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Uganda 1: Saturday 4th June   Leave a comment

Hello again everyone, and greetings from sunny and unbelievably hot Uganda. You are very welcome to another Postcard from East Africa (see title change above). We are actually at an internet cafe in Jinja, close to our new project in Kyabirwa which we started last week, but we’ll wait a little while before reporting on that as we still need to cover our last three weeks in Ruhanga. So this installment will cover some of the playscheme activities we did during the school holidays (the children had a month off for Easter), saying goodbye to all our friends at the Lodge (both volunteers and locals, British and African), and saying hello to our friends Jo and James who came to visit us for a fortnight, during which time we travelled a bit around southwest and northwest Uganda, plus an epic trip to the Ssese Islands, located slapbang in the middle of Lake Victoria. But more of that later.

So after term broke up, we and a few other volunteers decided to put together a playscheme for the children to keep them occupied and to continue to allow them to improve their English outside of school. After all, that’s what we’re all there to do. So we devised a four week programme for them to include a variety of different activities. Thanks to the mainly clement weather we were able to do lots of outdoor activities such as rounders, football, cricket (with slightly modified rules), parachute games, and a host of other rule-less activities which mainly involved running around chasing people and occasionally falling over and hurting your knee; and when it rained or when we were all too sunburnt to carry on outside, we put on some indoor activities like painting, clay modelling, storytelling, colouring, and other art and craft stuff which mainly involved covering the inside of the classrooms with glitter. 

Playscheme: rounders, complete with unorthodox batting arrangements

The whole month was lots of fun (although we did miss a week being in Rwanda) and attendance was really encouraging. On the busiest days there were 100 or more children there (although on the rainiest day there was only 1), and we think the children really did enjoy themselves. You see, they look at us white volunteers, and they must think “Well, they’re kind of teachers, but they’re also kind of fun” because we muck around with them, pick them up, tickle them and tell them stupid facts. As a result, the children know they can behave slightly differently with us ( it’s always good to have a teacher or two during the playscheme to make sure they don’t go overboard) and it means that they can truly relax and, well, just be children. In a life that involves very strict, very regulated school days, and evenings which mainly consist of chores and household duties, it must be really nice to just be able to play. Yes, they sometimes go a bit mad, but we’re convinced that’s only because they don’t really know the ‘rules’ of play, like kids in Britain might.

Andy with playscheme pals

The really telling moment for us came when we gave out some toys in one of the classrooms when it was wet outside. We handed each child a teddy or doll, and… they just didn’t know what to do with them. They have no imagination-based games like we used to as kids, and they just sit there holding their toy. They’re happy, because they know it’s playtime, and they love having toys around them, but they don’t invent shops or schools or doctors and nurses for their dolls and teddies: they just hold them on their laps. Eventually, a couple of the girls strapped their dolls into make-shift khangas and tied them to their backs, playing mummies and daddies. That was quite refreshing, but in some ways only proves how limited their aspirations are. We perhaps understimate the imporatnce of free play in developing our children’s imaginations, and it’s really only when you see children physically incapable of playing  because the’ve never experienced it that you begin to understand how lucky our kids are, and how much they and we should value our leisure time, and our freedom.

Anyhow, they soon learnt, and with their new toys, with all the new games they learnt, the new stories they heard, and the new friends they made, we think the children enjoyed the playscheme, and we hope other volunteers will try to do something similar during the next school holiday in August.

Playscheme: a game in which there was a lot of hand-holding and wrestling

But once the playscheme was over we had to say goodbye to our friends around the village. We made special trips to the houses of Arinda (P1 teacher and Linda’s teaching partner), Jamil (P2 teacher and volunteer-teacher liaison) and George (all round good guy, friend to volunteers, and possibly the world’s most generous man).  They, and some of the other teachers, live in above average accommodation: a typical Ruhanga house is a mud hut with thatch or corrugated iron roof, and they all live in reasonably well built concrete houses. And it’s primarily because they have a salary they have been able to make modest increases to their standard of living. But to be honest, that’s really just cosmetic. We used to get a bit narked with the teachers for not putting the hours in making lesson plans or marking books, and subsequently having to eat into teaching time to do those things. What we didn’t really think about was what else they have to do: just how long it takes to cook for a family on a firewood stove; just how long it takes to clean a house and a compound; just how long it takes to pick fruit, harvest crops, and till gardens; just how long it takes to go to town to the market, or visit relatives who are sick. Once we found all that out, we felt a bit bad for moaning about how the teachers don’t do as much as they could.

Visiting Arinda also taught us a thing or two, too. She’s married, but her husband has chosen to go and live with his other (younger) wife. Arinda has two of her own children, one four years old, one just turned two, but -as is the African way- she looks after two other children, by virtue of the fact that she has an income, yet she only gets paid 80,000/- per month, or 21 of your British pounds. She’s an able teacher, among the hardest working and most enlightened in the school, but she is a woman oppressed by her circumstances. The glass ceiling here is very, very low, for men and women alike. Job opportunities are thin on the ground; wages, as you have seen, are ludicrously low; promotion or pay rises are non-existent; nothing ever changes. She’d love to see London. She’d love to do more for her family, but she’s terminally hamstrung by her nationality and her environment. And it results in an endless catch-22: she works as a teacher to earn some money for her family; to buy things, to add a little food here and there; to save for her children’s education. But working as a teacher means she doesn’t have time to harvest her small plot of land, so she has to pay an agricultural labourer to do it for her. By the time she’s paid him, she doesn’t have any money left to improve her and her family’s standard of living. She told us she’s thinking of quitting the profession, and spending more time on the shamba. By doing this, she limits forever the possibility of improving her situation, but she might be able to make a few shillings a week selling bananas or beans at the market. And there’s your future of Uganda, right there in those sentences.

Linnet and Linda at Arinda’s house

We got to say goodbye to her neighbours all around the community, too. These are mainly the families of the kids at school, and we went to visit them (somewhat unusually we suppose) as we walked around the village putting together some statistics on the usage of mosquto nets. It’s not completely random: a recent initiative was put in place by the project to try and get all the households in the village to start using nets, since very few were found to own or use them. Now malaria isn’t an overwhelming problem in Ruhanga like it is in some parts of East Africa (it sits at altitude and away from any significant bodies of water), but by introducing nets into each house -ideally into each bedroom- the risk of it ever becoming such a problem will be greatly reduced. And it was really interesting to finally see all the families in the village. They largely keep themselves to themselves -the Banyankole are a reserved and introverted people- and spend their time around their houses, working on the small portions of land which sustain their ever-increasing families. And it was also interesting to see all the different types of houses, their condition being roughly illustrative of the relative wealth of their occupants. Some look okay; some look close to delapidation. But the people living inside them are invariably steadfast and friendly. Yes, we know, it’s cliche alert time. And we’re aware that this positivity-in-adversity has become something close to predictable now, but it really shouldn’t be: it’s something that we should never take for granted, and it’s something that we should always celebrate and never be complacent about. Because it really can’t be easy.

Village family, Ruhanga

The same week we took a matatu to Jamil’s house, about 90 minutes away and close to the town of Rubare. He lives in a small compound in a pleasant but diminutive house with his wife and… his mother. Now this is very rare, because Uganda custom dictates that once you marry you have -we repeat, have– to move out of the family home and build your own place for your future family. But Jamil just doesn’t have enough money, so he has to live with the shame. To the extent, in fact, that he doesn’t mention that he’s married. As it happens, he only got married because his elder brother died suddenly, and his parents dictated that he must marry immediately in order to ensure their family lineage continued. The fact that he had no money and no land was immaterial, and the fact that the dowry he had to pay for his wife bankrupted his parents was immaterial, too.

But despite all that, we loved visiting him (even though the bodaboda ride out to his house was unbelievably uncomfortable) and we think his family are quality. His mum, posing for photographs in various (and mostly ridiculous) outfits, was a larger-than-life African woman you only read about in novels. His sister asked non-stop questions about Linda’s hair, and how she could get hers to look like it. And his beautiful nepwhews and nieces were polite and well-behaved like you probably haven’t seen in the UK for a while. They also served us an eye-wateringly large lunch, so we really can’t say anything bad about them.

Linda, Andy, Jamil’s family

Of course we also has to say goodbye to all the staff and volunteers at the Lodge. We had a goodbye party of biblical proportions, and we’d like to say a big thanks and a big Nessun Dorma all those who were able to stay up to the bitter end. In our time at the Lodge wehave met (we think) 34 volunteers (Dan, Tamara, Beth, Jo, Francis, Steve, Ian, Katie, other Katie, Kirsty, Sian, Gemma, other Gemma, Vicky, Joanna, Heather, Natasha, Barbara, Susannah, Aneta, Lex, Victoria, Helen, other Helen, Brent, Andrea, Clare, Terry, Lucy, Mike, Julia, Laura, Hannah, other Hannah, and anyone else we’ve forgotten (sorry!)) and we salute what each and every one of them has brought to the project.

So after we said our goodbyes, we said our hellos to our friends Jo and James. They are friends from our University days, and they very kindly and most welcomely decided to pop down to Uganda for a couple of weeks to visit us. Our programme mainly consisted of volunteering at the playscheme (Jo was rubbish at duck-duck-goose, although to be fair she really wasn’t dressed for it), and walking home with the children afterwards (this is lovely, as you really get to see the village, and what Uganda really looks like up close). But we also did some travelling around the country. First port of call was a return trip to mesmerising Lake Bunyonyi, this time staying on Byoona Amagara (one of the islands on the Lake itself, whose proceeds go to local development charities), spending two nights in their very romantic and totally cool (if a bit insect-y) three-sided geodomes, and three days floating around the Lake in some dugout canoes or swimming in its unbelievably freezing waters.

Lake Bunyonyi

It’s a place that’s totally chilled, just miles from anywhere and accessible only by boat, and despite the privation you have to endure (it’s not a 5-star hotel, it must be said) it’s just a wonderful place to get away from it all and eat some really quite decent, hearty grub.

