Category Archives: Uganda

Why I will be running for the African Palliative Care Association

APCA_logo final_NEW STRAPIt is important to state from the start, I don’t like running and nor am I any good at it. You would be right then to comment that it seems just a smidgen odd to decide to run 21 kilometres, out of my own free will, however good a cause it is for.

Well let me assure you that it is for an exceptionally good cause. I am fundraising for the African Palliative Care Association (APCA). APCA has been my employer now for the last 18 months. I am not too proud to say though that when I started working for them I knew little about palliative care – let alone palliative care in Africa.

I guess I was a little naive but I never expected the raw reality that I was met with on day one of my job. Literally millions of people suffering the most debilitating of pain because they don’t even have access to basic elements of palliative care such as access to pain medication.

I started to grasp the magnitude of what this actually meant when I went with staff from Hospice Africa Uganda on home visits. I met patients and their family who benefited from having access to oral morphine and who had grappled back a sense of normality in their life.

I remember meeting Bruno on the outskirts of Kampala. I remember how he had said to me that “You cannot be happy to see your dad suffering”. But most of all, I remember how deeply sincere he was when he thanked the hospice staff for coming, for caring and for bringing his monthly does or oral morphine.

This realisation though of how important palliative care services are only truly sunk in when I met someone who, like most Ugandans, did not have access to this service.

That person asked me not to publish her name and I can understand why. She spent 6 months nursing her mother who died of cancer as the rest of the family refused to let her seek medical help because of the financial implications. She watched her mother everyday lie in bed unable to move because of the pain she was in. With tears in her eyes she said to me one of the most powerful sentences that I have ever heard: “When I die, I don’t want to go like that.”

This is what APCA campaigns for. To ensure that no-one in Africa dies without access to palliative care.

Over the last 18 months of working for APCA I have almost every day had a realisation of some sort. Sometimes it is still about how dire the situation is in many parts of Africa. Other times it is about these faceless numbers impact on people lives. But increasingly these realisations come through meeting the varied and wonderful volunteers and staff who working to change all this.

Because of a small band of committed people there are now policies, projects and pain killers popping up all over Africa. The staff and volunteers I have met have at times humbled me but more often than not, they have inspired me.

In South Africa the national association is supporting the training of traditional healers in palliative care. In Uganda they have been training journalists and editors. In Zambia they are engaging the HIV AIDS community. All people who used to see themselves as separate to palliative care all now working to ensure everyone has access to these services.

When the palliative care community reaches out – others cannot help but to respond seeking out what they can do, how they can contribute to helping to end this perfectly preventable humanitarian disaster of untreated pain.

It is a natural response that I too felt.

But what can I, as a non-medical professional, contribute? And that’s when it struck me that even if I was already over stretched professionally, I could always do something that anyone of us could do…run a half marathon to raise money and awareness for APCA’s work.

And so, not only do I want you, if you can afford to, donate to APCA through my ‘Just Giving’ page. I would also love you to help me raise awareness of palliative care in Africa. Can you share this article on facebook, visit APCA’s website, or share this video?

Together I know we can do this – there are already hundreds of talented wonderful people out there doing the most amazing work. It might not be obvious how you can help but believe me, just by reading this article you have taken your first step.

There is a long-way to go and my half-marathon is really just the first few steps but together we can make a real difference.

You don’t have to believe me, just go and listen to patients both with and without access to palliative care and you will soon see the difference it can make.

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Video: ‘This is Uganda’

There are lots of reasons why I love living in Uganda. Equally, it never ceases to frustrate me the distorted and perpetually negative way Uganda is so often portrayed in my home country of the UK.

It is partly because of this I wanted to share this video I have stumbled across. Not because it encapsulates ‘Uganda’ like the title suggests but because it gives just the smallest of glimpses of some of the many wonders that Uganda holds.

If nothing else I hope that it will entice more people by to come and see for themselves everything this place has to offer.

This is Uganda – 2014 from Anne und Björn Fotografie on Vimeo.

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Ice Bucket Challenge: Pour a bucket of water over my head? Not in Uganda I won’t

This is an article that I wrote for The Daily Telegraph about why I didn’t complete my ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ but did make a donation to Water Aid. 

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You can read the whole article in The Daily Telegraph by clicking here

You can watch the video below

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3 steps to improving Uganda’s education system

This is an edited cross-post from Anya Whiteside’s blog.  

