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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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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Anticipating Bidibidi and Yumbe

I arrived in Uganda on 7 December and in all the time since I’ve been anticipating what it will be like on placement with VSO at the Bidibidi refugee settlement near Yumbe. Whenever, I told anyone I was heading to Yumbe the response was invariably the same. A little sigh and a rubbing of my shoulder followed. One can interpret this in many ways. What I already knew about the area is that it’s been under-resourced for decades and that it’s fairly remote from any large centre. The people I spoke with also offered two other pieces of information about Yumbe:

  • it’s very hot
  • the road is very bad

Although I’ve undertaken further research about the area and the settlement, it’s difficult to imagine what it will actually be like to live and volunteer there. So, I’d like to share with you my first impressions of Yumbe and will fill you in with details about Bidibidi as I get to know the place. However, this won’t be for another couple of days. My scheduled departure for placement was postponed yesterday. I arrived at the office ready to load the vehicle with furnishings for my rented house and pile in my suitcases. Only the car wasn’t in the office compound. It was at the garage and hadn’t yet been fixed. It’s likely that I’ll now leave on Wednesday instead. So now I’m back at Sjarlot’s house and waiting … anticipating Bidibidi and Yumbe.

In the meantime, I have writing to complete. I’m working on a new comedy sketch show as part of 3-She. We’re hoping to get this staged in Dorset sometime in the autumn. WhatsApp video calling allows me to collaborate with my fellow writers Maria Pruden and Sarah Scally. During a recent video call the dogs in the compound were barking so much that the sound carried and unsettled Maria’s cat. Amazing that dogs in Uganda can make a Dorset cat arch its back!

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Firm handshakes and a warm welcome to Uganda

One week into my VSO International placement in Uganda and I feel more grounded. I was surprised to find myself tearful on arrival and obsessively checking where all my stuff was in my super large hotel room in Kampala. The hotel staff are warm and friendly and enquire about my wellbeing with genuine interest. I will stay in Kampala another few days then set off for Gulu where I’ll spend the two-week Christmas holiday with Sjarlot, an international volunteer  from the Netherlands.  After that I’ll arrive at the Bidibidi refugee settlement for a three month placement.

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Sjarlot and me in the grounds of the Baha’i Temple, Kampala

In country orientation has involved meeting my project manager to get an overview of the work. My role is Psychosocial Support and Protection Specialist attached to twelve newly established early childhood care and education centres based in Zone 3 of the settlement. (I’ve written a little background information about the area here.) Levels of children’s learning is understandably low following a flight to safety. Parental support for learning is also diminished due to trauma and the everyday need to find food and fuel. Mothers are often head of households with their own children and frequently act as carers to unaccompanied children. I will work with staff in the centres to build the resilience of children and parents in order to normalise lives.

Of course, before planning any work, I need to get a better understanding of VSO in Uganda, the country and context of the placement. This began last week when I joined one hundred staff and volunteers at the annual VSO team building, this year held in Mbale. Participants were divided into four teams where we worked together towards a specified end. One task involved enabling a flow a 40ml of water to travel from one side of the field to the other using 5 pieces of guttering 50cm long.  Activities provided physical and/or intellectual challenges that drew upon the skills and knowledge of everyone. It was great to be in an intergenerational group and interesting that VSO attracts the young and the more mature. (In Bidibidi I will be working alongside two seriously experienced educators who became volunteers after retirement.)

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View from my hotel room in Mbale

The other thing that occurs to me about VSO in Uganda is that although hierarchies exist in terms of the management structure, in practice everyone appears to relate to each other on an equal footing. So refreshing to be team building and socialising with senior leaders, volunteers and paid staff from drivers to office workers. A great celebration was held at the end of team building with a huge barbecue. Good wishes for the holiday season were shared by anyone who had access to the roving microphone. Quite an occasion and I was very pleased to be part of it.

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At the party

I hope I’ve used my first week in Uganda wisely. I’ve certainly become accustomed to the handshaking ritual which sometimes involves crossing thumbs.

 

 

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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.

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

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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!

 

 

 

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