The Real Life Academy

SINA

Sand-filled bottles and the houses they can create

From one community to another. From that dusty heat-soaked expanse in the south-west, scattered with ordinary village life (convenience stores and hair ‘saloons’ and butchers and photocopy shops and pool halls and churches) — yet overseen by a Camp Commandant, a centre known as ‘Base Camp’, and services like health and education provided not by local authorities (yet) but by NGOs contracted by the UN.

From there, to here: a hilltop above Mpigi, a small town 20 miles from Kampala, where the air is cool and the ground is damp. 60+ young people aged 18 to late 20s live in dorms and traditional African huts and new constructions made from sand-filled plastic bottles; several more buildings are in various stages of completion, including new housing for volunteers and a huge hall. Hand-painted signs are dotted around: “Do something every day that scares you”, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those already doing it”. Continue reading

Relativity

Flee to Uganda and you can make a future here, if you’re a little bit lucky or not too poor.

Like Mimy, a Congolese mother of ten (!) who spent two years barely scraping by in Kampala — but was then taken to Nakivale settlement, where she no longer has to pay rent, and gets monthly food provisions and medical care, while running her dressmaking business.

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Or like Nshimiye, who spotted an opportunity for more footfall when a new distribution point was due to open on another street, and requested to move his business there.  Continue reading

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A few small bananas

My third day in Nakivale, Uganda’s oldest refugee settlement, and feeling ready to move on tomorrow. Meanwhile my guide and translator, a film-maker and actor called Alex, is in his ninth year of living here. Some Rwandans I’ve spoken to have been here 16 years. Some mention those who were resettled in the US, Canada, Denmark; many have disappeared to try to make it in Uganda’s cities. Most people stay.

And they come. New arrivals — about 3000 each month — put the current number of inhabitants at 110,000. The population looks set to keep growing:  Uganda is receiving refugees from not one next-door crisis, but three: DR Congo, Burundi, South Sudan.

I’ve talked to maybe 20 people, some for five minutes, some for several hours. Olga, a warm young Congolese woman who has galvanised a group of her peers to start making and selling crafts, tells me in well-spoken French that life is better here for simple reasons: securité, liberté. We can do what we want. Many others are less positive. Yes, we could go and live elsewhere, but how can we afford to? Yes, we can set up businesses here in Nakivale, but how, without capital? Yes, we could buy better or cheaper goods from the cities, but who pays our transport there? Continue reading

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Golfers and gun-handlers

Darkness drops quickly near the equator, making the sunset hour even more precious. You notice it especially if you’re taking photos: wait mere minutes and you miss the best light.

As the sun went down on the outskirts of Mbarara this evening, people were strolling home after Sunday visits; armed and uniformed security guards were heading out to work — and a group of elderly gents were finishing up a round of golf. It’s good to be out of Kampala.

 

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Meetings

Nasser LaneArmed with my official — and pricey — press card, I set off today with Ignatius, my fixer, who’s a freelance radio journalist. (He also sells trees; most Ugandans don’t rely on one source of income.) He was an hour late for our meeting, but his friend was in an accident last night and the traffic was bad this morning and… I’m not going to argue this one.

We meet M., a Rwandan who has a few different businesses in the restaurant where he rents an outdoor barbecue: he pays a fee to the restaurant owner, then sells grilled meat to customers. Life is alright in Kampala, he can send his son to school, feed his family, but he’s worried about safety, has been threatened and intimidated and fears being forcibly returned to Rwanda. Continue reading

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The sequel [2016]

“DJ are you ready? DJ are you ready? DJ are you ready?” [Crowds cheer. Repeat.]

Saturday evening, Kampala. A good test of acceptance: the booming shouting drumming from across the road cannot be fought, just absorbed.

* * *

Semi-surprised to be back in Uganda so soon after last time; not quite believing it until I landed, again, into the open green lakeside calm of Entebbe and was driven, again, alongside the still-under-construction highway to Kampala.

The familiarity makes much of it easy: knowing who to call for airport lifts (Godfrey), which part of the city to stay in (Kololo), how to get phone and internet credit (MTN shop in Acacia Mall). Even where to find a yoga class (just up the road, though watch out for the mosquitoes). It makes much of it less lonely, knowing there are a few people in this city who are more than contacts, maybe friends now. Continue reading

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Photo fortnight

Two weeks go by fast. We didn’t do a proper exhibition in the end; the timing felt a bit too tight to select photos and get them printed before I left, partly because there was no power to use computers when we needed to. Instead, I sent the group out to do some video interviewing (luckily I had spare batteries). Day one of video worked really well – they liked getting out to a new place and asking and answering questions on camera. Day two was hard work though. The group wanted to practice by interviewing teachers and school pupils but got caught up in the labyrinthine formalities of sitting in the headmaster’s office trying to explain their reasons. Finally, the HM, as they’re known here, sent three pupils out to answer the group’s  questions, but they were all so terrified and shy that they could barely be heard on camera, while the teacher has asked them to do it all over again when they’ve had more time to prepare. It was, I guess, a useful learning experience…

So, what was the real value of all of this?  Continue reading

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Sticking around

Home salon

Home salon

There are two other mzungus staying in the village at the moment – a pair of young English volunteers with the UK International Citizen Service programme. They work along with Ugandan volunteers, so the talks they give on sexual and reproductive health can be translated into Luganda or Lusoga.

At the weekend, the volunteers talked about HIV/AIDS to the women at the end of the crafts session. It wasn’t very interactive and it was hard to tell if many people were listening – or understood the dry, scientific explanations. They were silent though, during the condom demonstration, and gathered stacks of female condoms to take home. Continue reading

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A little bit of a change

Flipchart

Lots of ideas

“So how would you avoid making the same mistake as Mugabe?”

It wasn’t a question I’d expected to ask of my trainees yesterday, the staff of an organisation called A Little Bit of Hope in the nearby-ish town of Busolwe. They’d raised the Zimbabwean president’s name: we were discussing the role of a communicator and one of them had mentioned the time Mugabe had delivered a whole speech without realising he was reading out the one he’d given last month.

The point was relevant though – and a sign they both understood my questions and were volunteering their own ideas, two things I’ve learned not to take for granted. Continue reading

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The teacher

Non-adults are also welcome

Non-adults are also welcome

Vincent travels about four hours by bus each way to teach an adult literacy class, getting little more than his expenses paid. He’s been doing this for over a year. Continue reading

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