Ghost relatives in the Middle East.

Long story short, it was December 2015 when Bridget finally flew to Oman…

Bridget was her name, she was about 18 going to 19, a child according to the Ugandan law. We had met a few times because she was a cousin to John, a former workmate who she visited every now and then at work. Bridget was orphaned when she was little and her mother struggled to raise her and her siblings single-handedly. Consequently like many Ugandan girls, she had to drop out of school because of poverty. Neither literacy nor numeracy was her strong points, at least that’s the deduction I made from the conversations we had on those few occasions. English comprehension wasn’t her forte but as I tried to talk her out of going to Oman, I really hoped she’d understand.

Hitherto that she’d told of this exciting opportunity John had found for her on the Internet. Everything she explained was too good to be true; a good paying job as a domestic servant, no travel or visa costs and then expeditious handling of her travel plans. Of course, being as cautious as they come, I conducted due diligence on this God sent agency. A website with insufficient information, a fictitious address and to top it, shared the name and branding of a renowned human resource agency overseas.  It then dawned on me that the agency was a possible trafficking scheme.

In a lengthy conversation later that day I explained my fears to both John and Bridget.  I explained to John specifically about the role he’d played in selling this child and the consequences on the Prevention of Trafficking Person act because together with her mother, they’d bought into the juicy idea and could take no advice to cancel plans as the adults. For Bridget, I tried to explain the plight of many Ugandan domestic workers abroad in the middle east especially. But that did not faze her, no amount of video or newspaper reports changed her mind.

John took my advice but his aunt and cousin, not so much and now John appeared like one sabotaging a good future for the teenager now that it was seemingly real. He had become the enemy of progress. Bridget would be a maid, take care of rich old people and send her mum the killing she’d made, or so they thought. I cautioned her, told her of how traffickers confiscate passports and phones and that she should be careful and survive at whatever cost and look for a way to contact home while planning an escape from whoever had enslaved her in case the need arose.

Long story short, it was December 2015 when Bridget finally flew to Oman with the encouragement from her mother without informing anyone. It is a year and 4 months now and nobody, not even her mother, has heard from her. Our fears are yet to be confirmed but we only hope she’ll live to come back home someday. This is probably a story you’ve heard a thousand-fold. But yes, we now join the many other families that are waiting for their children, husbands and wives, if not rich like they’d hoped, but at least alive.

Just a couple of weeks ago, news broke out of 4 young women from Kampala who were rescued in Tororo after the Police were tipped off by hotel management; they would soon be crossing the Malaba border to Kenya to catch their flight to Oman. None of that made me sleep better, because more girls had probably crossed over a few days ago, and more still did a few days later. It doesn’t stop. I am now pretty sure that’s what happened to Bridget. Kenya now provides a quick and more insidious manner for trafficking.

I do not know if it is our ignorance or something worse; because these recruitment companies are obviously trafficking. Even I could tell that this company was shady. What of the police who undergo vigorous training, aren’t they able to discern and pick out these wrong characters? I sometimes wonder to myself, am sure other citizens have carried the same thoughts; “if I were the police, I would just go over right that moment, arrest them, lock them up and close these life-threatening agencies.  I mean, these unlicensed agencies are right here under our noses; they’re not even hiding!

It keeps getting worse, I say. These adverts not only (boldly) run on our national television stations, but also on the streets printed on A4 sheets complete with contacts. It is easy to think that security would call these numbers undercover and close more agencies the next day but well… what do we know?

I am just saddened that at that time with all my suspicions, I did not tip off the police; maybe the agency could have been closed, and a lot of girls saved. (I am however told that these unlicensed agencies have mastered their art of survival, and that is why they boldly advertise on TV without coming to any harm. I do not want to think about how they do it.)

What is not being done right? From recent stories, a number of women and men have been assisted by the police to come back home; but is that the primary place we should be looking? Should we not focus on who is taking them away while they’re still strong, healthy but naïve young people instead of how to rescue them from the Middle East after they’re battered and weak from ALL kinds of enslavement?