Next on the itinerary was Murchison Falls National Park, a massive wildlife reserve in Northwest Uganda, and full of big African animals. Now the trip up there wasn’t great, coming as it did after our slightly overindulgent final night party at the Lodge (bedtime: 6.40am. Units of alcohol consumed: 640). James wasn’t in great form on the seven-hour bus journey, and Linda wasn’t happy when the bus drove into a pothole and got stuck leaning at a 45 degree angle. But it all worked out in the end, and after a night in a Kampala hostel, we embarked on our journey to the falls. Murchison Park is very big, and very beautiful. Bisecting it is the Victoria Nile, starting out on its epic journey to the Mediterranean and passing through some quite spectacular forest scenery. On entering the Park you’re greeted by the customary baboons, a jaw-dropping view across miles and miles of rainforest, and a sunset over the Nile which really did make yet another punishing seven-hour journey worthwhile.

Sunset over the Nile, Murchison Falls National Park

Day two saw us head out into the savannah for a morning game drive. The scenery is reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth National park in the southwest, but it’s somehow bigger and somehow more endless. In QENP, the mass of the Rwenzoris hems you in; in Murchison the horizons just go on and on, over the Congo border and deep into the heart of Africa. The wildlife was pretty spectacular, too. There were the usual grazers -impala, Uganda kob, buffalo, etc- but what’s really amazing is the simply astonishing number of giraffe. They’re everywhere. And they are beautiful. Just a quality animal, all round.

Giraffe, Murchison Falls National Park

And where you have grazers you must have predators, too. And we were really lucky to get very close to a male lion, a splendid, not-at-all mangey specimen, and as impressive a wildlife sight as you’ll see.

Lion, Murchison Falls National Park

Later on we boarded a boat to cruise down the Nile -you half expected Poirot to turn up- to see the Falls and the abundant wildlife which lives alone the shores of the River. There were a few elephants (you don’t get bored of seeing them), plenty of hippos, plenty of birds (Uganda is truly blessed ornithologically) and plenty of very large and very aggressive Nile crocodiles. Those things are frightening and we’re glad we were on a big boat that served beer and not in a slowly deflating rubber dinghy.

Nile Crocodile, Murchison Falls National Park

 The Falls are impressive too. Not necessarily for their scale (if you’ve been to Niagara they’re about a hundred times smaller) but more for their power. When you get close (we hiked to them on day three) what hits you is the sheer power with which such a huge volume of water is squeezed through such a narrow (6m-wide) gap in the rock, and how it lunges forward with such thundering physical force. It is an amazing natural phenomenon.

River Nile, Murchison Falls National Park

 

So after we left the Park and its various wonders, we headed back to Kampala before travelling down to Entebbe and beginning our assault on the Ssese Islands. These make up a remote archipelago, strung out across the Ugandan part of Lake Victoria, low-lying verdant gems in a shiny, sun-drenched sea. Now we use the word ‘sea’ because Lake Victoria is actually quite big. Check your maps: it’s over 26,000 square miles in area, the same size as the Republic of Ireland. But on a calm day it’s like being on a giant millpond. Mind you, you have to get on it first, and this is easier said than done when a) some of you have been to a gift shop in Kampala and bought a hundred bags full of African souvenirs, and b) you have to be carried by a porter across 50 feet of open water onto your fishing boat. Having said that, it wasn’t problem for them. If you can hoise 50kg bags of maize onto a sailing boat bobbing up and down you can handle a few scrawny mzungus and some rafia placemats. I mean, we’ve even heard of cows being manhandled onto them. And accordingly we got safely on, bone dry although suffereing a little groinal discomfort (he had very bony shoulders), and after a few more local people waded out, we and Captain Tom were on our way across the Lake in a leaky fishing wooden boat, and heading for mysterious Banda Island.

Banda Island, sunrise

Now Banda Island has to be visited to be understood. A few words on this blog won’t do it any justice at all. There just aren’t adjectives in the English language, in fact in any language, to describe it. Weird is as close as we have, but it comes up pathetically short. So banda Island is in the middle of the Lake, remote, off the beaten track (if you can have one of them on water) and utterly unique. It exists in a completely different time zone, maybe in a completely different era, maybe on a completely different planet. It looks like something where you’d find velociraptors running around in The Land that Time Forgot, with its strange primeval trees, its dense jungle interior, and its ridiculous giant insect life. The buidlings are half built or storm-ravaged ruins, romantic but with a heavy hint of gothick, too. Each path leads to some haunted-looking structure, while dogs roam around the island to a soundtrack of unfamilar bird noises, and the gentle lapping of the surf.

Banda Island

It’s undeniably beautiful: very peaceful, very serene, and very otherwordly. It was bought by an eccentric white Kenyan engineer-cum-sailor, who built all the eclectic buildings, engineering the island into submission, imposing some strange kind of order on unfettered chaos. It’s fighting an endless losing battle with nature (it should be a rainforest) but it’s so remarkable for it. Everywhere, ruin, desolation and dereliction, as buildings hewn from the island’s rocks are gradually reclaimed by nature, sometimes creepingly and sometimes dramatically. It’s an eccentric place, certainly, and isn’t for the fainthearted (if you don’t like gigantic millipedes you should definitely avoid it, and if the idea of huge thunderstorms smashing against your stone cottage makes you anxious it might be best if you sail on by, too). But we liked it, from the ever-so-slightly unhinged German proprietor (the owner died in April) and his achingly formal Teutonic hospitality, to the unexplained and inexplicable Rasta who cooked us stupendously good food and played the guitar for us round our campfire, it just had something. Something you can’t put your finger on, and might not actually want to, but which you try and define while kayaking around the island on water so calm it’s unreal, until ultimately deciding that it doesn’t matter. It’s just too relaxed a place to be bother about semantics, trivia, whatever.

Andy and his trusty kayak, Banda Island

And what’s more we had it all to ourselves; not a single tourist for 50km in any direction. Actually some strange kind of paradise, jah? 

Banda Island: not the boat we sailed across on

 After escaping the Island, returning to Entebbe by another fishing boat, and spending a night there we bade farewell to Jo and James. We had an excellent time with them, sharing our little corner of the world with them and having a load of laughs along the way, and we hope they enjoyed it too.And we’d like to take this opportunity to thank them, deeply, for keeping their promise and coming all this way just to visit rubbish old us. It was a blast.  

Andy, Linda, James, Jo

So now we’ve left Ruhanga and closed another chapter in our African journey, what are we going to miss most? Well, so many things really.

There’s that amazing landscape, the beautiful rolling hills that rise up, bathed in equatorial sunlight, cocooning you in a velvety green blanket every morning.

Ruhanga, from “Hill 9”

And the night sky, the amazing dark-but-light walks home from George’s where you don’t need a torch because the moon and the stars do it for you.

We’ll even miss Ntungamo town, and the faded, low-key hustle and bustle of this lazy, wild west town.

Obviously we’ll miss the Delica, that old nag of a van, with its eccentric mechanical habits and its faint whiff of picnics in the 1980s.

Andy at the helm of the Delica, current holder of the land-speed record

But we’ll miss the Lodge staff (Resty, James, Amon, Gerald, Beth, Justine and Robert), that motley collection of wonderful, patient and mainly unquantifiable individuals who looked after us so well, and who threw a few philosophical curveballs into the mix (yes, James, we’re talking about you), more.

We’ll miss the teachers, who together make up an inscrutible but generally positive bunch of young men and women, in search of good leadership, but nevertheless doing a good job in not always straightforward circumstances.

We’ll definitely miss the villagers, our happy and generous host population, who have shown extraordinary patience when faced with our rubbish Runyankole but who were always ready to offer us the hand of friendship.

And then there’s George and his lovely family, among the kindest and most perceptive of all the Africans we’ve met, who fed us, interrogated us, and make us feel like we were their favourite ever guests, a feat which very few people can pull off with the kind of warmth and sincerity that they managed.

George (left) and family

We’ll miss our friends deeply, those locals who have been kind enough to share their time and their matooke with us, and who have made us feel part of their lives, part of their community, and part of their families.

We’ll miss all the volunteers, too, the many faces and the many stories, the many opinions and the many discussions about what we’ll eat first when we get back to Britain, the many days trying to ‘do’ volunteering and that epic last night. 

And finally, of course, we’ll miss the schoolchildren, those names and faces that we will never forget, who have provided us with our favourite moments, and who have made being down in remote southwest Uganda so worthwhile and so memorable.

 

Regards to all,

Andy and Linda

ps calling map nerds and GoogleEarth dweebs. In case you’re interested we spent our time at Ruhanga at coordinates -0.799999684095383 30.2667009830475 on Bing Maps

Posted June 4, 2011 by Andy in All Posts, Uganda 1

Uganda 1: Tuesday 26th April   1 comment

Welcome all, and a big hello from us here in beautiful Ruhanga. With more than eight weeks gone and less than four to go, we’re stunned at how quickly the time is going, but equally aware of how lax we’ve been in keeping our blog fully up-to-date. In our defence, we’ve been busy organising a big teaching programme in school during the last week of term (yes, school’s broken up for Easter holidays), doing some crucial (but not especially blog-worthy) admin work, spending a long (and stunning) weekend in Lake Bunyonyi, and being struck down with what you might euphemistically term tummy troubles. So apologies for not writing sooner.

So after our guests left (see last entry) and headed up to Kampala, and one of us was laid up in bed with a resonably severe case of UBTS (Ugandan Bog Trotting Syndrome), we returned to school. However, there wasn’t much in the way of teaching to be done as the children were sitting their end-of-term exams. Even the baby classes -where some children are as young as two- were tested (although their tests are oral. For instance the teacher might point at the wall and say “What is this?” The children get a mark if they manage to say “Wall”), while the rest of the school sat internal exams. These are privately published exams which the school has to buy in the local town, but as far as we can tell are pretty standardised. The results came out last week and it seems the primary school here is a fair way ahead of the local Government Schools (ours is private, but funded by sponsors). This is probably due to the fact that ours has a nursery school, so the kids who start Primary 1 have already had three years of education, not to mention three years of exposure to English, what with all these volunteers around (the most we’ve had here at one time was thirteen, which works out as 1 per 20 children, or two per class). So it seems the children are getting some kind of return for all the effort and input the volunteers have been making here over the years.

However, we are firm believers that there is always room for improvement, and our challenge to the staff and future volunteers here is to not only carry on helping and improving the school, but to make it a stand-out school in the district. A beacon school, where new ideas and a high level of input brings out the best in the children. Now, we do understand that this is a small, country school, populated by children who often come from large, poor and illiterate families, whose parents’ identity cards actually state their occupation as ‘peasant’. So we know the school will never be Eton or Harrow. But with all the input it’s getting -financially from sponsors and donors, and practically from volunteers- we don’t see any reason why at least some of the children here can’t really go on to higher things.

