Wednesday, January 27, 2010

KADUPEDI - The people I work with

Kasese District Union of People with Disabilities, KADUPEDI, KDP for short, is the NGO I am working with as Program Development Advisor. KDP is a district-wide umbrella organization with over 30 members. KDP was founded in 1995 to provide a unified voice and action in dealing with the issues of people with disabilities (PWDs) in the Kasese district.

My Office Entrance

Awe-inspiring People

What has impressed me more than anything else is the exceptional breed of people associated with KPD. Baluku Peter whose official designation is Development Worker is very much like a CEO. Alice looks after all administrative chores and Biira Sylvia is the Rehab Worker.

Peter has twisted feet and a broken back. He limps and is bent over. When he was six years old, he was captured in the cross fire between Uganda's warring factions. He was injected with a serum in his legs that completely immobilized him. At one time, he was not even able to stand up. He had to drag himself to move around. However, he was determined to deal with his disability and overcome the barriers. He worked hard, studied hard and persevered to become an accountant. He is also a community worker. His personal experience inspired him to work to improve the condition of other PWDs.

Now, he is completely independent and manages his life much better than many able-bodied people. He uses his arms and cane in so many different ways, I marvel at his versatility. He also commands respect and authority. There is a constant stream of people with disabilities who drop in to seek his advice on any number maters, some of which go well beyond their disabilities. When he speaks at meetings, others listen. He is also an elected member of local council. He works at KDP as a volunteer.

Alice is in charge of office and is barely three feet tall. She fell down when she was an infant and was gravely sick and that has stunted her growth. Her arms and legs are extremely short and she has a hump on her back. But, she has a constant big smile on her face. She is always the first to arrive and the last to leave and lock up. And, what does she get for her work? Absolutely nothing! She is 27 years old, the eldest among her three brothers and five sisters. Her mother is dead and her father is a peasant without any land. He earns nothing and depends on Alice to support him as do her siblings. But she cannot find a paid job anywhere. She makes a bit of money as a typist, but, the income is negligible.

Smiling Alice

The third person who works here is Biiara Sylvia. She is a very bright and energetic young woman. She is a trained Rehab Worker. She was born with a bone disease in her left leg. She was operated in 1998 when an artificial limb was transplanted. She has a big limp while walking. She provides rehab services to children, parents of disabled children and to adults. As a qualified rehab workers, she would like to secure a paid job, but she cannot find one and KDP cannot afford to pay her. So, she also works here as a volunteer.

Biiara Gatrida is another woman I met. She was born with polio and both her legs are non-functional. She wears thongs on her hands which she uses as her feet and drags herself all over. It is gut-wrenching to watch her. Yet, even in this kind of condition, she took courses on weaving mats and baskets and now sells them to support herself. Her biggest wish right now is to acquire a wheel chair so she could pick up raw material and deliver finished products for her weaving business herself instead of asking others who are not always reliable. She also wants to start giving lessons in weaving to others in her situation. What a story!

I have met a number of other disabled people. Despite their disabilities and accompanying poverty, they carry on their lives with limitless resiliency, perseverance and positive outlook. They exude happiness.

Liberation Day and Equator

Yesterday was Uganda’s national Liberation Day. Twenty four years ago yesterday, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) defeated the rebels and took power under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni. I attended a rally and celebrations in Kasinga, a village about 35 km from here on the border with DRC. It consisted of unending parades of military personnel and a huge speech-a-thon. Anyone who has any kind of elected or appointed position made a long drawn out speech. The best part was some entertainment and traditional dancing. I hope I can upload a video of this dance in which women clad in grass skirts dance to the tune of drums, known as Embara, made up of wooden planks placed on two small tree trunks. Very traditional and unique!

On return trip from Kasinga, we stopped at the Equator which is exactly at the midway point of the earth. So, now I have the bragging rights that I stood at the centre of the earth. Ha, ha! The man in yellow shirt is Peter of KDP.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life in Kasese

Kasese – Week One

Kasese is located in the foothills of the Rwenzori mountain range that provides a gorgeous backdrop. However, Kasese is one of the poorest districts in the country with 60-70% of the population living below poverty line, i.e. making less than $1 a day. By far the majority of the population is Christian, but there is also a sizable segment of Muslims. There are about half a dozen Indian families, all of them in some sort of small business.

I live in a neighbourhood called Kamaiba. Walking from there to and from work has given me some understanding of the town. At street corners and particularly at major intersections there are the ever-present boda bodas (motorbike taxis) with young Ugandan men looking for customers. There are also bicycle taxis that offer cheaper fares. A ride on the boda boda from my apartment to office, usually a 20-minute walk, costs 1,000 Ugandan shillings, approximately 50 cents.

Like in India, Bangladesh and other developing countries, mobile phones have taken over this society and land lines are unheard of. One of the first piece of advice I was given was to get myself a mobile. Without mobiles life here would be unthinkable. This is what accounts for the proliferation of dozens of businesses offering mobile phones and related products and services. Every block in the town has at least one and often more than two or three such businesses. Some of them also offer other services like photo copying, typing and computer repairs.

