A Travellerspoint blog

The Spirit of Death

semi-overcast 30 °C

It has been a strange time in Arua these past couple of weeks. In fact, so many people are dying here that the local Anglican Diocese have been praying against the “Spirit of Death”, whatever that might mean… It seems pretty alarming and might make a good title for a thriller, but this is real life.
Patrick, a close friend's funeral recently. Patrick died in a head-on collision on a motorbike with a drunk motorcyclist. He leaves behind 2 young children now being looked after by Patrick's brother who already can't afford school fees for his own kids

Patrick, a close friend's funeral recently. Patrick died in a head-on collision on a motorbike with a drunk motorcyclist. He leaves behind 2 young children now being looked after by Patrick's brother who already can't afford school fees for his own kids

Patrick's coffin

Patrick's coffin


My manager at ORA, was telling me that last week, he attended 2 funerals, but if he'd had time, he could have been at 5. The third one he was going to was for a lady who had fallen from a mango tree while picking mangoes. An old teacher who helps at ORA was explaining that her death had been the work of demons that had attacked her and caused her to sustain multiple injuries all over her body.

Due to the many outward similarities we have with our African friends and colleagues, I often am surprised at how differently we see life, how different our 'worldview' is and how differently we look at a subject like 'death'. Often, death can be seen as having a spiritual explanation, unlike the scientific and rational explanation we always give for death in the West. Here, an unusual death will be looked at suspiciously and questions will be asked as to who might have held grudges and so who may have who cursed the person. This might even cause fights at funerals as people are suspected of causing a person's death. A recent suicide by a young man in his 20's last week, a cousin of another ORA colleague, was causing people to suspect as suicides are especially viewed as suspicious.

Another recent case for Agatha Christie to solve was of a successful manager of a prominent hotel who was only in his early 30’s and who died from a stomach pain quite suddenly. It was suspected that someone in his community had poisoned him out of jealousy. Poisoning others is understood to be a common reason for someone’s death. Envious neighbours can often be an explanation for the death of a wealthy person who believe the successful person is getting too far ahead of himself or is being too selfish with his wealth.

Due to such suspicion, it is crucial to show face at a funeral for your own reputation. By not turning up to a funeral, you may become a suspect for that person's death.

It can be intense living in a developing country where material poverty, death and suffering are much more prevalent than what we are used to in the West. The figures tell us that it 1 out of every 49 mothers will die giving birth at some point in their lives in Uganda, compared to one out of every 4600 in the UK. The under-5 mortality rate is 89.9 in Uganda compared to 5.1 in the UK (I worry about this a little bit when I think of our young 2 kids, though I know we are in a much more privileged position than families here).
A recent funeral I attended of the brother of my work colleague.  This is the crowd at the grave-side

A recent funeral I attended of the brother of my work colleague. This is the crowd at the grave-side

Burying the body with the choir singing at the side

Burying the body with the choir singing at the side


How do you deal with hearing about friend's relatives dying every day? People turn up at the door or stop you in the road to ask for money for funerals they need to attend. Funerals are expensive here and it often means going into debt to pay for the costs. Once a funeral is out of the way, however, people here seem to get on with life and go back to normality very quickly. There is no depression and no counselling sessions to deal with what has happened, even when a child dies. This type of thing is hard for me to understand, especially since I come from a culture where someone can take a long time to get over a pet dying. In fact, it seems that death fits more naturally into the cultural worldview here than it does in the West, where it has become something to fear and pretend isn’t inevitable.

On the news yesterday, I heard that the USA provides more money to the Ugandan healthcare services than the Ugandan government does. This fact hits home to me when I consider how much sickness and suffering people cope with and there is very little support. This is the reality of life in a developing nation where the local hospitals often run out of medicine, doctors are not available and nursing staff seem not to care. For me, the situation spurs me on to think 'rationally' about what is causing death and carefully tend my Artemisia plants, an excellent cure for malaria and powerful in bringing back health to AIDS patients. It also drives me to consider income-generating projects so that people can afford medical care and medicines.