They say here that having good English is a passport to a better life: a clerical job, perhaps, or work up in Kampala; it seems its importance can’t be overestimated. And while we must largely bow to this theory, coming as it does from people who know infinitely better than us, we can’t help feeling that education should be much more than just a vehicle for achieving such narrow, Westernised aspirations. Of course, it should allow children and families to think big, and it should propel kids as far as they can possibly go. But -and this ‘but’ is true in Britain, too- what about the children whose dreams are, frankly, unrealistic? How do we best serve those kids who, for whatever reason, just aren’t ever going to get clerical jobs, or move to Kampala? When you live in a tiny, remote, rural community like this, the fact remains that only a very few children will move  onwards, upwards, or anywhere, for that matter.

Now, don’t get us wrong: all children should be given that chance. But there is an argument here that, alongside English, Maths, Science, Social Studies (and all the other stuff they’d get taught should they be bright/lucky/wealthy enough to go to Secondary School), the children should also, for instance, be learning the manual, practical and technical skills that the vast majority of them are actually going to need. The argument asks, pertinently, how are they going to gain expertise in car mechanics, bike repairs, construction, or tailoring? How, more relevantly, are they going to get the best out of their farmland? Because to be honest, as far as we can see, the vast majority of the girls at the school will end up being housewives, and the vast majority of boys will end up being farmers (if they’re given a fertile piece of land), goatherds (if they’re given a hillside) or brickmakers (if they’re not given anything).

Ruhanga brick fields

And here being a housewife means giving birth to -and then bringing up- as many as 10 or 12 children, doing all the farming (sowing and harvesting), doing all the cooking (slaughtering and boiling), doing all the cleaning (house, yard and children), fetching all the water, doing all the shopping, and milking all the animals. It can also often mean building all the structures around the household (eg kitchen, animal sheds, outdoor privy, outhouses, sometimes even the house itself), or doing part-time work (eg sewing, teaching, weaving, selling craftwork). Very often a wife will share her husband with other women (sometimes only one, sometimes many more: we know a man with eight wives), so money is always tight, and support for the family often isn’t there. Paying school fees is surely just another massive worry to add to the list? 

Being a farmer means working hard for your lifetime. It rarely stops, although the people here are relatively fortunate in that the rains are reliable, and there is always food to be had. Staples such as bananas, matoke (cooking bananas), cassava and potatoes love the climate and you see them growing literally everywhere. In fact, bananas are so abundant they use them as lids when fetching water (a fat green banana stuffed into a jerry-can spout makes a surprisingly good cork). But farming is a boring, repetitive and unrelentingly demanding way of life. The women usually look after the household garden (this will probably include bananas, coffee, tomatoes, cabbages, and maize), while teenage sons usually look after the herds of cows and goats, if a family is lucky enough to own any. The men help to dig the fields, establish and maintain the plantations, and cycle the huge, unwieldy, and deceptively heavy bunches of bananas to market each week. Sometimes, when they just need more help, and more free labour, they wonder why on earth their cildren are sitting in classrooms learning the alphabet when they’d be a damn sight more use on the family shamba. And, accordingly, hundreds of children in the parish don’t attend school.

Ankole Cattle herder

But we think there is a tremendous value in learning, which is probably why we’re here doing what we’re doing. Frankly, the children learn plenty about farming at home in the afternoons and during the holidays (they have three months off a year: a month over Easter, a month during the Summer, and a month over Christmas), enabling them to see the whole agricultural calendar of what has to be planted or harvested during which season. They will probably learn yet more about farming or brickmaking when they’re on the job, having left school early to earn a bit of money working as labourers for a relative or family friend. Growing up around the family business will provide future bike-repairers or hardware store-owners with all the training they’ll ever need. So it looks like lots of bases are already covered.

In addition to all of these, we’d really like to see a mixture of educational pathways, too. We have a Nursery School, and the beginnings of a Primary School, albeit limited in scope. These should give the most deprived families in the area at least a foundation in learning. We have families and businesses which provide a kind of direct on-the-job training, albeit deeply restrictive and often via unpaid child labour. These should provide at least some members of the family with a skill set and a head start in life. What’s missing is a community-based training programme, and we’d like to see the Ruhanga Development Board establish . There are, apparently, plans for this in place,and it’s slated to be ready once the children have moved up the school and finally left Primary 7. So we’re looking at 2017 or so for the present pupils, plus the wider community, to be able to access a resource centre which will be able to teach them miscellaneous practical and technical skills. It’s ambitious, but we think it’ll be the missing link in the educational provision of the area.

But even after all of this, there is a much more fundamental reason for educating these children; a sometimes capricious reason but one of critical importance nevertheless, at the very essence of ‘learning’. And that is that education expands minds and brings about change. We talk about these boys and girls working all day doing hard, heavy labour: we know that’s just the way things are in these communities, but we want them to change. And we talk about women being exhausted at the end of a gruelling, sun-baked day, and still being expected to satisfy the sexual demands of their drunk, adulterous husbands, even though they know it might result in another baby, or worse, the contraction of HIV. The women here are powerless to do much about it, either thanks to the total intransegence of the patriarchal society they find themselves stuck in, but perhaps more often simply through ignorance, and we want that to change. When the volunteers sit here talking about the minutiae of volunteering, the day-to-day issues surrounding the school, the trivia we all come into contact with when we wonder what we’re going to teach P1 the next day, they probably aren’t even aware of the symbolic importance of what they’re doing, nor the future changes which might be inadvertently being brought about. It might not seem like it when the kids just aren’t getting your lesson; and it might not seem like much when the kids in the Baby Classes are just rolling around on the floor, breaking wind and not listening to the teacher. But actually Uganda is being changed, millimetre by millimetre; and the Uganda of 2020 is being formed, moulded and altered. It’s the same all over East Africa, and it is education which is driving it. So would it be going too far to say that, amongst the drudgery of children’s duties, the unending burden of female labour, and the dismissive stranglehold of aloof, self-serving governments, getting children into class might just be East Africa’s salvation?

So, yeah, getting children into class is undoubtedly a Good Thing, and one which may indeed effect changes which resonate decades into our futures, but in the meantime we’re just trying to get the kids to be able to read properly. As we’ve mentioned before, teaching in Uganda is done by rote and repitition. Children memorise words, and learn English through simple (and often desperately mispronounced) imitation. The limitations of this are plain to see when you show even the brightest kids in the class a word they don’t recognise, and ask them to say it. Even a word like ‘mat’. They know ‘cat’ and ‘hat’, but they go blank at ‘mat’. How so? Well, they’re not actually reading  the words, they’re just memorising wordshapes and the wordsounds that go with them. They’re not able to make the connection between ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ looking the same, and sounding the same. And until you understand the reason why ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ look and sound the same, you’re not really reading. So Linda and another volunteer, Helen, have been introducing some basic Phonic training for the teachers, with the notion that next term they will be able to deliver Phonics-based reading lessons in their classes, and start getting their children learning how to sound words out when they don’t recognise them. It’s beginners’ stuff, really, but the size of the undertaking starts to dawn on you when you realise the teachers have little or (mainly) no idea about sounds or phonetic English.

Linda leads a session on phonics for class teachers

Here, the alphabet is taught (from the age of three) as Ay, Bee, See, etc, rather than Ah, Buh, Kuh, etc (which is actually not accurate, either), and as a result neither teachers nor pupils had any understanding of how F could be pronounced ff, rather than eff, or how G could be guh instead of jee. But despite this, they all picked it up really quickly, and thoroughly enjoyed the silly (but effective) Jolly Phonics actions which make remembering the sounds much easier. The teachers have now had three introductory sessions, a small amount of resources made available to them, and a demonstration lesson where Linda and Helen taught a few of the children. So now it’s up to them (perhaps in partnership with future volunteers) to get the children reading properly. This, we feel, would represent a quantum leap in the kids’ literacy development, and really would set them apart from other schools in the area.

Interestingly, it should also help the pupils learn their own language more effectively, too, as nearly all the sounds are the same in Runyankole as they are in English. The headmaster, Paddy, who teaches Runyankole classes, can often be seen close to breaking point in his lessons: the way he teaches Local Language is by breaking down words into sound groups, and getting the children to learn them by heart: a kind of phonics but done in a really old-fashioned way. So the children repeat  BA, BE, BI BO, BU; CHA, CHE, CHI CHO CHU; DA, DE, DI, DO, DU; etc, over and over again. This they do without error, but when he asks them to put WE, BA and LE together to make a word they simply don’t understand the instruction, and cannot make the comprehension leap to get ‘Webale’. It’s deeply frustrating, and quite surprising too, but we think it must be largely to do with the way they have been taught over the years, where both questions and answers are given by the teachers, and answers are then simply repeated back by children. As soon as any lateral or independent thinking comes into the equation, the kids are in uncharted territory. And however much Paddy shouts at them, they ain’t going to get it.

But maybe now they will.

Still on teaching, we had a enjoyable and productive week with the kiddywinks after the exams were finished. The teachers traditionally take a backseat role during the last week of term (although in fairness, one or two of them must have been in the boot given how backseat their normal teaching positions are), and so allowed us volunteers to plan and execute our own lessons, sessions and activities. We and fellow long-term volunteer Dan drew up a timetable for volunteers to try out different sessions in different classes, but left it up to them what they wanted to do. We were lucky that the group of volunteers at the time was pretty enthusiastic and threw themselves into the week’s work (well, we say ‘week’: it was only scheduled to be four days -Good Friday intervened- and then half of them went off on safari on the Thursday, meaning they only taught for three), but we think the children got quite a lot out of it.

Andy, doing time

In fact, we think the teachers got quite a bit out of it, too. You see, we moan about how their teaching ‘style’ merely involves saying things over and over until the (cleverest) children are able to repeat them back, or just writing stuff on the board for children to copy without any kind of learning actually taking place at all. But you have to remember: these young teachers have never heard of -let alone seen- any other kind of teaching method. So for them to see volunteers doing activities, breaking classes up into groups, bringing in colourful and interactive resources, and getting kids to work creatively and independently, must have been truly eye-opening. We think, from what they said afterwards, that they’d like to do more of these kinds of things themselves (they must be as bored of “This is pencili” as the kids are), but they have neither the training nor the resources to do it. On top of that they have a (particularly dull and rigid) curriculum to follow, and there simply isn’t time to do ‘fun’. 

