the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Visiting Arua

During the last month in West Nile region of Uganda the weather has been hot (it’s called the sweltering session for a reason). This weekend I decided to head south for some R&R. Yumbe is the town where I live, (it’s also the name of the district where Bidibidi refugee settlement is located) and Arua is the nearest town which has facilities such as a bank with an ATM, supermarkets, cafes and even a hotel with a swimming pool. These luxuries make Arua a desirable destination.

My colleague Zachary accompanied me on the bus to Arua. We had a full day of work on Friday with training for members of the Male Action Group  on gender-based violence, child protection, social accountability and inclusion. It was difficult to get away promptly so we caught a later bus than planned and every seat was taken. The journey to Koboko is on an unsealed road and the bumps made me gasp so loudly my fellow passengers laughed. After that it was a smoother journey and we reach Arua in about two hours.

On Saturday I woke to a sunny day and considerably cooler weather. I have a room at the White Castle Hotel which is a charming place. Accommodation is in bungalows around the gardens and tucked away is a tempting swimming pool. After the sunburnt, dustbowl of Yumbe, this really is a delightful change. Even the scenery around Arua is distinctly different. The town is close to the border with Democratic Republic of Congo and apparently the undulating landscape is more like DCR than the flat planes of West Nile.

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Taking a weekend of R&R also means some indulgences. I went to the supermarket and bought treats including crystallised ginger (it’s amazing the idiosyncratic nature of stock in remote places). I also bought a few basics including nuts and seeds. Now I’m sitting by the pool enjoying a glass of wine. The first dry white I’ve had in months.

I was ferried around Arua not by a boda-boda (motorbike) but by a tuk tuk.  (I actually hate riding a boda without a helmet and this would have been much too cumbersome to carry on the bus.) Only smaller towns in Uganda licence tuk tuks as in a city like Kampala these additional vehicles could become a hazard. But in Arua they are a fine way to get about.

Sending greetings from a relaxed VSO volunteer to all my followers.

Update:

I wrote this post yesterday and just needed to insert the photos. Before I managed this, I came down with a vomiting bug and I’ve been laid up ever since. It’s now Sunday evening and fortunately I’m feeling better. But the training planned for Monday will have to be postponed as I need to move around slowly and will take the bus back to Yumbe tomorrow afternoon. Not such a great R&R after all.

 

 

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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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First impressions of Yumbe

Yumbe is the main town of the district which shares its name. Located in West Nile, its norther border is with South Sudan and surrounding districts include Arua, Adjumani and Moyo. Like these districts, Yumbe is host to a large refugee community. Bidibidi currently offers refuge to 230,000 children and adults fleeing conflict in South Sudan. The town itself is some distance from the settlement but many NGOs and government departments are located here.

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Yumbe is a sunburnt and windswept place. Red dust swirls the air and the main streets are vibrant with activity. The VSO office is found in a quiet backwater near to the mosque. Unlike most of Uganda, Yumbe comprises 80% Muslim residents, 20% Christian. (These statistics are reversed in the general population.) Christine, project leader for VSO Early Childhood Care and Education offers a warm welcome to all who visit the office.

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As part of the new VSO Education communication plan, we were tasked with developing a display to share our work with young children at Bidibidi. Here is the result of our efforts:

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The livelihood team is spearheading a campaign to raise awareness about our work by initiating #TuesdayTshirts. This means they are encouraged to wear branded T-shirts to work. In solidarity with my colleagues in livelihoods, I did the same.

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I’m attending a meeting this afternoon with partner organisations to develop a ‘back to school’ drive (the new school year starts in the first week of February). And tomorrow, I get to visit Bidibidi.

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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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Safari in Murchison Falls National Park

Although it’s never been one of my burning ambitions to join a safari, I’m very glad I did. Murchison Falls National Park is about three hours drive from Gulu and while Sjarlot and I had time off from our roles as VSO volunteers over the Christmas break, we made the trip along with Helen, Sjarlot’s daughter.

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We visited the national park three times and I was amazed each time at how the outlook changed according to the time of day. Sunrise gave a pastel hue and the chance to spy a small herd of elephants.

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Later in the morning, there was a hint of blue as a bird took rest on the back of a water buffalo.

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The evening light gave a honey glow that made our guide convinced there was a lion resting in this tree. He even went off road to check but in the end we saw no lions.

