Monday, November 24, 2014

Trip Report - Edith's Home, Uganda

Trip Report - Edith's Home, Uganda

This summer, I spent ten days in Uganda, visiting Edith's Home in Ngora in the Teso region (Eastern Uganda, about seven hours drive from Kampala). Edith's Home supports children who have lost their parents through disease, poverty or war.

My church has been a strong supporter of the charity for a number of years and I had been thinking for a while about how I might get involved. Each year, a team of young people are recruited to visit the project, giving them an opportunity to show support to one of the poorest communities in Uganda as well as help maintain links with the UK. When I heard about these trips, I was keen to sign up (even though I'm no longer a young person!) and join the team. I thought it would be useful for me to bring some camera equipment so I could do some filming while I was there and put together some promotional videos for the charity to show people back in the UK.

After some intense fundraising (including a string of embarrassing videos I made here) I managed to secure the amount needed that would cover the cost of the trip (in fact, I raised an extra £200 which was great - thanks again to everyone who supported me!), and prepared myself for an experience I knew would be unlike anything I'd ever done before.

I've only been to Africa previously on one occasion and that was to Tunisia on a package resort holiday, which I don't think really counts as an authentic experience of the continent. In terms of a totally different culture, I have been to the Middle East (the more peaceful parts), namely Abu Dhabi and Oman. Because of these experiences I wasn't too phased about visiting Uganda, although I had my concerns and anxieties (most of which, it turned out, were unfounded).

The rest of the team flew out before me – I had my dad's 70th birthday to go to, which I couldn't miss – so I would be on my own at first, which was a little daunting. I left the UK four days later on a 767 bound for Entebbe International Airport and arrived early in the morning. The plan was that I would be collected from the airport and taken to a guest house. The following day I would then be driven the 290 km to meet the rest of the team in Ngora.

After picking up my bags and making my way (very slowly) through passport control, I exited the airport to find … no one waiting for me. Ulp! Looking intensely for a friendly face or name card, I saw neither, just a sea of Ugandans at arrivals staring at a clueless Mzungu (slang for a foreigner or white person). This was not a good start. I had no money and no info on where I was staying. A Taxi driver approached me and offered a lift (several times!), but I assured him I was being picked up. Needless to say, after a few prayers and frantic calls home to the UK I was eventually picked up by one of the guest house staff members. There had been some mix up – it's possible they mistook me for another white person but I never really got to the bottom of what exactly happened. It didn't matter. The main thing was that I had a bed to sleep in!

The next morning after breakfast, I was collected by Pastor John and his driver, David. John is a retired Minister who is the Director of Edith's Home and is a well-known and highly respected member of the community. We set off for Ngora, and I had my first daytime glimpse of Uganda. Heading into Kampala, I was struck by the noise, activity and smells (mostly the aroma of charcoal fires for cooking) coming from the side of the road. Kampala traffic was crazy – a convulsing flow of chaos and car horns. Eventually, we got out of the city and headed East, passing through several towns on the way and crossing the river Nile on the way which was cool.

We arrived in Ngora early in the evening and I met Margaret who owned the guest house I was to stay in for the coming nine days or so. She was very welcoming and friendly, supplying us with copious quantities of food and a few items familiar to Mzungus (e.g. Weetabix and Special K for breakfast!). Our accommodation had low power electricity (not enough to charge a laptop or power a refrigerator, for example) with basic lighting. We had to be frugal with the water – there was a sink with running water but the shower wasn't working so we had to bathe from a bowl. There was a toilet with a cistern but because of the limited water it was designated for 'Number Ones' only. 'Number Twos' were for the outside toilet with a long drop (basically a toilet seat on a plinth with a hole above a deep pit). There was no external lighting – i.e. no street lamps – so when the sky was clear at night we could see the stars in all their un-light-polluted glory, which was pretty special.

Our guesthouse, with a boda-boda motorcycle parked in the front.

