Thursday, 14 February 2019

Boarding School Project of MONDO in Uganda

The boarding school system is very common in Uganda. Families like to opt to send their children to these kind of facilities as they believe the quality of education is better if the children are full time at the school environment. Most of the primary schools even make it mandatory at the last year of primary level.

In Kikooba Primary school an inadequate system was functioning. The school officially did not have boarding section however when I arrived to Kikooba I noted that eight kids are always at school even at night time. When I asked why these children are not at home the Head Teachers explained that the families cannot take care of them and asked to keep them at school. Despite the school could not provide basic tools like beds, blankets and mosquito nets the teachers agreed to let the children stay. The children were staying in very poor conditions sleeping on the floor lacking nets exposed to malaria but they never complained to me. They were smiling and asked me to escort them to fetch water every evening. Not to carry the heavy jerry cans for them but because they liked to sing for me and teach basic luganda language on the way. I learnt the names of animals and flowers through these walks very fast.

The need of a boarding section was clear immediately due to the situation of these kids. In addition the school can ask a higher fee in the case they can provide boarding and meals. That could solve the financial struggles and help to pay the teachers’ salaries on time. Kids seems to like to move in to the schools as well. As most of them has 5-10 siblings it does not mean a sacrifice to share a room with their friends at school. In addition in the case of boarding school the children have sometimes better nutrition than at home.
Due to MONDO’s financial support and Ugandan Pioneers Association’s cooperation in two months twenty beds were ordered from the local carpenter. The boarding section now functions with three rooms; one for the girls and two for the boys with brand new clean mattresses and mosquito nets. In the future a new building is planned to be built to have better accommodation for the pupils. Thanks to the hard work of the teachers of the school, MONDA and UPA Kikooba Primary school could start a new era and provide better solution for the families.

P.S. When we hired a local minibus to carry the mattresses and nets from Kampala to the village the traffic police stopped us. It turned out that my minibus was not allowed to carry goods as their licence was only valid for passengers. What a mistake of mine! However when I explained to the strict police officers that we carry European donation to a school in a remote village their heart seemed to melt and let us go without paying any fee. In Uganda education is one of the most important things and the whole society from the wealthiest ones to the most vulnerable do everything possible to support in order to ameliorate the level of education.

Monday, 11 February 2019

So, what now?

Obviously, I didn’t come here for a 6-month vacation. I came here to support different groups in need by giving them advice on business development and marketing. Well, let’s get started then. In order to do that, I needed to travel all the way up to the North. To Gulu, where my first project is taking place. 

Just before I get into details, I have to describe our journey up here. Haha, it was such a joke. It didn't go as planned and that is totally okay because nothing rarely does here in Uganda or in any other country in Africa. 

Let’s start with this, we arrived at the bus station 1 hour earlier because apparently that is what you should do just in case and I’m glad we did. It came out that we had to rebook it and that our 8am take-off is delayed for an hour.

“It's okay, no biggie,” we said tiredly. I was keeping my eyes on my suitcase that was literally pushed inside the bus with rest of the agricultural cargo and chickens, and then I got inside. It was very busy in there. The bus was full of traders in hopes of getting lucky by selling something to one of these travellers. I was too sleepy for all that hassle.

Finally, I put my sleep mask on and fell into a deep 2-hour sleep. By the time I got up, I was sure we were on our half way to Gulu. Haha, nope, we were still at the station because the front window needed replacing. The time was already around 11am and the sun was starting to get more and more intense. We were just soaking in our own sweat and praying that this will be over soon. Let me also point out that the traffic here is very dangerous and on these roads vehicles crash daily. So, when we finally got on our 300km journey, my enjoyment lasted just for few minutes until I saw how insanely they drive here. There was no chance of me getting back to sleep, as I was just crossing my fingers to make it alive to Gulu. In total with all the stops on the way, it was around 10-hour trip.

This is insane! Or should I say #TIA - This is Africa ;) 


As we were getting off the bus Enrico said, 
Welcome to Gulu city centre!” 
“You are kidding, right? That cannot be all." 