In a Ministry of Internal Affairs’ 2013 annual report on the trend of trafficking in persons in Uganda that was published in February 2014, among the national interventions to combat trafficking was to form working groups in stakeholder ministries, departments and agencies on trafficking in persons, which by the end of the year were formed but lacked institutional support. I guess in simple English it just means that not enough work is being done. On top of that, “…a total of 8 capacity building workshops were held with a total of 350 stakeholder members trained…” all in regards to practical investigation techniques among others.

All the above are great initiatives. But if only we could start with the simple exercise of just visiting these offices that don’t care to stand out in the city and closing all that are unlicensed, we would have fewer victims to rescue with time. Most of the victims are young men and women who are only comfortable expressing themselves in local dialects, I, therefore, think that an advert should run on every local TV station depicting a brief Trafficking experience to create awareness of the vice and ways to avert it.

Featured Image: http://www.ungift.org/images/ungift/about_ungift/africa4.jpg

A tasking education for the nation’s child.

We clearly have a problem, and it needs no introduction…

Heading out to work on a field-day, driven on the KabaleKisoro high way far off in the South West, I sat by the window of the double cabin every morning so I could do the usual; think my life through and wonder how I got myself to a particular point in my life that I happened to be reminiscing on that morning. There was however a constant sight I didn’t miss; the little girls and boys in blue shaggy and faded uniforms walking barefoot in a single file on the side of the high way as they knew to be the safest way to get to school, lest they get run down by a crazy driver at those sharp turns on the hills.

The thing that caught my attention was that every day the children carried brooms and others, the older ones, hoes to school. As my daily assignment was to visit as many schools as possible, I took the opportunity to inquire from one teacher in one of the schools about it, and he said that the children were required to carry brooms for general cleaning and the hoes so that they could dig and till the school land as part of the afternoon program; it is from that land that they would grow some of the food they feed the children.

I felt my heart sink a little lower. In that moment, I started to think about the children back in Bweyogerere, a Kampala suburb where I live, who get to be picked up by buses to school and never have to carry along with them a broom or a hoe because one child pays school fees enough to educate 10 others of the ones I saw every morning along the high way. But of course, one is poverty stricken and can only depend on the questionable government initiatives, while the other has got it all together.

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Primary 1-7 pupils in Arua gather for an assembly in a dialogue on hygiene and good morals. Photo/Karen Ihimbazwe

Poverty is definitely a longer story for another day, but I believe that Uganda can do much better in educating its poor children. That at least a rather comfortable education can be afforded to these children so that we are rid of the shortfalls of illiteracy in the future of the nation. With billions of dollars given to the education sector every Financial year; my focus is really on primary education where school begins, that actually spends about 54% of the Education budget, at least according to FY 2015/16 which allocated approximately 1,095bn, you agree that it’s probably not much, but that for starters, the children can be afforded a meal at school and not have to dig in their free time when they should be taking the chance to play and just be children, because these same ones come from homes where they have to follow their parents to the garden to do just the same; sometimes before they head out to school.

On top of having to go through imposed child labour at school, they are most likely to miss a couple of lessons because their teachers won’t show, or they just simply lost enthusiasm about going to class. In a recent visit to a Kamwokya KCCA school, one of the counsellors and founder of a sponsorship program sadly expressed to me that “…the kids no longer want to come to school, because they see no reason why; they have little or no inspiration. They fall out and end up not doing their PLE…” Children (pupils), I found out, are quickly affected by their surroundings, and so they will either be eager to learn or hate their school experience altogether. This definitely affects their general performance.

