community development

The Show Down

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This article is a continuation of part 1 and part 2 of a series of posts by Tessa.

On Saturday morning my phone buzzed, early. “The Ministry of trade are coming on Monday.” Coming to make our councillors halt the alcohol ordinance. The snake show-down. I leapt out of bed with a rush of adrenaline. Good-bye sleep in, good-bye weekend.

“Real” Organizing

For the next 60 hours, I got to feel like a ‘real’ community organizer, constantly on the phone saying things like, “So Pastor, you are Councillor Simon’s friend? Think you can influence his vote on Monday?” and “how many people can you bring with you to the council hall?” The tactic was two fold. 1) Fill the the council hall with as many community members and prominent religious, cultural and political leaders as possible, and 2) create pressure on each of the councillors to use their vote to defend the ordinance. Those councillors got a lot of phone calls in the following 48 hours. Despite all the efforts, on Sunday night we were still nervous. There were still rumors of bribes floating around.

On Monday, Wakonye Kenwa members were the first ones there (pictured above).

By 10am on Monday morning, the council hall was absolutely packed. The mood was excited and defiant, as the clip on on national TV captured. Every time a prominent Acholi personality entered there were cheers and waving of placards. Our group had made our own signs, messages for the councillors like “Leaders, don’t back down” and messages targeted at NRM (the ruling party) based on their own slogans like”Wealth Creation” and “Productivity and Growth.” Others had written their own edgier ones. My favorite: “Ministry of Trouble, Indecency and Corruption” (instead of trade, industry and cooperatives).

The Debate

I was disappointed Amelia didn’t come in person. Her represent spoke at length, using as many long words as possible. His main point seemed to be “we are sailing in the same direction” but that Gulu needed to wait. He claimed Gulu was breaking Uganda’s agreement with the World Trade Organization (Technical Barriers to Trade, Articles 2 and 3), because Gulu was not giving ‘time’ for companies to adjust their packaging.

One after another, the councilors responded. They spoke about how important the ordinance was to Gulu District. They challenged the Ministry’s motivations for interfering, and why there was no need for Gulu to ‘wait,’ noting all the times the Ministry had blocked national efforts for alcohol law reform. My favorite response was a councilor smoking the Ministry’s WTO defense by pointing out that all of the sachet alcohol trade is within Uganda, not between countries (and therefore has nothing to do WTO agreements).

Acholi pride

A tipping point reached when Norbert Mao showed up, a much loved Acholi (regime opposition) politician of iconic-hero like proportions. Whose name makes him sound like some kind of epic Chinese dragon. A councillor moved a motion that a sample of sachet alcohol be presented to the Ministry’s representative ‘for tasting.’ The speaker emotionally declared that ‘normal procedures’ for a full council meeting would not be followed, and invited all the ‘VIPS’ to speak- Bishops, Shieks, traditional chiefs, and of course, Mao. They spoke about how Acholis had suffered for decades of war. Years of fear, violence and oppression led to heavy drinking patterns. Alcohol companies exploit this. The Ministry wants to protect these companies to maintain their profit at the expense of Acholi people. How dare these people from Kampala tell Gulu to get rid of their law? The debate took on new dimensions. This was a matter of Acholi pride, protection of Acholi people.

In the aftermath of that Monday, there was a collective sense of triumph and unity. While I’d questioned the Chairman (Owl’s) wisdom in allowing the meeting to take place, I believe it achieved something quite profound.

All the local media stations covered the story, and so did the national paper, The Daily Monitor. Norbert Mao wrote an opinion article featured in the Sunday monitor titled “Gulu trailblazing ordinance should be supported”One online media outlet even ran a piece about how the Speaker turned down millions of shillings of bribe money to protect the Ordinance. I took him a clipping and some photos. He was stoked. When a Ugandan politician is proud of turning down a bribe, that is something to celebrate.

The enforcement begins

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I woke up, wired, my head buzzing with questions. Would the police go ahead with the plan? Will the District send a big truck like they promised? Will we find the sachets of alcohol or have retailers hidden them too well? How will the shopkeepers react? If we do find sachets, will the District come through on their promise to give us somewhere to put them? In Gulu, no matter how much you try, a ‘plan’ is never really more than a series of vague uncoordinated questions. Fred, a key ally is already waiting at the police station at 7am, coolly sipping a mug of millet porridge. We are soon joined by Anthony, Boniface and Cristo, all revving to go.