When people back in South told me that Gulu is very city-like, this was not what I had in mind. I mean how could this even be a centre? It is just a super cute little town with very dusty roads. And apparently it is the 2nd largest town in Uganda. Which is weird because its population is only approx. 150K but the whole population of Uganda is around 40M.  

Nevertheless, I do love this town. It is very special. What I like about this is that it is very compact – totally opposite to my experience in Nansana or Kampala. I also feel like I’m here partly on a relaxed vacation as it so vibrant and dreamy at the same time. My favourite part of it is that it is surrounded by nature. And as the town is developing very fast, you can find almost everything you need in here. There are even some Mzungu hangout spots and supermarkets with CHEEESE!!!
Which btw I never buy because it has a price of gold. 

Time for a history lesson

Gulu hasn’t always been so peaceful. It actually had one of the hardest hits during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict. Does the name Joseph Kony ring a bell to you? Yep, he was the one leading LRA and just recently, in 2006, he and his army were forced out of Uganda. Unfortunately, before that he succeeded to gain a reputation for massive human rights abuses since 1987. 

“Kony and LRA is responsible for Africa's longest running conflict. At its peak, the rebels' brutal insurgency displaced nearly two million people in large areas of northern Uganda. To date, the conflict has seen more than 10,000 people killed in massacres, while twice that number of children have been abducted by the LRA and forced to work as soldiers, porters and sex slaves. The group got so increasingly savage that civilians who were suspected of supporting the government or forming self-defence forces had their ears, lips, noses or other sort of limbs hacked off.”   
The Guardian, 2007.

Joseph Kony and mass amputations, imagine my face when I found out that I’ll be living in the North of Uganda for a month where that same war had just recently “ended”. Thankfully, after all this horror Gulu has become a town in transition. Locals are optimistic and ready to work, and NGO’s from all over the world are here helping to make Gulu stronger than ever.

University of the Sacred Hearts

Funny thing is, that now I actually feel a lot safer here than back in the South. Especially because I live in an absolutely blissful place – in the University of the Sacred Hearts’ guesthouse. Which means that every day I get a chance to have breakfast/lunch/dinner with the priests and learn something new about their culture and history. I just love it here! It’s clean, nice, spacious, with a beautiful garden and HOT WATER!

One day me and Father Matthew sat around the dining table and I asked him about the LRA terror and how it had affected him. He told me how at that time the threat of abduction had become so great that tens of thousands of children from nearby villages marched into the town centres each night to sleep in schools, hospitals and on pavements – anywhere they could find safety in numbers. One of those hideouts was the same university and the guesthouse. I felt shivers down my spine while trying to imagine how the kids in total fear were all trying to squeeze in here just to live another day tomorrow. It really puts your life in different perspective.

That is it for this week. As I still have one more week to go here, I will tell you all about my 1st project and its progress when I’m done with it.

Until next time ;)

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Who am I and what on earth am I doing here?

Hi all!

For readers who don't know me, I’m Vici. Vici from Estonia, who somehow got an idea to go spend some 6 months away from her close ones and move to Africa. To be precise - Uganda. A country of which I’m afraid I didn’t know to be existing until I saw Mondo’s project proposal in my university’s FB group. A university where I hadn’t really learned much about humanitarian aid. To be honest, I think out of all the volunteers presenting Mondo, I’m probably least acquainted with the humanitarian world. After graduating uni, I didn’t have plans like this at all. In fact, I found myself in totally opposite direction - working as a marketing manager of a fintech company that I really enjoyed. So, how come I still found my way here, to Gulu, a Northern Ugandan town, writing a blog post in a laptop powered by solar panels, because electricity has been gone for a week now. 