My first day involved visiting a couple of child-headed families. Many parents in the region have tragically died from AIDS, Malaria or other diseases. Some were killed in the conflict involving the Lord's Resistance Army several years ago. The orphans left behind are faced with many challenges – the eldest brother or sister must quickly 'grow up' and be the parent. They must see that they and their siblings have food, shelter, clothing and an education. In one of the poorest countries in the world, this is not easy – they are pretty much 'bottom of the pile'. These families – and many others in the region – live in traditional huts constructed from mud, timber and grass. They often have small plots of land where they grow crops which can be maize, potatoes, plantain or fruit (such as mango). A popular crop is Cassava, which is resistant to drought and can be harvested at any time. The edible tuber roots are a good source of carbohydrate and vitamin C, although it must be prepared and cooked properly to remove toxins before eating.

Because these families consist of children, they are unfortunately susceptible to abuse by adults. This can range from theft of property or land to cases of sexual abuse and exploitation. Our guides were the social workers who are employed by Edith's Home to provide on-going support to the orphans. With over seventy families on the 'books', this is no easy task – especially as the families are spread out over a huge area where the roads are mostly uneven, dirt tracks. The workers each have a motorcycle, so at least they can get around easily enough.

The plan was to visit three families. The first family had gone to the nearby market to go begging so we went to the next one. We met J who was sixteen and had three other siblings (who were all at school when we visited). A bit shy, he told us he wanted to be a doctor, which was encouraging to hear – he clearly has hope for the future in spite of his situation. He showed us his hut and cooking area which were very basic. He and his sibling all slept in the one together. We talked about the things he enjoyed, and apart from school he said he loved football. There was a large flat piece of land opposite and we asked if he used it to play, but he explained that he didn't have a football. It's something we don't think about in the UK, but footballs are expensive luxury items in Uganda – they are also prone to wear and tear, deflating after extensive use. This was one of those awkward moments where our Western assumptions and materialism crashed head on with the reality of life in a third-world country.

Afterwards, we went on to see R who was ten years old and has HIV – the first person with HIV I'd ever met and shook hands with. She was quite weak and on medication which she has to pay for herself (she is only able to pay for it when she receives financial assistance from Edith's Home). The rest of the children were at school. She was very shy so it was difficult to talk, but we ended up playing a game of catch between several of us (using fruit from a nearby passion fruit tree) which she enjoyed and was a good way of breaking the ice a bit. We learned about how the mud huts are susceptible to attack from termites which can eventually cause the building to collapse. The ideal thing is for families to build a brick and concrete dwelling, which is unaffected by these pests. Obviously, this is expensive.

Leaving in a sombre mood, we visited the vocational centre. This is the main hub of Edith's Home's work – a large plot of land with an office, kitchen, workshop and three training blocks. Some of the children from child-headed families had been selected to stay for a few days in preparation for the tenth Anniversary celebrations on the Sunday. We spent a bit of time hanging out and playing with the kids before returning to the guest house for tea. Most meals consisted of meat (pork, goat, chicken or beef usually), rice, potato and cabbage. Occasionally we had pasta. The meat is usually quite bony with the skin on, so it can be quite a task to locate the 'meat' part. Sometimes Margaret attempted roast potatoes (potatoes are usually served boiled at mealtimes) which was impressive given the limited cooking facilities.

Preparing the rice for lunch

The following day there were more visits. The first family was headed by P who was only seventeen and yet already a fully grown man it seemed – he had had to grow up fast after the death of his parents. His uncle lived next door and seemed quite well off – he had come to greet us when we arrived and was wearing a white shirt with smart shoes. Despite this obvious comparative wealth, we learned that he does nothing to help. This visit was quite hard going – at one point during our 'tour' of his property, P was more or less pleading for us to help him (via one of the social workers who translated for us): he needed to build a more substantial home, set up a micro business so that he could earn from home and find money to pay for a decent education for his brothers. He told us how he wakes up every morning worried about what to do. It was really hard to know what to say. I was acutely aware that between all of us Mzungus standing in that home, we probably had the cash to give P everything he needed (and maybe more).

Of course, P is not the only one facing a dire situation. There are seventy other families with similar problems (just in that tiny part of Uganda) and the challenge for the staff of Edith's Home is how to respond fairly across all of them. We have to be incredibly careful – the Western way of thinking is often to throw money at a need. Sometimes this works, but more often it can be damaging in the long term. Simply giving money creates a dependency on hand-outs. It can also lead to less obvious problems such as jealousy within the local community (why are the Mzungus helping them and not us?), which can lead to individuals and families being ostracized. A better response is to invest in education or a business venture so that the individuals can help themselves – finding their own way out of poverty and hardship. An excellent book on this issue is 'When Helping Hurts' by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, essential reading for anyone doing relief or mission work.

