Uganda, two years on…

This time two years ago, I was sitting in Entebbe airport, killing a lot of hours before a flight home to London. Thanks to Tearfund’s media team, a small group of Christian bloggers had the privilege of spending a week visiting initiatives supported by Tearfund via their Ugandan partner, PAG. Dave Walker, Bex Lewis and I, plus the fabulous Katie Harrison from Tearfund [follow her on Twitter for insights into the world of international development] travelled together, with the aim that the bloggers would tell the stories of their encounters, pretty much in real time. Evenings were spent writing blogposts, editing photos and generally trying to make sense of all we’d experienced.

The team at JinjaOdiira (& Shane), Katie, Dave, Bex & I.

I would have remembered the anniversary without the help of Timehop (memory of an Elephant…), but re-living tweets, blogposts and photos through the canny app has brought back some very specific memories. For example, that final day visiting a village that had participated in the PAG’s PEP initiative, supported by Tearfund, was a fascinating insight into the misunderstandings that can occur with NGO funding. But, while we waited for the misunderstanding to be resolved, we got to play with some very entertaining children…

Baby & bubbles

The tweets and blogposts have reminded me of names I had forgotten. [If you ever go on a trip like this, write down the names of the people you meet and whose stories you hear, don’t let them become another nameless face.] That final day we met John Julius who had successfully funded his children’s higher education with his ground nut crops – two years on I’m wondering whether he ever did find the money to pay his youngest’s final semester’s fees.

John Julius & ground nutsJohn Julius & his ground nut crop.

In the last two years, I have had updates on some of the stories we heard. Just last month, Tearfund shared an update on the story of Lucy, a grandmother caring for her grandchildren. I’m Facebook friends with Odiira, our PAG guide who travelled with us and earlier this year, it turned out she was the guide on another Tearfund visit that a friend of mine was part of. Every so often, I get surprise glimpses of life in Ogongora and other communities around Soroti – like a video in a college seminar last year that may have moved me to tears.

Collecting LunchNursery school children lining up for lunch in Ogongora

It’s a place that feels very far away, on a sunny but chilly Tuesday in London. The red dust (which gets EVERYWHERE – I had to dye a white shirt blue on my return because it just wouldn’t come out),  the dry, relentless heat and the sounds – children laughing; roosters crowing; churches singing – made it like another world.

Communities like those we visited around Soroti are very much in the public eye at the moment. Every episode of Comic Relief does Bake Off features a segment about projects the charity funds in Uganda. When I watch them, I think of the people I met, and the amazing transformations that have taken place. It shows these communities are by no means hopeless.

We live in a world that, despite modern technology, can be very insular and ignorant of all that takes place outside our own neighbourhood, city, or nation. Charities like Tearfund help provide a window on societies beyond our boundaries – that’s why our visit was part of the ‘See for yourself’ campaign. We’re part of a global church, but it’s very easy to forget that Sunday by Sunday, especially if you live in a community that’s not particularly diverse. Get informed and don’t make assumptions about what those elsewhere in the world might need, or how your occasional giving to a good cause should be spent.

Enough is enough

Yesterday, the Church of England lectionary invited us to remember the Ugandan martyrs of 1886 and 1978. The earlier martyrs are credited with the resurgence of conversion to Christianity in Africa in the later 19th century, while the martyrs of 1978 were victims of persecution under Idi Amin. (This persecution is the reason why Archbishop John Sentamu fled to the UK.)

I’m not tremendously au fait with the calendar of saints’ days and remembrances, so this came as something of a surprise to me during college worship yesterday morning. Within minutes of the service beginning, we were listening to a recording of Ugandan singing. I shut my eyes and was instantly transported back to the church in Ogongora, where I’d heard near identical singing just three months ago. [Funnily enough, I’d only been remembering on my way to college that today marks exactly three months since we returned.]

Dave’s video of the singing at Ogongora church.

It’s highly appropriate that this date falls at the beginning of a week in which the IF campaign holds a massive gathering to highlight the issue of global hunger and injustice in the final weeks before the G8 summit begins. This Saturday, thousands will gather in Hyde Park to campaign for an end to hunger and poverty. (Sadly, I can’t be there thanks to a Vicar Weekend.) Next Saturday, a similar event will take place in Belfast, prior to the summit beginning on June 17th in Northern Ireland.

This connection wasn’t lost on the person leading the service, as we meditated on the Feeding of the Five Thousand and prayed for those in Uganda who still face the injustice of poverty today. I saw that injustice at first hand on our trip – like the nursery school children whose lunch (provided by the church) might be their only meal of the day. The children whose chances of making the most of their education is negatively impacted by the fact that their parents can’t afford to give them breakfast or lunch. The grandmother who goes hungry so that her grandchildren will be less hungry.

