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Just back from Venice (significant birthday gift, many thanks to family). and the Architectural Biennale: ‘Reporting from the Front’. A huge exhibition with much about poverty, refugees, rapid urbanisation and the developing world, all relevant to our time in Uganda and our time back in the UK.
For example Solano Benitez from Paraguay: “Working with two of the most easily available materials – brick and unqualified labour – as a way to transform scarcity into abundance”. All those mud bricks and blue skies took me back to being VSO volunteers on a DFID sponsored vocational training programme in Northern Uganda.
There has been a lot in the press recently about foreign aid, the Guardian ran a very good editorial recently showing the benefits of foreign aid. But it is the Daily Mail and their petition for a debate in the Houses of Parliament on 13 June that is more worrying. The debate itself was surprisingly measured and supportive, despite those trying to demonize Palestinians our MPs were, mostly, a long way from the distortion and untruth that characterises what we read every day.
Brickmaking was everywhere in Northern Uganda, it is a relatively unskilled process. Bricklaying and Concrete Practice was a standard course in our vocational colleges and heavily subscribed. The resultant buildings were simple and quick to put up but often unsuitable for the climate or their occupants and never innovative.
Many exhibits at the Biennale concerned these traditional methods of construction and what could be done with them, along with mud bricks, rammed earth or ‘pisé de terre’ was en vogue throughout, eg the Renzo Piano Paediatric Centre in Entebbe).
Benitez uses simple formers to pour mortar and place the bricks in sections. Low skilled workers use these modules to make high quality buildings relevant to them, the possibilities seemed endless, that high roof would keep the heat down for example and keep down the need for timber. A flexible building method that can be ‘owned’ and developed by its users, no need for imposed solutions that collapse once the Westerners have gone.
The sustainable simplicity I saw in some (but definitely not all) of the exhibits at the Architecture Biennale, made me think of some of the people we worked with in Gulu, and wonder how they are getting on and what they might have been doing had our programme had not existed.
Perhaps the most impressive was Margaret Atoke from Koch Goma. I made a film with her, showing the impact of our programme. Margaret had not been to school, she was a girl and no one would pay for her. But after our training she was able to set up her own business and employ others, training them herself.
I remember her saying that the day she put on her college T shirt was the proudest of her life, the thought that she Margaret could actually go to school was what inspired her to make her a subsequent life a success.
This is why UK aid matters. UK aid was leading the way in Uganda, and East Africa, developing aid programmes that delivered tangible results. Previous programmes by others made little substantial change. By contrast, the DFID programme was carefully planned, monitored and evaluated. It not only trained 15,400 students in employable and relevant market relevant skills, but the accompanying psycho-social and life skills programme, the in-depth entrepreneurship, literacy and numeracy training and six month post training support, meant that the training would last; a first for the area.
It is not only the 15,400 students directly trained that benefited from the DFID programme, (50% female by the way, unusual for this sector). Their families, their dependents, the local and national economies will all benefit, this was a graphic I saw in Venice pointing that out.
Apart from the great goodwill towards Britain, we benefit too, making people healthy, financially independent and responsible for their own lives will help prevent the sort of violent collapse of order that caused such problems in the first place. Ebola for example was first identified amongst Ugandan soldiers in Gulu, the programme’s centre. Virulent disease, violent systemic disorder, destructive ideologies, mass migration, all these problems can now be quickly exported across the world. But carefully managed, well designed and monitored programmes such as the one delivered by DFID and VSO volunteers in Northern Uganda over the last three years, can make Britain safer and happier too, safe also in the knowledge that we have helped humanity and ourselves.
Please believe me that British aid works, I have seen it doing so and have many films, stories and pictures to prove it. Please support the British Government’s successful, and much envied by the way, aid programme. Try contacting your MP, it’s much easier than you might think. Remember Margaret and many like her, it’s your money (in a way) that helped her, be proud of that. And start shovelling that mud in the garden to make some bricks, who knows what you might build yourself?
During our time here I am never going to be other than a middle aged white man, a status and appearance that can sometimes help and usually gets in the way. I have been working with instructors a lot recently, sitting in lessons offering advice and support. Or that is the theory; the problem is that (like Schrödinger’s Cat if I understand the quantum analogy correctly) my being there affects the whole process. The students seize up, becoming very shy and the teachers are worried that they have done something wrong. It will take a long time before I become a ‘normal’ part of the furniture.
How do we best help others to learn? How can we help others to make changes that best help them? When I was a teacher, enthusiastic encouragement and support seemed to work best, it is rarely productive to order someone to do well.
When we were training in the UK before we came out to Uganda, our trainers put great stress in the difference between teaching and facilitating, between instruction and support. I find that difference more and more noticeable. Instructors here generally know what they are trying to do, it is up to us to help them get there, or discuss the direction and support change. Mostly this involves things like:
use visual aids with students who cannot read and write (the majority on this programme); sorting out the budget line so that the motor vehicle teacher can photocopy pages from a workshop manual for his students to consult as he demonstrates; asking teachers to use examples that they know will sell in the market, that sort of thing; small steps as they say.
There was depressing article in the East African Newspaper recently, pointing out that Africa loses $58 Billion annually in debt repayments, illicit financial transactions and other illegal activities. $192 billion profit is made in Sub Saharan Africa by international companies, very little of that stays here (tax evasion mostly).
Climate change is adding an extra $10.6 billion to that cost, climate change largely caused by industrialisation elsewhere. $134 billion flows back in through loans, foreign investment and aid much of which has to be repaid, adding to the debt crisis. Some of these figures may be questionable, but the principle still remains; Africa still gives the West far more than it gets back.