Later on in the evening we discussed this with one of the team members (Rob) who has played a big part in setting Edith's Home up and regularly comes out to Uganda. He pointed out that if we pictured P's life without Edith's Home's support things would be much much different. P was accused of theft by another family member and had been arrested and locked up. Thankfully, Edith's Home was able to intervene and advocate for him. With the support of Edith's Home, he would probably be in jail and his siblings would be in a far worse position. The charity is a lifeline – making a difference, albeit small, helping families inch their way toward a better future.

After this visit, we arrived for lunch at the family home of brother and sister Tom and Rose (Edith's Home staff) – the extended family lived in a compound made up of several huts and brick buildings. Their hospitality was extremely generous and it was a privilege to spend time with them. Charles, Tom the social worker's brother, had travelled from Mbale (I think) and is a secondary school teacher. He gave us an insight into schooling in Uganda – in particular, how class sizes were about 250 students per class (yikes!).

After lunch we walked for a few minutes to another family just as a thunderstorm was breaking. The rain forced us to gather in one of the huts, which was a bit cramped. As we talked, we discovered what it was like to live in a hut that badly needed repairs – there were several small gaps in the roof letting in the rain and most of us were getting dripped on in some way. The cost of repairs is often too expensive for poor families and so they must endure such conditions. Inevitably, the longer these faults are left in a state of disrepair, the worse they get.

In this family, the orphans were being cared for by their aunt which is not an unusual arrangement. In some cases where children have lost their parents, a relative will take them in. Sometimes this relative has had no children of their own, sometimes they already have a family. It can be an enormous strain on the adults – especially if they already have their own children. The aunt is trying to run a brewery business making alcoholic beverage from millet, but told us how she is struggling to make the business work because all her profits were being spent on supporting the children. After talking for a bit and singing a couple of songs we made our way back to Rose's parent's home. We returned to find quite a lot of children hanging around, and I'm not sure if they were family members or from other homes in the community, but later on after lunch we played games (including the old favourite 'duck duck goose'). Charles, the brother of Tom the social worker, gave a long and touching goodbye speech thanking us for visiting and inviting us to all come back again one day.

The following day we visited the Edith's Home vocational centre where we spent time with the children singing songs and playing games (including volleyball – they had just acquired a net so were eager to try it out). I managed to do a bit of filming as well. At the end of the day, I got my first taste of riding on a motorbike (known as boda-bodas), even though I wasn't really covered on my travel insurance. One of the social workers gave me a lift. Because most of the roads are uneven dirt tracks, the wheels seem to slip and slide all over the place – it was a bit hairy, but fun.

We went to a restaurant in Ngora for tea. Run by a lady called Josephine, she was one example of a small business being supported by Edith's Home. She'd had a grant to get started and it seemed to be doing well. A restaurant such as this was not the kind we are used to in the West. There were a few tables and plastic chairs in a small premise off the main street of the town. Lighting was limited to what was coming from the kitchen – the cooker was a simple charcoal stove. Drinks had to be bought from one of the nearby shops. The food was great and it was a real privilege to be in the community supporting an enterprise such as this. For our lift home we all piled into the back of a pick-up truck driven by Tom, which was much safer than on the back of a bike!

The next day we arrived at the vocational centre again. Edith's Home has been going since 2004, and preparations were underway for the 10th anniversary celebration. It took a long time for everyone to arrive and for preparations to be completed but, eventually, the ceremony began which consisted of speeches, blessings, a drama, dancing and singing. It was a real privilege to be part of such an important occasion and very moving at times. In amongst the activity, I managed to shoot an interview with one of the visitors to the celebration. Martin has been supported by Edith's Home since he was young. He was one of the very first orphans to be supported by the charity and has worked through his education to eventually become a doctor. It is amazing to think that he has come from such dire circumstances to having the opportunity to work in such an important role.

