Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Living in a mud hut

Saying from North Uganda:
 "If you refuse to eat the first food you are given you go the whole day hungry"

Pakwach is one of the towns next to the highway from Kampala to South Sudan and Congo throughout the country. According to 2014 national counting, its population is about 23000 people. Electricity came to town in 2015 and is still on and off in the dry season. Pakwach itself is also a new district just 3 years old with a new district office just about a kilometer away from town. The main street is full of permanent one-floor buildings and the street down are the village huts with grass roofs. Maine business for people is selling fish to tracks passing by on the highway.
I am living in a local family about a half of a kilometer away from the town center. I have my own grass-roofed mud hut.  There is no permanent electricity or running water. There is a small solar that gives dim outside light at nights so people sitting together in the evening can see what they are eating also it powers the cd reader so that it possible to watch Nigerian soap operas before and after the dinner is served.  Water is collected to jerrycans at night time from a neighbor's tap.  Jeri cans are heavy. It is the work of the two daughters in the family to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Clean the parent's hut and fill the jerrycans with water and lift them to the shed where is a place for cooking and storing things. Girls also have to bring the water for washing hands before every meal and as a respect to men and older women, they kneel down while pouring water for washing. It is the most embarrassing for me seeing someone kneeling in front of me and though it happens every single day I never get used to it. The women in the North have little self-confidence. Just about ten years ago they were not allowed to eat good food like chicken or eggs to keep them in a lower position. Also, women could not own any land and until now it is still the custom in more traditional families. As men could have many wives or lovers for a woman having a lover outside the marriage would be the death penalty by the community. Mostly men cant cook and it is considered even embarrassing for a guy to go to the kitchen since it is a woman’s job. So it is necessary to get a wife because otherwise, one would struggle with getting food.
The day starts early around 6.30 everyone is up and my host father is putting on some loud gospel music or just news from the radio. Everyone has a task. Children run to school before seven without eating. If the host mother is at home she is preparing the charcoal stove lightning it with a piece of plastic bag. My host father is the one for compound cleaning and he is swiping of the leaves fallen from trees during the night and bird shit from pigeons and ducks that freely roam around the compound. Cooking takes time because the charcoal stove is slow. First, it takes about an hour to get it hot and then the water for tea is prepared. Meanwhile, I peel the sweet potatoes or cassava depending on what has been brought the previous evening. Generally, white people are considered to be helpless considering housework. My skill of peeling potatoes gets a lot of attention, but while trying to boil the potatoes I fail, because I don’t know how to do it right. Every potato, cassava or jams is boiled with little water and covered with a transparent plastic bag, to keep the fumes. Plastics bag is the most important tool in the household besides using it for lighting fire, cooking it is also used to tie around chickens wings with a purpose to keep the chickens healthy. There is no logical explanation of how a plastic bag around a chickens wing will keep it in good health but the community, where Christianity was introduced just a century ago, the original beliefs and superstitions are still strong.
My family is very religious. Every Sunday morning they go to Born Again church and every meal is started by a prayer. I find it beautiful to appreciate food with gratitude and sometimes I am asked to pray for food, though i am short as: "Thanks for the food, Amen!" I appreciate the habit and miss it after. Another tradition that comes with serving food is washing hands before eating. It looks like follows: almost always the lady comes kneels in front of the person washing hands and pours water on the hands holding the basin and also the jug. It is almost like in the Bible. I understand the respect that is given to the people served food to and the need to wash hands because of hygiene, but sometimes its 70-year-old ladies who have big trouble kneeling, but still it is the tradition and they do it. Every time I feel embarrassed because I never see men doing it. Another observation is that women, when eating are always seated on the ground and men sit on chairs. This is also happening in all the meetings. Even if I try to tell women to take seats on the chairs it is not going to happen because of this is how things are done here.

