Sunday 8 October 2023

Mpola Mpola…

Slowly slowly… I am getting to know Uganda, its culture, its people, its music, its food, and so much more. This is the country where I will be spending the next six months. As an ESC volunteer, I will work for Mondo NGO with the local organisation Ugandan Pioneers Association (UPA). My work will be split between two workplaces. One is Masanafu Child and Family Support (MCAFS), which is in Kampala, and the other is Kikooba Infant and Primary School, which is in the countryside about 2h from Kampala. My home will be Villa Mamu a long-term residence in Kampala.

So far, being here has been a fantastic experience. Every day I learn something new, meet new people, hear new stories, try new foods, visit new places and experience new things. Kampala is a city full of colours, sounds, smells and people. It is a fantastic place but sometimes it feels like a system overload.

When preparing for a 6-month experience in a different country, you try to imagine everything that could happen or affect you. But honestly, not even the best preparation can give you a real understanding of a different culture and country. However, it can make the transition easier. This was the case for me. Knowing which things might be the biggest struggle for me before I left made it easier to deal with them once I arrived in my new surroundings.

Before I left for Uganda, I had two main concerns: one was the Bodaboda driving. Bodabodas are motorbike taxis, the most common public transport means in Kampala. Having been on a motorcycle only once before I left for Uganda, I didn’t feel so comfortable thinking that I would have to sit on the back of a motorcycle being driven by a random person every day. My solution was to get my personal bodaboda driver, someone I could trust to drive safely. Because, in all honesty, traffic in Kampala is insane. Bodabodas form every direction - left, right, front, back. If their lane is blocked, they will drive on yours or the sidewalk. Oh, and what they can transport on their bodabodas. That’s a whole other story. You will see up to 5 people, 2m long tree logs, wooden boards, bags of potatoes or even a bodaboda, to mention just a few.

The other aspect was food. I have lived as a vegan for many years and was unsure how I would adjust to being unable to keep my vegan diet. I know that in many cultures, it is a practice to slaughter animals to prepare them for an honoured guest. So, before I left, I asked myself: “What will you do when this happens?” Honestly, I am still not entirely sure about the answer. So far, though, I could tell people before I was invited to eat with them that I only eat vegetables and fruits. I tried to explain to them that for me, it is a belief that I do not want to eat animals. Many don’t really understand it, but all of them respect it and make me feel welcome. They prepare their traditional dishes: Matoke (smashed Bananas), Posho (cooked maise flour), G-Nuts (sauce of grounded peanuts), Chapati, Beans, Peas and many more.

I have only been here for a few weeks now and have yet to experience so much more. I am looking forward to everything that I will encounter, the adventure, the challenges, the good and the bad times.

Monday 14 November 2022

The people of Uganda are amazing

 I was employed in Uganda for a short time, only two months, but during that time I got to know the country and the people who live there. I was warmly and cordially received in Uganda by the Uganda Pioneers Association.

I had three different work locations in Uganda: Kampala Disabled Initiative (KDI), Kikooba Women with Abilities, Lugoro Tutte Disabled Group (Gulu town)

My objectives in the workplace were to assist all groups to help to prepare high-quality products, working out new products, and increasing their sales. My aim was also to create a dynamic network between all the groups.

In addition to improving my tailoring skills, I taught knitting in KDI and crocheting in Kikooba. We made bags and hats.

To Uganda, I would definitely like to come back.

Monday 24 October 2022

"Education is my way out" - The power of learning for a young refugee in Uganda

Alpha after our interview

This is Alpha, a young man who took part in the Mondo Digital Competencies Training with other refugee youths.

He is in Kampala to visit a friend, taking the opportunity to leave the Refugee Settlement where he lives, and agrees to meet me in a local café in Entebbe road, to talk about his experience with Mondo Digital Competencies Training. Our conversation, however, naturally started with a dive into his story, as a refugee, as a young man who escaped one of the most atrocious and long lasting conflicts in our contemporary history. “What makes you share this with me, Alpha?” I asked him. “As refugees, people may not listen to our story”

Alpha is a 21 years old young man originally from Ruchu, in Kivu province, northern Democratic Republic of the Congo. His first language is Kinyabwisha and Swahili. He also speaks French and English. He learnt Luganda to interact with the local community, but he does not speak it confidently yet. 

