A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Further Westwards the Road Continues

I have been on the road again- moving weswards. First to a town called Hoima, then to a smaller town called Kagadi, followed by a visit to the verdant Fort Portal near the Congolese border.

The bus journey to Kagadi resembled more of a rollercoaster ride than a bus ride. Red dust spewing for all sides, sending pedestrians in all directions. A live chicken on the seat in front of me. ‘Shake your Bootie to the Name of Jesus’ playing on the radio. Me, with my fingers crossed, hoping I make it.

I made it, and now know I want to return.

From the window alone I have been learning. Watching how a whole family can squeeze onto a boda boda, or a whole community into a Toyota Corolla. Seeing how bunches of bananas are carried on bicycles. Seeing the transition from wattle and mud housing structures to local brick. Noticing that when tarmac comes, so too do little shops, more residents, more business.

Driving through tea plantations was a novelty. Their green seems to ripen the land. The order of the fields, each squared off into plots of equal size and looking as if they are hovering on the undulating hills, filled me with a sense of calm. Learning that the tea pickers get on average €0.13 per kilo of tea picked however did not.

But whatever the conditions, this place- it’s scenery, greenery and people are nothing short of beautiful; and it is that which shouts ‘return’ to me.

Getting the Ball Rolling- Where Trevor Dudley meets Sports.

Kampala Kids League (KKL), and The Kids League (TKL) have been on my mind a lot, ever since my meeting with their founder, Trevor Dudley. ‘Helping to improve kids lives through sport’ is their underlining message. As a result, 13,550 children have taken part in sport in Kampala alone- but not only that, the organisations are breaking down ethnic, cultural, tribal and economic divides. Impressive is an understatement!

Both KKL and TKL sprang from the lack of sporting opportunities for kids in Uganda. Trevor, a keen sports fan, had previously been involved in the Little League equivalent in Jordan, where soccer and basketball leagues were popular. The experience, Trevor explains, ‘taught [him] how powerful sports could be to get across messages, and bring kids of different nationalities together’. Little did he realise then that he would eventually be living in Uganda, quit his job as a quantity surveyor and be running a national organisation promoting kids’ sports.

KKL and TKL do exactly that, plus more. The leagues require a huge amount of organisation. Hundreds of parents are involved, giving rise to a wave of community volunteerism across the country. ‘If you want your child to get involved’, Trevor elaborates, ‘you as a parent must volunteer to do something. For every 600 kids, we need 200 adults- coaches, referees, nurses etc. Once we have those adults, we can have kids coming from the streets who do not have parents'.

Currently approximately 15% of KKL’s intake are orphans and street children. To participate in the league, the kids must go through a street children’s organisation-which has the added knock on effect of keeping them off the streets.

But the story gets better. Trevor was seeing huge talent coming though the leagues, and soon realised that there was a need to channel this talent to help these players fulfil their sporting potential. Thus started the talented kids league, in which the crème of the soccer crop were given further training and coaching. Every year since 2002, KKL have been taking a team to the International Youth World Cup- The Gothia Cup, in Sweden, and the Tivoli Cup in Denmark. The team won in 2002. They won again in 2003, and again in 2005, and the are back again this year to defend their reign. Cartoons in the National Media jokingly mock the National Soccer team, claiming that the KKL team would beat them outright!

Additionally the leagues have become a powerful tool for cultural integration across the country. ‘I knew sports as a powerful means for bringing people together and breaking down barriers, but we did not realise what we were doing when we started’, Trevor explained. ‘Black, white and brown kids are playing, but it goes a lot deeper than that. The leagues are breaking down tribal, religious, cultural and economic barriers'.

The leagues are also used to promote health messages. Teaming up with UNICEF, TKL is promoting a vaccination programme at football matches. At one game, where 3,000 people turned up to watch, the medical team ran out of vaccines.

Quality is something which Trevor greatly emphasises. The Kids League has been growing rapidly, but steadily. Lessons are learned and built upon, and both TKL and KKL are known for their impeccable organisation. TKL now operate in 6 regions across the country, including two new planned regions this year. Included are some of the IDP (refugee) camps in the North of Uganda.

Trevor, originally from the UK, has been living in Uganda for the last 18 years. Attending an ‘old fashioned grammar school’ in England, and being ‘dragged through cross-country in the snow’, he realised the value of both academics and sport. ‘I hated it at the time, but later I realised that I learned so much more on the sports field than in the classroom. It was those school days that really showed me. Having an opportunity to play sport was a key thing’.

Cross-country in the snow anyone?!

The World Cup- Uganda Style.

The country has taken on a frenetic air over the last few weeks. Business in bars and restaurants- and any location with a TV- is booming. For the enterprising, the purchase of a TV and power source has become a little goldmine. One local woman, in the local, hired a generator and TV. On the days when there is no power, she asks for a small contribution to the generator fuel costs… and now she could start a football team herself with the regular match viewers.

For those with no access, radio must suffice. The commentary in the local language is most amusing. I don’t understand the words, but I can follow the score through shouts, yelps, signs, high pitch screams and fits of laughter.