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Pupils enjoy a light moment in an ice breaker. Photo/Karen Ihimbazwe

We clearly have a problem, and it needs no introduction; although in a report by the New Vision, the minister of Education and Sports highlighted in her speech at the 23rd annual education and sports sector review workshop saying…
I can honestly dare say that the largest giant of a challenge we have today is indiscipline and selfishness that make people misappropriate the resources meant for Government work which we will now have to fight and try to plug those holes so that all the resources we get in our budget serve the purposes of this sector…”

And with that, we can only do so much as citizens to implore that these fights indeed be fought so that the nation’s children are afforded a normal education that could change their stories and give them a chance to celebrate knowledge in the wake of their dreams.

Luka the Italian.

#Fact1: The biggest part of the year… Scratch that. I have spent the last 7 months living in guest houses.

#Fact1: The biggest part of the year… I have spent the last 7 months living in guest houses.

That right there was a thought I harboured in my mind but had no idea how to put it into words (a blog post). So I just went right ahead and tweeted it; after all, they call it micro-blogging, no? I am not sure I’m good at crafting stories out of simple experiences otherwise this blog should have had a whole years’ series on guesthouse-type-of-living. Clearly. I suck at this and I’m often disappointed in myself because I don’t wanna forget a thing! Believe me there’s so much I see out here and some of it almost made me cry amidst some children but I can’t find words to describe the depth on here! So this might be my longest blog post yet. Stay with me to the end.

Location: Hoima District, Somewhere in a certain guest house.

Anyhow, that worry came to an end just a few minutes after my hopeless tweet. I had got myself 500 ml of mountain dew during dinner, but by the time I got home and got texting, it was almost 10pm and the soda was warm. The room is THAT hot. In fact, every time we get back from a long, hectic, muscle-straining day, we open our rooms and there’s this strong wave of heat that hits you in the face in a welcome. The room has a ceiling, but is not properly ventilated! My soda became really warm.

It was getting late, so I thought quick for a solution because I was thirsty…and then I decided I will take it to the guesthouse bar so that they can refrigerate it for me as I take my shower and then I’d pick it up as soon as I was finished since they were about closing shop. That, I did. As I made my way back to my room tip-toeing bare-footed, I heard the familiar “hello!” somewhere in the dark behind me. Earlier I’d got new neighbours next door, a group of young men and they’d said that “hellooo” stuff again to me but I ignored them. The ladies are familiar with that hello-sound; the bi men say it so irritatingly, so you know what their intentions are and then you don’t have to respond, you just keep walking because mother earth does not, ever revolve around their needs.

That other hello though, I wasn’t quite sure I’d heard it well. So I continued to open my door and then came the voice again, this time, “hi!” I turned around, and sure enough, there he was in the dark. Luka. It was dark as his veranda did not have any light naye I did not have to look so hard to recognise him, as you will know why. But, first, rewind to Monday evening…

Easter Monday is when my team travelled back to Hoima after the Easter break to resume from where we left off before the long holiday. We got there at about 18:20 which was good enough, so we could have a much deserved rest until commencement of work the day next. While we sat there waiting to find rooms, there was this guy hanging outside his room bare-chested but I didn’t care much, until he seemed to have noticed some “new kids on the block”. He went back to get dressed up in a t-shirt and shorts then he came over, stood around, looked around, stepped back a bit to the side when he didn’t seem noticed by anyone, then the thought hit me that maybe he thought he’d finally seen some people he could try and chat up with but we were so engrossed in our own discussion about current affairs.

At one point I looked up in his direction, to find him staring at me with a smirk. That was weird, and alarms immediately went off in my head (the stay-away-from-that-man-as-long-as-he’s-still-here alarms). But after a few minutes, he walked around the small compound, and I thought, well, maybe if I were alone, I’d chat up the poor guy…I guessed he was trying to find new friends…and then he made his way out. His name is Luka, and he is Italian. (But I didn’t know that until later.)