However, the issue is more than about money or techniques to stay healthy and keep well. A fatalistic cultural worldview hinders investigation into how to minimise future death occurring and is a disincentive to looking after a sick patient. But since we are called to love our neighbour and bring God’s hope to a suffering world, our role is to continue to work to bring change that may make a small difference.
Patrick (holding Amelie) on our verandah in happier times

Patrick (holding Amelie) on our verandah in happier times

Posted by africraigs 08:06 Archived in Uganda Comments (2)

Boundaries in Lugbaraland

overcast 22 °C

Cultures are fascinating, but it is only when you come against a different outlook and way of seeing things that you realise how differently you think. I realised this even more after doing a ‘culturally inappropriate’ devotions for staff at ORA, (the project for vulnerable children that I volunteer at).
A typical Lugbara village nearby Arua

A typical Lugbara village nearby Arua


I based my devotions on a chapter in a book that I had read which I found excellent and helpful in giving wisdom on relationships called ‘Keep Your Love On’ by Danny Silk. The section that I shared with my colleagues was about the need for ‘healthy boundaries’. This subject deals with the need for prioritising our time and energy, our material wealth and skills rather than just reacting to what others are demanding of us. It means knowing when to say ‘No’. The author gives a Biblical metaphor about the Garden of Eden. God put Adam in the garden to tend it and manage it well. A well-managed garden produces fruit, but a poorly managed garden produces little or no fruit. All of us have our own gardens to manage. If we don’t produce our own fruit, we go scavenging for other’s fruits. By scavenging for others fruits, we become consumers, an unhealthy way to relate to others. Consumers are people who are attracted to you for what you have to offer and can become like seagulls pecking pieces away at your life till you have nothing left.

To me, this knowledge about managing relationships is crucial and has helped me down the years know how to have healthy boundaries to stay in control of my own life and resources. Before I learnt about the need for boundaries, I was someone who could be taken up with people- pleasing, tiring myself out and wasting my resources on things that I needn’t prioritise.

However, the above is definitely a Western perspective and has been extensively taught, preached and quietly imbibed through our cultural norms without our realising it. In Africa, this matter of ‘boundaries’ is seen in a completely different perspective. Here are the views of my Lugbara colleagues at ORA…

  • The community will call boundaries ‘selfish’ and you will be seen as proud, you will be hated and even poisoned (to death) by other members of the community.
  • This is because you don’t belong to yourself, you belong to your community. You are not your own, you belong to the clan, the community, or the church. Even your children come last. A pastor’s children can be the worst behaved as he/she has so many responsibilities and expectations that the children are neglected.
  • As a wife, you have a responsibility to your husband, your husband’s parents and still you have a responsibility to your own parents. Since a wife’s parents expect to be cared for, the wife has to sneak food and resources from the husband’s home back to her own parents.
  • In general, a woman has to put her own children last because she has many other priorities to the husband and community.
  • If one person is educated in a community, the rest of the community look to that person for their school fees or funeral bills. The person that has managed to get ahead in the community is expected to share the burden of the community by giving of the extra that he/she has. This means that the community waits for help from this person and he/she will carry the blame if nothing is done. Instead of people taking responsibility for their own needs, there is an expectation that the one with more will provide. In fact, since it is fortune that dictates whether someone will be well off or not, people that are poor believe they are helpless to change their situation.


My colleagues suggested that to combat these prevalent attitudes in their culture, people need to be taught to take responsibility instead of waiting for the ‘Big Man’ who magically provides for all their needs. People can be asked “What do you have to offer?” instead of getting things for free. For example, ORA Uganda will ask the community to provide labour and resources such as fired bricks to help build a protected spring in a village. This empowers people to realise what richness they have rather than believing themselves to be poor all the time. I often hear people often say they are poor without realising what richness they have all around them in the land and community.

It was interesting to hear that relatives are seen as a ‘community bank’. By helping you one day, I expect to be helped the next day when I need help. Material needs or finances are shared so that the sharing will return back to you one day. (It seems this ‘community banking’ system is not working as well these days as people become more individualistic with Western influence).

A longer term ‘banking’ takes place by investing in your own children. If the parents pay for the children’s school fees or other needs, in the future the children are indebted to the parents and are obliged to help them.

