Category Archives: Uganda

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.

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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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The smokescreen of science. Homosexuality in Uganda.

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President Museveni of Uganda has agreed to sign the now notorious ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ which could impose a lifetime jail sentence on anyone who commits homosexual acts.

What is curious about this latest crackdown though is the justification that the President has adopted to justify the signing of the bill.

A State House statement released last Sunday quoted Museveni as saying that ‘there is no scientific proof yet that people are homosexuals by genetics’

It goes onto to quote Museveni further saying that ‘It is on the strength of that I am going to sign the bill. I know we are going to have a big battle with the outside groups about this, but I will tell them what our scientists have to say.’

For a lack of a better word, curious…

The scientific committee, which included respected health professionals and scientists, set up to advise the President on this, concluded with 6 points:

The following are summaries of their observations;

  1. There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality.
  2. Homosexuality is not a disease but merely an abnormal behavior which may be learned through experiences in life.
  3. In every society, there is a small number of people with homosexuality tendencies.
  4. Homosexuality can be influenced by environmental factors e.g. culture, religion and peer pressure among others.
  5. The practice needs regulation like any other human behavior especially to protect the vulnerable.
  6. There is need for further studies to address sexuality in the African context.

The Executive Director of the Uganda Media Centre and Spokesperson for the Government of Uganda, Ofwono Opondo, summarised the report findings saying:

https://twitter.com/OfwonoOpondo/status/434374029030719489

These conclusions represent some spurious claims intermixed with a sprinkling of loose language and half-truths that allow for differing interpretations to emerge from this ‘science’.

Take point one for example, ‘There is no definitive gene responsible for homosexuality’. A negative statement that may well be true. But in this context it has been used by the government to justify the positive opposite ‘that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle choice’ – a statement which flies in the face of the majority of available scientific studies on the matter.

The BBC for example yesterday published an article looking at how a genetic tendency to homosexuality sits with Darwinian concepts of evolution. In this article it starts by asserting that the idea homosexuality has biological origins has become the ‘scientific orthodoxy’. The article goes onto say that whilst there is no ‘definitive gene’ that determines sexuality, it is thought that there are alleles – or groups of genes – that sometimes codes for homosexual orientation.

The same BBC article quotes Qazi Rahman who offers a reasonable summary saying, ‘it’s the media that oversimplifies genetic theories of sexuality, with their reports of the discovery of “the gay gene”. Genetically speaking, Rahman believes that sexuality involves tens or perhaps hundreds of alleles that will probably take decades to uncover.’

Although the exact nature of the biological determinants of sexuality remain unknown, it is widely accepted that sexual orientation is determined, at least in part, by your pre-existing biology. Something that the report fails to mention.

The same pattern can be drawn from the other five conclusions. Loose language and scientific half-truths being interpreted for ideological and political purposes. Point 2 for example – if you take the word abnormal without moral judgement (scientifically) to literally mean, differing from the norm, then of course homosexuality can be considered abnormal (in the same way fishing could be considered an ‘abnormal activity’). But, in the context of this debate it is understood, and intentionally conflated with, other ‘abnormal’ practices that hold near universal condemnation such as rape and paedophilia ensuring that it is interpreted with a pre-existing moral framework (very unscientific).

Indeed, it should be noted that whilst Museveni’s interest in the science behind homosexuality is quite new, his eagerness to condemn and discriminate against homosexuals though is far from it. To give just one example, it was clear he needed no science to back up his popular, if insulting and simply wrong, statement that ‘women become lesbians because of “sexual starvation” when they failed to marry’.

In short, though the science behind sexuality in Uganda is simply being used as a smokescreen here to further a populist political and ideological agenda.

Indeed, it seems hard to disagree with Edwin Sesange’s summary: ‘The strange thing about the scientists’ report from Uganda’s Ministry of Health about the origin of homosexuality, is that much of it was right. But what was left out, the way the words were twisted, the flaws in the scientists’ conclusions, make it false…In fact, the report…is little more than science providing political cover for Museveni. It allows him to sign the bill, gain political popularity at home, dismiss criticism from the international community and blame it all on the scientists if his decision is wrong’.

