Monday to Wednesday, 18th – 20th November: Soroti
We picked up James Ikara, his wife Elizabeth and little Margaret, who had travelled from Nyero, from Soroti and set off for the little trading centre of Adamasiko between Arapai and Tubur for the great celebration and workshop that Joel Odongo had organised for the project he has recently set up.
Joel grew up with his grandparents in a remote village and was sponsored by TESS through secondary school to University, where he did a degree in IT. He sold off some crops and a few sheep and goats he had reared from the animals TESS gave out and bought his first computer. His business grew – he rented a little shop on the edge of Soroti and was able to buy several laptops, printers and scanners with his profits. Then just before Christmas last year, thieves broke in one night and stole everything. In a country with very limited police resources or insurance, there was nothing he could do about it. He returned to his village devastated and was very depressed for several months as he had nothing to start up again. I kept in touch with him on Facebook and tried to encourage him and suggest things he might be able to do locally which didn’t need any start-up resources.
Together with a few friends who didn’t have jobs, he learnt how to make liquid soap and petroleum jelly which people here use for moisturising their skin. He started to pick up and decided to set up a project to help others who had dropped out of school without any qualifications to gain skills and earn some money working locally. He sold his bicycle and a friend sold some goats so that they could hire a small incomplete building in Adamasiko trading centre a few miles from his home. Since he no longer has a bicycle, he now takes a short cut home through the swamp, which means removing all his clothes!
I suggested a few months ago that Joel and his group should visit James Ikara in Nyero for support and ideas. James, typically, gave him some sewing machines and tools, and lent him his compressed earth brick machine. In addition, James, and Julius and one or two other teachers from Nyero have been coming to Adamasiko for a few days at a time to help teach and train – and Joel has made James the Country Director of the organisation he has set up! Who knows – big things always start small! The problem for all of them is paying for transport to and fro, which is considerable, especially when they are earning nothing. I was able to give Joel a very good laptop from one of our family which he is thrilled with – and now intends to use it for the project and start teaching others how to use a computer.
The workshop on Monday was the first event Joel has organised. All the students, their parents and local government, political and community leaders were invited and a programme drawn up, in which James and I were the main speakers.
The day started in their little office with the inevitable signing of the visitors’ book – Joel was quite emotional. While guests assembled, we were shown around the various sites, introduced to students and staff, all of whom made short speeches, and saw the students’ work. We were escorted everywhere by two women in beautiful costumes singing and dancing with flags – it felt uncomfortably like a royal procession around the trading centre!
They now have nine girls and women learning tailoring, four young men doing bricklaying, one doing carpentry and one doing motor mechanics. Their workshop is another unfinished building, with just murram gravel on the floor. We were taken out of the trading centre to see the very small church they are building at the request of the community. They are making their own interlocking compressed earth blocks using James’s machine and have already reached shoulder height. It is amazing what they have achieved from nothing in such a short time – and out of what was such a disaster for Joel. He is a remarkable young man.
The event took place on the large covered veranda of the “Moonlight Pub”! Dignitaries, all of whom had to introduce themselves and make a short speech, sat at the front around tables while everyone else sat in rows facing us on plastic chairs. Instead of providing sodas (fizzy drinks) and cakes etc for morning break, which is expensive, they served water, slices of pawpaw (papaya) and peeled oranges. I was asked to speak on their motto: “The right multi-purpose tool is the hand”.
Joel could see the rain clouds rolling up, so tried to hurry up proceedings so that everyone could be served lunch without getting soaked. Only about half had been served before the heavens opened, so the food was hurriedly moved inside which wasn’t easy. Rivers poured down the murram road outside and people collected water off the roof in plastic mugs to drink.
After lunch, there was dancing and singing, James and I were given a shirt and dress respectively (sadly mine didn’t fit, so I have had it altered in Soroti as they want a photo of me in it!), group photos were taken, final speeches made and prayers were said. By then the rain had stopped and people were able to leave to go home.
Joel took us to his grandparents’ home, which Robert had visited years ago when Joel was a young TESS student. In fact, Robert drove the minibus through bush – the first vehicle ever to reach the village, as a result of which a track has been opened up: “Robert’s Road”! Robert also said the home was very bushy then and in poor condition, with the neighbours taking advantage of an old couple with young orphans and taking land away from them. Joel earned respect from the neighbours when he went to university and they gave back the land they had taken. It seems mostly Joel’s work which has transformed the compound and their “gardens” around by planting trees and cultivating. He has also started keeping bees and has thirteen local hives (made from hollow borassus palm trunks) hanging in one huge mango tree which he planted when he was in primary school. He is pruning his trees and drying the wood for firewood. They have a shea nut tree in the middle of the compound, providing shade – and of course, nuts, which he is drying to extract the oil to make better petroleum jelly. The sheep he was given by TESS in 2011 is still producing well. In fact, he gave me his current lamb! We had to leave it there, but Robert will collect it sometime to take back to Tubur to live with Becky’s goats.
We were taken into the largest central grass-thatched house and given another substantial meal! Then we all moved outside and sat in a circle on the local folding wooden chairs, while the women and many extra children sat on the “verandah” around one of the houses. Once again, there were speeches – from everyone! Both Joel’s grandparents spoke – and said what a hard struggle life was until Joel, the youngest in the family, was sponsored.
