Inspiring women

One of the things that impressed me in Ogongora was the role that women have played in the PEP process. We’ve met several women whose lives have truly been transformed by the initiative, which is really encouraging as in rural areas, women often get even more of a raw deal than the rest of the population.

Woman & baby, Ogongora

Being a woman is tough. For a start, the cost of educating your brothers might be a higher priority than the cost of educating you and your sisters. If you do get to school, you might have to leave when your period starts owing to the shortage of toilets, embarrassment or lack of sanitary products. Your marriage might be a major source of income for your family, meaning that love may not be a significant factor in the choice of your husband. Domestic violence is common. Rates of HIV infection are high. Being widowed or abandoned can result in being left with many children to care for on little or no income. I could go on…

However, PEP is changing this. The increase in income and a growth in understanding of prospects that education provides has ensured that families aim to educate all their children, regardless of gender. Widows are finding ways of generating an income to provide for their families. Wives are supplementing their family’s income and becoming empowered because they know that they are an asset to their community.

Elizabeth & her food storeElizabeth and her granary.

On our first day in Ogongora, we met Elizabeth. [Who features on the Tearfund website and who Bex wrote about on Tuesday.] She is a true success story – once a widow who had to beg for food, she now possesses a grain store that’s full to overflowing (the overflow is stored in her hut). She has food to store for the famine season, to sell at the market, and to help those in the community who need it. When we asked her how PEP helped her, she replied that it had helped her realise that she had ‘the gift of time’. Once upon a time, she said she wasted hours chatting with other women. Then she realised that if she spent more time on her garden, she would (literally) reap the benefits. Her life is far from perfect – there are still issues with her husband’s family over land ownership – but it has significantly improved in just a couple of years.

Anna & NormaAnna and Norah in Ogongora church.

Yesterday, Bex and I met with Norah and Anna – two women who appear to be stalwarts of the Ogongora community. Norah has greeted us with cheers, dancing and a flag every morning and has been one of those who has prepared food for us to eat. She founded her own business through the PEP process and as a result earned enough money to ensure her daughter could qualify as a nurse (quite an achievement!) and is now totally debt free.

Anna is HIV+ and widowed, but her story is unlike many others you might hear of those in similar circumstances. She has always been open about her status, and has been on the receiving end of both positive and negative behaviour in return. At one point, people created rumours suggesting that she put her infected blood in the food she cooked at her ‘hotel’ (which usually refers to a cafe). But thanks to PEP she has found the money to put both her adopted son and her nephew through school. Health issues and their associated costs are constant concern, and her future is by no means certain, but she knows that the community are supporting her too.

Today, we participated in an act of worship in the village (Dave’s written about this in more detail, complete with a video of some fabulous singing). Being the feminist that I am, I was delighted that it was Anna who kicked off the service and took an active role throughout – and that the pastor’s wife led prayers. In fact, I discovered yesterday that not only does PAG have female pastors, they also have a female bishop! Odiira simply could not understand why female bishops was still an issue in the Church of England! (I know how she feels…)

At the end, there was a time of prayer ministry and a lady called Lucy came forward, who Katie and I interviewed afterwards. Lucy is not one of PEP’s glittering success stories. She is widowed, 60, and responsible for her 5 grandchildren. Ill health is preventing her from continuing with the business she began with PEP. The youngest boys had dysentry last week; she has been suffering from chest pains. She shared that they can only eat once a day – in the evenings – and even then it was probably only millet porridge. In this community she is old, yet has to deal with the demands most of the women only face when they are more than 30 years younger than she is. Before we left, Katie and I prayed with her – it was all we could do.

Lucy and familyLucy and her twin grandsons (in purple).

In Ogongora, inspiration and heartbreak live side by side. It’s always difficult to know how to deal with the latter.

PEP!

What we’ve particularly come to observe in Uganda is the work done by Tearfund’s partner – PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) who have been working on an initiative across the the country called PEP (Participatory Evaluation Process). Everywhere we go, we hear the acronym ‘PEP’ cropping up in conversation – it’s easily identifiable even before the interpreter translates. I love the way it sounds so cheerful and joyous – PEP!

PAG bus

It is joyous. Communities and individuals are being transformed by the process. While it’s initiated by the church, it’s open to everyone, so many, many people have benefitted from it. It’s about looking at what you already have, and using that to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others.

One evening this week, Odiira (PAG’s Communications Officer) explained a bit more of the process to us. She said that training sessions were held in the communities, to which all were invited, and which local facilitators ran. At the end of the first day, they were encouraged to go home and work out what resources they had. Many would return the next day and say they had nothing – they would be encouraged to look again. Eventually they would think of the land they already used for growing crops; the few livestock they owned; a particular skill they had; or even something as simple as their time.