Despite two of his siblings sadly passing away, Alpha, the fifth born, has a big family, headed by their mother named Bahati Francoise Musabyinana. He has 9 siblings: 5 brothers and 4 sisters.

The conflict

Alpha fled the long lasting conflict in DRC, to reach safety in Uganda with his family in 2014, when he was only 13 years old. Since the beginning of the war, his family moved a lot. First they were dispersed internally, then came back home, but all the sudden they “no longer had stability”. Whilst in DRC, his elder brother was kidnapped but managed to come back home. Their father, a preacher, was targeted and kidnapped by some armed group. That’s when the family decided to escape the country in 2013. Until now, they had no news from him. The instability, the loss and the fear deeply affected his mental health, Alpha recalls. 

“I was at school when they attacked. They killed all the teachers. We [the students] ran away. I hid for two days in the forest. I almost took my life - but it was my faith that helped me'' - Alpha reveals -  “as if I kill myself I won’t go to heaven”. This is when he found the courage to leave the forest: “I tried to move and found my way back home. Once there, I found no one, only dead bodies. All the houses were abandoned. I was traumatised and scared to be recruited by the armed groups. I have seen children holding guns at only nine years-old. If you take a kid and put them in this kind of environment, they may think it is good''. In fact, Congolese children are the primary victims of war because they are consistently recruited by armed groups(1).  As per 2018, UNICEF estimated that thousands of children continued to be used as child soldiers. There is no precise data on the number of children being used as soldiers in the DRC. UNICEF and its partners estimate that, in the Kasaï region alone, between 5,000 and 10,000 children have been associated with the militias(2). As recently as 2021, the UN reports that “Armed groups in South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo recruited more than 470 children into their ranks”.

What happens to older people, I asked him. “If you are old, they just kill you”. The question of what happens to women specifically, was painfully implicit. 

“I was still wearing my school uniform. I knew some friends living in Bunagana, which is 2 to 3 days walk from my home as I thought my family could have been there. I walked.” Alpha remembers. 

When he reached the village’s market, he found his mother begging. “She cried when she saw me, as she thought I died too. She said that our father was taken”. That marks the day when the family starts their diaspora in search of safety, and they begin their journey to Uganda, the nearest neighbouring country. 

The journey to Uganda 

The journey from Congo to Uganda by foot

On the very same day they reunited with Alpha, the family walked from Bunagana, a village near the Congolese-Ugandan border, to Kisoro, the first town after managing to cross the border with Uganda. They reached a Pentecostal church where they were welcomed, given some food and some money to take a bus to Kampala. 

Alpha recalls that “my mum was not ok, she had been beaten but she tried to look strong for us”. 

Despite the sense of safety of leaving DRC, reaching Kampala was quite the opposite of feeling finally protected and stable. “It was tough” - Alpha looks back. “We didn’t know anyone, we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t know the culture”. The family spent 3 days at the old Kampala Police station to try and claim asylum there, whilst begging for food by the road. There, they were even tear-gassed to be chased away, and his little brother was affected. But the family knew they had to stick together to be safe.

It was a man named Sam who went to look for them - they didn’t know him but, as Alpha asserts, he claimed to be instructed by God. He took them to a church called Miracle Centre church Nsambya, a south-eastern suburb of Kampala. Despite he recalls “we were feeling lost” this is where Alpha and his family stayed a few months, offering some labour in return like cleaning and helping, before moving to Kyangwali Refugee Settlement where they registered as refugees. 

The Refugee Settlement

Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, photo shot by Alpha

Edited photo by Alpha:Kyangwali Refugee settlement

The camp (note that the term "camp" is often used to mean "settlement" by the local inhabitants, whereas the camp itself is the registration centre where asylum seeker go upon arrival) “didn’t feel it was a good place” as Alpha remembers. Though, however small, the plot of land given to the settled refugees was theirs “at least we knew we had somewhere to stay”. However, “as a refugee you never own anything, you can just borrow the land, and you are supposed to build your hut or a tent.” which costs money, that supposedly most people don’t have. Alpha’s elder sister found a job in a restaurant, earning just enough to help the family survive. “At least you are alive - he recalls having thought - many people die. As long as we are alive we don’t want anything more”. Slowly they managed to save enough to pay someone for building a small place for the family to sleep. Alpha admits that religion helped him and many other displaced people “keep going”, accepting that “things are going to be tough”, finding a reason to stay alive, and hoping that one day they will be better, however hard it may be.

