Friday, September 21, 2012

Building skills and changing futures in Gulu

There we were, bouncing up the road to Gulu, not a care in the world and doing no harm to man or beast. This time it was a tall policeman in the inappropriately white uniform of a traffic cop who decided to disrupt our day. As we slowed down to negotiate one of the worst bits of an appallingly bad road, he disentangled himself from his relaxed pose under a tree and sauntered across, broad grin on his face. Fortunately he came unaccompanied by his armed colleagues in their tasteful blue camouflage, ideally suited to those seeking invisibility against a cloudy sky. He left them still lounging under the tree. Well, it was late afternoon and they must have been wondering where their 'tea' was coming from.

Our hearts sank. We'd had a bad experience in West Nile a couple of days before (see previous post) and were in no mood to start bargaining. What was the crime this time?

'Sir,' the policeman addressed us politely, looking up from his clipboard having made his choice as to which crime to accuse us of. 'Did you know that you have just driven through a pothole?'

As Stuart would have said in his unregenerate days, 'Is the Pope a Catholic?'. Fortunately he didn't. Irony is not a strong or valued quality here.

Neither of us was in any mood to take this nonsense, however.We put on our widest and most manic grins. Between locked teeth, Stuart answered as if to a mentally incapacitated slug, 'Indeed, we drove through a pothole. Look at the road. It is full of potholes. It is the pothole capital of the world.' His arms widened as if to embrace the universe as he gave a Gallic shrug.

I added, charmingly, 'And Ugandans do potholes better than anyone else. Potholes are your key strength.' I trilled a girlish laugh. The policeman's smile wavered slightly. He wasn't quite sure what was going on.

The policeman looked down at his clipboard. He was clearly having doubts. Not that the booking would have come to anything - it was the bribe he was after. We didn't seem to be capitulating very easily.

He walked round the car, desperately looking for something, anything, on which to pin an infringement. Alas, we work for Link. Our insurance was up to date. Our car was recently serviced. Our tyres were good. With regret, he waved us on. I waved back at him vigorously as if saying a fond farewell to the youngest and most cherished member of my family, continuing to smile madly the while. Stuart put his head down, 'B******,' he said.

And we continued to weave our way around - and when, as before, forced by oncoming traffic through - the potholes. Where else in the world would the main road north, in this case to the provincial capital of northern Uganda, Gulu, and beyond that to the national capital of South Sudan, Juba, be a murram (dirt) road, with six-foot wide and six inch deep craters? As a friend said to me, 'That is what you get for not voting NRM.'

Well, the north voted NRM eighteen months ago, if you believe the election results. The roads do not, however, appear to have reaped the benefits as yet.

The contrast was stark. We had just driven from West Nile along a superlative tarmac road. Mind you, there are minerals to be brought out of Congo!

What a difference to life a good road makes! We had passed people waiting for the bus or walking miles between trading centres and then deep into the bush.

Sometimes they walked in groups, but quite often all alone and at a surprisingly young age.

Bicycles certainly conferred status if you owned one, and were the most common type of taxi if you didn't.

Businesses were carried out at the side of the road: charcoal for sale on the left and pots on the right.

Farmers went off to hoe their 'gardens' (dig their fields) and so did the children - sometimes when they should have been at school.

There were cows to be tethered and grass to be gathered for thatch.

It had been a lovely journey, but once we had left West Nile we had done nothing but batter along that terrible road. Lorries belched exhaust all over the market produce by the side of the road and the cassava spread out to dry in the compounds.

This wasn't the first time we'd driven this route. It is not one of our favourite trips and not just because of the road. Gulu as a town has little to commend it architecturally, with low lines of dilapidated shops, and chaotic trading centres.

Nevertheless there is now enough confidence that peace has come to stay for businesses like Crane Bank and the Kenyan supermarket Uchumi to put up brand new buildings. The Acholi Inn is no longer the only 'decent' place to stay. We found the new Churchill Courts, in the pleasantly green 'senior quarters', very comfortable.

A pity they haven't persuaded anybody to anything about the roads, despite the new buildings sprouting up on every street.

Gulu has all the outward appearance of a town which is trying to put its past behind it - a long past, twenty years of more of war and a population which rose from 40,000 to 140,000 at the height of the insurgency, with, in addition, many children trekking in every night to sleep where they could, for safety. Some of these people still remain, having lost the titles to their property or finding more of a living to make and certainly better health and public services than out in the bush.

The emergency aid organisations and feeding programmes have moved out and the NGOs providing long-term support for livelihoods are taking their place, including our own VSO, which works in partnership with other local organisations.

We visited one of these NGOs, Gulu Youth Development Association (GYDA), with a friend of ours. We often try to make personal visits to educational and training institutions away from the context and surround of inspection. We are particularly interested in vocational training as we feel that skills development is sadly neglected in Uganda and is almost entirely absent from both its primary and secondary school systems.

