The Final Entry

Thursday 24th September

And all too soon we come to my last report from Uganda !

We have had an interesting week. We visited all our major project partners, took final photos, said our final goodbyes – and then they visited us and said their final goodbyes. This is because we invited them to a presentation evening – we have working with 10 different organisations and many of their personnel had not met their counterparts before. So it enabled them to meet each other and see what else we have been doing.

Showing a digital slide/video show is always a challenge in Uganda. This is because it needs electricity. As it happened there was no shortage of it last night – from the sky – the voltage was a bit high though and lightening blew power lines and transformers and even the 13 amp fuses in my bedroom. The rain was so heavy we could not hear each other and, for a while, 25 people sat in a room in silence listening to the storm. In the end it calmed down, the hotel started a generator and the show carried on.

Then we had the clearing and packing up to do. Fortunately, we are able to leave our main supplies in Kumi so we do not have to carry everything home. Guitars, printers, tools, paint, trowels and scrapers are all listed and put away for next year.

Today we drove, for the last time, the road from Kumi to Entebbe. Seven hours and two hundred miles again. I am starting to memorise the major landmarks in order now, Mount Elgon range, the Kyoga swamp, the rice fields, sugar cane plantations, tea fields, the Nile crossing, Mbira Forest and then the endless suburbs and industrial estates of Kampala. It felt like saying goodbye to old friends for we have done this trip ten times.

Kampala is always a rich source of amusing signs. Today we found “Glasses – free fitting and delivery” “Poison Care Pharmacy” ”Elderly Cattle Rearing Project” “Executive coffins” and what must be the only Chinese cut-out police officer in Uganda “Photocop Ying”

But to finish I must tell you about “Paradise View Restaurant.” Two days ago, whilst traveling in the Kumi area with one of our project partners, he said he would take us to the best restaurant in Ngora, a small town near Kumi. “It is good” he said “it is where all the government officials eat.” Even after three months in Uganda “the best restaurant in town” conjures up an image of, say, a smartish appearance, clean tables, helpful staff, a good menu and, with a name like that, you expect a good view.

Not a bit of it! Here it is:IMGP5480

The restaurant was a dilapidated shack down a weedy track; the kitchen made of corrugated iron, the dining room was some more iron on four poles, the floor contained large holes to fall into, the table wonky and the chairs cheap bendy plastic. And no view at all except a similar house next door.

However, the food was amazing. (No menu – you just ask “what have you got today?” and the usual reply is “goat, chicken, rice, fish and veg) but it was so well cooked and flavoured with sauces. After a while we came to realise that the view of paradise was the view of the food on our plates.

In a way, this epitomises Uganda. No effort is made to dress anything up. It is all honest and functional. If you have a good name for food up a back street, you don’t need to pretty up your establishment. If you want a good meal, that is what you get – without any trimmings.

Uganda and Ugandans are very straightforward. They have very little money and see no point in wasting it on a tin of paint or a bag of cement. You don’t need running water if there is a bucket. You don’t need electric light if there is a candle. But they will be honourable, friendly and straightforward in their dealings with you.

They will be content with their view of paradise, even if it is only on the plate in front of them. They may not eat as well for weeks.

Many thanks for following this blog and your comments. I have enjoyed writing it as it puts things in perspective for me and, I hope, has given you an idea of what inspiring and amusing place Uganda is.

Roger

Banana Village, Entebbe, 8.30 pm, whilst the cicadas are tuning-up outside

And goodbye from some of my little friends as well:IMGP5496 (2)

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Ditches and Dropouts

Monday 15th September

I am now back home in Kumi. I have tended to think of Green Top Hotel as “Home” for the last three months – it is, at least, the place where I dump my stuff more than anywhere else. I doubt if it would get any star rating in the UK but it is comfortable, the food is OK and there is a shady tree to sit under.

Ugandans have many uses for ditches. Rain here is a sudden torrential thing and a good ditch is five feet deep and twenty feet across to cope with flash floods. You see cars in ditches sometimes because they have run off the road but also because the owner wants to wash his car and he drives it gently in. Motor bikes are easier to ride in for a wash. People collect water from ditches for household use including, sadly, for drinking. Others wash their clothes in ditches and children go swimming in them.