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Elephants plodding along made me laugh.

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And giraffes were endlessly elegant in their manoeuvres (apart from when squatting for water).

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At the campsite, there was even a chance encounter with a grazing hippo!

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So if you find yourself in Uganda, the national park at Murchison Falls is a great way to spend a couple of days.

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Now we’re in Kampala joining training in communications and media. Here’s a photo of the sunrise.

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Through Arts Keep Smiling (TAKS)

Best known as an art gallery and installation (according to my Bradt travel guide to Uganda), TAKS is just a short walk from Sjarlot’s house in Gulu. It also has an internet café and garden restaurant so it sounded an ideal place to visit. The Twitter profile announces it to be ‘a centre located in the heart of Uganda. We have fun things for you to enjoy from Classic Gulu dance to a nice relaxing therapeutic environment.’ Dropping by seemed like a no brainer.

Founded by David Odwar, TAKS is housed in the former club house of the Gulu golf course. Although the fairways have since been turned in housing, there remains evidence of a tennis court, one of the posts still stands that formerly held up the net and court markings appear on crumbling asphalt.

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Inside the clubhouse, the internet café is particularly busy and I notice students applying for overseas scholarships while others are intent on their screens composing letters. I take my laptop into the meeting room where it is cooler. Around from where I sit is a garden installation which has support from the Arts & Humanities Research Council amongst other bodies. This showcases photography that tries to make sense of the difficult realities of displacement. Images are drawn from Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and DRC which show worn out shoes, water containers, cooking utensils and other necessities that make the flight to safety possible.

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It did make me reflect on the things I brought to Uganda and which bring me comfort as I find my way as a volunteer. Not least among these items is my favourite mug which shows the book cover of the Virago Modern Classic Valley of the Dolls by Jaqueline Suzann.

Although TAKS is an amazing community resource, it receives no funding. When David returned from living, studying and working in the UK he purchased the plot outright. Three units are let to provide accommodation which generates some income and David lives on site. He is very keen to raise funds to pay for a security fence to replace the current bamboo struts so that TAKS can be used as an evening performance venue for dance and music. For further information about TAKS, please visit the website.

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TAKS is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours writing. I hope I have made the most of my free time as come tomorrow, I start as a volunteer at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe. I have a couple of stories on the go and I find it productive to be around other people who are also beavering away at their own projects. Good luck everyone!

 

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Twenty-four hours at the Bomah Hotel

Rather than spend New Year’s Eve on my own in Sjarlot’s house in Gulu (she and her daughter had gone to Kampala to celebrate with friends), I decided to book a room at the Bomah Hotel. There were signs all around town advertising a party to take place that evening. Although only a block away from Sjarlot’s house, I figured it would be worth staying the night rather than risk getting home alone after the party. And so I checked in at noon to take full advantage of the facilities, which include a pool, sauna, gym and steam room. It was rather like having a spa retreat for one.

Come the evening, I donned my usual long sleeves and long trousers (plus socks!) to avoid getting mosquito bites and headed down to the bar. I was an early diner but enjoyed fish and chips while staff around me arranged chairs for the entertainment. In the garden a band prepared to play and out back by the pool there was music pumped through huge speakers. I opted to stay with the band ­and enjoyed the music but didn’t recognise any of the songs. As midnight approached everyone but me clutched their mobile phones ready to record the explosion of coloured lights. The firework display was pretty and offered a few big bangs and screeches but all were drowned out by the noise from the crowd. I’m used to hearing oohs and aahs during a firework display at home, but there were no gasps in Gulu. It was all cheering and ululating. Such a wonderful sound. I was completely embraced by it and really felt part of the crowd celebration. Then the singer started up again, impromptu words sung in tribute to 2020.

Just one more bottle on Stoney (ginger beer) and a few greetings of happy new year later, I headed off to bed where I sent messages to family and friends. This morning I write after a breakfast of fruit and pastries. Now there are only five more sleeps until I leave for the Bidibidi refugee settlement. I wonder what these next three months will bring during my volunteer placement. But one thing is for sure, the start to 2020 was delightful and I’m glad I invested in a night at the Bomah Hotel.

