Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Stories of survivors

My how the weeks have sped past! It's a bit hard to believe, but I'll be finishing up at the end of next week! This has definitely been a challenging deployment, full of lots of surprises, but most importantly, a wonderful team of people (which is growing by the week). We've had a lot of visitors, senior staff from Kampala, from the regional office, and from HQ, as well as a huge media visit. What's great about having visitors (apart from the advice they provide) is that I usually take them to the field, and get to see more of our work in action. So I thought I'd just share a few stories.

On one visit we met a woman who had 8 children with her. She was 8.5 months pregnant, and her husband had been murdered. As had her sister. So she fled with her 4 children, and her sister's 4 children, the oldest being 15. This was the house she'd built when they'd arrived 6 months ago. All of them slept in here. Since we built them a temporary shelter, the children all sleep in that, and she stays in here with their precious food rations. She had concerns about the security of her family but she hadn't been able to convince the local committee to relocate her. Thankfully, the next day our staff were able to organise for her to move, so hopefully she has delivered her baby safely and they all feel safer now. 
We took a journalist to meet a family of three kids. The eldest, a girl who is 17, and her two younger brothers, aged 14 and 15. Their mother had died some years ago, and their father was murdered. They came which a bunch of other kids, some of them were cousins, and they started off altogether - all 17 of them. The other children were reunited with family, so now it's just the three of them. Of the meager things they managed to bring, one boy brought his school books. He wasn't at the house when we arrived as he'd gone to school, but came back during our visit as the teacher hadn't shown up.
This is what it looks like to collect water. A whole bunch of jerry cans lined up, waiting in turn to be filled. It's usually women and girls who do the water collection which can be a dangerous task when the water trucks show up late and it's dark.
Here you see a truck stuck in the mud, and our driver testing the waters, literally, to see if we could pass. Spoiler alert, we got stuck and had to be pulled out by the red truck.
I hadn't seen much of the reception centre (where people are brought to be registered, get a hot meal, spend a couple of nights, receive some items and then taken to their plot of land), but with the media crew we spent some time there. This woman really sums up the strength of South Sudanese women. She was carrying the jerry cans, tied together with string, her family's belongings on her head, and a young baby on her back. Women and children make up 82% of the South Sudanese refugees in Uganda.
This is the site they're taken to before they are moved to their plots. It was about an hour's drive from the reception centre, down red dirt roads (my face was covered in dirt by the time we arrived, having been behind a convoy of UN trucks) to the mini reception centre. Here, they pick up their belongings from the truck, get another hot meal, and spend another night in big shared tents. The next day, they are taken to their plot of land (which is supposed to be 50m by 50m, but is sometimes 30x30) and given some tarpaulin and poles and left to start their new lives.
The need here is so great - there are now over 1,000,000 refugees from South Sudan in Uganda, along with 300,000+ refugees from other neighbouring countries. So many come with only the clothes on their backs - I saw one girl who was in a school uniform, which she must have been wearing when it was time to leave. The stories I've mentioned above are not usual - everyone I've spoken to has lost family members, lost their livelihoods, lost everything. Some have hope that they'll go home, others have decided to concentrate on making their lives here. 

There is a ridiculous amount of need around the world at the moment, from conflict and natural disasters, so if you have the means, please consider donating to a reputable aid agency to support their work. You may not think your donation makes a difference, but believe me, when we receive money from the public, we can do a lot.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

A flying visit to Kampala

On Monday I had to travel down to Kampala to attend some meetings and conduct some interviews. The European Commission's Humanitarian Office (ECHO) put on one flight a week for aid agencies delivering projects with ECHO funding. My agency has two different ECHO grants, so it's an excellent resource for us as it really saves on the travel bills! It was a nice little Dash 8, that first flew for about 20 odd minutes to Adjumani, picked up a couple more passengers, and then down to Kampala in an hour and a half or so.  

I had a nice few days in Kampala - ate all the good food I needed (sushi, Lebanese, pizza) and had some really productive time with colleagues. On Thursday morning it was time to fly back, this time with Eagle Air. I was up at 4:30am to get to the airport, and when I saw the plane....well, it was very small. It was a Beechcraft 1900, and you have to double over to walk through the cabin. 

I think this is the smallest plane I've been in - I've been in helicopters that had more room than this!!


When we landed back in Arua, the airstrip was heaving with tiny children, all on excursions to see the planes. They were all marching together and chanting their songs, and it was just adorable. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

3 weeks in Arua

So far my first three weeks in my new home have been pretty hectic...to say the least! (I just had to change the title and first sentence from 2 to 3, as I started this post a week ago!) I've managed to get out to the settlements three times, so I'm starting to get an idea of what our work looks like in practice.

At the moment I'm drowning in budget revisions, financial and narrative reports for external donors, monthly reports for internal audiences (back to writing shitreps!), and a host of other stuff that is exactly as much fun as it sounds.