Of course, there is one way for this scientific report to hold credibility. Publish it!

If it were to be published in a scientific journal and face a peer-review process then it might hold some weight. Until that happens we can assume that the science remains a smokescreen for a wider political and ideological move against the LGBT community in Uganda.

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Uprooted by conflict – stories from West Nile

This is a guest post by Anya Whiteside. Anya works for the Forum for Education NGO’s in Uganda and is also my fiance. 

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

‘I was a business woman in Bor and then when the trouble started I just had to pick up my children and run’.

I am standing in Ajumani in West Nile region, in the North West of Uganda which borders both the DRC and South Sudan. The woman I am speaking to is heavily pregnant and her three young children cluster round her. One of her daughters is about four and spends the next half hour sidling up to me to stroke my white skin all cheeky grin and dirty t-shirt. ‘My husband was in Kenya getting treatment for an illness when the fighting started’ she continues. Now she is sleeping on the floor of a school in Uganda hoping that he will come and find her.

I am in West Nile as part of an inter-agency assessment of the schools in the areas of Uganda where South Sudanese refugees have flooded in the recent weeks. My colleagues are from various NGOs, the UN and the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports. Well over two thousand people cross the border every day into this remote, hot and dusty part of Uganda. Add to that recent new arrivals from the DRC, as well as many generations of refugees who fled here in the past and you have a patchwork of stories.

The schools are due to open in the first week in February and are likely to receive large numbers of refugee children enrolling to join the classes. Our role is to assess what additional support they are likely to need. ‘I have one thousand children in my school’ one head teacher tells me, ‘but I expect an additional four hundred refugees to enrol this term’. Even before the recent crisis the schools in this area are full beyond capacity. It is not unusual to see a teacher teaching 90 children with four or five children squeezed onto each desk.

Over and over again as we interview head teachers in the area they tell us they will enrol the extra children and they are happy to welcome them into the school, but that they need support to be able to cope. They need additional teachers to help teach and translate what they are teaching, textbooks, latrines, desks and classrooms. All resources they look unlikely to get, certainly in the numbers they need them.

I am amazed by the way the schools in West Nile are so welcoming to the new influx and wonder how primary schools back home would react if in a matter of weeks you asked them to enrol 50% extra pupils many who speak a different language.

One of the reasons may be that the area is so used to hosting refugees. For many years refugees have fled across the border from DRC or Sudan seeking safety from fighting. Some go back and some stay. Some of the new refugees have fled back to areas where they were refugees before, or gone to stay with family still in Uganda. Outside the reception centre it can be hard to tell who is a refugee and who is not, as people start to build mud huts in land allocated to them by the Ugandan government.

One man who has been in Uganda for many years and is elected in the refugee settlement as a local leader tells me how his father was a politician under Mobuto’s regime in DRC. ‘When Mobuto was overthrown they chased him and cut him up into pieces’ he tells me, ‘and then they came for me’. He tells me how he drove away in a car full of people, but it was stopped before they could leave the country. All the women in the car were raped and then everyone was shot. After being shot he was thrown in the river. He was injured, but not killed, so was dragged out further downstream and rescued. He then escaped to Uganda he explains to me matter-of-factly while we are walking to visit a local school.

Some Ugandans understand more than most the trauma of being uprooted from your home. ‘I hate seeing people here’ says my colleague as we drive into a refugee reception centre where newly arrived refugees clutch bags and look for shade. I have known my colleague for a while as a vivacious, hilariously funny and very competent member of the NGO community who went to University in Europe and now works as an education specialist. ‘Seeing it just reminds me of running away and all that time spent as a refugee in the jungle’, she explains.

My colleague is from West Nile, the area where Idi Amin came from, and after he was overthrown the area was targeted for reprisal killings. Her house was set on fire and her and her family fled into the jungle in DRC. I wonder as she talks how many other people I know have terrible stories which I know nothing about. I also wonder how a country can heal from these stories when they are buried so deep and rarely talked about.

Experiences of displacement in Northern Uganda are also more recent still. In 2005 the war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) saw 1.8 million internally displaced people in camps across Northern Uganda.

