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It was finding this photo again recently that brought it all back; it shows some of our ex-students working on a roof. The building will be a new classroom for teaching Motor Vehicle Maintenance, the students were all graduates and skilled enough to be employed by their old college. They have kept their college overalls and wear them with pride as they bounce sure footed about the growing roof, notice their flip-flops on the ground by the dancing youth. The colours are strong, new and bright, the shadows sharp and deep; three degrees north of the equator you would expect nothing less.
Is this where I write a roundup of the year just gone? Maybe a self-satisfied description of the unbelievable successes of our over-entitled offspring? Their nationally important roles as cupcake sales persons, hand car wash operatives and niche website facilitators? Perhaps I should dwell at length on the overwhelming successes of our semi feral grandchildren and how little Ptolemy’s performance as a carrot at the Nativity ‘literally’ stole the show?
Or maybe not, because none of that would be true. In reality Storm Frank is still thumping into the side of our rented barn conversion in a farmyard on the edge of Dartmoor.
Even the sheep with fortnight old lambs have been brought in to their barns, so the weather must be awful. In our own warmer and sheep free barn, (unlike the imaginary Ptolemy we have not recreated the nativity ourselves) we can at least reflect on where we were this time last year.
As far away as possible, in Kidepo National Park, north-east Uganda looking forward to vegetables and rice for lunch and again for supper.
We have, I suppose, made the change from one continent to another, from one world to another although we miss our colleagues, the warmth, the light and the sense of purpose that comes with volunteering.
Down here in Devon, the sun wearily struggles above the horizon, occasionally sighing for a while above the hedgerows before slowly plodding downwards again. All of the tones are muted, edges are soft and one form bleeds into another. All is indistinct and unclear, a range of grey washed out earthy greens that feel old and worn.
A quick trip to St Ives further down into the South West for New Year’s Eve, the town a riot of fancy dress at night.
Then Zennor Head for the New Year’s day walk, storm bound; wet and windy but the wind blew in enough vigour to start the new year we hope.
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.
This is a short, rather abstract film I have put together about life in Gulu. Opinions welcome.
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)
The Youth Development Programme on which we work is coming to a series of conclusions. Vocational skills training will finish in the next few months, Post Training Support and helping students into employment, lasts until the end of the year. Yes that means lots of ceremonials, many, many hours on a plastic chair in front of speeches dances and songs, some very good, some less so; all very long.
Up here in Northern Uganda, the rains have come in the early afternoon for the past couple of weeks, the mangoes are thriving, especially the small fibrous ones whose bits stick in your teeth.
Mary’s flowers, planted from seeds she has found, are beautiful, the grass has been slashed for the first time this year; everything in the garden is lovely.
The bug salesman is somewhere near, he cycles the area with a bucket of fried insects and plays battery door chimes as self-advertisement. The tune is infuriatingly difficult to pick out or to forget. Today I think it is probably “we want some figgy pudding/ we want some figgy pudding” ad infinitum if not nauseam.
There is a 500 guest wedding starting up at Comboni Samaritans, a local clinic/ hospital. So far we have had an hour of Country and Western: ‘Coward of the County’, ‘Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town’; ‘Harper Valley PTA’; that era. It is not just the American evangelist influence, Country and Western is popular but I expect it will be back to ubiquitous rap soon.
Meanwhile the music stops and it’s time for” Testing, Testing, One Two/ One Two” which takes me back a bit, not what I expected to hear this morning. Much like the sound men from the 1970’s and 80’s that I remember, these ones love booming bass too. Kevin Harvey, sound engineer for the Gang of Four for example, had a particular fondness for about 120HZ. The levels booming round this morning have that nostalgic frequency, aah those sticky floored, black painted clubs of our youth, perhaps that is why I am so deaf now.
Living abroad brings up these curious contradictions: I am reading the Saturday Guardian on my Kindle (who but a member of the 1% would vote Tory? Who would willingly destroy their own society through choosing to vote for the lying, divisive, ideologically driven and economically inept?) listening to American songs about family dysfunction whilst watching swallows dive through the garden (shouldn’t they be half way to Europe by now?). A long howl of feedback (more nostalgia) starts the lunchtime call to prayer from the local mosque.
I have just come back from a quick trip to Kampala to collect my renewed passport, an astonishingly efficient process. Several sights reinforced that sense of oddity and enjoyment of the unlikely that you get from ‘elsewhere’:
- I came out of the house early to get my lift south and saw a chicken chasing a large dog along the road
- In a cafe in the Lugogo Mall, an upmarket Kampala shopping centre, I watched a white man: late thirties at a guess; long evidently dyed black hair under a black beret; white singlet vest; white combat camouflage trousers; big military belt and shiny high boots; black leather fingerless gloves; dark glasses; the proverbial brown condom full of walnuts figure; the total Hollywood mercenary look. He was a cross between Citizen Smith, from the Tooting Popular Front, (a 70’s/80’s TV programme I am old enough to remember) and those elderly American actors that run around shooting black extras in exotic destinations during films I have never watched. Like voting Tory, the obvious question is why? (Why the dressed up dude and the self-defeating democratic decision, not the film choice, obviously) Surrounded and ignored by elegant wealthyKampalans, what did this man think he was doing?
- In a cafe inMuyenga waiting for my lift north, I watched a big BMW sports car drive carefully in, polished black with vivid pink trim and wing mirrors, the car vibrates with bass (again the 55-110 HZ range I’d reckon). The owner: Ugandan; dark glasses; closely shaved head; quarter beard, is also wearing jewellery which is unusual and draws the attention: a huge amber necklace, big silver earrings. He is also modelling what looks like badly cut and sagging pyjamas, tie dyed pale brown on stained white and creased cotton, particularly baggy around the crutch and drooping well below the bottom.
PS this afternoon in Kirombe, rather than the usual heavy rain we get a violent hailstorm, not had one of those before, and the power only went off for ten minutes; really unexpected.