Reflecting & remembering

We’re home. It’s hugely surreal and slightly overwhelming.

Yesterday, I arrived back at my flat around 5pm having left Soroti 36 hours previously. In the intervening time, we had driven to Kampala via Jinja and the (disputed) source of the Nile; we’d shopped for souvenirs in Kampala; we’d bidden farewell to our amazing PAG team; waited for what seemed an eternity at Entebbe for our flight; spent 9 hours on a plane; and done a full day at Vicar School. (People thought I was mad, but it was the best thing I could have done – the excitement of catching up with people and an interesting day of endless activity kept me awake and invigorated.)

The team at JinjaOdiira & Shane, Katie from Tearfund and the #tfbloggers at the source of the Nile. To quote the tweet that accompanied this yesterday:Less than 24hrs ago, the #tfbloggers were at the source of the Nile. Now I’m in a pneumotology lecture. *Mind blown*”

It’s now time to reflect and remember the amazing week that was the #tfbloggers trip. As a start, what follows is something of a more light-hearted look at the trip – that shouldn’t undermine what I’ve written thus far, but is more a collection of ‘notes to self’ I made while away…

  • Uganda roads (particularly in rural areas) require bras that have the support level of a high-impact sports bra. (When I posted this on Facebook I was accused of a TMI, but I insist that this is helpful info for anyone travelling there.)
  • Don’t be alarmed if you are offered a plate of “boiled Irish” – this does not refer to a cannibalistic activity, but is instead the Ugandan way of referring to potato. “Mashed Irish” was also a daily option at our guest house. I hope the Irish are proud.
  • Background music can add a high degree of surrealness to situations. Two example of this from last week came courtesy of the music choices of one of our drivers (there was never any in music in the other van). Firstly, the moment when we pulled onto a tiny dirt track en route to Ogongora for the first, when a muzak version of My Heart Will Go On came on. Secondly, the following morning when part of our journey along the dusty road was accompanied by Back for Good – all of a sudden I was back at Wembley watching them live, while conscious that I was 1000’s of miles away. (Other soundtracks included some much more culturally appropriate Rwandan music and a bizarre collection of Country & Western gospel tracks.)

The everlasting dust roadThis + Take That = Weird.

  • See enough “Enjoy an Ice Cold Coke” signs and you will start to crave the stuff with a passion. As virtually every school sign in Uganda is sponsored by Coke, this is a very common sighting. Combined with the distinct lack of ice cold beverages of any variety in the field, this was a painful craving in 37C heat. I don’t even like Coke generally – but the Diet version is not to be found in Uganda.
  • It seems we Brits have under-estimated the usefulness of umbrellas. We think they’re just for keeping our heads dry – how foolish! Didn’t you know they could also function as a sunshade? In fact, Odiira was shocked that we hadn’t thought of bringing them with us – I had to explain that I’d assumed the lack of rain would render one surplus to requirements.

Umbrellas as sunshades

  • Many MTN adverts (a national mobile network) informed me that MTN was the “biggest supporter of the Ugandan cranes”. For some time I wondered why construction equipment or even a breed of bird required such support, then I twigged that the cranes are the national football team. Obviously.
  • Being accompanied on a trip like this by a 6 month old baby is an utter joy. Especially when the baby in question is super cute, placid and exceptionally happy. Shane, Odiira’s daughter, was a joy and it was very sad saying goodbye to her at the airport.

Lunch with ShaneLunch with Shane at Jinja.

  • It’s perfectly acceptable to interrupt a sermon with a request that a member of the congregation lead everyone in an a cappella chorus. I plan to introduce this into my next sermon at St George’s. (Consider this a warning!)
  • Maxi skirts really are the most useful of articles. Not only do they meet the modest dress code needed when travelling, they also have myriad uses: sunshade for legs & feet; plentiful towel for drying hands on; protector of legs from vicious plants & insects; and often colourful enough to be an identifying marker from a distance. Top tip: I love a good maxi skirt and already have one that is my go-to “modest skirt for hot climate” skirt (bought 6 years ago and served me well). A second such skirt was purchased on eBay for 99p last month, meaning that I cared not a jot that it’s returned home with a small hole in it.

In John Julius' homeMy eBay maxi skirt in action. (And the French braids – see below.) [Credit: Bex]

  • My decision to spend an evening learning how to French plait my hair three weeks ago was an excellent use of time. (Even though it was blatant sermon writing procrastination in the moment.) Long hair is a pain in hot weather, and two French braids worked well at keeping it under control and looking good. A single French braid with a bandana was also a good choice for long drives and flights. For years I’ve believed I just couldn’t do it – turned out all I needed was this YouTube tutorial.

