the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Crazy few days

We rushed back from Bidibidi refugee settlement to the main town in Yumbe, Uganda on Wednesday 18 March to listen to President Museveni’s address. It had been a busy day  at the settlement where I delivered activities to parents of village 15 and 13. The sessions were particularly enjoyable. I distributed loops of string so that we could share string figures. The purpose was to allow refugee parents to reconnect with their cultural traditions in order to build psychosocial wellbeing. I also taught the English string figure ‘cup of tea’ so that we could reflect on the challenges of undertaking new learning for adults and for young children.  It isn’t easy teaching a string figure to a group of over one hundred participants so I relied on parents who grasped the process quickly to be able to help others. The session was an amazing success. Discussion focused on how we learn best and we talked about observing demonstrations, listening to instructions, following illustrated guidance contained in handouts, having one-to-one support and how moving our muscles can help us to learn. We then related this to children’s learning and how parents can best support learning in the home. Women in the group ululated when participants showed string figures they knew and I felt everyone went away from the session having learnt something. I had four further sessions to deliver that week, so I was looking forward to more positive experiences, but first we needed to know what President Museveni had planned in response to Covid19.

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There was the usual power shortage in Yumbe, so my colleagues and I went to a cafe with solar power in order to watch the address on television. The restrictions announced weren’t exactly a surprise, but the email I received during the speech was. My flight home had already been brought forward from 2 April to 26 March and now there was new advice from VSO Uganda to take the Emirates flight to Gatwick leaving on 20 March. That meant I had to start packing for departure to Kampala the next morning in order to catch the flight the following day.

So that’s what happened. Yumbe to Kampala is over 600km and the road is unsealed for the first part of the journey. I said goodbye to my colleagues at the office in the morning, then set off.

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I arrived in Kampala at 8pm, just in time to grab some dinner at the hotel then head off to bed. I got up early the following morning to complete a couple of reports and finish my work. One of the achievements of my placement involved collecting information on young children with disabilities living in the seven villages with Early Childhood Care and Education centres in Zone 3. With the database complete, I shared it with other NGOs to allow staff to follow up with medical and/or educational assessments. A replacement for my role at Bidibidi has been appointed and the database will also be useful to offer targeted provision to children and families in need of psychosocial support and parenting help.

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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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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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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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Tracking back to find the root of an idea

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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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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Packing for Uganda

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I will be leaving in December to spend four months in Uganda as an international volunteer with VSO. With advice from VSO Uganda I drew up a packing list and undertook a trial pack at the weekend. Some items had to be abandoned because my bags were overweight. Out went a supply of my favourite shampoo and shower gel, abandoned where a number of books I had hoped to read, and I slimmed down the learning resources I planned to take. I’m nearly there but my list of last-minute necessities is growing! Before I leave, I will attend a skills for working in development course and I’m currently undertaking lots of online learning. Although my fictional writing is on the back burner, I plan to use my experiences in Uganda to develop fresh writing. And blogging, of course! So here goes with a little information about Uganda and my placement.

Background

Since independence on 9 October 1962, Uganda has gone from a period of brutal dictatorship in the 1970s to political stability in the 1990s. While more than half the population (56.4%) lived below the poverty line in 1992/1993, this dropped significantly to 19.7% by 2012/2013. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, has not experienced fighting since 2006 and now focuses support on districts in the north to improve infrastructure, growth and development in an area that was particularly affected by conflict.

North Uganda

Between 1986 and 2006 thousands of children were kidnapped from villages and forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as child soldiers. Those children are now grown up and living with the legacy of extreme violence experienced in childhood. In addition, north Uganda has become a home to refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan.

South Sudan

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 as the outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. However, conflict in South Sudan erupted again in 2013 causing many people to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries. There are one million refugees from South Sudan living in Uganda.

Bidibidi Refugee Settlement

The once small village of Bidibidi became a refugee settlement in August 2016. It covers 250 km2 stretching across the eastern half of the district of Yumbe where a quarter of a million refugees live. Uganda has a progressive policy towards refugees and in Bidibidi new arrivals are given land to build a house and a garden to grow vegetables. They can also work and access services. While Ugandans provide a warm welcome to refugees, when resources are in short supply, tensions can arise.

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In my role as an international volunteer, I will work with host and refugee communities to aid recruitment of children to Early Childhood Care and Education. Where young children are able to develop early learning skills, it puts them in a better position to complete their education. My work will focus on under-represented groups including girls and children with disabilities. Through participatory approaches, my role aims to support the protection and psychosocial needs of children and families.

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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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