These type of cultural insights give clues as to what we see around us every day here. It partly explains why development programmes can fail and individuals don’t get materially rich as people who get ahead are obliged to share what they have with others. It might partly explain why we see a lot of ‘unparented’ children running around. It definitely explains why white people, who are seen as rich, are often asked for help to pay for people’s needs. This causes regular moral dilemmas. One of the dilemma’s for this week was the lady who helps in the house was admitted to hospital with severe malaria and typhoid. She chose to go to a private clinic and asked to borrow over a third of her monthly salary to pay for treatment. We are wondering, do we pay for her treatment to show compassion, or does that encourage dependency? Do we pay half? Do we take money from her savings account that she keeps with us? Do we look for odd chores around the house so she can earn the borrowed money back?

Another current issue is that since we are now entering the mango season, the neighbour's kids have been eying up our mangoes, have started asking for them and have been trying to get them from outside the fence. How do we deal with this in a good and godly way?

I guess reading that book in this culture has also helped me to grapple more with the conclusions that the author comes to. Strict boundaries around my time, my family, our finances, our resources, my energy may help me keep sane (?!) in an intense social environment, but it may be a hindrance to making strong links with the community that I am trying to reach out to….

(Here is a video of Asher and Amelie at a local hotel which has one of those rare playparks around here. There are kids hanging onto the fence asking for Amelie's stuff. It is hard to get space even in a fenced hotel... It can also be work trying to figure out boundaries to protect Amelie and Asher from getting pinched and poked by people curious about the white kids. One time, I had to rush after Amelie as she was being carried away to someone's home...)

Posted by africraigs 23:50 Archived in Uganda Comments (1)

Meet Morris

30 °C

FA473FD12219AC68170AEF4AC3DBE170.jpg
Meet Morris.

Morris is a 16 year-old guy from a small town called Bondo on the main road from Arua to Kampala. He traveled the 22 kilometres by bike to drop in on the ORA base trying to sell his home- made truck and bus for 5,000 UGX each (about £1.25). He tells us that it takes about 2 weeks to make one of them. He has been selling his incredibly detailed and expertly crafted vehicles made from sorghum stems to raise the money that he needs for school fees. February is the start of the school season in Uganda and marks the start for the scramble for school fees. Morris needs to raise 114,000 UGX (about £27) for a school term at the Bondo government secondary school where he hopes to complete his S3. He has done very well thus far as many children fail to reach secondary school at all. In our area, perhaps only 10% manage to reach this level of schooling.
As you can see from this table in one of the local primary schools, there is a huge drop in numbers attending primary seven from those attending primary one. In primary one, it is not uncommon to have 300 kids in one class, an incredible number for one teacher to effectively teach.
Primary school attendance numbers hang in a headteacher's office

Primary school attendance numbers hang in a headteacher's office


The drop-out rate is encouraged by parents who believe that a child is more useful at home helping with duties or the small family business selling tomatoes at the market than going to school every day. This must especially true when prospects for children who do attain any level of education is dire. Even university graduates are struggling for employment and instead are sitting at home looking after their family’s children. Another reason for high drop-out rates is the social pressure for girls to get ‘married’ at a young age and bear children aged 14, 15 or 16. These girls get bride wealth for their parents of goats and cows and other material things. Having babies is one of the highest goals of a woman.

At home, after school, children are expected to be involved in domestic work such as caring for the goats or digging in the garden. Water needs to be fetched and food needs to be prepared. Some children are so heavily involved in house work that it affects their school performance. No TV or computer games for these kids, there are duties to perform at home. In fact, if you are called ‘playful’, it means that you are not a very dutiful child because you are abandoning your domestic role. Children are trained to be ‘mini-adults’ from a young age. If the parents are out trying to earn a small income at the market, the older children are responsible to act as a parent by cooking food and looking after the other kids. All of these challenges and more mean that educating the next generation of Ugandan children is an uphill battle.

