My most sincere and heartfelt apologies that this is the longest blog post in history. It was originally split into six parts but you are either going to read it all or you are not, so it may as well all be in the one place.
Volunteering in Uganda – Part 1
Landing in Entebbe, it was confirmed that the Irish are welcome in any country in the world – Uganda included. It costs the English thirty pounds to obtain a visa in Uganda and the Americans have to hand over fifty dollars. The Irish? Sure, it’s on the house and have a great stay.
Customs was not so easy to navigate with 11 bags between the 3 us but we made it out without a huge amount of hassle. The men with the guns looked threatening and asked questions (I’m not pitching it at too high a level to say it was exactly like Argo, am I?) The electricity did cut out a number of times plunging the entire airport into darkness and halting the baggage carousel momentarily before continuing where it left off. I was instantly reminded of what happens when you are milking the cows and the electricity goes out and I was happier to be spending my next few days in the slum.
The journey from Entebbe to Kampala was an interesting one, one of the more interesting ones I have had. It took less than ten minutes on the road before I saw my first Guinness billboard which I had a little chuckle at. The one thing I did notice about the journey was that it was quite literally one road all the way from Entebbe to Kampala. The turnoffs were nothing more than my farm road at home. In fact, my farm road would put most of these dirt tracks to shame.
When we reached Kampala, it was rush hour and so we were stuck in pretty heavy traffic. If you envision All-Ireland hurling final day between Galway and Clare pre-M6 in Kinnegad you have a good idea of what traffic was like. Many people turned off their engines to save gas as there was a shortage at the time. The boda boda’s did not have any such issues.
Boda boda’s are by far the best way to get around Kampala. They are essentially one-man taxis that ride around on dirt bikes and carry people on the back. If you need a Boda, one will find you within seconds. If you need more than one Boda, that one Boda will find more Bodas within a few more seconds. With the way they weave in and out of traffic, I am surprised that more wing mirrors are not clipped
After we settled into what would be our home for the next 10 days, a very minimalist hotel by our standards, we were ready to go to the Quarter. We had set off at 5.30 on Sunday morning and it was now 10 on Monday. July 8th will be forever known as the day we lost to travel.
We took a Boda to the Acholi Quarter, which is probably a couple of miles down the road. I should probably mention at this point that we were millionaires. $1 is equal to over 2,500 UGX or Ugandan schillings and a Boda ride to the Quarter (2-3 miles) costs about $0.80. The road to the Quarter is quite good until it turns into a dirt road at one stage and on a dry day (there are many dry days) the dust rises and makes it quite difficult to see (helmets are not something that people tend to wear on Bodas).
Our maiden arrival at the Quarter will forever remind me of the scene in Gladiator where, after killing his father, Caesar rides into Rome “as a conquering hero. But what has he conquered?” We were seen as the heroes who were here to save everyone just because we were these mysterious white people. There was a welcoming party of (maybe) 20 women who proceeded to make as much noise as possible on their home-made drums and sing in their own native tongue. We walked the few hundred yards up the hill behind them, slowly gathering more and more children who were desperate to hold our hands and shout Mzungu at us, a phrase I foolishly accepted to mean “hello”. “Mzungu” in fact means “white person” and so for the next 10-15 minutes, every little, black child who shouted Mzungu at me was greeted with a wave and Mzungu returned. It reminded me quite a bit of Arrested Development and the entire Aunyong situation.
When we made it to the (Project Have Hope sponsored) Community Centre in the Quarter, the real silliness began. The woman had us at the top of the class and proceeded with a barrage of songs of welcome as well as dancing (which we were forced to partake in) and the beating of “drums”. Our adventure had begun.
Volunteering in Uganda – Part 2
When some semblance of calm finally descended over the madness, we were introduced to our hosts Santa and Santina, who may sound just like a really kick ass double act but in truth were two very different people. They showed us around the Quarter. This included the quarry where all of the women worked at one stage, crushing stones with what amounts to a very small hammer, and the houses which varied from mud huts to slightly better made brick houses. Santa and Santina’s houses were little bigger than my bathroom (not big) and did not contain their own bathroom. They consisted of a living room and a bedroom. The living room was the size of a double bed and bedroom was the size of whatever bed was in it. The dividing wall was a sheet that hung across the room. The entire family sleeps in the one bed/bedroom.
When we got back to the Community Centre we were (should read: I was) sweating like a warthog. The winter sun in Africa is like nothing you will ever experience (unless you go to Africa in the winter). For the following couple of hours, we listened to some horrific stories of how the women came to be in the Quarter and exactly why it was necessary for them to flee the north and find a new life in a stone quarry on the outer edges of Kampala.
