Sunday, 31 May 2009

A week of new experiences

The'Tippy Tap' - this is ingenius, and such a good idea! It’s a simple water dispenser which enables people to wash their hands without wasting water. It consists of a plastic jerry can with small holes pierced in the lid, which releases a small amount of water - just enough for a clean hand wash - each time it is tipped by pressing on the ‘tap’ (a stick attached to a piece of rope), when the ‘tap’ is released, it swings back to its earlier upright position. a block of soap is tied on to a piece of rope and covered with the up-turned bottom half of a small plastic bottle (to protect it from birds). The 'Tippy Tap' are used in villages where there is no running water, to encourage people to wash their hands after using the latrine.

I've been in Mbarara 2 weeks now, I'm enjoying being here and am settling in well. Mbarara is very different to Masindi in many ways (it's considered the 2nd city in Uganda) - it's far bigger, with lots of shops, especially mobile phone shops, the main street is lined with them! There's lots of traffic - motorbike boda bodas, cars and numerous lorries carying vast loads of matoke (green, plantain-like bananas - the staple food for this region). It's a nightmare trying to cross any of the main roads here - there's no such thing as traffic lights, although I've seen one zebra crossing, not that any of the drivers take much notice of it.

I moved into my new house last week and it's feeling like home already -it's a small 2-bedroom house, but it's quite cosy and 'homely' - I'll put some pictures on my next posting. I've settled here much quicker than I did in Masindi, where even after 4 months my house never really left like 'home'. The house is on the edge of a small valley, it looks down onto the River Rwizi - there are avocado, orange, mango and matoke trees outside my front door - Bearwood will seem very dull after this! Oh, there's also a wood-burning pizza oven in the garden - not tried it out yet, but I'm intending to at some point.
Work at Healthy Child Uganda (HCU) is going well - I've been given 4 projects to work on, all of which are urgent, so I was told! My offical title is Nutriton and Food Advisor, but basically I'll be involved in a wide variety of project activities - one of which is planning and organising flower making training for people who live in the parishes where the project operates. Now, firstly, I here you ask what has that got to do with food and nutrition and secondly, what do I know about making flowers out of banana fibres and maize husks - well more than you'd think as of this week! It links in with promotioning income-generating projects in local communities, the aim being that if people are earning a secure income they can provide for their families and can afford to feed them a good and balanced diet and keep them healthy.

One of the other projects that I'll be responsible for is developing and implementing a nutrition and food education package - I mentioned in my previous posting that there are major issues concerning child malnutrition here even though the region produces vast quanties of fruit, vegetables and milk and has a good supply of meat and fish, many of the people have a really poor diet - the vast majority of people in the local villages eat carb-laden matoke (steamed and mashed green banana) at least twice a day everyday, somtimes with beans if they can afford them. There is a real need to educate people about eating more nutritious foods, their reluctance is often down to negative superstitions and traditional beliefs. It'll take some time for me to get this up and running as I need to do quite a bit of research about the eating and cooking habits of local communities and to see first hand what they have available to them. I'll also need to liaise with pediactric staff at Mbarara hospital - there's a feeding centre there that treats large numbers of malnurised children on a regular basis. I'm hoping to get involved in promoting solar ovens as well - I haven't seen one in action yet (hope to soon), but have been told they are really effective and obviously are cheaper to use. Most rural people cook over a wood burning stove, while in more urban areas people cook with charcoal, both of which are expensive and not sustainable.
The project has 350 trained volunteers working throughout 18 parishes over 2 geographical districts, these volunteers are known as CORP's (Community Owned Resource Persons). They're village people who have been trained in basic child health care and are responsible for registering all children under 5 yrs in their villages. They get involved in all sorts of community-based initiatives, such as mobilising childhood immunisations, mosquito net education and distribution and implementing income-generating projects. They monitor these children regularly and pay close attention to children who are underweight or are at risk for other reasons such as chronic illness, disability or being orphaned. They conduct home visits where they educate parents and pregnant mothers.

Last week I got my first taste of working in the 'field' and got to witness the CORP's in action - they has gathered in Bushwere, a parish about an hour's drive from Mbarara town, way up in the mountains and surrounded by vast banana plantation (I now know how to tell the difference between a matoke banana tree and a sweet banana tree!). I went along with Angela, one of the project trainers, to observe a session on gender issues and poverty analysis to a group of CORP's as part of the Income Generating training they were doing. There were 18 people all gathered together in a small mud-walled room - the training was conducted in Runyankole, the local regional language, so other than the odd word I didn't really understand much, but still it was really interesting, especially when the men and women had to list all the work activities they did each day. The women's list far out-stretched the men's - many of the men saw themselves as the head of the household who's responsibility it was to 'plan' but they weren't too keen on the actually 'doing' - this was down to the women, who cleaned, washed, cooked, fetched water, looked after the children, dug, planted and harvested the crops and went to market! There was also a fascinating discussion about poverty and what it means to be poor - Angela asked the group if they considered themselves poor and I was amazed that the majority of them said they didn't, as outwardly to me they appeared to be incedibly poor! They felt that because they had land,(often this is just a tiny patch) and their own house (usually 1 or 2 wood and mud-walled rooms) they could grow enough for their families to eat and provide shelter for themselves.
PHOTOS:Income Generating training in Buswere parish - held in this mud-walled house, where one of the participants' lives. No need for lecture theatres and power point presentations here! The trainees were doing group-based activities sitting on the grass outside the house.

