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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.
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.
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
I rejoice in the title of ‘ Monitoring and evaluation and programme support facilitator’. This means in reality that I do a bit of everything all over Northern Uganda which is just how I like it .
The last few weeks have been particularly busy and varied. Here is the timetable:
Week 1 in Soroti ( south east of Gulu ) with Russ, another volunteer , to deliver training to the Principals and Boards of four Vocational Training Institutes that we are working with. We try to make the training as interactive as possible – the case studies we use provoke a lot of really heated discussion. We could have spent at least 3 hours on :-
The board chairs sister has a furniture business; he recommends that you buy the new office furniture from there. Is this a good idea? Agree /Disagree /Not Sure
Returned to Gulu with Russ in his double cabin pickup which unusually didn’t break down, stopping off to buy 10 kg each of oranges and tangerines for £1 equivalent and then to Lira for an interview with consultant doing an evaluation of VSO in Uganda for DFID.
NB: In Uganda if you go in the field you are expected to buy local produce to take home to your family /staff/ work colleagues.
Week 2 – A tour of West Nile with a big group
I was doing gender toolkit dissemination , market relevance survey and interview analysis with Arua Tech, and Governance and Strategic Planning with Board members and Principals from the 5 vocational training institutes we work with in that region .
Mark came along to do Curriculum Support, Mentoring and 2 days training at a college that has just joined the programme
Russ was there to do Governance and Strategic Planning training with me and work with the students on market analysis. Yet again the Board Chair’s sisters furniture business provoked lively debate!
Rose was doing Monitoring and Gender Toolkit dissemination
Elizabeth who had only been in Uganda for a week was assessing the quality of information in the databases
Richard drove the big black Prado down some very windy bumpy roads to get to the colleges and took us across the Congo border at one point.
Our route took us from Gulu to Pakwach, Nebbi then up along the Congo border to Arua and then to Moyo crossing the river at Laropi , through Adjumani and back to Gulu . A big loop. Unfortunately there was no local produce to bring back .
Week 3 in Gulu
A quieter week – planning and developing two days training on the projects monitoring and evaluation framework and a new reporting template for the 11 Gulu based Vocational Institutes and visiting Gulu Persons Disabled Unit to introduce a participatory research project to the students and form a research team with them .
Week 4 Training in Gulu
Delivering the training on Reporting and Documentation to 55 vocational training staff in a very small room with Samantha and Elizabeth (fellow volunteers). Oh and spending a whole day updating the access management information system to deliver the new reports .
Two half day sessions with the Student Researchers at Gulu Persons Disability Unit, developing the research parameters and questions and agreeing the research plan . They are now going off to carry out the research by conducting surveys( about 60 surveys ) with other students ,staff , their families and communities , local politicians , local business people with disability. The research is looking at how Vocational Training Institutes can improve access and facilities for Persons with Disability (PWD) and support PWD into sustainable livelihoods. The interviews are being conducted in Luo (the local language) so I will have plenty of opportunity to improve my skills.
Week 5 Soroti
Off to Soroti for the Reporting and Documentation Training and to carry out Market Relevance consolidation with the students at Uganda Martyrs Vocational Institute.
Week 6 On leave
To Kampala, Fort Portal and Murchison Falls Park for a rest !!!!!!
The best bits:
o Facilitating the Disability Participatory Project with the students at Gulu Persons Disability Unit
o Working with the students on consolidating the market relevance surveys in Arua and Soroti
o The lively discussion in the governance training on the chairman’s sisters furniture shop and other contentious issues
o Travelling around Uganda
o Working with VSO staff and volunteers
The worst bits:
o Having to sort out the travelling and subsistence expenses for the delegates at the training sessions
o Noisy hotels
In a previous life, before we arrived in Northern Uganda as VSO volunteers, I had been an artist and art historian and taught the same. Since my first days of excitement at the equatorial light and vivid vegetation, I have been trying, without success, to get something down in a sketchbook. Somehow it all turns to Matisse pastiche or mock Gauguin without the monumental self belief.
There is no local tradition of image making, The Uganda Museum in Kampala (a beautiful building designed by German architect Ernst May, much of the other urban architecture is fascinating too) has examples of decorated surfaces and ritual objects but no images. The contemporary art galleries in Kampala show vague approximations of western painting styles from the 1950’s and 60’s and a lot of postcard type paintings of zebras. Some of the sculpture, especially that shown at the Makerere Gallery inside the Fine Art Department of the university, really uses local traditions to make something interesting.
Living in a radically different place means resetting your default, redefining ‘normal’; some cultural templates are deeply embedded. Unchanging seasons and constant day length feels very odd for someone from the Northern Hemisphere. Those of us used to brisk exchanges and ‘getting on with it’ find the formality of introductions and meeting protocols take some getting used to. The western obsession with timekeeping and making plans is brought up by everyone you meet.
Painted pictorial space is just such a style set, stuck irretrievably within my own operating system, upgrades do not seem to be available for this model. I always knew that using geometry, scale and colour to make a flat board appear as a window frame onto an illusory three-dimensional world, was a western conceit. What I hadn’t realised was how irrelevant that system would be here and how difficult it would be for a western trained artist to get away from it. I also hadn’t thought about how much western art, post 14th century and pre-Cubism, depended on being inside; on being hung or painted on a flat wall. One of the many reasons why it never developed here.
Students on our training programmes, motor vehicle mechanics and brick layers for example, are often taught isometric projection as a way of understanding construction; they are very good at that sort of drawing. But the full creation of infinity, horizon lines and virtual architecture invented to display the wealth and power of Renaissance ultra high net worth individuals; never happened here. Sadly it seems that today’s western equivalents spend their money on yachts and football clubs, rather than anything that we in the development world would call, sustainable. There is a very good article in the Guardian recently on this.
And that is the point of an art form depending on a believable pictorial space; it is about those western obsessions: time and planning, I suppose displays of power are common throughout the world. In the western climate, oil paint, egg tempera and frescoes can last forever, those renaissance images which established this visual language are also about planning for the timeless hereafter that all your wealth (and maybe at a push, spiritual wealth) will give you. No wonder nobody here developed anything like it.
All this is really a rambling excuse as to why I don’t think these sketchbook drawings are up to much. See what you think.
I have written about Pictorial Space in the past, If you are interested in the theme (unlikely I know) then these posts might be worth a look