Serving lunch in OgongoraLunch at Ogongora Nursery 

If you’re able to get to Hyde Park this Saturday, or Belfast’s Botanic Gardens a week on Saturday, then DO! If you can’t, you can ‘show your face’ in support of the campaign, via this link.

The work we saw as part of the PEP programme in Uganda is making a massive difference – but it’s not enough.

What IF there was enough food for everyone?

A Uganda Day

I could let this photo speak for itself:

Doing a Liz at PremierObviously I won’t let it speak for itself, that would defeat the point of blogging…

That’s me, doing a Liz, in the Premier Radio studios in Pimlico. It’s also photographic evidence of my first-ever live, in-studio, radio interview. Specifically, I was there to talk on Woman to Woman about the Uganda trip – it wasn’t just me, Bex phoned in from Durham. [Dave was excluded on the basis of his gender.] It was great to have a chance to share some of the stories and lovely (though weird) to be talking to Bex in such a manner.

It meant that I also had a chance to catch up with Holly (the genius behind the trip) over tea while she prepped me for the interview. Holly visited Soroti and Ogongora in 2011, and obviously had kept a close watch over our adventures. I’ve struggled over the last few weeks with the feeling that I might become a Uganda bore if I’m not too careful, so it was brilliant to chat about things with someone who wouldn’t mind.

After a morning of answering questions about the trip, I spent the afternoon doing the same, this time with an old friend who lives in Kampala. Why didn’t we have our conversation in Kampala while I was there? Well, how’s this for a situation…

On the night we landed at Entebbe, my friend Abby, her husband Sam and their young daughter were watching from the window of the departure lounge. They boarded the plane we’d just got off and set off to London so Sam could have a job interview. On the night we left Entebbe, Sam got off the plane we were to board minutes later. Random. Fortunately, Abby and their daughter Rachel have stayed in the UK for a while, meaning that we could catch up in colder climes.

Years ago, when I first moved into my grotty Bermondsey flat, I was moving in with Abby. We worked together at CMS and decided to get a flat together. Within weeks she started seeing a handsome Ugandan she’d first met at her sister’s wedding in Kampala. Within months they were engaged. 7 months after moving in, she left for Kampala. Today was the first time we’d seen each other since her wedding blessing nearly 6 years ago. Crazy.

Crazy, but brilliant. Processing thoughts, feelings and wonderings post-Uganda has been tricky, but here I had someone who understood both the culture in which I exist and the one I experienced only briefly. We had shared experiences of challenges, humour and cultural differences. I was particularly thankful that she was able to solve a mystery that had bothered me throughout the trip – why was Mbale a familiar place name to me? [It’s where the ‘good’ road stopped en route to Soroti.] It had to be to do with CMS mission partners I’d worked with, but I couldn’t remember who – Abby did and my mind was thankful! [Small things…]

Plus, I got to catch up with someone I’d always enjoyed hanging out with and I met their delightful daughter. All in all, a pretty good few hours.

RachelThe lovely Rachel.

(Probably) A Final #TFBloggers Post

If I was being terribly honest, I’d have to say that the biggest impact that the Uganda trip has had on my life over the last week has been to do with sleep – or rather a lack of it. The sleep deficit from Sunday night’s flight has barely been filled. The (seemingly insignificant) three hour time difference reared its ugly head at 5.30am every morning until Friday. My sleep (what there has been of it) has been filled with peculiar Malarone fuelled dreams that have had me awakening in a cold sweat on more than once occasion  [Bizarre dreams have included former Archbishop Rowan swimming the Thames and Denise van Outen as a dinner lady…]

Final Day of MalaroneYesterday was the final day of Malarone. I rejoiced via Instagram.

The thing is, I’ve not really had time to fully process the trip yet. I’ve said to a few people that the processing process has been tricky, partly owing to the reason we were in Uganda in the first place. We were there to blog and the immediacy of that blogging was key to the trip’s success. So on one level, there was a certain amount that we processed immediately. But it also meant that we were constantly doing things, leaving little time for reflection. The past week has been crazy busy and no end is in sight, at least this side of Holy Week, when I may finally get a day off. Vicar weekends, theological conferences and a 5,000 word exegesis of Galatians deadline are all conspiring against me. There is still a lot of processing to happen, but I’m not entirely sure when that will be. At some point there’ll also be a debriefing session with Tearfund [if you ever go on a trip like this, ensure you get a debriefing opportunity, they’re vital!], but a lot of the reflecting and thinking will be up to me.

In all probability, this will be the final entirely Uganda trip related post. But the processing will continue via writing for a little while, just in other locations. There are some follow up articles to be written for different publications in the coming months, which will probably build upon some of the themes I began ruminating on in my writing here. [I’ll share the links as and when they appear. One of my current internal debates is whether to face the wrath of the Guardian Comment is Free commentors – comment is free, but it can also be fiercely brutal.]

The children of OgongoraUntil next time, Ogongora.