After a week of talking to head teachers and local District official, hours and hours of bumping along dusty dirt road, visiting some of the refugee reception centres and hearing some of the refugees’ stories I am left with twin emotions. On the one hand I am sickened by conflict and the horrendous things it does to people. And on the other hand I am amazed by the human resilience and ability to cope.

I return to Kampala thinking of all the refugees in the world and just how horrific it must be to flee your home. I am welcomed by the sickening news that of the 2.5 million  Syrian refugees, my own country, the UK, has agreed to host a mere 500 Syrian refugees over a year. I am aghast and wonder how a country like the UK can choose to refuse safety to so many, when countries with so little resources such as Uganda receive thousands of refugees a day, or a tiny country like Lebanon can hosts over a million.

As I rant and rave at the selfishness of my own nation I think back to the drive out of a refugee reception centres on our way back to Kampala. As I looked out the window I saw a group of scruffy children playing football. In the last month their whole lives have been uprooted and many have lost everything. They shout and skid through the dust imitating the moves of famous footballers.

I wonder what will become of these children and hope against hope that they will experience peace and better times ahead.

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Filed under Human rights, Social comment, Uganda, War

Nile River Festival 2014: Sun, beer and some mind-blowing kayaking

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Well over two hundred faces looked on. Each face, for different reasons, stared intently out at the flowing river. From the bank the competing kayakers stood with tops off drying themselves in the afternoon sun eyeing up their opponents bobbing in the water as they waited to take to the rapids.

Spread out over the rocks spectators sunned themselves with cold beers in hand as excited children pushed passed unsuspecting viewers to get perilously close the water’s edge to ensure the best view of the unfolding spectacle.

Sat on the banks of the River Nile, this incongruous group was there to watch the freestyle competition on day three of the white-water kayaking festival, ‘Nile River Festival’.

No one left disappointed.

The festival, now grown into a four day event that attracts competitors from across the world including Russia, the UK and of course the home grown talent of Uganda, is an annual highlight for tourists and extreme sports junkies alike.

The spectators stood on outcrops of rocks on the banks in the bright afternoon sun watching on as competitors such as Sam Ward, team GB coach and co-owner of Kayak the Nile, took to the ‘Nile Special’ rapid to compete against some of the best kayakers from around the world.

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As the afternoon progressed, the crates of empty beer bottles stacked behind the bar started to grow as the sun slipped behind the opposite bank of the river. The kayakers who had not progressed passed the earlier heats now encapsulated the spirit and ethos of the festival by staying, supporting and joking with the remaining competitors.

Out on the river the final four competitors were doing their all to raise a cheer from the crowd and to impress the on looking judges. If the faces of some of the local children who sat huddled together completely engrossed at the competitors acrobatics were to go by then all four kayakers deserved to win.

Despite the Ugandans getting the inevitable loud cheers for every trick completed it was the Brit, Sam Ward, who, after a long afternoon’s performance, came in victorious in the men’s competition.

As the event came to a close streams of children squeezed past the legs of the flip-flop laden spectators who now scrambled up the dry banks of the river – a task made no easier, but certainly more funny, by the afternoons beer.

The Nile River Festival provided an extremely satisfying afternoon filled with sun, beer and some mind-blowing kayaking.

My advice…keep an eye out for the Nile River Festival 2015. But if you can’t wait until then, why not drop Sam at Kayak the Nile an email and give it a go yourself?

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Adventure holidays and trips in Africa for 2014

This article was written as part of The Guardian’s ‘Adventure Sports Series’.

Kayak the Nile
From kayaking the Nile and mountain biking in the shadow of Kilimanjaro to exploring Africa’s amazing national parks.

Jinja, Uganda, is a town on the banks of the Nile that is gaining a reputation as the extreme sports capital of east Africa. This is, in part, thanks to the range of whitewater rapids on the nearby stretch of the river Nile.

You can read the whole article on the Guardian Travel site by clicking here >>> 

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Dan Smith on Britain and languages: “The world is laughing at us”

Blogger and good friend Dan Smith recently wrote a reply piece to my article “Britain: Is it time to consider living, studying or working abroad?”. Here is an edited version of his blog. To read the full article click here.