Yesterday I saw a new use for a ditch – lots of people were gathered round in bright clothes; some standing in ditch water and others on the road. There was a church minister next to the water and he was holding a bundle in his arms – yes – you have guessed correctly,   it was a baby’s christening!

Water is so scarce a commodity here that you do not give up a good ditch christening opportunity. To be fair, the ditch had moving water so they could pretend that it was a river. But I doubt if many babies are christened in facilities provided by the Ugandan National Roads Authority.

We are in “close down” week, which means writing reports, putting things away, saying goodbyes and distributing remaining aid and donated money. We took our last look at “our” new classroom which is nearly finished. IMGP5479The children are due to be taught in it in two weeks’ time. We have also provided them with enough desks for 32 children, each double desk beautifully made locally from local timber at a cost of £24. The cost was donated by our volunteers.

There is a road sign near here which reads “Many Humps Ahead.” This is a warning about speed humps but it could easily be a life message. The life of the average Ugandan is full of many humps to be overcome. From poverty, they cope with lack of health care, inadequate food, poor or no education, untreated illnesses, no career opportunities and the prospect of an early death. Yet, they remain content, work hard, enjoy life, marry and have lots of children. Humps are to be driven over slowly whilst you keep smiling.

I went to inspect three cows today, donated by some of our volunteers to provide an income generating scheme for a local orphanage. They are half Friesian and half a local breed called Zebu. This means they produce lots of milk whilst eating poor quality grass. They cost about £200 each and, as they are all in calf, the orphanage will have a small herd in six months’ time. They will be providing milk for 32 children and selling the surplus.IMGP5490

To finish with, how about this sign on a building “School Dropout Support Surgery”   I guess it is our equivalent of a Pupil Referral Unit but I wonder if candidates for it are encouraged to behave by the “Surgery” reference: a word usually used here in connection with the doctor. You can imagine a parent saying: “If you don’t behave I will have your naughtiness surgically removed”

The last team and first aid

Saturday 19th September

They have gone: our last team of the year has flown out of Entebbe airport en route for Brussels and then Heathrow. Richard and I gave each other a congratulatory hug at the airport and went off for a beer at Banana Village. There, under a moonlight sky, next to a placid swimming pool glimmering gently in the darkness, we chewed over the events of the last three months.

It has been good: most of what we set out to do has been achieved. 35 volunteers from the UK have had a “Uganda experience” and done some useful work in the progress. We have learned how to do some things better and how not to attempt some things at all. We now have six days to finish up, clear up and say many goodbyes before we too are back at the same airport heading for home.

The last thing we did with the team today was to take them to the Botanical Gardens at Entebbe. After a picnic lunch by the side of Lake Victoria, amongst egrets, kites, kingfishers and Egyptian geese, we had a couple of hours to walk through the woods or sit by the water. I chose the latter. I had been there about an hour, making notes about the programme, when there was a voice behind me. The guidebook warns us to avoid people asking for money or seeking friendship in the gardens so I was a bit careful in my response. I turned to find a Ugandan man in his twenties covered in blood from the knees down. It is strange – a lot of blood looks less scary on black skin than on white.

He and his friend asked if I had a first aid kit. (I had) They said he had fallen down some rocks on the way to the beach. I was suspicious – had he, I asked myself, faked this injury in order to catch me off guard and rob me? When he peeled back the bleeding skin to reveal his kneecap I realised that this was a genuine injury. No-one, I told myself, would injure themselves to this extent just to steal my bag!

So I helped them clean up the wound; I found a large plaster and we tried to stem the bleeding with difficulty. I went back to our bus to fetch a bandage to hold his torn skin together and I bandaged his leg up. I was acutely aware that I was the only white person on the beach and I was putting myself in danger – he could easily knock me over the head I kept telling myself. But, of course, he didn’t – he was just grateful.

And then he asked for my mobile number. I said I could not remember it (true) and my phone was not with me (untrue) because, once again, I was putting my safety first. I feared that he would pester me with calls begging for money for college fees (the usual reason given). So I wished him well, told him to see a doctor and get some stitches in the wound, and said goodbye.