But maybe they’ll be able to take a few ideas away from what we did, and maybe find time to stimulate the kids (and themselves) a bit more in the classroom. At the very least there’s a load of posters on the walls now.

Linda, drawing a crowd

Speaking of classroom walls, we have now finished painting those in P1 and P2, and have now also done all the doors and windows thorughout the school. Picking a particularly inappropriate shade of drab olive known as Army Green, we have now completed Stage 1 of the project’s decorating programme. What remains -Stage 2- is to plaster and then paint the outside walls of the classrooms, but since this is really only cosmetic work it carries a very low priority. What’s probably more important is the fair finishing of the classroom floors (the incomplete concrete ground is sharp on the children’s feet, and bits of jaggedy stone can loosen quite easily), although this will cost quite a lot of money. 

An Army Green door, as painted by Andy

But before any work starts on that, we’re going back on site to carry on building the classrooms funded by you lot. Construction stopped a couple of weeks ago when the builders started work on a new kitchen and a reception building over here at the Lodge. They did this after we decided it would be better to temporarily halt work on the classrooms while the kids were still in school: the next phase of the work was to involve a large amount of scaffolding going up, wooden shuttering being hammered together, steel bars being bent and shaped, and large amounts of roughcast concrete being poured to make a lintel. After that, huge unmilled timbers would be laid to make a roofing frame, and large sheets of heavy-duty iron roofing attached. So all in all, it probably wouldn’t have been the best Health and Safety environment for a load of particularly curious Nursery children to be around. But now they’ve broken up we’ll be able to start again.

Waving goodbye: our last day teaching

So amongst all this you’ll be pleased to know that we did manage to get away for a weekend. And what an amazing weekend it was. In fact, we think we might’ve found the world’s loveliest place: Lake Bunyonyi. We’d heard it was nice, all the guide books mention how nice it is, and some previous volunteers who went there said how nice it was. But it was much more than nice. For example, there was our lodge with its beautiful brick and grass bandas, landscaped with astonishing attention to detail; a stunning terraced garden, full of weird and wonderful plants and birds, sloping elegantly down to the lake; a little wooden jetty-cum-diving platform, a wonderfully restful place to sunbathe and look out over the water; the lake itself, as still as a millpond, dotted with dozens of gorgeous uninhabited islands and bounded by a hundred absurdly picturesque inlets; our very own dugout canoe, not immediately easy to direct, but once mastered just the best way to travel around; and the views, breathtakingly beautiful, which no camera will ever be able to do justice to.

On Itambira Island, Lake Bunyonyi

We stayed three days and two nights there. Days were spent drifting around the lake in hollowed out trees, alternately basking in the sun and paddling in the water like a load of scrawny pink hippos, and eating splendid (though less-than-punctual) meals. Nights consisted of beer, cards, games of spoons, and sitting out on the jetty staring at the extraordinary night skies and talking about nothing. As you can probably tell, we quite liked it, and we will definitely go back.

Lake Bunyonyi

So as we enter our final month here how are we feeling about our time? Well, we’ve met a bunch of good people. Over the last eight weeks we’ve shared our time here with -at the last count- twenty-seven different people, all with different backgrounds and all with different stories to tell. In fact, this is probably the part of the project which has been most different from the previous two: sharing time, ideas and conversations with lots of other volunteers, rather than being the only white people for miles in any direction. And it provides a completely different type of experience: in some ways, it brings a bit of Britain into your life; a sense of familiarity, what with all the British accents and conversations about things at home; a kind of island of undiluted Britishness in a corner of Uganda. And consequently, for good or for bad, you get a much less keen sense of Africa here. It surrounds you, of course, and fingers of Africanness touch and entice you all the time, but at the end of each working day we go back to the Lodge, and fly back to Britain.

We have a few weeks left to put a few more things in place, too. We’ve worked hard to try and get parts of the project a little bit better focused, and to try and make sure the volunteers are sufficiently well-directed to make the best use of their time here. As with all projects, it’s a work in progress, and there are always things which need reviewing and altering. But, as always, you eventually run out of time to effect all the changes you want to see put in place. Indeed, one thing the project lacks and needs is continuity, and we hope that the long-term volunteers of the future are able to provide this key component of what makes any project tick, and what makes any project sustainable for the long haul.

This particular project, as we have stated before, has grown exponentially over the last year or so, and it does undoubtedly need a much tighter, more robust organisational system to make sure all the things it does are recorded properly and developed efficiently, according to a powerful and coherent central policy. It sounds quite boring, especially when most volunteers (ourselves included) mainly want to play with African babies and have fun teaching in the classrooms, but actually these things do need to be in place, as points of reference if nothing else. After all, a project with a strong mission statement will always be steered more effectively than one without, because everything it does will have its origins and its aims in that statement. And that, perhaps above all else, is what this project needs to do most: to set in stone its aims and objectives; its short- and long-term policies; its ambitions and its dreams. The rest can then be teased out from these.

On a slightly more positive note, we have once again bowed to our consciences and decided to sponsor a child at school. Actually, hers is a particularly sad story, and there really wasn’t any way we could say no. Her name is Kirabo and she is a pupil in the Nursery Middle Class, making her something like 5 years old. When she was very young her mother abandoned her in a banana plantation, and it was only by luck, we suppose, that she was found at all. One of the women that works as a cleaner and cook at the Lodge, Justine, by some convoluted and circumlocutive chain of events ended up looking after her, despite having a number of her own and other adopted children. She’s a very quiet woman, but evidently a remarkable one too, given the amount of money she earns here and the responsibilities she’s decided to take on. Anyway, she desperately wanted Kirabo to attend the school here with her other kids, but because of her financial situation she simply wasn’t able to afford the 15,000/- (£4.20) per term it costs to send a non-sponsored child to our school (incidentally the random and illogical way the project has set up its admissions policy precludes Kirabo from qualifying for free schooling since all newly registered children are required to pay registration fees unless they have been sponsored, regardless of their background). Consequently, it was decided, if there was no money forthcoming Kirabo would be barred from attending school next term. If she wanted to come, the directive said, Justine would have to forfeit 15,000/- from her monthly salary (i.e. nearly half of it). Thinking the whole situation was ridiculous, we stepped in and agreed to sponsor her. We’re happy we did, because she’s lovely.

Linda; Kirabo; Andy

Incidentally, if any of you at home would be interested in sponsoring one (or more) of the children at the school, you can log on to www.sponsorachild.co.uk to see which children remain unsponsored. In truth, we’re looking to advise the project on slightly altering the way the sponsorship is done, and that’s something that we’re going to be working on over the next few weeks. For example, we want to include some of the children’s stories on the site, and perhaps explain a little bit about their backgrounds, because we think that would undoubtedly encourage more sponsors to come forward (there’s some pretty sad tales here, and some pretty needy children). But in the meantime we should stress that all the children are in need, and their parents could really do without paying school fees. Unfortunately, until all the children are sponsored the school has to rely on these fees to cover its running costs. So basically, the school needs lots more sponsors. It costs £3.50 per month and this pays for a child’s place at school, a couple of school uniforms for them, and a year’s worth of pencils and exercise books. The remainder contributes to paying teachers’ salaries, covering resource and maintenance costs, and keeping the expansion programme going.

Finally, now school’s out for four weeks (meaning that our time here as teachers is now finished) we suppose it’s time to review it all. It’s definitely been an interesting experience, although kind of like travelling back in time to a 1920s elementary school. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating when you see the children locked into such a rigid and unimaginative educational system -it can’t provide especially great job satisfaction for the staff, either- but you soon learn that this is just How Things Are Done Here, and while changes can (and in our opinion probably should) be effected, they will happen only in geological timescale. Even in a new and little school like this it will still take dozens and dozens of volunteers to  introduce (let alone establish) new ideas, while on a larger scale it will take a government a good deal more genuine and broad-minded about universal free education to release the children of Uganda from the soporific and laborious version of childhood they currently experience. That said, it’d be difficult to find a bunch of happier, more enthusiatic kids than those round here, so what do we know?

Back row: Ian, Paddy, Jamil. Middle row: Marion, Eunice, Jenipher, Andy. Front row: Kedrine, Alinda, Mellon, Matron, Linda

Still, once we got to know the teachers, and saw what was behind that communally gruff and reticent exterior, we found a group of compassionate and friendly people, trying hard to make the best of a system lacking resources and direction, and staffed by people who lack training and stimulation. We also had to keep reminding ourselves that these men and women -our colleagues- despite their profession and wage, still live pretty close to abject poverty, and have a million different problems on their plate. And when reminded of that, you realise that the task these people are charged with -the process of  turning this country around- is going to take one heck of a long time. But by and large we think it’s in the right hands. 

Okay, that’s about it for this instalment, but we’re not done with Uganda yet. We’ve still got four weeks of playscheme activities to devise and execute, plenty of maintenance jobs around the Lodge to start and finish, more construction work at school to do, volunteering programmes and strategies to discuss and implement, other local projects to look around, and villagers to visit, as well a few trips to plan, and some more visitors to welcome. So it promises to be an interesting month.

Until next time,

Linda and Andy

Posted April 28, 2011 by Andy in All Posts, Uganda 1

Uganda: Tuesday 5th April

Agandi, and welcome to our third installment from Uganda. It’s been another busy couple of weeks here in the southwest of the country what with our visit to a nearby refugee settlement, spending time around the region with our visitors from the UK, our safari around Queen Elizabeth National Park, some more building and painting work at the school, being in yet another video, and of course all the day-to-day stuff we do here at the Lodge. Time seems to be going past really quickly, and it’s mad to think that we’re nearly at the halfway point of this project. Moreover, we’re a fair bit past the halfway point of our entire year, and they say the second half always goes by quicker. So, we’ll be home in no time.

Porridge time

Meanwhile, we’ve got lots of stuff to do while we’re still in Africa, and we’re still trying to see as many different sides to this part of the continent as we can. So the weekend before last we drove over to Lake Nakivali, close to the Tanzanian border, to visit one of the largest -and oldest- refugee settlements in Uganda. We’re not exactly sure how long it’s been there -it probably dates from the early 1960s and the first Rwandan crisis- but either way many of the settlers have been there for far longer than you’d imagine refugees to be anywhere. It was also very different to the way we’d expected a refugee settlement to look. Indeed, you’ll notice that we’re using the word ‘settlement’ rather than ‘camp’, and that’s for good reason, because this wasn’t the field full of hastily-erected tents and bivouacs you might imagine, but a large, complex and fully formed town, with homes, businesses, and streets full of people. In fact, the only things which differentiated it from a regular Ugandan town were how very distinct districts have been formed along ethnic-origin lines (there are residents from literally all over East Africa and they’ve developed their own specific parts of town), plus of course the big fence around the outside of it.