“Whoever was in a [refugee] camp, would make it anywhere else.” Alpha asserts. 

Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, photo shot by Alpha

After 8 years living there, he explains that “life in the camp is hard”. The hardest, he clarifies, is to get food. But he also proudly recognises that he always managed to find something that got him “out” of the struggle to survive, of the anxiety of not making it to the end of the day, of fearing losing hope. 

“Education was my way out”. 

Alpha looks back to when he was in DRC, before having to flee, he loved school. When he was forced to stop because of the conflict, he promised himself that if he ever had a chance to study again, he would give the best he could.

Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, photo shot by Alpha

Yet, like sadly everything else, the life of a refugee student is anything but easy. Alpha explains that he was lucky enough to get a bursary covering 90% of his fees, but even that 10% he had to pay was very high, and a struggle for his family to afford. Also, even if a young refugee manages to get into school, they lack basic resources such as a pen, a notebook and food. Alpha recalls that refugee youth were fed less than the locals. 

Despite he found some individuals he could get to trust, what psychologically disrupted Alpha the most was isolation and prejudice from most people in the school. “Teachers cannot understand you, and as our classes were mixed with locals and refugee youth, we faced a lot of discrimination -  but that was my only way out of the camp”. 

After surviving so much before his school experience in Uganda, Alpha explains, “you expect that if you get a good life, you are equal [to the others], but it is actually worse”.

Nonetheless, Alpha addressed the discomfort head-on, humbly and performing high in school. “As a young student refugee, you have to work twice as hard”, to withstand the jealousy and unfairness. “I don’t know why they have bias when you are a refugee. Even when you reach a job interview it is likely that despite high qualifications, they put you aside, they openly discriminate against you”.

Some time has passed from those days, but still he carries a sense of responsibility for those coming after him. After he graduated, Alpha became a volunteer team leader of mentors at Coburwas, an international NGO supporting refugee children’s education in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan. The best part of this role is the interaction with the kids, he shares. 


During Covid lockdown, Alpha recalls, everything was very confusing. “Some lessons were even streamed via the radio from the Ministry of Education”. Students in school had to learn online, but none had a computer, he explains. Teachers were not experienced in delivering online, but exams had to take place anyways, so Alpha started on a voluntary basis, supporting other students to prepare, and proudly, succeeding in their exams. 

When it comes to his own experience with ICT, “in Uganda this subject is not taken seriously, and focused mostly on the theory”, he observes, however, he recognises “the world is becoming digital, actually it is already. Every school should be doing this more practically”. 

The Digital Competencies Training

The great chance to take a real step out of the camp, arrived with World University Service Of Canada, an NGO partnering with local organisations operating within the Refugee Settlement to offer education opportunities to the youth,  such as Windle International. Through the Student Refugee Programme WUSC, select 40 single refugee youth of 18 to 25 years of age and with good grades, to obtain a scholarship for a Canadian University and a Visa. This year only 37 of the shortlisted candidates were given the go-ahead to depart towards a new life. Alpha was one of the 3 whose application to University was deferred, but he explains that he will be hopefully prioritised for next year’s cohort. 

Windle International Uganda was the local NGO supporting the young refugee cohort offering a pre-departure preparation training. Part of this training involved learning basic Computer Skills to be used to aid integration into a digitalised world such as Canada, but also to feel more confident with tools used at their future universities. 

This is when The Mondo Digital Competencies Training (DCT) came in - to support Windle International to train the 40 candidates living in 11 different Refugee Settlements in Uganda,  with our 6 modules covering from the basic of computing knowledge to 21st century life skills' topics such as financial literacy, online safety and the different Google tools. 

We at Mondo, offered a two-weeks intensive online course based entirely on smartphone use, engaging a mix of distance teaching instruments such as Zoom, Google Classroom, Whatsapp and emails to communicate with the students, ensuring data bundles were provided to tackle the restraints for the students of living in remote areas and having a limited access to the network. 

