Dear friends, I’m still smiling after reading this account of my neice Mailies’s two weeks in Uganda. ENJOY! I’m one very proud auntie!
I find that the relaxed pace of life in rural Uganda makes the smaller details of daily life more noticeable, something that has helped me to manage my expectations of Uganda against the reality I was met with when I visited in August 2018. Gerry, my aunt, had told me how easily she finds peace in Uganda, so the realisation that it never seems silent in Uganda surprised me on the first morning I woke up in Nawanyago, the small village where Innocent and his family live in rural Uganda. Innocent’s three-room house is encircled by a tended garden and a maize field and sits beside a dust road about 1km down from the Nawanyago trading centre. Only the occasional car trundles past to interrupt the flow of foot traffic and boda-bodas that pass Innocent’s plot, but otherwise there is relative calm. Yet that morning it was the excited chirping of birds which drew my attention to the fact that the night hadn’t been silent as I’d expected, but that dusk had heralded in the low drone of crickets which had continued incessantly throughout the night until the shrill crow of the resident cockerel announced the small morning miracle of daybreak. The crickets were replaced by a chorus of birds, the chattering of school children making their way to classes, the squeals of the pigs in Innocent’s piggery behind the latrines and the low murmuring of the family beginning their chores for the day.
There is always work to be done in the village, whether its feeding the pigs, sweeping the front step, stoking the charcoal fire in preparation for cooking, washing clothes, pots, pans, bowls and shoes-nothing escapes a coating of fine red dust- and all of this before breakfast! While I tried to help out, I was plied by countless cups of tea and bowls of g-nuts and treated like the Queen during my stay at Innocent and Betty’s place in Nawanyago, as well as during my time in Kasozi village with Monica, with Godfrey and his son Amasa and Alex and Hannah with one year old Selah in Jinja and with Patrick and his family in Kampala.
Even the older women, Mum Judith and Mum Monica, I was staying with worked from dawn until dusk carrying huge jerry-cans of water I could barely lift, digging in the fields, drying out the maize, washing the family’s clothes…as anyone who does household chores knows, the list seems never-ending! I was really struck by the amount of effort it took to do things that we do with much more ease in the UK due to the availability of resources and infrastructure and of course the ability we have to afford much more than most people in Uganda. As I thought I might, I gained a lot of appreciation for the things I take for granted-running water, an indoor toilet, reliable electricity supply- during the two weeks I spent staying with these families on my way home from South Africa (where I had been studying in Cape Town for a year) to the UK. Having grown up experiencing Uganda through the stories and photos from my Auntie Gerry, having saved up pocket money when I was younger to buy crafts from Uganda and having even virtually met some of her Ugandan friends on Skype, the opportunity finally arose for me to see it for myself.
I spent the majority of my time out in the Kamuli district where Gerry does most of her work supporting schools and families. I spent almost a week staying with Innocent, his wife Betty, their new-born (and I mean new-born- he was two days old when I met him!) son Norman Reginald (named after the famous Norman Hambridge, in honour of the support which the Hambridge family has given to Innocent’s family) and Innocent’s mother, Judith. Baby Norman is beautiful and barely cries- even when he sees his Mzungu aunt, Mailies, whose skin colour he is too young to be shocked or afraid of. Click on first photo to see slideshow
Innocent owns a small bar in the trading centre of Nawanyago, where I spent many a night with some pretty inebriated locals and Gerry’s favourite companion- Nile Beer. Innocent told me of the issues he was having financially due to losing a larger, more successful bar he used to own. Despite being well educated, his financial struggles are compounded by the fact that he suffers from unexpected seizures (possibly epileptic). Whilst Gerry has worked hard on education initiatives about epilepsy in the local area (and the local school proudly displays posters on how to help someone having a seizure) which have combatted some of the stigma against the condition, Innocent, despite being well-respected locally, struggles to find employment due to the worry people have about him having a seizure whilst working. His mother also struggles to find work as, despite having worked many years as a nurse, her qualification was privately awarded and is therefore not recognized by public health services. However, the Innocent’s bar and piggery provide some income, a small garden provides food and donations from the UK help to support the family. One other special person who helps to support Innocent’s family is one of the neighbour’s boys, Nicolas, who brings the family water from the borehole in exchange for being able to use Innocent’s bicycle whenever he pleases. Nicolas is a wonderful character with a great sense of humour. Sadly, he has only received limited education because he is deaf, so his family’s small income goes towards putting his other siblings through school. Funnily enough, I found him one of the easiest people to communicate with during my stay. I realised he had enough of an education to speak Ugandan sign language and to write short English words, so we soon embarked on some make-shift English lessons. Nicolas was a brilliant learner and could remember how to write the words for farm animals in no time, whilst teaching me to sign them too. He was always eager to learn, patient and polite and could crack a joke out of anything. He clearly has so much intellectual capacity and seems to get along well in his community, but I worry about how he might fare in the future, missing out on the opportunities of formal education as he does.