But the power ‘struggle’ can cause disrupt. I’m not much of a football fan, but was watching the English v Equador match. Half- way though the game, the generator failed- and when the power did come back on, England had scored; the only bit of real action in the entire match!

Good job I am not too much of a fan!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Colorful Entrepreneurs- Bead for Life

Of all the projects I have visited so far, Bead for Life is indeed the most colourful!

The Acholi women are a displaced group who have settled in outskirts of Kampala, escaping the conflict areas in the north of Uganda.

Many are poor, many are ill, and all need a means to generate their own income. Bead for Life, an income generating support iniative gives them that opportunity- enabling them to access health case, housing support and ultimately plans for their future.

It all started when Torkin Wakefield, who had been volunteering with Reach Out Mbuya (see blog entry below), visited one of the Reach Out clients. The client, an Acholi woman, was sitting, making beads out of recycled magazines. Torkin, impressed with the quality of the work, bought some of the beads, and later showed them to her friends in the States- more and more people started admiring the beads, and Torkin realised there was a business opportunity in it.

Now a group of nearly 90 women bead on a regular basis, generating enough income individually to sustain their families. Bead for Life provides an opportunity for them to develop their business skills, and promotes the produces on-line. Beads are also sold through ‘bead parties’ in the States. Beaders are contracted for a three year period. After this time, the women ‘graduate’ with enough income and support to start their own initiatives.

On the day I visited the Bead for Life office, I met up with Irene Oker Adokorach (left), a programme assistant, and Josephine Nazziwa (right), a community co-ordinator and beader. Irene explained that she inititially started volunteering with the organisation. Being from Gulu in the north herself, she understood all to well the conditions of these women, and the situation in which they had fled from; and realised she wanted to assist them. She is now working full time for the organisation, trying to develop their programme streams, and marketing the bead works.

I am now a proud bead wearer myself too!

The Mango Carrier

View from a Kampala Bus!

A Political Perspective

One hears so much about politics in Africa- and much of it is negative. ‘Corruption’ and ‘Governance’ are almost considered one and the same. Scepticism is high, and criticism is ready to pounce on anyone involved. I have no doubt that there are the ‘bad apples’, but equally so, I have no doubt that there are the ‘good’; people in politics who are committed to the political process as a tool for positive societal change.

Word got out that I was looking for someone in politics who falls into the latter basket, and the name Joyce Mpanga, Uganda’s former Minister of Women’s Affairs, and former Minister for Primary Education, kept cropping up. Joyce kindly agreed to meet me, and there followed a most interesting discussion about her life- in and out of politics, her motivations for choosing the political route, and whether she would recommend politics as a way to effect change.

Joyce’s life story filled me with intrigue. Firstly she mentioned three men that have been instrumental in her life; “My grandfather for believing women would never to able to achieve. He used to say, ‘it is a pity that this girl was born a girl- what can she do’. That motivated me and made me aware that I have ability. Then my father, who saw my ability and nourished it. Then my husband, who was very very supportive”.

Politics, she says, was in her from an early age. Being the eldest, her father would ask for her opinion. If her views were reasonable, her ideas would often carry; and so she saw that she could influence. Then came debating at school, and later an appointment as head prefect. At high school, a shortage of teachers meant that the senior students were often given teaching responsibility at a very young age- a role which later encouraged her into the profession.

Joyce will admit that she is the product of ‘affirmative action’- although the phrase was not used back then. Very few girls went on to secondary school, even less to university. When she joined Makerere University in Kampala to study social science, she was one of only 13 girls. As a result, she always felt the need to represent the female voice, and so was attracted into student politics. By the age of 26 she was known on the campus for her gusty opinions. She was soon noticed by the Governor of Kampala who encouraged her into mainstream politics. This she delayed for a year, taking up instead a Fulbright scholarship to do a Master’s in Education in the States.

However, it was 1962, and Uganda was just about to gain Independence. Joyce, longing to be back, condensed her two-year Masters into one, and returned to independent Uganda to pursue both an academic and a political career.

Things turned dramatically in the late 1960s however when Milton Obote came into power. Joyce’s father, who was also politically motivated, was opposed to Obote and later Idi Amin. It was a position which ultimately led to his brutal murder- the details of which Joyce refrained from elaboration. Following the murder she was forced into exile, and lived in the UK for over 7 years- raising a young family, and keeping low.

Joyce eventually returned to Uganda, taking up various university teaching positions, while maintaining her political interests. She was later to become the first Minister for Women to be appointed in government, under Museveni. This, she states, was the most difficult job she even undertook, having to start the Ministry from scratch. It was a battle for funding, but by bypassing the Ministry of Finance (who she claims was tight with funding when it came to gender issues), she negotiated with Swedish and Danish overseas agencies and secured funds for the first major project of the Ministry- a project to obtain the views of woman across the country, and ensure that their voices were included in the forthcoming constitution.