One of the stories that will stick with me was of one woman whose husband was a teacher. The rebels had surrounded his school and were planning to cut the teachers into little pieces, cook them, and then feed them to the children. What purpose this would serve, I am not entirely sure but such is war. Thankfully the husband along with a number of other teachers managed to escape and that horror was averted, for them at least.
By the time lunch came around, I could barely keep my eyes open much to my shame as, if I had not spent the previous 24 hours travelling, I would have loved to have talked to the women for the rest of the day about their lives and experiences. Sadly my obese eyes got the better of me and we retired back to the Red Chili and slept straight through to the next morning.
I say the next morning but in reality I was awoken every 2-3 hours to the prehistoric tune of a – extensive googling revealed the collective noun to be – flock of menstruating pterodactyl who felt it was their duty to ensure no one got a good nights sleep. Was it not for these bastard birds, I would most likely not have heard the 5am chanting of a Muslim (who, for some reason, I assume was on the side of a hill overlooking the entire city) during his daily ritual salah. It reminded me immediately of the beginning of Black Hawk Down or Tears of the Sun (or pretty much any war film set in pretty much any part of Africa) and I was happy (and cranky) to have experienced it first hand.
Early the next day, we were back in the Quarter again. Our first task was to be students in an Acholi language class. The language is Lua and is not a widely spoken language at all. In fact, were we to venture outside the Quarter, we would have to travel quite a few hours north before we would meet anyone else who speaks it. Nonetheless we were model students and were even forming our own sentences by the end of the class.
Next up, the former-farmer-turned-Home-Depot-garden-associate held a class in the newly-built greenhouse. The women had help getting the greenhouse built and had already had a class in tomato production but were having some problems that needed to be addressed. As with everything throughout the week, the women were organised and well-versed in what they wanted to get out of the class and had all of their questions and inquiries ready. Thankfully I was able to answer most of their questions on the spot and those that required a little research were answered before my time there ended. By the time we had transplanted and fertilized the tomatoes and onions it was lunchtime again.
After lunch and into the evening we held a business workshop, which I left mostly in Christina’s capable hands and took a back seat. This was for all of the women who had started or were in the process of starting up small businesses. When I say small, I mean small. Remember how small I said the houses were? Well some of them double up as workshops, where the women live, work, sell their merchandise, raise their children, and sleep. Many are tailors, hairdressers etc but the main problem we found was that they are all providing competition for each other in an area where people did not have money to spend. This workshop took much longer than expected.
It was made even longer by a 20 minute rain delay, and the fact that as you moved closer to the women, they spoke more softly. I should explain the rain delay. Yes, we were inside and so sheltered from the rain, but we were also under a galvanize roof and the raindrops were the size of your head (not my head because that just wouldn’t be believable).
The rest of the day we spent sorting through the 9 extra bags we had brought over which contained mainly second-hand shoes, along with some second-hand clothes. These were to be sold by the women in the Quarter with all profits going directly back to themselves. By the time all sorting was completed it was time to lock up the Community Centre and go home. We washed up (it was incredibly easy to get very dirty in the Quarter) and went for dinner. I briefly toyed with ordering the goat but decided against it on that night. I did vow that I would taste goat’s meat before the end of the trip as part of my newly-discovered quest to see if there was any meat on earth that I didn’t like. To find out whether I did eventually eat goat meat or not, you will have to read the next installment.
Volunteering in Uganda – Part 3
Wednesday morning was one of observation and learning. It was originally intended to be one of madness and mayhem but wires that had always been straight and separate before somehow got crossed and instead of entering Creamland school on time for break, we were marched straight to the principal’s office. The principal was a kindly man who was also the founder of the school, building it from a tiny plot of barren wasteland to a school that caters for 650 pupils and some 20 teachers. The “road frontage” that the school now owned was leased out to small businesses (and when I say small I mean the-size-of-your-hot-press small and just as dark) which gave them a steady return.
The school has added a classroom steadily to accommodate the new class each year and was also in the middle of building special rooms in which the older students could study while it was dark because in their own houses they would most likely not have the space, comfort, or electricity to achieve such a thing. After we received the tour of the school, and spoke some words of inspiration to the children (“study hard guys”) who found it difficult to understand us, we made the short trek back up to the Quarter.
We were slightly early for our trip around the Quarter with Ayo Jennifer but we bided our time by adding another coat to what would soon be peace tiles but for now were just slabs of wood painted blue. When Jennifer arrived, we set off. Jennifer is one of the many success stories of PHH, having taken a loan to buy a boda boda, she now owns two, has a job (which she would be showing us that morning) and had quite a big house (by Acholi Quarter standards). Her job was Reach Out Counselor in the Quarter. Reach Out is an organisation that works with women who suffer from AIDS and HIV. Jennifer herself is HIV positive and goes around to each woman every day to talk to them about their illness.