For a start, I implore you, the British public, to get out of our wonderful rainy little island and explore the rest of the world.

So in this respect I couldn’t agree more. I deeply regret not taking the opportunity to study abroad whether on a free Erasmus scheme as part of my degree or by taking a full degree over the puddle. Europe has excellent Universities and you can learn a second language while you’re at it.

You could even take up the opportunity to do an apprenticeship in another country like the two thousand or so young Brits apprenticing in Germany with Siemens and earn while you learn.

But to counter this, if you’re studying an employable post graduate degree in the UK there are plenty of funding opportunities. The Panasonic Trust with the Royal Academy of Engineering, for instance, provide opportunity for £8,000 of funding for sustainable engineering MSc courses.

If you put engineering/science, environment and sustainability in a funding application then people fall over themselves to hand you cash.

Then there’s working in Europe. This is where it becomes trickier. I’ve done it and know plenty of other linguistically challenged people working in certain hubs of Europe. I was in Geneva where there are many businesses and international NGOs all working in English. The same can be said for Brussels and I’ve been assured that many of the large international corporation’s lingua franca is English too.

But that’s where it ends.

The simple fact is that if you want to live and work in a European country you will eventually need to speak a different European language. And we’re terrible at it! I’ve been relentlessly ridiculed by my European friends about this, most of whom could speak 3 languages but often multiple. These aren’t linguists or teachers, they’re everyday run of the mill people, like me and you. And it’s a similar story on every other continent in the world.

Britain, we suck at speaking other languages!

So if I, Steve, you, or any other British person truly wants to go work in Europe I’d suggest we take a long hard look at our linguistic capabilities first.

Steve also suggested we go work in Germany because they’ve got terrific employment rates. They’ve also got a terrific education system and primarily operate in German – but they are nice about speaking English. It’s certainly not impossible, I have good friends doing just that, but it’s not as easy as he portrays.

Or how about we all emigrate to the colonies for the good life of cheap beer and endless sunshine?

Well, first of all, Britain tried this a while back and it didn’t really go according to plan. Secondly, just like Germany, to work (or indeed get a work visa) in many of these countries you need a productive skill set. Fortunately for me Engineering is on the list for most visa fast track systems.

Uganda, like many African countries, has a skills shortage and a huge unemployment problem. Unlike Germany it has an education system that is not meeting the needs of the populace.

Furthermore the economy, although growing, isn’t big enough to provide jobs for all of the young people that do have skills and education. So unless you, dear British comrade, have useful skills to offer or can produce employment opportunities for the thousands of unemployed Ugandans, the government doesn’t really want you.

And so it shouldn’t.

Just because you’ve got a sociology degree from the University of Hull and a burning desire to help poor Africans (or perhaps just to live the good life in a sunny country) this doesn’t mean you should come to do a job that you wouldn’t be qualified for in the UK.

Britain does produce many highly qualified and useful people. I passionately believe that we could be leading the way in socially beneficial business, engineering and research. As a country we really do have the experience to do that and as a global population we need more people doing it.

But if you want to export your skills to another country, whether in the EU or the rest of the world, you need just that – skills.

Apart from that we all need to learn some languages.

Britain, the world is laughing at us.

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Photographs: Fire at Kampala’s Owino market

For the 4th time in 4 years, Kampala’s Owino market has once again gone up in flames. the fire broke out this morning at approximatly 4:00am.

The rabbit warren of a market makes up a large section of downtown Kampala and is the largest open air market in Kampala. On the scene in the early hours this morning, the New Vision newspaper took these photos.

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More photos from the fire can be seen on the New Vision facebook page.

Dramatic photos from the 2011 fire at Owino can be seen on Tom White’s photography site.

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Learning to kayak the Nile

Waves crashes over the front of the kayak. All around, white water sprays up into the air. The relative calm of the flat-water section that follows this 100 meter long rapid seems like a long way off. Every wave that hits the side of the kayak holds the potential to knock this novice kayaker out of the boat and into the white-water. A few minutes later, the perilous waves that were surrounding the kayak are replaced. Now, all around are the ecstatic grins of the other first time white-water kayakers who have just completed the grade three rapid, aptly named, ‘Jaws’. This is just day one of the introduction to white-water kayaking course on the river Nile in Uganda run by Kayak the Nile.

