Nick and Tessa

It begins – New Health Center 1.0

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Narrow road, burnt grass, full load. We breathed a sigh of relief as our small pickup  arrived at Cet Kana, laden with all things required to start a new health clinic. The place is gorgeous, with one of the better views in Gulu overlooking thousands of palm trees on an open, sparsely populated plain. The clinic is next to the current and future church. Current is a skeleton of palm tree timbers, covered every Sunday with tarpaulins. Future is the brick building, with half-walls only.

We were a bit shocked to find that the rooms hadn’t been opened for months. After thirty minutes of sweeping and rearranging, Felix our nurse, and Fiona our assistant co-ordinator unpacked the drugs and equipment. Desks and chairs were moved into the clinic room. The blood pressure machine was unboxed. Within a couple of hours, two dusty unused rooms had been transformed into a nice wee health clinic.

There are two big advantages to the health clinic location.

The church owns the building so we don’t pay rent The Pastor and other church members have already been involved in weekly family planning clinics run from the building, so the church/health connection is already rolling.

But we are yet to see whether this will fly. Are there enough people in the area to justify a clinic (my biggest concern)? Can adults afford the 2500 Ugandan shillings (1 New Zealand dollar) we are asking to treat a child? Or the 5000 shillings (you do the math) to treat an adult? Can our nurse juggle the responsibilities of organising the facility, seeing patients and managing the money? After 3 months we’ll have some idea. After 6 months we’ll make the decision whether to continue or not. Taking a risk like this isn’t easy on the nerves, as it’s a big money and time investment. I keep reminding myself that even if the clinic “fails” to become sustainable, we still will have treated around 1000 patients more efficiently than most NGOs could manage. I also can’t help thinking that Jesus is into this kind of risk.

And its exciting. Seeing the first child handed over to nurse Felix to test for malaria was a small victory in itself. I’ll keep you updated with how things are tracking.

We are starting up 3 clinics like this with money already raised, and are aiming to start 2 more. If you’re keen to donate money towards starting the last 2, then message me at ugandapanda.com/contact-us/

A huge thanks to those of you in New Zealand, Australia and beyond who made this possible. You know who you are.

Saving a life, or two

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Our wonderful midwife Gloria ‘in the bush’ at Oberabic Health Centre had a hard night recently. She’s the only midwife there, so has to do most the work that involves mothers and babies, and make all the calls under really difficult circumstances. A miscarriage and a tricky delivery led to a long, intense evening which ended up really well for the mothers and newborn baby. Its hard to overstate what a fantastic job she did under the circumstances.

Apart from being a great story, and example of the great work that goes on at our health centres, this story is a microcosm of the struggles our patients and staff face all the time. Amongst other things Gloria and the patient faced these challenges. Feel free to add your own after watching the video.

The Patients: – No access to transport to get to a higher level facility – Poor knowledge of problems around birth, which led to the mother coming in late and not telling Gloria her waters had broke. – Lack of social support

Gloria – Working in the uncomfortable zone above your level of medical expertise – Having to do everything yourself (sterilise the equipment yourself, after you’ve already completed the delivery) – Understaffing

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.

Opening St Philip Mini-Hospital

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It seems there are ‘wins’ all round for Nick and Tessa Laing. You’ve just seen the amazing progress Tessa’s group has made in bringing new alcohol regulations to their region. Nick has also been hard at work as you’ll see in this video.

As part of our Bishop’s seven years on the job celebration, we officially opened the monstrous 25 room St Philip mini-hospital. Some people, schools and churches reading this article gave money to this cause so a huge thank you. In the video above you can get a glimpse of the outcome!

Important people were everywhere. The Minister of Primary Healthcare was supposed to open it, but in her absence the minister of foreign affairs did the honours instead. He even made a comment about the Christchurch earthquake! Tessa videod my mini-speech. I was supposed to get 2 minutes but I was cut to 30 seconds due to time constraints.

