Some random reflections started in Entebbe at 2.30am on Wednesday, 28th November and completed at home on Sunday 2nd December!
We’ve been in bed exactly five hours now – and I still haven’t managed to go to sleep in spite of being tired! I just can’t stop my mind going over and over all that we have experienced during the past four weeks, from the highs to the lows. So I am hoping that by getting up and writing some of these thoughts down, it might help me get to sleep as well as summarise for you all something of the turmoil and conflicts I have experienced.
We have been very privileged in so many ways. We’ve travelled in a comfortable vehicle driven safely throughout by Robert for 2,000 miles on good, bad and terrible roads and tracks in a country which has one of the highest road death rates in the world. One friend has been killed and another has been injured just while we have been here; and we have had near misses because of recklessness. We witnessed a motorcyclist and passenger coming off as they skidded in rain on a roundabout. And Robert stopped a man driving a car the wrong way round a roundabout! People don’t seem to care, not taking even basic steps to protect themselves and others. Both sons of one of my friends have motorcycles (Abraham actually uses his as a “boda-boda taxi” all day every day). Both have helmets – but they NEVER wear them. I had a real go at them about it, especially as they both knew Yolam Nyangatum who was killed because he wasn’t wearing a helmet. Bishop Charles told me about his cousin who was killed in Soroti three years ago when he skidded, came off his motorcycle and hit his head on the road – there were no external injuries, but he died on the spot. Did they really want to risk leaving widows to bring up orphans – in Abraham’s case, they would be “total” orphans as his first wife was killed in Soroti about three years ago when she was a passenger on the back of a bicycle “boda-boda”. They both said they would wear their helmets – but they haven’t, not even once. I have maintained that outsiders shouldn’t try and change the culture in a country they are visiting – but I break that rule when it comes to road safety. We have been so grateful to Robert for his careful and attentive driving skills.
TESS (Teso Educational Support Services), the sponsorship programme I set up in 2004 and was involved in running until new UK Trustees took over in January 2014, has been struggling financially for various reasons, not least due to a lack of experience and knowledge of Teso and the issues in Uganda concerning education and employment. Uganda has the highest percentage of people under 30 in the world – over 78%!! In a largely subsistence economy, and one where corruption is rife, this has a dramatic effect on employment opportunities, especially for those who can’t or won’t pay a bribe or don’t have a relative already employed somewhere to get them into a job. Students who leave school after completing S4 (‘O’ levels/GCSEs) or S6 (‘A’ levels) don’t stand a chance of ever being employed.
Sadly, TESS made the decision early in 2017 to take on more new students from primary school whilst dropping all those who had just got their ‘A’ level results and already had places to go to for professional training, the only hope they have of any sort of employment in the future. They are now TESS Alumni – before their time. Some of them came to the Reunion – and three of them came to talk to me to ask me to help them, assuming I still have some sort of involvement in TESS. Two of them had places to do Diplomas in Comprehensive Nursing at good training schools. After missing a semester or two, they have now taken up their places by going to their Village Credit Schemes and getting loans. But as each semester passes, they are getting deeper into debt and have no idea how they will ever pay back the loans – salaries (even if paid regularly) aren’t high enough to pay back so much money. This will cause them serious difficulties in their villages. The third girl had a place to train as a Clinical Medical Officer (a three year course instead of five years to train as a full doctor), but has not been able to take up the place. Uganda is desperately in need of medical staff as the ratio of population to doctors and nurses is so poor, especially in Teso. So not only is Teso missing out, but so are these girls, who will never be able to get any job without some professional training.
There are statistics about maternal and infant deaths in Africa as related to the number of years girls spend in education. These apparently show that for each year a girl is at school, so the risks are very slightly reduced. But having already lost three of our Alumni, all with professional training and jobs, due to complications after childbirth, I find such statistics very hollow, offering little hope to the three girls I talked to (and the others) who have been dropped from the TESS sponsorship programme just when they were on the threshold of productive careers. It is a tragedy.
Is it preferable to educate more girls and boys to a limited level which won’t actually enable them to ever get a job – or to sponsor fewer students to complete basic professional or vocational training which will then enable them to make a difference to their families, communities and country? In discussion with leaders, educationalists and others in Teso, we always used to opt for the latter.
