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.


Business speak

Sunday 14th August

Business – speak is one of the unfortunate habits that Ugandans have picked up from the West. And almost built it in to a new language. When coupled with the fact that Ugandans will always try to be friendly and tell you what they think will please you, having a meaningful dialogue becomes quite a challenge. For example:

Me: “Can you supply these items in a better quality?”

Answer: “We are anticipating a fully holistic approach to your requirements to maximise quality outcomes at all levels”

Me: “When can you deliver?”

Answer: “We will take every opportunity to ensure rapid minimum delivery periods”

When translated, these answers are “Probably not, but we will get the best we can” and “We don’t know – it depends in the wholesaler” But this evasiveness is understandable in a country where nothing can be depended on (in material terms) and bad news is best wrapped up in friendly and positive business-like statements.

We are now near the airport waiting for the arrival of our second team. On the way here we passed what looked like a very untidy street. It was a linear rubbish tip along the roadside about 200 metres long. My first thought was “how untidy – the council should clean that up”. But the tip served a purpose. Several cows were grazing it (if licking out food containers counts as grazing) and people were picking over it.

It was not food they were looking for but re-usable materials. So waste was thrown out by shops and restaurants, cleaned by cows and sorted by people for re-use. Cows are fed and materials re-used. I should leave my western prejudices at home.

Sometimes the closeness of business signs is amusing. I recently saw “Pork Joint” (meaning butchers) next to “Joint Care Centre” (meaning physiotherapists).

So today, after collecting the team from Entebbe Airport, we cross Kampala again. Crawl through the dense smoking traffic trying to take as shallow breaths as possible with our eyes smarting in the pale brown atmosphere of semi-combusted hydrocarbons.

If the Government passed a law to say that by 1st January 2017 all vehicles must have new air and fuel filters fitted to their engines the air quality would be significantly improved. Engines here are only serviced when they go wrong. If they are still going then they don’t need servicing despite what is obviously coming out of the exhaust pipe. The reality is, though, that most people could not afford to buy new filters for their engines and my clean air plan would fail.

I will sign off now for a few days as we will be pretty busy running the programme. All is well and I am beginning to think of returning home at the end of the month. In the meantime, and as it is Sunday, here is a picture of some chickens in church (part of a child blessing ceremony):child blessing with chickens.JPG

Motor bikes and moonlight

Saturday 13th August

Since I first came to Uganda, 18 months ago, I have been amazed at what people can carry on motorbikes. Mostly, the bikes are small and a 250 cc machine would be considered very big and flashy. They are driven fairly slowly and have very efficient silencers. (Pity the lorries don’t as well)

It is common to see the family out on their motorbike; Dad driving, Mum at the back, and between them sometimes three or four children.  When the kids grow to the point of Mum being at risk of falling off the back, the older ones are discouraged from riding any more.

What is unusual, to western eyes, are the goods that carried on motorbikes. It is common to see several boxes strapped down; sometimes several 20 litre jerry cans full of water, a pile of pineapples, clothing, wood, charcoal etc., all tied down in a variety of ways.

But these are my top six most unlikely things I have seen on motorbikes.

6. Chickens. Sometimes quite a lot. They are alive and have their legs tied. Sometimes they are arranged so that three of four heads are dangling off each side of the bike. They do not seem at all distressed by this. There is no flapping or squawking. Apparently, the common “village chicken” is docile when it is held captive. It knows when to keep still and not make a fuss.

5. Pigs. Never more than one at a time and always riding side-saddle. Again, their legs are tied and again they are quite docile and well behaved. I have seen one put on a motorbike, though, and there was a lot of complaint in the process.

4. A full size metal door. This was held on by the passenger. He held it an angle which made it similar to an aircraft wing and I wondered what the take-off speed was likely to be and if he would be alone in this aerial adventure or whether he would take the driver with him.

3. Fridges and a full sized freezer. Also carried across the back of the bike. To get the balance right, one end of the fridge or freezer extends out further than the other. The tradition is to stick the longer end out into the approaching traffic.

2. Five metre long concrete reinforcing rods. These are carried six at a time and draped across the back of the bike, forming into a U shape behind the bike and scraping along the ground on both sides behind you. If travelling on dirt roads, they raise an interesting dust cloud. If they are on tarmac, they give off sparks (spectacular at night) and arrive a bit shorter than when they set off.