French braid at the source of the NileThe French plait at the source of the Nile. (A bit had escaped during the long car journey…) [Credit: Bex]

  • Chickens are surprisingly good travel companions – more so when travelling in a box, rather than loose in the boot. (The former being how Joseph’s new chicken travelled all day Sunday; the latter how it travelled for an hour on Saturday.) Oh, and it’s good to feed them soda to drink, they need the sugar – apparently.

Hydrating the chickenJoseph rehydrates his chicken while we ate lunch.

There’s still more to write, but don’t worry if you’re getting bored with all of this – I’m fairly sure I’ll be done by the end of the week! Thank you for your patience, your support and your prayers/well wishes. It’s been amazing being on this journey knowing how many people have been sharing in it!

From the smallest of beginnings…

This post was intended for Sunday evening, but the wifi at the airport wasn’t strong enough to get much done. Since then, work & tiredness have overcome blogging, so I’m back-dating the last few posts.

On our last day in the field, we heard some of the most dramatic testimonies I think I’ve heard during the whole trip. Two in particular stood out to me, one because they had achieved something we’d not heard anyone else speak of; and the other because it started with such small means…

John Julius greeted Katie and I with enthusiasm when he arrived at the village on Saturday morning. We had quite a long chat with him (in English) before he entered the church building, about his family, his farm and in particular, his son – who was months away from graduating university, except he needed to find the 1.5 million Ugandan shillings (approximately £330) to pay his last term’s fees. This was the first time anyone we’d come across in the PEP process who had mentioned at child in higher education, and this was in fact John Julius’ second son to have studied a degree!

In the church meeting, John Julius shared more of his testimony in detail. He described his life pre-PEP as “sleepy” – passing him by and without taking much initiative in the direction it lead. PEP helped him and his family realise that they were blessed with fertile land, so began growing crops and investing in livestock. The main purpose behind this activity was to fund his children’s’ education – which he did. As well as the sons who’ve studied at university, he has two children still in secondary school and a daughter who’s trained as a primary school teacher – significant achievements in Uganda as a whole, let alone this small rural community.

John Julius & ground nutsJohn Julius & his store of ground nuts.

Following the meeting, we walked the short distance to John Julius’ home and it was quite honestly one of the most encouraging and impressive sights we’d witnessed in any of the villages. There was a group of calves, bred from cattle who were out grazing; chickens, sheep and goats; flourishing banana and mango trees; fields of crops; and the crowing glory – a stash of sacks of ground nuts awaiting selling. These nuts were the key to finding the funds for his son’s fees. If the price was right, he might get the full 1.5 million from them, but he wasn’t optimistic. The deadline for fees is March 9th and if they’re unpaid, his son won’t be able to take his final exams. Do pray that he is able to find the fees – to come so far and be prevented from completing the final hurdle would be horrendous for all concerned.

Grace's pigs (& chickens)Grace’s home.

Another home close to the church building was home to Grace – the woman I mentioned in my last post as having once worn rags, but who was now regarded as one of the best-dressed women in the village. I want to tell her story with the same detail as she shared it at our gathering as it shows just how PEP enables people to progress from the tiniest of resources…

When Grace returned home after attending PEP training, she looked (as she was instructed) for what she had as a starting point. All she could find was some charcoal her oldest child had, which she thought was worth around UGS 800 (less than half a US$), which she really didn’t believe would be enough to kick off any kind of business enterprise. But she didn’t give up. She harvested the cassava she was growing in her garden and planned to make some simple buns that she could sell at market. To do this, she needed cooking oil, but the charcoal money wouldn’t be enough for a whole jar, so she asked a shop to lend her some. Using the charcoal money, she bought sugar and then made the buns. Once sold, she had enough money to pay for the oil and a small profit. She continued this business until she had saved UGS 390,000 – at which point she surprised her husband by revealing the money and using it to buy a cow! The cow produced two calves and a lot of milk, which is a big deal when caring for a family of six. Later, she became pregnant and was worried that she would use up all her savings while she was unable to work, so instead used them to buy two pigs – one of which she later sold at a profit and the other has produced piglets which in turn can be sold.

Grace's homeGrace shows us a basket of silver fish.

She has done amazingly, especially in overcoming the drain on resources that pregnancy (and an extra mouth to feed) might have been. We visited her home too and the range of activities going on there now was incredible – calves stood in the shade of a tree; chickens ran around with the piglets; at one point she brought out a basket of silver fish which she catches locally and sells at market. Given that all this has emerged from the sale of such a simple thing as charcoal, it’s incredibly impressive!