The usual breakfast is boiled sweet potato, or a mix of beans and corn fried in oil –, lunch posho, porridge from cornflower, and beans and for dinner fish or meat with calo, porridge from cassava and millet flour.  Fork and spoon are not used, people eat with their hands, taking a little piece of porridge making it into a ball between the fingers and pushing a little hole into it and dipping it into the sauce. The consistency is very strange for me and I can feel pieces of sand in the porridge until after a couple of months I don’t chew the porridge anymore but swallow it straight. It is very healthy food because there is very little processing evolved but no one ever eats anything raw except mangos. Tomatoes are considered a spice inside the food. Though there are delicious avocados I don’t see people eating them. It is because of possible diseases that you can get from food and people don’t have money to go to the doctor, so it is much safer to eat only hot food and this is a rule. There are no sweets. The only sweet thing is tea. For a cup, my host father is adding about three spoonfuls of sugar.  To accompany tea, one can have mandazi - it is a deep-fried piece of bread similar to a donut. But there has to be something called "escort" or the tea won't go down. It can be several things like potatoes or even pasta or just peanuts but has to be something. Mandazi is my favorite and is really a treat as it is the only somehow sweet food available.
Dinner is around ten in the evening and I struggle with the lack of sleep from waking up early in the morning and eating very late.  Ugandans definitely don’t sleep eight hours a day as it is thought in Europe. Sometimes my family goes to sleep one am or later, but always waking up before seven in the morning so estimated sleeping time is about 5 hours.  The endless differences in our life setting and possibilities of living are one of the most amazing things I experience and also it brings understanding why people struggle in poverty, why life is so much slower and how much easier and faster is life in developed countries just because women don’t spend the whole day in the kitchen preparing food, so there is space for other activities. Usually, all the families have some little land to grow crops and to feed on it , there is a lack of money. If there is no money there is no education and the land inherited from father to sons is getting less and less. The climate change is chasing the farmers and the fish is overexploited.  Wood for charcoal is ending up and deforestation is chasing the next generations among many other problems.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Working with ICT in Uganda

Can you remember the time when there were no computers at home? Well, I do :-) I was born in 1983 and learned to type on an old-fashioned typewriter. I was 17 when had my first computer lessons in school and experienced the shift to the so-called Information Age at close quarters: The historic period characterized by the rapid shift to an economy primarily based upon information technology

A couple of years later and I am in Uganda to work as an ICT specialist (ICT = Information, Communication and Technology).
My task is to identify IT and communication gaps and possibly close them.

Everyone needs IT knowledge
Even though I have worked for a big IT company in the past, I don't consider myself an IT expert. I am more into communication and marketing.
And yet, that's how everybody introduces me: Iris (or Maria), the IT specialist. This leads to the fact that people constantly approach me to fix their computer, phone or ask me questions about networks, VPN connections, coding or other computer programs I have never heard of.

But in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

30 years after entering the information-age computers are still not common in Uganda 
The need for IT knowledge in Uganda is huge. According to the Uganda National Household Survey (2016/2017) using a computer is no regular activity of Uganda's population.

I am here now for 11 weeks and I have currently been assigned to work for 3 different projects.
One of them is at the Uprise Foundation | Timeline Vocational Training Center -  A foundation, that aims to improve the lives of vulnerable children and their households by providing quality education, protection, access to good health and sustainable livelihood programs. 

Teaching challenges in Uganda
Once a week I go there and teach IT skills for 3 hours. It is part of their timetable. The students are between 18 and 25 years old and will be tailors, electricians, and mechanics when they have finished their training. We do Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint and despite having done endless basic exercises, they struggle every week to change the color of a font. 
Typing is another issue. They use 2 fingers instead of 10 and we start every lesson with some typing exercises, but since they don't own a computer, they cannot practice at home. It is a very slow learning process.

And then there is the issue with the equipment. We have 2 computers and 2 laptops for 7 students. 
Unfortunately, 1 monitor is half broken and the screen is constantly green. Keyboards have been donated and come with German or Chinese keys. Most of the cables have a defective contact and work only randomly.

Last but not least: powercuts also affect the school and if there is no electricity - there is no IT lesson.

But computer skills can be defined as important skills in today’s world. People who don't develop technological expertise will be left behind in the digital revolution. 

This is one of the messages I keep telling my students. It might not be their favorite subject, but the importance is high and the potential huge.

Provisory IT classroom

Some of my students

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Natural colouring workshop

Women with abilities is the craft group of Kikooba. It's a group of women that have come together to create a space of sharing, supporting and learning from each other.

They are all are little farmers. They grow for food and to make some little money to maintain their houses. But sometimes it's not even enough for that. So, working together in this craft group allows them having some incomes to be able to pay school fees, doctors, medication, milk, oil...
They've been working for a while, and still they are learning and improving, but I could already see their improvement from old baskets they had and the new ones their are doing. They have been working with the EU volunteer for two years, and they are always open to listen to new ideas and suggestions for improvement.

With other volunteer, Kaie, who has been working with them for long, we organised a workshop on natural colouring. It was lead by two ladies who came from another organisation, Open Hands To Serve, which have been working for very long on this kind of crafts with ladies in Uganda.

They brought some leaves and roots from where the ladies in Kikooba learnt how to colour their rafias on yellows, greens and black. Black is a very difficult colour to find in here, so it was really profitable for them learning how to make this colour.


Thank you for sharing your groups with me!

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Water, source of life

Do you ever think on how much water do you use during the day? For washing yourself, for cleaning the house, for cooking, for drinking... And also, all the water needed to produce the clothes we wear, the petrol, the electronics, the paper....  Everything!

