The Real Life Academy


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”.

This is the Social Innovation Academy, created about two years ago by a German who wanted to do something about the desperate lack of job prospects in the country, even for those who have completed school. (Uganda’s youth unemployment is among the highest in Africa.)

So scholars accepted here get free rent and board, and training for as long as they need it to develop practical business ideas that will benefit themselves, the community, the environment, or all three. As well as building houses with plastic bottles, there are groups turning cement sacks into shopping bags, and tree bark into purses; others knitting, painting and making jewellery. “Waste is only waste when you waste it”, as several of the youths here have said to me.

After dark, I have dinner sitting on the steps of the girls’ block with Bernadette and Michael (not his real name), two of the six or so refugees living here. Michael unenthusiastically pushes the cassava and bean stew around his plate. He misses Congolese cuisine: things are fried more there, he says. Food is an important part of feeling at home, I agree — thinking about the last five carb-based meals I’ve eaten. Breakfast tomorrow will be tea and two slices of bare white bread.


Evening chats at SINA

Bernadette is happy to use her French again with me: as the minority among mostly Ugandans, the common language here is English, or Luganda, which the Congolese don’t yet speak. But even if it’s not quite home, and even if Michael still feels frustrated by the limits to his freedoms as  a refugee, there’s a calm, easy feeling of community, a lack of hierarchy that’s a world away from the rules and procedures that govern the refugee settlement, however progressive it is. And there’s a sense of responsibility for oneself. I ask one scholar why he’s here. I think, he says, for the same reason all of us are here: because we don’t have a job.

There doesn’t seem to be any time limit on how long the scholars stay, and I haven’t yet found out what the success rate of businesses is (though there are some examples of success listed on SINA’s website). Part of me wonders how much demand there is for more African-made crafts, even among European vegans looking for alternatives to a leather wallet; and many of these people will be excepted to contribute to their family income.

But it’s a huge step in the right direction — in attitudes, more than anything. Moving around and getting to know people as a white person in Uganda (and other African countries) steels you for the moment you get asked for something. Money, help, food, a job, an invitation to Europe. So when Bernadette said she wanted to ask me something, I braced myself; then she asked for feedback on her language app idea. Someone else — I forget now which of the boys it was — asked me as I was leaving if I would do them a favour, and again I waited. Would I give them a good review on TripAdvisor?, he asked.

I would.


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