Located a few kilometres to the north of Jinja, arguably the adventure tourism capital of East Africa, the Bujagali Lake offers a more tranquil start to the beginners learning experience. This large section of flat-water provides a picturesque area for first-time paddlers to practice their kayaking skills. The course begins with an introduction to basic kayaking techniques as well as safety and rescue techniques.

The credentials for the instructors passing on their knowledge couldn’t be higher. Out on the water on this morning offering instruction was Emily Wall, two times British Champion.  Perhaps more importantly than her experiences of competing at the highest levels of freestyle kayaking though, is Emily’s patience and obvious enthusiasm for teaching beginners.

Photo by Sim Davis

Out on the water, metaphors are used liberally to explain the movement and science behind kayaking. Whether it is through skiing or surfing Emily finds an analogy that relates to each of the would-be kayakers. Joanna Reid, a British nurse volunteering in Uganda, said after the session that, “Emily was world class and has a gift for teaching. She always made us feel safe. It was Emily and the team that made the day really enjoyable…”

But it’s not just the instructors who make learning to kayak at the source of the Nile special.

To start with, the water is dam released, making the rapids accessible, fun and relatively predictable 365 days a year. Every day you can expect an impressive 1600 cumecs meaning that you know you will have big volume rapids to learn on.

Secondly, the average monthly temperature in Uganda varies by less than two degrees meaning that most days you can expect the temperature to rise to the high twenties, but significantly, little more!

In short, it’s always shorts and t-shirt weather and not wet suits.

Lastly, the range of rapids on the river offers everything from grade 1 to grade 6 with an almost infinite number of lines into the rapids. With the right instructor there really is something for everyone, regardless of confidence and ability levels.

Explaining why she chose the Nile as her home for teaching kayaking, Emily said, “I have kayaked across five continents, yet I’ve chosen to call the Nile home because of the awesome training ground it provides for kayakers of all levels. The white water we have here on the Nile is unique; not only are the rapids warm and deep (with no rocks or crocs), the sun shines and the water flows all year around!”

Photo by Emily Wall

Photo by Emily Wall

In the afternoon then, the beginners head out to explore what this ‘training ground’ downstream of Bujagali Lake has to offer. Of course, fresh faced kayakers are not thrown straight into a grade three rapids. Most of the afternoon is spent practising breaking in and out of fast flowing water (and invariably putting rescue and swimming skills to practice).

But, as the afternoon draws on so the sense of excitement in the groups grows. The group of first-time white water kayakers paddle to a few hundred meters short of the ‘Jaws’ rapids. The river’s immediate horizon has spouts of white water kicking above it and there is the unmistakable sound of water crashing against rocks. Emily, with an ever calming voice gives the internally good advice, “whatever happens, stay calm”. Before adding, “Just keep an active paddle in the water and you’ll be fine”. And that was that.

With a healthy dose of luck and everyone vehemently following Emily’s suggested line through the rapids every learner kayaker comes out of the rapids the other end. Most, if not all, of them are still in their kayaks. But everyone, without exception, has the unmistakable grin on of someone who might have just stumbled across their new passion, white-water kayaking.

Photo by Emily Wall

Photo by Emily Wall

More information:

Visit: www.kayakthenile.com/
Follow: www.twitter.com/kayakthenile
Email: Info@kayakthenile.com

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Filed under Outdoors, Politics, Sport, Travel, Uganda

Millions in Africa do not have access to morphine and suffer unnecessary preventable pain

This article was originally published on Left Foot Forward, Britain’s No 1 left-wing blog

Palliative care

Palliation – literally, the removing of symptoms of life-limiting illnesses such as pain – has been brought sharply into focus in Africa due to the dual burden of an ageing population and an increased disease burden.

To give just one example, 70 per cent of people living with HIV worldwide live inside sub-Saharan Africa, a region which constitutes only 12 per cent of the global population.

