Sunday, 9 January 2011

Sabrina and Geoff Slide’s Homecoming Update 2011

Our placement in Uganda has ended now and so we have returned to chilly Essex from warm and sunny Kamwenge. We wanted to write to you, our supporters, to thank you for your support, to let you what we have done and what we would like to continue to support from here in the UK.

Our last year has been full of joys and frustrations. The pace of life is slower in Uganda and so things move more slowly than we are used to. However we have been able to do some good things with your support. We have:
• written a 2 day training workshop for heads and teachers on ‘ the health promoting school’, which has been delivered to staff from all 61 schools we worked with;
• written a maths training workshop for infant teachers and trained our colleagues how to deliver it;
• expanded our ‘health promoting school’ training to a 3 day ‘child-friendly school’ training with the addition of sessions on gender and peace. We took it to the district of Katakwi, an area which is still suffering from the effects of recent civil wars, to deliver it.
• visited all our schools in Kamwenge to give follow-up and support on previous workshops on HIV/AIDS awareness training;
• mentored headteachers on how to improve their schools
• trained staff on alternatives to corporal punishment, something which is still happening in schools despite a government ban
• showed teachers how to use child-friendly methods of teaching when faced with large classes – they average 55 in number and can be over 100 in the lower ages.

Most of these activities have been subsidised by the monies that you very kindly donated, either through our Just-giving site or directly. Thank you again. A particular enthusiasm of ours has been hand-washing – dirty hands are the most common cause of illness and death in children and a simple thing like washing hands after every visit to the toilet can make a dramatic difference to children’s health and so to their learning.

During our visits we have been shocked by the number of orphans and vulnerable children in schools. Sometimes up to a quarter of the pupils are orphans, mostly due to the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS. We have therefore been working with a very switched-on Ugandan called Guildo, who has set up a counselling group for such children in our schools using trained volunteers. He struggles with finance to allow him to visit the rural schools, support the volunteers and pay for a drop-in centre in Kamwenge. We were able to provide some finance and means of transport whilst there, but would like to support him financially now. If you would feel able to help us with this group we would be pleased to talk to you in more detail about the work it does.

A group of orphans and vulnerable children in a group discussion

Precious, one of the volunteers, counselling a pupil at a school

Precious seeing a child in the drop-in centre

With best wishes to you all for 2011.
Sabrina and Geoff Slide

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Going Home

After being in Kamwenge for almost 20 months, we are preparing to finish our placement here. We are leaving slightly early as we work in schools and the academic year finishes at the end of November. There is then a long break before the new term begins well into February.
It is difficult packing up and saying good bye. Although at times it has been very tough here, we have also had lots of fun and feel very privileged to have been able to share in so many people’s lives.
Lookng back over our work here and writing our final reports, we realise that we have achieved more than we sometimes thought at the time. Progress can be frustratingly slow and life is tough here. It is difficult to have an impact on health and hygiene when parents know from experience that several of their children will die from malaria and where life expectancy is very low. However, small changes do make a difference and, as education improves, so will health.
We will miss
· Smiling children shouting Muzungu.
· Always being greeted warmly.
· Riding our motorbike anywhere we want without bothering with helmets or protective clothes.
· Fresh pineapple every day
· Delicious fruits and vegetables in the market
· Warm weather
· The disabled children with whom we have worked in the special needs unit.
· The ingenious way in which problems can be overcome, eg when there was no fuel in Kamwenge, a phone call resulted in 2 jerry cans being delivered 2 hours later.
· Good Ugandan friends we have made
· The amazing volunteer colleagues from all over the world who have a wide range of skills and knowledge

We will NOT miss
· The rocky, muddy, potholed, mostly non-existent roads.
· Mosquitoes and having to sleep under a net
· The staple diet of matoke, a type of banana, at every meal
· Showering in a bowl with a cup
· Frequent power cuts and water shortages
· Slow internet access

We have both struggled with the Ugandan attitude towards children. In the developed world, we are used to children’s needs being a high priority. Here things are different. Children are used as workers from a very young age. As soon as they can walk they are expected to fetch water and gather firewood every day. During the planting and harvesting season, they are sent out into the fields for long hours. They are often kept home from school when there is work to be done and are frequently beaten with sticks. We have repeatedly challenged teachers on the use of sticks in schools and although many headteachers want their school to be more child friendly, attitudes are slow to change. Many children, especially girls drop out of school very early due to pregnancy and marriage, and child mortality is very high. Due to the devastating affect of HIV/AIDS, many children are orphans and live in ‘child headed families’. Their main priority is finding enough food for themselves and their brothers and sisters.