The sister he “follows” also still lives there. She isn’t married but has a beautiful 14 month old baby girl who was born at 37 weeks weighing only 1kg. She has never really developed and still can’t hold her head or control movements. Her rib cage is asymmetrical, the right side protruding a bit. She quite often gets pneumonia. They all depend on Joel now. As we were leaving, we were given many gifts – in addition to the lamb: a chicken, groundnuts, groundnut paste (peanut butter) and honey in the comb.
Joel is engaged to a girl he met at university who comes from Bukedea (south Teso). He hardly ever sees her as her parents won’t let her come to Adamasiko until Joel has paid the dowry – probably about five cows. He has no idea how he will raise so much money, but he hopes to get married in June and bring her home. They are planning to do what I have long been urging to happen – combine the church wedding with the traditional marriage. Although he goes to the nearby PAG church, it is important to him to get married in the Catholic church. I am not sure whether they encourage combining both celebrations, or whether it is Joel’s idea, but it will save so much money and avoid the problem of being excluded from taking communion! Robert has a plan – that he will collect the lamb one day, as agreed, but he will later give him one or two goats to help towards his dowry.
We had thought we might be able to go on to Robert’s village for a quick visit to check up on his sister and family. But it was dark by the time we left Joel, and James and his family still had to get a “taxi” from Soroti to Kumi and then a “boda-boda” to Nyero. They didn’t get back until 9.30pm. It was an interesting and encouraging day, but we were all exhausted by the end of it! I hate being the centre of attention, and sitting for hours on plastic chairs isn’t comfortable. I would hate to be royalty!
We arranged to meet up with Joseph Asutai who has set up Awoja Riverside Farm (between Soroti and Kumi) to find out what progress he has made since a year ago. He is doing amazing work helping communities improve their agricultural methods and stop using dangerous chemicals. His irrigation scheme is now complete, using solar power to raise the water from the lake into a high tank from which it is distributed by gravity.
Instead of doing all the training and experimenting on his farm at the edge of the swamp, he is now forming groups all over Teso, registering them and providing training in their villages. He has a real passion and vision. The simple conference centre is now in use although the kitchen, designed to use solar power and less firewood, isn’t finished yet. The accommodation is more or less ready. He doesn’t want to advertise it until it is completely ready and has been formally dedicated and opened, hopefully at the end of the year. It is a beautiful place by the lake and swamp, but it gets so hot there as it is open with no big trees to provide shade.
Robert and I were expected at the TESS offices in Kapir, just the other side of the lake and swamp, for a late lunch with Scovia Aliano and Doreen Ajilong. Scovia is an ex-TESS student who has been the accountant for many years now and has kept the office running through all the difficulties. Doreen Ajilong has recently replaced Christine Ariokot (also an ex-TESS student) who had to leave at the beginning of this year. I have not been able to visit the offices for some years because of problems both here and in the UK, nor has Robert who used to drive for TESS (until he couldn’t cope with the situation any longer eighteen months ago and left). But with significant changes at both ends, I was so warmly welcomed by both Scovia and Doreen who seems lovely and gets on so well with Scovia. Doreen talked about how they all work as a team, including Moses the gardener and caretaker, and the security guard (with her gun, which she holds on to permanently!). That was clear to see – everyone was relaxed and comfortable to sit together and share the lunch which Doreen and Scovia had cooked. I haven’t seen Scovia looking so happy for a long time. There were the inevitable speeches – and tears of happiness this time, instead of tears of sadness as in the past. Unknown to me, Bishop Charles had been invited, and five students doing short courses on site also joined us for lunch, which was nice. There was a celebration cake, half of which I was given to take away.
We all left about the same time, at 6.00. Just out of Kapir, Robert wanted to greet the women who sit by the roadside selling potatoes and pumpkins – they are just some of the many friends he makes wherever he goes, all over the country! The old woman used to cook meals for Robert when he first worked for TESS and lived in Kapir trading centre. I was surprised that they all knew who I was and greeted me as Mama Margaret! They saw the cake and asked if they could have a piece, so we gave it all to them, which they were very excited about!
We stopped at the roadside as we crossed Awoja swamp for half an hour to look for birds – and were rewarded by a flock of Bishops, Black-headed Weavers and Cisticolas, as well as Squacco Herons, Open-billed Stork and Whistling Ducks flying over. Earlier, we had seen Bee-eaters (unidentified, but probably Madagascar) and a small black tortoise about to cross the road, but we turned it around and it made its way back towards the swamp: I was surprised at how quickly it ran – maybe not as fast as a hare, but certainly not slowly! The sky was beautiful.
Wednesday, 20th: A day of catching up and repacking – I can now get one suitcase inside another! We had hoped to visit the very nice-looking new Teso Museum, which replaces the room in the Emorimor’s offices elsewhere in Soroti, but it is not yet officially open as they haven’t yet appointed staff, which was disappointing.
I stayed again with Naphtali’s family in Soroti although he was actually away overnight in Mbale, where he teaches one day a week at the university. He went on to Tororo Eye Hospital the next day to book an appointment to have his second cataract removed.