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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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.

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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?

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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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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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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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