For our benefit we were told all of the back stories by the women, how they came to have it, if their husbands left them or died, if/how many of their children were infected, how they were coping with it. I won’t go into any more detail but suffice it to say it got quite emotional for some of the women and we ourselves found it quite difficult to listen to or fully comprehend, even though we knew we would be taking this tour for a number of weeks. What struck me was how strong Jennifer was through it all, knowing that she too is infected.When this was over we took some time to take it all in and take stock of our own lives and our own problems as people tend to do in these situations before settling down to lunch again. The rest of the evening was taken up with the arduous task of painting Mama Oyet’s house. There was a big drum of paint and some rollers and brushes as we set off. As usual, the women had their own way of doing things and set about watering down the paint. As we applied the first coat we realized they hadn’t quite got the mix right. In fact, if we lined up all of the men of the Quarter (who were out drinking their 100 schilling sachets of vodka) inside Mama Oyet’s house and told them it was a pissing contest, we would have less semi-yellow liquid flowing down the walls to the floor. They added more paint followed by more water which marginally improved the situation and we soldiered on, desperately attempting to avoid the backsplash from our drowning rollers.
It took several hours of “painting” and waiting for the water to evaporate off the walls before applying another coat until it was done. By that time it was getting dark and time to head out of the Quarter for another day. We were left with a lot to think about from the day, from the relative success of the school and its very high hopes for the future, to the low that was the number of women with HIV/AIDS. Yet, we could find positives in this too in that the women were clearly drawing strength from Jennifer, and the medicine and other aid they were receiving from Reach Out was helping them live a somewhat easier life.
Volunteering in Uganda – Part 4
Thursday was only our fourth day in a row in the Quarter and yet as we trudged up the long hill to the Community Centre, we could not help but feel a little burned out already. The women had been making us feel most welcome, shared a meal with us every day, and asked lots of questions, and yet we still both felt like we could use some time away from the Quarter. The sights, sounds, and smells were no longer new to us and we had seen a lot of heartbreak the day before. While we came away from it with a positive message overall, when we stepped back and saw the bigger picture, it all seemed somewhat futile and pointless. There were women dying with HIV and AIDS, many more unable to keep themselves or their children fed and meanwhile most of the men sit around gambling and drinking. Many of these people would never leave the Quarter nor would their children, who would be confined to working in the stone quarry for the rest of their lives and continuing this horrendous circle.
That morning the women were taking a solar cooking class which was a positive step. In order for the solar cooking to work, it required a one-off expense but would save a lot of money in the long-run. The picture will explain it better than I can but basically all you need is the hot African sun, a reflective plate, an air-filled plastic bag, and a pot. The women were very ambitious in what they tried to cook as the sun wasn’t very hot on this particular day, but they were very excited at the prospect of cake which overtook their sense of reason. Sadly it began to rain about an hour later and the cakes were ruined but the stew along with a few other dishes were able to be saved (and were promptly eaten for lunch).
In addition to the solar cooking utensils described above, the women who participated in the class also received a fireless bag which was essentially the same as a crock pot or Thermos in that it would cook/keep food warm for up to eight hours, saving the women time and fuel cost.
After lunch that day, we left the Quarter and traveled 20 minutes across town to the Uganda Child Cancer Foundation. We knew very little other than we were to play with the children for a couple of hours. We met with the founder who explained his work and gave us a detailed account of UCCF’s mission. He told us a lot of the children were not feeling up to playing today but that he hoped there would be a few of them. We had some airplanes and beach balls, twirlers and crayons. The children were slow to react at first, until the saw the amount of fun the biggest child of all was having and tentatively joined in.
The first two children who introduced themselves were Angel and Peace and that was heartbreaking all on it’s own.
After a couple of hours of playing the little children with cancer were still going strong and I was in a heap on the ground, but I felt good because of how happy all of these children were. It was amazing how excited they got over tipping a beach ball over and back, having their name written on an airplane, or getting their picture taken. After Christina had given the founder a class in hashtags and tweeting, we set off leaving the children to get some rest.
The moment during this visit that got me thinking was when Karen recognized one of the children from a previous visit and she said it was a really positive thing to recognize kids on different visits because it meant that they were still fighting. It was a pretty sobering thought that, were we to return in 6 months, many if not most of these children who were so full of life and had so much to give, would be dead. This was what occupied my mind on the walk down the hill away from UCCF and on the Boda ride home. I was pretty depressed for the rest of the evening, wondering how Ped-Onc nurses could cope going through this every day and thinking of the poor parents. Then I cursed myself for making this all about myself.