Water is source of life for everyone, it's part of our body, it's big part of the earth and it's part of our daily life. We couldn't life without it.
I am in Kikooba, a small rural community 75km from Kampala. Here people life from agriculture, small farms where to grow enough to eat and get some little income. Climate crisis has really affected their lifes, as water is not coming when it used to, it keeps changing, so they can't grow their corps efficiently.
We have the community school, which ensures children get education for their future. They have been also suffering from water lack. The children have to go to fetch water every morning and afternoon. They carry 10 and 20 litres yercans over their heads for some miles. And when there's no water, they have to buy it from far (with the extra expenses that this means for a school with very little resources cause of the economic situation of the families).
So, it has been such a pleasure to collaborate with them, Mondo, and the help of families in Estonia, to be able to setup a water tank in the school. The tank collects the water from the rain, and stores it just in the school. Now children can have access to water easier.

But it's been mainly a very good reminder of which kind of consume we do in the north. We've forgotten the importance of water, to value it, as all the natural resources. Keeping a no-meat based diet, recycling, repairing, reducing the amount of things that we use, moving along on green transport... All counts. It has been very nice to participate in this, but it's just a little drop in the Ocean. We still have to change the tide.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Breathing it in

I came to Uganda trough European Union Aid Volunteer Initiative, funded by the European Commission. My project would be to work with the local community most especially local women. Women, in general, are one of the vulnerable groups in Uganda and Africa. Even though the laws of Uganda are quite equally treating men and women in traditional families there is little space for equality.

My assignment is to work with local women groups in the West Nile region in North Uganda on product development and marketing. The area is known to be less developed then Southern Uganda due to the rebel attack until 2006 and struggling with high HIV rate, low income, lack of jobs poor education ad health facilities. I will be working in this area mostly in two towns called Arua and Pakwach.

Arua is an 8-hour drive from Kampala. We are setting off from Kampala to Arua at 7 o clock in the morning. The taxi to pick me and the host organization representative Sam is late and we get stuck in the jam. Arriving in Kampala downtown we rush out of the taxi in the middle of Kampala jam and call two motorcycles where we put my luggage for the year and ourselves and rush through the narrow spaces between cars to the bus station called Gaagaa. To my surprise, the representative of my hosting organization is worried and anxious about our delay. I am curious because in my assumptions all the African people are relaxed and laid back. The bus is one hour late and I am relaxed.
Knowing that the drive will be long I am looking forward to the travel snacks, scenery and conversation with Sam to find out more about Uganda. Sam in his 30, well dressed Bugandan, he does not feel comfortable sitting next to me and sits backside of the bus.
To my amusement journey starts with the introduction of the bus driver and the crew and finishes with a prayer. The prayer includes keeping everyone safe and not hitting elephants on the way. While taking off I start to understand the need for prayers, because the bus driver is driving like a mad man, taking over cars and trucks with high speed. On the bus windows are signs to take action against speeding drivers, but everyone is sitting quietly, it’s the way how people drive here.
In Europe, while traveling, the petrol station provides you with fresh coffee and sandwiches, hygienically wrapped into designed packages. In Uganda you can buy traveling food like gonja - fried banana that is offered from the bus window and wrapped in a newspaper. From more heavy dishes one can buy fried chicken legs on a stick or cow or coat meat or liver on a stick. It does not look or smell desirable. Everything is prepared freshly by the roadside in the middle of traffic and dust. To enjoy Uganda one can’t be very keen on keeping strict hygiene.

During the travels, there are many highway towns who are known for different products. In Luweero one can buy pineapples with a cost of 5 pineapples 1,2 euro. In Karuma salesmen are offering live chicken that you can buy for 7 euro and store them in the booth specially for transporting chicken and goats. The next known sales spot is Pakwachi where ladies sell fish–deep-fried or dried in different sizes and types. So the traveler's appetite should be satisfied. But I am afraid of all the delicacies except 3 pieces of gonja. It tastes nice.

Arua is close to two refugee camps from South-Sudan so it is full of NGOs and UN cars passing by in the streets with darkened windows. Many hotels and local shops the trade with Congo and Sudan are growing the town. Congo is just five kilometers distance.

We arrive at Arua in darkness and we pile my staff on the motorcycles called boda bodas. I can’t stop being surprised about the way of transporting my luggage and we drive 3 km on a dusty dirt road to arrive at my host home. Its pitch black and I don’t feel comfortable. We are welcomed by a crowd of people who sits in a small living room, they have all come to welcome me. After a short introduction and agreement for the following day, we can go to sleep. The mosquito net of my bed is attached to two wooden sticks that keep knocking my head.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

It’s a culture shock

Like previous volunteers had written, arriving in Uganda is a bit of a cultural shock. Everything is very different, and even if I had traveled to Asian (developing) countries before and the organization had told us stories and shown us pictures, I was not prepared for Uganda.
Uganda is different from anything I have seen before.
Its capital Kampala is loud and polluted, and crowded and hectic. Pickpockets are everywhere and as Mzungu you are a very flashy aim.

