Half time – change ends


My apologies for not updating the blogs for a few days. We have been rather busy. The recent team of volunteers has now returned to the UK. They were good to be with, worked well together and with the local people and came with a variety of useful skills. Even those who thought they did not have any skills found that they had!


I have now reached the half way point in my trip. This means that I am in a pleasant hotel in Mbale, a town about an hour away from Kumi. I have 36 hours to rest, think, write, read and walk. And I have had the first proper shower in three weeks!


So, this is where my pondering is up to:


I still find Ugandans friendly and welcoming. I am now used to being “white” when out and about. At first, when I arrive, I always think I stick out like a sore thumb and my “whiteness” seems an embarrassment. Last night, whilst eating in the hotel, I belatedly realised that I am the only white person in the building. That fact had not occurred to me before then.


Murchison Falls National Park, one of the most wild and beautiful paces I have ever visited, is on the brink of a potential environmental disaster. They have discovered huge quantities of oil beneath it. Yesterday, in the Ugandan Parliament, the minister for energy announced that in the year 2020 they will be producing 200,000 barrels of oil a day and will join OPEC. Even for Ugandans, this is optimistic!


The National Park was created in the same year as the Peak District National Park in Derbyshire, where I live. What is potentially going to happen in Murchison is the equivalent of building oil production facilities all over the Hope Valley, removing many local buildings, excavating much of the countryside and then laying an oil pipeline, with many pumping stations, across the Park to connect, ultimately, with the Manchester Ship Canal.


I run a discussion group, with our teams of volunteers, on this topic on their last morning in Murchison.  We get many and varied views. There is no doubt that oil could improve the well-being of many millions of Ugandans but, sadly, that requires the type of organisational skills, political thinking, absence of corruption, and business-like approach that is so often lacking in this country. One only has to look at Nigeria for the worst case scenario. If Uganda could follow Norway’s example, they would be able to preserve the environment, improve infrastructure and benefit people. And Climate Change is another big topic of its own – it is here and real, but local Ugandans see it as a local problem and think that is because they have cut down too many trees. Nothing to do with CO2 emissions, then.


In a way, the saddest thing is that there is no public outcry in Uganda about digging up a National Park.


To close for today, here a few of the more amusing signs found in our travels:


“Bob Marley Rastas’ Family Club” – this was a rough looking bar.


“Faith Drug Shop” – I think this was a pharmacy but local people might ask if you have one why do you need the other.


“Los Angeles provides you with a Better Service” – This was written on a fence in Kampala. I could not see any business nearby with that name so perhaps it was a travel advertisement.


“Kamua Used Property Company” – this might have been an estate agent or a second hand shop.


“Put an end to Crime with Roofings Wire” – This grand statement was by a company selling fencing.


And my best of the last week, seen on the back of a bus:


“This is your last Mistake” – One wonders how many passengers they get.


These birds are hornbills – they are the size of turkeys and they are outside my window as I type. The male on the left has such a large beak I doubt if he can see where he is going.



Problems or challenges ?

In Uganda, the word “problem” is seldom used. However, the word “challenge” is in regular use. If someone is too poor to buy food they are described as “facing challenges with food”
I asked the headteacher of the school where we are working “what is the biggest challenge to education?” Her reply was lack of text books and food for the children. The text books we can do something about because some of you gave me money to bring out for school supplies and I have, today, put it onto the school textbook fund. It will buy 60 text books which will last for many years as the children regard books as precious. They will never have their own book – they will share them, along with everything else in the school.
With between 100 and 200 children in each class, it is likely that each book can be read by five or six children simultaneously, so crammed in they are.
Food, however, is a bigger problem. The money I have been given would not be enough to feed the 900 children even with one meal for one day. Today we had our last day at school with our current team of volunteers. We were given lunch by the school (which we paid for) and sat down to generous helpings of maize porridge, sweet potatoes, beans and greens. We ate in the school yard whilst the kids looked on and ate ………nothing at all.
This was hard to take. The reason why they were not fed was that not one parent had given their child any dinner money. Free School Meals are completely unheard of in Uganda. We live in hopes that they will all get fed when they get home tonight.
Tomorrow we head off into the Murchison Falls National Park with two days of R&R with the team before returning them to the airport.
To sign off with, here are some jolly faces from the school yard today (and behind them are the window frames we have been painting)

