the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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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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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