After an hour and a half of milling around we spot the District Police Commander. “There’s an emergency, the operation will be delayed until its dealt with.” We watch as officers are loaded into an open-topped vehicle and speed off. The Police Commander, standing near us, demands updates on his cell phone “Is he dead? Where are the suspects?” A mob were lynching two suspected motorcycle thieves. By the time the police arrived (an hour late), they had been burnt to death. Officers returned and joined our circle, cheerfully one-upping one another on the most horrific lynchings they had seen, the details of which I shall spare you. I politely declined viewing a cell phone snap of this mornings victims. More time passed. 10am came and went. With plenty of phone calls from our team, we managed to get the District truck sent with a driver to wait on standby, and made sure the police vehicles had fuel.

Then suddenly, my mouth still full of chapatti, we were all go. Officers piled into police vans, last second confusion and changes of targets. My convoy hit up the wholesale street in the centre of town. While I’m used to seeing police operations on my teenage favourite “The Bill’ or more recently the infinitely superior “The Wire,” this operation resembled toddlers playing tag in the dark. The District Police Commander soon became completely redundant as operation commander when he got into what turned out to be an hour long dispute with a shopkeeper.

Most of the police considered themselves above lifting boxes and loading them into the truck. They had no plan for how the loading should take place. We lifted boxes ourselves, and hired some young guys on the spot.

While most of the shop keepers responded calmly, one retailer was furious. He had 30 boxes of sachets confiscated, worth millions of Ugandan shillings. He leapt on the truck and tried to throw his boxes back. The drama attracted a crowd.

By 2:30pm, the mission was complete. Between the two sites targeted, 307 boxes of sachets were impounded. That’s around 44000 sachets. Despite our hassling, a storeroom had still not been identified. I had to check several major hotels to find the District Chairperson at one of two meetings he was supposedly attending, accompany him back to the District Headquarters, find the storekeeper, accompany the storekeeper to find an appropriate store, and ring the truck to come. An hour of lifting heavy smelly boxes in the sun later.

Boom. First operation, done.

It was reported in the national papers…even if they got the numbers wrong:

Daily monitor report “police confiscate 150 cartons of sachet waragi”

Gulu’s alcohol law. Launched!

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Last Tuesday was a milestone in our ‘Wakonye Kenwa’ group’s long struggle to bring alcohol regulation to Gulu town, and ban sachet alcohol. Over a year ago we coordinated a march to deliver over 10000 signatures to the local District Government to ensure they completed the law: we marched from a church to the District. This time, the march started at the District where our law was passed, and ended at Gulu Main Market, the District’s commercial hub where enforcement will start.

Check out our highlights video, including some of my favourite moments:

“Don’t drink sachets, drink…. porridge!” (Confused? Here you definitely ‘drink’ porridge, not eat it. Preferably with added peanut butter and lemon juice, mmmm). One of Gulu’s beloved ‘street personalities’ dancing to two 11 year-old gangsta’s Acholi rap about the harms of alcohol consumption. Our Resident District Commissioner (a top position in the District) drilling the crowd on the enforcement start date, 6th December, 2016. And of course, everybody’s highlight, Wakonye Kenwa Group’s drama featuring Otim Isaac as ‘Okech,’ the drunkard. I should probably add a preface that there is a somewhat black sense of humor here in Gulu. Perhaps decades of war and trauma have resulted in turning dark things into melodrama and comedy in order to cope. So to warn you, yes, there is a suicide scene, and I’m afraid yes, the crowd is in hysterics. Remember many things included in western plays/films/songs seem inappropriate to people here! Feeling the unity and ownership. There weren’t any half-hearted speeches from disinterested politicians or other leaders. There is a shared feeling in Gulu that the time is ripe for this. Throughout this whole process we are yet to encounter much serious resistance. Maybe it will come when enforcement begins.