I have mixed feelings about this incident. On the one hand I have done everything “by the book” – I have been “HIV aware” about touching his blood, I have not identified myself, not given him my contact details and I am entirely sure that he cannot trace me. On the other hand – I may have missed the chance of an interesting friendship which could have stretched between Uganda and the UK for many years. I do not even know his name and he does not know mine.

My only hope now is that I have raised his respect for white people. I hope he thinks they are not just “bosses” who don’t do any work (the common view) but are actually people who are willing to help get on their knees in the dirt and bandage a black person’s wounds. But I will never know!

To close – how about this for a sign next to a police station – “Mpala Police Station sponsored by Entebbe Pastors Association” If I read this correctly, the police station has been paid for by the ministers of local churches! In a country ripe with corruption in official circles, it is refreshing to see some transparency – we just have to hope that there are no expected concessions on speeding tickets and parking fines.

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The picture is IMGP5461of the beach on Lake Victoria:

Small but effective

Friday 18th September

I am back again – sorry it has been so long but we have been rather busy. The current team – our last, and they fly back to the UK tomorrow – has been our smallest team. Of the five people in the team, three are medical lecturers helping out at hospitals and health centres in the Kumi area. This left only two people to help on the building projects. Including me, this meant that a total of three people were working over four building sites in ten days. I wonder why I am a little tired.

However, some work has been completed. We finished the renovation of two primary school classrooms (ten miles apart) and plastered and painted the classroom at Akubui (our main project) (also ten miles from the other two). In between we helped local volunteers with the construction of the roof of a traditional mud hut. (They consist of branches woven together with sisal). Akubui’s window frames are now going in:IMGP5378

Two days ago, we took our little team of five up to the Murchison Falls National Park (my last visit this year) and, as well as all the usual giraffes, crocodiles, elephants etc. we saw some one year old lion cubs. One of them was sitting on an ant hill (I think the ants had gone elsewhere):IMGP5436

The picture shows the Nile in the background.

At the end of the day we had to deal with a severe case of miliaria profunda (a type of prickly heat including heat exhaustion) in one of the volunteers. He went bright red all over and passed out and I feared the worst. This involved me phoning London on our insurance company’s medical helpline. They were very helpful and after a long cold shower and a good night’s sleep, he was fine in the morning. It was somewhat worrying at the time when we were about as far from medical help as it is possible to get in Uganda! Thank goodness for mobile phones that seem to work everywhere in this country.

I know you are just waiting for the next instalment of the “odd signs on the back of vehicles” competition so tonight I can bring you “Dangerous Towing” ( on the back of a breakdown truck); “You are important” (on a minibus taxi) and the winner is “”Very, very long vehicle” (on the back of a short lorry).

Young friends

Saturday 5th September

Today is our last “day off”. We are ready to collect the next team from Entebbe airport tonight. They are with us for two weeks – then we have five days to pack up, clear up, put everything away until next year and hold an end-of-project celebration when we invite everyone we have worked with to come along and get together.

This morning I went for a walk out to Lake Victoria. It is about 45 minutes from here along dusty tracks past lots of local village homes. Everyone is very welcoming and children shout out “mazungu” as a welcome all the time. My destination was the “Sky Beach Hotel” which is on the lake shore – it has no beach but there is a lot of sky. I wanted a cold drink and walked into the Reception. The receptionist’s children (about 6 and 8 years old) literally threw themselves at me as a welcome. I felt like a long lost returning uncle. It is like that here – everyone is touchy-feely and very trusting.

I was the only customer at Sky Beach Hotel – this is the view from their café:

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I sat watching the birds along the lake side for over an hour. Egrets, hammercocks, waders of all kinds and many other brightly coloured birds I have no idea what they are. We also have otters along the water’s edge.

On the way back a small voice shouted from behind me “I want to be your friend” I turned to find a little girl chasing after me. She was walking my way and wanted to walk with me. She said she was 12 years old, her name was Shalika and she had been shopping for her mother. I said her English was very good. We chatted for a few minutes and she scampered off. This is Uganda – people are so friendly towards visitors – and with skin my colour, I can only be a visitor.