Fast forward to Tuesday evening (yesterday) after work, I’d gone to a shop and on my way back he was seated at a carpenter’s probably enjoying the craft or the nice shade under the craft man’s tree and I thought, oh no…there’s the white guy with the mischievous stare. I was wishing that I’d been a jogger at that point so I could just jog past him while saying “Jambo!” to the kids playing with tyres, but wapi. In fact, as I got closer, he actually stood up probably to stop me for a conversation but I was having no small talk from a stranger with the questionable expressions; I’d seen him chat up some strange ladies at his door, and I was having none of that. I focussed on a child on the other side, but then he still called my attention with “hi!” I responded, exchanged pleasantries and quickly continued on my way. He was still smiling and looking, when I left. More alarms.

Later that night, after dropping my soda in the fridge, there he was in the dark, on his veranda. Luka. And since he’s white, I saw him clearly; he was smiling. Smiling man + darkness + guesthouse = dangerous. No matter where you’re from. So I just wanted to respond to the hello, smile, and then get into my room and shut the door. But it didn’t seem fair because he came forward a little bit, as if to suggest, “phew! Maybe we can talk?” I thought it’d then be rude to go away because he asked the next question so quickly as if he knew I was running.

To be polite, I stepped back out and responded. He knew he’d finally landed my attention, so he sped off into various questions, sounding soft and stuff, all through so I decided I’ll keep his head straight by using a serious yet engaging tone so that he won’t get any creepy ideas in the dark of the night, and then I’d pick up a story from him at the end. As soon as I discovered who he really was, I ended up being an interviewer of sorts. That I’d get as much of his story as I could and come and tell you guys, then get liberated from my blogging silence as well.

My colleague at the end of the block came out her door to find me talking and listening. She must have thought…woah, did she finally land herself “connections” with the white man across the block? Even the manager came around at one point and then went off about her business. No wonder, later when she came over to inquire about something, I opened almost immediately as I was close to my door, and I noticed she looked inside just to see if Luka had somehow managed to get into my room. That perversion. But I can’t blame her. She sees that sort of thing every day all year. I then deliberately pushed wider my door as she spoke, so she could have a better look. Lol.

I was pleased at how well I handled the conversation with Luka and I almost felt sad when he said he was leaving the next day (today, which he did not). I thought I would gather more of his story, it was pretty impressive. We didn’t start off with introductions right away, as he was shooting questions trying to keep me from running. Haha. The many questions were about who I am and what I was doing, which I explained in the simplest detail, as he wasn’t fluent in English. It is at this point that I realised I could get a story out of him instead of freaking out, so I turned myself into an interviewer and off went the questions.

When I asked Luka what he was doing in Hoima, I expected to hear something else… but he said he was travelling. I asked if he was travelling to tour Uganda, but no, he was travelling around the world. Around the world!! Cool! So… anha…? How? Why? Of course I didn’t ask that way, I was trying to be careful not to sound too curious. Luka was travelling around the world ON A BIKE. Yes, bicycoloooo! Cycling from country to country. He said he started off with all through Europe, and now he had been cycling through Africa.

But Luka wasn’t just cycling. In Europe, yes. But in Africa, for every country that he went through, he stayed for a few days and he would single out a primary school in the villages in which he would build a swing for the kids to play. And he was on his way to Madagascar, which trip he said would take him a year to ride on a bicycle. A year to Madagascar from Uganda!

I asked why he took all this trouble, and he said he loved children, and also because growing up, he had every play stuff he needed. And going through these primary schools with a lot of free, empty space and nothing for the kids to play with other than run around the compound, he was moved to build a swing for one school in each country and he called his swing project “Sugarcane Smile”. He took out his iPhone and showed me quite a number of pictures.

Luka was building the swings all by himself all the way up, with no assistance whatsoever, whether physically or in monetary terms. In other words, he’s just a guy using up his savings to build swings in rural African schools. Impressed is an understatement, I was challenged! Not that I would build swings as well, but we can all do something for our little sisters and brothers out there. The swing he makes is simple, made with wood, a little metal somewhere, strong rope and tires for the swing seats. When he gets to the location, he finds the material, transports it himself, and gets to work. Alone. He paints numbers on the swing stands too, so that the children can keep their numbering in check.