But yesterday I had a great day in the field. We were delayed by these two trucks who were both stuck in the mud, completely blocking the road. Luckily there was a side road (on the left side of the photo) which we could sneak past - I took this photo once we were past them, as we were then stuck waiting for a bus to decide whether it could get safely down off the side road (which wasn't as steep as it is in the picture).
We have rented an ambulance (you can do that here) for a while to help out an over burdened health centre, and yesterday we had a handover ceremony (not much of a ceremony - there were a few of us sitting under a tree, speeches were made, hands were clapped). Hopefully it makes a difference for the complicated cases that require referral to larger health clinics; the health centre staff were really thrilled. The midwives told me that last year they delivered 1022 babies last year, and this type of health centre isn't supposed to do deliveries at all!
We then went and spoke to a group of women who had arrived from South Sudan last year. We had helped them form a 'women's group', which now has a savings and loans system, and are identifying enterprises that could help them earn an income. We sat in the church that the village had built, mud bricks and a thatched roof, which was lovely and cool, and were often interrupted by loud cows outside. We had also constructed a couple of houses last year for PSNs (People with Special Needs), so it was interesting for me to see what the design had been last year. The storm clouds were closing in, so I couldn't have a good look around, as we definitely didn't want to be caught in the rain. It has been bucketing down of late.
Today I'm back in the office, back to writing reports, checking budgets, writing recruitment test questions as we still don't have all the staff we need. It's mentally tiring (especially after not using my brain much the past 3 months!) but I'm really learning a lot.

I've been really lucky to already have a few visitors. The friend (from Australia) who had actually sent me the job description for this job turned up for a night doing an evaluation, bringing Tim Tmas and floss with her (I'd requested the floss, the Tim Tams were a lovely surprise). And two old friends who I've worked with a number of times in a number of places are based in Yumbe, a good hour's drive from here, made the trek on Sunday just to have lunch with me, which was wonderful.

It's a challenging thing to be the manager and the only expat in the team - as there's no-one that I can vent to, our share some of the problems I'm having with. Of course there are friends elsewhere who I can message to debrief with, but it's an isolating thing that I've not really experienced before. But anyways, I'll survive!!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Back in the game

Yes, it's been another long hiatus in the blogosphere for Carly. I've spent the past 3 months enjoying funemployment, mostly hanging around in Melbourne, but with a couple of fantastic trips to Japan and Sweden. But it got to a point where I needed to start seeing some money come into the bank account, so I decided it was time to go back to work. I wasn't going to really actively pursue anything too hard, I just wanted to find a 3 month deployment, as a team leader, in a different organisation to the one I'd spent the last 6 years with. A well-timed message from a friend asking if I was looking led me to sending my CV to a Regional Director, a skype chat with an HR person in Canada, and then another with the Country Director, and a week later I was on a plane to Uganda!

So here I am, for 3 months, as a response team leader, for an organisation different to the last. I'm based in Arua, which is in the north west of Uganda, a couple of hours drive from the South Sudan border. And that's why I'm here; Uganda is hosting over 1 million refugees. The vast majority are from South Sudan, but also Congo and Burundi.

Arua is an 8 hour drive from Kampala, so after a couple of days induction in the capital, I was on my way. I'll say this, being the boss definitely has its benefits...I got to sit in the front seat, while three of my colleagues were squished in the back. Apart from not being squished, I also had a front row seat (literally) to something amazing:
I'd gotten a bit excited when I spotted the baboons on the side of the road (we were driving through Murchison National Park) but was absolutely gobsmacked when I noticed one on the roof of the (moving) car in front of us, and was worried it was a goner when it jumped off...but it was fine. Seconds later, there's a baboon on the bonnet (good name for a children's book...) pawing at the glass in front of my face, while we're travelling at at least 40km/hr. It jumped onto the roof and back down onto the bonnet a couple of times, and then finally took a diagonal running leap off the front. Craziness. 

We also then saw these little guys, far less interested in harassing the cars!
We met up with some colleagues who were travelling in the opposite direction, and they said they'd seen some elephants on the side of the road. A while later, there they were in front of us. About 8, just milling around. Fred, our driver, stopped some distance away, to determine whether they wanted to cross (animals have right of way in the park), but they seemed happy just munching, so we drove past. They were all large with tusks, and just gorgeous. 
But enough about the safari! My organisation has been helping people with special needs erect the temporary shelter they're given by the UN, and we'll soon start constructing semi-permanent shelters...it's likely that these families will be here for a long time. On Thursday I visited two of the settlements, which are a couple of hours drive from Arua, and spread out over huge distances - they're not traditional refugee camps. The Ugandan government allocates newly arrived people a plot of land, then they're given some supplies and left to their own devices. So the settlements aren't dissimilar to the local villages, except for the presence of the UNHCR tarps everywhere. Some areas of the settlements had lively markets and really solid looking houses...because those refugees have been here since 2008.
We're also doing a lot of work to prevent and treat Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Reproductive and Maternal Health, and I'm looking forward to learning more about that.

I think it's going to be a really interesting few months. There's about 30 odd staff working on the response (some are based in Arua, some are in a town called Yumbe close to the settlements) and there's a lot of work to be done. There's also a couple of key positions that are still being recruited, so I think I'll be doing the work of about 3 people for a while!

And I realised something cool this morning, Uganda is the 50th country I've visited - quite the milestone! :-)