 

To see some more photos from the event click here.

Fire, Forgiveness and Family 

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Then Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me. Seven?”Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

We sat around a beautiful pile of pikelets, sliced mango and bananas with our friends and their two wee kids. A relaxing Sunday afternoon after a stressful week. Our neighbour Lucy was in hospital, very ill, and needed a lot of practical support. Finally, she was recovering. I took another pikelet, glanced out the window, then did a double take. Smoke. Billowing out of Lucy’s door. We sprinted over and found her bed ablaze with thick choking black fumes from the mattress filling the room. With the help our friends, a neighbour, our small fire extinguisher and many jerrycans of water we managed to put it out. Lucy’s return from hospital was not as joyful as we hoped.

The fire did not remain a mystery for long. The culprit was a small boy called Aken, only 11 years old. He’d managed to steal Lucy’s key. His mother had a long-standing family feud with Lucy, now apparently fuelled by jealousy at Lucy’s fortune in finding a new home moving in with us. With Lucy still in hospital, we were the ones to take our wee arsonist into the police. The police shrugged it off saying he was young, and sent him home with zero follow up. His mother sent him to stay with relatives in the village, but he was chased away after stealing and selling their chickens.

Two weeks later we woke to find our hut roof on fire. I will never forget the fierce red glow and crackle of the grass thatch as I rushed outside. Neighbours came sprinting to our rescue from all directions with jerry-cans and basins, throwing water on the fire and dragging our furniture and things outside. Unbelievably, Lacor hospital fire truck showed up and doused our hut in water inside and out, extinguishing every last ember. It was over. But my mind was ticking over. Physically we’d escaped extraordinarily well: no-one harmed, property soggy but not burnt, roof damaged, but still liveable. But I knew we weren’t going to get much sleep that night. Or the next night. Aken, of course, had fled and was no where to be found.

The next month gave us the tiniest taste of the worried nights everyone here in Northern Uganda suffered for two decades of civil war. Except we feared a poor, downtrodden child with a box of matches, not grenade wielding rebels and government soldiers with AK47s. The emotional aftermath wasn’t all negative. I had a heightened awareness that community was our security, and a grateful warmth to our immediate neighbours who came running. I felt pleasantly detached from material ‘stuff’, and tried to pass on anything useful we weren’t utilising to local friends. But the question of what to do about Aken still loomed.

After several weeks, Aken was finally found, charged with arson and taken to the children’s remand home till the court hearing. I visited Aken again before we headed off to collect family at the airport. The remand home is depressing, but not horrible. There’s no razor wire or harsh discipline, just kids sitting around looking bored and dejected. Determined to understand him a bit better, I’d brought some string for him to make a timeline of his life, pebbles to represent the bad things that had happened, and flowers to represent good times he remembered. The guard squinted and said it looked like witchcraft. “Just talking, no flowers” he warned me. I handed Aken a bag of snacks and wondered nervously where to begin. So far I know that his dad died when he was small. He likes school, but has only finished 2 years of primary. His older brothers steal things. His mum had a mental break down two years ago and attempted suicide. He is convinced she doesn’t want him. We decided to drop the charges and find a way to get him to school.

While I’ve yet to get a smile out of Aken on my visits to the remand home, he certainly associates me with food. He is coming home in a week. He can join our after-school reading classes for neighbourhood kids. Then, he will go to boarding school, his first year paid for by our own family back home. If you are the praying type, our big request is that you pray with us that his life is turned around, and that the brokenness can be healed.

So, all in all it hasn’t been an easy return to Uganda. We’ve also had a bad run of illness: between us 8 skin infections, 3 bouts of malaria (all Nick) and numerous tummy bugs. And yet when I look back on the last 5 months there is so much to be thankful to God for. We have some great new relationships with young neighbours. Lucy recovered when we thought she might not make it. We’ve grown enough basil to make a jar of peanut-pesto every week. My community organising group has launched 3 new water-access campaigns and strong leaders are emerging. Next week we are running a preaching-training at our church. Nick’s health centres are flourishing better than he ever could have imagined last year. And right now, we’re sleeping well at night again.

