Liz In Uganda

updated 27th October 2008


October 2008

It was a bit sad to leave Ross after just 4 weeks but, hey ho, off I went on the coach to Heathrow leaving my family and new neighbours to keep an eye on the house. Paul and Jennie met me at the airport and I had plenty of time to join them in a Hammersmith pub for a splendid lazy Sunday lunch. Thanks guys! I was warm and full and sleepy - perfect conditions for long distance flying.

Arriving in Kampala was like coming home, the sights, the smells, the warmth, the rain! It's the wet season here and not unlike the UK summer, but about 10C warmer. I've lost my African legs and the first morning trying to negotiate muddy roads was perilous, sandals and skirt were quickly plastered with mud. On the matatu I gazed at my Ugandan colleagues in amazement and respect, how do they manage to keep their shoes and clothes so immaculately clean?

My first call was to the beauticians for a manicure and pedicure, such a joy to have my feet done properly. Have I described this before? Well, first a long soak in a foot spar followed by a good scrub, a nail trim and a really thorough scrub with pumice stone to remove all the hard skin (the best bit) and finally a massage to relax all those tense foot and leg muscles. It's important to look after your feet here and roving pedicurists can be seen around Kampala doing feet in the street, mainly men. Women prefer a salon because, of course, the finale is a glossy paint job.

Spruced up I was ready to visit VSO. As an old hand I've avoided the usual introductory routine but it was great to see everyone again. In a day or two we sorted out all the odds and ends and I made some new contacts who will be helpful in my new job. There have been some changes in the office, not least that the computers now work well. Uganda has embraced internet technology, competition is increasing and service is, at last, improving. Broadband is in its infancy but no doubt will develop just as rapidly. (Almost) fast internet is great!

Moses came to see me on his way through Kampala. (Just to remind you Moses was my gardener, but he's very bright so I sponsored him to do a Teacher's Diploma. He passed in the top 10 and won a half bursary to University where he is now in his first year studying to be a Vet). I had a laptop for him (thanks to Phil), it's a bit old but works fine for Word and Excel so good enough for Moses' academic work. It was good to see him, he is maturing into a very smart young man and I'm sure he's going to do well.

Then on to Masaka. The town has developed rapidly over the last 3 years. Where once there were two supermarkets there are now several shopping malls and uncountable supermarkets (but don't think Tesco and Blue Water, more like Spar and a covered market). Far more goods are available, for example, bread, frozen meat, baked beans, sun tan lotion, unthinkable when I was first here. My bank is now in a smart new building (but still has long queues). All signs of increased prosperity and, I suspect, more muzungu. There are two new European style restaurants too. One of which I suspect passed me the bug that laid me low for 48 hours...

Work started slowly but my work colleagues kindly came to me for our hand over and briefing. Let me explain the situation. MVRC trains disabled young people in practical skills on a one year course. The buildings and equipment were funded by USDC (Uganda Society for Disabled Children) in partnership with MDC (Masaka District Council) who own the land, pay the tutors and contribute to students food and utilities. The students do not pay any fees nor are they required to bring equipment or materials.
Problems arise because MDC do not reliably pay for food and utilities nor replace tutors who leave. The problems have grown over the last 2 years. Changes in local taxation have left MDC very short of cash so payments have been very,very little. USDC has had its own problems and undergone a major restructuring. The result is that MVRC, with its beautiful site and excellent facilities, has struggled to feed the students or to find materials (wood, leather, wool etc) to work with.
There is considerable potential for MVRC to raise funds by letting out its conference facilities and by selling items made by the students but with very few staff and no management team they have been unable to capitalise on this. Recent VSO volunteer placements have been as IT Tutor, we could all see the writing on the wall but could do nothing about it.
By the end of last year the prospects looked bleak but there were two important breakthroughs - VSO agreed to recruit a Marketing Volunteer, Vicky, to help MVRC generate income and Rainbow International School Kampala (RISK) chose MVRC as their charity of the year. Further developments brought about the formation of Friends of MVRC (FoMVRC) in Masaka and now extended to UK and VSO agreed to place a management adviser, me!
Vicky has done an amazing job not just on marketing but also re-establishing the partnership between MVRC, USDC and MDC. MDC have made a substantial payment and completed building of new pit latrines. USDC have agreed to recruit a Manager to lead the centre, particularly on the business side. MVRC has many ideas on product development, target markets, publicity material and, most importantly, a business plan.
Students at RISK have done a fantastic job cleaning and clearing the site, raising substantial funds through an auction and done a full architectural survey and plan to refurbish the guest accommodation with the assistance of pro bono architects. This has already been costed and a bid placed with a potential funder. RISK will continue to help this year too.
My role is to support the set up of a management system so that the Centre can function effectively and efficiently, particularly on planning, business and fundraising. My old friend Apollo is still here running the training side. How he has managed to keep going I do not know but his energy and enthusiasm are as strong as ever.
There are photos and more about MVRC on their web site We'll be adding a page about FoMVRC soon, including bank details for donations.

27th October

I've been here now for a month, any achievements?

Well. I'm in my own house, a very comfortable 2 bed semi built on the hillside overlooking Masaka. Apollo and I drove to Kabale last week to collect the furniture I'd left there. We loaded some the evening we arrived but it rained heavily most of the night so despite a tarpaulin the flat bed truck was pretty wet . The remainder was piled on the next morning, but would the truck start? No. This is normal and we were, as usual, ready to roll downhill except that the rain had washed away the road leaving a large hole. Apollo dug out the wheel and with the help of a hefty push we were on our way. Just all in a day's work. Anyway everything dried out, the house now looks very cosy and after all the moving I've done recently it's nice to know I'm staying put for a few months.

I met my old pals from Kick in Kabale. I was disappointed to hear that a policy change at our donors meant that funding dried up in July. It's likely to restart soon but for the last few months Kick have been dependent on one-off projects. Sadly these are old style - donors give a fixed sum for a specific activity and that's what you spend and account for. This is tricky for a young organisation doing innovative work. What's more rent, wages and other fixed costs are excluded. Time for some creative accounting! Why can't donors see that they actively encourage lack of transparency and leave the door wide open to corruption?

We've met all the major players at MVRC. USDC have agreed to appoint a manager for the centre to implement the improvements and the marketing as well as keep an eye on the finances and the partnership agreement. Masaka District have invited us to do a presentation at their budget meeting for next year - an opportunity to lobby for more realistic financial support. Tomorrow we have a staff meeting and one topic for discussion will be the possible employment of more tutors but this will depend on raising funding for payment, possibly through Friends of MVRC(UK). My role will be to act as Manager and start to devise strategies and policies to run the Centre effectively and efficiently. A tall order but a start...

Will the 'credit crunch' effect life in Uganda? Difficult to say but certainly prices are rising. Diesel is 2500/= litre, up from 1600/= three years ago (although some of this is tax to replace the equivalent of road fund tax), candles are up to 2900/= from 1600/= 6 months ago - someone is making a bomb on the power crisis! I've yet to discover the price of electricity. I guess my biggest worry is that funding from donors will reduce as the western world spends all its spare cash bailing out financial cock ups.

But Africa remains beautiful. It's the wet season and a very wet one it is too. We've had rain nearly every day, often heavy. The jacaranda trees are in bloom, and the blossoms drop still in full colour so the ground has a purple carpet. I had a brilliant red hibiscus and a splendid 5' poinsettia in my garden until the gardener pruned them savagely. However, he didn't touch the roses so I hacked them back myself, I wish I'd brought my pruning saw.


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