Monday was the first day of the retreat with the sponsored students. The students were in the middle of their summer break and so had returned home after being away studying. The purpose of the retreat is to give the students an opportunity to maintain friendships within the group, as well as let off a bit of steam and have some fun. Many of these young people had a hard time growing up and so to play games and do sports gives them that chance to have a bit of their childhood back. I guess another benefit of the retreat is a cross-cultural one to help strengthen ties between the UK and Uganda. One of the most memorable times on the retreat was first thing in the morning when we got started. In the morning, we all met in one of the training rooms and the students burst out singing - it was amazing. Their voices in unison was beautiful and moving. So good, in fact, that we ditched the planned sing song that we were going to do at the start of the session. We just couldn't follow what they did! We then played some relay games outside. The students had a great time – it was lots of silly fun and great to see them laughing and having fun. The local Bishop then came and gave a speech that was basically one message: work hard!

The activities continued on, which were arts and crafts - I filmed another interview with a girl called Dinah and then took some photos. It was then that I had a visitor. Before I came to Uganda I got in touch with a friend of mine who I knew was living in Uganda. Anthony was working for a missionary organisation called YWAM, and we'd spoken on Facebook about the possibility of seeing him. Amazingly he was passing through the region at the time I was in the country and we were able to arrange a meet up. I hadn't seen Anthony for about 16 years and he arrived on the back of a motorcycle having managed to track down the location of Edith's Home without too much trouble. It was a bit surreal walking around the vocational centre and having a catch up with this guy I once shared a house with over a decade ago. Anthony has been in Uganda for 5 years which is incredible (and as a result had picked up a bit of an African accent, which was curious). He told me about life in Uganda and its unique challenges and idiosyncrasies. Over lunch, he nonchalantly told us how he'd caught Malaria twice in Uganda but got over it eventually (with a bit of help from medication of course).

After lunch it was a game of rounders with the students just as a storm was brewing. As the storm hit, we saw some amazing lightning strikes and the rain was torrential for some time. Anthony eventually had to leave and once the rain had eased, he managed to get a lift into Ngora. It was good to see him, and I wondered if we'd meet up again if I ever got the chance to return to Uganda.

Back at the guest house we had tea with some staff and their family as well as Margaret. It was lovely food - cabbage, goat, aubergine, potatoes, rice and barbecued chicken (yum!). For pudding we had cake which was a nice surprise! Cake is not the easiest thing to make in rural Uganda – not sure how they did but it came out amazing. One of the things that I wasn't looking forward to about going to Uganda was the mosquitos. Of course, I had medication in case I caught malaria but the thought of catching a potentially deadly disease from a minute little bug is kind of icky. One night, Gwyn got a bit overenthusiastic with the insect repellant before going to bed so we had to wait outside the room while the fumes dissipated! I brought insect repellant of my own but it turned out I didn't need it. Whilst out in Africa, in the middle of a malaria danger zone, I didn't get one single bite. Not one. After a couple of days I gave up on the insect repellant and carried on regardless. This is odd because I often get bitten back in the UK – maybe African mosquitos don't like my British blood!

It was another early-ish start for the second day of the retreat. A surprise treat for breakfast was more cake! Also, we had toast and fruit (bananas, pineapple and melon). Really hot weather. We started the day with more singing, then games to learn each other's names better. There were loads of them – I had no chance! I did a couple of interviews before lunch and then we had a bit of a siesta for an hour or so in the afternoon because of the heat. We then did some more singing (which helped wake me up) and then got into groups and did a drama about God helping us. We Mzungus did one as a UK contribution about a deaf grandmother who gets healed by God. The students thought it was hilarious.

We then played volleyball until it was time to go to John's for dinner. He lives in a modest settlement with various family members and a couple of orphans. We met his wife briefly (who was a bit shy) and had a big meal (the usual rice, potatoes, cabbage and meat) in a large room illuminated by a solar powered lantern. After we'd all eaten well, including some sodas, John gave a touching speech before releasing us to go back early so we could get packed and ready to leave in the morning. We were quite deep in the bush - it was dark when we left and we could see the stars perfectly clear in the night sky. Breathtaking.

The following morning, we were up at 4.30am to prepare for the arrival of the bus that would take us to Kampala. It finally came about 5.15am. It was sad to leave Margaret's but I was looking forward to going home. Breakfast was tea and digestive biscuits. Our transport was a large coach borrowed from the local high school. I tried to catch up on a bit of lost sleep and managed to do so, albeit uncomfortably, for the first three hours or so. It was a long journey and quite bumpy for a lot of the way. Fascinating to travel through Uganda again and see the hustle and bustle in the villages and towns. We finally arrived in Kampala at about 12pm. The weather in the capital was warm but not as bad as the previous day. We all piled into the national Uganda Museum, which was interesting. There was an outside area where they had examples of every kind of mud hut from the various regions of Uganda. They all had a similar shape – i.e. circular with conical roof – but each was slightly different in terms of design and internal layout.