Alpha was one of the committed students of the DCT, trying not to miss any bit of this learning opportunity. “I loved the lessons because they were an everyday reality”. He appreciated having an array of tools that aided his learning experience, for example, the videos on “how to” go about the tools explained. He remarks having learnt many new skills that will be very valuable in his life. For example “learning to write my CV using Canva, searching and finding a job online, is extremely important for my future”. Being able to spot a hack, will help him be protected online. Finally, video and photo editing is helping him record new memories and improve old ones, by re-adjusting and enhancing old hard copies of photos that his mum kept from their past. 

Old photos of Alpha's family- edited from prints

Old photos of Alpha's family- edited from prints

“What’s now?” I ask Alpha. He smiles, full of hopes, trying to hold back a sense of disappointment for not being able to set off to Canada this year, after his expectations, naturally were raised. 

He knows that his dream will be fulfilled, and his education will continue, studying Medicine at University. He explains that due to the conflict in DRC he saw many people wounded, needing medication. He met amazing doctors at the hospital once, who inspired him to help others, and asked himself: “Why not also me doing this?”

Alpha’s ability to motivate himself is, nonetheless, a great resource that he continues passing on younger generations who experienced the same he did, fueling their ambitions, endurance and hunger for knowledge. 



Alpha and I after the interview

Sustainability, Resilience and other buzzwords in practice: a lesson from our beneficiaries

What is the impact of our work - I ask myself, when I get to understand a bit better how to frame the achievement of one of the project I was on since the beginning of my deployment (the Digital Skills Training). In a Theory of Change language, the impact is measured on whether "the intervention generates significant positive or negative, intended or unintended, higher level effect" on the society.

Whilst I wonder how I contributed to the impact of our projects, the departure day is approaching and I am relying on my rationality to remind me that it’s ok to be nervous. You remember the cultural adjustment curve? At our pre-departure training the facilitator explained that returning “home” is one of the hardest parts of the adjustment, as it’s all anew, but is not, really. The “Reverse Culture Shock” happens when you think you can get used to the “life before” easily, as it is familiar to you, but in reality the fact that your expectations are high, can pose another challenge. In fact, and that’s how I personally feel, something has irremediably changed after some time away.

Reverse Culture Shock
You can call it resilience, the skills of returning to your “shape” after a hit, a stretch, a tear. Or you can call it this: you've grown wider, to contain multitudes; deeper, to dive into something unknown; harder, to protect from the hits - that could be losing something, someone, seeing a dead man on the ground, seeing misery.

Reflecting on how I perceive resilience, I have started making links on the lessons I've learnt directly from some of the beneficiaries I worked with in the past 8 months.

I have seen how people help each other. I have seen that the unnecessary dissolves in thin air depending on the context, giving way to what is at the core. I may have started my deployment with a very western mindset -  having lived in the UK for many years, where everything aims to be very organised - but as I went by, I have learnt to strip from the constraints - time structure, organisation - I was so naturally wearing.

The teams I worked with, Mondo, UPA, YARID, etc… but especially the people I came across made me realise how limited resources can still contribute to big change. 

Let me tell you about the group of community members at UPA, our host organisation, who were trained on the Digital Competencies training, and how they became trainers to enable their community to achieve what they accomplish first. Let me tell you about the time they offered, leaving when it was still dark to meet with me in the morning, travelling at their own costs (and that we cannot refund due to the European Commission budget’s breakdown for our projects). This is a brief but excellent example of sustainability in capacity building. Apart from some advice I offered them on how to organise the Digital skills training, boost attendance and optimise the resources, they used what they have learnt from the training I facilitated, re-adjusted it on their new direct beneficiaries and developed their own way of spreading non-formal education amongst those who need it the most, to ultimately increase their knowledge and employability opportunities.  

UPA former trainees now delivering an ICT training

Let me tell you story of Alpha(1), who escaped Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when he was little, witnessed his own school’s bloodshed, but made it through the forest alone without being captured by the militia, travelled miles with his mum and siblings, was tear gassed, discriminated, slept on many floors, but then is empowering other refugee youths supporting their studies when they fall through the cracks of school system. He wants to be a doctor to save people. He’s doing it already. This is what I call resilience. 

Alpha after our interview

Let me tell you the story of Diana,  from South Sudan, who took her first flight to Canada to be resettled this September. Alone, in a  new world, carrying the burden of years of deprivation, not being able to study as a refugee for the cost of education, and now ready to rock the world and contribute to global peace by studying International Diplomacy. This, to my eyes, is diving into the unknown.

