Thursday, 11 April 2019

Being disabled in Uganda

This blog article is about Simon.

Disability is defined as permanent and substantial functional limitation of daily life   activities   caused   by   physical,   mental   or   sensory   impairment   and environmental barriers resulting  in  limited  participations (Special Children Uganda . According to UNICEF 13% of the Ugandan child population is living with disability which means approximately 2.5 million children (2014).  

Simon is a little boy living in Kikooba village. Her mother is a member of the ladies group we are working with and also a stable attendant of my adult English courses. One day she approached me after class and invited me to meet his son. The family is living in a small house and owe a small garden where they grow their beans and cassava. The house is little and modest but kept tidy.

The mother introduced me to Simon. He was lying in her hands. This little boy cannot walk, cannot sit, cannot hold the neck, cannot use the hands, cannot eat solid food and not able to communicate. Simon is 3 years old. The mother told me she brought Simon to the local hospital where the doctors were not able to set up a diagnosis and advised to visit a better facility in Kampala. All she asked from me is a baby carriage in order to take Simon with her when she leaves the home. When he was a baby it was not a problem to tie him on the back but as he became heavier it is not possible anymore.
As a development worker we always focus on sustainable solutions. Baby carriage is a help but not solving deeper problems. Simon do not have any kind of health care service related to his condition and a family do not receive governmental grant. I started to look around…how could we find a long term solution for the core problems?  In Uganda special health centres are established in order to support people living with disabilities. These facilities are able to make assessments and set up a care program based on the needs of the child. However these facilities are only available in bigger cities and these expenses are not covered by any governmental support. The social net in Uganda is in a very early stage. In Kikooba village people do not benefit from pension, family allowance, unemployment benefits, health care or disability grant. The family of Simon is struggling even to cover the price of the bus ticket to go to Kampala. 

After contacting several Organisations dealing with child support we found only one who visited the family and provided cash to purchase the bus tickets. At the healthcare facility  first time in Simon’s life he was checked by a specialist doctor and a therapist gave instructions to the mother how to do exercises and how to feed the little boy. They also prescribed medicine and special equipment for him. We were able to buy medication for one month. What will happen after one month is still not clear. We are trying hard to find a donor or an organization which could support the family.
Simon’s case is not unique. In the village many children are suffering from disability without any support or treatment. Women give birth at home not in hospitals and the families are lack of funds for basic vaccination. Malnutrition and poor hygiene conditions also sharpen the conditions.
The government tries to help these families by establishing a special grant program. Disabled people or their parents can form a support group which must be registered at the local council. The government releases a certain amount every three months for the municipalities. Then the designated officials choose two groups to be supported and provides them approximately UGX 2-3 million (EUR 500-750). They also provide guidance about the use of these funds. They encourage the group to purchase animals and seed together and try to have investments in a hope that the extra income will help in a long term. Permanent individual support for disabled people does not exist. The idea of group support is not bad…however it can be questioned how the “lucky” groups are selected. It can happen that a registered group is waiting for years without benefiting from the grant. In Kikooba the families already decided to register their group and try to get the support.

MONDO is involved by supporting people living with disability in Uganda and Kenya. In Uganda we are working with a women’s group engaged in tailoring activities in Kampala and a group in Gulu too. In Kenya MONDO is supporting a school for children with special needs. By the help of MONDO’s efforts these people have the chance to earn a living and be more independent.  These initiations are giving amazing opportunities however this is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

It is only the beginning ...

Yesterday I had a chance to give a branding workshop to one of the organisations I am working with. It is called KIFAD. It's an NGO, that is working hard on building capacity in their communities for people living with HIV/ AIDS, orphans and vulnerable children and their families to progressively become self-reliant. They do it through HIV prevention, testing, consultations, skills-sharing, education,  support and many other remarkable projects.

Few weeks ago, KIFAD’s development manager Judith, told me about their cool team development concept. Every Tuesday they gather all the employees and one of them has to give a session about something that he/she is passionate about. It is beneficial for both of the sides because the audience can learn every week something new and the presenter can improve his/her presentation skills and gain some valuable feedback. When she asked me to deliver a branding related workshop, I was more than happy to do that. Anything that could help them raise awareness to their honourable work, will do.

One of the minor “errors” I had to consider, was that here in Uganda it is not very common to use PowerPoint slides because there simply aren’t any means for it, no screens nor projectors. Therefore, it was a slight challenge for me and for my obsession of beautiful visual content. Especially when there are so many cool branding examples to present them with to really draw that big picture.

Well, what you gonna do. It was time to get creative and use the traditional methods, a flip chart. That is also something I have experienced in that short time - people here tend to write most of the things down. Therefore, it was important to pin down all the things I considered important for them. Although, I am not sure how effective it is in the end, as you are trying to divide your focus on 2 different things at the same time, but hey, I had to adapt to their preferences. I have to admit, I could have also been more clear when communicating that I will be sending them all the materials after the session. Maybe that would have helped them to arrange their full attention to my talk. 

