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.

don't take a photo of me.jpg

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.

ride the charcoal better.jpg

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.

Big Charcoal pile.jpg

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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I felt you coming

I thought you were a mere fart

You were so much more


(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.

Busy Day at Wii Anaka.JPG



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My African friends who agree with Trump

Call me old fashioned, but due to the sheer quantity of swearing required, from henceforth ‘shit’ shall be written as $#%

Straight after the famous $#%@hole comment, the internet flooded with response, my facebook wall included. Many nice, thoughtful responses were from Americans who apologised for their President. Of course the mega-rich, corrupt African leaders came out immediately, up in arms that Trump had said such a thing. How could he?


A significant number of Africans however, agreed with Trump’s assessment. At least on some level. And its not just on facebook. Some of my friends here in Northern Uganda found his comment refreshing. One friend laughed when they heard it, and expressed that Trump was ‘very accurate, politicians don’t usually talk like that’.

Patrick Reacher

Patrick and Jairus are not just well educated, but are top young leaders in Liberia and Uganda. I got to know Patrick at a conference in Demnark, and I’ve never met anyone so passionate about changing women’s lives by improving access to family planning. Their responses are well thought through and fantastic.


By agreeing with Trump they don’t think the Physical country, is $#%@hole, or that the regular people are $#%@hole. That’s obviously not true. Jairus and Patrick love the land, and the people of Liberia and Uganda. They are devoting their lives to improving it. They just realise that their ‘nation states’ and their institutions, are indeed $#%@hole. Many Westerners, especially in the mainstream news talk about countries like Uganda as if  they have governments and institutions that are trying do the right thing, but just have a lot of work to do. They are wrong. This is what I mean from a Ugandan perspective.

– The policeforce is so corrupt and evil they are probably worse than useless, it would probably be better if they weren’t there.
– In rural areas, when you complete primary school you still can’t speak English, the language you have apparently been taught in for the last 5 years.
– Your government health centers don’t have drugs half the time because of corrupt leaders and zero accountability.
– Even if you struggle through the system and get educated, jobs are hard to get. I had 80 people with university degrees apply for my assistant’s job 3 years ago which at the time was paid 200USD a month. That’s right, 200 a month.

I agree with Jairus and Patrick. That’s $#%@ hole. Its good to recognize the plain truth. If we get out of our privileged ivory towers and recognize just how messed up these nation states and their institutions are, we’d understand why Trump’s comments resonate with a surprising number of people here. And this will continue while Western Governments continue to prop up these nation states and institutions, and fund the militaries of countries like Uganda, all the while turning a blind eye to the violence, corruption and inequality inherent in the institutions they support .

There is huge irony that the US government, the institution which Trump himself heads is one of the most guilty parties in funding these evil governments and perpetuating the problem. He’s a little bit guilty himself for the whole $#%@hole situation.


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Blame the NGO, not Ed Sheeran

The Radiator Awards highlight the best and worst aid fundraising videos of the year. Yes, this blog is about the worst: the winner of the ‘Rusty Radiator.’ Comic Relief (an NGO) fronted by Ed Sheeran won the prize, and the judges quite rightly shredded them for their video.

I blame Comic Relief. They had Ed Sheeran, a megastar and they butchered it. I only like Ed Sheeran more after this video – the guy has heart. They take him to where homeless kids are sleeping in boats, and you can see him trying to deal with the horrible situation “I can’t process this… My natural instinct is to put them in the car, and just take them. Put them in a hotel until we can get them sorted… Can we do that?” When you’re a rich western pop star with no background in aid or NGO work, what are you supposed to do? Sit back objectively and comment on the socio-political situation? Start a project for homeless kids in Liberia? No, you care for the person in front of you.

That’s a great instinct. To love your neighbour, the neighbour in front of you, and do it now. Unfortunately his practical approach was a bad idea – to put the homeless kids in a hotel and figure it out from there, and I facepalm every time someone says “Doesn’t matter how much it costs” (it always matters). But he was trying to do what any decent, loving human being should do when thrust in that kind of situation with no context. Thumbs up Ed Sheeran. Maybe I should listen to his songs sometime.

Despite that, I think we should be deeply disturbed that these kinds of videos still exist, and I balk at the response of these large agencies, which was not to apologise but to dodge and justify. That’s what NGOs do best. Ed Sheeran on the 1 in a million chance you read this, ditch those big NGOs and come help us fundraise for our clinics. We’ll make a video that will win the Golden, not the Rusty Radiator.