I’d also like to use this post to thank Tearfund for giving me this opportunity in the first place. In particular, a massive thank-you is owed to Holly (who came up with the idea of a bloggers’ trip and made it happen) and Katie (who supported Holly’s idea and came with us) – I’m so grateful for all you’ve given us through this experience! I’m very conscious that I’m only a small fish in the huge pond of Christian blogging. There are plenty of other bloggers and tweeters who would have leapt at this opportunity and done a fantastic job of it, so I count it a massive privilege to have been given it. It will be an adventure whose memories will last a lifetime and I’m sure it will continue to impact my life in many ways in the years to come.

It seems only right that I should also flag up the Tearfund campaign we were in Uganda to witness for ourselves. If you’ve been inspired by any of the stories and experiences I’ve shared over the last couple of weeks, do take a look at See For Yourself and find out about more of the ways in which lives across the world are being transformed through community mobilisation.

Driving Uganda

If you’d ever told me that I’d write a blogpost about an episode of Top Gear, I’d have laughed in your face. Yes, I’ve sporadically watched the show, but given as I can’t drive, let alone own my own car, its attractions are limited. Most of the joy I’ve drawn from it has been its theme tune and the fact that I can’t hear it without remembering my sister dancing to it clad in a yellow catsuit in a school dance show about 13 years ago! However, on Sunday night/Monday morning, I started receiving a flurry of tweets about a Top Gear special, featuring Uganda. In fact, more than that, just hours after we’d been to the ‘official’ source of the Nile at Jinja, the team were challenged to find the actual source of the Nile. Bizarre.

So, clearly catching up on this programme had to be high priority on returning to London. (Once I’d caught up on two weeks of Call the Midwife, obviously.) I watched it last night, and was fascinated…

Top Gear Africa special

Roads had been a hot topic of conversation while we were in Uganda. At our security briefing a month before leaving, road accidents were identified as one of the biggest risks on our trip – we were given strict instructions about the quality of vehicles we could use and the importance of seat-belts. We spent a lot of time in the vans (6 hours reaching Soroti, and at least an hour’s driving each way in order to reach the villages each day) and their quality was varied. Bex spent most of the week dosed up on Qwells thanks to travel sickness. One of our scariest moments was on the very first day, when we had to do the last 90 minutes of the drive to Soroti in the dark, on unlit roads whose surface was virtually non-existent. Reaching Ogongora required much jolting over roads that were more like overgrown footpaths. We had 4×4’s and decent suspension, but my hips still bear the bruises sustained from banging into the car door handle repeatedly.

The risk of a programme like this, so soon after our return, was that I would be irrationally incensed by the men’s actions. After all, Clarkson isn’t the world’s most sensitive man and what on earth would they make of the poverty so hugely in evidence at the sides of the roads they drove along?

Fortunately, it got off to a good start. Within minutes of watching Clarkson et al begin their challenge, I was laughing. They had all bought estate cars for under £1500 – estates? We were in proper hard-core vans with local, knowledgeable drivers and we struggled. How on earth would three Brits cope? Then there was the scenery – it was delightful to see it again a matter of hours after actually being there. I continued laughing as they gloated over how much better the roads were than they’d expected – little did they know just how quickly they would deteriorate.

Their first issue was in fact the same first issue we faced – the traffic of Kampala. Our start was delayed by nearly 2 hours on the first day because the vans got stuck in traffic. We were surprised, but soon realised that traffic in the Ugandan capital is on another level to anything I’ve ever seen in London! (Unlike the Top Gear team, we did not have to overnight in a traffic jam.) At one point our driver tailgated an emergency vehicle to get past a very, very long line of traffic. Obviously, I don’t condone such behaviour, but I bet Clarkson would!

However, there were moments when I found myself yelling at the TV. Particularly at the point when they stopped somewhere for the night and Clarkson was not complimentary about the hotel they found. Well, what the flip did he expect to find in rural Uganda?? Did he know that (in all likelihood) just metres away from the bed he found disgusting, people were sleeping without even a mattress? Really, who gives a toss about how a car is performing when people are living below the breadline? I guess the same could be said for every regular episode of Top Gear set in the UK…

Lake view from the roadOne of the stunning views we witnessed during the drive from Soroti to Mbale on Sunday morning. 

Despite all of this, it was a good watch and I will be tuning in next week for part 2. It makes me wonder what I’d have thought about the programme, had I watched it before the Ugandan trip was even mentioned – would I have got annoyed and angry? Possibly, and probably for good reason. Would I have sighed at the beauty of the Uganda countryside? Probably not. Would I have kept pinching myself to remember that only 36 hours previously, my feet had stood on that land? Obviously not.

[Incidentally, in other Africa related TV news – yes, I am aware of the Richard Curtis drama Mary & Marthaabout malaria. It’s downloaded, but I suspect I won’t watch it until things are a little less raw. I suspect I’ll find next week, with all the Comic Relief documentaries, quite hard work.]