A whirlwind day…

I don’t know how I can quite put into words what has happened in the last 24 hours, but I will try and paint a picture of the events as best as I can remember them.

We left Masaka yesterday morning for a bus ride to Kampala, where we were to catch another bus onwards to a little outside of Jinja, a town which has the beginnings of the River Nile. We were heading to stay with Robert’s parents and family for the weekend; they live in a remote village which takes some getting to, but the estimated journey time was around 4 hours, so not too bad in the scheme of things.

Everything was going according to plan when we boarded the packed, but moderately sized mini-bus and arrived in Kampala around two and a half hours later. Myself, Robert and his friend Teddy, decided to grab something to eat (fried chicken, chips and a Coke!) before we left Kampala as it was around a further hour to an hour and a half until we reached our destination.

We then navigated to the Old Park in the boiling, bustling city where we were to board our second bus. We dodged between market traders, Boda Boda motorcycles and other pedestrians who all had somewhere they needed to be. In Uganda there are no set bus times, they simply sit in the station park until they are all full up and then depart. So we climbed aboard a cramped minibus, but as the first ones on we had to wait around an hour before we finally left the station. This might not have been so bad if we were sat in Haymarket Bus Station in Newcastle, but in the sweating conditions, it was hardly the most comfortable of hours I’ve ever spent.

Eventually at around 1:50pm, the bus pulled away – although I’m not quite sure how it made it out of the park as it was positioned between about six other buses all loading passengers. But it made it, by some miracle. The first 45 minutes of the journey was quite pleasant; even in spite of the fact my feet were burning due to the fact that they were sat directly on the metal shell of the vehicle, directly above the engine.

Coming to Africa, I was expecting the odd bumpy road. I was even fully prepared to be solely transported on them. But nothing could prepare me for the driving on the road between Kampala and Jinja. We were driving at a snail’s pace to avoid the natural speed bumps and potholes of the dusty roads as well as ducking and diving on and off the parts of the road that were tarmacked  much to the curiosity of the other passengers.

I began to grow fearful when every time we veered off the tarmac the bus seemed to tip at a 45 degree angle to the side of the road, and knowing we were carrying a heavy load strapped to the top of the van I couldn’t help but instinctively lean to the right whenever this happened as if my own small body weight shifting would counter the weight on the top of the vehicle. My nerves weren’t settled when the bus stalled going back up onto the tarmac or even over potholes in the road.

The defining moment of the nightmare journey was when it started to lightly rain. The roads here, if not tarmacked, consist of a very thick red dust and the downpour of even a little rain was enough to turn the dust into mulch. I think you can imagine what happened… the driver turned into the mulch and we swerved first 90 degrees left, and then 90 degrees right. My heart on my mouth, I turned to Robert and asked (viz. pleaded) how much longer. He assured me that everything would be fine, and we would arrive soon.

Of course we didn’t arrive until about 5pm, almost three hours after setting off. This was mainly due to the slow pace because of the state of the roads. I stumbled off the bus when we arrived at the destination and met one of Robert’s other 11 siblings, John, 18, who is about to enter the seminary – the second brother in the family to do so. He had brought his motorbike so that Robert could ride me back to his family home.

Sitting on the back of the bike, still shaking from the bus ride, I began to take in my surroundings. We were completely in the middle of nowhere. We drove along a small main road, branching into a smaller road, branching into yet another small road, akin to a country lane in the middle of the Scottish highlands.

I began to appreciate once again the reason why I was in Uganda in the first place; the pilgrimage to visit the family of a good friend who I have heard a lot about over the last couple of years. My emotions were overflowing and as we drove past the mud huts of those in the village I began to wonder what it would be like if I had been in the random position of being born into a family here in Uganda.

We passed dozens of corn plants, banana plantations as well as cows and goats just plonked on the road side and many staring faces of children who would shout “Mzungu!” (White person!) as we drove past.

And here we were: Robert, Room 3, and Michael, Room 10, who had both met at a small village of our own somewhere deep in the Derwent countryside in County Durham two years ago, motorcycling through his own village some 3,500 miles away from our first meeting. It became difficult to tell whether the wind whipping my face was forcing tears out of my eyes, or whether the emotion of the whole day, the early morning, the terrifying bus journey, the once in a lifetime experience was manifesting itself.

