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Leaving Kampala 2

Leaving Kampala

They say you should never go back, well we waited over two years before returning to Gulu and made sure that we had something to do when we got there. By the way, there is a fuller description of the Enhancing The Capacity at Gulu Disabled Persons Union project on the ETC website.  We went back to help evaluate the pilot project that started up the ETC programme in May 2017 and finished towards the end of last year.

The Donor Board at GDPU

The Donor Board at GDPU

We left the UK in wind and sleet with temperatures firmy into the minus, Kampala was relatively cool but the heat increased as we drove north. Gulu was 37 degrees and as hot and dusty as we remembered, although new tarmac everywhere made it slightly easier. New roads hadn’t stretched to our destination in Pece, meeting Ojok Patrick the Project Leader and Musema Faruk the Project Officer again in the GDPU offices, at the far end of the Acholi road, opposite the Police School.

GDPU Offices looking towards the road

GDPU Offices looking towards the road

It was assembly time in the school across the road and we heard children singing the Ugandan National Anthem again. When we first moved to Gulu to start our volunteer programme with VSO back in 2013, we lived opposite a different school and listened to ‘O Uganda’ every morning. Sounds and smells are great memory prompts, the dust smelt the same too.

Second Hand Clothes The Main Market Gulu Entrance

Entrance to the old Kaunda Ground Market, Gulu

In theory when you go back everything should look smaller and bathed in a nostalgic glow, but hearing that song it was as though we had never been away and everything seemed just as it had been. Changes of course, the old Kaunda Ground market (where I spent many hot hours unsuccessfully haggling with vegetable sellers) has gone, replaced by the Gulu Main market in town. We made a ‘field visit’ to this new market, to see one of our pilot business groups.

Visiting Gulu PWDs Electronics, Gulu Main Market

Visiting Gulu PWDs Electronics, Gulu Main Market

Gulu PWDs Electronics are, well, lads would be the best way to describe them, all physically disabled and concentrating on earning a living through phone and electronic repair. Actually, they are mostly obsessed with sports, wheelchair basketball and the wheelchair marathon in particular, their team are the national basketball champions and one member, Ocira Richards came second in the national marathon; real stars. You can see why the hearts of these young men might not be quite in phone repair.

ETC at GDPU project Officer with Gulu PWDs Electronics in Gulu Main Market

ETC at GDPU project Officer with Gulu PWDs Electronics in Gulu Main Market

But, we noticed during our years in Gulu on the Youth Development Programme, personal confidence and self esteem count as much as skills training in this sort of vocational education. Our Pilot Programme Evaluation report showed a real income increase for these young men, a significant development for them, although much to do of course. For example, when we met at their place of work in the bowels of the market it was noticeable that they had put little thought into presenting their business, old discarded phone parts littered the floor and were piled under tables; like looking under a teenage boy’s bed.

Meeting Akera Robert in Gulu 1

Meeting Akera Robert in Gulu

It was great to meet them again and those working on the three other pilot groups; one in Gulu town and the hairdressers and sweater weavers in Acet.

Meeting Sweater Weavers in Acet 4

Ojok Patrick, Project Leader, assessing sweaters in Acet

All reported improvements, all showed that the trajectory of their businesses was up. It was heartening to realise in our discussions at GDPU that the fundamental approach of the ETC project; that the people on the ground knew far more than anyone else, that the people being trained knew what skills they needed and should be able to determine what sort of support they wanted, that the project should not be determined by giving material goods but by skills training an support, that all this worked.

Meeting With Nyeko Rach Hairdressers Acet 5

Nyeko Rach Hairdressers group in Acet

Business Planning

We also had long discussions with Faruk and Patrick about business planning, participants had been trained in it under the old YDP programme and again with us, this time all in local language and using symbols and a much simplified system. It still hasn’t caught on well.

Book keeping

Book keeping, Acet

As Faruk explained, if you live in a subsistence economy you use the small amounts of surplus, let’s say half a dozen sweet potatoes, to sell by the side of the road or at the local market for a few hundred shillings to pay for an immediate basic need, some salt maybe. No planning and no investment is involved; no surplus, no cash and no purchase. Some small surplus equals some small buying; it’s an instant process. That concept, of using a business to slowly build up capital that you invest in new stock or better software, has no purchase with those brought up in subsistence; it’s an unknown in a world where unknowns lead to trouble. Any obvious surplus can open you up to suspicion, extra goods might well be stolen from you for example. I have recently read ‘Kintu’ by the Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, which begins with the conspicuous purchase of a ghetto blaster by a young man in a Kampala slum, that new object marks him out, he is subsequently accused of being a thief and beaten to death by a crowd.

Meeting 1

Sweater Weaving in Acet

An extra layer of difficulty is the unhealthy combination of the ‘big man’ system and with what Patrick and Faruk call ‘dependency culture’. I need to be very careful that I don’t come across as a foaming at the mouth right wing western commentator here; obviously I am not. But it is true that built into the mind sets of those brought up in the Internally Displaced Peoples camps in Acholi land during the LRA troubles and the subsequent influx of NGOs, is the belief that the ‘Whites’ will always turn up and give you something. If you couple this experience with the cultural expectation that it is the role of a powerful and wealthy family member, benefactor or politician to provide for those under his protection, then it is not surprising that many in great need will expect to wait until help comes to them.

Fabrics Acet

Fabrics, Acet

How to work with these difficulties?