A highlight of my stay in Nawanyago was distributing the mosquito nets that had so kindly been sponsored by donors in the UK. We had 72 nets sponsored in total, which were to be distributed to the neediest children at the Brain Trust school down the road from Innocent’s house. With the school director, Charles, mechanic, Faazi (the car we were using was unreliable to say the least) and Innocent in tow, I set off one morning to try to reach the remotest families whose children attended Brain Trust school. Some of these children must walk up to 10km to school- we were really out in the sticks, with barely a path, let alone a road, to guide us to the designated homes. One villager’s attempt at helpful instructions almost got us stuck in a swamp, but seven hours of meandering through the countryside later, we had managed to distribute all the nets! Malaria is a leading cause of death in Uganda, particularly for children, and a net can really be a life saver for protecting children during the night, when malaria-carrying mosquitoes are most active. Visiting the homes of the school children was, once again, a humbling experience. Many of these families really struggled to make ends meet and were so grateful for the nets- some showed their gratitude by gifting us with whatever they had: soy beans, jackfruit etc. The fact that the school had made an effort to drive to them seemed to mean a lot to the families who lived more remotely, whose children had incredibly long ways to school as well as living far away from vital services and trading centres. And of course, as usual, the visit was great entertainment to all the children who had never seen a Mzungu before.
After Nawanyago, I spent two nights in an even more remote village called Kasozi, where Monica, the mother of ‘Gerry’s Ugandan family’, Alex, Bosco, Mike, Paul, Godfrey, Robert, Ivan and Emma (Emmanuel) lives . All her sons have been or are still being helped by Aunty Gerry’s family and friends. Mum Monica’s English was a little better than my Lusoga but neither of our vocabularies really stretched beyond greetings and thank yous. Monica lives with two grandchildren, teenage girls who help her to look after the vast acres of land she owns and to take care of the daily chores- fetching water, feeding the animals, cooking meals and washing. As I mentioned before, Monica really is a strong woman for her age. Not only does she still do the manual labour work required to keep her land tended, she is also a treasurer for her local savings group- an initiative set up by the village head. Around thirty villagers pay into this savings group on a weekly basis to form a sum of money which can be lent to members investing in projects such as house-building, school fees or business start-ups. Having been running for a few years, the savings group has already helped several people and seems to have been a success- well-managed by Monica. So, my stay at her house was interspersed with many visits from locals, dropping by to share news and exchange greetings. One difference that really stood out was the greeting custom followed in the villages, during which women ordinarily kneel to greet men and sometimes to greet one another, regardless of whether they are on a road, carrying jerry-cans on their head or have children in tow! This kind of custom highlights how deeply entrenched the gender roles are within Ugandan society- women are largely deemed to be subservient to men- but that doesn’t make it a wholly negative custom. In fact, I loved the way it gave people an opportunity to take time to catch up with their friends and neighbours and to show respect to their elders. The times when I knelt to greet an older person I was met with many laughs as well as delight at my attempts to speak Lusoga! A highlight of my stay in Kasozi, and a source of great entertainment to the family and neighbours, was Monica’s decision to dress me up in a traditional ‘Gomez’- a beautiful wrapped dress with peaked shoulders that comes in a variety of brightly patterned silk. Worn to celebratory occasions such as the ‘introduction’ when prospective spouses introduce each other to their families, it is a garment that has become largely restricted to the older generation in its daily use. I spent just under an hour wearing it whilst Monica got her fill of photos, but I couldn’t handle it on a daily basis in that heat!
Finally, on my way to Entebbe airport, I got to visit Gerry’s long-time friend Patrick, his wife Kevin and their house-full of children. Patrick and Kevin have been working on setting up some incredible projects to improve the lives of the people in their village. I got to meet some of the thirty women taking courses on hairdressing and sewing, which are run by volunteers behind Patrick’s house. Many of the women are young mothers who have little education and few opportunities to earn a living, so the chance to have a space where they can bring their kids along and learn a new skill makes an invaluable contribution to their independence and ultimately to the chances which their children will have to succeed in life. As Patrick says, “if you empower a woman, you empower a nation”! He is planning to extend these courses to include computer literacy but is waiting to source more funding for that. Currently, much of the money for this project comes from his own pocket. Additionally, he runs adult education courses, after being inspired by the struggle his own mother faced every time she had to fill in paperwork or go to the bank. As she didn’t have the opportunity to have a formal education, Patrick’s mother was completely reliant on him or his brother for such bureaucratic matters, and Patrick wanted to prevent anyone else from suffering in the way his mother did. When he put out a call for interest in an adult education project, the response was surprisingly high, with many people experiencing similar difficulties to his mother, often unable to even go to the market without risking being short-changed. I told Patrick I admired his work and dedication to education, having himself never been formally educated beyond GCSE level. Humble as ever, his reply was simply to say that everyone deserves a second chance at education.
As I said at the beginning, the slower pace of Ugandan village life gave me the opportunity to reflect on life there. As an outsider it can be easy to forget about the political turmoil which Uganda has faced and is still facing: the spectre of wars in an around East Africa hang over it, people face persecution for their sexual orientation (being gay is punishable by life imprisonment), the currency has incredibly low purchasing power (I met labourers working 12 hour shifts for the equivalent of 40 pounds a month), and political opposition is violently quashed (driving to Kampala airport I heard the gunfire and saw the crowds fleeing from protests to release Ugandan MP ‘Bobi Wine’ and his supporters, who had been tortured by government forces). Ugandans are doing what they can to survive in a very harsh political and physical environment and the families I had the pleasure of meeting were no different. They thank God every day for the little that they have and are grateful for any support they receive from outside Uganda. I’ve witnessed how this can help people to gain qualifications and learn skills that allow them to be independent and self-substantial and I am in awe of the resilience and kindness shown by the people I met. I can’t draw any conclusions from having only been there for two weeks, but I am incredibly grateful for how welcome I was made to feel and have returned home with wonderful memories and a few extra pounds on my hips from all the delicious food!