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Autumn, a non-existent season in tropical zones, tricky to explain I remember:
“So Mr Mark, leaves die and fall off, like ours do in the dry season. But that in the West dying leaves are so beautiful people look at them? You travel to look at dead leaves?
And the sun you say, it is up far later than six and is dark by the afternoon?”
Polite smiles of disbelief; outlandish information that was never quite believed. Seasonal change is hardwired, hard to dislodge and now we are back to our own again. The placements are finished, we are back in the UK and have that uncertain, Monday after the weekend party feeling.
It would be difficult to go back to our old life in the South East of England, we need somewhere else to live and somewhere completely different to the last three years too; Dartmoor it is then. At the end of the month we move there for a pilot programme (I don’t think development vocabulary will ever leave us).
Other returnees have said much the same thing: that (unsurprisingly) your interest in your adventures lasts far longer than the attention span of those at home. Once the returnee answers some fundamental questions and establishes that they didn’t live in a mud hut, that it was very hot, that they had seen some of the wild life also seen on TV, interest quickly fades and its back to Bake Off, Jeremy Corbyn or the price of housing. Which is as it should be, a shared communal conversation, few in Gulu would sustain discussion about countries far away either.
Main question (after the mud hut etc): What is it like being back? Impossible to answer, there are no real points of comparison
Points about being back that stand out (in random order and probably of no real significance)
Aeroplanes: apart from the bi-weekly plane from Entebbe and the training jet that went round and round clockwise like a child learning to ride a bicycle, there were no other planes to see or hear (despite being the noisiest place I have ever lived). In the South East the sky is full of trails and planes, and small clouds. Gulu skies were either empty or dominated by vast cloud dramas bringing intense tropical storms.
The dim light and the cold, obviously, but really it’s the damp: arthritis and rheumatism waving to say hello.
So much traffic: so few people in each new car; so little carried; no motorbikes; no broken down charcoal trucks.
Every Ugandan vehicle was always full beyond its limits, now we see shiny vehicles with a single occupant in well behaved queues.
Roadworks: an international feature approached with national characteristics, no one in Uganda would dream of doing anything but driving straight through it all.
In the UK we wait fretting slightly, moaning that no one is actually working, but we wait nonetheless.
Conversations in shops: we have learnt to ask people how they are before starting any transaction, to ask how the night had gone, about the health of the family and so on. Try that in Tescos and you would be arrested.
Houses are full of digital machines that harass you with alarms.
Worrying whether the (enormous piles of) laundry you seem to have brought home will ever dry on the washing line, realising that you will have to go back to doing your own washing again, hoping your Gulu washerwoman (and all the other people you ended up employing without really trying) will have found new clients, hoping that she/ they will have spent the money you gave her/ them for school fees on her/ their children.
Cheese eaten in the last three years: Parmesan (or so the label said)/ Gouda (ditto)/ something vaguely cheesy from the dairy at my placement college.
Cheese eaten in the last fortnight: Cheddar (Scottish and English and of various ages)/ Brie/ Cotherstone/ Feta/ Goat (hard and soft)/ Roquefort/ Swaledale (sheep)/ Wensleydale.
Still packing, getting ready to leave Gulu after two years and eight months on our volunteer placement.
“Will I really need these light coloured trousers again? Probably not.”
Saying goodbye seems a feature of volunteer life, you are always bidding farewell. Saying good bye to good friends at VSO and good colleagues in the colleges, well it doesn’t get any easier.
A last minute hiccup. My passport was ‘mislaid’ by immigration services. Sudden panics and setting up of consular appointments for emergency travel documents, planning how to make the instant eight hour journey to Kampala and eight hours back to carry on packing.
“Can we get all this Congolese fabric in our bags? What’s the weight limit again?”
Intervention by senior management and lo – a document that had been ‘completely lost never to be found’ is miraculously found again, and for free. A bit last minute, but somehow I am ‘used’ as they say here.
We return to cold wet England, “Will I want to wear these broken sandals on our return?” Our askari (gatekeeper) leaves each morning staggering under the weight of unwanted summer gear.
A last all day workshop to remind me of some things I won’t miss. After the usual list of problems we are more positive and there is much to be positive about. Fifteen thousand four hundred students trained, (an equal number of male and female too which is unusual in this context). Thirty seven colleges involved across Northern Uganda, many, many students in employment, so many new businesses started. We talked about what we had learned: how much good teaching depends on good leadership; how psycho-social support was probably just as important as skills training; the role of literacy, numeracy and business lessons; the importance of raising student self esteem, hence all the graduations, cultural events and open days.