We’ve had some wonderful wildlife and nature experiences, both around us in the villages and gardens where we have stayed, but also on our visits to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Murchison Falls and Kidepo National Parks and Mabira Forest. I always try to take Ugandans with me on such trips as it is their country and heritage which so few ever get the opportunity to see for themselves, especially those in Teso. It is refreshing and exciting to see everything through their eyes. The scenery, landscapes and environments have been so varied and very beautiful. It is a pleasure to travel with Robert who is passionate about nature and shares the same joy, wonder and excitement, especially when we see a new bird that neither of us has ever seen before. I have to admit that there is some rivalry between us when he borrows my camera and takes good photos of birds!
But in our travels, we have also witnessed, as a spectators, so much poverty, hardship and suffering whilst enjoying driving through spectacular countryside. How can I justify being a ‘tourist’ in such circumstances? Saying that it brings some income into the area isn’t really an adequate answer. Should I indulge in my passion for wildlife and nature and travel when in Uganda?
Corruption is everywhere, even at the heart of many Dioceses in the Anglican Church, perhaps especially over the past nine years in Soroti Diocese. Is it right to say that you can’t (or shouldn’t) ever trust any Ugandan? It certainly often feels like that. But I do still trust some of my friends – and will continue to do so until I have evidence to the contrary, which has sadly been the case with some of them.
As the Teso Anti-Corruption Coalition say: “Corruption keeps people in poverty”. Of course, not everyone is kept in poverty! The most corrupt become incredibly rich – while the majority suffer directly and indirectly, such as when external donors withdraw all support. Whenever you see a large “posh” house in Teso, you can be certain that the owner has got extra money through corruption. Unfortunately, outsiders don’t recognise the signs and so continue putting their money into projects and their trust in local administrators.
Joseph Asutai told me that recent statistics show that the Eastern Region of Uganda (which includes Teso) is the only region in Uganda where poverty levels have risen in recent years. Superficially, Teso appears to be becoming more affluent than it has been over the past 27 years, since I first started coming here. There are so many more “permanent” homes, shops and trading centres (brick built with iron roofs) springing up throughout the countryside which didn’t exist even 15 years ago. There is, perhaps for the first time, a significant and growing gap between the rich and poor in Teso. But how have the rich people got their money? Of course they haven’t all got all of it through corruption alone – but so many have. Money is regularly “eaten” in a variety of ingenious as well as simple and obvious ways.
So should we stop supporting any individuals or projects in countries and regions like Uganda and Teso? What effect would that have on the poorest people? It’s not simple, but I don’t think the answer is to withdraw support. However, donor organisations need to be a lot more careful about monitoring and looking out for the signs as well as actively training people to resist corruption and put checks in place. Don’t necessarily trust a UK charity to channel your personal donations safely, assuming they have the experience and mechanisms in place to prevent all corruption – many are run by people who are naïve and inexperienced in monitoring rural development and educational projects in Africa from a distance, putting too much trust in people they rarely, if ever, meet on the ground. But to help the poorest, who are innocent, helpless and defenceless, I think we need to continue to take risks for their sake.
Whilst condemning those who are corrupt on a bigger scale and become wealthy at the expense of others, I have to admit that, if I were very poor and unable to provide for my children, I would probably succumb to petty corruption if it were the only way I could feed or get medical treatment for my children or send them to school. Thankfully, in our society, I have never been faced with such impossible choices.
Violence is still a problem in Teso (and Uganda generally) – gender-based violence and violence towards children and students at school, a battle I fought for years with schools where we had sponsored children. Violence breeds violence.
As we travelled, we twice witnessed people being beaten while others stood and watched. Physical punishment has been illegal in Uganda for many years but still goes on in almost all schools. Simon’s daughter told me how she had been beaten this term at Jeressar School in Soroti for failing a test – apparently, not much has changed since we sent sponsored students there.