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Education in Uganda is in crisis. This is not an exaggeration, it is a fact. Out of all the children who start school in Uganda, only 33% complete primary education. This is compared to 84% in Kenya, 78% in Tanzania and 81% in Rwanda. In addition, many of the children who do remain in school are not learning. In fact, less than half of children in P6 reach the defined proficiency levels in numeracy and literacy.

I could continue with the facts – 1 in 20 children of school going age have never enrolled in school at all, 84% of teachers want to leave their jobs and on average teachers are absent from the classroom an equivalent of 2 days a week – I could go on but you get the picture.

Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with 49% if the population under the age of 15. This crisis in education is their crisis, and it is a crisis for Uganda. Given all of this, I have inevitably spent a lot of my time here trying to work out why education in Uganda is in such a crisis and what could be done to improve the situation.

There are many, many answers to this question. I could talk about the drop in education funding – the dilapidated classrooms and shortage of textbooks. I could talk about the plight of Uganda’s teachers – badly paid, de-motivated, poorly supported and badly trained. I could talk about the failure of Universal Primary Education – free education in name only as children have to pay for textbooks and uniforms and parents have disengaged from a process they have been told is now the state’s responsibility. I could talk about corruption, inefficiency and the politicization of education funding. I could talk about all these things and more and they would be true. They all contribute to the problem.

Yet the thing that is continually baffling the Ministry of Education, NGOs and big donors in Uganda is what to do about it. Because time after time after time ‘interventions’ , ‘solutions’ and ‘projects’ have been designed to improve education here, but things do not seem to be getting significantly better – in fact if anything they are getting worse. Books have been provided, teachers have been trained, all manner of stakeholders have been ‘sensitised’ over and over again. Vast amounts of money have been thrown at improving education in Uganda, yet the system keeps spiralling out of control with a will of its own.

Despite all this, I cannot feel completely hopeless about it. You can never feel completely hopeless in Uganda – the vivacity, friendliness and strength of the Ugandan people forbids it. But I do feel that Ugandan children – from my grinning, squirming neighbours’ kids to the children exploding with excitement at the Mzungu passing by their village – deserve better. This is why I continue to battle to try and understand what ways forward there can be in this bubbling bureaucratic melting pot that is education in Uganda.

One necessary step is to look beyond the dilapidated classrooms, lack of books and fed up teachers to try to unpick some of the systematic and underlying causes of Uganda’s broken system. There needs to be a public debate in Uganda as to what these are and some hard choices may need to be made on prioritisation of funding – both how much should be allocated to education, and which parts of the education sector the money should go to.

One underlying issue that hits me in the face wherever I look is the lack of accountability and incentive from top to bottom in the education system. In the government education system here there seems to be little benefit in doing your job well and little consequence to doing it badly.

Teachers face an incredibly difficult job in Uganda and teaching has become the last option that people choose when they can’t get a job anywhere else. Add to that the fact that neither promotion or pay are linked to performance and very few teachers are held to account for what they do, and it is easier to understand why so many education interventions are failing. In this context providing new books, building beautiful spangly classrooms or telling communities they ‘really should send their children to school’ will have a limited impact. After all it is not ideal to teach children under a tree, but it is possible if you have a teacher who really wants to teach, and a system that supports that teacher to do so.

Instead I would argue that money could be best spent improving some of the broken systems at the heart of the education crisis in Uganda. There are three I suggest should be particularly prioritised:

  • Creating a functioning scheme of service that links teacher (and all education officials’) promotion to performance.
  • Overhauling the entire teacher payroll system so that teachers are paid on time and so-called ‘ghost teachers’ (those teachers who don’t exist but are on the payroll, meaning the money being paid to them is going somewhere else) are removed.
  • Investing in inspection and ensuring that the follow up is rigorous – no head teacher should be allowed to rape children because he is mates with the right people. This also means working on how to ensure the Directorate of Education Standards at central level and school inspectors at the District level can work together to ensure proper follow up and accountability.

These are not the only issues that need to be addressed in the education sector in Uganda, but from my time here I feel they are some of the central ones. Mending Uganda’s education systems will not be easy, but it is the only way that education in Uganda will be improved. Without political will and funding to do so, we will continue to see sticking plasters trying to mend a gaping wound.