Let me let you in on a little secret (shhhhh…) I’m not really that into big events, and definitely not into organizing them. To pull this event off, we coordinated multiple NGOs to join the effort…think tents, chairs, brass bands, radio announcements, police escorts, banners, water bottle distribution, sound system, organizing the VIP speakers, getting tons of people to the same place at the same time…. So whats the point of all this faffing? After all, the law is already passed, right? Isn’t it a waste of time and money?

The reality is that in Uganda, laws often don’t mean all that much. Even if a law is officially passed by council, approved by the Attorney General, published in the national gazette, it can still result in absolutely no practical change. A whole lot of people have to know about the law, understand the law, and feel like it is their law. They have to believe their leaders think its important, and believe authorities are serious enough to make arrests, press charges, burn big piles of confiscated sachets. They have to feel like its worth it to kick up a massive fuss if they don’t see police enforcing the new law.

So that’s why we did the launch. And… it worked! There is big buzz about the new alcohol law and the sachet ban on the streets in Gulu and almost constantly on the radio. We are all holding our breath to see what will happen on the 6th December. Enforcement day.

Cambodian History in the Making

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A little bit of history was made at World Mate Emergency Hospital in Battambang recently when Mark Lander, paper-maker extraordinaire from Amberley, arrived from New Zealand with one of his Hollander Critter machines for my use at the hospital. My project, “Twer Daoee Dai”  (Made by Hand) was born! Our machine, purchased with funds raised while back in New Zealand last year, is the 402nd one Mark has made over the last 15 years or so. He seldom gets the opportunity to travel to set up the machine as he did by coming to Cambodia and the presence of one of his machines in Battambang is a first for Cambodia.

The bulk of the machine was sent by courier, arriving safely a week or so before Mark did. It arrived in Phnom Penh, then completed its journey by bus to Battambang. Instead of travelling with ‘normal’ luggage, Mark came with a large aluminium vat on wheels, in which were other items for the paper-making process he knew would not be available in Cambodia. His personal belongings were limited to what he could carry in his hand luggage.

Mark flew into Siem Reap and we went up to meet him, then travelled back with him by bus to Battambang. What followed were seven days of frantic activity, during which Mark purchased wood and other materials to make accessories for use with the papermaking machine and proceeded to make, from scratch, 50 molds for paper, a box to mount the fabric cutter he brought with him. Anthony and I worked alongside him at times, Anthony sanding the frames of the molds, me cutting the special nylon wire which Mark then stretched over the frames, before attaching them with the help of his trusty thirty year old air-driven staple gun, brought along specially for this purpose.

Making the frames was a time-consuming and tiring activity, especially with the heat increasing daily. It was at the end of the week, with all the preparation done, that we were ready to make our first batch of paper.

I had been saving scraps of what I thought was cotton fabric to be the basis of our first batch – however, when Mark cast his experienced eye over it, it was declared unsuitable as it wasn’t pure cotton. Man-made fabrics don’t break down in the machine, so cannot be used. In the absence of any other suitable material, two cotton sheets I had covering equipment in my workspace were quickly appropriated for the job. It was a case of “goodbye cotton sheets” as Mark showed me how to run them through the fabric cutter safely to turn them into small squares ready to go into the machine. Some scrap paper was torn up to start off the batch, the cotton fabric added and the machine filled with water.

We then plugged the Hollander in and, bingo, after much anticipation and preparation, we were finally underway with making paper! The machine graunched and groaned as it started up and what had gone in as cotton fabric was quite soon turned into pulp. I poked and prodded the pulp with a long stick to keep the mix moving around the tub of the machine. It soon became apparent that there was a lot of soap residue from the many times the sheets had been washed, so we had to ditch the water to get rid of it and start over with a new lot of clean water! Approximately three and a half hours later, Mark declared the pulp to be the right consistency and it was time to transfer it to the molds.

The vat was half filled with water, several bowls full of pulp were added and we were ready to dip the molds into the mix, shake them gently – there is an art to this which I have yet to perfect! – roll them with a paint roller over felt attached to a suction box (in the absence of a wet/dry vacuum cleaner to do this part of the job), then stand them carefully against the fence in the sun to dry. Several hours later, we peeled the paper off. What we produced from our white sheets with sprigs of blue flowers on them was nice pale mauve, reasonably thick, textured paper.