All this might seem extreme, but is part of the deal here; stuff happens. We’re not singled out, or different from other people. This chain of events is perhaps an induction to the everyday struggles of many of our friends. Pray for complete forgiveness from all ends, pray for Aken and his future, pray for redemption.

Farming Fail turns fiasco: attempt 3

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After our first attempt belly-flopped, Paul (a member farmer) invited me to chew it over in his carpentry workshop. I listened, ankle deep in wood shavings.

“The farmers from our church are not serious farmers. They have other work, like me! Their farms are all far away from each other, so they struggle to think collectively. In my home village, I have over 60 farmers who want to join us. They are so poor. Farming is their ONLY livelihood, and their farms are all side-by-side, they can see when each other plants, weeds, harvests. They need this. They will work together.”

A week later I found myself cycling behind Paul and our chairman Ocen along Juba Road, passing scattered huts, spiky tuku trees, the odd sunflower field, under Gulu’s glorious domed sky. An hour and a half later, we arrived in Jimo village. My eyes opened wide – within half an hour 66 people materialized under the designated mango tree. Paul nodded happily. Ocen lead a brief bible study on forgiveness, which bizarrely prompted a public reconciliation between two ladies who had been fighting over a goat-crop eating incident.

We explained the seed loan system, then fielded the usual flood of questions. So the seeds aren’t free? Why? What about free Cows? Hoes? Tarpaulins? We explained this is a cooperative, not an NGO. 59 farmers signed up, appointed some key leaders, and promised to bring their membership fees when we convened in 2 months to prepare for the planting season.

And so, we found ourselves starting a new group in Jimo (attempt 3) at the same time we launched attempt 2 with our church farmers. Proper rural, full-time farmers, larger scale, one location…I had a good feeling about it. Take note: feelings are misleading.

 Drum roll……..what happened?

We biked out again 2 months later with 59 maize seed loan forms. We waited for hours under the mango tree. No one. Just the odd goat. I went back to Paul, trying to find out what happened. Turned out a lot of people lost interest after finding out there weren’t any freebies involved. But Paul insisted we should give it another shot, there are some who are keen. The next week, after waiting over an hour, 6 farmers came with their membership fees, and filled out seed forms, and discussed our game plan. Fine. Lets start smaller. Training day went well. But when I went back to measure the spacing between rows and plants I found all the advice had been ignored. The spacing was huge and irregular. Why? The seed had been given to their children to plant. Go figure. I had to leave for NZ just before storage time. We located a small store in Jimo, and I left the group’s leader with group money to pay the rent and the ‘permethrin dust’ to protect the maize from weevils. I returned from NZ, and called our Jimo leader, who called a group meeting. I biked out…and yet again, just me and the goats. I wandered around, and eventually found a young guy who offered to jump on my bike and round up the members of the group. He located everyone but the leader, who was nowhere to be found. The leader had not told the other farmers about the meeting…. In fact he hadn’t communicated anything to them in a long time. No one had brought any maize to the store. Yet again, they sold the maize early. None of the farmers from Jimo have repaid their seed loan. They’ve told me they will pay it in August when their next crops are ready. I visited our treasurer from the original church group to check our account balance. She told me she had ‘borrowed’ the money to complete construction of her house.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. We have entered into the realm of a fiasco.

Why the fiasco?

If we try again, we would plant chili or ginger. Lucrative crops that are not eaten in bulk and have an external market. Would that make all the difference? Perhaps.

But there is a deeper problem. Ultimately, most farmers here believe ‘farming groups’ are primarily about accessing free stuff, rather than working together to increase profits. Our group must have been viewed as a fairly lame- nothing free, just a loan. There was very little interest in improving planting methods, little interest in collective storage and sale.