There are, however, lots of people here, both Ugandan and visitors, who are working hard in difficult circumstances to improve the lives of local people and it is these interventions that give us hope for the future.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Car Fun

At the end of October, we went on a trip to Bushenyi with our colleague Edith, to visit her mum. We had cancelled several times due to petrol shortages, so were very excited when we eventually set off with Edith in her car. In true Ugandan style, we were late leaving Kamwenge and then had to stop on the way to go to the bank and to pick up supplies. As darkness fell Edith said the quickest way to get there was to drive through a swamp near to her home. We felt confident in her car and on the mud road until she mentioned that she had been stuck in a particular part of the swamp before; no sooner had she said that than we ground to a halt surrounded by water!! It was pitch black by this time and we could see nothing but stars. Fortunately Edith was able to call a neighbour on her phone and eventually 9 men with hoes and pangas arrived and tried to dig us out. Four hours later the car was free and we were able to continue to her home.

We had a lovely weekend visiting Kitagata hot springs, meeting her neighbours and enjoying Ugandan hospitality, although the car also had a puncture and the bumper almost fell off on the way home.

In Uganda, everyone comes to help when you break down!

Walking to the hot springs - the river had overflowed after heavy rains!

Sabrina’s brother and sister-in-law, Adrian and Grace, together with their son Owen, then arrived in Kamwenge, having had a whistle stop tour around Uganda first. It was lovely to show them Kamwenge and they visited some of our schools, met our neighbours and fell in love with our muddy, rocky, and occasionally ‘virtual’ roads!!! The 5 of us set off to Masindi where we visited our friend Bollus and then continued to Murchison National Park, where they treated us to a stay at a luxurious safari lodge as well as a trip to the Falls and a game drive before they went home.

The only way to see the animals - although Geoff fell off when the vehicle reached a 45 deg angle!

3 elephants, 3 giraffes and the Nile

This blog update would not be complete without commenting about our electricity - or lack of! Kamwenge will be the proud possessor of a new hydro-electric power plant in early 2011, but in order to connect it to the existing grid, the power has been switched off between 9 am and 7 pm every day except Sunday for the last 6 weeks - and sometimes they forget to put it on again at night! Even though the workmen seem to finish work by 3 pm every day. Still as one of our guides said – 'T I A' – This is Africa.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Katakwi post conflict area

We have recently returned from a week in Katakwi, which is a district in the north-east of Uganda. We had been asked to train teachers in school health and maths. Katakwi is a district that has suffered from insecurity over the last 2 decades due to several conflicts. A long-standing and violent cattle-raiding dispute between people in neighbouring districts has meant that many people have left their homes and moved into camps for displaced people. In addition to this, the civil war which was fought in the north of the country between the LRA and the government for many years has, at times, spread south into Katakwi. Although the area is now much more stable, many people still live in camps and are traumatised from their experiences.

Huts in the camps for displaced people

Link Community Development, the organisation with which we are working, is supporting schools in Katakwi. Our training was part of a package which aims to bring stability and peace to schools and communities through improving teaching and learning. Within the school health training, as well as hygiene and health, we taught them how to do basic counselling, deal with traumatised children and gave them an opportunity to talk about their experiences. The teachers were very interested in these subjects and it was good for us to hear about the challenges they face. It is also important to improve the teaching of basic skills and for teachers and pupils to enjoy their lessons. They had great fun making up maths and number rhymes as well as learning some old ones.

On the way back from Katakwi, we picked our son, Tom, up from the airport and spent an enjoyable week showing him life in Uganda and schools in Kamwenge. The local school children thought he looked like Wayne Rooney, much to his annoyance. A head teacher, on the other hand thought he was ‘photocopy’ of Geoff. Just as insulting to Tom!