However, that is clearly not the most important. Actually, what I wanted to write is that while I was sharing my ideas about corporate and personal branding, and after while getting feedback, I realised how I, in fact, had gained a lot of valuable information in those past 2 hours. I got an insight to Ugandans mind and their consumer behaviour, which I am sure will help me to understand the locals better further-on.

Imagine getting feedback like, “Thank you so much, Victoria! We have been using Facebook because that’s the only social media channel that we have been introduced to (except WhatsApp, of course). I had no idea that there are such opportunities out there. So many channels to choose from. Thank you!” 

I had to take a step back and think, was half of my presentation even relevant to this group. Indeed, I have noticed that most Ugandas are actually not very active in social media. Except WhatsApp, but even that is tricky.

See the thing is, internet costs money and you know what else costs money here in Uganda? Social media. That’s right. They have regulated a fee for it and it is called the OTT tax. Buying an access to social media channels for a month costs locals 6,000 Ugandan shillings (1.5 euros). Doesn’t sound like much? Now, add also the cost of the 2 GB internet bundle for another 20,000 shillings (5 euros). That is already something for the locals. Most of them would rather put that money into something rather practical and essential. 

For example, I have often had cases when I have tried to contact people from the projects through email or WhatsApp, and haven’t got any response in a week. In the beginning, I didn’t understand why it is taking so long, but it is actually that simple. Their data has either ran out, OTT tax has expired, or they haven’t had it in the first place. On the other hand, Ugandans do like to spend money on airtime. They are people who really like to talk. They tend to talk for hours on the phone to have that personal connection and that is why they don’t really understand why I prefer emails or messages. Now I have adapted to calls, though.

Anyways, getting back to the cost of the internet and social media. There are surely people who can afford it, but they are also mostly not so active there because there is limited amount of people they can interact with. Makes sense, right? 

When I reflected back on my thought, I understood that this cannot be it, this has to be only the beginning. I thought, “Of course, I remember now!” Back in 2009, me and most of my friends were using a networking platform called Orkut, and then I had somehow discovered a new channel called Facebook. I logged into this new promising platform and I didn’t get it. It was empty, I had like 9 friends and I felt bored. I told myself, “This will never become a thing.”  Yet, here we are today :) 

Then I figured it out, Uganda and many other countries are still going through that change. It takes time but they will get there sooner or later. That is why it is actually important what I taught them. The sooner they realise the power and opportunities that internet in general has on hold for them, the better it is. During that time of the shift, I am happy to prepare them and share some tips how to gain that advantage and lead on others. I love how much potential there is in Uganda and I am so happy to make my own small contribution to its development.

Thank you for your time!

Until next time ;) 

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Child Protection Training in Kikooba; an international EUAV cooperation

MONDO and the EUAV program launched a comprehensive support program for Kikooba Infant and Primary School. The first step was to establish a boarding section in order to ameliorate the services of the school and to find income generating activity. The next step was a child protection training for the teachers and other employees of the school.

Child abuse is a common phenomena in Uganda. The practice of corporal punishment like canning, burning, hanging from the ceiling is still an everyday way of discipline. Verbal abuse and humiliation of the children is also common. The Ugandan government tries to act against these practices by banning them by law however the police has not much capacity to deal with these cases especially that these incidents are normally not reported. As a good sign some of the schools started to realize the harmful effects of these practices and try to fight against them. Kikooba Infant and Primary school is one of them. When we brainstormed with the Head Teacher how to move on with the school support project he himself rose the topic and asked me to organise a child protection training for the schools staff.

Concerning the question of violence in schools Uganda is not unique. Most of the countries in the region (if not all) are affected. MONDO already has successful projects in Kenya regarding child protection. Marine, EUAV in Shianda, Kenya is an education expert whose special field is safe school environment. Marine is providing trainings for teachers regarding this topic in several Kenyan schools since six months. Due to her expertise and experience it was not a question that an international EUAV cooperation would be the best solution for Kikooba. Marine happily accepted my invitation and thanks to MONDO’s support she could visit Uganda to hold a 2-day workshop for the Ugandan teachers.

The workshop was focusing on attitudes towards learners, violence in school and the importance of positive discipline. During the training the teachers were invited to share their opinion, motivations and ideas about these topics. By using interactive methods like group work and role plays Marine made the group to brainstorm together on the sensitive topics. The teachers learnt about the difference between punishment and discipline. Violent punishment is a biological act which triggers fear and blocks learning however discipline meant to develop the students’ behaviour and to teach self-control and confidence on focusing what the students should learn. The teachers were asked to refresh their best and worst memories from their school ages and draw parallel with their behaviour in the school as a teacher. Then by a role play they were asked in groups to act an example of punishment and   positive discipline. By the games the teachers could familiarise with alternative discipline measures and could reinforce their good practices.  
The teachers will to participate and honest sharing of their opinion is very promising. By talking about the taboo of child abuse we could start a dialogue which could affect positive changes in a long term.  Quote from Isimail, the Head Teacher on teachers’ responsibility to create a safe environment which assures learning and development:

“We might be different by colours but we do the same services!”

