the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Back to school in Bidibidi

As the new school term in Uganda starts on 3 February, this week I joined a back to school campaign with partner organisations working in Bidibidi. There is a really strong educational collaboration amongst NGOs working at the refugee settlement and I was pleased to represent VSO alongside UNHCR, Office of the Prime Minister – Government of Uganda, Save the Children, Norwegian Refugee Council, World Vision and Humanitarian Inclusion. The partnership lead is Finn Church Aid.

I delivered input at a meeting in village 7, zone 5. Parents and children joined a call and response which I used to demonstrate how simple songs and rhymes support the psychosocial wellbeing of children. Where children have experienced the flight to safety, educational settings and schools are very well placed to normalise lives. Even children born in refugee settlements may suffer from the intergenerational effects of trauma suffered by their parents. It is therefore very important to offer high quality early learning experiences for children to build their learning, skills, confidence and resilience. As not all children from three to five years of age are accessing early learning, the meeting was a great opportunity to share the benefits and encourage parents to enrol their young children.

At the meeting parents were encouraged to offer feedback on the educational provision their children receive. Schools on the settlement do not charge fees (unlike elsewhere in Uganda) so access to free education is much appreciated. Some learning resources are also offered.  Concerns are very similar to situations in schools across the world. For example, the issue of overcrowded classroom was raised. In UK schools a large class might comprise more than 30 pupils, the average primary class in Uganda has 53 pupils but in classes on the settlement there are sometimes 150 children trying to learn. (Children who arrive at school early get to sit in the classroom while others peer in from the windows.) The other contentious issue is school uniform. Parents want school uniform for their children but can’t afford to buy it.

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Later in the afternoon, I joined another session at Okuban village. There was a huge group of parents and children who contributed to the discussion. I came away much more knowledgable about the educational experiences of refugee children and the provision put in place by NGOs on the settlement.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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