We continued down the narrow road until the figure of his mother and father appeared over the hill. The first thing I noticed was the beaming, perfect smile of his mam, who although she cannot speak English, welcomed me as if I was her own son arriving home after a long journey. I met another of his siblings, Maggie and was shown around their home.

A lovely building set on some land somewhere I’m not really sure where we toured the place where we visited the piglets, saw the water pump, checked out the fire used to cook the food in the kitchen and even watched John and Maggie milk their cows. Am I really here?

We finished the evening with a lovely meal of chicken, pork, matoke (a kind of banana) all home grown as well as the staple, rice. We even tuned into a snowy broadcast of East African X Factor where a Kenyan lady called Shirley was voted off – it felt like a normal Saturday night, just many miles away from home. We ended the evening looking at the stars which are so bright here, especially as there is no light pollution around at night.

It really was a rollercoaster of a day – filled with nervous excitement, anguish and finally deep love. I have been warmly welcomed into the community and will never forget the 48 hours I have spent here. I am truly blessed to be able to share in the faith, love and hope of these kind people. Oh… there’s that whipping wind again!

I will be in the village until Monday where we will stop overnight in Kampala before heading to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania on Tuesday morning.

Pictures to follow as soon as possible.

My first experiences….

“Uganda – the pearl of Africa. It’s called that because it’s a very unique country. The only country in Africa that has two rainy seasons!” Words of Henry, Robert’s fellow school teacher at Sacred Heart School, Kalungu. I’m currently sat in the staff room of said school taking in the sights of a Ugandan Catholic school. Not unlike St Thomas More, North Shields there is a chaplain’s office, a library, a chapel – they even have a tuck shop here! I have met all of the staff who work here, including sitting down in front of the Director of Studies who is also known as the “Dos”.. maybe things in Uganda aren’t so different to those in the UK at all.

ImageIn fact, walking through Masaka town yesterday I noticed a lot of recognisable things. Walking through a park I could easily have been touring Robert through Holyrood Park, or sitting in a café could quite easily have been somewhere down in Whitley Bay.

Even tuning into Uganda’s “favourite TV channel” NTV last night, we watched Uganda’s very own male version of Loose Women entitled simply “MEN.” It was something I wasn’t expecting to see!

There are a lot of differences here though, of course. I took my first ride on a Boda Boda yesterday… an experience I wasn’t too keen on before I mounted the motorbike, but one I will remember when we arrived at Rob’s apartment. There seems to be more motorbikes on the road than there are cars, and we told the driver to take it slow, especially on the bumpy roads! The weather has also been different – although not as hot as some would expect. It has been quite breezy here, and it rained very heavily overnight. But it has still definitely been an improvement on the British weather I left behind.

ImageFor those of you reading who don’t know me from home, I am staying with a very good friend of mine who I lived with in my area back in 2010. We lived in community and shared our lives with ten other amazing people for a year (others were from elsewhere in Africa and Asia). And so I have found myself here staying in Robert’s flat – something which never thought would happen. He lives in a small, but comfortable place with a living area, bedroom and an outside shower just outside Masaka Town.

I have been warmly welcomed by every Ugandan I have met… and I have met a lot of people since I have been here. Robert is currently the Student President at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi and seems to know everybody in Masaka in some way. The student president role is different to one working at EUSA. Firstly, it’s a volunteer role and Rob has to fit in his duties and meetings in amongst his lectures (which all take place from 6pm-9pm during term time) as well as his job as a Chemistry teacher at the school I’m currently visiting. He is a busy man – currently signing off exam sheets for next week’s exams and assessments. He earlier showed me the GCSE Chemistry paper he has set, and I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t answer a single question!

ImageI keep feeling so blessed to be experiencing everything that Robert experiences. All thanks to YMT, I am here living like a true Ugandan local – I have eaten rice, local fish and this morning I tried (without much success) Ugandan coffee. Robert knows all the short cuts, and places to point out. I visited a shopping centre which had no power (stopping to chat to more students) as well as slipping up side streets. Robert most definitely is a fountain of knowledge of his local area.

