Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Up North! - Gulu and Kitgum

My trip to Gulu was a while back but was very interesting. My colleague Grace Ayaa took me and we also took a member of the Kireka Youth Club in the Acholi Quarter.

The Kireka Acholi Quarter is an area to which people were displaced during the war. Essentially, they were promised an opportunity to make a living and were given some money to start afresh, but no land, and the Quarter became the new home for 3,500 people from the Gulu area.

Unfortunately the Acholi Quarter very soon became crowded and a new slum area outside Kampala, where actually a living was hard to find and the money was no good, when there was no means to use your farming expertise. Most moved ten years ago and now the situation is very different. Many are settled, albeit impoverished, the war is over and a few are enthusiastic to return to reclaim their lands in the North. Unfortunately, it's not quite as easy as that, as others have encroached on their lands or simply what they had has now transformed completely.

We started slowly that day, intending to leave early to arrive around 5pm in Gulu - it's around a 5-hour bus ride. There were delays upon delays and we eventually boarded a bus a 2.50pm and then sat in it unmoving until 6.00pm. The way transport works is simple - the bus goes when it is full and the next one goes when that is full. It's the cheapest way to make a profit and keep prices cheap, but it can be very frustrating, if you arrive and find the bus empty, as we did.

The journey was dull, with just blackness outside and we eventually arrived at 11.00pm in Gulu. The place didn't look at all war-torn - in fact it looked brighter and shinier than Kampala - and the hotel apparently seemed decent, albeit 50% more expensive than my Kampala hotel. Power was out in Gulu and the hotel (irritatingly) did not have a generator, as they ought to have done for the price. So we went to our darkened rooms, tried to find our beds, tripped over the fans, which weren't working and bravely tested the toilets. The hotel smelt bad too.

Next morning we headed out to breakfast and I realised I'd eaten something bad again on the journey - maybe the water. I took it easy and we found 3 boda bodas to take us to our first destination - an agricultural entrepreneur, who had some great ideas about providing community silos for agricultural produce. The place is near the border with Sudan and apparently Sudanese pay more for their goods than Ugandans and thus there were opportunities...

Next we visited a school. The Principal was very excited about the prospect of a Butterfly Project in Gulu and we immediately signed him up and perhaps there will be some names coming from there soon? The kids were playing some interesting local musical instruments and apparently there are local competitions for the best performers.

We then had a meeting with Gulu Youth group and settled down to another hotel, since the last one was poor....

At 4.30am there was a banging on my hotel door. "Open up, open up" the woman shouted. I asked her who she was and she said "It's me", which seemed to indicate that I should know who she was. I searched my memory for Grace's voice and it didn't match, so I said I wasn't going to open up to someone I did not know. She then left.

We were starting early to head over to Kitgum and I was up mentally for two hours before I actually got up at 6.30am in the dark. Power was still out and this hotel - half the price - had a generator, but it didn't switch on until 7.00am. I learnt how to shave in the dark and clean my teeth and pack my things in pitch darkness. I'd actually planned on this and left everything in known places. I was feeling a lot better too, which helped. I got to the door of the hotel and a shape jumped out at me from the blackness....

A man was apologising for the intrusion by the hotel staff 2 hours previously. He said "We did not realise that you were white," which was very reassuring.... I paid him the 26,000 shillings (about £8) the woman had wanted and wandered out.

I waited for Grace but she did not appear, so I decided to walk up to the bus - I didn't want to miss it. In fact I needn't have worried. We got on it at around 7.30am and it did not leave until 8.45am, when it was full!

Halfway on the journey to Kitgum, a family got on. There was the mother, an older daughter and two boys. The daughter had very stained teeth and the kids were in poor condition with no shoes, but one was looking out the window, pointing and asking questions. I asked Grace to ask him what he wanted to be when he grew up, expecting the usual answer. He said he wanted to be a policeman, because they stopped vehicles and insisted on people giving them money for nothing. I didn't ask another, but Grace said that the two boys were being sponsored by somebody into boarding school in Kitgum - I pondered on the fact that it was not just me thinking that bright children from rural areas needed support in Uganda...

We arrived at our destination - Kitgum was an interesting terminus, where we kind of landed in the middle of a market. There was a private hire (taxi) and we took it all of about 300 yards to our destination, an NGO working on some niche projects around and about Kitgum. They weren't really ready for us and I seemed to wait a while during a lengthy conversation in Acholi. I wandered around and found someone who showed me an egg chamber for maturing eggs for sale. Money, money, money, I thought - I worked out it would generate 30m shillings every 21 days - but I was told that it used too much electricity and the power was always off. Anyway, there were no beneficiaries to give the eggs too and, as an NGO, we're not allowed to sell them.

"Rubbish" I pondered, as we gathered to board a vehicle, which I was apparently paying for. Moses was my cameraman for the trip - he was a member of the youth club, as mentioned, but also a keen gadgeteer, with some talent to fix and maintain equipment. Apparently he had been left behind, as there was no room for him. I stepped in on his behalf and sent the car back to collect him. Young people are simply not valued here for their capabilities and input. They are viewed as water-carriers or minions of other kinds, by many.

The settlement we visited was a camp - actually a very nice camp, with water flowing, a quarry for building and a picturesque environment. The poeple there seemed animated and apparently some of their number had been missed off a project and were annoyed about it. I guess money was involved here, but the place looked good - even some nice houses, a sophisticated piggery (is there such a thing?), but it is true to say, there were some very poor people there and many of the children looked malnourished.

The rest of the day was driving and chatting in Acholi, driving more and chatting a bit more in Acholi. I don't speak Acholi, so I can't really tell you much more!

Kitgum is full of these camps - maybe hundreds of them - and each is a new small community of its own. however, they are built for functionality, not for space and the Acholi are used to having land and space around them, so the camps are an imposition. I'm not personally sure whether the camps are better or the original set-up, where huts are hundreds of yards apart produces a more effective outcome for the people, but for now most were living in these camps.

NGOs had their boards out everywhere - we've done this, we've done that - and I felt that now this was counterproductive. The Acholi people needed to start thinking about determining their own future, not relying on aid and, once more, entrepreneurship training was what was needed and possibly some equipment, like the incubator. This signage was hinting at more free money coming and instead charities should be looking at pulling out of this area, not further subsidies.

Having said that, poverty existed in no small measure in Kitgum and clearly this still needed some focus. But poverty exists in no small measure in every place I have visited, so why aid here to the exclusion of other places...?

Musical instruments in Gulu
Landing point in Kitgum
The camps

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