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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