The thing is, I truly liked the company I was working for but some of that routine made me too comfortable. I knew that comfort zone is something not for me and I started to wonder if corporate life ever was. But funny thing is that once I had admitted that to myself, admitted that I needed a change, I stumbled upon that very same project proposal from Mondo. “Looking for a volunteer with marketing or entrepreneurial experience to challenge her/himself in Uganda from upcoming January to July.” I know it sounds cheesy - if you ask something from the universe, it will give it to you. At this moment it really looked like it, yes. I saw that as a sign and said, “What the heck, let’s try this.” Few days later I had Skype call with Janika from Mondo and Sam from UPA - our hosting organisation here in Uganda.

I remember when she asked, “Do you even understand what you are signing up for?” and I said, “To be honest, I have no clue.”

Although, back then I did not know what do the terms Resilience and Capacity Building stand for, I knew that this project was exactly for me. I loved the thought of making an impact by supporting 4 different beneficiary groups to perform better and more sustainably thanks to my professional skills.

After this everything went fast. I informed my employers and they were awesome enough to encourage me on my decision. With the next 4 months I finished my responsibilities at work, spent lots of time with my loved ones, got vaccinated (and suffered the craziest side effects) and attended 2 trainings for this deployment - The EU Aid Volunteers training in Italy & Mondo’s training in Estonia - which were both amazing! The time flew by quickly and it was time to hop on that plane. It was only then when sitting in that airplane alone, I started to understand what I am about to do.

First days were tough. Not because my luggage got left behind in Amsterdam, haha. It think it was because I have never been so out of my comfort zone. The facilities are not as comfortable as they are back home, the food is not really for my taste buds, diseases are scary and the noise, yes noise, is crazy here. But most of all, I was and still am afraid about my own safety. During the orientation week in Uganda, I got terrified by all the stories that have happened to Mzungus (white people). In the first week I was sure that I will never leave the guesthouse. That was the only place I could feel safe. However, all the volunteers were saying this culture shock will get better and I’ll probably get used to most of it after a week or two. They were right. People do get used to things quicker than I expected. The most important thing is to remember to be conscious of the risks and be smart about them. And I learned that most of the people here are super friendly and nice. In addition to that, I realised that in order to make the most out of this experience, I shall not compare the living conditions here with the ones back home - that will not help me in any case. But hey, as they say, "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone," right?

That is it for the intro. Soon I will write more about the projects that I’m involved with; life of Uganda; why is it called “The Pearl of Africa” and funny stories that are part of an expression called "TIA" - "This is Africa."


Thursday, 24 January 2019

Visiting Women's Groups in Uganda

Throughout the autumn and winter I had the chance to visit several women’s groups in different parts of Uganda. I work with a ladies group in Kikooba village since July and I was curious what are the motivations, dynamics of other groups in the country. The ladies were everywhere welcoming and were happy to show me their art. They did not mind to answer to my questions and tell me about their life. I visited groups in Jinja, Kampala and Kabale. In the recent months I made interviews with not less than 50 women. My main interest was the reason why they start these groups and how they see their future.

Regarding the history of the groups I found two main reasons. First is that these groups normally function as self-help financial institutions. How it works is that a couple of friends decide to form a group with a minimum monthly fee. They gather the money together and once a member needs a loan she approaches the group. Then they decide together whether to provide the requested amount or not and define a favourable interest rate. Sooner or later the group is growing; more members, more income, more financial possibilities. Generally these groups have other role as well. I met a group who offers free courses in tailoring, rabbit keeping, gardening and piggery. Other groups engaged in crafts. When the member has an income from the products she (sometimes he) can keep the earning and give a small portion to the group. By these activities the fortune of the group grows. When I first heard about these “mini banks” I did not understand why women are not turning to real banks. Then I went to a bank myself in order to make a simple currency change and I understood. After waiting hours and several attempts (there was always some document missing), I gave up. In Uganda banking system in rural areas is still in a developing status. Opening a bank account is not as simple as we think, especially if the person is lacking of personal documents. Getting loan is even harder. To overcome this issue women mobilise themselves. Due to the financial services many people join these groups. And if they are there anyway why not to learn some skills? I interviewed young members who told me that traditional crafts are about to perish however by the help of elder members of the financial groups they took liking for creating baskets, mats, jewels and clothes.