Diana meeting me before her departure to Canada

And finally, let me tell you the story of Merlo, child of an orphan adopted by a Belgian family after the decolonization of Zaire, now DRC. Another story of displacement, fear, and lack of resources. He’s the one who built his own future by giving back to his community and working to cooperate and learn from each other, to tackle conflict within neighboring communities. He's the representation of embracing multitudes, whilst he organises the meeting of his grassroot NGO, football matches, Ugandan-Congolese-Sudanese cuisine and music festivals in Kyaka II refugee settlement.

Merlo volunteering in the community hub within the refugee settlementInterview with Merlo

Few months ago, I taught these refugee youths digital skills online using google classroom, but they paid back by teaching me much more. And they are only a few of those many who've given me a great lesson. I really hope these 8 months in Uganda are only the beginning of a longer relationship with this country which somehow will stick to my own definition of home.

Online Class with the refugee youth at Windle International

There's so much greatness in the simple things. I appreciate every small and big effort of my host and sending organisations, respectively UPA and Mondo Uganda, for making me feel home, supported and listened to. And of course I will never be grateful enough for my housemates who just created a fertile territory around me to be fully myself and be safe. Thanks to the beneficiaries and partners for making me grow professionally and personally.

Kampala from the National Mosque's minaret

And Finally, thanks to all the other small (or big) projects that I have got to see, support, learn from, even if theory were not part of my job. In particular to Amuno rural hub, founded by my friend Tony, and which this month we visited to do some activities with the children such as creating their own alphabet's chart, reading, drawing and lots of dancing! 

Amuno Rural Hub - community libraryAmuno Rural Hub - community library Amuno Rural Hub - community library (creating the alphabet)

Nsubira Okuddamu Okukulaba Uganda :) 

I hope I’ll see you soon 

(1) The full story of Alpha is available on Mondo Eesti Instagram profile or on this blog for the full story. Other full stories to come out on Mondo Eesti Facebook page.

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Kyaka II - a look into the Ugandan refugee settlements system

Do you know the difference between a refugee settlement and a refugee camp? - a smiling Finn Church Aid staff member asks me as we walk through Finn Church Aid vocational skills training centre inside the Kyaka II refugee settlement, in Western Uganda. First of all - he continues without expecting my response - within a refugee settlement, the refugee, whom we prefer to call “person of concern”, can move freely.

Young shepherds with Ankole cows in Kyaka II 

Before going to Uganda, I had a vague idea that a refugee settlement was different from a refugee camp, but I could not clearly distinguish between the two. In most academic journals on migration, the terms camps and settlements are used interchangeably. For instance, the Rhino-camp in Northern Uganda is defined by UNHCR as a settlement, but, at the same time, it is listed as a camp in the UNHCR statistical overview (Schmidt, 2003). Five parameters can be used to distinguish a refugee settlement from a refugee camp (Ferraro et al., 2020; Idris, 2017; Schmidt, 2003). The first parameter, as the Finn Church Aid staff member explained to me, is freedom of movement: unlike a refugee settlement, in a refugee camp the area in which daily activities take place is limited and restricted. A second parameter can be found in the way refugees receive assistance: in refugee camps, assistance is mainly provided in the form of relief handouts and food distribution, while in settlements refugees have the possibility to be involved in different income generating activities like agriculture, tailoring, carpentry, hairdressing, construction. In Kyaka II, as well as in Rhino camp, my sending organization, Mondo, offers digital skills training in the vocational skills training centres managed by its partner, Finn Church Aid in Kyaka II and Norwegian Refugee Council in Rhino Camp. At the Finn Church Aid vocational skills training centre in Kyaka II, where I spent some time during my monitoring visit, refugees and the host community can freely access various training, such as hairdressing, motorbike repair, agriculture, catering and tailoring. In addition, a daycare service is available to participants of the training, particularly young mothers. A third parameter is based on the consistency of the solution offered to the refugee. A refugee camp is a temporary facility, (...) not established to provide permanent solutions (What Is a Refugee Camp? Definition and Statistics | USA for UNHCR, n.d.). The refugee settlement, on the other hand, tends to be a durable solution, allowing the refugee economic integration into the local communities. The last two parameters are: mode of governance, within a settlement the refugee has the possibility to actively participate in the political life; population size and density, the more the settlement is overcrowded, the more it is generally seen to take on the character of a camp. 