It was an amazing way in which to conclude the trip, seeing evidence of just how much PEP can achieve even from the smallest of beginnings.

Misunderstanding?

Today was our final day visiting a village and it very nearly ended when it had barely begun, thanks to a bit of misunderstanding. We arrived at today’s community to find a nearly empty church and a man who said that when some muzungu had visited previously, they had promised money for the village, the money hadn’t arrived and they hoped that we were bringing it. Our PAG partners were shocked by this revelation, especially as more people gathered and it emerged that many had just come along for money. Phone calls were made, conversations were had with the bishop and the village elders. Those involved in PEP said that they did not want to share their stories with us as they felt betrayed.

BubblesThe bubbles were definitely a good buy! 

While the situation was being sorted out, we played with children, wondering if we’d soon just be getting back into the vans and returning to Soroti. But fortunately, Ben, Odiira and the bishop were able to sort it all out and within an hour, we were back inside the church. (Well, by ‘sorted’ I mean that the bishop has told the local pastors that he’ll come and visit and explain soon.) There was still a lot of suspicion throughout the rest of the visit which at times was difficult to know how to deal with.

John Julius & his calvesJohn Julius – a major PEP success – with some of his livestock.

In the other places, people were keen to show us how PEP had inspired them to look at their own resources and sustain themselves through what they’d learnt. Here, there was still clearly a hope within some in the community that the arrival of muzungu would lead to handouts. We don’t know the whole situation, but I hope that those who have not become involved in PEP and simply came along thinking that they might get some money, will have listened to the amazing PEP testimonies we heard and been inspired themselves.

Jennifer's homeGrace – who once wore rags, but now is one of the best-dressed women in the village!

At some point this week, one of the Ugandans whose life has been changed by PEP mentioned the story of ‘give a man a fish…’. As I heard the translator explain this, I giggled to myself as it’s exactly the parable I’ve used to illustrate the point of the initiative back home. We’ve seen over and over again this week just how much can be achieved through empowerment rather than handouts, so it was sad in some ways to meet people who were still hoping for those, rather than taking their lives into their own hands.

Baby & bubbles

But at the same time, today brought some really special stories – which I’ll try and share tomorrow, probably during our long wait for our flight home at the airport.

Education, education, education

Over lunch yesterday, I had an odd moment of ‘home’ life gate-crashing my temporary Ugandan existence. I checked my phone (which I’m mainly using as a watch given the lack of wifi and intermittent signal) and found a text informing me that Doris, my favourite 11 year old, had got into her secondary school of choice. It was March 1st and back in the UK that meant that children across the country are finding out where they’ll be going to school in September. For Doris, and the rest of her cohort in the city of Gloucester, this is made all the more nail biting owing to the fact that they still have the grammar school system – her mother’s text to me simply read “SHE GOT IN!!!” and that was all I needed to know that she’d got into one of the girls’ grammars. Not just any grammar in fact, the very one that educated me for the last four years of my secondary education.

I’m not going to launch into a tirade about selective education right now. (For all I know, I probably have on this blog at some point in the past. Suffice to say, aged 11 I didn’t get into a selective school, yet ended up at a world-class university. Guess where my views lie…) But what struck me was that just minutes before I received that text, I’d been hearing about the way in which education is valued in communities where PEP has been at work.

Nursery SchoolTeacher & pupil at Ogongora’s nursery school.

Like I mentioned when writing about women, PEP has helped families realise the importance of educating daughters as well as sons. It’s helped communities realise where gaps in education are and ensure that there is provision for as many people as possible. Profitable crops and businesses means that the fees and costs of education is affordable. In Ogongora, one of the gaps identified was in pre-school education – so setting up a church nursery school was high on their lists of priorities. Yesterday’s village had helped found two primary schools and improved facilities for secondary education, next on their list is beginning a nursery school. In order to give the next generation the best start possible, access to education is essential.

Bye! Till tomorrow...Children (in the pink & purple shirts) who have just returned from a day at primary school in Ogongora.

As we drove back yesterday evening, it struck me that it was the last time I’d have the chance to observe school kids on their breaks, or wending their way home along the roads in their colourful uniforms. It’s now the weekend and we leave late on Sunday night. It’s been one of my favourite sights in Uganda – the coloured shirts and dresses against the bright green trees and deep red dust. Yes, access to education is improving, but is it anything like the education system in the UK? No.

While waiting for the van to be fixed yesterday morning, Bex popped into the building next door to our guest house which happens to be a college of mass communication – being a digital media expert and an academic, she was naturally curious. There was no internet access and only a limited number of (rather old) computers. Much teaching in schools is done by rote and resources are hugely limited.