GYDA is a vocational training institution which began twenty years ago as a project to develop skills among young people whom the war had deprived of schooling. Displaced young people were milling around the streets of Gulu with very little to occupy themselves with. They were angry with what was happening to their land and their people and had watched their opportunities for gainful employment or academic success slip away from them. Many had been abductees, ex-child soldiers of both sexes with terrible histories and often no families to return to, or none who would accept them. Among them were many child mothers, ex-'wives' of rebel combatants. There was - and still is - a real danger that the frustration of disaffected young people in the north would boil over again. GYDA has been carrying out its role for twenty years and there is still plenty to do. Even now, ex-abductees are being 'rescued' or 'escaping' from rebel hideouts in Congo or South Sudan, young women with two or three children who were abducted in their early teens, young men with no skills except how to fire a gun and many of them infected with HIV. The last young man rescued (last week) was 17 and had been abducted when he was seven. All he knows will have known is life in the bush with the rebels. About 1000 abducted children remain to be accounted for (about 30% of those abducted). Some say as many as 2,000, although many may no longer be alive.

The north has been starved of investment and public services for years. British ethnic stereotyping labelled the Baganda as natural 'civil servants', and set up the schools in the centre and west of the country which would turn them into such. The Asians were clearly the 'merchant' class. And the tribes from the north? It was obvious: they were very black, very tall and hence 'clearly' cut out to be soldiers. (This despite the fact that the military war machine of Buganda had waged battle against tribes and kingdoms for centuries.) The British recruited northerners into the King's African Rifles and used them to pacify the southern tribes. Subsequent leaders like Amin and Obote followed suit, and the tradition was only broken when Museveni used his western 'freedom fighters' to fight the bush war and defeat and humiliate the northerners, as he and others saw it.

This preamble matters. History matters. The stereotype is still alive. We have listened to educated Ugandan friends of ours in Kampala speak disparagingly of the 'violent' warlike northerners, the 'Os' or the 'Okellos' as they call them, for many names in the north begin with that vowel. GYDA was set up partly to provide options for young Acholi other than joining the police, army or rebels. It is possible to change the future.

Here the most vulnerable - for that is the criterion for acceptance - learn useful trades, like tailoring. They can bring their children along as you can see from the small boy below spreading popcorn all over the floor...

...while this small person is taking time out from hairdressing.

Students can learn skills like electrical wiring and carpentry, highly valued in a town which is being progressively rebuilt. To make a success of business, they also need literacy and numeracy skills, as well as training in entrepreneurship, which they also receive at GYDA.

The students have built their own buildings...

...and their own furniture.

The training institution is situated right in the middle of the community.

and everyday life goes on all around it.

Here, filling jerry cans at the borehole.

Those who do well, may be taken on at GYDA's workshop.

Originally, GYDA did not provide training in metal work. As the Director explained, grass-thatched mud huts have little need for the eight-foot high security gates which are de rigeur in Kampala. However, priorities change. The workshop now makes wheelchairs, the sort you can peddle yourself as above, and the sort in which you are pushed, all using bicycle wheels, which are easy to get hold of and easy to repair.

As you may imagine, there is a huge market for wheelchairs in Gulu.

The international NGOs and donor organisations are certainly doing a lot in the town and surrounding area. GYDA itself is supported by the European Union and well known charities such as War Child. However, GYDA is also an Acholi organisation set up by Acholis for Acholis. It is rooted in its locality and in the culture and the personal and social histories of the north.

Everybody has a story - of being abducted, of losing family members to rebel attacks or to the malnutrition and disease which always accompanies war. Almost all Acholi were displaced - two million of them, 90% of the population - living in camps, told by government troop that they would be shot if they left to tend their gardens, and by rebels that if they stayed in the camps they were collaborating with the enemy. At one time St Mary's Missionary Hospital, Lacor, alone had 40,000 people living in its grounds. The rebels would attack the camps, the army who were supposed to defend them would leave, and hundreds of grass-thatched huts would be torched. Community structures and values broke down. Young people, who would have had clear roles in traditional clan structures led by elders, were left without support and guidance.

Organisations like GYDA are trying to do something about that by providing a framework for learning and opportunities for young people to make choices about their future.

And, as far as we can see, they are doing a pretty good job of it.

We bounced back down the road to Kampala, our spirits uplifted. And, do you know, we were not accosted by a single policeman!

If you want to read more about life in the north during the conflict, Living with bad surroundings, war, history and everyday moments in Northern Uganda by Sverker Finnstrom is a fascinating - and moving - starting point.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Rebuilding northern Uganda
Learning skills for work: new hope for Ugandan youth
A moral and legal conundrum: justice for northern Uganda
What do we think of the video Kony 2012?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Elisabeth,

    we are making a documentary about a gender practice in South-Western Uganda (Lake Bunyonyi). We would like to get in touch with you, but we can't find an email address. Could you please write to us on You can also check our facebook page to see what we are doing and Look forward to hearing from you, Laura & Cristina