P.S. If you haven’t seen it already, watch the original ‘radiad’  video ‘giving back’ to Norway. Hilarious. Also watch an amazing wee clip from Warchild Holland, the winner of the Golden Radiator award


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Dad and Uganda in The Press

Recently my parents had their second magical visit to Uganda. Mum taught kids full time, bringing amazing resources and reinvigorating our class. Dad got to know the locals, and wrote this unorthodox, yet insightful article which got published!

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I’m a Doctor – give me a house, a car and 3 maids.

All Doctors in the Ugandan Public sector laid down their stethoscopes a week ago, and there is no end in sight. Their demands are off the charts.

“A senior consultant doctor or professor will be the highest paid health worker, with a gross salary of Shs 48 million, a five-bedroom house, 4000cc vehicle and three domestic workers.”

This seems insane. They are asking for 12x their current pay, and a whole lot of other perks. To locals here though, it makes some sense, and with just a bit of digging we get a great insight into 3 major issues. Inequality, cultural expectations and the ridiculous political situation in Uganda.


Poverty is bad – inequality might be even worse. First the inequality between rich countries like New Zealand and Uganda. New Zealand’s GDP is over 60 times that of Uganda. Senior New Zealand doctors earn more than 10 times their Ugandan colleagues. Unfair right! Yes…… but not as unfair as the situation within Uganda itself.

Earning 1000 US dollars a month, senior Doctors in Uganda already earn 20 times more than the average Ugandan. In New Zealand, Senior doctors only earn 3 times the average person, which I think is brilliant. Senior Ugandan doctors are demanding a 1200% salary increase. $12,000 a month. $150,000 a year. Yes that’s right, they want 12 times their current salary. They would then earn more than a senior New Zealand doctor. Absurd! Should doctors in one of the poorest countries on earth, earn more than doctors in one of the richest?

Ugandan GDP vs doctor salary

This would mean a Ugandan doctor would earn 250 times the current Ugandan GDP. Effectively this means that 250 poor farmers would earn the same as only one doctor. Isn’t that horrific! Unfortunately this is the trend around the world. Salaries increase while the poor aren’t much better off.

Cultural expectations of Big People

In Uganda, even more than in western countries ‘Big people’ are expected to display their status through lavish living and big things. There are a lot of expectations on ‘big people’ here, and this helps makes sense of the obscene extras demanded “…a five-bedroom house, 4000cc vehicle and three domestic workers.”

Big job = Huge house (5 bedrooms!)
If you’re a Big Senior Doctor in Uganda, you’ll need a 5 bedroom house. First so everyone can see you have the biggest house in the neighbourhood, and second so you can support all 20 your family members who expect to live with you for free because you’re a doctor.

Big job = Huge car (4000cc)
Google image search “4000cc vehicle” and see the huge 4WD cars that every big doctor clearly needs. A doctor isn’t a real doctor until they look down on you from the windscreen of their Range Rover! Status and heirachy are the name of the game, illustrated by the biggest doctors (senior ones) getting a 4000cc 4WD, while ‘medium’ doctors get a more modest, 2500cc car. Perhaps a corolla?

This cultural norm makes me quite sad, as environmental concerns become irrelevant, and good health goes out the door as soon as you earn decent money. You’ll never see anyone with a high salaried job here on a bicycle, even if work is just down the road. Its culturally inappropriate just not the done thing. Junior doctors riding the public buses complain to me that other passengers deride them. “Get out of the bus. Why aren’t you driving your own car? You’re a doctor!”

Big job = 3 domestic workers
(Women running around doing everything for you)
It may seem unfathomable that one person should ask for 3 domestic workers. Remember though that the workers aren’t just to look after them, but also their 20 family members who will insist on living in their huge house. Nothing demonstrates  status and opulence like having a gardener carefully prune every bush, one maid cooking and the third washing your clothes.

Ridiculous Political Situation

President Museveni has been the big boss boy for longer than I’ve been alive. Nearly 32 years. The huge issue at the moment is him becoming Mr. President-For-Life, by scrapping the presidential age limit (75 years). As much as many people don’t like Donald Trump, at least the longest he can be there is 8 years! To help secure this life presidency, Museveni handed out an official bribe of 8000 US dollars so that every one of the 431 Ugandan MPs to hold “consultative meetings” in their district.

Many people, including the health minister herself believe this official bribe triggered the strike. Maybe a salary of 200,000 dollars a year is fair enough, when MPs already earn about that much. Many people are asking the question. Why should a poorly educated MP who is driving their country into the abyss, earn more than a highly qualified doctor who is saving lives?

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