school yard.jpg


In prison again

We are now three days in to our work in Kumi. The team of six people plus the three of us on staff have been painting window frames, plastering walls and painting fascia boards. We have visited a school for deaf children and eaten at the local nameless corrugated iron cafe which we have named “No Name.” You can get a good healthy main course for £2 but bring your own water, because they do not have any. If you want a bottle of fizzy drink you can order it and they go down the road to buy it for you (adding two pence to the cost)
“Plastering” is rather an overstatement. In involves flicking runny cement at a wall with a trowel. When the builders do it every drop sticks perfectly. When we do it there is the sound of a splat, a scattering of cement everywhere and then our effort slowly detaches itself from the wall and plops to the floor. However, practice makes perfect – we are not perfect by a long way yet but you know that thing about walls – if you go on throwing mud at them some of it sticks – this also applies to cement.
Yesterday we finished up in prison. This is an annual event, by invitation of the prison governor, and how could we refuse? We go along to “entertain” the residents. There are 130 of them in a small town non-secure prison. They sing and play songs to us on their wooden bow harps and we attempt to sing accompanied by one of our group on a guitar. It is hard to explain what a wonderful place this prison is – it runs like a community centre with residents and guards chatting together and, for the first time, we were allowed to mix with the residents. One of them had a go on the guitar, another told us that his father was about to be executed for terrorism. (He was not in the same prison as the son). We hoped we managed to say a few comforting words to him.
The sad thing is that some of the residents are on remand for many months. Many have not actually done anything wrong. The wheels of justice grind very slowly here and often, if the defendants are found guilty, they have already served more than their prison sentence and they are immediately released.
Using Christian themes for commercial advertising continues to be common. This week I have seen:
“God’s Will Laboratory,” “St Pious’ Driving School” and “Jesus My Energy”
Philosophical statements of the back of vehicles include “Life is Mathematics,” “Never Lose Hope” and “The Poor Also Laugh”
But my favourite this week has been “Nature Call Centre” – which was the name of a public toilet.
Here is a picture of mixing the “plaster” – the end result is on the wall:

Are you from Interpol?

This is a question I have not been asked before. Imagine the scene : Entebbe Airport; 8pm; three middle-aged people with white faces wearing blue T-shirts with “Mission Direct” clearly on front and back are approached by a Ugandan Police officer wearing a very smart military uniform with much gold braid.
“Are you from Interpol?” he asks. Inevitably, our reply is “pardon?” He repeats it and we say no we are from Mission Direct. He apologises and goes on his way. In the half second before I say “pardon” my thought to myself was “are we in trouble here?” Strange how the mind works.
Later we saw him walking away with a very tall white woman who came off the same plane as our team so he was successful in the end. She didn’t look like she was from Interpol either, but perhaps that’s the point.
Anyway, we collected our team and after a night at Banana Village and a crawl across Kampala we are now back at Jinja for the night. Tomorrow the work starts at Kumi, five hours north of here.
Today’s choice of signs from the fronts of buildings along the roadside is:
“Glory be to God Car Wash”
“Blessed metel workshop” (sic)
“Flower roast goat meat”
“Creationing the norm and normalizing the future” (No, I don’t have any idea either)
“Buyer beware – this land is not for sale”
“Highway Roasted Goats Meat” ( I should explain that sometimes people dry beans on the tarmac but I doubt if it is ever hot enough to roast any meat)
“Motor vehicle repiar” (This sign was on an ancient scrap lorry on the roadside verge – it fitted the spelling rather well)
Finally, here is a picture of some of our team at the point where Lake Victoria drains into the start of the river Nile. There is a small blue sign to confirm this with, inevitably, a gift shop close by. All on a tiny island in the middle of the river. The water from here takes three months to reach the Mediterranean. We were surrounded by kingfishers, pelicans and cormorants, many carrying fish in their beaks. Large monitor lizards eyed us up from the shore. A beautiful place.

Source of the Nile

Things are getting better


Another day, another road. We set off from Jinja this morning and crossed the Nile via the Owen Falls Dam with good views of the new suspension road bridge in the process of construction. We drove through the usual traffic chaos of Kampala into the calm of Banana Village Guest house. This is a small oasis between the city and the airport. The guest house has numerous small round bungalows in lovely grounds with resident monkeys in the trees. Yes, there are no bananas in Banana Village. The monkeys eat them all.


I have been in Uganda for nearly a week. I was last here a year ago. There is a slight, but distinct, improvement in living standards. Some more new buildings, a few less beggars, more traffic and more NGOs and charities working in the places we have seen. I hope it continues.


But then we still hear about the plight of some people. We hope to be helping a mum of five who has two houses. So why does she need it? – you might ask. The houses are the traditional round mud huts with grass roofs (like the ones in the picture at the top of this blog). Mum’s husband has gone off and she and three kids are in one house and the two older ones in the other. Then the oldest boy reached 17 and the village rule is that he must live alone until he marries, when his bride will come to live with him. So mum now has four kids in her twenty foot diameter home – and then the roof blows off in a storm. You would think the villagers would allow them to move in with older son – but, sadly not.


A new thatch roof costs about £120 – this may as well be £120,000 as far as mum is concerned, but a bus load of Mission Direct volunteers will arrive shortly, anxious to try their hands at learning thatching (although they don’t know this yet)………………………………..let’s wait for the next stage of the story.


Our main project is building two classrooms at Bazaar School, Kumi. Work has advanced well with the first three teams this year and, hopefully, our last two teams will see it finished. A picture appears below showing where we are up to now.

