War and Warthogs

Saturday 23rd July

We have been on the move again. Leaving Kumi for the eight hour road trip up to Murchison Falls National Park, to check health & safety issues for the team visits. The closer we got to the park the more we became aware of the civil war in South Sudan, our neighbouring country to the north.
Not that we saw any troop movements; just lots of United Nations and charity vehicles. UNHCR and War Child vehicles mostly and they brought home to us the cost of war to non-combatants. Also driving along with us were dozens of petrol tankers to fuel the civilian population and also the government and rebel troops.
Many of the tankers cross Uganda with petrol and diesel from Kenya and some of them do not return. They get caught in the cross fire in South Sudan or are captured by one side or the other and have their loads stolen. Many drivers are killed. Despite the high risks, these drivers still continue with the work as they are paid very generously.
On our journey we passed a sign “Caution elephants crossing” and shortly afterwards met these. I am pretty sure that they are not elephants:giraffes

The Park recce trip was successful, we avoided any fierce animals and had more trouble with mosquitos than the Big Five. We slept under canvas despite hippos grazing between the tents at night. Fortunately, they only eat grass and are harmless unless you annoy them. Warthogs hang around the camp – they seem to like being near people and are usually found dozing near the dining room.
We went to buy some bananas today. The price quoted was the equivalent of 50p each. And this in a country where they grow wild everywhere. Alex, our Ugandan driver then went and bought the same bananas for 10p each. Having a white skin has a price attached to it.
We have had a number of entries into the funny signs competition in the last couple of days; my particular favourites are “Elderly Ox Tractor Project” (old cows used to plough fields – (this is actually true)), “Plan C Guesthouse” (I suppose Plans A&B didn’t work out) and “Mosquito Net Village” Guesthouse (would you want to stay there?) (Actually you would because the other guesthouses don’t always have them)
In the religious category we have “God First Intercontinental Trading” and “God’s Gift Main Depot.” The banner across the front of a taxi read “Try Jesus Andse” was, I think, meant to be “Try Jesus and See” but I was rather worried by “Girl Child Foundation Supermarket” (exactly what are they selling?)
An erratically driven minibus had “No-one is perfect” on the back and a poster advertising a foreign money exchange described it as “Forex Bureau next to 4 Turkeys.” I assume 4 turkeys is a café and not the real things.
Sometimes I wonder if I am unfair to Ugandans making fun of their signage but I know that if they came to the UK they would find much to laugh at, such is their nature, and always in a good-humoured way. I hope mine is likewise.
Our first team is now win the air on its way here. Are we ready ? We hope so. Blog entries for the next few days might be scarce as we work 15 hour days when teams are with us.
Keep smiling – we are !


Wood, Wash and Wills

Thursday 20th July

How to buy a piece of wood:

Drive one hour to the nearest large town. Find a parking space next to an abandoned lorry. Take an interesting tour on foot. Traffic is everywhere and from all directions so cross any road at your peril (avoiding open drains, large holes in the road, spilt oil, itinerant street welders who shower everything and anyone  in sparks) and visit three builders’ merchants.

Each builders’ merchant looks almost identical: the same reinforcing rods all over the floor, the same rolls of wire to step over, the same bits of steel to avoid as they stick out of piles trying hard to snag you as you pass by and finally you find one where the pleasant female assistant says yes they have what I want.

Agree the price (no easy thing and much friendly misunderstanding involved). Offer the lady the money who declines saying “pay her over there.”  Cross over the shop (over the same reinforcing rods, rolls of wire and bits of steel getting in the way) and pay that lady over there. Ask for a receipt and be told “see the other lady” – cross back (avoiding the rods, rolls and bits as before) where the first lady gives you a receipt and then, with a rubber stamp marks “goods taken.”  Fail to understand as I have not taken any goods yet.

Pleasant first lady just smiles at you. Ask where the wood is. She says go to the warehouse. Ask where the warehouse is. To avoid a long story it turns out to be five miles away on an industrial estate “the third door off the roundabout” Drive in the generally correct direction and having wrongly investigated two roundabouts find one with a row of seemingly abandoned corrugated iron buildings none of which show the names of any owners, least of all the one we want.

Turn into a sheet metal works where someone waves at us – we are expected! Get out of the van, find the foreman; he says follow me. Walk back out on to the road, past three other warehouses and in through a tiny gate across a yard (with more metal cutting, welding and sparking in progress) to a small desk. He sits and looks at my receipt. Get ready to argue that I haven’t taken any goods yet. But he is happy. He signs the receipt, gives it back to me, and gets me to sign in his book. “Follow me” and off we ago, back past the cutters, welders and sparkers, down the road to yet another abandoned warehouse and across an empty yard with no-one to be seen. (Am I in danger here?)