Using public transport is still a challenge. You need to know exactly where you want to go, how much the ride will be and at what moment to tell the driver to stop (“Conductor, parking” is the magic sentence). It will most likely be crowded in the Matatu and of course hot. Traffic jams are normal and 12 km from Nansana to Kampala can easily take 2 hours. Sometimes they kick you even out, as a bigger group is waiting and you need to make space.

Crossing the road is another challenge. The boda-bodas (scooters) appear out of a sudden and cars, trucks and matatus come with an amazing speed. There are no traffic lights or pedestrian walkways and you have to try your luck or find a local and follow him/her across the street.

Power cuts are regular and electricity can be gone for several hours. You have to prepare yourself for showers in the dark, empty phone batteries and of course, think about what is in the fridge. And if it appears during the day, you may work as long as your laptop has battery.

There are a lot of restrictions in Uganda: 

  • don’t swim in the lakes (risk of bilharzia and other parasites), 
  • don’t use the water from the tap except for showering (risk of Cholera and other diseases), 
  • try not to be outside after sunset and don’t use public transport during the night (risk of rape and robbery), 
  • sleep under a mosquito net (risk of Malaria), 
  • avoid sex (risk of HIV),  
  • be careful with street food (risk of stomach problems) and of course, 
  • don’t fall in love with a mzungu hunter (risk of broken heart).

The truth is: it's not so bad :-)

All this information is very intimidating and on my first day I really wondered what I got myself into.
Even though!  10 days have passed and Uganda feels surprisingly good. After a first shock and deep breath, you realize, it’s not that bad. Because of its people. They are incredibly friendly.

Children in the village of Kikooba

Green countryside

Most of the people around Nansana speak good English and once you are used to the accent, it is no problem to talk to people and children and get in touch. We already know some of our neighbors and Nihia, our little Ugandan friend regularly shows up in our kitchen and prepares meals, plays UNO and teaches us some new words in Luganda.

After one week we are able to manage some daily tasks with confidence and even speak first words of Luganda.
Taking some language classes
I have started with my project on Monday and together with UPA we are currently assessing needs and defining first tasks.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Getting started in Uganda

This is me

My name is Iris, I am 36 years old and I am a EU Aid Volunteer for Mondo from September 2019 until March 2020. I was born in the Black Forrest (Germany), studied product engineering and worked for various small and large corporations in Germany and Portugal for the past 10 years.

My European Aid Volunteer experience to be

The deployment with Mondo brings me to the Pearl of Africa: Uganda. It's my first time to East Africa and my first official deployment for the humanitarian sector.
For the next 6 months, I will be conducting marketing and IT trainings and workshops to UPA staff and other local partner organizations such as schools, community-based organizations, local authorities and other NGOs.
I will also assist in managing and upgrading the social media accounts and the website, develop information, communication as well as educational material for different occasions and help implementing a newsletter.

First days in Nansana, supported by local volunteers

What is my motivation to leave the corporate world, comfortable life and a safe environment to work as a volunteer ?

I am well aware that in 6 months I won't initiate a big change in the world, in Uganda, not even in
the close neighborhood in Nansana. But I hope that I can ease and simplify some of the daily office tasks of UPA and their partners and increase their online visibility. Like this UPA will be able to focus more on their vision to create a society where youth is empowered to enhance development.

Muhammad Ali once said:
" It isn't the mountain ahead to climb that wears you out, it's the pebble in your shoe". 

I am sure together with UPA I will be able to find some of the pebbles and remove them so the organization can focus on achieving their goals.

It's a learning experience also

But of course, I did not only come to Uganda to help UPA with trainings and workshops.

When I first heard about the project I hardly knew anything about Uganda, even Africa I dare say.
Since the preparation started in Estonia 5 weeks ago, I have learned a lot about Africa - about its geography, about politics, economics, and humanitarian work. I have also learned something about traditions, language, music, food, mindset and daily struggles in Uganda. There is still a lot for me to understand and I will certainly leave this country rich in knowledge and a better understanding of this green and fertile country.

Be part of my adventure

Most people come to Uganda as a tourist, or they don't come at all. I am aware that not everybody is able to experience Uganda the way I will. Therefore I would like people to experience Uganda through me.
I want to be the eyes and ears of the people at home. I want to tell and show them about volunteering, about Uganda, about Mondo and the humanitarian world.

Join me for this journey and watch this space!