The site is administered jointly by the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office and the UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees), and as we said, it features a real mixture of nationalities. There are, for example, still refugees from Rwanda, who arrived following the apocalyptic civil war of 1994; there are Kenyans who came across the border after the post-election violence of 2007/8; there are Sudanese who have been driven south during 25 years of almost continual conflict; there are Somalis, some of whom fled here during the brutal civil war of 1993, and some who left during the near twenty years of lawlessness which has followed it; there are Ethiopians who came to escape the famous droughts and famines we’re all so familiar with, as well as the repessive and violent regime which we know a good deal less about; there are many Congolese from (especially the northeast of) the DRC who have drifted across the border, tired of how their country shows no signs of emerging from two decades of mindless ethnic conflict and self-destruction; there are a few Tanzanians left over from the war with Uganda in the mid-eighties; and there are a few internally-displaced Ugandans, forced south by the piracy of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the far north. In fact, a pretty comprehensive history lesson about how unstable this whole region has been over the last 30 years is provided by no more than a simple list of the origins of a handful of people from this one refugee centre.

Administration Block, Nakivali Refugee Settlement

And of course we heard some pretty sad and often harrowing tales. Of families wrenched apart; of loved ones ‘disappearing’ overnight; of desperate wing-and-a-prayer bids for freedom. But mostly we heard the same shoulder-shrugging frustrations of a population which is, by and large, stuck, probably for good, and hamstrung by a bureaucratic system which is almost imossible to negotiate. And while it is true to say that coming to Uganda undoubtedly saved these people’s lives, it’s much less clear where they go from here, what happens next, and what it is that they can now do with their lives. Walking around, it seems like one or two of the more entrepreneurial (or politically astute) refugees have managed to set up businesses, and there is an education system and a monetary economy of sorts within the settlement. But to be honest, the ethnic divisions are so deep, and the level of corruption is so high, that there is virtually zero opportunity for any kind of ‘normal’ social mobility. Plus, of course, they’re interred. And in such a state it’s almost like time has stopped for those who have been settled here, and we’re at a loss to see how it gets started again.

A Somali man we met, Abdul, who spoke five languages (including impeccable English) told us how he’d been living in the settlement since 1994. He escaped Mogadishu with his youngest son during the civil war of 1993, just before the disastrous American invasion, but only after having seen his wife and older sons gunned down by rebel militia. Over the years in Nakivali he’s studied languages, carved out a life in the camp for himself and his son, and after many intreviews finally convinced the UNHCR officials to take him on as an interpreter. He’s been working since 2006 (it’s a voluntary position and like everyone else at the camp he relies on Ugandan and UN aid for food etc ) but recently found out that his refugee status is to be revoked, and it’s likely he will have to leave the site. He doesn’t know what he’ll do next because he will be in Uganda illegally (so there will be no obligation for the government to look after him), he will no longer be a refugee (so the UN will have no reponsibility for him, either) and he has no papers, no money and no means of getting back to Somalia (which he understandably doesn’t want to do anyway). He seemed anxious, as you might expect, but at the same time he was peculiarly upbeat, almost as if this was far from the worst thing that had ever happened to him. We sometimes wonder if there are any people in the world whose lives are so consistently and unremittingly hard as the Africans’, but we’re pretty sure that there aren’t many who could deal with things so well.

Multi-ethnic friends, Nakivali

So we walked around in almost unbearable heat, talking to some of the settlers, past the shops and shacks of New Congo, the meat stalls and mosques of New Somalia, all the while followed by an ever-increasing gaggle of children. They and their elders were all eager to tell us their tales, to practise their English, and to bemoan the countless failings of the system they’ve found themselves wrapped up in. But however much you hear it, it’s simply not possible for us to imagine what it must mean to be a non-person: whatever your talents, your work ethic, your intelligence or your ambitions, you are literally fenced off from the rest of the world; safe from your past but prevented from realising any kind of future. Back home, we just don’t know enough -or think enough- about people and places like this, and because of that we aren’t doing enough about them. But then again if we did, when would we have time to watch Britain’s Got Talent?

Actually, the long drive over to Isingiro district also gave us the opportunity to see a bit more of Uganda. Staying at the Lodge is very convenient and all that, but’s easy to just stay here and insulate yourself from the rest of the country. And it’s always interesting to travel around a bit and see the differences between regions, be they sociological, geographical or (as they tend to be in Africa) climatic. We drove a large circuit (well, on the kind of roads we were negotiating it felt like a large circuit but it actually only covered a pathetically small portion of the south of the country) through towns and vllages which seemed, to the naked eye, to be a good deal poorer and less developed than the region in which our project is situated. We’re sure that it’s nothing more than a strange and whimsical coincidence that the President, his tribe and his most steadfast supporters are from here, and not from the south, and surely to suggest anything else would be deeply and unnecessarily cynical.

Crossing the somewhat unofficial-looking Tanzanian Border

After our trip to Nakivali, it was back to the project for some graft. Linda has been busy for a few weeks now teaching in Primary 1 in the mornings and making resources for pretty much all the classrooms in the afternoons, while Andy has been on buiding and painting duty, and between us and the rest of the volunteers we’re trying to help the school improve, both in its teaching methods and in its appearance.

When we first arrived the classrooms were all pretty drab -the two primary classes hadn’t even been plastered- but over the last couple of weeks we’ve started touching them up a bit and we’re not far away from finishing them. All the rooms now have doors and windows which we’re also in the process of painting, and most of the classes now have a number of different posters, charts and wall-hangings. By the time we leave we hope the learning environment will be a bit more interesting for the kids, even if their lessons aren’t (Teacher, holds up pencil: “What is it?” Children: “That is pencili”. Teacher: “What is it?” Children: “That is pencili”. Teacher: “What is it?” Children: “That is pencili”. Teacher, holds up box: “What is it?” Children: “That is boxi”… You get the idea, but if you asked them to read or write anything you’d be met by not much more than a few quizzical looks and stony silence).

On painting duty: Dan and Andy

So yeah, as we’ve mentioned before, the teaching style here is depressingly old-fashioned and ponderous in the extreme, with repitition and rote being pretty much the only ways the teachers are able to deliver a lesson. It’s boring for the kids, doesn’t even attempt to differentiate between the vast abilities (and sometimes age groups) in each class, and it often makes it difficult for volunteers to involve themselves. Now it’ll take time, and we know the school is pretty much brand new, but it seems eminently sensible to us to try and introduce something a bit more interactive, although we know the teachers will be a bit resistent, maybe even frightened of doing things differently. But given the level of sponsorship, the amount of external funds, and the many British volunteers who have come here with ideas and enthusiasm, it’s our view that this school can and should do a lot better than mind-numbing Victorian chalk and talk. It should be a beacon school, progressive, daring and open-minded in its scope. At the moment, that simply isn’t the case, and we’re yet to see a comprehensive long-term plan that suggests anything different in the future. But we do what we can within the current limitations, and we hope the children enjoy the time they’re able to spend with us.

On teaching duty: Linda in action in Primary 1

We’re also making good progress on the new classroom. Actually, make that new classrooms. For some reason we’re building two at the time, which is odd since our/your fundraising only covered the cost of one, and other streams of funding for the project are generally unreliable, coming only on an as-and-when basis. Consequently, the building work is sort of stopping and starting. Mind you, we’ve already managed to get both rooms built up to lintel (i.e. top of window) level, but will probably have to wait for a bit more money and a few days of dry weather to get the next bit done. Andy’s been working with fellow volunteers Dan and Francis alongside the local pro’s, just doing odd bits of labouring here and a bit of wobbly bricklaying there, so hopefully between us all we’ll be able to get close to finishing by the time we leave. The work isn’t urgent and probably isn’t top priority -children are due to move into the first room only in January 2012 when the present Primary 2 class moves up to Primary 3, and into the second class in January 2013 when they move again up to P4- but even so, since everyone has been so generous donating money (we’d like to add another special thank you to the staff and children of St Mary’s, Hyson Green here) it’d be nice to leave something tangible as a legacy of our visit and of your generosity.

New classrooms: the future Primary 3 and Primary 4

Things have actually quietened down around the Lodge over the last fortnight with a few volunteers flying home, and only a couple arriving. But then on Wednesday we were happy to welcome Graham and Flo (for those of you who don’t know, Graham is Andy’s brother and Flo is Graham’s fiancee) who flew over to see us and have a look round a bit of Uganda before they get hitched in September. As we write this they are still in the country but instead of having to share a cramped grass-roofed banda in Ruhanga, they are firmly esconsed up in some swanky Kampala hotel having left here on Tuesday. And although it was only a short visit, we managed to do quite a bit, like driving over to Queen Elizabeth National Park for three days of among some frankly amazing wildlife and some not-too-shabby scenery, climbing a couple of really quite steep hills around the Lodge and looking around the nearby villages, meeting a few of the locals and listening to their normal yet completely-not-normal life stories, and popping into a couple of local schools.

Halfway around the world. Our safari group: Heather, Flo, Francis, Linda, Graham; Andy, Denis

Now as you might have already read, we have already done a safari in Kenya, and this one in QENP was quite different. And that’s because Uganda really can’t compete with the likes of Kenya or Tanzania when it comes to density and concentration of wildlife. However, this was not always so. Once upon a time it was a veritable safari Garden of Eden, with an unparalleled abundance of birds, grazing animals, predators and primates. Even decades of British hunting parties made only the tiniest, almost unnoticeable dent in their numbers. But thanks to the unimaginably destructive upheavals of the 1970s there was an almost wholesale slaughter of Uganda’s wildlife, perpetrated first by Idi Amin’s macho, rampaging, bloodthirsty armies and, once they’d been humiliatingly defeated, by the bored occupying soldiers from Tanzania who replacd them. And we’re not talking hunting here. Hunting is a couple of colonial hooray-henry types shooting the odd rhino from an elephant’s back, and that is a world-and-a-half away from a brigade of drunk mercenaries using a herd of rhinos as target practice for their heavy-duty machine guns. It’s shameful, really, and it forced Uganda’s once thriving and diverse fauna to the very brink of extinction.