1. But my number one choice is …..Goats. Goats are intelligent creatures and not amused by motor bikes. They will certainly have a nibble at bike wiring and plastic bits but are not keen on riding one. They are familiar with them because goats regularly graze roadside verges and learn to keep out of the way of motorbikes. However goats trust humans (odd because they kill and eat them, but there you are). So the trick is to attach the goat to the rider and not to the bike.

The goat is wrapped like a belt round the rider’s waist so that the head and neck are at the front and the legs are tied at the back. This has the added advantage of being able to fondle the goat’s ears as you are riding. Again, the goat does not seem distressed by this treatment and remains docile.

We have just returned from supper by Lake Victoria. We sat at a small table ten feet from waves sploshing on the shore. A bright moon directly overhead reflected in every wavelet as it broke at our feet. This is the largest lake in Africa and the second largest in the World (after Lake Superior in Canada). For all practical purposes, it is a sea. Egrets and kingfishers sat on a tree a little out in the water, making the occasional dive into the blackness beneath.

Across the water, way below the horizon, is Kenya. Nearby small fishing boats netted shoals of small sparkling tilapia in front of us. Along the beach, a competing café employed local musicians pounding drums. The sun set within 30 minutes, as we are close to the Equator, and the stars came out rapidly all over us. It was all rather magical.

By popular request, there are no funny names today, but here are a few interesting things seen on the road (apart from the motorbikes):

Lady construction workers wearing hard hats, high visibility jackets and sparkly flip flops.

A matatu (mini-bus taxi) where one passenger was carrying a metal rod so long it was outside the bus held by his hand through the window. The rod was held vertically and the top was just lower than overhead electricity lines.

A breakdown truck owned by a firm called “Master of Disaster”

A government pick-up truck with the name “Residual Indoor Spraying Unit” on the door. I could not even guess what this branch of the civil service does (although a number of amusing possibilities occurred to me) but when I Googled it, it turns about to about spraying the inside of houses to kill malaria carrying mosquitos.

More soon. Meanwhile here is a picture of the sunrise over Wanale Cliffs at Mbale, near the border with Kenya.IMGP6269

Things that work

Tuesday 9th August

I am about midway in my trip. With Team 1 gone and Team 2 expected on Sunday we are doing all those planning things that are necessary. Drinking water requirements, programme, menus, transport, rooms, and bookings at venues, bookings for our hosts to meet our volunteers etc.

I have also been buying paint and sorting out the store room so I can find things when needed.

Last night we visited our favourite café for dinner. It is about one minutes’ walk from the hotel and three people can have a good meal for £1.50. It has no name over the door so we call it “No-name” café. The choice of food is basic : beans, rice, goat, fish, greens etc and you have to bring your own water to drink. It also has no electricity but they do supply candles to supplement our torches.

We pondered on putting it on the programme as a “candlelight supper” but that does imply rather more than is on offer. But the room is clean, the food is prompt and healthy and the service rapid. (Rapid service anywhere in Uganda is rare – even the most expensive hotel in Kumi takes an hour to produce a meal)

As it is my midway point, I am having two nights off in Mbale, the largest town to the east of Kumi. I have a spacious twin bedded room, en suite, with a balcony for a third of what you would pay in the UK. The balcony has a fine view of the Wanale Cliffs, part of the Mount Elgon mountain range.

Although good, the hotel is still Ugandan. It has Wi-Fi (it doesn’t work), phone system (ditto), room safes (ditto) but I have a fully functioning bathroom with taps that turn on and off – amazing.  At present I have two sources of music – a call to prayer from the mosque opposite and pounding music from the gym below me during an aerobics session – I will not be joining them- I get in a sweat just carrying my bag upstairs.

Recent signs to ponder – “Minimum Restaurant” (this was a large café on the roadside and I cannot understand what is minimum about it). “Living positively” (this is a sign on HIV centre) and on the backs of buses we have “New Stone Age” “What Went Wrong” and “When he says yes”.  I cannot grasp what was in the minds of the owners of these vehicles when they put these signs on them. Any ideas from my readers would be appreciated please!

