Monday, March 17, 2014

8 Insights into what it's like living in Uganda

Africa is a place that fascinates many of us in the West. It still fascinates me and I live here. I don’t know if it’s the beat of those African drums, the relaxed pace of life, the smiling faces that greet me whenever I’m out and about or that I frequently find myself humoured by the fact that some things can only be explained with a shrug and a smile! There’s just something about this continent. Sometimes people ask me, ‘What it’s like living in Uganda’? Depending on the timeframe given, my answer can range from ‘good’ to a 3 hour conversation. Here’s a quick read that’ll break it down in no particular order:

1. Security. From the moment you step off the plane you’ll notice it. It might be the fact that the UN and the US Air Force were the only other planes at the tiny airport or the fact that everyday you’ll see 50-75 armed guards cruising the streets carrying automatic weapons. Either way, it’s a slight change from NZ. By the way, it’s also not unusual to see plain clothes young men carrying rifles across their chest in a busy marketplace or on their motorbikes. Every time I go into a public place like a shopping district, restaurant, supermarket or hotel – I’ll be patted down, have to put my bag through a check and have my car looked over inside, outside and underside for weapons. One time a particularly vigilant guard asked me directly “Do you have any bombs today madam?” as I was trying to park the car. Not today pal. Most foreigners living here have a full time day and night guard and live in a compound with barbed wire fencing and big metal padlocked gates.  All windows here have bars across them as a security measure. There are police out in force 24/7.  Especially at the only 10 traffic lights in Kampala (everywhere else is free reign). The police try their hardest to ensure people obey the road rules. With their solid frames, white uniforms soaked in sweat, cheeks filled with air from blowing whistles, hands waving vigorously and batons for anyone that dare charges the lights, its quite the sight.

2. Weather. Uganda is on the equator which means that the temperature is pretty constant year round – 27-31 degrees Celsius most days. When it rains, it rains like you’d expect in the songs you hear about African rain. These tropical rainstorms usually lasts a couple hours before clearing to the hazy/smoggy blue sky that covers most of the country year round. You sweat every day and your body is consistently caked in a fine layer of red dust that never quite comes out.

3. Transport. One has four options. 1. Walking. 2. Matatu (van that legally seats 10 but actually seats 15 humans, a few chickens and fish strapped to the exterior bullbars). 3. BodaBoda’s  - these motorcycles make the city feel alive. With the loud engines, dodgy driving and colourful characters driving them – this is not for the faint of heart. We’ve personally see an average of one accident every few weeks.  4. Cars – we are driving a massive (former UN) Land Cruiser Troop Carrier 4.2Litre Diesel engine. It feels great to be driving a vehicle that can ram anything off the road. This attitude is of course of great concern to Tim with my driving record. 

4. Food.  You buy most of your food at markets here and then pick up the rest of your items from a small supermarket (like a 4Square in NZ).  Fresh vegetables and fruit are offered on almost every street corner in the country. Tropical fruit like mangoes, pineapples and passion fruit are staples and most other vegetables we eat in the West are available. Quality varies from stall to stall and we often buy fruit and veg twice a week to keep things fresh in the constant heat. The local staple food had every day by Ugandans  is matoke, beans, rice, posha, and g-nut.    If you pull over to the side of the road while driving, you’ll have 25 Ugandans run up to your car trying to sell you anything from toilet paper to a goat (we hope) kebab stick. If we want a quick local snack we go for a rolex (a chapatti (local bread) with a fried egg/tomato/cabbage omelette wrapped inside it). That’ll set you back NZ$0.50 and fill you up. There’s also a handful of safe and yummy places to go out to eat.

5. Little Challenges. Brushing your teeth with bottled water.  Dealing with Mzingu (white people) prices for everyday goods and services. Being surrounded by corruption in every facet of life. Unrelenting traffic almost 24/7. Pot holes so deep and roads so bad I have taken to wearing a sports bra when driving. Sleeping under a mosquito net every single night. Getting in and out of our house with multiple keys and padlocks. Monster sized biting ants, dragon flys, bees, snakes, lizards and birds (in the house of course).   

6. Being the minority. Uganda is a country of 32 million. 50% of its population is under the age of 15. There are literally ‘kids for Africa’. Life expectancy here is age 55.  Whenever I go out,  I am the minority. I hop on a bus and people stare at me from all angles for the trip. This is uncomfortable. I go to a pool and I’ll be the only white one in a pool full of black ones. When I go for a walk children (and sometimes adults) point and yell out ‘Mizungu, Mizungu (white person)’.  I often wave and smile, even take pictures with the kids. Somehow I don’t think I’d get away with doing that to Africans in NZ!

7. Time. It’s just different here. In New Zealand I plan my days and even my weekends into hourly chunks. Quite often I even plan ‘relaxation time’. Here, that would be ridiculous, unrealistic and probably offensive. Life in Uganda moves at a slow, relaxed pace. Nothing happens quickly. If the water or power goes out, no-one really knows why or when it will be fixed. And they don’t seem to mind. If we do call someone, their phone is off. Then, three days later and with no rhyme or reason, it’s back on. If you’re late it’s not a big deal, it’s expected and appreciated.  