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Gulu, my love!

Lugoro Tutte

My first project took place in Gulu with the organisation called Lugoro Tutte Disabled Group (LT). It is a small group which offers tailoring & knitting courses;  school uniforms; different accessories and lots of custom orders.

Generally, persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Uganda are  vulnerable  by  virtue of  their  impairment  and  negative societal attitudes arising from fear, ignorance, superstitions, neglect and lack of awareness. Two decades of war in Northern Uganda didn't really help with their situation and Okot, the founder, wanted to do something about it because he knows the struggles of the PWDs very well. So, back in 1994 he established this group with a sole purpose of helping the disabled and their families increase their living standards in the community. He is truly the sweetest person I have had a pleasure to meet here in Uganda

Anyways, when we got to the part of examining the organisation's needs and their expectations on me, their thoughts were all on one thing. Money. I had to explain them politely that I was not sent here to give or find them money but rather help them gain the needed skills, so they can make their own. That is something I really love about Mondo's approach. Mondo taught us that we should help the organisations help themselves. Share our skills, so that one day they will not need Mondo’s help anymore and can proceed self-sustainably on their own. 

However, my time in Gulu was very short. Only 1 month. So, I was tempted to do everything myself in order to achieve fast results. But this wouldn't have helped them in the long-run, right. So, I had to remind myself about the idea of more sharing than doing. Therefore, first it was important just to sit back, assess their business activity and then go step by step. 

In the beginning I was very optimistic. I remember telling my friend, “First week I will cover their finances and then go on focusing on marketing, teaching them basics and finding them new distributors.”  Haha, I was surely overestimating myself because in the end I didn’t get further than their finances. 

The problem is that, the things I considered obvious, are not so obvious here. It is not like everybody has had a chance to study the basics of business foundation and moreover how to manage their money, how to do the bookkeeping, how to do the product monitoring, etc. That is totally understandable and that is why I had to support them with all that knowledge I have.

For example, one of the simple mistakes they had was not having a system for income management. The money from the pieces sold, was given straight to the tailor who had made it. Therefore, the organisation itself was not generating any income.

When I asked them, “But how do you pay your bills? LT has around 200,000 UGX (50 EUR) worth of monthly fixed expenses.” The answer was, “We don’t know.” 

I realised that like many other SME’s in Uganda, LT is also relying on the foreign support, which makes them extremely dependent. That had to change. We gathered everybody and I made a proposal of 60/40 profit sharing. The discussion was long and intense. Of course, it is no surprise that people wouldn't like to give away a share of their earnings. Nevertheless, they decided to give it a try.

Other option could have obviously been increasing prices, but it is not that simple in this market. As everybody is selling the same products, you cannot just increase your prices. The locals will simply not buy from you because there are already so many others to choose from. I understood it when I visited  Gulu’s main market for the first time and saw so many tailoring shops, all selling the exact same things. 

What about product development? Again tricky. If you are in a business like tailoring, copying is very easy to come. Once you differentiate, you’ll have approximately 6 months before everybody else is doing the same. It is just a typical thing in Uganda or Africa. It is not like in Europe, where being unique and original is the goal.

Although, this doesn’t mean we have to just deal with it and not change anything. What I am trying to say, is that 1 month was clearly not enough to work on their marketing strategy. It was just enough of time to fix some of their core issues. And please try to understand that 1 month in Africa is a very, very, very little time to achieve anything. Everything takes soooo much time, that sometimes I don’t even know if I should cry or laugh. 

Overall, I really enjoyed working with them. They were such a kind group. Going to their office was the highlight of my day. They were smiling a lot, showing a lot of initiative, asking for my opinion, taking care of me and feeding me like crazy. Haha, they even thought that I was starving because I couldn't eat their enormous lunch portions :D

Sadly, my chapter in Gulu has ended and I wish the best of luck to the next volunteer that will work with this amazing group. I promised to keep helping them when needed and checking up on them after some periods of time. 

Until next time! 

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, now what?

Gulu travels

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.

What to do in Gulu?

As I said, Gulu is very popular among NGO's and that is why there are a lot of hangout spots. Gonna name some of the places I used to go: Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant - for amazing flavours of Ethiopia; Iron Donkey - for delicious bakery and warm customer service (not usual in Uganda); Coffe Hut - for good coffee, in my case ice tea, and amazing banana bread; O Cafe - for great internet and office vibes; Elephante Commons - for delicious western food and social entrepreneurship inspiration. The founders have built this community centre to serve the minorities in Gulu. They also have awesome Yoga classes; Comboni Samaritans & Palm Garden Restaurant - for grafts shopping and Italian food; Lightray Roestbar - for live bands; Bomah Hotel - for a pool day. You need it because it is way hotter in the North and gets around 38° in the dry season. Price: 10,000 UGX = 2,5 EUR. 

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. I 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."