Friendship really knows no bounds – and I feel completely safe being here with Robert, Henry and meeting all of his friends.

Two months ahead of me…

Deciding how to communicate with people back home was somewhat of a decision I had to think about. In the past I have had blogs posted onto the YMT website, as well as the blogs I have written for CAFOD. As I’m not officially blogging for my up-and-coming trip to East Africa, I decided to set up this page to let you all know what I’m up to. I have also copied previous blogs from my time in Liberia as well as my summer in Madrid in 2011. I hope to continue using this blog in the future for anywhere I may find myself in the world.

ImageTomorrow I travel to Uganda where I will spend a week staying with a good friend of mine who I lived with during my time spent with the Youth Ministry Team in 2010. Following that, I will then move onto Tanzania where I will spend six weeks working in the western region of Tabora with local young people helping them to establish their own libraries resourcing them with textbooks we have managed to collect from schools in Edinburgh over the course of the year leading up to this trip.

In my life, I feel called to help those in the world who haven’t been provided with the amazing opportunites that I have been blessed with. I study mathematics at one of the leading institutions in the world, and I have only been giving that opportunity because of the random country I was born in. So if I can look around me, see a maths textbook going to waste in a cupboard somewhere in Portobello or North Berwick, then through my involvement with READ International I can absolutely make sure that that book is being utilised to its full potential. It will end up in the hands of an aspiring maths student, whose only difference to me is that I come from a rich country, and he or she comes from a poor country.

ImageAnd so I want to continue to write blogs independently because I want to share my story with all of those who aren’t able to make the trip to Tanzania. Not everybody has the desire or opportunity to take part in these projects, so if I can capture a glimpse of some of the stories and testimonies of young people on the other side of the world, then I bring us a step closer to the realisation that although we may be thousands of miles apart from each other, we are still one community.

Although I am unsure of quite when or how I will be able to access the internet whilst on my travels, I will endeavour to update as frequently as I can. I’ll see you in Uganda!

46 Things We’ll Miss About Liberia…

  1. Food, especially palm butter and pineapple
  2. The fantastic West African music especially “Yori, Yori”.
  3. The glorious sunshine that glows like a balloon in the sky at night
  4. Shaking hands with everyone and anyone we meet
  5. … and doing the African ‘snap’
  6. Getting a high five on the way back from Communion
  7. People remembering your name
  8. People getting your name wrong in a friendly way
  9. People looking delighted to see you even though they’ve only seen you once before
  10. Patience and Kindness sitting next to each other in class
  11. … just behind Comfort
  12. Watching football
  13. Talking about football
  14. The Virtuous Women’s Multipurpose Collective
  15. Walking round inside the President’s Palace on an impromptu visit
  16. Visiting Guinea without a visa or a passport
  17. How beautifully mathematical the Palm trees are as well as all the amazing trees in general
  18. Sitting in a gushing waterfall, dancing next to the water fall, drinking Club Beer next to the waterfall and dancing to African Gospel music next to that same waterfall
  19. Messages of (Spirit) inspiration… on the bumpers of yellow taxis
  20. The warm welcomes
  21. The amazing people
  22. The tropical fruit (including Solero fruit)
  23. People being shy but never embarrassed
  24. Everyone wanting to be your friend, including those you shake hands with on the street
  25. The spontaneous harmonies that pop up as kids sing in class
  26. The silent conversations (with smiles and head nods) with people you pass on the street
  27. Putting ‘o’ on the end of words and sentences
  28. Being introduced to people with brand new – and sometimes peculiar – names wherever we go
  29. Being told by people they heard you on the radio
  30. … and they remember what you said
  31. Club beer
  32. Sugar cane
  33. Having our own driver
  34. Having these particular drivers – Simeon, Flomo, Jimmy and Bility…
  35. Dancing at any given opportunity
  36. Teaching Africans to dance
  37. Orange Fanta that’s deliciously different to our own Orange Fanta
  38. Driving along with the windows open taking in brisk air (and being able to smell lots of different kinds of foods)
  39. New sights everywhere we drive
  40. People being out and together all of the time, day and night
  41. Seeing wild fires at the side of the road
  42. Beesie the dog and his fox-like friend
  43. The massive “No Lemon” sign marking the garage which indicates that they don’t sell lemons
  44. Bizarre Liberian advertising and billboards
  45. The fact that people still say Happy New Year to you, even though we’re two months into the year…
  46. …and also that people still have their Christmas decorations up

The country itself – we’ll never forget our first trip to Africa

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Small Romeo

The biggest complaint in all the police stations we visited was lack of funding for transport and basic furnishings. The policemen often don’t have enough money to hire a motorcycle taxi to go to crime scenes, and one policeman apologised that they didn’t have enough chairs in the station for us all to sit on. There were five of us.

