the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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.

image1

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.

A226EC14-BCF8-4D12-812B-2D77BD17C982

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.

0E90C176-35F1-4DE2-B7CB-30E6B8CB8CD2

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!

 

4 Comments »

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.

1 Comment »

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.

BA0CE67C-2D05-4240-BF60-4D7CA93E3DED

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.

1 Comment »

Tracking back to find the root of an idea

It’s long been my ambition to volunteer with VSO International. I received the vacancies newsletter for many years and have enjoyed browsing the range of educational opportunities available for one or two years. The problem has always been I can’t commit to that length of time. My husband has no interested in joining me, so I figure that if I want to stay married, the longest I can be away for is a few months. Back in the summer I noticed a position in Ethiopia working at a teaching training institution from April 2020 for six months. At last my time had come. I spent a couple of days working up an application and when I came to submit, the vacancy had vanished. After getting all fired up about this new possibility, I searched the VSO website for any other potential jobs and submitted several applications.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a Skype meeting for screening. Once successfully through this, it was explained that I needed to pass a situational online test and a panel interview to join the VSO bank, where I could wait for up to eighteen months for a short term vacancy to arise. My details would then be submitted to the country office for a further interview. During October, VSO suggested I apply for the post of protection and psychosocial support specialist working with early childhood care and education centres at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. The position had originally been for one year but as funding was due to end in March 2020, this made a perfect short term position for me. I applied, was interviewed and offered the post to begin 8 December 2019.

This role really appealed to me because I had spent several years in Wandsworth working as an advisor for refugee pupils. During that time my work involved curriculum development to promote a greater understanding of the plight of refugees. The aim of these sessions was to enable pupils in mainstream classrooms to develop greater empathy and understanding for new arrival children from refugee backgrounds. One of the resources I used was a publication called One Day We Had to Run! which collected the stories of unaccompanied boys fleeing war to find safety at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The boys were also encouraged to share their memories, experiences and hopes through painting. The material for the book was collected by Sybella Wilkes, then a young aid worker at the camp who now works as the senior communications officer with UNHCR. I remember thinking at the time that this was a great thing to do and I wondered if there would ever be an opportunity for me to do something similar. And so, I guess the seed or an idea or ambition was sewn.

Picture 1

When I thought about this further, the actual ambition to volunteer with VSO goes back much further. I lived in Papua New Guinea for two years following marriage to my first husband in 1982.  Tom got a job in Wabag, Enga Province and I accompanied him there. While he trained a National team at the Department of Works and Supply, I volunteered at a pre-school. Amongst the expatriate community in this far flung town was a Caribbean poet called Archie Markham. He was a VSO volunteer attached to the Department of Information as a media coordinator. As a working poet, he also established a series of poetry readings which became a highlight for the community. He went on to write a memoir of his time in Wabag titled Papua New Guinea Sojourn: More Pleasures of Exile. It seems to me, this is the deeper root of my wish to become a VSO volunteer. It’s possibly something to do with reclaiming that young woman I once was and combining it with the experience of my more mature years as a teacher and writer. Who knows? Like Archie I may find inspiration to write from working with refugee families at Bidibidi.

Before I get ahead of myself, it’s important to remember I’ve only been in post for two weeks. The in-country orientation in Kampala has involved briefings on the role, an introduction to administration systems, IT support and health and safety. Accommodation has been found for me at my placement and I’ll be joining my new colleagues at the office in Yumbe on 6 January. In the meantime, I’m staying in Gulu over the holiday period which will give me a chance to obtain furniture and furnishings for my new temporary home as well as celebrate Christmas with other VSO volunteers. Although there’s a lot going on at the moment, it doesn’t stop me from looking forward to starting my role at Bidibidi.

 

 

 

 

3 Comments »

Relationship Strings

I spent the weekend at the VSO offices in Kingston with nine other international volunteers. We took part in facilitation training to assist in the development of our roles at educational settings based in Myanmar, Rwanda, Nepal, Malawi and Uganda. What a lovely bunch of people! Our WhatsApp group is now buzzing with feedback.

One of the things we educationalists find it hard to get our heads around is the idea of ‘passing the stick’. That is, we should adapt our ways of working so that we allow participants in our programmes to take a lead on how input should be focussed and which ideas and strategies to share and develop. As teachers, we’re too used to coming up with questions to solve, but for ownership of the process, participants need to be fully involved with identifying the areas of learning and routes to acquiring skills and confidence.