More information:

(Steve adds) If you are interested in education in Uganda you might also be interested to read:

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2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival comes to Kampala

The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour is being held in Kampala Uganda at the National Theater on the evenings of the 2nd and 9th September 2014. The tour consists of an incredible collection of short adventure films from across the world.

You can buy your tickets from the theater box office.

Not convinced yet?

Check out this preview:

See you there!

BANFF

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Breaking: Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law null and void after Constitutional Court ruling

Breaking news: Uganda’s Constitutional Court has decided that the anti-homosexuality law is ‘null and void’.

The Constitutional Court found that the speaker of parliament acted illegally by moving ahead with a vote on the law despite at least three lawmakers objecting to a lack of quorum.

Despite this ruling, homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda as it does it most other African countries. Section 145 of Uganda’s Penal Code, which remains in force, continues to criminalize “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”. The harsher penalties that were introduced under the 2014 legislation though such as life-imprisonment for ‘repeat offences’ no longer apply.

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Is Panadol made from dead people’s brains?

The answer is of course, no. Panadol is not made from dead people’s brains.

In case there was any doubt though the New Vision, Uganda’s largest national newspaper, helped clear this up for us today. This is from page 24:

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Wonderfully obscure!

A hat tip to my friend Malcolm who spotted this. 

 

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Film showing in Kampala: The Last Yak Herder of Dhe

The Mountain Club of Uganda proudly presents:

TheLastYakHerderPosterYou can see a preview of the film here:

Join the film showing facebook event page here.

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A visit to Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda

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As we enter the long corridor a strip light overhead flickers for a final few seconds before finally joining some of the other lights in the corridor that have long since given up and now do little more than collect dust. The few remaining lights throw strange long shadows down the corridor next to the wheeled beds that rest head to toe along the side of the corridor. It reminds me of the Kampala traffic jam that stacks up outside the hospital in the choking city heat.

No natural light makes it into the corridor but somehow the faint smell of congested traffic makes it up onto the third floor of Mulago Hospital to intermingle with the smell of humans and disinfectant. Avoiding the few harsh strip lights that still work, patients lie either in the shadow of their own headboards or with their thin sheets pulled over their heads.

As I walk down the corridor I step carefully over the relatives, water bottles, half eaten meals and other day to day items that are dotted across the floor. The patients rely on relatives for not just company but also for a lot of the day to day care they need. The smell as you pass some patients makes it abundantly clear that some patients are not receiving the care they need.

I glance sideways making small talk with my eyes to some of the patients whilst trying to keep moving on and keeping up with the representative of Hospice Africa Uganda who I am shadowing. Dressed in the dark blue shirt with a golden collar that marks her out as a member of the palliative care team my host takes large confident strides that exposes her familiarity with the surroundings.  She doesn’t look down as she steps over brothers, books and broken bits and pieces. Instead she angles her thick note book that she is carrying towards the strip light above and looks over notes of the patients she is there to visit.

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We push through some thick wooden swing doors on our left into a room that has one of the young patient we are there to visit as well half a dozen others. The patient we are visiting has terminal cancer and relies on the visits of the Hospice Africa team to bring oral morphine to help her with the considerable pain she would otherwise be in. My host from Hospice Africa Uganda goes straight to her bedside and lowers herself and her voice as she makes confident but kind eye contact with the patient. Speaking in the local language, Luganda, my host subconsciously runs her fingers over the shoulder of the patient as she speaks.

I am told that they ask how bad the patient’s pain is and decide that the current level of morphine is suitable. The sister of the patient, herself barely out of her teenage years, looks on with the juxtaposition of her own youth intermingled with the inevitable death that rests so close to her own, and her family’s, life. Looking as though she is unsure of her role in the nurse/patient dynamic that plays out in front of her the sister reconciles her position by just being physically close to her sister. Both protective and supportive she leans on the bed side throughout the consultation.

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Selfishly my thoughts drift as the Luganda speech drifts around me. I start to think about how if I was diagnosed with terminal cancer I would want to be free, bathed in natural light and surrounded by fresh air not stuck in a overcrowded hospital. Almost immediately I catch myself and realise how ridiculous this thought is – all across Uganda there are patients who are dying of cancer in natural sunlight, surrounded by fresh air with their families who are also in insufferable pain because they have no access to the medical support they need. The pain medication, oral morphine, which the hospice team was there to deliver is little more than an aspiration to most cancer patients in Uganda – let alone early diagnosis and treatment.

