“Never Lose Hope” Stories from the Women’s Prison

This isn’t a call to give money, it’s a call to read the stories of some incredible women.

Phoebe (Tessa’s sister) has worked in the women’s prison for the last 6 months, teaching women to read, and more recently teaching them to teach each other to read. Her work with Pastor Florence and the women inside to start a literacy program is incredible. But this isn’t about that. It’s about something even more exciting.

Phoebe leaves for Malawi in a month, and she wanted to make sure that the prisoners have the resources to continue the classwork. Basic stuff like phonics books, blackboards and chalk. To raise the money, the team decided to put together a book of short stories and poems about their lives. As they share their incredible stories, more fortunate people would share their money to ensure the future of the literacy class. Fair trade I reckon.

The stories were more compelling then I expected. I’ve been in Uganda for 5 years, and I’ve gained new perspectives on the place, and now have even more questions about this fascinating culture.

“Love is delicious like an egg. But it breaks when not handled well”
Kevina Rachael Auma

“The ninth survival occurred when a man was paid either to shoot me and kill me or infect me with HIV…”
Akidi Edith Betty

“The love I developed for them earned me the title, Florence, mother of prisoners. I am not ashamed to be identified with them. It is a command from the Lord himself – remember to visit the prisoners.
Aryema Florence Lagum

To be clear, the fundraising was so successful that they don’t need more money, but they do need you to read their work. It’s not easy to be heard from inside a prison.

I’m passing on a request from the women themselves to give a bit of your time and read. To hear their stories which may seem like they are from a different universe. You will receive more than your time was worth, of that I’m sure.

Please message me through the blog, or Phoebe (without the dashes) at p-h-o-e-
and we’ll send you a digital copy of “Never Lose Hope”. It will be more than worth it!

(Because stories are sensitive, we’re not putting the book up for public download.)


Phoebe, Florence and the guards (photos aren’t allowed inside the prison)

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Gulu’s 5 favourite Music Genres – with surprises!

Everyone loves music, so I thought I’d share what’s popular here in Northern Uganda. The last two genres might surprise you!

Traditional Acholi
Acholi traditional music is fast paced and toe tapping. It can make my hips move automatically. It’s hard to walk a hundred meters in Gulu town without a local tune gracing your ears. The undisputed Acholi music kingpin is ‘Lucky Bosmic Otim’, who has been prolific churning out mesmerizing local tunes for over 10 years. Topics are wide ranging, from peace in Northern Uganda, to martyred Archbishop Janani Lawum to classic love songs. You can even commission him to write you a personal song for your wedding or political rally. Below is one he wrote for a Gulu Mayoral candidate. Unfortunately the song didn’t help him the guy win. If you want to se traditional dance in the middle of the road, a tour of “Gulu town, Gulu city” and politicians trying to dance this is the video for you. Around the world it should be compulsory for politicians to dance during their campaigns.

Ugandan Pop

It won’t surprise anyone that people in Gulu are also into the ‘top of the pops’ Ugandan musicians, who are mostly based in Kampala. My favourite Ugandan song is “I will love you everyday” by Bebe Cool. Fruity, super catchy pop. My sister amazingly heard this song in a Tongan bar, so it got some international traction as well! WARNING. It may get stuck in your head :D.

Local Pop
I wish more western pop music had messages as good as some of the local tunes. My favourite Acholi pop song from the last year is “Weng Nono” (It doesn’t mean anything) by Eddy Wizzy. Its catchy and and the lyrics are awesome.

“If you’re brown or black,.. If you’ve got a car or if you haven’t… If you’re thin or fat… It doesn’t mean anything… The things we have here on earth, are staying on earth. We are only visitors”

Country and Western
Its amazing how often you enter a Ugandan bar and hear ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rodgers. I’ve sat on a bus for 5 hours charmed almost exclusively by Southern American crooners. Full of American references from a different cultural universe, you might wonder why country music is so popular? Country music tugs at the heart, and tell stories about real life issues. Country music isn’t only popular in Uganda, but has gained surprising popularity in South East Asia and Europe. There’s a great podcast about it here if you’re interested!

Power Ballads
Last year at our end of year staff party, nursing assistant Eunice performed a majestic Lipsync to “I’m with you” by Avril Lavigne. I couldn’t resist joining her for the last chorus. Ugandans (and myself) love a good power ballad. Emotional, tuneful and awesome.