Children playing in Kyaka II

Gathering the quantitative and qualitative data needed to assess the long-term impact of the Mondo digital skills training on refugees and their host community was not easy. Although we had a list with the name, surname and telephone number of people who had completed the training a few months ago, and although we had recalled them about our visit in advance, many of the people to be interviewed or to whom the questionnaires were to be submitted were no longer available. Some had moved out of the refugee settlement, others could not be reached by phone. Asking them to meet us at the vocational skills training centre and conduct the data collection from there was never an option because the Kyaka refugee settlement covers 81.5 km² (Kyaka II Fact Sheet, 2014) and transportation within the settlement is difficult due to the bumpy roads, transportation cost and unpredictable weather. Also, while we were collecting the data, many people were at work, at school or could not leave the house for other personal reasons. Carrying out data collection by telephone-led interviews was done as much as possible but the connection is not always stable and not everyone has a mobile phone to pick up our calls. The solution we found was to conduct the interviews door-to-door by going around the 26 villages of the Kyaka II refugee settlement. Supported by village leaders, trainers and other facilitators we eventually managed to trace most of the people on the list.

Courtyard of a house in Kyaka II

Visiting these villages, where most of the houses are built with mud and wood, listening to refugees' stories and observing their everyday life is a very intense experience. Although there is a tendency in the contemporary debate to consider refugee settlements a better alternative to refugee camps (Schmidt, 2003), listening to the situations refugees face on a daily basis in the settlement confirms to me that many of the challenges present in the refugee settlements, such as insufficient food or money distribution, overcrowded spaces, few job and educational opportunities, lack of electricity, are typical characteristics of a traditional camp.

Refugee's house in Kyaka II

After an interview, as I walked around the village, I saw some children playing in the sand. I approached them to see what game they were playing but as soon as they noticed me they ran and hid behind a wall laughing. I couldn't figure out what game it was until the children got used to my presence and went back to playing. Try to guess the game before you play the video!

In the weeks following my visit to Kyaka II, I decided to contact a colleague of mine to have more information about the refugee settlement system in Uganda. 

O. is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kyaka II was the first refugee settlement he lived in once he arrived in Uganda. O. and I did the data collection together in Kyaka II. While I conducted the interviews in French and English, O. conducted the interviews in Swahili and Kinyarwanda, the two most spoken languages within the settlement, although more than 10 different languages can be found. 

Asylum seekers in Uganda can receive the status of refugee depending on whether they are subject to prima facie refugee status - which means that they receive refugee status on the basis of their nationality (Alison, 2018);  or non prima facie refugees - they receive refugee status after a determination process conducted by the Refugee Eligibility Committee, an inter-ministerial body that makes decisions on asylum claim (Kalyango & Huff, 2021). South Sudanese refugees and the majority of Congolese refugees are granted prima facie refugee status, specifically those who enter Uganda through officially recognized entry points (OPM and UNHCR Joint Statement: Uganda Maintains Its Open-Door Policy for Refugees, 2019; UNHCR Representation in Uganda, 2022).

I left the DRC for political reasons - O. told me - I arrived in Uganda in 2017 with one of my brothers. When we arrived in Kyaka, we started the asylum seeker registration. Then, we had a short interview with OPM (Office of the Prime Minister) and we were recognized with refugee status after three months. 

When you receive refugee status from the OPM, you are allocated a plot. It can be 20x20m or 50x50m. For the initial period you are also covered with construction materials so you can build your own house. If you don't build anything on the piece of land allocated to you, they give it to someone else.

As a refugee in the settlement, you can receive monthly food assistance in-kind or through cash transfers. In-kind food assistance means that you can receive beans, cooking oil, salt and maize flour. Many families prefer in-kind food assistance because the cash transfer is just 13.000 ugx (3.50 euro) per family member and is not enough. However, many people find other means of livelihood, such as farming or construction, and they can earn between 5000 or 10.000 ugx (between 1.30 euro and 2.50 euro) for a full day's work.