Now it was time to experiment with some locally available natural products. We set off to find a sugarcane juicing machine on the roadside and asked the man operating it if we could have his discarded husks. He readily agreed and we grabbed several armfuls, purchased sugarcane drinks from him as a thank you, and headed back to the hospital to try our luck with another batch of paper.

The process for making paper from natural products is similar to that using cotton fabric, however, there is no need to assist the drying of the pulp once on the molds. Mark showed me how to break up the husks ready for boiling them in caustic soda and water to soften them prior to putting them into the machine. We were both amazed and delighted to discover that this process took only about 45 minutes – a considerably shorter time than when Mark makes paper from flax which has to be boiled for around 5 hours!

Once the husks were soft enough, they were rinsed in water and placed in the Hollander. Keeping the pulp mix moving around the machine is more of a challenge as the long fibers get tangled around the spindle quite easily. Once they were broken down enough to move freely, we left them and returned a few hours later to find the pulp ready to put onto the molds. The dipping of the molds into the pulp and water mix in the big vat happened again and they were put out to dry. We left them overnight and returned the next morning to find fifty sheets of lovely thin, opaque, golden coloured paper.

With two successful batches of paper made already (thanks more to Mark’s expertise than any skill on my part!), Mark disappeared off into the bushes at the end of our street before we went to the hospital one morning, emerging triumphantly with a trunk from a banana tree in his arms. This was to be the basis of another batch of paper. Mark showed me how to strip the coating from the trunk to expose the fibers inside. We then processed the fiber in the same way as for the paper made from sugarcane husks. This time, the result was thin, opaque beige paper with quite a sheen to it.

What we were doing generated a considerable amount of interest and, throughout the week Mark worked at the hospital setting up the machine and making the molds, many staff visited my workspace and were intrigued by what we were doing. Several expressed interest in participating, and plans are afoot to make this a reality – I certainly can’t do the whole papermaking process, along with everything else I do, with just one pair of hands!

Mark’s time here went all too quickly and before long, it was time for him to head to Siem Reap for his flight back to his family at home. The time Mark spent here was the fulfilment of a long time of planning and fundraising for me. It was a fun time and I was blown away by the humility of Mark the paper craftsman who was so willing to share his expertise, learnt over many years of papermaking, with me. He is passionate about what he does and was genuinely excited to be in Cambodia.

Thank you, Mark, for sharing your life and skills so freely with me for the ultimate aim of providing a unique leisure activity for patients at the hospital, many of whom will derive much pleasure from their involvement in the craft of handmade paper. It will be exciting to see what we can make with the paper we produce! I aim to make saleable products to generate income so that the activity programme at the hospital is eventually self-sustaining.

If you, or someone you know, would like a holiday with a difference and would like to come to Cambodia to volunteer for a period at the hospital, assisting me with paper-making and other activities that are part of my programme, let me know!

To see more images from the above story, click here.

Anne and the Cambodian Hospital

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It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and write. It’s not that there has been nothing of interest to report – if anything there has been rather too much going on. By the time of day that I am available to consider writing a blog, I am typically exhausted and much more likely to fall asleep in the chair than to venture to the laptop to write a blog entry.

Yet, while there has been such a long silence from this end, things have been gathering momentum and it is time to take stock and be encouraged that I have actually made a difference in at least some lives at World Mate Emergency Hospital in Battambang, as well as in the lives of others outside the hospital. Let me tell you about some of them.

I started in my role of Activities Coordinator on October 6 last year. My first few encounters with patients involved taking games and activities into the wards to help occupy some very bored children. This became the main activity every afternoon and I was received with enthusiasm.

One of the first adult patients in whose life I was able to make a difference was Sam In (pictured above). Like so many others here, she is a victim of a serious motorbike accident. Having seen her bright smile (despite the tragedy of having lost a leg), I approached her to see if she would like to meet up with me regularly to learn some form of handcraft. As we talked, she told me she knew how to “knit with one needle” (i.e. crochet) but would like to learn to knit with two needles. I knew I could help with that request, so, armed with some wool and knitting needles given by the Care for Cambodians group in Melbourne, I went and sat at her bedside every morning and taught her to knit. It wasn’t long before other patients and caregivers joined us and I was soon supplying quite a few ladies with wool and knitting needles so they could knit as well. Once I had taught them how to cast on and off and do some basic stitches, I found their creative brains kicked in and they were working out, without any pattern to follow or input from me, how to make hats, scarves and bags.