I started to wonder that maybe he had planned this whole trip for a loooong time to also accommodate saving, but he said he didn’t have a plan whatsoever; he just started and went off on a trip. I asked what he’d be doing once he finished travelling around the world and he mentioned that he would probably write a book about his globe trot, and make a massive album out of the pictures he is taking. And that’s when I remembered that I have no idea where he comes from.

“Oh, so where do you come from?”
“Me? Italy.”
“Uhh I could tell from the accent… (as if I could. I just thought it was weird, he knew so little English) …and sorry I didn’t get your name the first time.”
“Luka!”
“Luka. It was nice meeting you, Luka.”

He is 30. He thought I was 18. He had a good laugh when I told him how old I was, like he was almost embarrassed but I told him it was okay, as no one ever tries to guess right. And we were saying our goodnights and heading our ways to sleep.

PS: If you ever read this Luka, it is all in good faith! Especially the beginning!

Kasese.

This is a totally new experience for me again, well.. not totally new, but somewhat. I am doing some field trips for work and lucky enough for now, I have a big amount of spare time between trips to be a tourist in my country. It is not everyday that you can go east, west, north, south without any worries (read logistics) so I berrah maximize. And I know about the “go and see then come and tell” but I might forget so much; then I remembered this baby of mine, Karen’s. So like the title says, I am in Kasese.

This place is beautiful as I have already told Ninno countless times in one day…do not worry about who Ninno is, but he knows this place a million times better than I do, and maybe again not so much. I will find out. It’s just that it is funny how the people living around tourist attractions have no idea what there is. That is why I always quietly applaud my friend Gerard in Arua for always going on adventures in his own district because it is fascinating. Not many people have time, or the zeal for that matter. Infact he is the reason I am dying to go to Arua some day.

There’s something about mountains I can’t get over. Maybe because I am not living next to them everyday, but still…they’re beautiful. How they overlap each other, like one of them is peeking from behind the other’s back. How they stand in rows of pretty little sharp piles of earth. In my colleague’s words, “it is like someone got earth and was pouring it there in piles” it’s awesome.

I can only imagine the view from atop those hills.. Of the Rwenzori, lakes George and Edward, the Kazinga channel, queen Elizabeth, all in one glance. How wealthy can that opportunity be? A lot of you have probably seen all that, and maybe it is not a big deal anymore. But you have no idea the scores of people that could do so much to be in that moment… It not even a place anymore. It is a moment. A moment of beauty and silence, a moment of fresh air, more rocks and green, less pot-holed tarmac and posters of political candidates in full billboard-like pictures with their coats hooked on their fingers over their shoulders like they’re advertising suits. (I thought that was cool. Hehe).

How do I tell about Kasese and forget our way there? We drove past Fort Portal. See, some of these towns need to be transformed into cities… So the whole country can stop moving into Kampala and maybe we shall have an even distribution of population across the country. Infact, it is now that I can’t believe how congested the city is. You can hardly breath sometimes, because all you will get are exhaust fumes, traffic noise, and dust. You brush against people when you walk, and there’s a sea of matatus that create most of the havock.

Fort Portal left me awed. I kept staring. It is probably one, if not the cleanest towns in Uganda. I looked around for rubbish, but wah. I am told the mayor also takes part in cleaning first thing in the mornings. Eh mama. And there’s space enough to swing your arms when you walk, the buildings are in order and the homes too! You could think the lawns are cut with a pair of scissors; really neat beautiful grass, you would want to touch it. No sound of unnecessary noise. I saw a market and I could swear that if I walked through, no idling men would be grabbing and pulling my arms and hurling s**pid things.
I have yet to see some elephants on my way out tomorrow. And I know I have not yet seen breathtaking if I haven’t been to Kisoro and Kabale.

I am still telling. Just wait here.