During the interviews I asked the founders of the groups was there any other motivation other than the financial service. The founders of one of the groups in Kabale told me that they feel responsibility for the society. They wished to help vulnerable people. Now there are people living with disability, single mothers and orphans among their members. Through the skills that they teach they provide an income generating activity for these people who are at the periphery of Ugandan society.

The members were honest with me and told that the main motivation is to find any activity to earn money. These women are normally the ones who did not have chance to study and do not have jobs thus no regular income. They told me about their struggle to support their families, to find enough money to buy food or to pay the school fees of their children.

When I asked them what they do with their earning every single woman put school fees for their children at the first place. Ugandan people know the importance of education which is the only way to raise from poverty in a sustainable way. By supporting these women’s groups I feel that we can help them to make the next step for a better future.

 pictures from Kabale, close to the Rwandan border

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Workshop about Gender Topics in Kikooba, Uganda

End of November a 3-day workshop was held in Kikooba village, Uganda. The workshop was focusing on gender topics.

Gender is a relatively new area to research. It is interesting to observe the subject in an East-African rural setting. Are there differences? How will the girls react for the topics we come up? Will they even attend to the training? Will they be interested?

Yes! In fact they were interested!

On the first days of the training a colleague was talking about sex, sexually transmitted diseases and menstrual hygiene. Before the training one day I sat down with the girls from my class and sent out the boys to play football. I wished to ask them about their hygiene practices and sexual experiences. The girls were very shy but when I explained that a friend of mine will come and they can ask whatever they wish they became enthusiastic.

For my question about menstrual hygiene they told me that in the village they do not have access to pads or any kind of sanitary tools. Basically how it works is that they use old clothes to keep the flow. According to data of Afripads often girls are not able to attend to school due to their periods as they are afraid of leaking. Just imagine…one week per month…that means approximately 20% of the school year. These girls are vulnerable to left behind and might drop out at a young age. They are likely to be engaged in early marriages and child pregnancy what leads to dependency on their husbands.

 For the question with who they can share their questions and who prepare them for turning to a woman they answered “no one’”. Their mothers and older sisters are not talking about the topic and feel ashamed of it. The young girls learn about this natural phenomena only from their fellow class mates. They do not know what is happening in their bodies.

 On the first day of the training our aim was to break the taboos and talk openly about the physical aspects of being a woman. Thanks to Afripads’ donation we were able to distribute reusable sanitary kits that the girls  can use up to one year.

On the second day Teresa EUAV was holding an interactive workshop about female roles in the society and leadership. It was amazing to see how the girls talked about their dreams and ambitions to become one day a doctor or business woman.

On the third day Enrico EUAV held a workshop about the basics of photography. The girls learnt about the techniques they can apply once they have the chance to shoot. At the end of the workshop disposable cameras were shared with the girls with a simple request; take a picture about themselves, their families, their role in the society and the life of the village. The cameras will be collected shortly and the pictures will be developed. 

Can’t wait to see my lovely Kikooba through the eyes of the girls!

Monday, 7 January 2019

Landing to Uganda

On the late afternoon of April 2018 i was sitting in the office at my work desk. As a bad habit i tend to check my Facebook account and i was intrigued by a post by one of my friends - apply to work as a volunteer in Uganda for one year, deadline is 19.00 the same day. After 7 years of dedication to my profession as an ceramicist in a tiny village in middle of Estonia i had developed an idea i have to find out more about diversity of life. I had never thought of going to Africa and had no such dream to do so, but there was this offer and i as it had caught my eye it was right thing in right time. How people think and what is important for them. So at 20.00 at the same day not being really sure what i am doing, i sent off my application.
After a month and a half of training program, that almost scared me off from going anywhere and some months of waiting to be chosen to go, i set off on 15th of November 2018 to become an EU Aid Volunteer in North of Uganda in Arua and Pakwach.
My knowledge about Africa and its geography has been literally poor. Taking off in Amsterdam to Entebbe had to check several times from my boarding pass, is it really the place i am supposed to go. Moreover sitting in the plane i realized we are stopping somewhere called Kigali, i had never heard of. As i found out it is the capital of Ruwanda, a neighbouring country to Uganda.