The good news, though, is that there are some animals left. They’re not always easy to spot, and we’re sure that for some people it would make game driving a frustrating, patience-testing experience. But what you do get in Uganda is tranquility, and a sense of aloneness; amazing, vast plains without five hundred other safari vans chugging around, getting in your way; views stretching for miles towards huge, sublime mountain ranges; and the pure, naked thrill of spotting something moving in amongst the bushes, crouching alone in the distance, or sihouetted against the massive, empty skies. Obviously, it’s nice to drive round a national park and see all the things your guide book says you’ll be able to see, although at times -in truth- the Kenyan reserves did seem a bit Windsor Safari Park-ish. Not so here. Here it’s about the waiting game, the tension, and a few, occasional moments of pure astonishment.

Crater Lake, QENP

On day one we were a bit spoiled. After a beautiful (although not entirely comfortable) drive across the southwest of the country, down dramatic valleys and over swollen mud-brown rivers, we arrived at the park and were greeted by three lionesses sitting in and around a picnic banda. We were very close with nothing between us but warm evening air (we travelled through the park on the roof of the jeep) but to be honest they looked more like giant pussycats than ruthless pack-hunting meateaters, rolling around on their backs and flopping down in the long grass like some tropical relative of Bagpuss.

Lioness, QENP

But it was getting late and, apart from the happily large numbers of Ugandan kob and buffalo, there wasn’t much else to see at this end of the park, so we headed to our camp to relax before an evening drive and dinner. But when we arrived we were intrigued by some rather loud burping sounds coming from the valley below us, so we wandered down, accompanied by a guide, and stumbled across a large school of hippos, bathing in the shallows of the nearby river. It was totally unexpected, and totally amazing, and hippos are much, much bigger than they look on the telly. We spent the evening warmed by the most enormous campfire we’ve ever seen, until tiredness overtook us and we retired to our round, brush-roofed bandas (which we shared with some other unidentified species of mammal).

Hippo, Ishasha River

On day two we were up early to try and catch some wildlife before the weather got too hot for them to be wandering around, but not before we had breakfast down by the Ishasha River which divides Uganda from DR Congo. On the opposite bank we could see Colobus monkeys swinging around among the jungle vines, and another family of hippos paddling, yawning and making rude noises in the water. And if that wasn’t a good enough start to the day, when we started driving we almost immediately came across two tree-climbing lions, perched lazily on their repective branches, looking unenthusiastically over a sizeable herd of kob. Once again, although this time slightly more worryingly, we were on the roof and so managed to get some wonderful shots. They’re quite rare, and to see them is a real privilege. And we saw two!

Tree-climbing Lion, QENP

We then drove up the west side of the park towards Lake Edward where we were to do a boat safari. It was quite a long drive along a dirt track, and in heavy rain, but we were escorted by some rather cheeky baboons, and arrived in good time for our excursion. Queen Elizabeth NP is famous for its large hippo population, and there were, accordingly, lots of them basking around the perimeter of the lake. But what we didn’t expect was the amazingly diverse range of birdlife, the many sunbathing Nile crocodiles, not to mention the two elephants playfighting in the lake shallows. Actually, our boat chugged up and down the Kazinga Channel, a narrow body of fresh water which connects the extremely colonial-sounding Lakes Edward and George. As we coasted around through water as still as the proverbial mill-pond, only the low hum of the boat’s engines, the squawks of the hovering African Fish Eagles, and the quiet belches of the hippos and buffalo broke the silence. It was truly beautiful.

Fishermen, Kazinga Channel

The elephants, though, provided perhaps the most memorable moments: we were able to get very close, so close that their shoving and splashing was almost frightening, and their deep, hollow trumpeting was heart-stoppingly loud. People talk about reserves and national parks as not being true natural habitats, but this looked pretty natural to us.

Elephants, QENP

There’s less wildlife in this part of the park, thanks to human encroachment and proximity to the still unstable and poacher-friendly Dem. Rep. Congo, and our searches for leopards and lions on our way back to the camp did prove fruitless. But we did see a hippo wandering through the grounds of a posh hotel, and we were well pleased with what we’d seen on the boat, so we decided to call it a day and head back to camp for an extremely satisfying dinner before pitching our tents on a cliff edge overlooking the channel, watching possibly the world’s most stunning sunset, and dropping off to the sounds of a nearby hippo birthday party.

Sunset, QENP

On the last day, we were up extremely early to try and find a few more animals, and we drove north out on to the savannah, a dreamy landscape sitting in the shadows of the mighty Rwenzori Mountains and dotted by crater lakes with surfaces like polished mirrors, and trees with afro hairstyles. It was a crisp, sunny morning, on reflection probably too cold to be sitting on a jeep roof, but the ordeal was worth it as, after an hour or more of searching, we found a lone hyena, his bloodied grinning mouth munching through a freshly killed kob calf. This is, apparently, an extremely rare sight since hyenas usually hunt at night, and in packs, so we were very lucky to see it. We did feel a bit sorry for the kob, though, but only because we’re sentimental and British.

Hyena, QENP

So we left the park and, just when we thought we wouldn’t see anything else we came across a wild elephant wandering down the high street in a nearby village, happily being fed bananas by disbelieving children.

An Escaped Elephant

There’s been another filmcrew around the Lodge this week. It seems the organisation that provides the project with most of its volunteers wants a video to put on its website to show prospective visitors the kinds of things which go on here. Some of us have featured in it, some of us have sadly been indisposed, but probably the most interesting thing to come out of it has been the conversations we’ve had with the camerman, Levi. He used to be a journalist for the Ugandan Press Agency, and when he was a young cub reporter he was sent to Kigali to cover the Rwandan genocide (he’s since, sadly, given up journalism to set up what you might generously call his own media business -he films weddings and funerals, and helps people to type up leaflets and documents- because in Uganda when you’re trying to get a promotion it’s not about what you know, but about who you know in the ruling NRM party).

But while it’s fascinating to hear about something like the Rwandan conflict first hand from someone who was there, it’s obviously also quite uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because, when you think about it, it’s actually quite recent; uncomfortable because the situation -although Rwanda’s was perhaps the most extreme example- has nevertheless become so depressingly familiar over the years; and uncomfortable because Levi and those Rwandan refugees in Nakivali remember how white people were practically nowhere to be seen while 800,000 of their countrymen and women were wiped off the face of the planet.

It’s now universally understood by the despairing but almost totally powerless British public that we generally only get ourselves embroiled in overseas conflicts when there’s something in it for us, and that seems to have come about mainly since the US learnt its lesson about humanitarian intervention the hard way in Somalia. But despite all the political ping-pong and nay-saying which surrounds the issues of unilateral and multilateral peace-keeping, there are surely times when intervention is not only justifiable, but crucial. Rwanda’s was the perfect, albeit tragic example. There, the West stalled, procrastinated and perhaps wilfully misjudged the situation, allowing the evolution of an episode so shameful in world history than barely a single individual, let alone agency or nation, came out of it with any credit at all.

In fact it’s probably the worst man-made humanitarian disaster to have happened in either of our lifetimes, and being so close to the epicentre here really does crystallise that fact. It also makes us ashamed of how little we still know about all the depressingly brutal things which have gone on elsewhere on this continent -to the people we have met, their friends, families and antecedents- and how we in the West with all our power and information and iPhone apps should really make more of an effort to at least read about them, if not investigate or challenge them. Inactivity, apathy and misinformation were arguably the major reasons why the scale of the suffering in Rwanda remained unchecked for so long once the violence had errupted, and it’s only through eliminating those that we will be able to fulfil our duty in making sure such events don’t happen again. However, from the snippets of news we grab from the internet and Ugandan newspapers, it doesn’t look like we’re making any better a fist of it right now.

We’re lucky, though, these days that we can travel around and drink in the different (although possibly decreasingly so) sights and sounds of The World Out There. But even having travelled around this small corner of Africa for such a short amount of time, it still seems so important to always keep in your mind the contexts and juxtapositions which surround you. For every sight you see, you must cast your mind around to see how it fits into the narrative of the place you’re visiting. You can open your eyes, look, and see stuff, but you must do more to understand it. When you’re travelling on a sealed tarmac road in a well- developed town, or on a rutted dirt track in a ramshackle slum, you should ask, “Why are they different?” When you’ve forked out to trundle around some national reserve, you might see a pack of lions being photographed by hoardes of tourists on luxury tours, or a solitary elephant in a sparsely populated reserve, and you should ask, “Why are they different?” For everywhere, on every street, on every building, on each face that you pass by, are written the signs of history. And if you don’t see them, you’re not seeing anything at all.

Till next time,

Linda and Andy

Ps many thanks to Graham and Flo for visiting, for bringing us Monster Munch, and for taking a load of stuff home with them.

Posted April 7, 2011 by Andy in All Posts, Uganda 1

Uganda 1: Tuesday 22nd March   Leave a comment

 

 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to our second Ugandan installment. We’re actually using a laptop in our hut (yes! Isn’t this wireless technology stuff brilliant?) and are therefore able to provide you with a straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth update of our time here in Ruhanga. It’s been a while since our last post, we know, but we wanted to wait until we had a fair amount of stuff to report before we published this next bit of the blog.

And the last two weeks have been quite interesting, really. I mean, there was the music video Linda was in, the nightclub where we danced on stage for money, the engagement party where we sat doing nothing for four hours, the funeral of the man across the road featuring the world’s angriest pastor, the total reorganisation of the project we’ve helped to start undertaking, and of course the bike ride of doom. So it’s quite hard to know where to begin.

Outside Uganda Lodge

Actually, it isn’t at all. You want to know about the music video, don’t you? Well, to cut a reasonably long story reasonably short, some of the volunteer girls were in town a couple of weeks ago and bumped into a local music producer, Junior, a.k.a. the coolest man in Western Uganda. He told them that he was shooting a video for a record his sister Aisha Tash had just released in Rwanda. And yes, we know it sounds like your typical African tall tale designed to get Westerners to part with some cash, but in this case it was actually true. But just to make sure they asked him to come and play the CD here at the Lodge and, once they were confident, they started to learn some dance moves for the shoot.