He unlocks a huge door and reveals a massive crane on six wheels.   This is becoming a farce. Have I bought some sheet steel or some construction equipment by mistake? Perhaps I have accidentally paid a deposit on a hugely expensive machine and am legally bound to complete the deal immediately on pain of summary imprisonment. But at the moment when I am about to ask what on earth is going on, my piece of wood is proudly carried out of the crane shed by two workers.

Whatever else Brittain left in Uganda on independence in 1962, the legacy of complicated and inefficient procedures lingers on.

All that was yesterday. Today, among other things, I sat under a mango tree for an hour in a village, miles out in the countryside talking to a road accident victim. (Unsurprisingly, she was not wearing her seatbelt at the time). The only sound to be heard was the occasional bleat of a goat and cluck of a chicken. Three day old chicks investigated my shoes. The breeze gently moved the leaves above me. It was pleasantly cool in the heat of the day. I was the only white person for about ten miles in any direction. All I could see everywhere were small fields of crops and slowly waving fruit trees. I felt immensely privileged to be there. It is a moment I shall treasure.

Three days from now the first team of 16 volunteers arrives. We think we are nearly ready and tomorrow we are off to Murchison Falls National Park to check out the health & safety implications.

Seen recently on the back of a bus “one love beach” – none of us has any clue what it might mean but we can have a lot of guesses.

And finally we passed a hotel called “Wash & Wills” in the town of Mbale. It has a first class expensive look about it. A local person told us that it is called this because it was built on the site of a car wash and the owner’s name in William. It is the equivalent of me building a five star hotel in Buxton and calling it “Stone quarry Rog”

Back soon but here is a picture of the new footings at our main project, Akubui School. Two new classrooms have begun to rise from the Kumi plain.


Eventful days

Monday 18th July

It has been an eventful couple of days.  On Sunday we arrived at a large corrugated iron building at 8.00 am. There was music, singing, dancing and much happiness among the 300 people present. The music was provided by a five piece band of guitars, keyboards and an electric drum kit; singing along was despite the projectionist who was usually a few bars (or even verses) behind the people and the sound level was so high that my ears were vibrating. It was, of course, an African church service.

 We were not quite sure of the way there but decided to follow a woman in a startling blue dress. “Sunday best” is almost a fashion show when everyone gets out their most colourful items. But it was officially “men’s day” so a few ties were to be seen (not on me) and one young man wore a bright pink bow tie. Afterwards we were treated to tea and bread. You dip one into the other.

Today I have bought supplies; cans of paint, metres of sandpaper, plastic sheeting and some ladies underwear,  (perhaps I should explain that they were in a job lot of old clothing bought as cleaning cloths from the market and I didn’t actually chose them). Tonight I broke down a door whilst being watched by a night-watchman carrying a Kalashnikov. I should also explain that the door was one of our own hotel’s doors (fitted with the usual African cheapo locks that always jams in a locked positon) and the hotel night-watchman did not object. I did suggest he shot off the broken lock with his gun but he just laughed. It probably wasn’t loaded.

So, tomorrow I will be door mending. One just wouldn’t expect to have to do this type of thing at a Premier Inn at home but, out here, it all feels rather natural. No one stresses about it, it’s all OK with the Ugandans so long as you can laugh about it. Not just afterwards, but also before and during. At home you would buy a new door; here you patch the old one (again and again). But do it with a laugh and “that will be OK” –my favourite local saying.

The time is getting closer for us to host our first team. They arrive next Sunday, so we are sorting out rooms, catering and transport for them. This includes repairing hotel toilets, replacing lightbulbs etc. but “that will be OK” too.

I met the community representative again (see under April 13th above). She was in the same offices and was clucking quite happily at a filing cabinet. It is curious how she is attracted to offices. A little like a church mouse but on a larger scale.

I am looking at a batch of receipts from today. The shop owners were Vruddhi & Jaymadi (Asian names) and the locally owned shops were Deep Impex Ltd and Ojobira Enterprises. These local names give the impression of significant businesses thrusting Uganda into the global retail market. Actually they are one-woman shops in backstreets each measuring about 10 feet square. The proprietors are always very helpful.

It rained tonight. Loudly and heavily for two hours. My bedroom floor was flooded as usual (I have built raised platforms for my things) but now, two hours later, the floor is completely dry. The warm dry air is more efficient than newspaper for soaking up water.

Finally, here is a local resident – a chameleon – trying not to let me take his picture by going green.IMGP5998.JPG

Sadness and wobbly bridges

Saturday 16th July

We spent a difficult day yesterday. Part of our programme with the volunteers is to work on traditional village homes (read “mud huts”) for one day for each team. This gives them an original African experience whilst benefitting impoverished villagers.

Our local partners, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, run what we would describe as a children’s centre. They keep an eye on kids in their area and their families and try to help them. We were taken to visit people with terrible life stories:

• An epileptic man who is away drinking, leaving a wife who suffers from elephantiasis to cope alone with their children.