However when the Women’s ministry was becoming strong, Joyce was shifted to start a Ministry for Primary Education. It was the late 1980s, and the Global movement for universal primary education (UPE) was gearing up. Joyce became an active participant, secured the UPE deal for Uganda, and has gone on to represent Uganda, and Africa in international circles, lobbying for educational reform across the continent.

Back to falling into baskets, Joyce now quite literally does. She is current Chairperson of the African Association for Arts and Craft Workers, and is involved in running a local craft market. Joyce observed that some of the traditional crafts were dying out; such as basket-weaving and mat-making and so set up the craft market and later the Association- a forum in which local artists produce and promote traditional works (For an example of one of the artists, see Nuwa Wamala- Nnyanzi’s work)

‘Most of the work that I have done, is actually mobilising others to help themselves’, Joyce said, ‘ it is never really about me. Some people do go into politics for the wrong reasons; money and prestige, but I think people should go into it wanting to make a difference’.

I asked if Joyce if she would encourage others into politics, and she quoted, ‘The punishment for wise people not to go into politics, is to be governed by the foolish!’

Enough said!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Island Retreat- With a Twist.

In the foot of Uganda, not far from the border with Rwanda, lies the town of Kabale- and not far from Kabale, is a little slice of paradise which stunned me by its serenity and beauty; Lake Bunyonyi, 25 Km in length and over 6400 F above sea level.

A 50 minute trip in a dugout canoe took me across to ‘Byoona Amagara (Whole Life) Island Retreat’, where I travelled to understand more about how sustainable tourism works in the area, and to meet with Jason Gerver and his staff who run the retreat.

Arriving, the sound track to the island provided all sorts of new melodies- cuckoo like chirps, the night chorus of crickets, a rustle of lizards in the grass. The sound of silence in this place was nature in abundance. Looking at the beauty of the island, it would be easy to assume that all is idyllic, but observation and a chat with Jason soon revealed more.

On my way over in the canoe three questions had struck me;
One- Where were the tree trunks for the canoes coming from?
Two- Why is there a school on an island in the middle of the lake?
And three- What is an ugly resort hotel (which I had passed), doing on the lake shore- looking empty.

Jason helped me fill in some gaps.

The lands around Bunyonyi are heavily cultivated. Where once were indigenous forests, now are terraced plots. When the forests were felled, very few trees remained for the canoes- the only affordable mode of transport available to the locals to cross the lake.

On some islands, Eucalyptus trees have been planted to replenish the trunk supply. These are appealing in the short term, as they grow quickly, but after felling, the remaining trunk splits and two or more grow- each too small for a canoe. What’s more, Eucalyptus are heavily resource dependent and drain the soil of nutrients. So if indigenous trees are replanted- the ones which make good canoes- they can no longer grow in the depleted soil.

Additionally, now that the trees which are large enough to make the canoes are rare on the lakeshore, the boats have to be built inland. Each can cost up to a crazy €2000 (most of which goes on transporting the canoes to the lake)- a cost totally prohibitive for the average would-be lakeside canoe owner.

However, the issue is further complicated. With agricultural land being prime, the only land made available for schools has either been on the islands in the middle of the lake, or high on the hilltops.

So now you have schools on the islands, with not enough canoes to take the kids there!

The staff of Byoona Amagara have come up with at least a temporary solution. As part of their working day, they paddle to shore in the morning, collect the kids, bring them across to school, and then return in the afternoon to take them home. On one of the dugout canoes tied up in Byoona Amagara’s jetty, in proud blue paint, was written, ‘School Bus’! For a longer term solutions, the staff are trying to promote alternative tree species in the region- large enough for canoes, and kind enough to the soil.

So that was question one and two covered, now question three.
The hotel carcass which I saw on land breeds early signs of heavy commercial tourism. Jason told me that before he decided to set up Byoona Amagara, he saw a document which planned for ‘Disney style/ Club Med’ development of the lake. The plan was to depopulate the area, build masses of hotels around the lake, and fill the inner islands with imported tropical bird and butterfly species. Given the relative political instability in the whole region, such mass development could be the ruination of the whole lake- not to mention the surrounding communities. The derelict hotel which currently stands indicated the start of this- but the owner died and building work was abandoned, leaving an ugly, imposing concrete shell.

As an alternative to this development the Byoona Amagara staff set about providing an alternative model. The plan was to build a retreat catering for a range of tourists, provide employment, support the local community. It was to be built with local timbers and materials, and complement the natural aesthetics of the lake. And so far, so good.

I certainly saw innovative uses of resources on the island. Power comes from solar panels, water is heated in special bags which utilise daytime sun. Pit latrines are rotated so as provide compost. Thatch for the roofs comes from dried water reeds. Plus I got to stay in a ‘Geo- Dome’; a funky shaped cabin, looking straight out onto the lake, and made with local timbers.

Amazingly also, digital technology connects the island and the community to the outside world. The Internet comes by way of wireless satellite technology. A laptop and projector (solar energy powered) create a cinema for guests and locals alike. There is also a small library open to the pubic, and a computer lab for training kids from the nearby island schools. As Jason explained, if you are looking for an example of ‘the digital divide’ Lake Bunyoni is it. The open doors of Byoona Amagara now at least provide a stepping stone into cyber space.