More nonsense soon but in the meantime here is a picture showing how far our new classrooms have got.IMGP6263

Two Weeks Later

A lot has happened in the last two weeks. 16 volunteers arrived at Entebbe on 24th July and since then we have been their leaders, guides, advisors, hosts, managers, etc. for everything. Not that it was a challenge – they were delightful to have and very hard working and useful.

They did all the things we asked them to do, and more. They were generous with their time and their money and several things are happening which we, as leaders, did not think were going to be possible. Such as the replacing of a missing school roof and the construction of some new school toilets.

Sometimes I think I have been in Africa too long. It is only when people come from the UK and point out that the water doesn’t run in the shower, or runs too much, or the toilet doesn’t work, or the fan is broken does it come home to me that my expectations of comfort in Africa are almost nil. It is easier that way, for me. But for those of us who are used to things working properly it can come as a big shock. I try to get things going as much as I can but some things I cannot change.

Complaints by me to the hotel management are always met with a friendly polite assurances that the matter will be dealt with immediately. In reality this means:

          Someone will be asked to phone a plumber/ electrician / builder (as required)

          That person doesn’t know the number and forgets about it.

          When reminded, he/she finds the number but it is engaged, or out of range.

          After various attempts the builder answers and says he is hundreds of kilometres away but will deal with it on his return (or not, as the case may be)

          Time passes and people forget / are too busy / just hope that the annoying Englishman (me) will convince his friends that living without a working toilet / shower / washbasin is the usual thing in Uganda and we just ought to get used to the idea. And mostly we do.

When work was done we took the team to the Murchison Falls National Park and we had some of the closest encounters with wildlife I have experienced in Uganda. These included our bus being checked out by a bull elephant at close range.


IMGP6258He flapped his ears a bit (a warning sign), thought about overturning our bus with a quick flick of his large tusks but decided that we were non- threatening and wandered off). And then a series of crocodiles peering at us from the bank of the Nile culminated in this one:


It was about five metres along and weighed in at over a tonne. Fortunately it was sleepy. Appropriately found on the river Nile, this is the Nile crocodile which is the world’s second most dangerous crocodile, second only to the salt water crocs of Australia. Our volunteers pleaded with the boat driver to back away but he seemed to enjoy getting close. What we did not know until later was he could not back away as the route was barred by a large hippo, also a regular killer. The saying is “hippos kill more people in Africa than wars” is probably untrue but we get the message.

That night I was woken by munching and heavy breathing. It was not Alex our driver with whom I was sharing a room. It was a hippo grazing outside by window. They come out of the water at night and graze regular routes they know. This one’s route was along our back wall, and then along our side wall, and then round the front of our building. Of course, I dashed outside with my camera and got the most amazing close up shot ever of a hippo. No, actually I lay very still in bed until the munching and breathing disappeared into the night.

This morning, being Sunday, we went to church. The same little village one we attended two weeks ago. Attendance was down – about half as many children as last time and only two dogs. The community chicken didn’t even put in an appearance.

With no reports on funny names for two weeks, I am sure you expect me to come up with some good ones; so here goes:

“Number Nine Old lady Good Food Shop”

“Titanic Guest House”

“Ted Green – his academy” – (this was a smartly painted shed by the roadside).

“Rich Rich Property Agents”

“Hotel Passions”

“Stormchild Car Wash”

“Taxi Drivers and Blockers’ Office” (No, I have no idea what a blocker is – perhaps someone who puts blocks under the wheels of parked taxis to stop them running away when their handbrakes fail. I wonder why he needs an office?)

“Half Road Closed”

And this week’s most appropriate sign was on a lorry. We went round a corner to find the road almost entirely blocked by a parked lorry. The name of the business on the front of the lorry was “Zero Distance” This was true, so far as the space left for us to drive through. This is marketing in action.

The best philosophical sign on a vehicle which caught my eye was “More money – more problems.” If this is followed by society in general it explains why most people don’t seem to think that have a problem in the world. They have no money so no problems either.

Tomorrow, we leave Entebbe behind us and return to Kumi. It will be good to get back to the peace of the countryside. Keep smiling – I am.