A motor bike passed me with a handwritten slogan on the back “young investor”- this is the land of small businesses. Uganda has the highest rate of new business start-ups of any country in sub-Sahara – but it also has the highest failure rate – 95% of new businesses fail in the first year. It all comes back to education, or lack of it.

There is a small shop near here called “London Pork Joint” – It seems that attaching “London” to a name gives it a reputation for quality. Having seen what is on offer, I doubt whether many people from London would want to buy their pork. Customers who expect some cooling facilities and an absence of flies would be disappointed. Rural Ugandans do not see this as a problem – they just cook the meat for a very long time and see no need for fridges (92% of the population has no electricity anyway –  although solar power is creeping in).

I may be off air for a few days when the team is in. Thanks for reading.

Lakeside

Friday 4th September

So, here we are, at Entebbe again, getting ready to receive our next team tomorrow. As part of their off duty experiences, we are planning to take them to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens and so we had to go and have a look at them today, purely for health & safety reasons, of course.

It is a large area of tropical woodland running along the shores of Lake Victoria. It contains many fine old trees and exotic plants and flowers. I know from the guide book that it was started in 1902 but there is absolutely no other information available about it. Some of the trees have their Latin names engraved on plaques but, otherwise, there is no information, no display boards, no leaflets, nothing.

Parts of it have the feeling of being once well tended as private gardens and, I am guessing here, I suspect the gardens may have been the private domain of a colonial governor of some sort. There are tall stands of bamboo, enormous jungle bracket trees and a large tree from which hangs dozens of small brown footballs (which we read from its label is the canon ball tree!).

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Masses of colourful birds are about and we saw egrets, kites, kingfishers, Egyptian geese and dozens of others we could not name.

We had lunch in the lakeside café (again purely from the health & safety viewpoint) and watched a storm come towards us across the lake. It is a peaceful spot, even when the rain is pounding on the roof.

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I bought a newspaper again today to catch up on Ugandan news. Every paper has several stories of corruption by officials. They are so common they are almost not news. Ugandans seem to expect their officials to be corrupt and mostly laugh it off. All large contracts are put out to tender but sometimes the terms are a bit hard to comply with.

Imagine if you own a lorry and you want to bid for transporting some goods to South Sudan:

You pick up your paper (printed in Kampala) and learn that you need to travel to Juba, in South Sudan (a mere two days drive away) to read the terms of the tender. You then return to Kampala, consult your business partners, work out your bid and then have to deliver the bid, by hand and in person, back in Juba. How long do you have for this? – The deadline closes in five days  ……. and Juba was still technically in a civil war zone until last week, when a shaky peace treaty was signed.

And all the time you suspect that some friend of the person letting the contract has the deal already stitched up. So you probably do not bother to bid and, once again, corruption prevails. Short period bids for contracts seem to be very common.

Today we went past “Christ the King Medical Centre.” On the signboard was a picture of a white doctor complete with white coat and stethoscope. He was not pretending to be Jesus but it looked as if he was offering a service second to none. I find it vaguely concerning that a white person should be chosen to model a doctor in the picture; it would also be quite hard to find one here.

Three weeks today I will be waiting for a plane to take me home. It does not seem possible yet!

Holistically challenged

Thursday 3rd September

We left the delightful Mbale Resort Hotel after breakfast and travelled back to Kampala, just in time for rush hour. I have a lot of time to think on these journeys and one thought came to mind as we crawled around outer Kampala where many NGOs are based:

They are all here! Water Aid, MSF, Save the Children, UNICEF, World Vision, UN, etc. and numerous other charities helping children but, I wonder, do they work together or in competition? I am sure that some joint working would reduce costs and distribute work more evenly across the country. Many large NGOs have fancy Japanese 4×4 pickups running around with their name on the side. Perhaps some transport costs could be shared and fewer vehicles bought. Also substituting a pick up for a 4×4 minibus (like ours) will increase the passenger carrying potential from one to seven.