What Byoona Amagara have done, is provide an alternative model of tourism in the region, with the community at the core. The views they provide aren’t bad either!

Breeds of Transport

Transport in Kampala is as abundant as the sunshine. It seems to have a language all of its own, and clones overnight.

On first sight of the taxi park, I thought it a labrynth, without any solution; the ultimate Sudoko, the very cryptic crossword. Surveying it from above, it looked like one mass of discordant white, and fear was holding me back from jumping in. But once I did, I realised there was actually a sophisticated order, and help came to direct me- much help. A charming woman selling hard boiled sweets silently accompanied me to the taxi rank and made sure I was on the right track. Others made similar offers. Had they not, another man, wearing white gloves and an official looking jacket, would have pointed out the right way.

‘Taxis’ by the way are shared buses, ‘specials’ are taxis. There are metered ones too, of the yellow New York variant, and others with which haggling is all part of the deal.

‘Boda Bodas’- my favourite breed- are either push-bikes, or scooters which carry pillion passengers (at your own risk). There are buses of various shapes, sizes and states of disrepair. ‘Delux’ can mean anything from a box of rust with wheels, to a fancy passenger coach, with seats which belong to first class in an airplane. And somehow, somehow, they all manage to get around- just about.

The other day on a Boda it was a ‘take your life in your hands’ moment, as we negotiated the early morning traffic- across roundabouts, along footpaths, over curbs, around the potholes, weaving though the taxis, and the specials, and the cycles, and the mass of pedestrians, and perhaps a chicken or two. I gripped on tight, hair on the back of my neck strictly upright. Who needs white water rafting when you have rush hour in Kampala!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Behind the Caring Slogan- Hospice Uganda

(Above- Anne Merriman, Founder of Hospice Uganda)

Accommodation in Kampala comes courtesy of the wonderful Ita Harnett, an Irish doctor working out here, who is clinical director of Hospice Kampala.

Ita has opened her door, offering a warm welcome to myself and a motley crew of other travellers passing through, who are working with Hospice. Her hospitality and openness has given me a fantastic insight into the work of Hospice here; as well as death and dying in this country. I had a chance to go on some home visits with her and a team of nurses, and I also got to interview the founder of Hospice Uganda, the equally wonderful Anne Merriman.

Ita showed me a colourful T-shirt with dons the somewhat cheesy, but ‘hitting the nail on the head’ slogan of Hospice- ‘Palliative Care, Cares for You’ (Uganda’s seems to be pretty comfortable with direct marketing tactics!). Founded by Anne Merriman in 1993, Hospice Uganda was the third country to commence palliative care in Sub Saharan Africa, and has become the model Hospice for Hospice Africa.

I learned that palliative care really is about allowing patients to die in dignity, and with as little pain and discomfort as possible. It is about looking after physical, psychological and emotional needs of patients. Where patients are too ill to travel to clinics, doctors and nurses travel to them- an essential component in following through with the vision of hospice care.

Anne and her team have been pioneers of palliative care across Africa. One the key factors in ensuring success is being able to provide affordable morphine (pain relief) medication. Anne pioneered the manufacturing of cheap morphine in Uganda. A powdered form of morphine is imported into the country, and then made into a liquid form in the Hospice pharmacy. It is coloured with different food colourings (which represent different drug concentrations), and then distributed in recycled plastic water bottles. This method means that enough morphine for about 12 days can be produced for the cost of half a loaf of bread. Anne and a team of advocates work across Africa to promote low-cost morphine production, ensuring that as many people as possible can access such essential care and support.

Anne is quite a character. English by birth, she has lived in Africa for many years, including 10 years in Nigeria in the 1960s. She is a keen animal lover, and many a cat wanders around her home and office. On the day that I interviewed her, one of the cats jumped onto a laptop, and Anne burst out laughing- saying the cat is ‘after the mouse!’. I love her silly sense of humour- and now see where the cheesy slogans come from!

Marabou's Stalking

‘Marabou Storks’- the name has an exotic, alluring appeal. In reality- NOT SO!
Marabou storks are huge scavenging birds, which linger around picnic tables in the vicinity of Lake Victoria. They have a wingspan longer than me, and look like they have come straight from the Jurassic period. Their heads resemble turkeys; their beaks, pelicans; and their antics, thieves.

Oddly, high in the sky, they could almost look graceful- up close they are anything but. I went to the lakeshore for a relaxing afternoon, and it transpired to be torture. You get the picture- the ugly picture!

Apologies to anyone who may be a fan, but I am very clear about which side of the fence I am on with these creatures; the side as far away as possible. And be sure to shut the gate after you please, trespassers will be prosecuted!

Life in Africa: Living it Online!

(Christina Jordan and her lovely son Ben, who was intrigued with my hand puppet!)

It seems appropriate that I first met Christina in a virtual capacity. Her ventures into internet interfacing, and online collaboration are the hub of her own work with Life in Africa. I met her through an online community called The Omidyar Network, where people across the globe can discuss social change issues and collaborate on projects. So meeting in person was a bit of a novelty!