My sister Emily, her fiancée Will, Tessa and I were knackered after a successful mission. We were standing right on the Rwandan border and were hoping a vehicle could take us back to lake Bunyoni. Luckily a local ambulance rolled by and picked us up, complete with empty IV fluid bag swinging like a pendulum from the roof. Best of all we spent the next 15 minutes singing along to the best of Westlife. What better way to end a day! “I’m flying withouuuuut wings”.


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Yes, they tax us for using facebook!

It actually happened.

Yesterday, on the 1st of July I tried to open facebook on my phone and got an extended loading bar. What? Surely not? The government actually blocked our social media!

Coup leader and Dictator of over 30 years Yoweri Musevini has become more and more annoyed with social media of late. One facebook personality (or group of people) known as ‘Tom Voltaire Okwalinga’  (TVO) has drawn his ire a number of times for flagrantly abusing the regime. Have a look at TVO’s posts, they are pretty funny. I don’t vouch for the accuracy of his tipst but its certainly entertaining!

Museveni even tried to get Facebook to reveal TVOs identity in an Irish court! 

“We will get this man Okwalinga,” said Museveni on Friday while meeting media executives at State House Entebbe. “Now that we have the machines, we will get him.” Museveni has the machines …

Then he became annoyed with all of the “Gossip” going on on social media that needed to be dealt with. “I am not going to propose a tax on internet use for educational, research or reference purposes… these must remain free. However, olugambo (gossip) on social media (opinions, prejudices, insults, friendly chats) …. must pay tax because we need resources to cope with the consequences of their lugambo (gossip),”. By ‘lugambo’ (gossip), it seems that he means free discussions and opinions about the state of the government and Uganda.

Parliament listened and actually instituted Museveni’s tax! The outcry against it has probably surprised even the big man himself. It has made the front page of the papers. Oxfam and Amnesty international have blasted it. Lawyers have claimed the tax violates the constitution and have taken it to court. Many Ugandans are even finding ways to dodge it using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Paridoxically the tax could be a good development in the end. It’s a sign that the leader fears the people and the power of free speech. The people are trying to take back a semblance of power by defying the tax. No-one is getting physically hurt. Who knows? Maybe the reaction against this could be one microstep to a more meaningful kind of freedom in Uganda?

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Gulu Prison: Update and a Plan

Phoebe (Tessa’s sister) has expanded her work in the women’s prison and she’s shared some more amazing stories. The women also need a consistent supply of books and pens so the work continues, so we’ll be raising money for that soon. They will share their stories. You’ll share your money. Stay tuned!

The World-Once-Removed Weekly

Book Exchange

*This follows on from my previous post about the library – read that first 😊

We raided the library a second time. Books sat in piles on a table while we taught outside in the sun, waiting for the post-class book exchange opportunity. At some point Florence (prison pastor extraordinaire) nudged me and pointed, giggling. The guards do a lot of sitting around, and a lot of trying to knock mangos from trees with the butts of their guns. But today they had picked up books and were reading!

I later discovered one of these was Miriam, a gem among prison guards. She sees the value of books for female prisoners. She volunteered to house the books in her office and has requested shelves built. Best of all, she changes books for women on request between our visits, even carrying large stacks between locations so they can choose…

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Head above water. A heartwarming story!

Walter is unique. Of all of our nurses, he’s the only one who makes sick patients laugh before they even sit down. It’s impossible to feel bad when you are around him. We had great hopes for the New health center he ran on the border of South Sudan, when disaster struck. The banks of the Unyama river burst, and within an hour the water was up to his thighs. He saved our drugs. He lost 2 sacks of rice and beans. His wife and baby were safe.

He was shaken, as any of us would be. He moved to another new health center based in the a youth remand home. It’s a place where justice isn’t usually done. Youth between 12 and 18 await trial. Some for one month. Some for a year or more. Many are found innocent after already serving months in a poorly kept, poorly fed institution. Our misson and Walter’s mission is to promote good health for these vulnerable youth. And who better than Walter to do it?

Walther selfie.jpg

The remand home health team is amazing. Nurses Emma and Shirley work with Walter to oversee health education and screening. Every new youth gets screened for malnutrition, malaria, hepatitis B and HIV. Over 30 youth were positive for malaria that was immediately treated and cured. One had HIV diagnosed for the first time, and was started on life saving antiviral drugs. Dangerous outbreaks of bloody diarrhoea, conjunctivitis and skin infections have been stopped with a combination of good treatment, education and public health measures. After 7 kids got bloody diarrhoea, Walther and Emma found that kids were hiding extra food in their rooms, then sharing it later without washing their hands. A hygiene nightmare! This was stopped, the kids were treated and there were no more cases.