Since there was dancing involved, Junior had little trouble convincing Linda and fellow volunteer Vicky to join the troupe, and the following day -a Tuesday- they drove up to Mbarara (a city about 50km north of the Lodge) to film their parts of the video. Actually they drove quite a bit past Mbarara and eventually stopped at a small tumbledown shack. Thoughts did turn to kidnap/murder, but it turned out to be no more than some suspect -but not atypical- Ugandan navigation. After finally arriving at the venue, the ultra-posh Lakeview Resort Hotel, dontchaknow, the girls changed into their traditional Rwandan costumes (think long flowy toga-type things) and started doing the traditional Rwandan dance they’d learnt (think side-to-side stepping action with some wiggly arm movements). They did some of the shoot in the hotel, some in the gardens, and after a couple more costume changes, went out into the streets of Mbarara to do some more filming. Eventually they got back to the hotel and indulged in some grim (but cheap) local wine. Incidentally (and we don’t imagine it’s been a massive hit in the UK) the song they danced to is actually okay, but anything played twenty times in a row starts to grind after a while.

Fame at last: Video models Linda; Lex; Vicky; Aisha; Beth

So after they all finished filming the video, Junior drove the girls back to the Lodge where they got changed, picked up the boys, and headed into Ntungamo to the best nitespot in town. In fact thinking about it it’s the only nitespot in town, but either way it was to be our first taste of rural Ugandan nightlife, something we don’t suppose many of you will have sampled. So we paid our 80p to get into the Sal Guesthouse Bar and Restaurant and were shown to our front row seats. It was a bit odd, actually. For a start, it was outdoors, and to get to the club bit we had to walk through the small bar, up some steps, and out onto a large terrace liberally covered by plastic chairs. These were mainly occupied by the local glitterati (ok, by any local people who could afford 80p for a night out, which is actually about a day’s wage) and we proved something of an attraction/object of completely uninhibited ridicule. Admittedly, it’s probably not every day that 10 very white and very dolled up Brits wander into their bar, and apparently we were quite conspicuous, but we held our heads high, took our chairs and ordered our drinks as if getting legless in an al-fresco Ugandan speakeasy was no more than second nature.

So a succession of club singers came out and sang along to high-energy Bugandan backing tracks, sometimes accompanied by amazingly athletic dancers, sometimes accompanied by amazingly drunk patrons. You see, you’re allowed to dance on stage if you tip the singers or dancers, which can result in some embarrassment, albeit extremely entertaining embarrassment, but if you’re too far gone the bouncers will eventually come and encourage you off stage. And this happened quite a lot, especially to the bloke in the grey suit jacket which was at least six sizes too big for him. Anyway, after a while it was Aisha’s turn to sing her songs, and she was mainly accompanied by some giggly white girls doing a kind of funny twirly dance, someof whom were generously tipped by a steady stream of slightly unsteady Ugandan males. Linda made an impressive sounding 800 Shillings (a slightly less impressive 25p), although fellow volunteer Tamara did manage to top the 1000 Shilling mark. And after that the night took on a more familiar bingey feel, with premium beer and gin competitively priced at 60p a bottle. We danced well into the wee hours, and although it was a quality night we felt a bit naughty because we know teachers never go out and get squiffy on a school night. Right?

On the tiles: Linda; Vicky; Dan; Andy

Last week we had another nice night, this time courtesy of our friend George. Now George is a top man: he’s the headteacher of the nearby secondary school, the secretary of the Community Based Organisation which oversees all the work this project does, and an (unsuccessful) candidate for the opposition party in the recent local elections. At the same time he lets rooms in his house to travellers, works as an educational consultant, and generally comes over to help us find our feet in all things school- and community-related. So the other day he invited all the volunteers over to his school to have a look around, and later to his house (which was really quite nice) for some genuine Ugandan grub. After we arrived at his place (it’s about a fifteen minute walk) and having obviously been shown his new fishpond, we went over to the school and met the sixty or so students there. It’s a secondary school: very new, only half-built, and still in its early stages of growing. And after George introduced us to all the children they performed some traditional songs and dances for us. It has to be said, we will simply never get bored of listening to and watching African choirs, and they’ll certainly be something we’ll miss when we head back to Britain.

Team College Choir

So once they’d finished we wandered up the hill to his house and met his family (including his ancient mother). They made us tea and chatted to us round a camp fire, and then insisted -as Africans do- that we stay for dinner. We were worried that there might not be enough food, but one day we’ll learn that that simply will never be the case on this continent. In fact, he proceeded to put on one of the largest buffets we’ve ever seen, and it had some really nice stuff in it. It might not have looked or even smelt very nice (there was all manner of stodge and gunge piled onto plates), but it really was one of the tastiest meals we’ve had since we’ve been in Africa (especially the chocolate bananas). So we sat and talked more, and George helped us formulate some of the ideas we’ve had about establishing a proper teacher-volunteer programme here, of which more later. But in any case it was really nice to get out of the Lodge and go and meet some villagers.

Which we did again a couple of days ago when we were invited to a local funeral. In fact, it couldn’t have been much more local as it took place opposite the front gates of the Lodge, and it was actually the funeral of the man who lives across the road. He was killed last Thursday night in a high speed car crash just a few hundred metres down the road. As we’ve pointed out again and again, African driving is amongst the worst in the world, and it seems that almost as soon as they get in a motor vehicle they seem to lose all perspective: they are aggressive, they are ignorant, and they really don’t seem to value human life very highly. This accident was no different: an extremely large and by all accounts extremely overloaded truck was driving down hill in the middle of the road and, because you have to be so macho when you’re driving here, refused to move over as it approached the small car our neighbour was in. As a result, with steep earth banks on either side, the car had nowhere to go and was crushed by the lorry. The only surprising thing is that two of the passengers survived, although one of them is still comatose in hospital. The driver and our neighbour both died. Perhaps even worse than that, there is no recrimination whatsoever for the lorry driver who was not injured and whose vehicle was virtually undamaged. Not entirely by coincidence his boss is a big cheese up in Kampala.

The funeral went on for three days. Or rather, someone played really loud music non-stop for 72 hours across the road. The middle day was the actual day of the burial, and unfortunately it was probably the wettest day we’ve experienced in the seven months we’ve been out here. It really chucked it down, and it didn’t let off at all, but that didn’t prevent more than 1000 guests from turning up. Yes, 1000. Over here it’s custom to attend the funeral of anyone who lives in your community. So while we might find it odd if everyone from our town turned up to our funeral, even though we don’t know 99% of them, here its the done thing. It’s the ultimate mark of respect for the individual and their family, and the invitation extends to anyone living nearby, even temporary volunteers. And when you factor in all the extended family who return from all over the country, you end up with some pretty big gatherings. Consequently, everyone who attends must make a small contribution towards feeding the hundreds who turn up, and nearby friends and relatives lend furniture, crockery, etc to help with the preparations. It’s a lovely communal event, and because of the way society is structured here -where family is at its heart- the older the person is the more people will attend. So you don’t get those heartbreaking services for elderly folk where nobody turns up. In fact, we’ve heard of funerals where more than 2500 guests have attended.

At this particular funeral there were lots of speeches, quite a lot of shouting by the pastor, and a fair bit of standing around getting wet. Probably because of the circumstances it was perhaps more subdued that we’d imagined, although there seemed to be a good amount of drinking going on each night. It seems that the men who died were popular -one of them was high up in the local agricultural union- so it was a very busy, and very sad occasion. It also turns out that his two daughters attend the project’s Primary School, and thanks to the total lack of a welfare system in Uganda they will now undoubtedly face a lifetime of struggle. But hey, the lorry driver didn’t lose face by giving way to a small car, so everything’s alright.

On a happier note, we were invited (on the same day) to a local engagement party. Well, we say engagement party because that’s probably the closest translation of what it was, but it’s hard to describe exactly what it was. From what we can gather, the carpenter who works here at the Lodge recently chose a young girl to be his new wife, invited her to come and see where he lives, and then everyone he knows went round to his house to look at her. We got there at about 8pm and were welcomed by his friends and family who led us to our front row seats. Again, it almost defies explanation, but we sat in rows of plastic chairs underneath a hessian awning, in an arrangement somewhat akin to a catwalk parade. The MC (one of the teachers from the school) then talked us through what the programme would be for the rest of the evening. In fact he talked through the programme about fifteen times during the course of the night, but he seemed to enjoy being on the mic so we didn’t mind (much). Said programme included trying a traditional apperitif, eating ‘local’ food, drinking beer, listening to some speeches, and finally watching some entertainment.

Which as it turned out wasn’t strictly accurate. Yes, we had to drink the world’s most horrble porridgey drink which looked like chocolate milkshake but tasted like cut turf and vinegar. And yes, we went into the groom Mandev’s house and ate some boiled goat and rice which tasted of paraffin (vegetarian option: a tomato). And yes, we had some rice & barley beer (6.5% by volume!) which tasted unlike any beer known to man. And yes we listened to a speech courtesy of an extremely short and extremely drunk man in a shiny hat who was supposed to introduce us but ‘wasn’t allowed’ (/couldn’t) because he ‘wasn’t invited’ (/was out of his box). But the rest of the four hours was spent sitting down looking at the happy couple and their unbelievably miserable entourage. In fact, the bride-to-be didn’t look too happy either, but we’re told that this is the local custom. It’s a mark of respect, apparently, to sit and pretend to look mardy for ages and not say a word to anyone, although it must be said that she was particularly convincing. Anyone less informed might think that she wasn’t especially thrilled about getting engaged to a one-eyed drunk three times her age. But as they say, you can’t choose who you fall in love with. Well, not if your marriage is arranged, you can’t.

When we are in the Lodge we’ve been quite busy these last two weeks. As we’ve mentioned before, the school has admitted new pupils so quickly that the pace of enrolment has kind of overtaken the co-ordination and administration, such as it was, that was in place. So something we as a group of volunteers (there’s ten of us here at the moment) have been trying to do, then, is to put in place all those tedious but essential things an organisation needs. We (Linda and Andy) have kind of taken charge of co-ordinating what is in place for volunteers to do, be it in the school or the wider community, because in the same way as the school has grown there are now many more volunteers coming here than there have been previously, and the challenge is trying to find them all something useful and/or interesting to do. Presently, there isn’t a particularly clear structure or programme that they can refer to which can help them get the most out of their stay.