Kids carrying water

Kids carrying water

Education is a major headache in Uganda. Despite universal primary education (UPE) having been brought in to address illiteracy in Uganda as part of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, the circumstantial evidence shows that UPE may in fact be increasing illiteracy. Although many children start primary school, their performance and progress is a struggle meaning there is a high dropout rate. Schooling is a huge challenge. Not only are there big classes meaning a competition for a teacher’s attention or even a seat on a bench, school starts early and finishes late. Children are often not eating a breakfast before they leave in the morning and don’t get any lunch at school. Although UPE is supposed to mean free education for primary children, there are hidden costs such as school uniforms, pens, exam fees, and exercise books among others. These costs are not very high, but are still difficult for many parents especially when there are so many dependants to have to look after (Uganda has the 2nd highest fertility rate in the world; the average woman in Uganda bears 6 live children and over 50% of the population is under 15). Many families also include children from extended family who suffer with poverty or who are orphaned.

Many government schools are performing very poorly and pupils are learning very little at all.
School Report

School Report

Consider this photo showing the results for a girl who has failed P4 in a dramatic style. Overall, she received 3.5 out of 100%, but notice that she still only came 137th out of the total number of 162 in the class! In the UK, children can't fail in primary school, so all the children move up the classes at the same age. In Uganda, though, children need to repeat a year until they pass. This means there can be 16 year-olds still attempting P4 which is demoralising for the child. Another issue that doesn't help is the low pay that teachers if they get paid at all!
A school assembly

A school assembly

Talking signs outside a school...I'm sure the the signs used to make sense before the words rubbed off

Talking signs outside a school...I'm sure the the signs used to make sense before the words rubbed off

Talking signs outside of schools encouraging the children towards good behaviour

Talking signs outside of schools encouraging the children towards good behaviour

ORA Uganda, the organisation that I volunteer for, attempts to address some of these huge community and social challenges by paying the school fees of sponsored children, children who have been identified by the community as being more vulnerable especially since one or more of their parents have died most likely through AIDS. Educational fees are paid throughout primary school and on into secondary and tertiary education. ORA Uganda also pays for teachers to teach some of the sponsored children after school to increase their chances of learning properly.
ORA Uganda near Odia

ORA Uganda near Odia


ORA Uganda is only able to help a few children in one sub-county of Uganda. There are countless other children like Morris who have to rely on their own initiative to try to earn some pennies for school fees. After all his efforts, I hope and pray that Morris will be successful and be able to complete his education and fulfil his dreams.
Amelie playing with the incredible bus that Morris created

Amelie playing with the incredible bus that Morris created

Amelie does a daft dance

Amelie does a daft dance

Posted by africraigs 06:57 Archived in Uganda Comments (3)

A little trip to the airstrip

sunny 30 °C

As I have said before, there is never a dull moment living in Africa, excitement seems to come at you from all angles to bite you in the bum. However, sometimes I miss the variety of entertainment available in somewhere like Edinburgh (especially during the fringe). So Amelie and I were excited when we had a mission to accomplish a couple of Saturdays ago involving us going to the 'International Airport', Arua.
Arua Airport Sign

Arua Airport Sign

Amelie at the airport almost a year ago

Amelie at the airport almost a year ago


The only downside was having an early start on a Saturday morning. We were helping to take Pioneers missionary colleagues or ours, a family of 10 to catch their Eagle Air flight to Yei. The Perrys live and work in Yei, South Sudan but had only recently decided it was calm enough to return following the rebel activity and fighting in certain parts of the country. Because of the size of their family and amount of associated luggage following time in the States, there was need of a convoy of 3 vehicles! Whenever Emma and I feel stressed and down about having to travel a lot with 2 small kids, we often think of the Perrys and can't imagine how they do it...

Arua airstrip feels cute and homely, where you invariably know most of the passengers or pilots. As well as the commercial Eagle Air flights (don't think of Boeing, think much smaller), mission airlines MAF and AIM also fly out of Arua using their teeny Cessna planes. The airstrip itself is red-dirt, but very smooth and flat.
An Eagle Air flight on the red-earth airstrip

An Eagle Air flight on the red-earth airstrip

The check-in desk

The check-in desk


At the airstrip, Amelie was enjoying playing with the Perry kids, 2 of whom are close in age to Amelie. I felt a little sad at the fun she was having since I knew she would soon have to say good-bye...again! This is one of the more difficult parts of being a missionary and having your own kids, seeing her miss her friends.

