A Travellerspoint blog

Cross the river in a crowd & the crocodile won't eat you...

(African Proverb)

sunny 29 °C

‘It was the best of times and the worst of times...’

… okay, slight exaggeration, but to help distract from a recent bout of homesickness I had planned a little afternoon tea-party for my birthday. We’d been busy making our lemon curd, cupcakes, lemonade, rather anemic looking bread, labels, and so on, (not because we were going for an organic, homespun effect, but because it’s the only way to have these things here…)


It was all going well and I was thrilled at the rare opportunity to use my cake-stand and spotty teapot, but poor Asher was pretty miserable, and hot, and moany, which put a damp-ner on things. He had a nasty bite on his leg and the angry swelling was creeping up and down his leg in a sinister manner.

Sometimes I think one of the best-kept secrets of cross-cultural/mission work is the closeness and support from other ex-pats. It’s a unique situation where you have at least 10 nationalities at a small tea-party all with different characters, ages, and cultures and all with a story and reason to be in Arua: the efficient German, the generous American, the Polish artist, the diplomatic Canadian, the straightforward Dutch, the agricultural South Sudansese, the motherly Irish nurse, the business-minded Kikuyu Kenyan, the polite Brit (obviously not David..!) stereotyping?.. moi?


Within minutes, some friends drove to town to pick up antibiotics for Asher, other friends had washed up from the tea-party, another friend was trying to cheer up Asher by walking with him around the garden, another friend prayed for healing, another friend offered to fly us to Kampala then and there (an AIMAir pilot, not just a magician).

The next few days sort of blurred together in a worried haze of antibiotics, calpol, (thanks for the parcel Tracey) broken nights and an email to Interhealth, who said it sounded like an abscess which would need to be properly drained at a trustworthy, sterile medical centre. (That ruled out Arua then…)
Even the word ‘abscess’ seems to ooze grossness.

Our new friends in town are a missionary pilot family who phoned us to say a flight would be passing Arua in an hour and there was a seat for Asher and me.
And 1 hour and $160 later we were sitting in a taxi on the way to the best clinic in Uganda. Even in the taxi I was wondering whether I was over-reacting and whether it was a waste of time and money, but after the Dr confirmed it was a nasty deep abscess that needed to be drained immediately I knew I was in the right place.

As they prepared for the procedure: dosing up little Asher on Ketamine (which I vaguely remembered is what they put horses to sleep with) and getting all the sterile equipment ready, my eyes glanced on an electric saw in the room. ‘Does an abscess go away on its own?’ I asked quietly. ‘Oh no, it just gets deeper, even going into the bone, and then it’s very dangerous…’ the Dr said quite cheerfully.
The electric saw was placed next to a gleaming white suit labeled ‘ebola’, and some point between then, and the grossness of bursting the abscess I thought I might faint.

Anyway, before I feel lightheaded again, back to sweeter things and my tea-party, it wasn’t how I would have planned it, but seeing Asher deteriorate and the reality of some of the risks here, it made me take stock a bit this week (maybe my old age ;-) ) and realize how in this crazy, unpredictable, sometimes dangerous and sometimes heartwarming place, it is so necessity to have a wonderfully mixed group of friends on the ground who can express something of the ‘Body of `Jesus’ here on earth.

little ones teaparty

little ones teaparty


good recovery, welcome back little guy :-) thanks for all the prayers and concern

good recovery, welcome back little guy :-) thanks for all the prayers and concern


If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~ African proverb

Posted by africraigs 09:49 Archived in Uganda Tagged children parties sickness expat support_network Comments (6)

Uganda: 52 years free of colonial rule

...but there are still more chains that bind her

rain 25 °C

A little girl poses beneath the Ugandan flag at school

A little girl poses beneath the Ugandan flag at school

Awadifo Uhurusi! Uganda has just turned 52 years old which makes her 10 years younger than either of my parents! Independence Day was on October the 9th which was a public holiday and a day for me to unsuccessfully attempt to build a chicken coop. It was also a day in which many schools and music groups were parading in pomp and colour with accompanied dance and music.