Remand clinc (1)

Unfortunately though, it wasn’t working with the community. Its understandable that many people didn’t want to enter through prison gates. People would rather go to drug shops, which were easy to access but expensive and low quality. Others weren’t aware of the service in the sprawling peri-urban area. Some gave up after they couldn’t find the health center. The few Community who did come loved Walter, the fair price and quality treatment, but despite Walter’s amazing work with the youth, it became hard to justify a full time nurse for only 40 youth with only a few community patients.

We felt terrible, but hope wasn’t lost. The team decided to step out in faith and make one last push with the community. They went to market days with free HIV screening and health education. Trusted community leaders reached 200 houses with the services we offered. There was a three month deadline. If we couldn’t double the patient turn-up, the place would have to close. I thought the hill was too steep, and it probably wouldn’t happen. We awaited the response. We didn’t have to wait long.

Walther Tests

Their community push worked better than expected. In the last 3 months, the number of community patients has more than doubled. In March, April and May there have been 170, 180, and 190 community patients respectively, in addition to 40 to 100 monthly consultations with the remand hoe kids. The money coming in from the community sustains our nurse, and pays for the drugs needed for the community. In the meantime, the number of youth in the remand home doubled to 80 and they are now 2 to a bed, so it was crucial for them that we remained. Hope for the future has become a reality, and we’re even hoping a team will come later this year to expand the facility with a couple more rooms. After being here 5 yeas, I’ve found that its easy to on dwell failure, but its important to remember success like this.


Reman Selfie

Emma, Walther and I, looking forward to the future of the remand home clinic!

Its important to say that I didn’t do any work towards this amazing turnaround. I’m just writing what’s happening! Walther, Emma and Shirley had the faith, hope and love required to make this work and it was amazing to see it happen from the sidelines.

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‘These women are coming for your books’ – The strange story of the Gulu Prison Library

Amazing stories from a prison with Tessa’s sister Phoebe.

The World-Once-Removed Weekly

I’ve been teaching basic reading, intermediate English, and Zumba in Gulu Women’s Prison for nearly three months.

A couple of weeks ago, I said to a guard who remarked on the women’s enthusiasm for learning, ‘I just wish they could have more things to read during the week, beyond what I can bring. Basic readers for the beginners’ class, novels and non-fiction for intermediate…’

Guard: ‘The prison has a library with many books.’

Me: (looking around wildly) What? Where?

Guard: In the Men’s Prison. Women are not allowed to enter there.


This is where I have to mention that I’m incredibly lucky to know Pastor Florence. Florence was once in prison herself, and after being released she fought to get an education and became a pastor. She spends several days a week in the prison – some prayer and singing, but mostly just hanging out with the women, who…

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Book Your Future

As I arrive home on my iron donkey, I notice a resplendent fluorescent orange mango. My eyes flick down the tree to ten expectant children sitting underneath. It’s reading time!

“‘I can jump,’ said the frog. ‘I can’t jump,’ said the snail’” exclaimed Gloria proudly. Tessa, Phoebe and I read the books with the ten kids. Eight read well enough to swap their book for a new one and receive a sticker from the magical sticker book. Stickers are hot property here, and due to their relative rarity are extremely valuable. One kid often knows the sticker she wants before she even reads the book! Every five books a kid earns the ultimate reward: a sweet! Generous Tessa has just spent big on some ginormous ‘Big Daddy’ sweets which have blown some kids’ minds.

About two years ago we started our book exchange with the kids from our English class. Mum and Jodie (thank you!) brought the lions share, and with contributions from other visitors we now have hundreds of books to swap. We have books at every level, from two words in a page to young adult fiction.  Latim has read more books than anyone else. He’s clocked over 60 books and counting. To see his reading and vocabulary level soar in just two short years has been a joy. Sometimes, Tessa and I alone struggle to find the motivation to read with the kids who come to read every day. Visitors like Lydia and Phoebe have reinvigorated the book exchange, and right now it is soaring to unprecedented heights.

Reading books isn’t a common practice here. I know of only two adults who read in their spare time. Many kids reach high school having never read a fiction book, and almost no-one has books at home. How do you learn English without reading, you might ask? How does your imagination and worldview expand? We hope that as well as improving their English, the unusual practice of reading books will open these kids to new worlds, both in their imagination and in their own lives.
kids blog reading

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