Reality bites?

Kampala – or Cram-pala as I’ve re-christened it – is a maelstrom of cacophonic hustle and bustle at the best of times. There’s so many people packed into this shoulder-checking city (1.2 million according to a 2002 census) that they spill out into the traffic oblivious, of the unhelmeted boda-boda (motorbike taxis) drivers weaving amongst the permanent, heaving traffic jams.

And to get anywhere fast, you have to do as the locals do against all your better judgement. Here, jay-walking is the norm as you walk in the street, wading through the mechanized chaos. As a pedestrian I can’t imagine anything more terrifying than a boda-boda driver bearing down on you, eyes squinted against the all-invasive dust.

All your senses are on high alert as you try and avoid oncoming traffic, duck people carrying large loads on their heads and try and keep track of where you are in the labyrinth.

So throw an African Cup of Nations game into the mix to up the ante. This was the case on Saturday as Uganda faced Guinea-Bisseau. Hours before the 4pm game even started vuvuzelas were sounding, and men decked out in Uganda football shirts were everywhere.

I had a meeting to get to outside of the city.

I knew that taking a cheaper matatu (local minibus) would take too long in this traffic. So a boda-boda was the only affordable alternative. Unlike Rwanda, the drivers here seem to be unregulated. They don’t believe in helmets and make Evil Knievel look like a pussy when it comes to death-defying acts.

The ride out of the city was certainly thrilling as we dodged people carrying car doors on the backs of motorbikes, and roller-skaters clinging for dear life as they caught a free ride off the back of matatus. It was nice to leave the sprawl behind and to head to the waters of Murchison Bay.

I was headed south of the city towards Gbaga to meet Belgian journalist Els De Temmermann and her Ugandan colleague George Omona. In 1997 Els and George had established one of the many rehabilitation centres in the northern town of Lira to receive child soldiers fleeing the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Over 2,500 children passed through this centre alone between 1997 and 2001. Over 900 of these were young girls who had been abducted.

The centre has since been turned into Rachele (pronounced rack-ell-a) Comprehensive School, of which George is now headmaster. It provides education to all war-affected children, not just former child soldiers, aged anywhere from 18 to 40.

I was there to pitch my project to Els and George and to get their help in establishing contact with some of these female former child soldiers.

The good news: they have kindly offered their support and some interesting themes to explore. The bad news: they had some reservations about the project.

We met in the gardens of the lodge that Els now runs with her husband. The stunning view of Murchison Bay was rather incongruous considering the topic of conversation.

Els and George were kind enough to not point out that I had an outline of my sunglasses stenciled on my face in dust from the boda-boda ride.

Both Els and George listened to my project pitch in silence, with the occasional nod. I took this as a bad sign. But once I finished they both stated how they thought the project was a worthwhile one. Few, if any, journalists have come back to spend time with these women to see how the last 5 or so years has treated them since peace has come to the north.

There were ‘buts’ though.

Els told me I would have to battle the inherent distrust these girls have of journalists. Too many came to the country to get the juicy details of their misery in the bush, and then buggered off with little or no follow-up.

Both Els and George also expressed doubts over the photographic element of my project succeeding. The plan is to give a camera to each of my 5 participants and have them document their lives.

I knew what was coming, and I knew I had to face up to a few realities.

They told me that a few things may happen: they may simply not bother using the camera, not seeing the purpose or benefits of doing so; they may sell the cameras; they may just use the batteries for their radios; being seen with a camera may create ill-feeling and resentment in their communities; their community may assume that they are sleeping with the muzungu (white person); their family may assume that she now has money and they’ll hound her for a share.

These were all valid points – some of which had already been niggling at me.

George thought that this may work if I gave them a “token” for facilitation purposes at the end of the project. I was initially against offering any financial incentive, naively thinking these women would see the benefits of such an initiative. But time will tell if this is the only way to go.

Els also contradicted some of the points made in the background research I’d undertaken. The literature criticized many NGOs teaching the women tailoring skills, stating that the market in places like Gulu were already oversaturated with women in this line of work. These critics suggested giving the women agricultural training.

But Els says that this isn’t the case, that there is a market. The problem she says is the fact that a great deal of the potential work is with schools that need uniforms made each year. But due to a lack of initiative amongst women in places like Gulu to set up a local cooperative, the schools send their orders to Kampala instead.

This points to a problem that the presence of NGOs has created says George. They have not only given false hope to these women, but have made them too dependent on their help.

“It’s frustrating,” says George. “They wanted training, we gave them training. They wanted a sewing machine, we gave them that too. Then they expected us to find them work as well!”

This conversation opened up two new issues to explore in my project: what will happen to these women as the NGOs start to pull out, and what alternatives are there to tailoring?

One answer to the latter would be farming. The land of the north is apparently so fertile you don’t need to use fertilizer. Furthermore places like Juba, soon to be the capital of the new South Sudan, is an obvious market for imported produce. Protests over high food costs in Uganda recently also seem to make it clear that there’s a need for farming to become big business in the country.

But George says that farming in Ugandan culture is looked down upon and isn’t seen as a proper job.

“That’s something that their grandparents did,” says George.

Instead the youth flock to the cities only to find unemployment.

Els underlined that there’s certainly a market for community farming programs in general, and for former child soldiers.

But she says the problem is not only that the work is seen as lowly, but that such initiatives tend to unravel once the foreign supervision is removed.

Els talks from bitter experience. In 2005 her rehabilitation centre was turned into a school and turned over to the local Lira Catholic Diocese to run. Els and George had to step back in after two years of mismanagement saw the property run into disrepair.

“All the windows were broken, there was no longer any running water,” said Els.

But overall the meeting was very productive. I head to Gulu on Monday, and have tentatively arranged to meet a few “child mothers” with George on Thursday. Before then I have to also find a translator and transcriber, and start setting up meetings with other organisations in Gulu, Lira, Kitgum and Patongo.

Busy, busy.

With some reluctance I left the confines of the lodge, and hailed a passing boda-boda driver who looked like he’d only just gone through puberty.

We raced back to the crush of Cram-pala.

By the way, Uganda won the football game.