BricksLocally made bricks ready for the planned new church buildingPart of Ogongora’s PEP plan.

I’m going to share some more specific stories about the process later (both Bex and Dave already have), but that particular evening, we also got to talking about whether such a process would work back in the UK…

We have so much, yet would we think we had the resources to start our own business or become self-sufficient? I don’t have any land. I don’t have any truly useful skills like carpentry. But I have been blessed with an excellent (nearly entirely free) education. I’ve had a secure job (or at least I will do once I finish training) since graduating (bar 4 months of unemployment). Therefore, as an individual, I’m pretty much ok.

Borehole inspectionObserving the site of a new bore hole for the community – another element of Ogongora’s plan.

But PEP isn’t just about individuals, it’s about how those individuals come together to form a community. As individuals increase their crop harvests, they have more to share with those who are less fortunate than themselves. As they make better use of their time, they are able to offer it to community tasks – like helping with building or cooking meals. They look out for one another and encourage others in the challenges that PEP brings. It’s not all plain sailing, and not every story we’ve heard has had a happy ending, but when it’s happening in the context of community, there are others around to support each other.

What can we do to support our communities? Do we even know who our community is? Is our church community the extent of those who come into the building on a Sunday or during the week? How do we build bridges between the different factions of the community?

I’m not sure what the answers are, but I’m going to be pondering them for quite some time.

Fulfilling a stereotype?

One of the most shocking things I heard this morning came when leading members of Ogongora church were introducing themselves to us. More than once they shared that the children had been scared of us when we’d arrived the day before because we were white, but that today they realised that we were friendly so they were keen to say hello. [Which explained the very enthusiastic crowd of children who greeted me as soon as I stepped down from the truck.]

I arrived in Uganda very conscious that I was a ‘muzungu’ (the generic term for ‘white person’) and that as such, I carried a lot of extra baggage – colonial history, assumptions about aid and charity, not to mention simply being one of a very obvious minority. With blonde hair and blue eyes, I don’t look anything but European and there’s no point trying to hide it.

I’ve been in the same situation elsewhere in the world – in Palestine (where I scored extra points while haggling for being British, not American) and in Tonga (where I was regarded as a papalangi until I produced my trump card of having been born in its capital – at which point all Tongans congratulate me on being Tongan) – but nowhere has it had the connotations it has here.

My adult life has largely been spent understanding why ‘the west’ and ‘Europe’ and ‘whites’ have this reputation. Firstly, studying a MA in Imperial & Commonwealth History, specifically the relationship mission had with the empire. Then, working for two different Christian mission organisations, where I tried to persuade British Christians not to look for the stereotypes from overseas mission – I despaired when, time and again, requests were made for photos of ‘black babies’.

So I came on this trip determined not to be a stereotype. To remember the lessons I’d learned about cross-cultural engagement. To learn from the communities we visited, rather than believing that I had anything to teach them. To write and take photos that would help people back in Britain understand that the work Tearfund is doing is the antithesis of traditional, old skool conceptions of what ‘mission’ looks like.

Discovering that the children had been afraid of us was a major blow to this ambition. Even outside the village, we were regarded as near celebrities – muzungu are a rare sight in rural areas and time and again we were greeted by waving children stood at the side of the road as our van passed. In our eyes, many of the people we’re meeting in Ogongora are the celebrities – after all, we’ve watched videos of many of them over the last few months!

This afternoon, I felt that I’d become even more stereotypical. This photo explains why:

Liz & baby

That’s Pastor Peter’s 6 month old son. He reached out to me when I went over to say hello, so I gave him a cuddle. But, as I looked over and noticed Bex and Dave taking photos (that’s Dave’s image above), I felt like I was a throwback to the 19th century – a well meaning white female missionary cuddling an African baby.

Then, I added to the stereotype by becoming a bountiful visitor when we got back to the church building. The older children had returned from school and I handed out bottles of bubbles and balloons for them to play with. Chaos ensued. I knew it was an ok thing to do (Holly from Tearfund had mentioned the bubbles she’d brought on here visit here and I thought they’d be an easy thing to pack.) but that didn’t stop me from feeling like it was a token gesture.

Balloons through the window

All the same, it made for some great fun with the kids and an amazing array of photos just before we returned to the guest house for the evening. Those, and a selection of others from the trip so far are now up on Flickr (my aim is to add a certain number each day as a flavour of what we’re up to and then complete the set once I’m at home and with wifi).

Bubbles!

Fun with digital cameras & children...