Millions of these people in sub-Saharan Africa require palliative care to address the medical/physical, social psychological and spiritual challenges as a result of the life-limiting illnesses.

Despite the large demand, there is still little palliative care provision across much of Africa. Many countries do not have any element of palliative care: no hospices, no formal training for medical professionals, no or little integration of palliative care into national health systems and often little public awareness.

It is estimated that only 9 per cent of countries in Africa have palliative care integrated into mainstream health services.

One of the largest challenges facing pain relief efforts in Africa is the availability of, and access to, oral morphine. It is thought that Hospice Africa Uganda, a centre of excellence of palliative care in Uganda, can mix a three week supply for a patient for ‘less than a loaf of bread’.

Despite this, oral morphine is still not widely available to most Ugandans, let alone the rest of Africa.

Bernadette Basemera, a palliative care nurse based in Kampala, explains part of the problem:

“Morphine wrongly incites fear: Doctors wrongly fear patients becoming addicted, the police wrongly fear drug related crime, and members of the government fear falling short of international drug control frameworks.”

As a result of this fear, millions do not have access to morphine and suffer unnecessary preventable pain.

In recent years however, there have been signs that this might be a thing of the past. In the last two years alone four countries – Rwanda, Swaziland, Tanzania and Mozambique – have all adopted stand alone palliative care policies.

Although policy development does not immediately translate into oral morphine availability, a number of countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia Ethiopia and a few others have improved access to oral morphine. Meanwhile Hospice Africa Uganda, in a partnership with the Ministry of Health of Uganda, continues to produce and distribute oral morphine whilst at the same time offering training courses to practitioners from all over Africa.

At the heart of these developments are passionate workers like Bernadette. Once again working late, Bernadette describes why she wants to work in palliative care, saying:

“Palliative care is the sort of care that you would hope you and everyone you care about receives. No one wants to think of a loved one suffering unnecessarily.”

Bernadette offers a simple motivation for her work in palliative care. This simple motivation, however, could benefit millions of Africans. Palliative care needs to be rolled out, and people like Bernadette might just be the way to make it happen.

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Hidden Gems Travel Tales – An Anthology

Hidden Gems Travel Tales - An Anthology of Travel Writing EntriesOne of my travel articles has been published in the book “Hidden Gens Travel Tales – An Anthology“.

It will be available for free download on the 5th an 6th October 2013. The rest of the time it will cost £0.77 with all income going to the British Red Cross.

To buy the book click here.

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Driving in Uganda – fun, but not always easy

Rachel (185)The windscreen started misting up as the sun finally disappeared over the horizon leaving the four of us in pitch darkness. Both the wheels on the right side of the car were in a foot deep ditch. The mud that surrounded the car was comparable only by the amount that was inside the car carried in by feet and hands after an unsuccessful attempt to dig and then push the car free from its ditch.

We were sat a few kilometres inside Kidepo National Park in the north-eastern corner of Uganda. Famed for its packs of lions, buffalo and hippos, we could have chosen better places to have got stuck after dark.

We could also have chosen worse though. We had just completed a 12 hour drive through the remote Karamoja region of Uganda from Sipi (in the very south east) up to Kideop (in the north east). The drive had been beautiful but also, at times, very remote. At least here in the national parks there was Uganda Wildlife Authority staff to help us out.

Over the phone:

“Hi, we are stuck in a ditch, could anyone come and pull us out?”

“Of course”

“Great, thanks. How long will you be?”

“Maybe 2 hours, we have to wait for the river to go down.”

“Oh”.

This was first we had heard of any river. Normally I wouldn’t have balked at a river crossing. Truth be told, I actually quite like them. The problem on this occasion was that the windscreen, after 12 hours a shudders and judders now moved about an inch to the left and right and, significantly, about 1/4 and inch back and forth.  Our short term solution, with the kind help of a chap that called himself a mechanic, was to stuff strips of cut up flipflops between the dashboard and the windscreen.

I can tell you now, this is/was a less than adequate solution. When splashed going through puddles, pools of water seeped in to the car. As such the foot wells were soaked.

In short I just wasn’t convinced about going through a river that needed to go down before anything (tractors/army trucks etc) could get through.

