni came to power, he invited Gujaratis to return to Uganda and many took up the offer.

Idi Amin was from West Nile, the region where I’m currently based. To reach Yumbe, you drive through the town of Koboko, the place of Idi Amin’s birth. This is also where the sealed road ends and the journey across red dust begins. Oh dear – it seems we’re back to red dust again. Even the forecourt of the petrol station in Yumbe is made of the stuff. And this is one of the final landmarks on my walk to work.

B14484CF-0273-4AAB-8856-D93E39721D48

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment »

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.

AB5C2698-9AB4-443D-A046-4427A094BA94

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.

 

2 Comments »