The day before Sam In was discharged from hospital, she shared a bit more of her story with me. I was saddened to learn that the motorcycle accident which took her leg also took the life of her 14 year old daughter. Sam In’s husband and another daughter were also in the accident but had already been discharged from hospital. I felt incredibly privileged – and humbled – to have been able to brighten the life of this special lady, whose life was changed forever on the day of the accident. When she left hospital, she took with her a large bag of wool so she could keep on knitting at home. As she left I said goodbye to her at the hospital gate. She looked a different person, beautiful and radiant, no longer dressed in hospital clothing, but in a new dress which cleverly hid her stump.

Then there was Phai, whom I discovered had no clothes to wear home when it came time for her to be discharged. This is a common scenario, as the clothing in which they arrive at the hospital is often ruined in the accident which caused them to come here. If they are from a long way away, they don’t have family members visiting to provide clothes – and often the family is too poor anyway. I was able to provide clothes for her to wear home, as the Curtin University interns left me with some clothing they didn’t want to carry back to Australia.

 

For more from Anthony and Anne, visit anneandanthony.wordpress.com

Social work takes patience… and funds

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Anthony McCormick has the exciting opportunity to set up a new Social Work department in the World Mate Hospital in Battambang, Cambodia. He is in need of a full time translator to get the programme up and running. Here’s what he writes:

As I have been given the task of establishing a Social Work Department at World Mate Emergency Hospital in Battambang there is a need for a full time translator for one year starting ASAP in order to assist getting the programme running on a good foundation. The Hospital does not have the resources to employ a full time translator for this role, but it is necessary for me to be able to develop materials needed to mentor and coach my new team to a high professional level.

The translator would translate Social Work and Pastoral Care books into the Khami language and also help develop the appropriate forms used in Social Work. They would also help at meetings and training sessions as well as assist when required in the community.

This will cost approximately $300 USD a month ($3600 USD total).

 

If you’re interested in helping to support this project please email office@nzcms.org.nz

We won a borehole

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Last November I announced a big win for Wakonye Kenwa. Our research and persistent lobbying won a promise from the District Water Office to drill a new borehole for the community of Obiya West. Its now February. So, you may ask, what happened?

We continued to hassle sporadically. Lots of excuses. Then, one day in late November, many of us were gathered for a kindergarten graduation. Yup, you read that right- a kindergarten graduation complete with brass brand-led march from Lacor Hospital, all the way down Juba road to the Kindergarten, 4 year olds in full regalia. Several hours into this lengthy event, a truck pulls up. The contractor hadn’t contacted any of us, but was lucky enough to arrive on a day when half the community were together.  We briefly abandoned the nackered wee 4 year olds to hunt for water with the contractor and his fancy equipment. Water spouted forth.

BUT, its still not complete. It remains a deep pipe poking out the ground, no spout for the water, no handle to pump with. After continual hassling, the contractor said he’d return when the community has appointed a committee to oversee protection and maintenance. A meeting was called to appoint the committee. Then our usual problem reared its ugly head. People didn’t show up. From the fifteen attendees, we scraped together a makeshift committee to fulfill the requirement.

Then the best moment came. A member of group, Kidega,* who has worked dam hard to bring this borehole to his community stood up looking pretty frustrated:

“When this borehole is finished, I will come and lock it, and it will stay locked until we hold a proper meeting.”

His point is that the community must actually meet, agree on use rules and an adequate monthly household contribution for repairs before it starts getting used. It’s a community asset, and it needs to protected collectively, or it will become broken and abandoned like so many boreholes around here. More over, our group wants to make sure the community knows the story of how it got here. We want them to know it didn’t just drop randomly from the pockets of distant donors. They need to know their own neighbors worked and fought for it. We want them to believe they can make change.

So I was quietly stoked that Kidega played hard ball. Some time this month, they’ll come finnish the work. Kidega will lock the borehole, then we’ll see if people can get their act together and show up.

