the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

When e-volunteering and writing collide

As a former VSO international volunteer at Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Uganda, I am  pleased to be able to continue work with colleagues remotely. I was repatriated from my post as a psychosocial and child protection adviser due to Covid19 in March 2020. Now I’m in contact with team in Yumbe to develop ways to support young children and families through the pandemic.

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In Uganda, the lockdown continues much as experienced elsewhere: social distancing, wearing of masks, essential shopping only etc. Yet in a country where there have been only 870 cases (as of 30 June) and no deaths, one might think that restrictions would be easing. But such is the concern to avoid spread of the virus, there remains no proposals to reopen schools, no allowing of motorcycle taxis (bodas) to carry passengers and no opening of shopping centres. Indeed there is no indication of when lockdown may end. 
This has considerable implications for families who are forced into poverty due to loss of earning. And as for children, without schools this not only means a lack of education but can mean hunger where children rely on school feeding programmes.

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Global Day of Solidarity, 22 May 2020

To mark the Global Day of Solidarity returned VSO volunteers were encouraged to post an image on Twitter to convey a message of solidarity with the hashtag Stronger Together.

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This is the photo I shared. The picture was taken in Yumbe town where caregivers (teachers of young children) were receiving training on curriculum development. We were actually doing the Hokey Cokey which everyone loved and my colleague, Josephine, took the photo.

I’ve been back from Uganda for two months but my concern for the refugee families from South Sudan I worked with at Bidibidi refugee settlement grows as Coronavirus spreads. Although the Ugandan government has a strong track record of preventing outbreaks, such as closing the international airport on 20 March, the area in which I worked is particularly vulnerable. The settlement is in the district of Yumbe (also the name of the principal town) and is located in West Nile region in the far north-west of the country.  Borders with Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan are porous. Uganda has reported only 175 confirmed cases of Corona virus to date, but on 16 May there was a peak in reporting with forty-three new cases, all truck drivers.

In South Sudan there are fears for the spread of Coronavirus with reports that the virus has reached a UN refugee camp in the capital, Juba, where some 30,000 people have sought shelter and protection. One of the country’s four Vice Presidents, Riek Machar (read a little about Riek Machar and Emma McClune here) has contracted Covid 19. According to the BBC, ‘experts worry that decades of conflict has left South Sudan incapable of dealing with a surge in new infections’. There are also fresh outbreaks of violence with about 800 people killed in intercommunal fighting since a new treaty aimed at ending the country’s six-year civil war was signed in February 2020.

All this may have implications for Bidibidi where already the food ratio for refugees has been reduced by 30% which makes it hard for vulnerable families to maintain health and wellbeing. Further restrictions imposed to stop the spread of Coronavirus also impact on the host community. On 18 May 2020, President Museveni announced a further twenty-one day extension to lockdown but with the easing of some restrictions in the coming days and weeks:

  • Private transport with up to 3 people in a vehicle is allowed from 26 May, BUT NOT in border districts 
  • General merchandise shops can open from 26 May
  • Public transport at half capacity allowed from 4 June, BUT NOT in border districts
  • Education ministry to have an action plan by 4 June to restart school in some primary and secondary classes

There’s also published guidance on the use of masks:

In view of the restriction placed on all our lives due to this pandemic, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind the benefits of global solidarity and the message #StrongerTogether.

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E-volunteering and working as an author

Now that I’ve returned to the UK from my VSO volunteer placement at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, I’m getting back into the swing of my writing life. You can read about how I am collaborating with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on a children’s picture book called Pan-de-mo-nium here. But I’m not yet willing to relinquish my experiences in Uganda, so I’m very pleased to share the news that I’ve been appointed as a Psychosocial Support and Emotional Learning Expert E-volunteer. This appointment followed an online application and interview. I have a job description and an E-volunteer agreement which last six months and is renewable. I am very impressed with the thorough application process and the support offered by VSO in my new role. I’m also finding this work dovetails very well with my current writing project.

As part of my E-volunteer responsibilities, I’ll co-ordinate a task group with a focus on mental health, psychosocial support and emotional learning to help children and families in the poorest countries. Proposed work includes adapting advice material for parents to support the emotional wellbeing of young children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Already there is very relevant material published to support parenting, please see an example poster below:

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There are six posters altogether covering issues such as managing behaviour and providing structure for children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Click here to access these in a worldwide range of languages.

I’m also part of a storytelling task group and from my experience as an author of a children’s picture book, I hope to contribute fully.