“I want to give this to someone, can we get a three foot mirror on the back of a bike?”
We empty the house tomorrow and, really difficult this one, give back the motorbikes. After nearly eleven thousand kilometres, like the policemen in Flann O’Brien’s book who become part of their machines through a combination of Einstein’s theory of relativity and very bumpy roads, I think my bike and I are also going to find parting very hard to do.
My last graduation. Over the last two years and eight months of my VSO volunteer placement in Gulu, Northern Uganda I have attended many many graduations, open days and cultural events. This last was with a college we have become very close to: Gulu Disabled Persons Union.
I might just have mentioned before that volunteers are warned to expect the unexpected. Working with the disabled is certainly not something either of us has done before, but is certainly something we both want to continue on our return. GDPU was one of the most inspiring institutions on the Youth Development Programme and the instructors amongst the most inspiring for their students. This graduation was a typically warm family celebration with a lively presentation of another great student song; ‘Stand for Hope, (Disability is not Inability) performed by its writer, a welding and metal fabrication student, one BSG Labongo. He is already working with a group of fellow students and their instructor in a new workshop in town, very busy they are too.
I hope this short film captures some of the spirit of the occasion.
I spent the last week in Arua ( Africa’s second best town ) delivering training on Performance Management : how to use Excel; working a management information system; helping Arua Technical Institute start developing their strategic plan.
Our drive there was made more enjoyable by seeing 2 elephants crossing the road in front of us on the main Kampala – Arua road. Where else in the world do you regularly see elephants crossing by the side of the road as you are going past?
The training was all quite intensive especially the session on data management, some of the participants don’t have access to computers, their Excel skills were rusty and everybody had different versions on their computer.
As ever the Principals and instructors in West Nile enjoy detailed discussions and we veered off at one point into a discussion on why there were more student strikes in secondary schools than technical colleges. Strikes are a common feature in Uganda and can be very violent, attacking teachers ‘chasing them away’ and damaging property (usually the student dormitories or administration blocks ). One theory was that, in technical colleges there was a closer connection between staff and students, but we could have gone on all day!
On our programme there have been, to my knowledge, several strikes about food /lack of and poor quality, there is always the worry that if food is not produced the students will riot.
As ever the feedback from the training was that participants wanted more time, that more people should get the training. This is tricky, our programme is coming to an end, but the wider point is that staff in technical institutes (these are from public schools where it is a requirement to be teacher trained) do need a lot of capacity building and our intervention has only scratched the surface .
It wasn’t all work . Winnie and I managed to get to the pool at a local hotel for a couple of hours on our last day and she enjoyed practicing her swimming.
We also went out to a pork joint with our colleagues. Arua is noted for its pork and it’s a tradition that when we go there we have to visit at least one.
I enjoyed some early morning walks around the old golf course which is now used as a green space for football games in the evening and a swimming place for the local kids.
Arua is really developing there has been a lot of work on the roads in the two years I have been coming, buildings going up all over the place although a number of older buildings remain, I presume from the colonial era. The hotel we stay at, Desert Breeze, is a large 4 storey building always full during the week with people from NGOs, missionaries and government departments visiting for work . We arrive on a Monday and then depart back to Kampala or Gulu on a Friday.
Some people can travel light, metaphorically and practically, carry on luggage and no more. We have never found this easy, always right up to our luggage limit. We leave here in six weeks, sadly, and are trying to work out what we can fit in our two allowed bags to take home. 2 x 23 kg each, but how heavy are memories? And do they have to be linked to things?
Gulu has changed greatly in the last two and a half years; new building everywhere, especially around us in Kirombe, a sub county headquarters being built behind us, a two storey home (one of very few, but no doubt there will be more) in front. There are even traffic jams.
When we arrived nearly all four wheeled vehicles belonged to NGOs, they have gone, mostly, and the place is full of every type of vehicles, new roads are being laid down everywhere too, this is what development looks like.
Mary is planning an afternoon tea party to say goodbye to colleagues and their children. We held one about a year ago, lots of baffled children dutifully playing musical chairs. This time there will be no jelly, met with complete incomprehension last time and we were left with armfuls of sticky deliquescent goo. More cake instead, Mary’s cakes go down very well indeed.