In the papers, there are pages of expensive advertisements from sugar companies, electrical companies or banks giving ‘hearty congratulations” to President Museveni and the country of Uganda on this “auspicious day”.

Unfortunately, as well as the celebration, other people have an expectation of being given something, for example, one young security guard listening to the radio and with a gun laid on his lap demanded "give me independence" while holding out his hand...

Independence Day has brought home to me how recent Uganda's nationhood is, as is the case for many other nations in Africa. As I thought about how Uganda came to be, I considered how the Ugandan nation was a Western construct, with arbitrary borders drawn to suit the European powers partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. Since that time, Uganda’s borders have been drawn and re-drawn depending on the political needs of the time and geographical features. Uganda’s borders at one time extended all the way to Ethiopia!

The West Nile region, where we stay, was actually a part of the Belgian Congo previously. It temporarily became part of the Sudan when King Leopold of Belgium died and only in 1914 did it become part of Uganda. Here, as in other parts of Africa, families suddenly found themselves on opposite sides of a country’s border as is the case with the Lugbara people group that we live amongst here. There are many Congolese Lugbara on the other side of the political dividing line, less than 10km from here.

Uganda is an amalgamation of 52 people groups with very different languages and customs, in no way is it a homogeneous culture in any sense. In fact, the construct of nationhood was forced upon Africa by the world powers at the time in Europe. The flip-side to this was that the Europeans may only have accelerated the creation of a nation with less blood spilled than might otherwise have happened since Egypt, the Arabs or the Bugandas were all regional powerhouses with their own expansionist desires at that time.

At the time of independence from the British empire, Uganda had a bigger economy than South Korea. Between 1960 and 1965, Uganda had booming exports of coffee, tea and cotton giving its economy the highest per capita growth in East Africa. Though initially doing well, Uganda's economy has failed to grow anywhere near the same rate as a country like South Korea. In fact, as a 'developing' country, Uganda has unfortunately high levels of human suffering in terms of maternal mortality rates, infant mortality, death rates and poverty levels. Other indices indicate that Uganda's people are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis. For example, I recently heard that the USA provides 40% of Uganda's health budget. Europe is funding 50% of the Global Fund to fight malaria, AIDS and TB. Donor’s funded around one-quarter of Uganda’s 2012/13 budget. ORA International that I volunteer with recognises the problems of school fees and supports families to send their children to school. In this region, it is estimated that only 10% of children will be able to afford to go to secondary school where school fees are considerably higher.
Independence Day Cartoon

Independence Day Cartoon

There are huge problems facing Uganda today to the point that some state that there isn’t anything to celebrate at Independence when ‘poverty is rampant and people are crying’, while others say that there is no real independence in Uganda due to lack of freedom of speech, poor governance and corruption.

While discussing all the problems that Uganda is facing, a colleague who started his own NGO here in Arua told me that he thinks that the British should re-colonise Uganda again as Uganda was more organised then. If continued colonisation had meant higher standards of living, better administration and education, was independence 52 years ago worth it?

Freedom fighters in Africa such as Kenyatta (of Kenya) and Nkrumah (of Ghana) had a desire to “liberate [their countries] from colonialism and break all the chains of European imperialism” and most definitely thought that independence was worth it. Their dreams for self-governance were noble and good and were soon to become a reality.

Sometimes, however, that noble cause seems to have crumbled to dust when people are kept bound by chains of poverty and injustice. Martin Luther King talks about the need for ‘psychological freedom’, for minds as well as bodies to be set free, for people to realise their self-potential. Nelson Mandela was able to remain ‘free’ within himself despite being imprisoned on Robben Island. The real Mandela couldn’t be chained.

Beneath the surface, independence and freedom are hard concepts to really grasp. In the democratic West, while we consider ourselves 'free' it seems that the media, propaganda and advertising have an invisible but powerful hold on all of us.

