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My great love affair

Mural at Raising Voices - domestic violence awareness programmeI have always held a special place in my heart for the African continent. Since my childhood, I knew it was somewhere that would be important to me. It captivated my sense of adventure and curiosity about the world. Of course, I had no idea just how influential the continent was to be in shaping my life, my career and myself. From the moment I first stepped into the smothering heat of Ghana 10 years ago, I have been embroiled in a passionate love affair with Africa that has taken me places I could never have dreamed of.
The closest I can come to describing the root of this love affair is a sense of wholeness. When my feet are on African soil, I feel whole. Connected. Alive. Joyful. For all of the heartache and frustrations, for all of crushing unfairness and inequality, I always depart knowing that I am leaving another little part of me under that fierce blue sky.
Over the course of a decade I spent time in 10 African countries. Some of this was spent travelling, some volunteering, some working for my keep. Each and every place was unique, and brought its own joys, challenges and beautiful moments. The most recent trip to Uganda was different. I was there in a professional capacity with a group to show them first hand the impact of our long term development programmes.
Working in development is not easy. It can hard to see the impact of what you are doing, and I have often found myself questioning the morals, ethics and purpose of the industry. Sometimes it can feel like a constant uphill battle, where the efforts of individuals, communities and even countries are pushed back down by a global system that is inherently unjust. The sheer scale of the challenges can be overwhelming. The vacant stare of a child who has had the odds stacked against him from the moment he entered the world is, quite simply, heart-breaking.
Driving through Uganda, two things stood out for me. One was the number of children. There were children everywhere. Playing with a tyre and stick at the side of the road in a town, walking down a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, filling water cans at a pump, peering around from behind their mothers wrap, running after their younger siblings, dancing, playing, singing as children do all over the world. But there were just so many of them. 50% of Uganda’s population is under the age of 18. Each one of those children needs to be fed, educated and nurtured to reach their potential. That would pose a challenge to any country.
The second was the landscape. Parts of Uganda are incredibly lush, with maize, coffee, pineapples and plantain growing everywhere. The greens are dazzling and beautiful. Further north, the landscape changes, becoming drier and more arid. The air feels like there is not enough rain. For a country where millions are still entirely dependent on the land for their livelihoods, the landscape takes on a whole new significance. One of the projects we visited is focused on land rights and land ownership, an issue that certainly resonates with Irish people. In so many countries around the world, land is the starting point. If you don’t have access to land, where do you start to feed your family, earn an income, send your children to school? I often thought this while looking at a family who were eking out some form of existence on a piece of concrete in Kolkata, who had, quite possibly, had to leave their land due to drought or floods and now found themselves without the means to even feed themselves. Land matters because of all that it represents.
Meeting partner organisations and local staff gave me a very unique insight that you don’t get as a tourist. Firstly, I had the privilege to meet amazing, innovative and committed people who are doing fantastic things in their communities. They have a vision and a drive that can only impress and humble. Secondly, I had the even greater privilege of visiting places that no one would ever think of going as a tourist. Kampala is all activity, chaos and vibrancy. While having lunch in a local version of Starbucks, I remarked to my colleague that we could have been anywhere in the world such was the mix of people enjoying their Sunday afternoon cappuccinos. We chatted with our driver, Myles, about dating, politics, careers and travel. Myles is savvy, intelligent, ambitious and fiercely proud of his country. This dynamic and ambitious middle class, the hustle and bustle of city life is certainly one face of 21st century Uganda.
The rural areas felt a galaxy away from this. There, life moves very slowly. People exhibit endless and enduring patience, sitting under a mango tree talking for hours amongst themselves and appearing to take pleasure in the little things as life moves languidly onwards. A far cry from our culture of instant gratification, information overload and, increasingly, social isolation.