What to take back? When we were packing up our house to come out to Uganda we had the problem of the stones: pebbles and so on that we had collected over the years, touchstones you might say. I remember back in the UK, a friend with small children saying that the problem with family walks was the pockets full of stones his children gave him to collect; it is an age old habit.
We have collected many more here, including obsidian from Kenya, rounded quartz from Lake Victoria, innumerable interesting seed pods, a bent two handled silver plated mug with a Uganda crest found on the shores of the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls National Park, an ugly object but redolent of…something anyway. So, a good couple of kilograms of stuff that will only gather dust on a mantelpiece, as we do the same in cold wet England.
Maybe carting this collection back will halt our decline, or maybe in a few years time I will look at a lump of forgotten rock and think: why? Difficult decisions ahead. But we have to leave anyway, down to our last pot of Marmite, some forms of memory are impossible to shift, as will I hope, be our memories of time spent here.
The instruction part of our vocational training programme, here in Gulu Northern Uganda, begins to wind down. We have started to follow up those who have been trained, those who have started their own businesses, become independent, earning their own living for the first time.
I have been filming those interviews an excerpt from them is here (Warning it is 16 minutes long)
‘Mr. Mark, You were lost and now you are found again. You have lost your colour too, which is not good. But you are fat and that is good’
Yes we are back in Gulu after a few weeks in the UK. What was it like to return to the West? In a word; cold, in two words: very cold. Snow, rain, biting wind and damp that gets into your bones; all the usual glories of an English winter. But, old friends wanted to know, what is like over there? Representing your experience of one very different country to another is difficult. Cognitive dissonance, the impossibility of holding two contradictory views in the mind at once.
I had forgotten the omnipresence of the past in the west, not just in the age profile either (so different to Uganda where the average age is about 15). Old buildings (once ‘modern’ styles referencing an ancient past) up against the glazed and reflective new.
Wolf Hall on the TV. Or, how to explain to Ugandans the roomful of over life sized naked men and women that we visited? The newly refurbished cast room in The Victoria and Albert Museum, Victorian plaster casts of famous (mostly but not entirely) Italian Renaissance statues; art that reworks an imagined Classical past.
Reworking the past is such a common western habit. In an African land without a surviving tradition of image making and a spoken culture in which conflict has wiped out much of the aural experience of the past, maybe you don’t want to remember what has happened anyway. Or maybe the past is a luxury denied the poor? I have always found it odd that in East Africa, near to the Rift Valley where mankind began, everything still feels so temporary and transient. There is none of the co-existence of recent and deep past with the self consciously present and projected future that characterises the west, or maybe that’s just wealthy London.
What was it really like at home? In three words: very ****ing cold.
Just before we left I tried to explain real cold to a colleague, how being cold hurts, the many heavy clothes you have to wear.
‘So, you have fires in your house?’
How to explain central heating?
‘So, Mr Mark you have a big metal tank screwed to the wall and it keeps the room warm by pumping hot water through it?’
I could see that my colleague didn’t believe a word. The impossibility of holding the concept of cold in forty degree heat.
‘It’s all about edges’
My father said (also an artist and teacher), as we were discussing some of my unsuccessful attempts to draw African landscapes using western art techniques.
‘And edges are the very devil’
I think he is right, trying to represent one place to another means finding your way through the edges, boundaries and cracks that make the task almost impossible.
We returned to a desiccated Gulu deep in the dry season, our house thick with fine dust covering every surface, creeping through every crack.
Wiping away layer after layer, perhaps influenced by the overt Christianity that also permeates everything here (so unlike the West), I thought, perhaps we are all the same underneath: ‘from dust we come and to dust shall we return’.
Or was that just too clever, not edgy enough?
Today is International Volunteer Day. I have written a piece for VSO Uganda, but thought it might be worth repeating here. It also gives me another excuse to show yet another bit of film.
“A Volunteer Experience:
As a vocational specialist volunteer in Northern Uganda who visits many training colleges, I have been offered small gifts before. Live chickens (once even a pregnant goat) are a standard African present of course. Proposals by trainees to service my motorbike, shave my hair or do my nails are frequent and recently I was given a large pink iced cake. I had to balance it on the handlebars as I drove home in a rain storm.