Can a small programme trying to improve the skills of young people so that they earn their own living after a nasty insurgency (Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army) destroyed the economy and civil society. Can such a programme ‘facilitate’ change?
I don’t know is the honest answer. Starting at a very small scale, helping youth here to become self-sufficient, would seem to be one approach, manufacturing hardly exists anymore and you have to start somewhere. Mary has being doing a lot on market relevance recently, expect more on this soon.
The people we work with are very honest, if something is not working and not suitable we are told very clearly. So far what we are doing has, mostly, met with approval. Keep on keeping on I suppose.
The link above should play you a song by a student (the aptly named Maurice Bricky) who is studying Bricklaying and Concrete Practice at Daniel Comboni Vocational Institute. He produced, wrote and recorded it for a recent Music, Dance and Drama Gala.
It is sung in Luo, I think the lyrics sum up what everyone involved hopes this Vocational, Business and Life skills programme is all about.
The English translation. :
We’ve come a long way; we’ve travelled far – all to seek education
Previously we walked heads down
Today we walk heads up – because we have knowledge and skills
We can practice what we have learned
We can now reduce poverty with our skills
We can now reduce ignorance we were formally in
Morris Bricky – Good boy
We give back all our thanks to DFID – for helping us
We give back all our thanks to VSO – for helping us
Now my sister knows sweater knitting – all because of DFID
Now my brother knows motor vehicle repair – all because of VSO
Motorcycle repair; metal fabrication; building – not a problem!
Electrical installation; hair care – all because of DFID
Our hand works are beautiful and beautiful – all because of VSO
Now we request that you don’t end with us
Let other people also benefit, even the disabled in the communities all need help.
Orphans, child mothers all need help
I have been giving workshops again. Out to Pader, a flat indistinct town that looks as though it hasn’t been started yet. VSO volunteers are expected to go by ‘public means’; usually a matatu (mini bus of some sort) or estate car taxi. A slow process with long hours waiting in bus parks. You don’t leave until the driver can no longer push anyone else in, four to a row in a car and so on; I have seen five when a thin man crouched in the foot well. Often there are people crammed in the boot on top of the luggage.
The roof rack would come into play but that is stacked to double the vehicle’s height with luggage: hundredweight bags of rice; blue tin school trunks; always several rolled mattresses; stacks of plastic chairs; livestock sometimes although goats and chickens usually go inside with the passengers. The vehicles drive fast but stop often, to squeeze in more people but also to break down. Rebuilding axles and wheel bearings by the side of road and other major surgery is common. The journey to Pader was incident free, the return less so, tyre problems/ boiling engines and an undisclosed engine difficulty that demanded a noisy smoking crawl up the hills. Still, five hours from door to door for a two hour journey wasn’t bad by Ugandan standards. A local paper put transport at eighty per cent of business costs, I was surprised it was that low, this is the dry season when travel is relatively easy, in the wet it is really bad.
TOT (training of trainers) workshops are slightly awkward affairs; a problem of NGOs own making. In the past they have given attendees what are called ‘sitting fees’; a payment for turning up. Along with a range of expenses, going to a workshop could make a reasonable sum. You can see why some people would really want to attend a training event. VSO (quite rightly) does not pay sitting fees, this makes the start of our workshops quite interesting.
The default Ugandan teaching style is nineteenth century didactic; man stands at a blackboard reading from a book, occasionally he will write something on a blackboard, students take notes. Michael Gove would love this delivery method, but none of it works with the students on our programme, few have been to school for any length of time, few have learnt how to learn.
This throws up unforeseen results; for example if you have not been taught before you think that learning is a one-off activity. Students learn the first technique of their vocational training, Flemish brick bond perhaps and think that is all they need to become a bricklayer. Not realising that learning is continuous they leave the college after a week believing they know all they need for employment. It is like the apocryphal story of the small boy returning from his first day at school and saying ‘Phew, thank God I don’t have to do that ever again!’
In these workshops we show different ways teachers can work with such students; lots of interactive teaching, games and lively group work; jolly but baffling for the traditionally taught. As the Principal in Pader pointed out to the attendees:
The Whites [us Europeans] do their teaching in a different way, they do not give out the answers, they make you do it. You will go home saying you have not learnt, but then you think for yourself, that is The Whites way’
PS: On one of our many stops on the way back to Gulu, a man appeared from the bush carrying this (dead) animal. It is an Anieri, an edible rat, a great delicacy and very expensive (about 25, 000 shillings or £5) It was a big thing reminiscent of an otter; we did not buy.
We have visited many more vocational colleges, some impressive, some less so, all baffling in parts. Off the cuff speaking is very necessary, within minutes of arrival in one college (not this one in the photo) we had been walked into a huge, hot and dark hall, crammed with students, the staff sat in a semi-circle on a low stage, we sat in the centre. The Principal made all assembled vote on how long the meeting should run, they settled on three hours. He then turned to me and said: “Mr Mark will now talk to you”. As I walked to the front of the stage I had no idea about what would come out of my mouth when I opened it. But, we survived somehow, and even had to vote on extra time because we had overrun.
This is day one, lesson one of a bricklaying class carrying out their first task; stack 50 bricks. The bricks are all made by hand in huge mounds you see cooking everywhere. In many colleges the students are actually building their own classrooms or dormitories as part of their training.
In some, because they have no money, the students pay their fees in things like 100kg bags of beans; better than a student loan I thought.
I was in a college the other day that taught motor mechanics to classes of 50, but with only two spanners. Students said they stood in rows and were given 10 minutes each with the tools.
We came across this extraordinary building on the outskirts of Gulu whilst visiting another vocational school. It is next to Caritas which had so much to do with counselling returned abductees (amongst others) during the troubles.