• A lady blinded by her husband (with a stick) shortly after the birth of their third child. The husband committed suicide after giving her two more children.

• A widow HIV positive and recently raped, bringing up four children.

• A boy with a mentally ill father whose mother has fled after her lover killed family members.
OK, so we can fix their roofs for them but sometimes all you can do is stand with them and weep. This is the blind lady and her family: There is no joy here (which is unusual in Uganda)


Today we carried out the necessary risk assessments during a return to Sipi Falls. On the way we met the Chinese. Or, to be exact, a Chinese construction company doing roadmaking. They do things on a large scale – imagine resurfacing both sides of the A6 simultaneously down to a depth of five feet. Vast earth moving machines, surface grinders, rollers and trucks. Alex, our driver dodging around them as best he can.

It is reassuring that although the company is Chinese they use Ugandan labour. (Although Ugandans never look comfortable wearing high visibility jackets and hard hats. Usually, construction workers prefer T shirts and flip flops). The most reassuring Ugandan parts of the operation were the traffic controllers: young Ugandan women waving red and green flags; a red flag held steady means stop, a green flag held steady means go and red and green flags waved about together mean proceed with caution and the more vigorous the flag flapping the more caution you are supposed to take. A frenzy of flapping is a warning that you are about to collide with a fifty ton excavator coming straight towards you.

Sipi Falls were very healthy and quite safe – only one wobbly bridge remains and here it is. (And our guide has to pay the owner a fee for us to use it!)


This is the winner of the weekly funny sign competition in the category of tourist welcomes:

IMGP6005.JPGWe did not see any well game (or ill ones either)

And here I am again

Thursday 14th July

My apologies to my avid readers who have been logging on every ten minutes for the last four days to see what I have written (as if!) to find nothing here.

It has been a busy time. One would have thought that as this year’s programme is largely a re-run of last year’s then it should be quite easy. However, this would involve making the following assumptions:

          That a presidential election had not happened which did not affect the price of anything.

          That key local personnel with whom we work would not have moved on to pastures new.

          That local project partners would not have diverted from plans we had agreed with them last year.

          That rats would not have chosen our storeroom to hold a party lasting for six months.

But, as it happened, all these things happened and we just have to deal with them. They will all be OK but just need a bit of extra time to sort out. We have also had to readjust to the African way of life.  Again, all three of us on the staff team have a lot of experience of this but we have found we have to keep calm and remain flexible when it is tempting to get exasperated.

 So, when local people are a couple of hours late for a meeting  (in one case a whole day late) and it takes four hours to order a meal at a set time, which is still half an hour late, we just say to ourselves “we are flexible, aren’t we?”  We also repeat the word ETLIA to ourselves regularly (Everything Takes Longer In Africa)

However, our friends here are as welcoming and friendly as usual. We cannot go anywhere without receiving big hugs (even from some people we have not met before) and the ever-present small children still run up to shake our hands and say hello. It is tempting to think that the reason for all this welcoming is the work and money we bring to help the communities but I think if we said we had stopped doing all of this they would still be just as friendly.

As our friends here get to know us more each time we come, they become more open in explaining the corruption that goes on around them. The worst case we heard of this week is of a respected civil servant who, when he applied for promotion, was told that not only were his academic qualifications all forged but he seemed to have three different identities.

There are constant stories of government funds being subverted for private use but local people explain this with a sense of amusement, rather than outrage. I think they like the idea of organisations like ours spending funds directly on community projects because they know that none of it has gone astray on the way.

We are trying to raise funds to re- roof a school building in Kumi. In April a storm quickly removed 130 sheets of corrugated iron and the termite infested timberwork that supported them. The local education authority (which has no insurance) has replaced the metal work but has no money to buy the timber or pay for it to be installed. We asked the local Director of Education about it and he said that his funding from national government gets less each year (this has a familiar ring to it) and he can do no more about roofing.


The cost of the work is £1,500 but to Ugandans this is a vast sum of money and completely impossible to raise locally. They haven’t actually asked us but……… ! In the meantime a class of 100 children becomes a joint class of 200 children.

 We looked at the pile of scrap roof metal work and were told it would certainly have a second life on the roofs of local houses when it has been bashed flat and sold. Nothing here is wasted.

And now it is time for the usual funny signs entries. This year there is a new category – that of the most puzzling sign – and the week’s prize goes to the sign on a tree in a field which reads “Warning – no idollars allowed on the stage” Is this, I asked myself a survivor from a concert keeping fans away from the performers or a newly prohibited rural internet currency.

We also wondered if there was anything else on the menu of the “Duck Mash Mash” café and we were surprised to find that the special needs gate at the airport also admitted UN personnel and flight crew.

More in a day or so. In the meantime here is a picture of some goats about to be dispossessed at Akubui School where, tomorrow, two new classrooms will start to rise.