When I greeted O. I thank him for the time he has given me. He greeted me without saying anything, raising his eyebrows and chin upwards. Then he gets into his car and drives away. In 1976, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed that cultures can be divided into two categories according to their verbal and nonverbal communication - high and low context. In low-context cultures, the communication is direct and the message is explicit, all the necessary information to understand the message are clearly exchanged. In high-context cultures, the communication is less-direct and it focuses more on underlying context, meaning, and tone. The information is usually implied rather than explicit and an understanding of the cultural context is deeply necessary to understand the message.

O.'s greeting is an example of high-context communication. As my friend Tony explained once to me, this movement of the head and eyes, widely used in Uganda, can mean several things: I noticed you, I thank you, I greet you, I'm fine, I understand. And you cannot grasp its meaning if you have not experienced the context. 

From my photos collection "Jesus in Pop Culture"

  • Alison, R. (2018). Refugee status determination: A study of the process in Uganda. Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
  • Ferraro, F., Verkuil, L., & Chapman, J. (2020). FORMAL SETTLEMENT VS EMERGENCY CAMP - Different refugee residence approaches in Uganda and South Sudan (p. 50). Scalabrini Institute for Human Mobility in Africa (SIHMA).
  • Idris, I. (2017). Effectiveness of various refugee settlement approaches (K4D Helpdesk Report No. 223; p. 17). Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
  • Kalyango, R., & Huff, K. (2021). Refugees in the city: Status determination, resettlement and the changing nature of forced migration in Uganda. International Social Work.
  • Kyaka II Fact Sheet. (2014). UNHCR.
  • OPM and UNHCR joint statement: Uganda maintains its open-door policy for refugees. (2019). OPM, UNHCR.
  • Schmidt, A. (2003). FMO Thematic Guide: Camps versus settlements. Forced Migration Online.
  • UNHCR Representation in Uganda. (2022). Uganda Refugee Response Plan (RRP) 2022-2023 -Protection Dashboard.
  • What is a Refugee Camp? Definition and Statistics | USA for UNHCR. (n.d.).

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Take a photo with your eyes - a ride into Kampala

 “Liar” - I tell myself, when I respond to the little girl walking bare feet at the traffic light, begging for money. “Sorry, I don’t have” with the gesture of my hands. I have - I think - it’s just behind in my rucksack, but I don’t want to open it, and it’s not going to fix her problems. Someone else will probably take the money from her, I don't want her to think people are good and to be trusted because they give money, I allow myself to think. Street children are sadly a normality in such a big city. As a humanitarian worker involved in child protection for years, but mostly as a human being, this may be shocking, especially after seeing the wealth held by a small elite in the very same city, and at the same time a lack of an adequate welfare system, leaving these children at a huge risk of abuse, diseases, malnutrition, discrimination whilst begging on the trafficked and polluted roads. I have discussed this with local friends who, unsurprisingly, all have a story to share that could be part of their personal background, or may know someone who had similar experiences. I researched that there are many international and grassroot NGOs working on this issue (and forming a consortium), but sadly they can’t reach everyone for lack of funding.

By the time I found a justification for not handing out the equivalent of a meal, my boda* hits the gas and we dive into a net of motorbikes giving way at the sound of a honk. The girl’s wide dark eyes are still staring at me, with her little hand spinning half round, a gesture that looks like something in between a “hello” and “give me”.

Few meters away and we pass by one of my favourite junctions overlooking Kampala: Makerere Hill, from where, at the end of a slope you can see the big Gaddafi National Mosque. Regardless of the weather, the air between this point of view and the mosque is always misty: of dust, smog or heated cars. Bodas, matatus**, and cars slalom the slope to get faster to the traffic light, honking their way out of the jam, a strategy needless of any precedence rules on the road. The goldish minaret shimmers above the dusty cloud, reflecting the sunshine. Every time I pass by this spot I hope the traffic would stop me for a few seconds to look at it. I regret not having brought my analog camera but of course, it would not be a good idea to take it out and shoot while moving. We hit the road again, avoiding a clash with another boda by a few centimeters. I tighten up my helmet, the emblem of being a Mzungu*** taking bodas. 