We did another safari – well we deserve it! - and the highlight was watching tree climbing lions sitting in the tree just 10 metres away – so close that we could clearly hear them panting in the heat. Stunning. One even climbed down, wandered around and then climbed back up.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


Last week delegates were meeting in New York to discuss the progress on the Millennium Development Goals that were agreed in 2000. We read in the paper that Uganda has made good progress in reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty, but the poor progress on health still shocks us. We see that 137 children out of every 1000 born here still do not reach their 5th birthday. These figures are for the whole country. In poor, rural areas such as Kamwenge, the death rates are higher. More than 300 people, mostly women and children, die every day from malaria and there are over 80,000 AIDS related deaths registered every year. However the statistic that we find most shocking is that more children die from diarrhoea than anything else. Diarrhoea is caused by poor sanitation and the drinking of unsafe water. The problem sounds simple to solve, but we all have to come to terms with the fact that, at the end of 2010, most people here do not have access to clean safe water.

We have been inconvenienced over the last week because our piped water has stopped flowing. Our water comes from a small pumping station on the river Mpanga (about 10 Km from us). The reason for the stoppage is that the pumping station has had its electricity cut off. This is because most people who signed up for this water cannot pay their water bill and so the pumping station owners cannot pay for their electricity. We are fortunate because we can afford to pay a boda boda (motorcycle) driver to go and get us jerry cans of water from a gravity feed water system in another area. We also have a functioning rain-water collection tank. We then filter and boil the water to make it safe. Most people in Kamwenge, however, have to get all their water from the swamp or dirty shallow wells and cannot afford to filter and boil, so children continue to suffer from diarrhoea and continue to die.

In the 17 months that we have been here, we have worked hard to improve sanitation and hygiene in schools, have shown teachers how to make basic hand-washing facilities and stressed the importance of boiling water for drinking. However the challenge remains that until access to safe water improves for all, the long term improvment to health will be minimal.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Eggxciting Spring Time

At the end of the school holidays, we went to visit the Hot Springs at Semliki National Park. These are ringed by forest, veiled in a cloud of steam and are a primeval sight. The largest spring is a geyser which can spout up to 2m high from the opening in the salt structure. As can be seen in the photo, it was about a metre high when we visited, but was still impressively hot and steamy. There are several other outlets which bubble away with boiling water and, in one of them, our guide left some eggs, which were nicely hard boiled after 7 minutes and made a welcome snack after the walk through the forest. For the sharp eyed amongst you, our Ugandan colleague provided the eggs in a Tesco egg box!

We have had some furniture made for the special needs unit, in conjunction with Rakel, the Spanish volunteer who left recently. The picture shows a walking rail (not sure of the technical term!) which can be used by the children with mobility problems to improve their posture whilst walking. We had to explain to the carpenter how to make this from scratch as he had never seen one before so there was a lot of trial and error before it was finished. But we are pleased with it and it seems to benefit the children.

We have now been connected to the grid and so get electricity on a fairly regular basis. It was good during the dry season, but now the wet season is starting, there are more power cuts due to heavy storms. However it is good enough for us to use an small oven left to us by Stuart and Sarah when they returned to Canada. We are having great fun making flapjacks and cakes – witness the carrot cake being removed from the oven. Sabrina would like to make lasagne and shepherd’s pie but we cannot get the ingredients here so they will have to wait until we return.

Pineapple Update
Following the positive comments we thought a regular update was necessary. The pineapple has some lovely little blue flowers and is growing apace.

Travel Guide Name Check
Geoff is apparently mentioned in the latest edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uganda – Page 329, Edition 6 if you feel you must rush out and buy it – following an email he sent to the author of the last edition about an attraction that is near us. Fame at last!!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Bread and Pineapple

One of the projects set up by Stuart, the Canadian volunteer who recently left, was bread making. It is designed to provide extra income for widows and single mothers, and is run by a group of women who are associated with the Cathedral in Kamwenge. Stuart researched and built a ‘rocket oven’, so-called because when it is fired up and working it sounds like a rocket! It is designed to generate a lot of heat whilst using less firewood than usual cooking methods. It is certainly an impressive piece of kit, as can be seen from the picture.

But the best thing about it, from our point of view, is that Stuart taught the women to make bread that we like, rather than Ugandan bread, which is much heavier than our taste. So we buy some brown bread flour from the nearest large town, give it to the baker and order a loaf every 2–3 days. Sabrina has also made some marmalade from local oranges, so we have toast and marmalade for breakfast and feel very English!

On a lighter note we are very excited that one of our pineapple suckers, planted over a year ago in the tubs in our compound, has started to produce a little pineapple – small but perfectly formed, as you can see from the picture. Never mind about potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers and other temperate crops – growing a pineapple is the business!