Kasese’s streets are also full of all kinds of shops – milk and bread, fruits and vegetables, groceries, household items, motorbike and bicycle accessories, clothing and pharmacies. If you are looking for a tailor, all you have to do is to go to the main market and you will find several tailors on the side walk with hand-operated sewing machines ready to give you instant service.
There are a number of restaurants, a few of them, more expensive ones, offer menus featuring Ugandan as well as their version of Indian and Western dishes. There are a few Internet Cafes, most in extremely cramped quarters with no fan or ventilation. They seem to be doing very well.

The People

Ugandans are slim and short, soft speaking and mild mannered. I have seen a few fat people but I haven’t seen any obese Ugandan. They dress conservatively. No bright-coloured clothing. Most people speak English, but their accents and very soft voice can pose some problems in communicating.

Their family size is quite large – 7, 8 or more children are not uncommon. One of the workers here explained that Ugandans prefer large families because that is a sign of respect in the community. Also, parents fear that not all of their children will live to look after them in their old age. To make sure that at least a few of the children will survive, they opt for many children. But, large family size inevitably contributes to poverty. Despite abject poverty, however, there are no beggars on the streets. A huge difference between Uganda and some other developing countries!

I find Ugandans to be very friendly. Walking on the street, many people greet me or return my greeting with a smile and a nod. Sometimes I find little children gazing at me from a distance and as I come close, ask me “how are you, Sir?” or “good morning, Mister”. Cute!

Like other traditional societies, Ugandan culture is extremely hierarchical. This is reflected in how people identify themselves. Unlike our way of identifying one’s name with first and last names, here people identify themselves with their seniority in the family. For example, I would be called Balouku Navin, meaning the first born son called Navin. Nisha would be Masika (first born girl) Nisha, Shaan would be Bwambale (second born son) Shaan and Neil would be Masereka (third born) Neil.

Uganda’s population consists of many tribes each with its own language, music, arts and traditions. They greatly value their tribal identity. In my very first talk with Peter at KADUPEDI, he told me that he is from the Mukonzo tribe, Konzo for short, and that this tribe predominates in this region. However, in the country as a whole, the tribe representing the majority is Baganda which their current President Yoweri Museveni belongs to. It is this tribal identity that has caused much internal strife and civil wars in Uganda over the years.

One big, very pleasant surprise! Motor cycle driving has not been an issue. Original plan was for me to get training in Kampala, but that didn’t happen; and, when the matter was raised here, I simply said that I don’t drive a motorbike. That seems to have put an end to that matter. What a relief!

Friday, January 15, 2010

My Uganda Experience - Kampala

My flight landed at the Entebbe airport around 10 p.m. on Tuesday night. It took about an hour to claim the luggage and complete immigration formalities.
The city is about an hour’s drive from the airport. We were taken to the Shalom Guest House, a very clean and comfortable place that provides transitory accommodation and breakfast to visitors. Very much like a B&B.


The capital of Uganda is a big sprawling city. The terrain is hilly and the traffic is very heavy except late in the evening and early in the morning. The city is lush with lots of trees and plants and vegetation. And, with their red-bricked roof tops, the homes sparkle in the sun. There is a golf course right in the city centre which adds to Kampala’s beauty.

The British influence is evident everywhere from the traffic on the left to the use of English. Ugandans are very soft-speaking people and with their heavy accents, I have to listen very carefully. I expect that this will become less difficult as time goes by.

Kampala is a global city. Its 1.4 million population is highly diverse and there are Chinese, Italian, Indian, Thai and European restaurants to cater to the preferences of the city’s residents. Temperature has hovered around 25 + which is not difficult to take coming from -20 in Ottawa.
Two main modes of public transportation in Kampala are Bodas and Mututus. Bodas are motorbike taxis driven by whoever has a motor bike is able to rent or borrow one. The drivers are reckless and they do not wear helmets. In fact, helmets are almost unknown in Kampala and we have been strongly advised not to hire a Boda. There are thousands and thousands of Bodas. The Mututus are old, very old rickety minibuses that have been converted into ‘shared taxis. I have taken these a few times and the one this evening had 16 people in it including the driver and a conductor. They stuff passengers like sardines. They are a lot less expensive and safer than the Bodas.

Wednesday evening I met a group of ex pats for dinner. There were 25-30 ex pats at this posh Indian restaurant located on the terrace of one of the most modern shopping malls in Kampala. The mall also houses a glittering Casino. The place is as modern as our best malls in Canada complete with underground parking. Many of the ex pats at the restaurant were from England, some from Ireland, a few from the U.S. and I was the lone Canadian. A number of them were volunteers, while a have been here on business or with diplomatic services.

Ugand is called the Pearl of Africa and it is a landlocked and neighboring countries are: Sudan in the North, Kenya in the East, Tanzania and Rwanda in the South and Congo in the West.
Uganda gained independence from Britain on October 9, 1962.

Some facts:

- Population: 32.3 million - 50% of the population below 15 years of age
- Religions: Roman Catholic 41.9%, Protestant 42% Muslim 12.1%, other 3.1%, none 0.9%
- Languages: Over 40 languages spoken - English Official Language - Ganda or Luganda most widely spoken followed by Swahili and Arabic
- Currency: Canadian $1 = 1,820 Uganda shillings

My next blog, depending on Internet accessibility, will be from Kasese located in southwestern Uganda. This is where I will be working for three months. I go there tomorrow.