The sweater weavers we met in Acet need cash to get someone to ‘join’ the sweaters they weave, the lads in Gulu main market need to invest in better software and hard ware to repair the new smart phones appearing everywhere, Akera Robert in Gulu town needs a new wheelchair to get to work. Only by understanding how much profit they earn, by organising savings and dedicating those savings to buying the equipment, will our students develop sustainable business to keep them and their families safe and alive. Only by listening to the members themselves and by letting people on the ground design the programmes will the ETC project get close developing that sustainability.

Going to see Nyeko Rach Hairdressers in Acet

Going to see Nyeko Rach Hairdressers in Acet

Although record keeping might develop further with support, if members see a better reason for it, business planning is not embedded in the approach of any them. After long discussion at GDPU we all came up with the idea of using the business constitution. Each business has a founding document, a constitution, which lays out the roles, responsibilities and time frames for each member. Apparently it is the only document regularly consulted by members; this then can be the place to site business planning, the fundamental economic processes that, we hope, will help these young entrepreneurs succeed; an exciting thought.

Elephants in Kidepo

Elephants in Kidepo

While in the North we grabbed enough time to travel up to Kidepo Valley National Park, a place we’ve been to many times before, it’s near the end of the dry season so the elephants were much in evidence; glorious to see again. Finally, a big swoop round the South West of Uganda down to Lake Bunyoni for the first time, and an eco camp on an island in the middle of the lake; just beautiful.

Lake Bunyoni

Lake Bunyoni

Were we right to go back? Of course. Will we go back again? We are in the process of applying for charitable status for our small project (expect request for donations soon!) so yes we hope to go back in a year or so to evaluate a much larger project, exciting times indeed.

It was snowing even harder when got back to the UK

Snow in the UK

Snow in the UK



























They say you should never go back, well we waited over two years before returning to Gulu and made sure that we had something to do when we got there. By the way, there is a fuller description of the Enhancing The Capacity at Gulu Disabled Persons Union project on the ETC website.  We went back to help evaluate the pilot project that started up the ETC programme in May 2017 and finished towards the end of last year.
Open Day GDPU 2015 for MM in U 4

Open Day Gulu Disabled Persons Union 2015


Expecting the Unexpected:

During our time in Uganda I was offered small gifts often; it’s part of the culture and of course a way to buy influence. Live chickens (once even a pregnant goat) are a standard African present. Proposals by trainees to service my motorbike, shave my hair or do my nails were frequent. After one student graduation I was given a large orange iced cake, the whole college, parents and honoured guests watched as I tried to balance it on the motorbike and wobble down the road in a rain storm.

But there was one present that I still treasure.

I might have mentioned before that volunteers were warned to expect the unexpected. Working with the disabled is not something either of us had done before. Gulu Disabled Persons Union was one of the most inspiring institutions on the Youth Development Programme and the instructors certainly amongst the most inspiring for their students.

GPDU Sweater Weavers. Madame on the right holds up my gift

GPDU Sweater Weavers. Madame on the right holds up my gift

This sleeveless jumper was the gift that meant the most to me, it was made by Youth Development Programme students at Gulu Persons Disabled Union (GDPU). 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 sweater weaving trainees. 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.

GPDU Sweater Weavers

GPDU Sweater Weavers

Since leaving Uganda in late 2015, we have been in discussion with GDPU, wanting to help them continue the good work they had started under The Youth Development Programme. So, we are very proud to announce that our project: ‘Enhancing the Capacity at Gulu Disabled Persons Union’ or ‘ETC at GDPU’ for short is taking its first steps. The aim of the project is to provide extra support for the small business groups set up by students with disability who had trained with GDPU between 2013 and 2015 under the YDP. We will fund the six month pilot phase of the ETC project but will be looking for funding for the substantive programme, once we have evaluated that pilot; you have been warned, calls for donations are to be expected!

Camera 360

Ex YDP GDPU Electronics students outside their shop 2017

Fifteen business groups were set up under the YDP. ‘ETC at GDPU’ aims to strengthen those nine groups still in existence, so that they can become more profitable, more resilient and last longer. This will improve the livelihoods of the group members and of course of their families and their village.

Camera 360

Project Leader carrying out first assessment of an ex YDP business group (Group Enterprise: Electronics)

GDPU will work with the groups to decide what will help them grow and develop and then organise for that support to be delivered. This project will provide capacity building – group dynamics, business support, additional technical training, mentorship and support. Stay tuned to see how it develops, and of course do look at the website:


Camera 360

which is full of information, photos and films.


Perhaps even more unexpectedly, as some of you might know, I was in a group in the 1970’s (weren’t we all?) the original version of the that group played again recently and to honour GDPU I wore my jumper, you can see it here.

Jumper Mekons Manchester 3

Some Background

We were in Gulu, Northern Uganda for two years nine months, working with a huge DFID funded vocational training programme.

Gulu is on the road to South Sudan, it was the centre of the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan Government. Many of the Internally Displaced Peoples camps were here. The northern region has been peaceful since about 2007-8 and the context has moved from emergency humanitarian aid to development work.

The Vocational Training Institutes provide opportunities for the youth(male and female aged 14-35). Most of them lived in the camps or were abducted by the LRA. They have had very little education, leaving them with few skills. Our purpose was to help these Vocational Training Institutes build up their capacity to equip the youth with what they need to earn a living and live as decent a life as possible.

By the Way
Mark's old art/ history of art website is still active should you want to read more by him or look at his work


From There to Here

Our Old Life, Packed Away in one Twenty Foot Container


A Vocational Training Institute, Assembly under the Mango Tree

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