Just before we leave, a colleague from the US organisation ‘Treat the Pain’ asks if the patient would like a Polaroid picture with her sister. For the first time a flicker of excitement crosses the patient’s face and she shuffles a symbolic couple of centimetres up the bed for the photo. Together the two sisters sit with their heads pressed together watching as their own images slowly appears in the Polaroid picture.

As we stand to leave we collect up our belongings leaving nothing but the sister, the patient and the Polaroid picture behind.

Speaking later when we are far away from the cluttered dark corridors of Mulago I talk to my colleague from Treat the Pain and we both reflect on how the photo felt like a symbol of how little we could offer as non-medical staff in such situations. The stories we write, the advocacy we engage in, and people we interact with will hopefully change the lives of many more patients to come, but for that one girl and her sister we could offer nothing more than a Polaroid picture – it felt useless.

I know in both my heart and mind that it is important to record stories, to take down testimonies, to photograph suffering. I know it, but sometimes it is hard to feel it in the intensity of the personal suffering you have barged in on, especially when you can offer so little in return.

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Click to enlarge the photos.

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One novel way to avoid paying a bribe to traffic police in Uganda

I got that all too familiar feeling in the bottom of the stomach that I get when faced with confrontation with authority. A traffic policeman waved me into the side of the road with a stern, if slightly comic, reproachable look on his face. Walking calmly up to the car I can remember hearing the heavy clump of his standard issue boots on the hot cracking concrete as he approached my car window.

Sat looking forward through my dusty windscreen I prepared mentally for the relentless burst of enthusiasm that had served so well before in dealing with traffic policeman. I had of course not done anything wrong but I knew from experience this was not enough to avoid trouble.

I knew the drill. The best way to escape either an arbitrary fine (an offense in Uganda is ‘the inconsiderate use of the motor vechicle’) or in many ways worse, being forced into paying a bribe, was to speak in a friendly, informed and most importantly, relentless way.

From previous experience I knew the subject matter wasn’t important, and so I rehearsed in my head…The weather, wonderful. The place I am going, I heard it is magical. The place I have come from, even better. My friends first experience of Uganda, perfect!

The policeman leaned on the passenger’s window:

Traffic policeman: ‘How are you today?’

Just as I was about to launch into my boundless tirade of optimism my fiancé started speaking:

My fiancé: ‘Ahh, I am well ssebo (sir), how are you? Today is the perfect day for being in Uganda I think. You know ssebo, I love you Uganda so much. I love it so much that I have learnt the national anthem. Do you want to hear me sing it?’

She then breaks out into the national anthem. I sit and watch. I try not to smirk at the ludicrousness of the situation. Most of all though, I try to read the policeman’s face. Looking on I am caught in a mixture of apprehension to what the policeman’s reaction would be and, utter awe for my fiancé’s formidable friendliness.

Questions started to swim to the tune of national anthem in my head…Is this pushing it too far, to literally and totally inexplicably start singing the national anthem?

Of course not.

Within a few lines the policeman starts to join in. The contort reproachable burrows that were resting on his forehead relax and before long he is positively beaming as the two of them are singing in unison.

With a big smile on his face, the traffic policeman waved us off wishing us a good day in English to which we subconsciously respond in unison with the Luganda, ‘bera bulungi’ (good day!).

At this point I glance in my rear view mirror I can see the policeman taking the concept of jollity to a whole new level.

I can’t guarantee this approach works with all law enforcement officers, but on this occasion on this particular stretch of road in Uganda, it worked a treat!

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An atheist’s reflection on a prayer meeting

As a de-facto atheist people often assume that I might be troubled by being asked to attend or even take part in religious events. This is rarely the case and indeed I often find the opposite to be true. 

Today I attended a joint prayer meeting for palliative care practitioners from across Uganda who wanted to pray for the palliative care resolution that is currently going through the World Health Assembly. At the meeting I was asked as a representative of my work to read out a short prayer asking God to offer the decision makers wisdom and compassion.

Not only did I not mind this but in fact I found the whole event a real pleasure to attend. Let me explain why.

To start there was a wonderful feeling of unity at the meeting. This sense of ‘unity’ is what I chose to highlight when I wrote it up for ehospice news. It was also what I tried to capture in some of my photographs.

*Click to enlarge*

It was wonderful to watch how different organisations came together in a moment to share a common aim – the furthering of palliative care. It also got me thinking about the potential that faith has to break down hierarchy.