Note: I don’t use peoples real names in this blog

 

For more from Nick and Tessa visit their blog.

Messy Meetings

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Our big Wakonye Kenwa meetings always make me a bit anxious. The trickiest part comes before the meeting even starts. Unable to kick my western habit, I always arrive on time. After about 20-25 minutes, your early birds arrive. After 45 minutes its time to start guessing whether you will get enough people for the set agenda. If the goal is to pick your next big community issue to tackle, but you only get 8 people, it won’t feel legitimate…better to turn the meeting into something else. The next task is to gauge when to get the meeting started. Are more people on their way? If we delay will we lose people’s interest? When the meeting actually starts, I breathe and feel the stress slipping away.

On paper, our community organizing group has 43 members. At any big monthly meeting, we usually get between 15-25 people. Interestingly, the people that come are not the same people every time. Whats going on? Its an important question. Why is it so hard to get consistent turn up? Do people just not care enough? Is our meeting at the wrong time of day?

At first I assumed it is hard to get our members to meet for the same reason it’s hard to hold a community meeting. That is, people are used to being paid to attend meetings or at least receive a soda and a meal. We don’t give soda, therefore our meetings are unattractive. I’ve since realized I was wrong. I underestimated our members. Most of them get it. Unlike the wider community, they know what we are here for, and what we can achieve. So why is it so hard to meet together?

Here are five top factors, from my observation (in no particular order):

The reality is, people die here much more often than in NZ. In Acholi culture, if you are connected in any way, whether you knew the deceased or not, you are expected to attend the burial. If you live nearby, you should go. If you know any relative of the deceased, you should go. Lacor where we live is small enough that people are very connected, but big enough that there are frequent funerals. Almost every meeting, several people will be attending a burial. Patient ‘attendants’. If you go to hospital in NZ, hospital staff will bring you food, change your sheets, and bring you your drugs. That’s not how it works here. You need to bring a friend/relative to do all that for you- to be your ‘attendant.’ Being an attendant is a full time job. Again, people get sick here way more than in NZ. The kind of people we get at our meetings are the responsible types that often get the job of attending the sick relative. Almost everybody that lives in Lacor farms, at least part time. However, its common for people’s family farm land to be far away. Those that rent land also often choose far away land, which is often cheaper AND more fertile. Therefore, trips to the far away village to farm are frequent! Life logistics. When you don’t have running water, life simply takes longer. Washing clothes, washing dishes, fetching water, cooking, walking to the market everyday for food (no fridges). Throw in childcare (most women have small babies). Sometimes the logistics of managing to complete all these tasks before it gets too dark prevents people from making it. The unknown timing of any other events Last week we attended a friend’s child’s kindergarten It was scheduled to start at 8am. It started at 11:40, and finished at 4:45. Family meetings, community events, parent-teaching meetings…its pretty hard to predict the start and finish time. Therefore any other important meeting or event on the same day as our meeting can prevent members coming.

To sum up, life is difficult and unpredictable!

Dawn to dusk research

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Our own community borehole supports 50-60 households – about 300 people. That’s about the right number of people for one water source. We live on one side of the road to South Sudan. Our community organising group, Wakonye Kenwa, quickly identified that on the other side of Juba Road there is an extreme water crisis. In 2009, the health inspector of the area tested the water and declared it contaminated. There are so many long drop toilets nearby its no surprise the ground water flow brings lots of nasties to the spring. But what we really needed was evidence of just how many people rely on this water.

So, 15 members of our group took shifts to sit by the protected spring called ‘Lawula’ for several days and record data about every single person who came to get water.

Our results? While my borehole supports around 300 people, this protected spring supports 1596 people – a total of 289 households. We discovered people don’t mind so much how far they have to carry the water – they primarily care about how long they have to wait in line. In rainy season, its not so bad: 15 minutes to 1 hour. However in the dry season when the water flow reduces to a trickle, people reported waiting up to 7 hours to get water. Lawula is not only a huge health problem – it’s a time waster, a drain on the community’s productiveness.