It was never Christina’s intention to set up an organisation- it just emerged. It all started when the family of one of the guards at her home (it is very common here to have security staff) disappeared in the North of Uganda (where there has been long term conflict). Christina started writing letters home to her own friends and family, explaining the situation. ‘Then someone donated some money to finance the transport to be able to go and find his family’, Christina explained, ‘and they did, and they came back with the family’. Then in one of the letters Christina explained that herself and her husband were going to offer this man a loan, to be able to support his family. "Then I got all this email back', Christina elaborated, "saying, 'we want to be a part of that, and within a week I had $2,000- it was not very much money, but it was people saying, 'we trust you, and we want to be a part of this'".

Thus emerged Life in Africa’s first initiative, a loan programme.

From those initial letters, (back in 1998), Christina started seeing the internet as a unique space to garner support and financial assistance for projects in Africa. It was early days of the internet, and email was just taking off; but the potential she could see was there.

Now Life in Africa is both a virtual and a physical space. A group of buildings houses the loan programme, craft workshops, education programme, IT training and a savings programme for both adults and children (the latter is particularly unique here in Africa). It is a place where local Ugandans can connect with the outside world and plan for their future.

I asked Christina was her biggest challenges were. ‘Connectivity’ and ‘Power’. She meant it in a very practical way. Connectivity being the quality and strength of the internet connections here in Kampala, and power being the electricity supply!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Treatment Driver- Meet Peter Mugyeni

Founded in 1991 to serve as a national AIDS research centre, JCRC pioneered the use of Anti-Retroviral drugs (ARVs) in Uganda, and now provides treatment to more than 40,000 clients across the country.

Much of the growth of the centre has been down to the stoic efforts of Peter Mugyeni, who joined the centre as its first director. It was Peter’s ‘mover and shaker’ antics which enabled ARVs to become affordable to the masses, and which, he jokes, ‘almost sent (him) to prison’.

‘I never accepted that these drugs were impossible to use here. That is what they used to say’, he explained. ‘There were three reasons that they used to give. One, that we lacked infrastructure. Two, that we lacked the human resources. Three, that we lacked the logistics to distribute them’. Peter and his colleagues proved them wrong on all counts.

Peter was also the first to import generic drugs into Uganda, at the very time when South Africa was being taken to court by the pharmaceutical companies for announcing their potential use of generics. When the South African court case was going on, Peter imported generic drugs from India, knowing that it was illegal to do so. He announced the arrival of the drugs to the National Drug authority- and there followed a period of court hearings which debated the use of the drugs in Uganda. Ultimately, Peter engineered a price war with the local drug companies, ensuring that they would match the cost of the imported (and impounded) generic drugs. His personal risk paid off, the cost of ARVs dramatically reduced, and thousands more people consequently have access to the treatment.

Peter was also instrumental in setting up a funding agreement with the American Government to finance ARV distribution in the country. The story goes that Peter was sitting next to Laura Bush at a dinner, convinced her of the deal, and President Bush very soon announced the funding iniative. Seems he knows the appropriate channels!

‘Focus’ and ‘consistency’ have been essential elements to his success, Peter claims, and encourages all people to find their own personal ‘purpose’. His happens to be medicine, and specifically HIV/ Aids- but each to their own!

Viewing Kampala

An Enterprising Mango Tree.

Mango Tree
is a social enterprise which creates innovative tools for educators, to improve learning and retention within the classroom. It makes board games, learning charts, and other educational tools- all designed using local materials; from bottle tops to flip-flops. The use of such materials means that the tools are seen as ‘renewable’ and ‘familiar’, and are therefore used.
The idea emerged after Craig Esbeck spent just over two years working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eastern Uganda. Far too often Craig would notice that books and resources would be donated from overseas agency- only to end up locked inside a cupboard, ‘to keep them nice’.

In addition, the National Curriculum authorities had grand designs for schools, stating that each should be equipped with resources, or ‘minimum standards’, and provided a funding line for supplies. All very well, however, looking around Craig saw that there were limited local suppliers or resources available- just chalk and a few basis reading text books. So he set about rectifying the situation.

‘I wanted to do something which would encourage teachers to try some other ways of teaching’, he explained, ‘to start to shake up the paradigm of what learning and education is’.

He started the business with three board games; Snakes and Ladders, Ludo and Draughts, all part of the ‘minimum standard’ requirements. He started to make them on big grain sacks, and then began to train the teachers in how to use the games. It was through those training workshops that Craig learned that the teachers also wanted some guidance on how to teach reading; and supplies to back them up.

So Craig started buying old flip-flops and cutting out the alphabet. He went to the schools and told the children that he would buy flip-flops ‘for a penny a piece’. Soon bags and bags of old flip-flops started arriving, and from that he had the basic resources to make alphabet charts. The business model has changed now, but it was from such simple beginnings that it developed. Now Mango Tree resources are in about 25% of the schools in Uganda- and they are looking to expand.