Uganda is incredibly hierarchical as a culture but in this short meeting the focus on the presumed ultimate leader (‘god’) broke down the created hierarchy.

It was both interesting and inspiring to watch.

So even being a hardened (and let’s be honest, argumentative) ‘de facto atheist’ I have to admit to finding this event not only a pleasure to attend but also pragmatically useful.

It brought people together in a powerful and profound way.

In my work, often with NGOs, I often stumble across stupid and badly thought out ideas. Some of them stem from a religious perspective but many don’t.

For as long as a religious meeting or belief system passes J.S Mill’s principle of harm test I cannot see any reason not to let people get on with it. And, in cases like today’s meeting, I cannot see any reason not to positively celebrate it.

Today’s prayer meeting not only passed J.S Mill’s ‘harm principle’ test with considerable ease, but it also I felt contributed something quite profound to the common good – a chance for colleagues and strangers to come together on an equal footing and to focus on what they have in common opposed to their differences.

 

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Watch the first of the Al Jazeera series on access to medical morphine

aljazeera011613I occasionally link here bits of my work with the African Palliative Care Association that I think could be interesting to a wider audience.

Here is a short Al Jazeera report on access to morphine in Uganda that I helped coordinate. It serves as a nice introduction to the subject that leaves millions suffering from perfectly preventable pain.

The film was shown on repeat last week. On Thursday they had our Executive Director, Dr Emmanuel Luyirika, on to speak about the subject. You can watch the interview here:

In Uganda, a regional leader in terms of medical morphine availability, only one in ten people who need medical morphine have access to it!

For more information:

Help out:

At the moment millions of Africans suffer terrible pain because they don’t have access to really basic pain medication that many people in Europe take for granted. If you feel like I do that no-one should be left to die in pain then please consider:

 

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I have malaria, but so did over 2 million others last year alone!

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Yesterday I found out that I have malaria. For those of you who haven’t had malaria before I can promise it is no fun. The symptoms come in waves but yesterday I took myself off for a blood test because I had a driving headache, aching bones and muscles, felt like I needed to vomit and was having hot and cold flushes all morning.

As I say, it is no fun.

Here in Uganda though malaria is an alarmingly common occurrence.  90% of the country is considered by the WHO to have ‘high transmission’ rates. This is partly explained because it is a tropical country with lots of Anopheles mosquitoes (who pass on the parasite when they bite you).

But there are also sociological factors. Anopheles mosquitoes predominantly bite humans at night. If you sleep under a mosquito net this massively reduces your chances of getting malaria. There is a big NGO drive in Uganda to distribute nets (and research suggests that most people who get them use them) but millions in Uganda still sleep without the nets.  Only a few stupid westerns actually chose to sleep, without a net, under the stars on top of a rock after a day’s rock climbing!

But this issue is not limited to Uganda, over half the world’s population live in areas at risk of malaria.

In 2012 the WHO recorded 207 million cases of malaria worldwide. Out of these 207 million, 627,000 died. Although the disease affects large parts of the world, the deaths caused by malaria are an overwhelmingly African issue. 90% of malaria deaths in 2012 occurred in Africa.  African children are especially at risk – 460,000 African children died before their fifth birthdays.

But this is the real travesty of the situation – malaria, with early diagnosis, is completely treatable.  With early diagnosis and a simple course of medication malaria is treatable and leaves the patient (normally) with no long-term effects.

Because I went to the hospital quickly and started my medication within a few days of showing symptoms, in all likelihood I should be back to my old self in the next 2 to 3 days. So for the friends and family reading this, I’m fine, you’ve got nothing to worry about!

And there is some more good news, since 2000, the WHO has recorded a drop in malaria fatalities in Africa by 49% – this is largely through greater prevention methods (such as net distribution).

Malaria is one of the big killers. In the 21st century it doesn’t have to be like that.

For more information:

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An African palliative care ‘No make-up selfie’

I today wrote this article for the Africa edition of ehospice news about why I posted a #NoMakeUpSelfie of myself on Facebook and why I donated money to the African Palliative Care Association (APCA)

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The ‘No make-up selfies’ trend has had extraordinary results. Cancer Research UK have reported that they have been donated over £2 million in just a few days.

While this social media trend has been dominated by those living in Australia, the UK and the US, sadly we know that cancer is a truly global problem. However, this global problem disproportionately impacts on low and middle income countries.