But he was proud of the businesslike way they had developed their own police jargon – ‘Romeo,’ he told us, was code for ‘rape’. There are so many people hanging around police stations that they don’t like to broadcast the news if there is an accusation of rape.

In our first week, we came to a police station with three little boys – aged nine, ten and 12 – in the Women and Children’s Protection Section. “Small Romeo,” said Robert, our Don Bosco Homes guide. “Are you getting me? Small Romeo”. The policeman behind the desk also looked at us knowingly. The charge on the sheet was “corruption of minor”.

One of the boys looked slightly tearful, another blank, and the third – who said he was 12, but looked much younger – seemed excited by this sudden appearance of white people and beamed at us. He was so taken with us when we all left that he forgot his toy car. The policeman called him back and handed it to him as we left.

At Don Bosco’s Savio Village halfway home, Robert gave the three of us a sheet each to fill in with the boys’ details. It was difficult, partly because of the Liberian English, and partly because we were nervous about the sensitivity of the case.

Some details emerged: they were on the way to or from the water pump; there was a building nearby; there was a man involved – possible the uncle of one of them.

The next day we were leaving for a week in Gbarnga, but when we returned, we asked what had happened. We heard a confusing story. The three boys had been returned to their families and there was to be no charge brought; the community would deal with the incident. Our first reaction was of outrage: surely this couldn’t be fair?

Robert took us out for a full day following up different cases. The last one was to visit the three in the Small Romeo case. We met the two aged nine and ten in a dingy half-constructed building with a huge hole in the floor that the owner had intended for a cesspit, but which was currently lined with rubbish and dirty water. The father of one boy was in a wheelchair; the other boy’s father carried his baby daughter and answered the official questions stony-faced.

The boys were healthy and apparently happy to be back home, we heard. Both fathers had talked to their boys, and the community witnesses said they were behaving normally. Everything seemed comfortable, but we were all thinking of the seriousness of the case, and wondering if one of these men was the ‘uncle’ in the descriptions we’d heard.

The third boy lived in a house almost on the beach. We walked further into the community, through mazy paths and sudden corners, but he wasn’t there. For a moment, we stepped out of a dark alley and savoured the bright sunlight and the fresh sea air. Word had got to the boy and he came to meet us. He was at his Grandmother’s stall back up the road the way we’d come, and he happily walked us back there.

The same questions followed: Was he healthy? Was he happy? Was there anything to be concerned about? His Granny again seemed content that all was well with the boy: he helped carry the stall – selling vegetables and bottles of locally produced gin – out to the main road in the morning and back in the evening. He washed his own clothes, carried water, and cleaned up in the house.

We took a picture of the three of them before we left – again one looked sheepish, one blank and the third one was smiling happily.

Back in the car, we were burning with questions, so we asked Robert to explain the full story. He told us that the three boys had waylaid a girl on her way to the pump and raped her. The ‘uncle’ had caught them. Because they are minors, they can’t be charged, so the best that can be done is for the community – with DBH prompting – to monitor their behaviour and keep them on track as best they can.

“Ah, they are bad boys,” said Robert.

Football – The unifying force…

Football atheism in a land of believers:

Here in Liberia – in this land where everyone believes in something and literally everyone loves football – you get a similar bemused reaction saying you don’t support a Premiership football team that you would if you said you don’t believe in God. One devout worshipper has even embarked on the hopeless task of trying to convert me: promising to email me once a week on our return to England with reasons to support Arsenal.