 

Heres a few memories from those research days:

– A couple of ladies make their full time work to collect a jerrycan, carry it up the hill to the market to sell. That’s slow, heavy, hot work. They sell each jerrycan for 200 shillings (10 New Zealand cents).

– Isaac, one of our volunteers brought his guitar and played the same four chords he knew in our down time. As the sun sank, I was mysteriously transported to youth group camp in New Zealand.

– We had a print out of satellite photo of the area from google maps and stuck it on an old plastic tray, so everyone could ‘dot’ their home on the map. There were two reactions. Older water collectors were confused or disinterested. Younger folk reacted with extreme excitement to a) see their home from a photo taken in space and b) know that anyone in the world could see their home too. I think it made them feel connected.

 

For more about Nick & Tessa Laing and the work they are involved with in Uganda click here.

Living in a ‘House of Rubbish’

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Here’s an update from some partners in South East Asia.

“Is our new house made of rubbish?” my daughter asked on our first night in our current place (a month ago now). In New Zealand we might use the kinder term “100% recycled materials”, but a child makes no such distinctions.

At first it was what you might call a “handyman’s dream” (and a mosquito’s)! I’m no handyman, but we spent a fair bit of time with fly-screen, plywood, pipes, fabric and nails and have ended up with a place that serves us well. Although it looks like a shack outside, inside it’s our personal palace! Here are some features that make our neighbours say “wow!”:

A plywood ceiling to intercept heat and carcinogenic dust falling from the recycled asbestos-cement roofing. A private toilet (we share a septic tank with our neighbours) and private water supply (we pump from groundwater – which smells of sulphur… hmm…) Most neighbours use the open canal for number twos, and around a dozen families would usually share a water point for washing. Everyone buys drinking/cooking water in polycarbonate bottles – the kind you see at the office water cooler. A layer of concrete between the ground and our “carpet” of recycled advertising banners. It makes a much less lumpy floor than most, and keeps out worms and rats. A few large persistent ants were still able to penetrate (it’s pretty low-spec concrete!) but we’ve since beaten them back. A back door and three windows for light and breeze. As well as being more pleasant, it helps reduce TB transmission between the kids playing inside. (Active TB has a prevalence of around 300 per 100 000 people here. That’s 30 times more than NZ). It doesn’t leak (yet). It’s SPACIOUS. At around 22m² for a family of four, that’s nearly twice the standard shack.

If you like, read that list again and spare a thought for our neighbours – most have none of these features.

Lions and Tigers and Magic

Moving into the ‘slum-proper’, it didn’t take long to feel more involved with day-to-day life “in-amongst-it”. A bunch of teenagers often sleep (or just talk all night) on the front porch of our neighbour’s corner-store. On our third night while in bed we heard the growling and jumping sounds of a mad dog right outside: the teenagers presumably having fun with the poor animal. Considered unclean in Islam, dogs are rare here, so we asked about it next morning. “It wasn’t a dog” they said. “It was a tiger!” Apparently the spirit of a tiger (or maybe a wolf) had entered one of the boys, which happens from time to time. We’re still not sure what to do with that information!

“Has that happened to you?” we asked the store owner. “It wouldn’t happen to me – I focus my mind on God.” He is certainly one of the more diligent pray-ers we know of. Even so, it turns out he was sick the whole of last year and sold his house in the village to pay for a magic doctor to remove (magically) a cursed yellow nail in his lung, which seemed to do the trick.

None of that is as strange as the entertainment put on as part of a wedding on the field a couple of weeks back. The party was an expensive affair that ran from dawn until past midnight, pounding our house with over-amplified music. It also featured a mid-day parade of colourful kids and the bride sitting on winged beasts held aloft on the shoulders of long-suffering dancers, and a late-night clown show.

But the afternoon matinee was a series of hypnosis attractions, whereby, at its climax, lion-spirits were called on to enter the performers: who then pounced each other in lion-battles, drank from muddy puddles on the ground, and set upon an unsuspecting live chicken with their teeth: blood and feathers flying – a kind of Marilyn-Manson-meets-David-Copperfield show. “Is that allowed?” I asked, thinking about Islam’s food laws. Apparently it’s okay if it’s for entertainment. Our daughter’s friends told her to watch out: they might bite. I told her it was just a show (I hoped).