17.9.7 Bazaar


Today’s best slogans on the backs of vehicles were:


“Uncle D is my name and I am blessed”


“Life is mathematics”


“They think them cool but them a fool”


My favourite roadside advertisement (on the front of a guest house on the side of a hill) was:

“Descent accommodation” (I think they mean “decent”  and the description is not what might happen in the future)

On the road again

After two days in Kumi we are now heading back to Kampala. (Eight hours to the south). This is necessary because we meet our first team off the plane on Saturday and we have been getting everything ready for them in Kumi. Getting ready for a team includes the usual menu planning, transport arrangements, appointments with local project partners, builders etc. but also checking that the mosquito net holes are small enough to stop the mossies (although large rips in the nets do help us to keep cooler at night). Toilets have to be tested and restaurants sampled (it’s a tough job but…etc..etc)
I am writing from Jinja (the Source if the Nile). Actually, it isn’t but it’s where Lake Victoria empties into a narrow valley which becomes the Nile. The true source is hundreds of miles to the south where the first tributaries of the lake start to get together. Victoria is the largest Lake in Africa and second in, in the world, to Lake Superior in Canada. Realistically, it is a vast blue, shimmering inland sea. Jinja is Uganda’s tourist centre nearest to the capital, Kampala. This afternoon I saw four of them (tourists) and one does not have to make any restaurant reservations. Another restaurant was rigorously checked tonight and unfortunately passed. (Unfortunate because we won’t have to re-test it).
For new subscribers to this nonsense, I should explain that Uganda has a habit of putting interesting posters, signs and slogans on the back of buses, vans and lorries. I collect them as we regularly do our 800 mile Kampala – Kumi – Murchison – Kampala circuit with our teams. I have many hours of slogan spotting and in the serious / philosophical category this week we have:
No weapon fashioned against me shall prosper. (from the book of Isaiah)
NomatterwhattrustGod (from the internet}
It’s not an accident if you could have prevented it.
Suffering is not the end of your life.
And in the puzzling section we have:
Time is bad
So what?
Yes teacher
Respect fools to avoid noise
We are regularly overtaken by a long distance express bus with “Leave me alone” written across the back in letters two foot tall. The driver’s performance behind the wheel guarantees this without the need for the slogan.
Tonight I visited Jinja’s Commonwealth War Graves cemetery for the Second World War. It contains the graves of over 200 Ugandans who died and a dozen British. It seems right to me that the Brits are at the back and the Ugandans at the front. Within 20 years of the end of the War Uganda became independent.

Back again – September 2017

And here I am again.
It does not seem like a year that I was here last. The staff team is as before; just Jan, Richard and me. Green Top Hotel is as before with one important exception: For the first time in the six years that I have been coming to Africa EVERYTHING IN MY BEDROOM WORKS !
This deserves an upper case treatment because it is so unusual. I have taps that produce both hot and cold water, a toilet that flushes, a shower that has hot and cold and all the lights work. This has never happened before. However:-
I had quite a technical uphill struggle to get my phone working and get a connection to the internet. The phone supplier had cancelled my number (as I had not used it for a year) and kept the credit on it. So I now have a shiny new number with a data allowance as well, although it is quite expensive to use and gobbles credit.
This is how to get a new phone SIM card in Kumi:
Go to the big flashy painted shop. Outside there is a rabble of people being watched by a security guard carrying a Kalashnikov. I steer clear and go inside the flashy shop where four young lady customer service attendants have no customers to attend to. “Go outside and see Michael” one of them behind the counter tells me; I join the rabble. Our Kalashnikov carrying friend eyes me up and looks suspicious when I put my hand in my pocket.
Michael is busy issuing new sim cards; he has six customers waiting; a small table covered in six identity cards, various forms, empty sim cartons, bits of paper and application forms. I wait in the sort of queue; Michael immediately asks what I want; feeling guilty that I am queue jumping (and that my white face has triggered this), I tell him. On being asked for I/d I produce my passport which (not having seen a British one before) he does not understand. I explain it. He asks for a copy of it (no, he doesn’t have a photocopier); I have a copy and give it to him. He then takes a picture of the passport on his phone; he asks to take my photo on his phone so I look like the passport one (have you ever tried this?)
I have not explained that between each of these steps he was simultaneously dealing with his other six customers; randomly taking photos of I/d cards, faces, filling in forms, talking in their local language in turn to several people who, to my eyes, looked very similar. At least, with my white face and blue sunhat (the only person to be wearing either) he could not mix me up with his other customers.
The tiny table was beyond my reach and overloaded. At one point when I was carrying my phone, its cover, its battery, my wallet, my bag and my hat he asked me to sign the application form. I pondered which I would drop first, the phone or the wallet (I would not expect to see either again) or the hat (no-one one else would want it so I thought the hat must go).
After 40 minutes, it was all over. I came away proudly carrying my new sim working (or so I thought) happily in its new home. Only when I got back did I discover that it took five hours to wake the sim up from its long sleep. Gradually it came to life, reluctantly responding to prods from the local network. But now I can communicate again!
We visited three of our project partners during the day and made arrangements for the team that is due to arrive this weekend.
And so ends day number one. It is, actually, great to be back and it does feel like a sort of coming home.
More to follow (technology permitting). By popular request future blogs will feature, once again, “funny signs seen on vehicles” and of course, shops with outrageous descriptions.