When I arrived to meet Craig, I was greeted by himself, and a beautiful, gleeful child called Derek. I was later to find out that Craig is Derek’s legal guardian, and is in the process of adopting him, along with another child, Will.

The story of how Craig and Derek came to be together is rich in the ‘pull at the heartstrings effect’, and shocking- but one which I also find remarkable.

Craig was living in Eastern Uganda at the time. A knock on the door one day introduced him to a young woman from the area, who said that she needed his help. Craig went along to her home, only to find Derek lying, covered in faeces and open wounds, literally under a bush. Derek suffers from Cerebral Palsy, a condition which is little understood in the villages, and was treated as an outcast.

Meeting Derek, Craig said something ‘clicked’, and he knew he had to help. At the time he thought that would involve bringing Derek to a children’s home in Kampala, but once he started to care for him, he realised that he wanted to continue to do so.
Three years later, Derek is now in a local school in Kampala, mainstreamed with the other children. His face, smile, charm and energy was palpable. There is something remarkable about this child, and it has left me wondering how many more inhabited bushes are out there, and how many more Dereks.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Lights On, Lights Off- Kampala's Power Struggle!

Electricity supply in Kampala is sporadic at best. Currently 24 hours on, 24 hours off. That means traffic lights as well! It is the Jekyll and Hyde of national grids. Bizarre? Well the explanation has an element of amusement too.

The water levels in Lake Victoria have been low for the last few years- and it is there where the city’s power is generated by a massive hydro-electric dam. Low water levels have meant that the demand for power can’t be met.

Meanwhile however… Uganda is exporting electricity to Kenya! Rewind a few years when the dam was being build, and Uganda struck a deal with Kenya which locked them into a power provision contract, which they now can’t get out of. So while Kampala is in darkness, it is lights on across the border.

Tonight it is ‘lights on’. What a luxury; I get to charge some batteries!

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Doing what they can, with what they have, where they are.

‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’.

Dr. Margarete Junker, and the people of Mbuya took the above to heart, when they started ‘Reach Out Mbuya’ in 2001. Reach Out is a HIV/ Aids initiative, which approaches care in the true sense of holistic. Not only does it provide drug and therapy treatment, but also has structures for income generation, school sponsorship, micro-finance, a feeding programme and a community outreach initiative.

The centre is a hub of activity. With over 200 volunteers, who receive small stipends for their work, Reach Out can now treat and support over 2000 clients. Over 70% of the volunteers are themselves HIV positive, which means that the organisation is greatly in touch with the needs of its client base.

In just four years, systems and structures have been put in place to support the work, now operating in four localities in the area. Reach Out have also produced a ‘RepliKit’, an information and advice pack, to enable other organisations to learn and reproduce their model.

I found it hard to believe that the centre is just four years in operation. Walking around the clinics and talking to staff and volunteers, each spoke with pride of their role and impact ‘Reach Out’ is having in the local community. They talk about how the medication had enhanced the whole community, but they also talk about the skills they have learned, and the self confidence that has been built. To them, HIV/ Aids treatment and prevention is so much more than drugs and information, it is about caring for the body, mind, spirit and the health of the entire community.

Margarete explained that volunteering is a huge part to the success of the programme. People come, and no matter who they are, have some skills to give- they may have medical training, they may know how to sew, how to cook, how to welcome people, how to do accounts, how to drive- no one, she explains, is turned away. She emphasised that without the dedication of the entire staff, the ‘mosaic’- all the departments, clinics and the ethos of the organisation would not come into focus. ‘Never, never, never, is it just one person’, she passionately explained.

Margrete is soon to move to Mozambique with her husband and five children. (He is working for the UN, and is soon to be placed on a new assignment there). She is sad to leave, but knows that with the current team in place, the work is going to expand and improve, and Reach Out will continue to do exactly what its name proclaims.

Monday, June 05, 2006

They are not all out to get you!

When travelling, naturally you are more aware of your surroundings. Your senses are heightened, you are surrounded with new stimuli and new scenes. Not knowing what is next, there is a natural reaction to protect and guard. It is default territory. But once you are in a place- just even a little while- once you have your bearings, it is easier to open up and amazing things can happen as a result; a conversation, a smile, a new opportunity, a shared meal, a new view.. it is in open mode when the magic happens.

The magic has happened a few times over the last few days- in various ways. Firstly, in Eldoret, I was in an internet café for about an hour and a half. When I went to pay, routing for some change, the owner turned and said that she would like to give me a discount, since she appreciated the business, and would like me to return. I told her she was a shrewd business woman, and sure enough, I returned.

Then a huge surprise. On my way to Eldoret, I had lost my wallet. When I boarded the bus to go to Kampala, a man tipped me on the shoulder, and handed me my wallet, money intact!

This is not meant is happen in these parts- or at least that is what we are led to believe. But my perspectives, my worries and concerns have been shifting and repositioning with each new encounter. I have had chance conversations which strangers who tell me about their lives, I have been invited into peoples homes, I have joked and laughed. I am learning to be less clumsy with my things, but also to trust, more and more, and allow the magic to happen.