Many of you will know, I like using string so much I named my debut novel The String Games. But string is also an accessible learning resource available anywhere in the world and can be used to facilitate discussion. As a mixed group of people, the purpose of my activity was to shed light on the things we held in common. Following the directions in the participation manual, we sat in a circle on the floor and as the holder of the ball of string, I was the first to speak. I held the end of string and rolled the ball to someone who I knew I shared something with, saying their name and what we had in common. It could be that we’re both mothers, teachers, shop in the same stores, like the same food … anything really. Upon receipt of the ball, the next person hooks the string over their finger and rolls it to someone else, saying their name and the thing they hold in common. In this facilitation, I appointed roles to each of the participants so we could imagine the activity being delivered on my placement at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. You can read more about the context of my placement here.

The photo below shows the string pattern that was produced as part of the activity, illustrating the links between members of the group. In terms of using this on my placement with members of host and refugee communities, it could prove to be a useful tool to inform analysis and planning.

D25E87A8-7CD1-4193-B18F-EBA0BD66FA72

Another way to use a ball of sting in participatory training is to sit in a circle and roll the ball from participant to participant whenever they wish to speak.  Holding the ball of string gives a platform to the speaker and avoids interruptions. The web that is created by hooking the string after turn taking demonstrates whether all have contributed to the discussion and whether certain members have dominated. I’m keen to try this activity at some point. Thanks to trainers Wim and Sue for their input over the weekend and to everyone on the course for their friendly support, ideas and encouragement.

My departure date for Uganda remains unconfirmed but as soon as the visa is sorted, I’ll be off.

1 Comment »

Packing for Uganda

5C5280C5-38D8-4EE7-A15A-574FA05C6C9D

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.

8 Comments »

Off again …

I’ve been advised that following publication, there are six months to promote a debut novel to maximum effect. So, I’ve been getting out and about with The String Games by offering input at Dorset literary festivals, including the BridLitFest where I shared a platform with Maria Donovan and Rosanna Ley.

EIdzYZjXkAIVlZf-2

(I’m also at the forthcoming inaugural Blandford Literary Festival at the end of November.)

Posters_Where does inspiration

I’ve given talks with Dorset Libraries (love a public library) in Dorchester, Poole, Wareham and Creekmoor. An author event in Wellington Library was a good excuse to spend a weekend in Shropshire and meet up with an old friend. There have been talks for ladies’ groups, workshops with writers, public readings and even performances (one in Loughborough and the other at Scratch & Spit in Bridport). The String Games won an award for its cover design and is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize (voting for the winners commences in March 2020). Phew! I hope I’ve used my six months wisely.

As this period comes to an end, I’ve decided to refocus and use my experience of working with children and families to volunteer with VSO  at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. I’m heading off at the beginning of December for four months to support enrolment of girls and children with disabilities in Early Childhood Care and Education as these groups are currently under represented. Uganda has a progressive policy in supporting refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan. Families are given a plot of land on which to build a house and grow produce. There is access to health services, adults can work and children are offered places in schools. After several years of working with refugee families in London, I’m excited to have this opportunity. But it doesn’t mean a hiatus in blogging and writing. On the contrary, I hope this experience will generate new and important work.

Indeed, writing plans for later in 2020 are already taking shape. I’ll be at the Stockholm Writers Festival sharing my experiences as a debut novelist in May. This is a wonderful event for new and emerging writers in a great city.  And I’ll be delivering a talk and a workshop at the Mani Lit Fest in October where reading and writing are celebrated at a town near to the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor. My children’s picture book Pan-de-mo-nium is currently with illustrator Fiona Zeichmeister and will be released next year.  The contemporary novel I’ve been working This Much Huxley Knows is nearing completion.

Watch out for post from Uganda in the coming months. David is incredibly supportive and is 100% behind me. I’m very lucky to be married to him!

 

 

 

1 Comment »

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:

unnamed-15.23.15-4

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!

800px-Flag_of_Uganda.svg

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.

FB788AF6-A421-4D08-9ABA-16EC6C71B1B7_1_201_a

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.

3 Comments »