Arriving at 22.30 local time to Uganda the only familiar thing where little cockroaches running on one of the counters inside Entebbe airport. As an memory form my travels in India the locals would say "A cockroach is part of the India family". Previously i have had a feeling of disgust seeing those animals, now i was looking at them as comforting old friends in an unfamiliar environment. 

I buy from the kiosk local sim card for my phone. I am charged 2000 schillings. I cant follow all the zeroes and at first i say i dont have so much money. In euros it s about 50 cents and after discovering i have in my wallet 200 000 schillings i also buy some internet. As a surprise i am announced that for using whatsapp and facebook in Uganda you have to pay tax 6000 schillings monthly. I feel disturbed by this unexpected tax. It takes about an hour to do all these procedures though i never started to use it.

My drive from Entebbe airport to Nansana, suburb near Kampala, takes about an hour. As coming to Africa i did not take much warm things since my assumptions of African countries are burning hotness all the time, and as we proceed in the car i am cold. I am starting to be afraid of getting a flu. Passing trough suburbs towards Nansana there is smell of hot days, dust, burning oil from sauce pans, fresh cut meat and fish at the road side, rottening trash and smell of different trees and open water. Dirty food stalls make me curious to try those exotic foods on offer. I am sure i will come and try, maybe just not tomorrow. All people on the streets are black.
On my first day in Ugandan Pioneers office i am not sure where and why i have come. All is so different and intimidating. On my first day i am getting a private course a about Ugandan history and constitution. I feel hot and panicking, there is no air. in the room and i fight not to pass out. It takes some time to breathe in all in.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Ladies of Uganda

Every Monday afternoon something in going on in Kikooba village…Ladies in colourful traditional Ugandan outfit called “gomez” are urging to the school holding big sacks. The ladies are arriving from different parts of the village and gather together in the court of the primary school. When they arrive they sit on the ground and the hidden treasures of the sacks are coming to light.
Kikooba village can be proud of their work in respect of keeping cultural heritage. The ladies are meeting in order to produce gorgeous crafts from local natural materials. The baskets, mats and jewels are made from banana leaves and palm fibres. The techniques are thought by mother to daughter since generations. Besides the old patterns the ladies are eager to learn new weaving techniques and expand the variety of products by inventing new patterns and shades.
The aim of the group is to find an income generating activity for the women. In rural Uganda most of the women are working at home with the household, taking care of the gardens and the family which means that they are not formally employed and lack of any income. Early marriages are very common and women are often give birth to their first child at the age of 14-15. Due to these reasons women are highly dependent on their husbands or later on their children/grandchildren. By weaving they can have a minimum income on their own that they can invest on ameliorating the nutrition of their family or paying the school fees of their children.
Besides the financial side of the weekly meeting the group is giving the opportunity to the ladies to participate to their own activity. During the weaving sessions the new information are shared, the new gossips are talked through. The members of the group hold together and support each other in every aspects of life.
The group recently joined to a local organisation which connects already twelve ladies groups all around Uganda. Every group has volunteer trainers who time to time travel to different regions to meet each other and teach various techniques. According to many Ugandans interviewed the root of the problems of the country is the tribal conflict which tears apart the society. Besides the aim to maintain the traditions the organisation’s goal is to connect people from different parts of the country and promote cooperation. By the help of the volunteering program the chosen members of the group can travel, meet women from different tribes and clans and work hand in hand.
Based on the recitation of the director of the above organization the women who participate to the group activities became more independent, proud and self-confident. The communities also experienced a change. Women are more valued and esteemed. The director also emphasized that in some of the communities men asked the ladies to let them join the groups and willing to learn the crafting techniques.
By supporting the groups we can witness the positive process of transformation of Ugandan society.