A Travellerspoint blog

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)

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 (3)

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