Local childrenChildren in Waila yesterday. We gave them some coloured chalk to play with & some sweets. (As my friend Jenni commented on Flickr, you wouldn’t want to confuse those two items…)

So there I was yesterday. Stood in a shop in a rural marketplace in Uganda, celebrating that Doris will be at a brilliant school this autumn, with great teachers, nearly unlimited resources, a performing arts studio, a library and everything she’ll need to get a good education – all virtually free. Around me were children who looked like they were old enough for primary school (which begins around 7) but who instead were sat outside the shop playing in the dust. In all likelihood this wasn’t truancy, this was indicative of their parents not being able to pay the fees (or buy the uniform). Yet again, it’s another example of how life is not fair and how things that seem massively important at home suddenly seem so trivial here.

Children greeting A delightful, yet slightly bizarre moment on the way home yesterday – these children had seen us coming from a long way off, and knelt by the side of the road to greet us. Humbled doesn’t even cut it. (Apologies for the quality – that’s what you get from the front seat of a van on a bumpy road.)

A growing market place

Today has been a challenging day. It was already going to be different to the others, as for the first time our visit wasn’t going to be to Ogongora, but to another community further down the route of PEP. It didn’t start well – our early (well, earlier) departure was scuppered by a van needing repairs. Fortunately, it was fixed fairly speedily and we left only 90 minutes later than planned, which I think is pretty good going, given the context.

Do not be afraid...of taxis?Another inspirational taxi – found in the petrol station this morning.

As a result of our delay, our planned programme in the village had to be squashed as we still needed to leave at our arranged time. [One of the challenges of this trip has been ensuring that we get back to the guest house at a reasonable hour, leaving time for showers, blogging, photo editing etc before sitting down to dinner. Early starts mean late nights writing blogposts aren’t such a good idea.] Instead of visiting several people’s homes and land, key members of the community were gathered together in the church building for a time of worship, prayer and PEP testimonies.

Sharing PEP testimoniesSenior Pastor Gideon shares with the congregation.

Sitting anywhere hot for over two hours is always challenging. When it involves translation and long-winded testimonies, it’s even more so. I think we heard eight or nine stories of transformation thanks to PEP and several of them really were inspiring, but I really was starting to flag in the heat. (Such situations are made even harder when you’re sat facing the congregation!) Having arrived at midday, we only moved on to visiting people’s businesses at 2.30pm. People were clearly disappointed that we couldn’t visit more homes (especially the senior pastor), and that was tricky to handle too.

Personally, I found the fact that community was a more urban rural one than Ogongora’s off the beaten track nature. I’m not sure if that makes sense… Today’s village was along the main road as opposed to the literal tracks we drove down to Ogongora. It had a ‘centre’ – a strip of shops reminiscent of a Main Street in a cowboy film. Many of those involved in PEP had managed to found businesses in the centre, and it was these that we were visiting. However, because this community in many ways had much more in terms of material goods than in Ogongora – like phones, solar charging panels & shops – it looked a little more like they were living aspirational lives, wanting what could be had in Kampala. Because of this, what they didn’t have and their poverty was even more obvious than it had seemed in the more rural areas.

Clement & his shopClement & his new property.

But still, the stories were inspiring. We met Margaret, who had begun baking cassava bread in her hut and thanks to PEP, found the means to expand her business to a shop in the centre – which she showed us with immense pride. [Note to self: Bex brought back a bag of the bread and I haven’t tried any yet.] Clement took us to the property he’s just acquired for his cassava flour business. Multiple people in this community have been equipped with the skills they needed to make a life for themselves and their families.

Margaret's cassava bakeryMargaret, her bakery and a tub of cassava bread. 

And again, it’s not just the individuals who are benefitting – the whole community is too. Always the researcher, I was delighted to discover today that a significant amount of research goes into PEP, there are individuals whose job it is to help these communities to analyse themselves as a way to identify their needs. Abdul [fascinatingly, a muslim who has become involved in PEP and is now a passionate advocate for it] shared a few stats with us, including the fact that 6 years ago, at the start of the process, only 5% of families had a pit latrine. Now, over 90% do – and those that don’t are usually elderly or unable to dig one themselves. 6 years ago, only 4 children were in ‘senior’ education, now there are many. Like Ogongora, the village also wanted a new, larger, more permanent church building and they’re well on their way to achieving that ambition:

New church building

Tomorrow is our final day in the field and we’ll be visiting another village, in the same locality as today, but a similar context to Ogongora. Here’s hoping for no broken down vehicles and plenty of time to spend with inspiring people.