Camped in Kampala.

A long bus ride later, I arrived in Kampala. Winding though plush, rich lands; fertile, green and hilly- through tea plantations, rice plantations, open fields, maize crops, tropical forest. Past Baboons, past basketball courts, past sugar factories, past banana plants, then through the border, where the guards welcomed me into the country with a handshake. Oddly and beautifully the ‘flip’ between Kenya and Uganda was noticeable. The Ugandan side seemed more open, less cultivated, and less populated. And as darkness crept in, we caught a sunset which hued the sky with amber. I am excited to be in Uganda; for its scenery, its people, its possibilities.

Koinonia- Not all Greek to them!

‘Koinonia’- is a Greek word meaning ‘together in partnership’; a word which Ben Ogunyo best thought captured the essence of his work, when he set up Koinonia four years ago. Together with his long-term friend George Ngesa, he is turning on its head the way homelessness among children is being dealt with in the region. Rather than placing children in residential homes, Koinonia works with families and reintegrates the kids, some as young as ten, with their relatives.

It can be a slow process, taking time to build trust among the children and families, but as Ben emphasised, it is working at the root of the problem. If children run away from home there is an obvious problem there, and it is in the home where the real solution to the problem lies.

Ben and George meet with families over and over, gradually building trust, and slowly the real issue of why the child left home in the first place emerges. The father may be drinking, the mother may be home brewing, the family may have five, ten or twelve children- and just do not have the resources to support them all. Even though primary schooling is free in Kenya, there are a lot of hidden costs. Uniforms, books and school meals can cost up to KSh 2000 (about €25); multiply that by the number of children in a family and you get an exorbitant, prohibitive figure.

Ben and George identify kids on the streets, or the kids themselves approach them. Many want a way out, but just do not know what doors to knock on. Life on the streets is a rough ride. The kids survive on slim pickings- scavenging, odd jobs, begging, crime. The life of drugs can suck them in- glue sniffing is rampant among the street population, up to 2,000 children and teenagers in Eldoret town alone. Glue cost about 5 shillings, an attainable amount. It is bought from cobblers, who despite legislation, which bans them from selling it to under-aged people, is not reinforced. Walking past the area in Eldoret where the kids conjugate (on an urban dump), I see the empty bottles and them some kids sniffing- it is an open habit; who have they to hide from I ask myself? Heroine is on its way too, smuggled in over the borders with Tanzania, often by the street kids themselves. Pushers apparently prefer them, as they look more innocent. But Koinonia is finding ways to break the cycle for these kids.

If a family (whether the parent, uncle or other relative) agrees to take the child back into the home, Koinonia agrees to assist with school costs. They then work with the family, and discuss ways of generating income with in the family. They may link them with micro-finance institutions, and discuss how they manage their farm. This method is a lot more cost effective than institutional housing for children.

In cases where the children can not attend school, Koinonia links them up with vocational training- bike repairs, auto mechanics, tailoring, so that they can in turn set up their own small businesses. George walked me around town and introduced me to some of the boys they were working with, and who are now successfully trained and off the streets. I met Martin, 22, who was on the streets for a few years. He now runs a bike repair shop, is married and has a young family of his own.

I also met Hassan (on the streets from the age of five), and Erastus, both were being trained by a lovely woman called Lina, who owns a bike shop. She trains them to fix the bikes and they in return get some work. I asked Erastus about how different his life is now, and he simply beamed a smile, turned to George, and thanked him for the opportunity.

Advocating for Teenagers Mothers- Meet Stella Omunga

‘It’s a long story’, was Stella Omunga’s response when I asked how she came to set up ‘Advocates for Teenage Mothers’, an advisory and support service for girls who become pregnant. And indeed it is a long, but fascinating story. Stella, now just 29, has been working in the area of youth health issues for nearly 20 years. Yes, do the maths- she started young!

How? When Stella was in 5th class/ form in primary school, one of her friends, one of the brightest and best in her class, started menstruating when she was just 10 years old. Stella’s friend, knowing nothing about periods, was frightened and scared. She started missing school, and as a result her grades and school performance worsened. Stella took it upon herself to get informed, and tell her classmates. Her own mother was a teacher, and she organised for her to come and speak to the girls in the class about female health and reproduction issues. There started Stella's campaigning/ advocacy career.

That initiative led Stella to set up peer education classes in the secondary school, where she would arrange for groups of girls to come together and discuss female health issues. Her commitment to doing something about the lack of information available to girls was intensified when one of her closest friends died from an illegal abortion, aged only 17.

Looking at the statistics, Stella knew that there was a critical problem. She could see young girls, some as young as 13, become pregnant, and then watch them drop out of school. Some had been through rape trauma. Some were suicidal, or seeking abortion without being properly informed about the pros and cons. Without proper education, Stella knew that there were few prospects for these girls.