POST EDIT:

Overnight, I kept thinking about this post. I was worried I may have sounded too negative – but was relieved to get online this morning and discover that others have had similar experiences. It had also struck me that being ‘scared’ of those that are different from us is not uncommon in the UK either – I suspect the Daily Mail features articles that encourage such feelings on pretty much a daily basis. It’s natural, but it’s overcoming that fear that’s important. Similarly, it’s ok when we happen to unintentionally fulfil stereotypes, as long as we recognise the stereotypes and are able to reflect on what we really want to be doing.

This live-blogging a trip business is tricky at times – in an ideal world I’d love more time to reflect, but it’s the raw reactions that are also important. Thanks for your patience!

Face to face with malaria

A hot topic of conversation prior to this trip related to mosquitos – which anti-malarial was I going to take? How much repellent would I need? How many different anti-histamines would I need for my inevitable allergic reaction to bites? Would I need my own mozzie net?  The first day of Malarone (my anti-malarial of choice, after a comparison of side-effects) was duly marked with an arty Instagram shot and will be a feature of every breakfast until a week on Sunday.

Malarone Day 1

Now that we’re here, I’ve found the novelty of sleeping under a net quite exciting, going far as to tweet on our night in Entebbe: “Sleeping under a mosquito net is pretty much like pretending to get married & having a massive veil. And then sleeping under it.” This morning, I opened my eyes and was initially concerned that my vision appeared blurred. Then I realised that my face was almost up against the net…

I’ve developed a good routine of spraying repellent after every shower (that’s morning and evening thanks to the day’s heat and the village’s dust); wearing long clothes in the evening; tucking my net in every night; and of course taking my Malarone religiously.

Mosquito nets have been a major feature of Comic Relief’s campaigns over the last few years. I’d certainly been moved to donate more than once following films in hospitals treating small children with malaria, almost to no avail. In fact, on Saturday night, hours before we left, I caught a film from One Direction’s recent visit to Ghana and their experiences in a Ghanaian paediatric ward. Harry Styles was moved to sobs so violent that he could barely utter the number needed for texting donations.

We’ve seen evidence of malaria prevention in Ogongora – there are nets in the sleeping huts. But we’ve also seen plenty of evidence that a net alone won’t prevent the disease from striking. On our first morning, we met the President of PAG whose wife was in hospital being treated. Later we heard that our driver’s daughter was suffering too (having already lost one brother to the illness). Then someone in the village we’d hoped to meet turned out to be sick. As I write, Joseph our driver is seeking treatment having come down with the same affliction as his daughter.

People here cannot afford the luxury of daily anti-malarials – they have to wait until they get sick to have treatment. They have nets, but not repellent. They have whatever clothes they have and certainly don’t have clever garments already impregnated with repellent like Bex has. It’s vicious and, like so many things we’re coming across, incredibly unfair.

A violent transformation

Yesterday, at some point on the epic drive, I spotted a massive billboard with a large picture of a man’s face across it. Intrigued, I read on and discovered that it was aimed at ending domestic violence. Its slogan was something along the lines of: “a worthy husband does not beat his wife”. I was rather surprised and pondered whether I’d ever seen anything similar in the UK – I’m not sure that I have.

Billboard advertising is still one of the primary means of mass communication in Uganda – hence the colourful shop-front adverts I was entranced by yesterday. It’s used to communicate key issues and direct messages – meaning that this morning I came across signs such as “an honest marriage begins by getting tested together” and “Say no to sex! Don’t start! Every choice has a consequence. Make the right decision.”  (Both are part of HIV awareness campaigns.)

Talking with Odiira (PAG’s Communications Officer and our guide all week) about the domestic violence billboard, she explained that it’s a massive problem in Uganda. Many men believe that their wives should be made to submit to them, and that violence is the key to achieving this. In some tribes, beatings are the norm. There is a huge campaign – of which this billboard is part – to overcome these beliefs.

It was therefore fascinating to meet with Richard this afternoon, as he shared his story of having previously beaten his wife and children, but now living a life where he cared and provided for them instead. He became involved in PEP (Participatory Evaluation Process) – the initiative for which Tearfund funds PAG and came to faith through the Bible studies that are part of the process. He realised that violence towards his family was not compatible with his new life and instead became passionate about providing all that they needed and enabling his children to go on to great things. When we asked him today, he said that he’d like his children to become doctors or teachers and to have at least one pastor!

Richard & RosaRichard tells his story, while his wife Rosa peels cassava.

While he was talking with us, we asked how he now felt about his family. His reply caused our interpretor and the other men with us to laugh. We asked why this was. All he’d said was: “I love my wife” Apparently, it’s very unusual for men to admit that out loud here. For Richard, a man who once drank all his family’s income away and beat his wife as a punishment for not having food with which to make dinner, this is an incredible transformation.