This specific time at the airstrip seemed more exciting than normal:

- Amelie and I watched a large helicopter landing containing some soldiers from the UPDF (Uganda) army having come from deployment in South Sudan. It is fascinating to be seeing soldiers who had been part of the action to deal with a civil war in the neighbouring country which we had been hearing about on the news.
- I spoke briefly to a missionary lady flying out with AIMAir to another war zone in close-by Central African Republic for 5 days to encourage the church there. I had heard on the BBC Worldservice that soldiers were cannibalising their enemies and shot up a quick prayer to God that the nice lady wouldn't become a victim. I think her name was Donna from the States, so I am hoping that she is still well and walking around somewhere. Her next stop after CAR was going to be South Sudan, and I felt that she and her husband were definitely not your typical tourists... Speaking to Donna also made me appreciate missionaries a bit more. Who else would go out to a dangerous situation for no reason other than to encourage people there?
- Incidentally, missionary pilots are the cool-cats of the missionary gang. Their lifestyle consists of flying off to far-flung destinations, evacuating people from war zones, being shot at, having bigger cars and nicer pads than the rest of us...They even get calendars and funky t-shirts publicising their work.
- While watching all the exciting goings-on around me, I noticed a change to a more party atmosphere as a dj in the back of a pick-up with huge speakers pumping out some tunes. A big crowd appeared from nowhere as local people came to catch a glimpse of a celebrity, an Arua radio presenter had returned back from a long absence of being ill.
- Despite being an international airport with flights leaving to go to CAR, South Sudan, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo, the airport has a sleepy and very informal feel. For example, sometimes, the luggage is lifted by hand to check the weight. Additionally, there is no bodyscanner. Flight tracking involves phoning the manager of the airstrip, Robert to see if a flight has left Entebbe. There is a new terminal being built which looks a lot bigger and more imposing than the current little building. It remains to be seen whether the cozy atmosphere at the Arua airstrip will also end up changing. I hope not, though...
Asher asking Robert, the airport manager a question

Asher asking Robert, the airport manager a question

Army helicopter arriving

Army helicopter arriving

Army arriving from duty in South Sudan

Army arriving from duty in South Sudan

Amelie and Asher with new airport terminal behind them. How will the airport be changing over the next few years?

Amelie and Asher with new airport terminal behind them. How will the airport be changing over the next few years?

Posted by africraigs 07:49 Archived in Uganda Comments (2)

African Nights

Why earplugs are a great invention

sunny 31 °C

I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me.
*

*

It’s 3am and still a sultry 24 degrees. The stars look incredible out there as there is no night pollution or cloud cover tonight. I am not a fan of the hot and dry season we’re in (Come to think of it, though, a fan would be a good idea). No getting snug under the covers, there are no need for any covers. Juno, our dog has woken me up with some earnest barking outside. It is a concern, as our night-guard, John, told me that there was an attempted burglary the night before at our neighbour’s place. Thieves were chased off the compound, but not before they had cut open the wire mesh fence to get in. These days, there seems to be far too many stories around here of robberies for my liking.

Thankfully, we now have our solar-powered security lights meaning that even when the town power goes out unexpectedly, there are lights to deter any potential robber somewhat. This early morning, as I walk around the house checking everything at, I relax when I see John patrolling around outside and vow to give him a bonus when I see him before he leaves shift. Most night-guards are fast asleep at this time. They will likely be busy during the day-time as well, like our other night-guard, Rashid, who rides a bicycle taxi during the day, with its large padded seat for passengers.

Getting back to sleep is a problem under the cloak of the tropical heat. The air is punctuated with countless dog voices, giving vent to their excitement. People say that 3-4am is the ‘witching hour’ and it’s easy to believe that when there seems to be a lot going on outside in the blackness.

In the distance, I hear a club playing popular African pop. Though I usually enjoy the tunes, I detest any music at this time of night. I want to be in a deep sleep before 5am when the mosques wake up and their eerie chanting begins around us. It is difficult to tell where these ghostly voices are coming from. Seriously, Islam doesn’t seem to consider a community’s need for rest.

Each day, morning comes too early for me as Amelie wakes with the light between 6:30 and 7am. Ironically, it is the best time for sleeping as it’s cool and quiet.

Posted by africraigs 03:13 Archived in Uganda Comments (4)

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