One of our old TESS students, who also went to Jeressar, has become very violent – as a result of four and a half years with the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). When I first met him, living with a married sister in an IDP (refugee) camp, and we took him onto the sponsorship programme, he was a delightful boy of 16 who was bright, worked hard and always had a smile. He never told any of us that he had been abducted at the age of 12 – and made to kill hundreds of people – until he spoke about it for the first time to camera when Sarah made a film for TESS about sponsorship. This took the lid off all the horrors he had buried deep inside himself and he became very disturbed. He started getting into trouble at school and underachieving, but refused to go and get help from the Mental Health Unit. He made one of our sponsored girls pregnant and was suspended. Things have now gone from bad to worse. I heard that he is now taking drugs, which are readily available in Soroti, and is often violent, getting into trouble with the police and being imprisoned. He so desperately needs to be in a secure mental health unit getting appropriate treatment and support for PTSD before he kills someone – but that isn’t available and won’t happen. It’s not his fault that he was so deeply damaged as a young teenager. But who is there to help him now, when he isn’t seeking help for himself? Sadly, he isn’t the only one.
There is still a need for the vision we had more than 10 years ago for building Shalom School for Life-Long Learning, a radically different, model school that would help transform not just Teso, but education in Uganda generally. Unfortunately, the TESS Trustees who took over in 2014 never explained to anyone, including the people of Kapir and Teso generally, why they scrapped all the plans. Five years on, the Kapir community leaders are still expecting to see building work resume – and the first teaching block which was completed exactly five years ago to be used for some purpose instead of being left empty. It is confusing and distressing for everyone concerned. I feel the people of Kapir have been badly let down by TESS in so many ways over the past five years, so it is not surprising that there is now deep resentment and antagonism after the years I had spent building up a good relationship and partnership with them.
Since the Shalom Vision and plans don’t belong to TESS and have been rejected by them, there is nothing to stop someone else picking them up and implementing the Vision. This now seems a distinct possibility, although obviously not in Kapir itself.
Having a sense of home and family and belonging in two very different cultures separated by time and distance once again causes tensions and difficulties for me. There were occasional times when I wondered why I was there in Uganda, and struggled to cope with certain aspects. For the first time, I think I am beginning to “feel my age” (now 74), especially in terms of adaptability and making adjustments. I found I was much more tired and lacking in energy – and was so grateful that Robert did all the driving this time, as well as sorting things out and doing various errands for me. I am usually so independent, but I really appreciated being looked after much more, just as my ‘children’ in the UK would look after me! I take longer to catch up on the effects of flying, especially when it’s overnight.
It is actually easier saying good bye and leaving home than it is leaving Teso. Leaving the UK is for a shorter period and I know exactly when I am returning home. But there isn’t the same certainty when leaving my friends in Uganda, and it’s for so much longer. Having spent all day every day for a month with Robert (who is like another son in many ways and knows half our family well), it was hard saying good bye to him without knowing how long it will be before I will see him again! It is also hard that Robert has never been able to visit the UK and stay with us, to share in our life here. The UK turned down the Visa application for him to join us in 2017 for our Golden Wedding Anniversary celebrations, so he is the only one of our close Teso friends who has never been to stay with us. We have had many of our Iteso friends come to stay, including Kokas Osekeny, John Omagor, Charles and Margaret Obaikol, Sam Opol, Sam and Olivia Ediau, Edward Etanu, Sam Eibu, Naphtali Opwata, Jeremiah Acelun and Freda Ocen – even +George and Florence Erwau.
I have always found the ‘culture shock’ of arriving back in the UK more difficult to cope with than arriving in Uganda, especially at Christmas time, which is excessively materialistic and extravagant here in the UK. The climate is very different – it’s grey, wet and cold. And the days are ‘short’ (it’s only light from about 8.00am to 4.00pm). But it is nice not to feel so hot and sticky all the time, although I would prefer to sleep with only a sheet instead of the heavy winter bedding! Life is so much easier back in the UK, with endless hot and cold running water, flush toilets in the house, electricity, a good health service one can trust, no corruption on a day to day basis, and a sense of fairness and predictability. Driving is more comfortable and so much safer. The list could go on. Perhaps I want too much – the best of all worlds, but none of the disadvantages and problems. Doesn’t everyone want that? “East, West, Home is Best”. Robert told us he loves Uganda and thinks it is perfect – at least in terms of natural beauty, environment and resources.
Despite the disadvantages, I am privileged to have a foot in both camps, a home in both worlds. I wouldn’t have it any other way.