When Stella herself finished college, she decided to set up ‘Advocates for Teenage Mothers’. Through it, she now provides counselling and support for girls who become pregnant. She works with families, convincing parents to allow the girl to have the baby, and return to school. She works with church groups and talks to young girls about health issues. She goes to the rural areas and teaches girls about using sanitary towels, and about safe sex. She leads a team of volunteers who in turn go out and promote female welfare. She also opens her own home to girls in need. On the day that I visited Stella in her home, one young girl was staying with her, a girl who had no where else to turn.

Stella, who married when she was 22, has three young children herself. She is keen that they grow up informed and responsible. With her as their mother, I think that they have little choice in the matter!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Past the Flamingos, Westwards

Eldoret, in Western Kenya, is a busy, bustling spot. Noise blares from every angle. Matatus, the local small buses, gather and swarm. It was market day, and it seems likes the town population swelled with every Tom, Dick and Jacinta wanting to sell their wares. Eldoret also seems to be a gathering place for banks; they conjugate on every street corner, and the queues to some ran the entire street! Comparing them, I was not sure if length was an indicator of popularity or inefficiency. (If interested, Barclay’s won the ‘longest queue’ competition!)

The journey here was a good reintroduction to Africa transport. ‘Akamba’ bus services was my carrier. Billed as one of the upper market options, the fumes and soot that billowed from the exhaust, conveniently located just under my window, would suggest otherwise. If Kenya wants to clean up its air quality, it can start with that particular bus. As the hours went west, we made our way through the Rift Valley, and some incredible scenery to boot. The view which excited me most was seeing Lake Nakuru from a distance, with a ring of pink flamingos necklacing it’s shore. The countryside was so much greener than expected, part of it cultivated with maize; part of it not, leaving room for the Acacia trees to spread out their canopies.

Arriving just before sunset, I made my way to Lincoln hotel. Advertised as a ‘mid-range’ option, a polite way to describe it is ‘quirky’. Getting into bed last night, I rolled back the sheets to discover a used condom! Time to take out the sleeping bag!!.
But I have some very interesting interviews lined up here, so all worth it.

Replanting a Nation- Who is Adam Tuller?

The statistics relating to deforestation in Kenya make scary reading. Since Kenya’s Independence in 1963, forest cover has fallen from 12.5% of the country to just 1.5%. As a result, the country has been officially declared a desert.

To raise forest cover by 10% (the UN target), 3 BILLION trees must be propagated and planted. It is a mind staggering figure, and could daunt many, but not Adam Tuller- for that is what he and his organisation, The Africa Conservation Trust are about to do.

Over the last 20 years Adam has been figuring our ways of creating sustainable community forestry. He has piloted his methodology, which has proven to be highly successful, and has just got government go-ahead to roll it out across the entire country.

Adam is confident that the programme will succeed. “It is a home grown solution”, he comments. “This is not an overseas agency that has come and said ‘you’ve got to do it like this, and it is this way or no way’. Instead this is entirely relevant and is culturally flexible to the different tribes in different areas”.

To do it, Adam has been researching Nitrogen fixing trees. These are species which can be propagated quickly, simply and at a low cost. The trees increase soil fertility, and are extremely economical with water, making them ideal candidates for the job.

Adam is also currently working on a plan to introduce the tree propagation scheme into every secondary school in the country, as part of their chemistry and biology laboratories, so that children can help replant the country for themselves.

Alongside all of that, he has been working on a rural development programme for wealth creation using trees, and a charcoal programme for sustainable energy.

Adam is keen that the Trust be self-sufficient. In order to make it so, he has developed two profit generating businesses around it. The first is commercial forestry and the second, a low-cost community housing scheme.

Seems like a lot? Well it is. To Adam it is like a large jigsaw puzzle, needing all the pieces for the big picture to successfully take shape. He has all the pieces now, including the structure of an organisation to help it happen, and is about to press play on the grand plan.

Adam is fourth generation Kenyan, with his great grandfather arriving in 1867. He attended school in the UK, returned to Kenya, and due to a strange turn in race relations, was not permitted to enter university in Kenya (because he was not Black). So, instead, he entered that universally accessible learning environment, the university of life, learning what he needed along the way. This included getting a commercial pilot’s license and an MBA by distance education.

I asked him if there was every a time over the 20 years which he felt like giving up, and as a response he quoted one of his favourite characters, Winston Churchill. Following WWII, Churchill delivered a now famous 6 word speech, which went simply as follows; ‘Never, never, never, never give up’.

Adam took Churchill to his word, and it seems like Kenya will be breathing a lot easier as a result.

'Quite Bright', and Filming

Accommodation in Nairobi came courtesy of Dan & Amber Prior, who, together with Amber’s brother Alex, run a great little film company called Quite Bright Films.

While making money through commercial work, their passion is documentary making, their most recent full length film is a remarkable piece of work called 'The Longest River', which was aired on the National Geographic Channel. The film follows the first ever full decent of the Nile, by a team of river rafters in 2004, passing through Northern Uganda, Sudan and Egypt- through civil conflict, mighty white waters, swamps and vast lakes.

While the crew were off making an advert, I got to house sit and look after their two dogs (who I became quite fond of). Fair deal I’d say.