However, there is a problem in working together. Ugandans are not good at strategic planning. They are very friendly and talkative and have learned the right talk but often without a definite outcome. I have seen this in action and have asked myself “where is the meat in this sandwich?” For example here is a statement published in a newspaper:

“xxxx said women’s groups engaged in small scale productivity and those in vulnerable and poor homesteads will be empowered which will enable them to build resilience and capacity to engage in sustainable income-generating activities”

This category of people (i.e. women’ groups in small scale activity, the vulnerable and poor) applies to about 95 per cent of the population of Uganda (about 30 million people). I cannot see how they will be “empowered” without massive continuing education on everything from business practices to crop rotation. This is completely unaffordable by the government of an impoverished country. And yet because someone has made this statement about empowerment, people think it will just happen, without a thought to the details.

I fear this would happen with any attempted cooperation between NGOs. We would have grand sounding mission statements and at some point, after much research, numerous conferences, focus groups, feedback sessions and position statements there would be a joint communique along the lines of:

“The members of the partnership of NGOs concerned, having appraised themselves of all available options, are pleased to announce the joint formation of an all-purpose, holistic and sustainable plan to ensure the continuing co-operation of the partners in all matters pertaining to the matters in hand in order to improve the lives of all parties who stand to benefit from the partnership”

(In other words, they have set the date of the next meeting)

So perhaps it is best that NGOs continue to work in their defined fields without lots of meetings with other groups. They may overlap at times, and leave gaps in provision, but at least they will be working to do the job, rather than holding endless meetings (which Ugandans always enjoy, they are so chatty!)

On to lighter things: Today’s winner in the funny shop names competition is: “Press the button and get a favour restaurant.” The best  philosophical message on the back of a lorry is “follow the instruction to complete the transaction” and the prize for the most appropriate slogan on the back of a bus goes to “better late than never”

On the mixed business advertisements I am not too happy about “Public toilets and drinks available” but the prize for the clearest advertised product goes to “Die for ever insecticide”

And as I am now back at Banana Village, Entebbe, I thought I would show a picture of my next door neighbour:IMGP4747

An illegal king

Wednesday 2nd September

My nomadic life continues. After two nights at Kumi I am now in Mbale for two nights, then back to Whitecrest in Kampala for one night and then to Banana Village at Entebbe for two nights. However the Mbale stop is voluntary for I am “on holiday” for 36 hours!

We, Richard and I, decided that we needed a complete break from the work at Kumi. It is our down week anyway and as all my jobs were completed by Tuesday afternoon I set off on the 40 minute trip to the Mbale Resort Hotel. Richard joined me 24 hours later after he had completed his tasks.

The hotel has two parts – there is a swanky five star part but which you can see from their website but also a low cost annexe. Guess which part we are in. I am staying in a small comfortable room with its own bathroom and everything I need for £20 a night B&B. If I were to go to the swanky side it would be £70 room only.

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The best thing is that we have the use of all the swanky facilities including 20 acres of landscaped garden, swimming pool, health club, restaurants and a good view of the Wanale Cliffs, towering 9000 feet above us.

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They are part of the Mount Elgon range (of which Sipi Falls is also part – see earlier blogs). I spent the afternoon sketching the cliffs from the garden accompanied by my own security man. He came to say hello and, unasked, stayed a few yards from me to make sure I was OK.

I struggle a bit with all of this. This country is so poor and most people are at subsistence level but here I am playing the wealthy mazungu. On the other hand I have been helped by about 10 staff here and I guess I am helping to keep them in employment. On the third hand, the money we have spent is far more than we usually spend to keep ourselves going and we could have given the surplus to poor people. On the fourth hand we need a break somewhere where we can relax and with food we can enjoy. I even had some red wine – the first for two months. I don’t know the answer.

I have not been off the hotel site today so I have no new funny signs to tell you about. For a change how about this for a legal notice in a national newspaper: “Illegality of the enthronement of a king”. It is a notice explaining that “the Government has become aware of the enthronement of one Cesar Augustus Mutenda as the king of the people of Kisoro in western Uganda” It goes on the say that kings can only be appointed under an act of Parliament and only after various papers have been filed. As Mr Mutenda had not filed any papers he is not supposed to be king.

The notice then appeals everyone to “stay calm and desist from violence” and stop treating him like a king. I have some sympathy for Cesar Mutenda because if his people want him as King I am sure he will say it has nothing to do with a government department in Kampala, hundreds of miles away. I hope he has some T-shirts made for his supporters to wear “Cesar for King.” The Romans would have approved.