But the sleeveless jumper I was given today meant the most to me. It was made by sweater weavers at Gulu Persons Disabled Union (GPDU), an institution we have just started working with.
Their disabilities can be profound, both physical and mental and their exclusion from society, education and the economy equally debilitating. This jumper was one of the first to be completed by the trainees, turning down gifts can be misinterpreted and there was absolutely no question of doing that today.
The young women (and two young men) who had made this garment – lots of room to grow into it too – were justifiably proud of their first steps to economic independence.
Receiving such an important statement is an experience I will never forget. We might just be coming into the dry season with temperatures up to forty degrees, but I will be wearing my jumper often.”
This is another brief video that rounds up our student graduation season
This is an article I wrote recently for an online Education magazine. I thought I might post it here as an excuse for showing a few more photographs and snippets of film:
“Acho Maber. Nyinga Mark. Attya VSO. E ya a yom mene no wo”
(Good morning, my name is Mark, I work for VSO, I am pleased to be here)
Apart from saying hello in halting Luo (the local language), what does a vocational training specialist actually do?
Monday: A graduation ceremony for the Youth Development Programme. YDP students are ‘vulnerable’: mostly unschooled; child mothers; HIV sufferers; former abductees during the civil war with Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army; orphans and worse.
The graduating college was outside Gulu, my dusty and noisy home base. All day on a plastic chair is uncomfortable, but these are joyous occasions. With few past successes our ‘graduands’ enjoy this one, astonishing coloured clothing, singing, dancing, ululation and hours of speeches. The bakery students present guests with a cake. I get everywhere by motorbike, how to balance a big pink iced cake on the handlebars?
Tuesday: curriculum development at colleges a long way down mud roads, elephant grass high above the bike: vivid green against blue sky. Working on the dreaded Schemes of Work. They hold a talismanic fascination, as though a ‘correct’ SoW unlocks a special world.
That is the clue to one aspect of my volunteer life, working with teachers to discover and support what they want to do. As I explained to instructors in Awach, while their children ran outside, goats bleated, chickens pecked our feet and sun burnt the tin roof; there is no special answer. You join together to plan what suits you and your students. NGO’s have been here before, their imposed curriculums lie unused in the Principal’s office. I help staff develop systems that they will actually use. Vocational teachers are practical people; a scheme of work should be a useful tool not a presentation spanner left in the toolbox.
Wednesday: To Gulu Persons Disabled Union. Today’s discussions include: can students get their battered wheelchairs through a small doorway in time for class to start? Developing a small machines course with the Motorcycle instructor. Finding examples of bicycle powered machinery (my growing obsession). Attendance list formatting with the Guidance Counsellor for his life skills classes; another feature of this holistic programme.
To another Gulu College. All YDP students are taught business skills, literacy and numeracy; most students are illiterate and innumerate on starting. Discussions with the Entrepreneurship Manager about Post Training Support for graduating students.
To the VSO Field office to plan my Kampala trip: from the rural north to the capital mega-city, country mouse goes to town. A big meeting next week with regional NGOs and DIT (the examining body). Can we produce a market relevant vocational syllabus?
Thursday: Chairing a meeting at my placement college: Daniel Comboni Vocational Institute. Senior Management evaluating progress: do teachers need support in course delivery; can we introduce more active teaching methods?
To Keyo, 20 kms north on the road to South Sudan. ‘Gender Mainstreaming’: other VSO volunteers, YDP students and staff have put together a gender and vocational training toolkit, I am introducing it to this college.
Friday: Graduation day at my placement, more singing, speeches and wild celebrations; in my previous educational experience such genuine joy was rare. A great day and the end of a fairly typical week as a vocational training specialist; jaded with UK education? Try volunteering, I recommend it.
As part of my work as a VSO Development Advocate, I have been experimenting with film making. It is one of the underlying truths of development work that, fundamentally, we all want the same things in life: stability; good employment and a better life for our children. This is the same whether you come from Uxbridge, Uzbekistan or Uganda.
Influenced by Humans of New York (highly recommended), I have been asking people I work with on my VSO placement (as a vocational training specialist), one brief question: what do they want from the future? These are the first three interviews I have made so far, the talk is intercut with bits and pieces in an attempt to make a quick portrait of the interviewee; to show how and where they work. What do you think? Apologies for the clunky editing.