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Gulu: a thriving town with a troubled past

I’m staying in Gulu for the Christmas holidays and it’s a good place to be. There are lots of volunteers to socialise with and a good range of cafés and restaurants to idle away the hours. The town has a bustling centre with shops, banks and a good market. I’m staying on the outskirts where there are long avenues lined with government and NGO offices, newly built compounds with smart housing and a clutch of reasonably priced hotels. The town is now the main hub of north Uganda having expanded considerably since the 1990s. It will be recognised as a city in the not too distant future.

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The current prosperity masks a troubled past. The north of Uganda has traditionally supported the south but has not enjoyed the same rewards. In the 1980s tensions in the area deteriorated into tribal conflict and bloodshed. Upon gaining power, President Museveni sent forces north to establish his authority. Opposition to this became fertile ground for the development of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Following the defeat of Alice Lakwena’s rebellion (who led a troops under a banner of Christian and Acholi rituals), Joseph Kony seized control of the rebels and introduced a doctrine where it was legitimate to abduct children and induct them into the Lord’s Resistance Army where the massacre of villagers was a regular occurrence. After years of dominating the area and following a lengthy peace process, Joseph Kony fled into the Central African Republic (CAR). It is believed he is still at large in CAR although he is rumoured to be in South Sudan or elsewhere. Members of the LRA where reabsorbed into society through traditional ceremonies of cleansing and forgiveness and eventually given amnesty by the government. There has not been any conflict in the north since 2005. But as I walk the town centre amongst the shops with wide verandas, it’s shocking to realise this was where 15,000 children slept each evening as an escape from the LRA. And, it’s sobering to think that the child soldiers who once served the LRA now have families of their own and somehow have to live with the autocracies they committed.

During the long drive from Kampala to Gulu, our driver (I’ll call him Paul) shared his experiences of growing up during the reign of terror inflicted by the LRA. He was approached by the LRA on three occasions and managed to escape by answering their questions with a clear head and by keeping calm throughout these terrifying experiences. He knew the chances of escape were slim: three of this brothers and his father had been murdered by the LRA. Each time he was released, he managed to hide amongst trees until the danger had passed. One time, he was walking home from school for the holidays. He had heard rebels were in the area so headed for his aunt’s house. Once there, he borrowed his cousin’s bicycle to make a speedy visit to his mother. On the way there, he was stopped by rebels. The latest arbitrary ruling by Kony included a new law banning the riding of bicycles. He watched the rebels chop the bike to pieces and then burn it. Later he was allowed to leave and he hid until the rebels had moved on and he was able to make it home on foot. Later, when he told his aunt what had happened, the family decided that the bicycle was new and had to be replaced. Paul didn’t want this debt hanging over him, so instead of using money to pay his school fees, he offered this as compensation. Without classes to attend, Paul developed his skills in tending a vegetable garden. Fortunately, the school allowed him to resume his studies when money permitted.

Paul’s experiences chime with an excerpt from a non fiction book I’m reading called Aboke Girls by Els de Temmerman which describes the abduction of 139 girls from St Mary’s School in Aboke in 1996. One of the sisters followed the rebels into the bush and asked for the girls to be returned. Surprisingly, 109 girls were released. The book records what happened to some of the 30 who remained in captivity. Here is a horrifying event observed by Sarah:

…the rebels spotted a man riding down the path. He tried to get away but the rebels had already grabbed him. ‘Why do you ride a bicycle?’ Lagira questioned him. Didn’t he know Kony’s law banning the riding of bicycles? The man pointed at his leg, which was swollen and smeared with some local medicine. He couldn’t walk and was on his way to the hospital for treatment, he stammered, and he pleaded for mercy. But Lagira coldly told him that his leg would be cut off, according to the rules. At that moment, a woman accidently bumped into them. She too was grabbed by the rebels. Lagira ordered her to kneel down and bite off the leg. If she refused to do so, she would be killed. With horror, Sarah witnessed how the woman did as she was told. But of course, she could not get through the bone, so Lagira gave her an axe. Even then, it took all her strength to cut the leg in two. Both were left behind on the road, crying.

When I asked Paul, how it was possible to be reconciled with people who had committed such horrors, he just referred to the amnesty. And then he said it was important to celebrate the memory of those who had been put to death by the rebels. To commemorate their lives rather than dwelling on murder. And so Paul is able to find a way forward.

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