Jesus was a freedom fighter and I like what he stood for. One time he said that he came to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed…” Despite the Israelites being a part of the Roman Empire at the time and so lacking their own independence, Jesus came to teach about a greater freedom that we can all experience.

Independence Day here in Uganda is a time for celebration of freedom from colonial rule, however, there are still so many ways in which Ugandans are all held captive and need freedom. I hope and sometimes dream that more Ugandans and others around the world in various states of captivity and imprisonment, whether from poverty, lack of self-belief, or injustice, can recognise and embrace more freedom and truly live a life to the full.

A small child is carried by her dad at an independence parade

A small child is carried by her dad at an independence parade

Uganda's National Anthem

1. Oh Uganda! may God uphold thee,
We lay our future in thy hand.
United, free,
For liberty
Together we'll always stand.

2. Oh Uganda! the land of freedom.
Our love and labour we give,
And with neighbours all
At our country's call
In peace and friendship we'll live.

3. Oh Uganda! the land that feeds us
By sun and fertile soil grown.
For our own dear land,
We'll always stand:
The Pearl of Africa's Crown.

Posted by africraigs 11:35 Archived in Uganda Comments (2)

Forget the cupcakes...

A local birthday bash

semi-overcast 27 °C

Forget cupcakes, bunting and musical bumps

… replace with hired pews, speeches, and a mountain of thick brown millet, and you have a local 1st birthday bash.

Lilian has helped us in various ways (from watching the kids, to having far more success with a charcoal stove than I could ever dream…) for the last 2 and half years and has a baby boy exactly the same age as our Scamp. Lilian has been planning her baby’s party for weeks and was clearly excited about the event.

Lilian teaching Am and Ash how to harvest bananas

Lilian teaching Am and Ash how to harvest bananas

We had been looking forward to the party as we might finally get to meet the father of the baby, who Lilian assured we would know immediately as he is a ‘photocopy’ of the baby.

We arrived fashionably late and were ushered to seats of honour, (a row of hired plastic seats rather than the hired rows of wooden pews) which is always a bit awkward. David arrived even more fashionably late on his bike, sweating, frizzy-haired and carrying a water bottle which had a hole and was spilling water, cue a chorus from the crowd of guests: ==‘sorry, sorry, sorry…’== and helpfully pointing out ‘your water is spilling…’ -no chance of a quiet entry as David was led to his seat.

To be fair to my squirming children, it wasn’t their best time of day, 5pm is usually the start of meltdown hour, but their wriggling and giggling seemed very obvious amongst all the other kids sitting still as though they were playing musical statues.. .(without the music). We are always amazed at how local kids can keep so quiet as to render them almost invisible, a direct contrast to ex-pat kids who are obviously allowed to express themselves more noisily…

Then came the official opening! From the few kids’ birthday parties here it seems speeches and having a ‘programme’ is very important. And so it began… ‘I am here to represent the biological father at this programme, as the biological father is not able to be here at this very moment, so I am standing in as the representative to the Boy …’ Everyone around us nods earnestly. I was thinking how fuming I’d be if Hairycraig sent a representative Ash the Bash’s birthdays, but here it doesn’t seem to matter. The ‘representative’ didn’t know the baby’s name and kept calling him ‘boy’.

Then the speeches and the cake. And then the 1- year old was given a big, sharp knife to cut the cake which Lilian had proudly baked using our oven. His birthday gift from the parents was a super smart black suit and gold tie, so he looked like a mini-adult all suited and booted and walking around solemnly. He suddenly seemed years older than our Scamp, who still can’t walk and was crawling around in a grubby vest.

cutting the cake

cutting the cake



age-mates a few months ago

age-mates a few months ago

Meanwhile, Am and Ash are bored, loud, and hungry and resort to chasing mangy looking ducklings, and I’m not feeling like the best mum in the world with the disapproving glances.
Quite honestly, cross-cultural parenting is often a challenge, and events like this highlight such differences in expectations and worldviews.