Later on, after much mulling over the day, I realized that while this was all tragically sad, there were so many positives to be taken away. Over the past two days I had seen a lot of heartbreak, a lot of things that would make any one question “What the fuck is the point?” How are you supposed to improve the lives of people here when there is so much misery, death, and poverty. And yet where was the misery?
Through all of this I saw almost no one feeling hard done by. Most of the women in the Quarter were happy all of the time, loved to laugh and just got on with their lives in a positive way. Most who had been handed opportunities by PHH or others, grabbed them with both hands and tried to improve their lives and the lives of their children. The children at UCCF were all happy and their lives were improved (and hopefully lengthened) by being there and having access to medicine, doctors, and their parents.
All of these people were dealing with the hand they were dealt and were so grateful for any help that they received and any improvement that was made in their lives, that it almost made them burst with joy when asked about it. I felt stupid for not realizing it and would come to realize it more over the next couple of days. I had been thinking that there was no point, there was too many people to help, but we don’t need to help everyone. We thought we were seeing the bigger picture earlier, but we obviously hadn’t stepped back far enough. Every person who starts a new life outside the Quarter or improves their life inside is a success story and it’s people like Alex in the Creamland school, Ben in UCCF, Jennifer in Reach Out, and Karen with PHH that are driving this success and inspiring those around them to be better. They were perfect examples of what one man (or woman) can do. I came away from two quite challenging and thought provoking days feeling positive.
Volunteering in Uganda – Part 5
Friday began at a much more leisurely pace. Ayaa Grace had told us that we would be going to Entebbe (the town with the airport) to meet one of the success stories of PHH and see just how well she was doing having made it out of the Quarter. We were told she had made some money selling second-hand clothes and was now growing some vegetables to sell for market. We assumed this to mean that she had a small plot of arable land, behind a lean-to shack, close to the road, where she grew a small amount of vegetables in order to feed her family and sustain a living. Where we were actually brought was miles away from civilisation, so far in fact that we were so deep into the unknown that there was a new multi-million dollar hotel on the hill overlooking the farm where we were. The hotel, as part of it’s massive plan to attract tourists to the area had begun reclaiming land from the lake (or possibly extending the lake closer to the land) and were in the process of servicing it with a man-made beach which was a shame for such a beautiful, untouched area.
At the farmhouse, we first saw some naked children running around which was nothing new. We met Akumu Olga and made our way into the house, being careful to shed ourselves of our footwear before doing so. This was a redundant move considering this was not the house the family lived in, and there was so much shit smeared on the walls it resembled the H blocks of the Maze prison circa 1970. The only warm-blooded inhabitants of the house were two hens who spent all of their time being chased around by the children. Olga did not speak any english and so Grace had to translate. To be polite, we had to look at her as she spoke even though we had absolutely no idea what she may have been saying until she stopped speaking and Grace translated. It was in this time of staring blankly at her that I realised just how like Dwight Yorke she looked.
We went out to take a look at her farm. It was a solid 6 acres of land mainly covered in corn (in no discernible pattern) and there was also some potatoes and some other distinctly Ugandan vegetables. The most interesting thing I found was that the land was owned by an absentee landlord who didn’t look after it and when she came back to visit, found that a number of houses had been built on the land. She had to pay these people off to leave their houses and then employ someone to look after her land full time so that no one stole or started building houses on it.
We took some pictures, asked some questions and explored the area a little before heading back on the hour drive to the Quarter. The rest of the day was spent trekking around the Quarter interviewing the women about their experience with PHH, how it had helped them personally and professionally. The thing I liked most about this was that, while a lot of the women spoke broken-to-no english, the light in their eyes as they spoke about Karen and Project Have Hope could have lit their houses. It didn’t matter that we didn’t understand what they were saying (we had Santina to translate, obviously), the excitement and genuine gratitude and indebtedness they felt towards PHH was the kind of thing that transcends the language barrier.
That night (being the night before our last day in the Quarter) we went out “on the town”. It was a somewhat different experience to being out in Galway. For a start, you couldn’t really ask the taxi driver if they were busy tonight as you were hurtling down a badly paved street on the back on a motorbike in the pitch dark on the wrong side of the road. And the driver didn’t speak very good english. We went to dinner with a rag bag of people Karen had picked up during her time in Uganda and had some fun. By 11 we were considering heading home as we had many screaming children to deal with the following day but we were convinced to go to “Bubbles”.