The following day I went to a Health Centre 4 (health centres are graded from 1 - 4 depending on the services they offer and the type of medical staff employed there) in Bwizibwera parish. The health centre had recently won a HCU competition as the best health centre in it's catagory and I was there as a representative of HCU to present their certificate and prizes. Just before I presented the certificate to the staff I was told by Nasser, the HCU driver that I'd have to give a 10 minute speech (they LOVE speeches here!), this came as a bit of a surprise to me as I knew very little about the centre and had been briefed that all I needed to do was thank them for their hard work and say well done! With the help of one of the health workers, who's also a HCU facilitator I managed to make my 'speech' last just under 5 minutes - everyone seemed happy and I was relieved!
PHOTO: Bwizibwera Health Centre staff with their winning certificate and prizes.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Once again it's been ages since I've 'blogged' - when I started my blog my intention had been to 'post' regularly but unfortunately I'm not so good at making time to sit at my laptop to write about my experiences - I never was one for lettering writing even before blogs/email came along! I much prefer to have a good natter, not so feasible when the majority of people reading this are half way across the world! Anyway, I'm going try from now on to make more of an effort (!).

The photo is of me and Grace, the son (yes, it's a boy's name here) of a Dutch friend from Masindi. We were on our way back from Mbarara to Kampala last week and stopped at the Equator - Mbarara is in the southern hemisphere and Kampala is in the northern hemisphere. It's one of those obligatory things that every tourist who visits Uganda has to do!

Quite a lot has happened since my last posting...... I finished working at the hotel at the end of April. It was really hard telling the staff that I was leaving, many of them were quite upset and really wanted me to stay - staff morale is very low and times are hard for them. I wish I could have done more for them but unfortunately the situation was out of my hands. I'll keep in contact with many of them though and hopefully will have the opportunity to visit them in the future. Although my placement in Masindi didn't work out, which was disappointing, I made some good friends there, both Ugandans and other VSOers - I'll miss them all.

The last few weeks had been quite unsettling - the thought of having to start over again in a new place was hard, but I'm certain I want to stay in Uganda and do my 2 years as planned. So sadly, after packing up my house I left Masindi last week and am now staying in Kampala. I've been looking for a new placement and think I've now found one, which fingers crossed should work out ok.
I'm hoping to move to Mbarara, about 4 and half hours SW of Kampala, (Masindi was 2 and a half hours NW of Kampala) next week, with an organisation called Healthy Child Uganda - check it out at It's a community-based partnership that works with local citizens to identify and solve the problems that most impact their children’s health. They focus on healthy practices such as immunization, good nutrition and preventing disease, training volunteers to recognize and treat sick children within their communities. The project gets most of its funding from Canada and has very strong links with the University of Calagary - it's was set up as a partnership between the University of Calagary and Mbarara University if Science and Technology. I'll be involved in lots of different activities, such as community visits as part of a community-based food education programme, training trainers to work with village people re. nutrition and health, there's also work to be done with Mbarara University setting up a adult trainers curriculum, advising villagers on setting up small businesses selling local produce. Mbarara is a nice place, much bigger than Masindi, it has more of a large town feel to it. There are lots of other VSOers there and many other ex-pats working at the university, it's location is also good for travelling with some really good national parks within easy travelling dsitance.

Other than my original placement going 'pear shaped', I'm enjoying Uganda, life here is so different, but I'm feeling settled now (job aside). It's a beautiful country, there's so much to see and do. The people are great, they're always really welcoming - they have so little and everyday seems to be a battle to make ends meet and to survive, but yet they have tremendous hope and are always smiling.
At the moment I'm in Kampala - VSO arranged for me to stay in a small studio appartment while I wait for my next placment to be sorted. Kampala is a crazy city, the traffic is unbelievable (there is no such thing as Rules of the Road here) and the fumes from numerous poorly maintained vechicles are choking. It's not really a city for sightseeing as walking around is not really an option, even though I have been, much to the amazement of the staff at the VSO office - Ugandans are not great walkers, if they can afford to, they'll travel by boda boda (small motor bike taxis or bicycles with a padded seat on the carrier) or by matatu (small mini buses that are usually stuffed full of people). I was fortunate in Masindi that it was such a small town so it was possible to walk everywhere.