I’m aware there are plenty of farming projects in Gulu, run by NGOs, not by farmers themselves. The farmers receive free seeds, free fertilizer. Often, the NGO itself collects the crop, stores and sells it. If they leave or end the project (which, at some point, they will), will those farmers be able to run the show by themselves? I’m dubious, but oh so very eager to be proved wrong.

That, my friends, is an abbreviated but true account of my fumblings in farming to date. Will there be an attempt 4? To be honest, I’m not sure. If there is, it will look radically different. I’ll keep you posted.

Farming Fails: Attempt 2

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I crawled out of the fetal position, shook off my frustration, drank some jasmine tea, prayed a little prayer of perseverance, and dived into mission farming cooperative, take two. Early 2015. The group chose to stick with the familiar and plant maize again, rather than embark on a new crop.

What did we do differently this time? Essentially, 3 things:

We got brutal. Remember, in attempt 1, farmers with far flung farms failed to bring their produce to the central store- transport was too costly and tricky. This time, we set a boundary of 5km. Any farmers with land beyond the boundary had to rent land close by, or leave the group. Rough, I know. We whittled down to just 7 farmers. Secure good seeds. This time round, we approached a big company ourselves. I got seed samples early, planted them in little boxes and tested the germination rate. I made the company sign an agreement to compensate us if their seeds failed to germinate as well as their sample. Simple training No need to sit looking at diagrams on a blackboard. We just got some rope, some hoes, some seeds and went out and practiced measuring spacing between seeds, between rows, and seed depth. Easy. We emphasized the main thing was working together- planting together, committing to bring the crop for collective storage and sale.

 The results? 

Well, we got a brilliant seed deal, that’s for sure. The correct hybrid variety seeds arrived on time, they germinated perfectly. We bargained a great price. No complaints there. But when it came to the crunch, would our farmers bring their produce for collective sale?

*failed computer game sound effect*

Nick faithfully brought his maize- and brought a lot of it, having decided to experiment with upscaling his farming hobby. He brought 20 sacks. Another member, Margaret brought one plump sack. What about the others? It was hard to get a clear answer. Transporting produce was no longer a factor. But ultimately, farmers were still tempted by short term benefits- immediate food, and immediate sale in small amounts to go towards household needs, school fees. Its understandable. But the farmers who sold it immediately got 400 Shillings (20 NZ cents) per Kg. We stored Nick and Margaret’s maize for four months, and sold it for 800 Shillings per Kg. Thats a huge difference in profit margin!

The ultimate sinking realization from attempt 2:

If the goal is making better profits for farmers don’t farm something that can be eaten, or sold easily on the local market like beans, maize, or millet. Its just too tempting to sell it early, even if it compromises the groups whole plan. Go for something that is not eaten in bulk locally. Something a bit pricier, sold elsewhere in bulk to other parts of Uganda, Kenya, or beyond. Such as:  chili peppers, ginger, onions.

Next installment: attempt 3.

Farming Fails: Attempt 1

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The time has come to document a bit of a disaster…

“Farming. We all farm, but we are struggling. We need a farming group, so we can make bigger profit.” The words of Ocen, one of the members of our local church who convinced me we needed to start a farming cooperative in 2014.

Our fledgling group voted, and in response to overwhelmingly enthusiasm, I started researching cooperative farming. It seemed straight forward enough. Cooperative farming is successful in Tanzania, Kenya, and other parts of Uganda. Essentially, you acquire good seed as a group, train up on best methods, then each member farmer plants, weeds, harvests and processes at approximately the same time, brings their produce to a central store where it is kept until prices are high, then sold collectively. If you farm by yourself, you can’t afford to hire a store to save it till there is a shortage, and you wont have enough maize to interest a big buyer. If you do it collectively, BOOM. Higher profits.