Indeed, we know that 70% of deaths caused by cancer are found in low and middle income countries.

The disparities don’t stop there. Here in Uganda, where the African Palliative Care Association is based, there is just one radiotherapy machine in the whole country. This one machine it is reported, can break down for weeks at a time.

In the UK by contrast, for a similar sized population, there are hundreds of radiotherapy machines available.

For almost every cancer patient in the UK there is access to basic pain control medications. Again though, just like the ‘No make-up selfies’ this is a luxury disproportionately enjoyed by those living in the UK, US and Australia.

recent study found that 4 billion people, over half of the world’s population, live in countries where regulatory barriers leave cancer patients suffering excruciating pain.

Part of what the African Palliative Care Association does is to campaign and lobby for everyone across Africa to have access to these pain medications. It is not a luxury that should only be enjoyed in developed countries but a fundamental human right that should be available to all.

ehospice reported last November that “Opioids are often unavailable [in Africa], and access is significantly impaired by widespread over-regulation that is pervasive across the region. In many countries access to strong painkillers such as morphine is impossible as they remain legally restricted.”

The results of this grim, often unspoken about, reality is that many cancer patients in countries like Uganda are diagnosed late and have little or insufficient access to treatments. A cancer diagnosis then is often a death penalty and this death comes with little support or access to pain medications.

There is no other way of saying this, cancer patients across Africa are too often left to die in considerable pain.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. All across Africa, the African Palliative Care Association are helping governments and other strategic partners to respond to this challenge.

If you feel, like everyone at the African Palliative Care Association does, that no cancer patient should ever be left to die in preventable pain then please support the ‘No make-up selfie’ spirit and post a photo of yourself on Facebook, donate, and ask others to support us.

Our work is only possible because of your support.  Please consider donating monthly whatever you can afford. The smallest of donations can have the biggest of impacts.

To donate, just click here.

More information:

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10 incredible pictures from the white-water kayaking Nile River Festival

1 by Alexey Dudkov
I wrote a short report for The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine of the Nile River Festival 2014

Click here to read the article and to see the 10 incredible photos.

 

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Patient photos from Hospice Africa Uganda

Last week I visited Hospice Africa Uganda. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with some of the patients. I had a really wonderful time.

Sometimes people think of hospices as places where people go to die. This perception is so different to the reality I experienced. This is, at least in part, why I wanted to share these photos. During my visit I was blown away by the vibrancy of life the patients radiated.

Click on the images below to see them enlarged.

*Please do not reuse these photos without my consent. Thanks. 

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How the anti-gay bill was reported in Uganda

Ugandan media has made headlines around the world in the 24 hours after Museveni signed the anti-gay bill. Here are a selection of newspaper headlines from Uganda*.

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The Red Pepper
made the most headlines after it once again named suspected homosexuals.

The Daily Monitor – the biggest independent paper – ran with the conciliatory headline, ‘Joy, anger as Museveni signs law against gays’. It also quote Museveni directly in it’s follow up article, ‘Museveni: Homosexuals have lost argument in Uganda’.

The New Vision ­- Ran with the complete text of Museveni’s speech under the headline, ‘President Museveni’s speech at Anti-gay Bill signing’.

The Observer – who have previously reported n LGBT rights issues – reported the signing of the bill saying that, ‘Museveni happy to ‘collide with the West’ over homosexuality’.

*This is not intended as a complete list. If there are any articles you think I should have added then please do leave them in the comments section below.

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Why are Ugandan teachers so often skipping school?

Natlalie Aldham writes for Hynd’s Blog about the importance of tackling the underlying causes of the ‘truant teachers’ in Uganda before blaming them for skipping school. Natalie is a teacher in the UK who volunteered in Uganda in 2013. 

St Kizito school in UgandaHaving spent a number of months last year working in Kampala primary schools, and having several colleagues around Uganda doing the same, I have a fair understanding of the problems teachers in Uganda face.

The headline then in the Guardian, Uganda’s truant teachers targeted by pupil text-messaging scheme, caught my eye and made me a little cross.

Although the article touched on some of the root causes of why teachers might be absent from schools, the overwhelming message was ‘blame the teachers’. The general gist of the article is that teachers in Uganda regularly do not show up for work, which has an obvious knock-on effect on children’s education. The solution? Give the children mobile phones so that they can text and ‘tell on’ their teachers.