In Uganda it is possible to transport essentially anything by boda. Amongst the most bizarre things I’ve seen so far have been: 5 chickens at the back and 2 goats in the front; two pigs at the back; a boda on top of another boda; a wooden wardrobe, a pile of 10 chairs. But today I set a new standard of randomness: a pale lilac, golden handled adult size coffin, tied up at the back of the motorbike. Was it empty or full -  I asked myself. Was the man who carried the misfortunate casualty a relative? Was he sad or worried to perhaps cause an accident with a flying coffin? What surprises me in the most subtle way is this balance between, on the one hand, the sense of sacrality and devotion towards religion, the will of God, the world of the spirits and the hereafter, and on the other, the grotesque practical solutions to everyday issues - including death, its prevention, and how to handle it.

The sun is almost setting - very fast, being Uganda near the equatorial line. Beyond the wall beside the road, stands a, for what I can see, girls’ secondary school. A series of yellow school uniforms hang outside the windows of the building, exposing to the heat but also to the dust of the road. Some white t-shirt and underwear are hooked securely with pegs to a hanger, waiting for the last ray of sun to dry them for the following school day. It looks like it’s a boarding school. These, in Uganda, to the eyes of European students may seem like prisons. Wake up call is at 4:00 AM, followed by morning preps - a series of hours spent in the darkness of the class going through homework or preparing for the next lesson. Here, most students hide to sleep, or even masturbate (according to some students’ secret tales) facing hideous punishments. Breakfast is served only after morning preps, around 6.30 AM. The following schedule involves a sequence of lessons only broken by a quick lunch and dinner (rigorously posho**** and beans with no exceptions, all year long) and washing clothes for a total of 2 hours of break before going back to class until night. Students usually sleep 4 hours a night. Students are forbidden from leaving the school apart from holiday, and can receive visits once per term. When I asked the young man who lives with us, what he thinks are the benefits of boarding schools for youths and for the society at last, he replied that there, “you get to become the best of the class”. There is nothing else you need to focus on apart from studying. Your “performance” is at its highest. I wonder if it’s us, the Europeans, the westerners, to be lazy, or this is a whole different system here still embracing a post-Victorian (a legacy of colonial) view of social climbing based on early suffering and little sleep. I wonder how these girls, the owner of the yellow uniforms may feel this evening: are they tired? Are they proud of their achievements? Do they feel comfortable? Do they miss home? The yellow of the fabric moves with the breeze, and reflects what is left of the sunset’s light. 

What do these wonderful and peculiar scenes have in common to my eyes? The lack of a camera, the risk of taking my phone out to capture the moment (and very high chance to have it stolen by a passing boda), but mostly the fact that not everything can be seized into a frame, saved into a virtually infinite memory, covered with filters, forgotten for newer instagrammable moments. Why do we feel an untaken photo is like an incomplete drawing? Is the impression of a moment not sufficient to resonate an image into our memory?

Ambra Malandrin
Unfinished portrait - Ambra Malandrin

Moreover, photographing people has always been something I don’t feel too comfortable doing. Not only the concept of consent is widely conceived in different ways, and so the informed decision for which the subject chooses to be in the photo. But also because, I ask myself how I feel when strangers take photos of me out of curiosity, or perhaps beauty within their frame. I find it key to observe very deeply if the approach with which we take pictures at people is the same as that we engage when photographing a rare flower, a curious monkey, or a leaf on a tree, a landscape. People’s photography should always have at its very core the story of the subject. And this story should be speaking about dignity, reality, joy, pain, too, but never frame the subject as a passive consequence of the environment where they find themselves in. At least, this is one of the thoughts I matured to face my eagerness to snapshot everything that makes my eyes vibe.

Besides, when it’s not the human element I want to photograph, there are so many rules to take good photos that sometimes, I fear to miss the chance to just enjoy the moment. It would be too disappointing not to capture the beauty before my very own perception. 

The little girl’s eyes, the mosque at the end of the slope, the bodas carrying literally anything you can think of, the yellow uniforms hanging from the window. These are some of the photographs that will rest impressed in my visual memory, but not that of my camera. A pair of eyes can, sometimes, take the best photos. 


*Boda boda,  also called boda: means of local transport by [private motorbike’s riders. Very dangerous but fast.

**Matatus: private minibus, other means of local transport. They usually have 16 seats but they can carry up to 20 people.

***Mzungu: is a Bantu word that means "wanderer" originally pertaining to spirits. The term is currently used in to refer to white people.

****Posho:  is a type of stiff maize flour porridge made in Africa.