Now, none of this is to say that it’s not worth coming here or there isn’t a need for volunteers here. But rather we’re trying to find a way of using the volunteers’ time and skills most effectively, and ensuring that they, the teaching staff, the school children, and the community are benefitting from everybody’s stay here. In fact all it is is an exercise in communication: we ask the teachers what they need; then we ask the volunteers what they’d like to do; we find other links around the neighbouring area; and we put it all together in a framework. The idea is that volunteers can bring whatever they want to the project, but that when they get here there is some way of  directing whateverit is they bring. And that’s someting that has perhaps been lacking since the project has transformed from a much smaller scale, much less busy place.

But if we’re not organising meetings, doing training days for the teachers, and interviewing volunteers (because obviously we know exactly what we’re talking about after, ooh, all 200 days of being in Africa), there’s lots of other stuff to begetting on with. In school, we’re helping in class, making resources for teachers, fitting windows, and building see-saws. Elsewhere, we might be building roofs, driving to Ntungamo to pick up supplies, or taking children to hospital who have fallen off our playground equipment (oops!).

The see-saw builders: Andy; Vicky; Linda; Dan

So we’re busy, and it’s good because we wanted to get our teeth into something here. But there’s a lot of work to do, and it’s tough because the things we and the other volunteers are trying to put in place are very unlikely to be completely up-and-running and making a discernable difference while we’re actually here. But as we’ve said before, being a volunteer isn’t about instant returns; it’s about investing your time for somone’s future benefit. Mind you, having said that we’re hoping to start work on a new classroom later this week, so there may be something tangible to take stock of in nine weeks time.

The classroom builders: Francis; Dan; Andy

So that’s it for this entry. It’s been much more of a doing fortnight than a thinking about stuff fortnight, and as we said, it feels good to be busy. Hopefully over the coming weeks we’ll get to grips a bit more with Uganda and our surrounding area. Right now, there’s much to do around our immediate vicinity. Volunteers are coming and going all the time, and friendships are being made all the time, too. It’s a nice place to be, despite its challenges, and we feel like we’ve settled in well. Next week we have the first of our visitors, so we’re really looking forward to that. Until then, we’re just going to keep on working hard and hope that the things we do are of some benefit, however far down the line that might be.

Kare kare from Uganda

Andy and Linda

Ps Yes, we know we promised the bike story at the start, and if you really must know Andy went for a long bike ride, got a puncture and then had to walk 7 miles home. In the middle of the day. When it was about 35 degrees. Up hill. He doesn’t really want to talk about it.

 Pps for those of you who enjoy writing to people in the middle of Equitorial Africa, there is good news. We have an address. But (and as much as we’ve loved receiving everything that’s been sent from home) we should probably advise against sending packets or parcels. Each one has ended up costing an extortionate amount of money -in addition to what it costs you lot to send it- and a couple have gone missing, too. But letters are very welcome, so please send any correspondence to: Linda O’Sullivan and Andrew Knight; c/o Denis Aheirwe; Uganda Lodge; PO Box 368; Ntungamo; Uganda.

Posted March 22, 2011 by Andy in All Posts, Uganda 1

Uganda 1: Sunday March 6th   1 comment

So, you’re very welcome to our first post from Uganda. We’ve actually been here for a little while now, but we wanted to collect our thoughts a bit before we committed them to this blog. In fact, we arrived in Kampala (after a bus journey featuring surely the greatest number of interruptions by traffic police/the Ugandan army in history, making us nearly three hours late) last Saturday and after spending two nights at a hotel and doing a bit of sightseeing (kind of) we got a lift down to the project in Ruhanga with the guy who founded it.

So we’ve been here a week and have now probably seen and heard enough to expand on our initial impressions, and give you some kind of idea of what volunteering here is going to be like. And, again, it’s shaping up to be less straightforward than we might have first thought. But before we get into that, we need to tell you about where we are and what we’ve been up to.

Accommodation:

Well, we’re living at Uganda Lodge (a.k.a. the Ruhanga Resource Centre), which serves partly as accommodation for volunteers, and partly as a place where local people can come to learn some skills. For example, there’s a computer room, a sewing room, and a large room for showing educational DVDs etc. Mind you, since we’ve been there we haven’t seen much in the way of participation, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t happen. Anyway, the lodge grounds contain a number of bedrooms, some in the main block (which also has a bar) and some dotted around elsewhere. We’re quartered in a small banda (what you would call a hut) close to the entrance to the Lodge and handily placed for the aforementioned bar (a coincidence, we can assure you). We have our own shower, a couple of bits of furniture, and the bogs (squatting long drops again, but this time without giant mutant insects) are just behind the hut. There are also a handful of open bandas around the site which serve as places to sit and relax and to eat communal lunches and dinners.

Our banda

People:

We say communal because, unlike our last project, we have a few other volunteers working with us. At the moment, although there are almost constant comings and goings, the number is hovering around the 10 mark, all Brits and -with one exception- all female. So it’s quite a different experience, as you can imagine. In some ways it’s nice being the only Europeans in an entire district, but it’s comforting having other English voices around us, although of course it makes volunteering an entirely different proposition altogether. Fortunately, they’re all very nice, and we all get on extremely well.

Back row: Dennis; Linda; Andy; Bethany; Natasha; Aneta; Front row: Man whose boat we borrowed; Barbara

School:

We’ve also started working at the nearby school which belongs to the project. It’s funded entirely by sponsorship and donations, so doesn’t receive any money from the Ugandan government. There are seven classes (and astonishingly for East Africa seven teachers, too): five in the Nursery (three Baby Classes, a Middle Class and a Top Class) and two in the Primary school, P1 and P2. The idea is that as each class graduates to the next level a new classroom is built. However, it’s going through something of a transition stage at the moment because it’s recently grown beyond all expectation: last Easter there were around 30 children at the school; currently there are more than 240. As a result, some of the classrooms are only half finished: building work can only go on when money becomes available, and if fundraising is running low there simply isn’t enough money to complete them. At the moment the two Primary classes are being taught in buildings without windows and doors, and unfinished flooring. However, we think this is going to change this week, partly thanks to the money raised by you, our friends and family. So, thanks!

Ruhanga Schhol

Work:

We go into school between 8.30am and 4pm, with a break for lunch, but so far we’ve really just been helping the teachers out with a small amount of prep work and marking. We’d like to do more, but we’ve found that (probably as a result of this year’s amazing expansion) there isn’t really a programme in place which can help teachers and volunteers devise a structured plan of work. As a result, we have heard some complaints that there’s not so much for the volunteers to do. So we devised and initiated a project-wide consultation exercise to discuss how we could all work together best. The results were very encouraging, and we’re hoping that in a week’s time, after the children have finished their mid-term tests, there’ll be good deal more communication going on, and some really beneficial work resulting from it.

School playground

We’re also helping to extend the school playground, building two new see-saws and a climbing frame. It remains to bes een what our carpentry skills are like.

Playground construction duty: Vicky, Dan and Andy

 

Weather:

But it’s hard to know what to wear when we’re working: the climate here is extremely changeable. When we get up (usually about 7 or 7.15am) it’s totally freezing, as it usually is at night [remember, we’re living at more than 1500m above sea level]. But by around 9.30am it starts to get really quite hot. The middle of the day is boiling, but there seems to be a pattern that around 4pm a colder, wet front moves in and we get a torrential rainstorm. This usually only lasts about 45 minutes, and then the sun comes out again. By dinner time (7.30pm or so) the temperature starts to drop, and by the time we’ve finished eating we have to adjourn to the camp fire to warm our tootsies and crack open a Nile Special or two. Amusingly, we’ve already had six times as many days of rain as we did in the entire time we were in Kisayani.

Kampala:

So before we came down, we stayed in Kampala for a couple of days, and we think it’s quite different to the other big cities we’ve been to. For a start, it’s actually quite compact. It also seems to be a good deal tidier (or at least, more of it is tidy: there are still some areas containing a quite astonishing amount of rubbish, mud and sewage, especially around the bus ‘stations’, somewhat inauspiciously for travellers arriving into the city). But walking around the streets you get a strong impression that it’s a good deal better developed than, say, Nairobi or Dar-Es-Salaam. And when we say better developed we mean the infrastructure is better, pavements actually exist, the lighting is adequate, and buildings are much better maintained. As a result, it looks like a city which is much better cared for, with busy coffee shops and lively ex-pat restaurants all around. And at least partly thanks to the hundreds of military police and army officials who hang around the streets, despite their very large automatic rifles, it seems a bit safer, too. And unlike those two aformentioned cities, happily, it’s retained one or two colonial buildings, which provides the visitor with a greater sense of the city’s history. Even better, traffic actually stops at traffic lights, unlike Nairobi, where drivers do whatever they like. So we quite liked it and even though there isn’t a tremendous amount to see, we’re thinking of going back at some point in the next couple of months to have another look.

Landscape

Much, much lovelier than Kampala, though, is the landscape around Ruhanga. It’s very, very green, as you might imagine given the amount of rain it gets, but it’s also very beautiful. Our Lodge sits next to the main North-South road in Uganda, and this road sits in a valley flanked by ranges of hills of the type we’d only previously seen in children’s picture books. They’re ridiculously round, and green, and ludicrously steep, and they remind us of the animated landscapes you used to see on Monty Python. In short, they are exactly what hills should look like, and they provide a wonderful backdrop to the area. We’re also really looking forward to wandering up and down them during our stay here, to try and work off all those chapatis we were gulping down in Kenya.

Hills over Ruhanga

Project:

The project is around six years old. It started out as a kind of highway stopping off point, ostensibly as way of providing local people with employment. Since then, it has grown to include the school and the resource centre, as described above, but despite providing several jobs for local people, it is entirely reliant on the likes of us coming to visit, since none of its activities actually make any money. The only income it gets is from the volunteers’ board and lodgings, and the small individual contributions made to the school by sponsors and donors. Despite all this, the project has started a new initiative to get clean piped water to houses and schools in the surrounding area. So far it’s paid for a survey and the first half of the construction of the gravity-fed pipe, and in six months time, there should be clean tap water at the Lodge and school, with options to add a wider network as and when money becomes available. The area already has electricity, so it’s looking good for the wider development of the Ruhanga area.

Okay, we’d better head back to the Lodge now. It’s only a five minute drive (about 30 minutes by bike) from the little town we’re in called Ntungamo where they have such things as shops and internet cafes. We hope we’ve given you a little flavour of this new chapter in our year away: more blogging and photos to follow.

Linda and Andy

Ps we have a new Ugandan phone number for anyone who’d like to call or text us, It’s +256 700 159 115. Address to follow.

Posted March 6, 2011 by Andy in All Posts, Uganda 1