I like the idea of giving pupil’s agency to hold their teachers to account and I am heartened to learn that this system makes Nabwire and his classmates feel less afraid of their teachers.

But this whole scheme ignores the old adage that ‘prevention is better than a cure’. We have to ask, why are teachers absent from schools to begin with?

To answer this, it might help to flip the question. As a teacher in the UK why do I go to work each day? Quick answers:

  1. I love my job and it gives me a sense of purpose. I feel a sense of responsibility towards the children I teach, I care about their wellbeing, and I get a buzz from watching them learn and grow.

  2. I get paid which means I can pay my rent, buy food, pay bills and afford many luxuries.

So why don’t Ugandan teachers feel the same?

Firstly, many are under trained. Teaching in Uganda isn’t always a profession you go into because you love working with children and believe it will be fulfilling. You go into it because you did well enough to finish school but not well enough to go on to University. You make this decision aged 17 and are stuck with it.

Some Ugandan teachers are highly motivated, good at their job and enjoy their work. They are the lucky ones. Many don’t. If your training has been fairly basic and you have 100+ children to teach in a room with potentially no furniture (the resource filled classroom described at the beginning of the Guardian article is a rarity) then motivation to go to work can easily be outweighed by motivation to do pretty much anything else.

Unfurnished and dirty classrooms, where children lack even the basic resources such as pencils and paper make teaching difficult. Without good training teachers rely on (often corporal) punishment to ensure ‘good behaviour’.

Many children haven’t eaten breakfast before school and a lot don’t get lunch either; hungry children aren’t the best learners. Training in how to teach children with Special Educational Needs is minimal at best, which presents further problems for teachers. The curriculum and assessment methods leave a lot to be desired.

Those issues aside, as the Guardian article alludes to, there are a huge number of reasons why teachers miss work:

The report attributed teacher absenteeism to factors such as illness, attendance of funerals, poor school infrastructure, transport problems, environmental conditions, lack of lunch available at school and even drunkenness.

Low pay was also cited. Kyambadde said teachers in Uganda only make an estimated 320,000 Ugandan shillings (about $129) a month and are often not paid on time, forcing many to undertake farming and other part-time work.’

These factors listed might sounds trivial, but they are real issues which teachers worry about and they shouldn’t be listed in this off-hand way as though they are just excuses.

Take the example of ‘attendance of funerals’. A school I heard of recently in Western Uganda has lost two of its teachers to premature deaths in the last year. My friend arrived to observe lessons at the school only to find hundreds of children sitting quietly with nothing to do while their teachers were at the funeral. Death among younger adults is almost an everyday event in Uganda and people really are often required to attend funerals when they ‘ought’ to be at work.

I could go on to give anecdotes about hauling water from the bore hole because the water board and local council can’t settle their differences and get the piped supply turned back on; over-the-odds numbers of serious road traffic accidents which leave teachers or their relatives in hospital (hospitals where you must visit and help any patients you know because otherwise they won’t necessarily be given any food); and I’d have a field day if I started on ‘poor school infrastructure’.

Suffice to say, the factors listed are genuine and important in the lives of most Ugandan teachers.

Finally (and this is arguably the most important point), let’s imagine for a minute that Ugandan classrooms are well resourced and schools are well managed, that death and illness are miraculously reduced to what we in the UK see as average, that water and electricity and food supplies are good… as a teacher you’d still want to get paid for going to work.

The bottom line in all of this is that teachers in Uganda are paid a pittance. And that’s if they get paid. Sometimes the end of the month rolls around and they are simply not paid. There is little they can do about this. Most teachers take matters into their own hands and take on additional work in order to provide for their families. They drive boda bodas (motorcycle taxis), they farm a small plot of land, they teach part time in a private school whilst also remaining on the government school’s payroll, they run a small business from home, perhaps taking in sewing. This takes them away from their teaching work, but it is the only way to make ends meet.

Under these circumstances, labelling teachers as simply being ‘truant’ will only add fuel to the fire. Yes there is a problem of teacher being absence and this needs to be addressed, but not like this.

The underlying reasons to why the teachers are absent needs to first be addressed.

More information:

If you’re interested to read more about education in Uganda, have a read of this article by Anya Whiteside: ‘The state of education in Uganda‘.