During the Covid 19 restrictions, there are challenges in terms of coping with lockdown but also opportunities in extending virtual support to others. It’s a time of working out what’s important as an individual, as a family member and as part of a wider community.

How have you found Covid 19 has affected your outlook?

 

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On a road to somewhere

At a time when we’re restricted in our movements due to Covid19, it occurs to me that travelling by road is now something to savour. And there have been many journeys I’ve taken by road that are worth revisiting. From unsealed routes to highways, roads are symbolic of progress, a life path, even a map to the future and a way back to the past. But it’s the physical experience of travelling by road that I’m interested in exploring here. If you’ve followed my recent posts, you will be aware that the journey from Koboko to Yumbe in Uganda is along a red dust road. Travel behind another vehicle and visibility becomes a huge problem. Other hazards include cows (they always have right of way), motorbike taxis called boda bodas (which slip in the dust) and the inevitable potholes. The drive to Bidibidi refugee settlement is even worse especially when riding pillion on an off road bike. It felt like we were driving over corrugated iron and it was hard to believe the conditions could get any worse… but they did. With the arrival of the wet season in March, rivers of rain gouged deep tracks in the paths and on more than I occasion I got off the bike to walk rather than face negotiating another gully.

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Other occasions when I’ve walked alongside a vehicle include a journey from London to Kathmandu in 1981 with Top Deck. The travel company was started in the 1970s by a group of Australians who converted Bristol Lodekka buses into touring vehicles by fitting a kitchen and seating downstairs and installing bunks on the upper deck for sleeping.

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photo: Philip Wadds

On the mountainous roads across northern India and into Nepal, we were frequently required to walk in order to lighten the load on the vehicle. Doug Foskett’s footage shows instances of us doing just that. Another perilous road, this time covered in snow, was negotiated with the use of only two snow chains for the wheels. As we approached the Turkish border with Iran, the bus slipped and slid so much we passengers were like crew on a dinghy, lurching from one side to the other in order to keep the bus steady.

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photo: Philip Wadds

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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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Coming and going, ups and downs

I arrived back in Yumbe on Wednesday evening after an eventful few days in Kampala. The immigration office refused to extend my tourist visa as my work visa was being processed. Although I didn’t have all the required original documents with me, colleagues at VSO sent me back to the office to claim my work visa. As VSO is a charity and doesn’t pay from work visas, there was a delay in the issuing process. However, I was the first of all the VSO international volunteers in Uganda to have the  work permit stamped into my passport. I believe others are now following a well trodden path to the immigration office to get their work visas after my success.

The next important job involved updating the registration of my Ugandan SIM card. Mobile phones are absolutely essential in Uganda (and other countries in Africa) because this enables access the internet, WhatsApp for messaging, video and phone calls, social media and most importantly MONEY. I have a mobile money account where VSO deposits my monthly allowance and money to fund the activities I run on the settlement. It is an incredible system whereby it’s possible to withdraw money from kiosks located in even the most remote locations. You can also send money to other people, pay utility bills  and OTT. This is a tax levied on the use of social media and can be paid daily, weekly or monthly depending on frequency of use. I’ve taken to carrying my mobile phone around in my money belt as losing this essential piece of kit would be such a nightmare. However, I’ve since discovered that losing access to the SIM is equally horrific.

My tourist visa expired today and something must have gone wrong with the registration of my work visa as my SIM is not working. My first visit was to the MTN service office in Yumbe where they said re-registering would solve the problem. It took forty-eight hours to get this done the first time, so I’m not confident of a quick result. Now I’m using the internet connection at the hotel to try to resolve the situation. Fortunately, MTN is good at responding to direct messages on Twitter – this is a relief as I obviously can’t contact them by phone. While I’m waiting for a response, I sit in reception at the hotel (the only good place for internet access) and type this post.

The drive back from Kampala to Yumbe was long even with sealed roads most of the way. My driver took a wrong turning at the final stage and we ended up at the border with South Sudan. The photo below shows the crossing point and reinforces the idea that country borders are arbitrary – this view of South Sudan looks exactly the same was the rest of West Nile in Uganda.

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I arrived at my accommodation to find no water and no power. The lack of consistent supply is ongoing in Yumbe. I’m so used to the shortages that I’m now overjoyed to find water and electricity available rather than getting ratty when they’re not. Sleeping without a fan is the worst but it’s amazing how it’s possible to get used to things. I now drip sweat all night as well as all day!

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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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