8. Morals. God is important here. The majority of Ugandans would say they have a Christian faith and attend church. Whether or not they’re living a Christian lifestyle is another question. Respect for your elders is paramount and the African saying of it takes a village to raise a child comes to life here. It’s normal to be raised by a variety of ‘Mama’s’ ranging from your Aunt to your Grandma. A poverty mentality can see some people living for today, not for tomorrow. Instead of letting a tree grow big juicy fruit, they’ll pick it at ¼ of the size and make the money for today. Instead of letting a small tree grow, they’ll cut it down for firewood tonight.

And so for a planner/organiser like me, my plan is quite simply that I have no plan here. I try to relax into the madness and let it humour, challenge and amuse me as oppose to annoy me. And somehow I find amongst all the chaos, a joy and contentment like no other and a fire in my heart for Uganda and her people that I pray will never go out.  Long may the adventure continue!

-Helen -

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Child Headed Households in South Africa

I’d heard the term used before. Heard it and shuddered. Partly in disbelief, partly in horror. But the truth doesn’t change according to our ability to stomach it. ’Child Headed Household’. And so I sat in a swelteringly hot mud hut in rural Kwazu Natal, South Africa and met the story behind the label and the faces behind the statistic. Through the tears of two orphans whose parents had died of HIV, I listened to Bhekini (18) and Zama (23) tell me their story. 

"We’ve lived in this area since we were born. Our Mum and Dad were so loving towards us. They were both very straight forward people and provided for us four kids. They wanted us to do things right, be strong citizens and have a good future.  Our favourite memory of our Dad is watching him do his fitness. Our favourite memory of Mum is that she used to kiss us a lot and we liked that. Life was good even though it was hard for them to take care of us sometimes. After Dad died, Mum created a garden with the help of (TEAR Fund’s partner) ACAT so that she could provide food to eat and make a little money with the excess vegetables. She died in 2007. After she passed there was a tremendous change. Life became very difficult. We went from having – to not having. There was (and still is) nobody to support us."

Bhekini continued, “After Mum died I was given a grant from the government for school. Zama had to pull out of school as we could no longer afford it and the grant I received had to stretch to include food, clothing, shelter, books and writing materials for all four of us. Because of our situation we cannot all go to school. One has to go and then the other one will follow. Sometimes we go hungry just so we can buy a school book.

Zama added, “Today I take care of my siblings. I try to do piecemeal jobs like washing for others to earn a small amount. Sometimes there is not enough food so we have to go without.  Daily I am fetching firewood and water from far away. As you can see we live in a very small house with little things. The day Mum died there was this great pain and shock knowing we were all alone.”

Unable to continue and with tears streaming down her face, I stopped our interview. As we locked eyes I felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of sadness and empathy. Here, before me was a young girl that could very well have been me. Like I, she was also the eldest of four siblings. A mere eight years younger, we’d faced a very different life. This ‘accident of latitude’ meant that she was born into a community of poverty where disease ravages families and I was born into comparative luxury.  I could physically see the weight of responsibility for taking care of all her siblings a heavy burden  for her slender frame to carry. 

Zama continued, “Right before Mum died in 2007, she joined an ACAT group. She was taught how to create a small but fruitful garden that sustained our family. After she died, the garden fell into disrepair.  ACAT then helped us as siblings apply for government grants. The group our Mother was part of have continued to support us for five years by giving us some clothes, a couple of meals a week and general advice on taking care of ourselves. Recently the group have said they want to help us rebuild our home and have purchased some bricks for us. The ACAT team leader has started showing us how to revive the garden so that we can have enough food to eat. It is my wish that if one day I have my own family, I don’t forget my siblings. I will help them with whatever I can.” 

Behklini said, “I have accepted that I don’t have parents and that I will have to put it upon my shoulders to work hard in order to get to where I want to be. Through the garden we will be able to eat produce and save the money we would normally spend on buying vegetables. The ACAT garden is our hope.”

About ten minutes after I left their humble home, the local ACAT staff member I was with told me that the children hadn’t been able to have breakfast that morning. I felt sick. Food insecurity was the last thing these children should have to worry about.  Thankfully, TEAR Fund’s partner ACAT is helping some of the most vulnerable people in Kwazu Natal to become food secure. People like Behkini and Zama in a child headed household. By simply helping to establish secure access to on-going nutritional needs, ACAT’s making room at the table for the vulnerable in our world. The food is not the answer to all their problems, but it’s the first piece of a poverty puzzle this family can start solving.  But in order to do this for them and for others ACAT needs our support.

For this young group of siblings, their mothers legacy lives on in an ACAT garden that holds within it some serious potential for a gift that will keep on giving. It’s their ticket to a food secure home and a hope for the future. As they start the long process of cultivating the rocky land that surrounds them and a mountain of memories deeply entrenched within every piece of soil, I pray they’d lift up their weary heads and know their parents would be ever so proud.

Good Magazine

Just found out that Good Magazine has published an 11 page photo essay and story on the work TEAR Fund New Zealand! is doing through ASHA in Delhi's slums! Very exciting to have my photography published in this incredible magazine to raise awareness for them! The story is referenced on the cover as 'The Innocents of Delhi's Slum's' You can read the low res PDF version here

Friday, March 7, 2014

Your Home and Garden Magazine

Absolutley  have to pinch myself that we made the cover of my all time favourite magazine - Your Home and Garden New Zealand! Dream come true!! Meanwhile, at our home in Uganda we're dealing with water and power issues and living out of a suitcase for the third month in a row....the dichotomy of our lives!! You can read the story here