the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Pandemic writing opportunities

Coronavirus has inspired even more people to write fiction. This is a good  thing because stuck at home or venturing out, anyone can take a leap into the world of their imagination. I have long argued that as humans we all need a creative outlet, be it gardening or cooking or painting. Writing is one of the most accessible forms of creativity because the resources required are no more than a piece of paper and a pen. And, with only the hand moving across the page, it’s not physically demanding either (although some of us do complain about writer’s bottom!)

In Dorset, our local history centre started a project in early April requesting people keep diaries of their experiences during the pandemic. The aim is to ensure that future generations can look back on the present day’s experience and understand the impact of Coronavirus across the county.  I look forward to reading the Corona Diaries when they are published.

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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

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  • 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

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  • 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!

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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.

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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.’

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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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The high points and pitfalls of volunteering overseas

There is plenty to enjoy about my placement with VSO. The organisation has a thorough recruitment process, there’s excellent training before departure and throughout the onboarding period of preparing to leave the UK, I felt very well supported. On arrival in Uganda, there was a delay in arriving in at my placement, but I joined VSO team building in Mbale, had time to relax in Gulu and went on a river cruise and safari at Murchison Falls National Park.

I was appointed as a psychosocial and child protection volunteer at Bidibidi refugee settlement and joined an excellent team of experienced practitioners who support seven Early Childhood Care and Education centres in Zone 3. I love working with my colleagues and have learnt so much from them. One of the first learning points was to adjust my use of English to make it ‘easy to hear’ for host and refugee families. I copied my colleagues’ patterns of speech to make my utterances more like standard Ugandan English. The key is to speak slowly, emphasise key words and always avoid unnecessary language. For example, Ugandans say ‘you come’ rather than ‘can you come here?’ It is a language of imperatives. I enjoy this direct way of speaking and find some of the vocabulary charming. If you need a ‘short call’, you’ll be directed to the toilet or latrine. And ‘to pick’ is a high frequency verb because it means to choose, to collect, to take or to pick depending on the context: it’s the job of young girls to pick firewood on the settlement.  I also much admire the training my colleagues offer to a range of audiences. There is always humour in their delivery, time for laughter and a joy in sharing anecdotes.

My experience of delivering training to refugee and host community parents living on the settlement has been positive. Although the groups have been huge (over one hundred parents in some villages) I have been able to explain the need for parents to support the psychosocial wellbeing of their children (with the aid of interpreters). Further sessions are planned to focus on developing constructive patterns of talk with young children and the need to play with children to build family bonds.  Many of the parents on the settlement have known no other existence besides living in conflict and displacement. Their skills and confidence to parent effectively have therefore been diminished, sometimes due to the lack of good parenting they received. My input aims to break this intergenerational cycle. It is rewarding work.

The most difficult part of my placement is getting used to living in Yumbe. I don’t think I was adequately prepared for what to expect. There is very little information about Yumbe on the internet and although I asked everyone what they knew the place, I only ever got two responses: the road is very bad and it is very hot. Yumbe is a town with limited resources, poor transport links to other destinations and few social outlets. I guess this only to be expect – refugee settlements aren’t normally found in desirable locations. Other NGOs classify their projects according to the hardship of the placement. Refugee camps in Syria are classed as hardship 3 area. Yumbe falls just below this at hardship 2 category. This means that accommodation for staff and volunteers at some NGOs compensates for the hardship of the placement. Friends live in comfortable accommodation with air conditioning, a generator for a constant supply of electricity and water tanks to ensure the availability of piped water. Others (including two of my colleagues) spend Monday to Thursday in Yumbe then return to the relative luxury of Arua each weekend. This week I experienced a twenty-four hour power cut (which meant sleeping during the hot night was impossible without a fan) and photocopy resources for training sessions was problematic. There is a water shortage in Yumbe during the dry months of January and February. Although where I live has a water tank, for some reason it was not supplying water this week and I had no access to piped water from Monday to Friday. Fortunately, I was able to return to the hotel where I stayed during the initial period of my placement and used the shower facilities there. (I won’t go into details about the difficulty in living for that period with a non-flushing the toilet – too unpleasant.)

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

VSO in Bidibidi

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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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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