Yesterday we went along to the final of the African Cup of Nations at the Relda Cinema: a dark cavernous shell of a building that was almost destroyed during the war – everything was looted from inside, including the entire upstairs. All that is left are the red theatre-style seats, most of which don’t fold up, some of which have the springs poking through, and here and there, there is no seat at all. To our surprise there were two games projected onto the huge back wall: the final between Ghana and Egypt and a game between Arsenal and Manchester United.

As people with little to no interest in football, to Michael and I it was like watching a load of brightly coloured ants running around a billiard table. I’d sooner have turned my chair around and watched the audience, who broke up the tediousness with constant screams of support and excitement.

Surprisingly everyone’s attention seemed to be on the English Premiership match rather than the African final: there’s globalisation for you! When there was nothing much happening a man a few seats down simply stood up and shouted delightedly at the screen: “Football, Football!” The enthusiasm of everyone here hasn’t quite succeeded in breaking through my own indifference to the game but I have been impressed to see what a unifying and motivating force football is in Liberia.

I don’t know if there was an official statement released to this effect, but everyone tells you that football in Liberia is “a unifying force”. During our stay, the County Meet – a football tournament between Liberia’s 15 counties – came to a climax, and the final was to be contested between Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties – the two main antagonists in the county’s 14-year civil crisis. Nimba won 2-0, but there was no crowd trouble: county officials shook hands on the pitch before and after the game and fans joined together in one big post-match party. Unlike our Premier League’s over-paid stars, professional footballers in Liberia earn around $40 Liberian per game, so anyone playing football at any level in Liberia can only leave the country to be a success.

Teku Nahn, who toured the UK with the Millennium Stars football team as a teenager in 1999, was top scorer in Liberia with 16 goals before Christmas last year. Callers to radio phone-ins clamoured for his inclusion in the national team. He was invited for a three-month try-out with Cape Town FC in South Africa, which he thinks went very well. He scored in his first game and impressed the coaching staff with his skills and hard work. Now he is waiting for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to be over before finding out whether they will offer him a contract.

If Teku makes it to South Africa it will be a success for the whole Millennium Stars club – a narrow bridge to success that others may be able to follow him across. For those left behind, the focus is shifting from their own dreams to the dreams of others. Now in their fourteenth year – they are engaged in a consultation with team members to transform the football club into a community organisation to be role models to local children and help them develop their talents in music, singing, sport, and especially football.

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Dorothy’s Story

Dorothy is a 20-year-old woman who was born and grew up in Gbarnga, Bong County, in the north of Liberia – the place where we have spent the last week. She is the only person in her family with any sort of education; both her sisters went straight into work. She has graduated from high school and currently attends Cuttington University, a private college located just outside the city of Gbarnga, studying as a trainee nurse. She is determined to reach her dreams so that she can serve her fellow people of Liberia.

The only Catholic in her family, Dorothy is part of the choir at St. Martin’s Cathedral, and it was there where we met her after Mass last Sunday morning. Later on Dorothy took us for a walk round the dusty red streets of Gbarnga and joined us for a Club Beer in a local café. She was relaxed and friendly and confident, and it was only as her story unfolded that we realised how the weight of her family’s expectations lies on her young shoulders.

We met Dorothy after Mass, when we were invited to join about forty young people who are part of the parish’s Catholic Youth Association – a pretty good turn out compared with our churches back home! The Youth Group welcomed us to the parish and their meeting, but also apologised that they wouldn’t be around for a long meeting as the choir leader had died of typhoid the day before, one day after we arrived in Gbarnga, and the group had to leave as they were meeting the bereaved family.

The preparations for the funeral showed us how involved Dorothy and the rest of the young people are in the parish’s activities. The young men of the youth group committed to digging the grave, and the others were involved in organising the wake and other activities relating to the funeral.

It has been refreshing to see how involved the youth are here and how much of a chance they are given by the adults of the community; there is a lot of trust placed in them. Here, youth are defined as anybody between the ages of 15 and 35 and it’s estimated that 60% of the population are in that category. However, it is still sometimes difficult for the youth to have their say partly because young people are often blamed for the recent civil war. But we have heard there are plans that young people will be able to send three representatives to Government to champion the causes of under-35s. For the time being, though, the youth are getting involved with all sorts of activities – from Church groups such as these, to community football teams, to volunteering cleaning the streets.

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