Arriving at Bubbles having been told nothing about it, I had to laugh. It was a pub/outdoor club, an Irish one. The full title Bubbles O’Leary’s promised “craic agus ceoil” and “no better buachaill”. As is typical with all Irish bars, there was not one Irish person working in the bar nor was there any semblance of Irishness other than the name of the place and some choice Irish phrases. My favourite of these appeared on the T shirts of the bar staff. Behind the bar were 5 short, bald Ugandan men in matching Bubbles O’Leary t-shirts with the words “craic dealer” proudly emblazoned across their backs. There was a sixth barman there with a different shirt on, proclaiming that he was a “feckin’ eejit”. It was just one of those bizarre moments when you don’t know what to do but laugh. I spent the rest of the night talking to a Rwandan woman about genocide and her country’s attempts at rebuilding and went home at a respectable time as we had a lot of work to do the next day.
Volunteering in Uganda – Part 6
Saturday morning was another early one and there was a huge amount to be done. Most of the children lucky enough to have their school fees paid for them were away at school all week, so there was obviously much more activity considering it was Saturday morning. The children taking part in the peace tile workshop all knew in advance that it was happening and so the place was a hive of activity, paint and chaos. We went inside and set up. The peace tiles were just simple squares of wood painted blue and given to the children to draw whatever they wanted on them. Then we would stick an inspiring quote on each and the children would go to have their picture taken with their tile so we’d know who drew what. The pace at which they churned out tiles was ferocious as they knew there was only a certain amount of tiles and each child wanted as many chances as possible.
When the mayhem abated and the clean up was well and truly underway, the children were still screaming for attention outside, more energized than we thought they would be after their activity. At this point, the football and bubbles came out and the decibel level rose massively. In the same way as it went down at UCCF days earlier, I was almost as excited as the children. The “mzungu” was highly sought after for a game of soccer that followed given that he was at least a foot taller and more than 10 years older than anyone else playing. For this reason I dominated.
It was only after a couple of hours, when the older kids came to ruin the game that I made my exit back to the community centre to see what was happening up there. By older kids I, of course, mean 14 year olds who were taller, faster, fitter and more athletic than me so it was my cue to leave.
When I managed to drag myself back up the hill, Christina had begun giving gifts to the children from their sponsors and taking video of it so that the children could thank them personally. Another way they do this is by writing letters to their sponsors, which they needed help with. I assumed it would be us doing most of the writing or dictating of these letters but was pleasantly surprised that we were only there to help with spelling or if the children were having trouble expressing themselves. By the time all of the letters were written and the children were somewhat burnt out from their activities, it was time for lunch.
After lunch we had to take a quick spin around the Quarter to tie up all of our loose ends which began with the final round of interviews which, as always, was a joy to listen to although the women were often nervous having two mzungus come into their home and ask them questions. When this was finished we needed to give our gifts to our hosts, Santa and Santina, who were very excited to receive them. The final gift we had to give was to Mama Oyet who was seen as the Queen of the Quarter. She was another success story but rather a self-made one who worked hard along with her husband so they were well-respected in their community. Mama Oyet was delighted with her present and with how her paint job came out. She insisted we stay for “one-one” which we knew to mean a beer.
This presented us with a number of problems. One being that we really didn’t have time to stay there, another being that Mama Oyet would insist on buying the beer and the final one being that we knew she was going to buy the beers in the Quarter meaning that they were going to be warmer than a bottle of piss left out in the sun. So there we sat in a hut at the top of a hill in a slum outside the biggest city in Uganda and waited for our host to come back with a warm, locally brewed beer. We shot the breeze for half an hour and mid-way through as Mama Oyet left the room to find something, I swapped my near empty bottle for Christina’s almost full one so that we would make it out before the day was over.
We made our way to the community centre for the last time and, as with our first day in the Quarter, the drums came out and the shrill ay-ay-ay-ay-ay calls drew onlookers from around the Quarter. We got an escort down the hill from some of the women and said our goodbyes, making promises that we would return in the near future. Usually people say they leave places with heavy hearts. This should have been one of those times but it wasn’t. The women of the Quarter are exceptional and are making the most of the help they are receiving, for the most part. Obviously there are some who are not taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to them, but the majority are and thrive because of it. The community is so close knit, well defined and ready for growth that it was hard to leave with anything other than hope in your heart, knowing that by the time their grandchildren are of age, they would be in a far better position.
Footnote: I did try goat on this trip. Twice. The first time was in a curry type dish at a somewhat classy restaurant and it was disgusting and fatty. The second was when we pulled onto the side of a road at a market and people ran at us, sticking skewered goat in the window and dropping the grease all over the car. That goat was delicious.