The water though remained a secondary concern to the immediate issue of being stuck in a ditch.

Helplessly we sat and waited out the 2 hours until Major Livingstone turned up with 15 soldiers and pulled us free from the ditch. As we departed we asked about the river. Their response:

“There is nothing to worry about, there is no river. Just go straight.”

So, we ventured on through the thick mud. In about 700 meters, we came to a river that in our headlights looked alarmingly fast flowing and had downstream from the crossing a meter or so high waterfall.

Again on the phone:

“We’ve reached the river”

“Don’t cross it”

“We weren’t going to”

“I will get the tractor to pull you through”

“Thanks”

Half an hour later and the tractor turned up. 10 minutes later but over 15 hours from the start of our drive we arrived at the campsite.

The next few days were filled with wonderful safari drives around the park. Lions were spotted and generally a good time was had by all…that was…until…we got a puncture.

Of course, a puncture is a bit of a regular occurrence driving in Uganda and so, eager to be all manly, I jumped out of the car to change the wheel. I pulled the spare wheel cover off to be met with, not the spare that I had checked just weeks before, but a blown out a tyre.

The only explanation I can think of is that someone must have swapped it at a garage when we weren’t looking. As a swore under my breath it was pointed out that a second hand spare tyre might fetch you about 125,000 UGX (just under £30),or to put into context, about half the average primary school teacher’s wage.

So, back on the phone:

“Hi, yeah. It’s us again.”

“Hello”

“We have a flat tyre”

“Sorry”

“And our spare tyre has been swapped for a bad tyre”

“Sorry”

“Can you help?”

“We will send someone”.

Two hours later, some very friendly UWA officials did turn up and then drove us an hour outside of the national park to the nearest trading centre (to the untrained eye it might have just been a small village but we were assured it is a trading centre).

Half an hour and 15,000 UGX (£3.50) later our tyre was fixed and back with us.

As the UWA staff left us, they departed with eternal advice:

“Please try to not get stuck again”

Exploring Uganda is incredible fun and it holds a variety and depth of beauty unmatched by anywhere I have travelled but, and this is a big but, it is not always easy.

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My love affair with Kampala

I am on an elongated honeymoon with city in which I live, Kampala. A rational mind living in this city would see the congestion, the number of motorbike accidents, and the levels of petty theft, but the mind of a lover is anything but rational.

My mind sees green hills, standing pert overlooking the beating heart of the city centre. It sees the taxi buses that serve as the blood flow of the city, bringing life to each of its extremities.  It sees the millions of people swarming through this landscape, each like an atom of the body, for a limited period, an inseparable part of this wider being – Kampala.

The irrationality of my mind was brought into focus a few days ago when I was walking back from work over one of Kampala’s hills. On this occasion the weather was close and heavy. It had been raining most of the day and it felt like there was more to come.

On this day, a thick mist was rising from the sodden ground and dancing in the air with the heavy low clouds. Walking through this was like entering a steam room as the thick air stuck to the inside of my lungs.

For most in Kampala, their thoughts in these few minutes were on finding shelter before once again the heavens opened. My mind though, was caught in that moment, enjoying it, literally breathing it in.

I stopped and stood, just for a few seconds, and watched the moisture lift from the ground and glide through the overhanging tree branches. Through the mist I caught glimpses of other houses and people making preparations for the inevitable downpour. But for those few seconds, it felt like I was alone in the city.

The air of Kampala was slipping into me, dissolving the distinction between the two of us, for a few seconds making us one.

Of course the sky then opened dropping heavy thunderous balls of rain. Every other resident was dry under shelter as I was striding through the streets with thick red mud clinging to my feet.

Somehow though, I didn’t mind, I still enjoyed it.

As with every honeymoon, I know this will all end. I know there will be a day where I will be walking the streets and feel my wallet slip from my pocket as the sun burns that bit harder onto the back of my neck  and I will long for nothing more than the soft comforting embrace of the temperate valleys from which I am from.

But that day is not here yet and so, just like every other lover around the world, I will continue forwarded, blinkered by the beauty of all that sits around me appreciating it to its fullest.

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