I’ve tried for three seasons. Behold, attempt number one:

Suburban farmers from our church

20 farmers from our church signed up, including Nick. Members insisted on writing a constitution, and appointing a full executive committee. They paid a membership fee ($5 NZ). We decided to have weekly bible studies and monthly meetings. A church in NZ donated some capital for a ‘seed loan,’ to be paid back to the farmers group when the crop is sold. We ordered a hybrid seed from a local supplier. When we opened the seed bags, we discovered we had been supplied the wrong variety- a much cheaper seed. The local supplier refused to refund the difference, and the group refused to take him to the police, because they feared the corrupt police would also want payment. Despite our agreement to plant within a few weeks of each other, the last farmer planted over a month and a half after the first farmer. Because we planted at different times, our farmers also harvested and started processing (picking the kernels off the cob, drying in the sun, winnowing) at different times. We rented a store, ready to receive the maize. Nick was the first to bring his sacks. We expected 3 sacks. from each farmer. One farmer called Julian brought 4 sacks (hallelujah!). Nick brought 3 sacks. Three ladies brought 1 sack. Three farmers brought half a sack each. This all took several months. Out of 20 farmers, 12 brought nothing. There was not enough maize to make it cost effective to fumigate it and store it till prices rose. We sold it immediately before weevils could eat any more, and distributed the profit (minus the seed cost) to those who brought produce. Because 12 farmers didn’t bring any produce, suddenly I became a debt collector. 4 months and many wasted hours later, 7 farmers returned the loan. Almost 2 years on, 5 have still not paid.

Why the epic fail? 

So there were some small fails. It became obvious we needed to test seed samples before buying, and never to trust intermediary suppliers. Maybe our first failure could give us the jolt we need to actually get organised and plant at the same time.

But there were also some epic fails. At the beginning, we mapped out the location of all the farmers land. They were spread far and wide. I asked, will it really be cost effective to bring our produce to a central store? “Sure, yes, why not!” was the answer. “We’ll just hail down a passing truck, and pay a small amount to chuck our sacks on the back.”

None of the farmers with further flung farms brought any produce. It was too expensive and logistically tricky to transport it. It was much more tempting to eat the maize, and sell small amounts to get money fast.

With this in mind, we planned attempt 2. Hold your breath for the next installment.

What’s changed?

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“You’ve grown SO fat! Are you pregnant?”

She prods me in various places, including my chak, which she insists must contain milk. I grit my teeth reminding myself that it is customary here to tell people returning from a long trip that they have put on weight. Its supposed to suggest you had a good time! After assuring her (only a little defensively) that I am not pregnant, I change the topic, asking:

“Whats new? Whats changed?”

“Oh, nothings new, nothings happened”

I’ve asked many people this question since we got back, and this is almost always the answer. Nothings new? Really?

There are new speed bumps on the main road running through our centre, which will hopefully prevent further deaths by speeding trucks. In a last-second bid to votes in the North, the government tarmacked multiple new roads in town, and built … wait for it … footpaths! New businesses have sprung up, including a new pharmacy that looks like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, painted in bold purple, white and green stripes and advertising drugs that look like candy.

The week before we returned there was a horrific wind-spread fire that burned over 20 grass thatched huts in our local centre in under 30 minutes (see the video above). Our close friend Isaac lost his home. Uganda held local and national elections, and Gulu watched as the current president cheated blatantly to remain in power. There are many new appointments to local government. An abnormally long dry season has brought massive water shortages, preventing national piped water from reaching urban-dwellers homes. The cues at the boreholes have become massive, and water prices have sky rocketed.

To us, there seems to have been quite a lot of change. But to someone who grew up here, perhaps it doesn’t seem like change. Businesses come, businesses go. Buildings burn down, and new things built. Museveni has been in power for thirty years, and that certainly didn’t change this election. Droughts come, rain comes back.

But someone coming back from a trip always changes…. they are always fatter!