Me - outside the Uganda Museum

After lunch we said goodbye to the vocational students. Even though we'd only spent a few days with them it was sad to see them go. Our accommodation was a motel with basic (cold water) shower head and toilet with sporadic electricity. Went for a walk to get some food – walked past a large imposing government house with its high walls and security gate. Nighttime Kampala very noisy outside but thankfully I had my earplugs which helped a bit.

The following day it was a light breakfast of bread and boiled eggs, then we had a bit of time before going to the craft market. I managed to film some interviews with the team before we left the hotel, but ran out of space on my memory cards so couldn't film everyone. Even so, I felt I'd gotten enough footage. The craft market was near the national theatre and we had to walk through security to get to it. There were lots of sellers with stalls selling a vast range of items from paintings to wooden benches to necklaces. I was surprised at how quiet it was though – I was imagining a frenetic market where we would have to keep our wits about us. Instead there were a handful of tourists wandering around in the heat, with stallholders trying their best to entice them in to sell them their wares. Most of the sellers were quite pushy and it was hard to bargain with them at times (they almost seemed offended – even though it is an usual practice in Uganda) but I managed to pick up a few things to take back home.

We stayed at the national theatre for lunch and ate chicken and chips with a bit of coleslaw which was nice. My stomach was groaning a bit. It felt like it had had enough of carbs – and I was beginning to look forward to salad and veggies when I returned to Wales. I tried to call home to wish Jake happy birthday but the network I was on was pretty useless – didn't manage to have much of a conversation but I did try! Driving through Kampala to get to the airport was insane. So much congestion and chaos. We had several close calls but also spent long periods crawling along or just standing still. It was dark by the time we'd left Kampala for Entebbe. There were a few stretches where the roads consisted of enormous potholes which the driver had to gingerly navigate.

Once at the airport we said goodbye to Tom and his friend Alex who had been our chaperones for the last two days. It was a long wait for the flight and we were leaving around midnight so in theory we could get some sleep on the plane (which didn't really happen for me – planes are so uncomfortable for sleeping). Arriving in England, I was struck by the contrast between Entebbe and Heathrow Airports. The newly-built Terminal 5 is spacious, clean and shiny with glass, steel and polished masonry everywhere you look. Airport personnel wandering around, sitting at their stations or serving in the eateries are smartly dressed and numerous. It reminded me of the film Elysium and how the haves and have-nots are literally worlds apart.

I think there is still hope for Africa – a hope borne out of the tenacious will to live, to strive and to improve. If there is one good thing that comes out of the huge gulf between the West and developing world (and it is hardly good at all really – I do not believe it is right that such a gulf exists at all) it is that the latter sees and knows what it is missing and desires the same of itself. Perhaps the main barrier is the way the West keeps pushing poorer nations down through debt and poorly managed or implemented aid.

It was very emotional to see my family on my return – it was the longest period I had ever been apart from them – and it took me over a week to re-adjust to life at home. I had come back to a world where such things as electricity and water are just there at the flick of a switch or turn of a tap. An abundance of food is available, for relatively little cost, on every street. Medical assistance is simply a phone call away, without any eye-watering bills to pay. It was sobering to be back in the UK and a part of me desperately wants to hold tight to the things I have experienced in Uganda, for fear that I might easily slip into my comfortable Western ways again almost negating the purpose of the whole trip.

I hope to return to Uganda again one day, as I feel like I have only just begun to get to know this fascinating land and the amazing people of Edith's Home. Perhaps next time I will travel with my son in tow as I seek to share with him the realities of another culture that struggles with crippling poverty but which is also extremely generous, loving and dignified. My prayer is that if and when I do return, I will seen that things have improved – I don't expect dramatic change, but even if it is tiny it is an indication that things are slowly working and that all hope is not lost

To find out more about Edith's Home, how to sponsor a student or how to make a donation, please go to the website here: