When I took the decision to apply for VSO early 2011, I knew that it could lead to a period of uncertainty. I didn’t know which country would offer me a placement, or even if I would accept it. So when I was offered a placement in Rwanda, and accepted, there was excitement and trepidation. What would it be like, what would happen, who would I meet, — how would my life change? Of course, life is full of uncertainties anyway, but when you make the decision to step sideways into a different culture; a different continent, then you know there will be many unknowns.
One of these has turned out to be a 12 day visit to Uganda. No, this was not a holiday, and yes, I know I am supposed to be in Rwanda.
The charity that I work for in Musanze, Rwanda, Chance for Childhood (C4C) formerly known as Jubilee Action, are starting to manage a new project in northern Uganda. This will again be funded by Comic Relief. There are some similarities between the two projects, and so they asked me if I might be available to go there as a sort of ‘voluntary consultant’, to see what I could offer them in terms of training and planning with my limited knowledge of working in ‘disability/deaf issues’ in Sub Sahara Africa.
I was keen to go, but finding the time in our busy schedule in Rwanda was a challenge. Then the Rwandan Education board (REB) announced in December that the new school term would start 3 weeks later than everyone had expected – for a variety of reasons which I won’t go into here – and I found that I had 3 weeks with not a lot to do. So I emailed the Executive Director of C4C to tell her I could go in early January, if the timings were right for them.
So here I am, In Patongo, northern Uganda. An exciting co-incidence for me was that the journey involved two flights, one to Entebbe, and the next, from a small airport called ‘Kajjansi’, in a small MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship) plane to Patongo. My neighbour and good friend in England, has been involved with MAF for many years, – in fact her husband had been Chairman for many years, before his death. They called their house ‘Kijjansi’! So I was very excited to go to the airport and to fly on a MAF plane. The landing strip at Patongo did not have many facilities!
Patongo, Agago District, Northern Uganda.
Many things are very different here from Rwanda.
The landscape is completely flat – East Anglia looks hilly by comparison – and goes on for ever. It is the dry season and it is HOT! Their language is completely different too, so my few Kinyarwanda phrases are useless. Much of the land is uncultivated, as there is so much space. The poorest people live in traditional round mud huts with thatched roofs. Rubbish collection has not been organised, so there is a lot of litter. Driving is crazier than in Rwanda! English is their second language – which makes training much easier! But also, many things are the same. The food is very similar, everyone carries things on their heads, the plumbing is dreadful, the children are beautiful! Everyone stares at you, but people are very friendly. And most people are very poor. There is tremendous need.
I have had a crash course in the effect on this part of Northern Uganda of the recent troubles, and it has been quite devastating.
The group I am working with, P4C are all Ugandan nationals, and are providing support for the most vulnerable children and young people in the area. For 22 years, the infrastructure in this area was virtually non-existent, so there is a whole generation of people who didn’t go to school, don’t speak English and many are traumatised by that they were forced to do, forced to watch, or had done to them. It is taking a long time to rebuild the facilities, but the human scars make take longer to heal.
Passion for Community (P4C) was started in 2008 by a group of local people who were concerned by the number of traumatised and damaged youth in the community who were having difficulty reintegrating into normal life after the two decades of violence. The group were all volunteers, with little other than compassion to offer. They eventually made contact with Jubilee Action (now C4C) who were able to buy the land and fund the building of the brand new Centre which was officially opened in 2012. Here they are teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills to those who have had no education, and also offering a course in tailoring to help provide the possibility of a livelihood to these young people. (They hope to expand this to include carpentry this year)
They have several councillors, who are offering counselling to traumatised youth. Not only do they work in the Centre, but they have 30 groups in the rural areas, with around 35 young people each, and spend much of their time travelling to remote villages to offer counselling, support and to facilitate discussions around topics such as gender violence, and sexually transmitted diseases.
The Centre is also specifically working with women’s groups. Many young women were abducted during the violence and have returned with babies. These women find it hard to be accepted back into the society and many are ostracised. There children’s fate is not much better. There is also much gender violence – as is often the case when men return from armed conflict, and the position of women in this society is already ‘second class’. And also have a programme specifically designed to supporting orphans.
There is so much to do. P4C is the only group in the whole of this District of Northern Uganda that are trying to meet the needs of this group of the most vulnerable young people. It is a drop in the ocean.
I was wondering what I had to offer these people, as my knowledge of trauma counselling and gender violence is non-existent. But they have a significant number of youth who are deaf, and also a need to understand about different learning needs of their children if they attend local schools, and the type of support they would need in the classroom in order to have a chance of being successful.
I was also apprehensive as I know basic BSL, some Rwandan Sign Language, but no Ugandan! The internet is a wonderful thing, so within seconds I found that they use the American one handed alphabet. That was lesson No1. sorted then! In the meantime, I was put in touch with Richard, who is working with UNAD (Ugandan Association of the Deaf) organising sign language training in Northern Uganda. We organised for him to get me the Ugandan Sign Language DVD and dictionary. This was paid for by ‘mobile money’, transferring money via your mobile phone, and would be brought to Patongo on the bus.
Then I asked him if he knew Patrick from the BBC4 Documentary, which many of us have seen and were very moved by.
Richard was the person who suggested Patrick as the subject for the documentary! ‘I want to meet him’, I said. ‘No problem, he lives close’ Richard replied!
My next Blog – to be posted soon – will tell you about my visit to Patrick.