We travelled for hours down deeply rutted dirt tracks, passing only cows, goats, people carrying plantain, pineapples, charcoal, chickens and the occasional door (seriously!) on bicycles and motorcycles. And of course countless people walking, to where and from where being a mystery. We visited remote villages that appeared to have sprung up from nowhere. As life was so stripped back, so unhurried, even our brief visit afforded us a glimpse of the real beauty that could be seen in the gentle ebb and flow of village life. A calf lowed pitifully from where it was tied under a banana tree, chickens pecked busily in the undergrowth, washing dried in the sun spread out on a thatched roof, and beaming, waving men sat around a calabash of local brew that looked, quite honestly, like diarrhoea. Being welcomed into these communities with singing, dancing and bright smiles was truly humbling. I did wonder what the reaction might be like if a bus full of 13 Ugandans rocked up in a rural Co. Donegal village. I like to think they would indeed be greeted with a flurry of set dancing and a 30 verse long sean-nós song.
Something that has always struck me anywhere in Africa, including Uganda, is the tangible sense of joy. Children squirm and wriggle with glee as they wave from the roadside, their faces breaking into the purest and most dazzling smiles. People dance and sing and exude pure joy in each others’ company. But behind all of this, life is far from easy. In one district we visited, 93% of the population are farmers. The rains are unpredictable, meaning food is a constant concern for this population. Schools are overcrowded and poorly resourced. Educated, capable young people cannot find work so drive boda-bodas (motorbike taxis), or find some other informal work. Health services are inadequate, and all the while the population is exploding, putting ever more pressure on already strained resources. The challenges are plain to see, and the deeper you dig, the more complex they become. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by this, I instead felt uplifted by witnessing the good things that can happen when people work together in solidarity, from the grassroots upwards.
Partners talked candidly about complex issues such as domestic violence, sexual exploitation, prostitution and early marriage. It is well known that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by poverty and inequality around the world and the statistics that we heard in relation to sexual abuse and domestic violence highlighted that fact. However, the dialogue taking place at community and national level struck me as being far more sophisticated than anything we have ever had on these issues in Ireland. We could have much to learn, if only we would listen.
One of the most memorable parts of the trip was a visit to Barlonyo Memorial Ground near Lira town. David, from the partner organisation who was hosting us that day, explained in blunt terms what had happened there. During the prolonged and brutal conflict with the LRA, there was an IDP camp at Barlonyo. One day in February 2004, the LRA entered the camp disguised as government forces. They told everyone to go into their huts for protection. Families obeyed. The LRA then set the huts on fire. When people ran from their huts to escape the flames, they were shot. Somewhere between 400-800 people were killed; men, women, and children. Nobody really knows the true number. Later that day, the bodies were put into a mass grave, which remains at the memorial ground. It is difficult to comprehend how one place, one community can experience this kind of trauma and suffering, when life has been so willingly wasted. The presence of the mass grave contrasted with the gang of curious children who surrounded us, full of life and laughter (although some of them did look utterly terrified and maintained a safe distance from the weird wazungu!). The family we visited later that day had been in the camp when it was raided. They fled into the bush with their 3 small children. Their father was captured twice by the LRA but managed to escape. They had, somehow, rebuilt their lives and livelihoods and afforded us the privilege of a glimpse into their family life.
This family represented for me the resilience of the human spirit. Despite having experienced such massive trauma, having lost everything, having lived in fear for so long, this family were still able to smile, be welcoming and be inherently hopeful about the future. Betty and Joel-the parents-had careworn faces that told a story of the hardships that had aged them well beyond their years. Yes they had found a way to move on, to focus on the future, but their faces and their eyes said that some things can never truly be forgotten. And yet, the human spirit prevails and finds a way to smile.
Each and every trip to Africa has taught me something different, opened my eyes in new and surprising ways. This trip was no different. It afforded me a different perspective, a deeper insight into the culture and society, an unapologetic view of the challenges and inequality inherent in our world and a reminder that we cannot, any of us, ignore this injustice because at the centre of it all beat human hearts with all of their potential, hopes and dreams.
Like any great journey, no two moments were the same. There were moments that were heart breaking, moments that were joyful, moments that were overwhelming, moments that were uncomfortable and moments laden with both desperation and hope.
And so my great love affair continues, taking me to ever new and surprising places, and reminding me to never stop seeking to understand the world around me, in all of its beautiful imperfection.