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Talk by adventurer Julian Monroe Fisher in Kampala. 27th Feb 2014

The Mountain Club of Uganda (MCU) are putting on a FREE talk by the world renowned adventurer, Julian Monroe Fisher. The talk will be at 7:30 in Athina Club in Kololo, Kampala.

Please do share this event with friends and family.

Hopefully see you there.

Talk

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VSO: The life of an accompanying partner in Uganda

In January 2013 I moved to Uganda with no job. Why? To be with my fiance who was volunteering with VSO. Within VSO I had the official title of ‘accompanying partner’. This is an article that I wrote for the VSO blog about what life is like for an accompanying partner. 

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Sat on a fold-down seat I felt the flow of night air leaking in through rust holes of the dilapidated bus that had come to pick us up from the airport. The bus jerked forward with every change of gear as we made our way through the still busy streets of Kampala in the early hours of the morning. Sat with a dozen VSO volunteers from around the world including the UK, America, and the Philippines, I joined in the slightly constrained conversation as everyone simultaneously tried to chat to other new volunteers, take in their new surroundings and also contextualise the myriad of thoughts and feelings that rushed through their heads.

For me, as an accompanying partner opposed to a VSO volunteer, I was the exception on the bus. I was the only one without something lined up, a structure to fit into, and a sense of knowing what was going to follow. But, just like the other volunteers, I had the support of the astonishingly well organised VSO Uganda office.

Taking part, and being made to feel part of, the first week’s in-country training was incredibly important to me. As an accompanying partner I was specifically invited to take part in all the sessions and to feel part of the ‘VSO family’. It meant that for the first week I had structure, a formal and informal support network, and also a chance to ask all those questions that had been queuing up in my mind: How much is the bus into the centre of town? What should I say if someone asked me what my views were on issues around religion, sexuality or politics? How do I greet someone in Luganda and how many people in Kampala use Luganda as their first language?

Even though I didn’t have a volunteer placement lined up, I did have a plan for what I wanted to do in Kampala – and that was to find a job.

As such, in the following days and weeks after the in-country training I used the little Luganda I had attained already to charm my way past bored looking security guards into different offices of NGOs to leave my CV and covering letters with receptionists. Those early days of walking Kampala’s dusty streets were a real learning curve for me. Coming from working in the Middle-East I had to unlearn the reserved habits I had picked up and learn to embrace the Ugandan enthusiasm, friendliness and passion for life. In retrospect I am pleased that I had those couple of weeks to get to know the city that would become my home in my own time.

Just over 5 weeks later I was invited for an interview at the African Palliative Care Association. The role was to become their Communications Officer which included editing the online health news website, ehospice. Just 6 weeks after arriving in country I started work in their office just a few kilometres from our new house. Everything very quickly seemed to slot into place and my previous life in the Middle-East and London seemed a long time ago.

With the small matter of the job sorted, this enabled me to spend more time looking into the rest of life in Uganda. Very quickly Anya and I joined the Mountain Club of Uganda and headed out into the mind blowing countryside that Uganda has on offer. In the last year we have visited Uganda’s many national parks to spot the big game, learnt to kayak on the rapids of the river Nile and explored some of the highest peaks the region has to offer. Uganda has so much to offer and Anya and I have every intention to explore as much of it as we can in our remaining time here. (See our blogs to see more of our travels).

Thinking back to that bus journey from the airport with all the new VSO volunteers seems strange now. The strangers that I was talking to have become close friends and in some cases almost like family. The streets that flashed past the window have now become my home and I don’t even notice the rickety old buses that lurch around Kampala’s congested city streets.

Steve blogs at www.stevehynd.com and tweets at @steve4319.

Steve’s partner Anya is a VSO volunteer Education advocacy officer working at the Forum for Education NGO’s of Uganda. She blogs at http://anyawhitesideblog.wordpress.com/

VSO welcomes applications from couples wanting to volunteer together, however we respond to demand from overseas partner organisations and it is rare to receive a request for two volunteers for the same location at the same time that will match both of your skills.

If it is not possible for both people to volunteer with us, the other option is for one person to volunteer (it could be either of you) and for the other to go along as an accompanying partner. This is fairly common and it is usually possible for the accompanying partner to find paid or voluntary work when they are in country. In this case we would only cover the costs of the VSO volunteer, but we would do our best to ensure things like accommodation are suitable for two people.

Find out more about volunteering abroad with VSO.

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