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?

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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.

WTF.

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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You’ll never guess Northern Uganda’s biggest export

No it’s not heroin.

It’s probably not coffee, or maize, or soya beans like you might expect.

It’s probably charcoal. I don’t have solid evidence, but it’s hard to imagine it being anything else.

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A year ago, my parents and I made the mistake of travelling North to Gulu from Kampala at night. To distract ourselves from the many near death experiences, we decided to count the overloaded charcoal trucks passing from the North towards Kampala the capital. We counted 20 trucks in the first hour, then gave up counting to concentrate again on the near death experiences.

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The scale of the industry is enormous. 15 million Ugandans use charcoal every day to cook their food. As forests have been either decimated or protected in Western, Eastern and Central Uganda for faming, timber, and charcoal, the country is chopping the North down instead.

The sad thing is, Acholi people are not making most of this money. After a local person here puts in the huge effort of chopping down the tree, cutting it up and burning the charcoal, they sell it for 15,000 shillings. In Kampala its sold for 80,000, which means that locals only get 20% of the total money. The lion’s share goes to the truckers (who are usually not local) and sellers in Kampala.

Even more concerning are large commercial operations, which are regulated mostly through bribery. Poor Acholi rural citizens are cut out of the picture. Consortiums from Kampala come with power tools, cheap labour and their own trucks. Just yesterday I passed this group of 8 trucks (some are out of shot), all loaded with charcoal. A local man told me this group operated near his home. They gave his family 1 million shillings to cut down their trees (about 300US dollars). The end-sale price of the charcoal in the picture alone is 100 times that, at around 110 million shillings (30,000 US dollars). The local communities are getting the raw end of this deal, with rich officials and business people making the big money.

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Queue predictable NGO rant… I only know of one NGO who is working in this area. There could be 100 NGOs here flailing away fruitlessly on agriculture improvement achieving next to nothing, while NGOs are not working on the biggest industry in the region. Where are the NGOs promoting more efficient, cleaner kilns? Where are the NGOs empowering local villagers to control the supply chain? Where are the environmental NGOs protecting the forest? One positive development is that USAID project GAPP has started investigating the issue in the north, and I only hope meaningful action will follow.

Part of the problem is that we know little about this enormous industry. It has only really boomed in the last 10 years, and I don’t believe that either the local or international community has woken up to either the opportunities, or pitfalls of the industry. We don’t know how much deforestation is happening. We don’t know who’s doing most of the chopping and burning. We don’t know

Will we look back in 30 years and wonder where the forests have gone? Will we wonder where the money went that should have developed our Northern region? There’s plenty to be done. Lets start doing it.

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Diarrhoea

I felt you coming

I thought you were a mere fart

You were so much more

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(Heiku describing a shared experience. By an Anonymous Visitor)

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The Day I Fired a Poor Man

(Name, location, age, job title and gender may have been changed to protect identity)

“Your contract finishes in a month. I’m really sorry, but we’re not going to renew it. We’ll pay for your transport and your belongings to be relocated back home from the health center…”

He cried, right in front of me, head in hands on a blue plastic chair in our office. We sat in silence for what seemed like forever. I tried to say something to console him, but it was meaningless.

Opwonya, a health center cleaner worked for us for 4 years, and held the only steady source of income for his family of 5 children. 60 US dollars a month may seem like a pittance, but in Northern Uganda that’s enough to feed your family, and send all of your kids to the primary school at least. Steady jobs for unqualified people aren’t just rare here, they are a precious lifeline.

I can defend myself until the cows come home. Opwonya’s work ethic was poor. He didn’t up to work for days on end without telling anyone. We talked to him, sent warning letters. Less patients were coming to the health center as malaria levels plummeted, which meant not enough work for our staff, and less money coming in to the health center. The health center was functioning well, but was nearly out of money to pay staff. We we had to reduce staffing, just to keep the place above water. The local management agreed that he should go. My job is to provide sustainable, quality healthcare to rural citizens, and this was a hard but necessary decision.

But justification doesn’t make me feel better. The chances of him getting another job are close to zero. His kids may now sit at home and not go to school. His life will be full of new stress and problems.

Its not the first time I’ve made decision like this, and it won’t be the last. When you work with limited resources, trying to make a dent in seemingly bottomless poverty, situations like this will continue to arise. Juggling sentiment with practicality is an ongoing struggle, and with limited resources practicality usually wins. Is it fair that Opwonya lost his job just because he wasn’t a good worker? Perhaps. Is it fair that his life will now be an uphill struggle? No. If he had lost this job in New Zealand, the safety net would have kicked in, and at least provided enough for his family to live on. His kids could still go to school.

I may or may not have done the right thing. Regardless, it hurts. I consider my easy life, and overwhelming privilege. I ask for forgiveness.

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