The ‘biological father’ turned up just in time for food (served after cake) and gave his apologies. Next item on the all important ‘agenda’ was ‘the Happy Birthday Song’ and Sunday School choir to close. By this point it’s nearly dark and our kids really need to have a bath and get to bed, so we give our gifts and head home.

[lilian and her boys

[lilian and her boys

Think we will forgo the millet and speeches for Amelie’s upcoming birthday and enjoy a round of cupcakes and home-made lemonade...

Posted by africraigs 10:30 Archived in Uganda Comments (2)

Shoulders hunched, head lolling, eyes averted...

(I really am listening) Trying to understand Lugbara body language.

rain 25 °C

They say that our body language (facial expressions, gestures and postures) accounts for 55% of how we communicate our feelings to one another. It’s incredible that in this case, what we actually say accounts for only 7% of how we communicate, the other 38% is through the tone we use when we speak.

This means that our body language often gives us away. We say 'you can tell she liked him' or 'he seemed shady' or 'he seemed friendly' from the way that someone is acting. Detectives watch for suspicious behaviour at airports to catch terrorists or to decide if someone might be lying under interrogation. . In the Boston marathon bombing, people later realised that the bombers carrying backpacks were acting very differently to the rest of the crowd watching the race that day. This should have given them away if anyone was paying attention.

In Lifeskills class at the YWAM base on a Wednesday morning, I teach such things as positive body language as part of good communication. For example, it means learning how to actively listen to someone by holding good eye contact, nodding, saying 'mmm-hmm' and even mirroring the other's posture. Being confident when speaking to someone shows that you have nothing to hide. Standing with your feet pointing towards the person who you are talking with shows that you are really engaged with them.

In the African context, however, body language is a completely different thing. Instead of being seen as assertive, a woman who looks into the eyes of a man when she is speaking is seen as rude and 'bad mannered'. A woman who wants to speak to the man or serve him food will kneel down. To show respect to someone older, men and women will avert their gaze and bow slightly, and shake hands while one arm touches the other. Children here curtsy as they shake hands with an older person (Amelie is already doing this, we didn’t prompt her!). Putting your hands on your head shows that you are in mourning. In conversation, friends will sit next to one another and chat without looking at each other. A man who goes for a potential job will show a very submissive body posture, it isn't right for him to come across as confident. Social hierarchy plays a very prominent role in the way people interact.

When I teach Lifeskills in this context, I find it very frustrating. Students in a class give a great respect to the teacher by keeping quiet, having their heads bowed and averting their gaze. To me, therefore, they seem very disengaged, bored and disinterested. It’s really annoying and demoralising! And anyway, my teaching flies right in the face of culture. One lady in the group who shows more assertive body posture to men (such as looking them in the eye) has been labelled by her husband’s friends as ‘stubborn’.
Former classmates looking disinterested

Former classmates looking disinterested



While doing teacher training class recently, Emma was asking a student to demonstrate a ‘sad’ posture. Asking the class what the girl was communicating with her head bowed, hands in pockets and slouched shoulders, the class was silent for a long time. Eventually, the boldest in the class spoke up “She is telling us she wants sex”! It is therefore very easy to make a wrong impression or misinterpret someone…

The Western way of doing things is so different to the Lugbara context in so many aspects. Parenting, marriage and communication are opposite. Culture and worldview have much to say about how society works and our culture's views are very different!

It also brings home to me how often we Westerners can come across as rude, forthright and abrasive in a culture which can display much more deference in many social situations. Western women in Africa, emancipated as they are in the West, are especially prone to mis-understandings.

We chose to come and work in Uganda in the hope of making a difference in small ways amongst those that are suffering, however such deep-rooted cultural differences such as those in communication and body language can bring unexpected challenges and misunderstandings.
Who knows what we have said with our bodies without realising it?

Posted by africraigs 11:22 Archived in Uganda Comments (0)

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 (3)

(Entries 16 - 20 of 148) « Page 1 2 3 [4] 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »