The need to be productive

(Posted by Jane)

It seems that my mind is so conditioned to seek measurable achievement that I’m in danger of losing the art of simply living. I watch our landlady through the window — Magdalena, or Jaja (granny) to her friends and family. She must be in her late 60s at least, with 9 grownup children, though its hard to tell with her beautiful black skin that age so well — perhaps she’s older. She spends most of the day sitting outside her house, or outside ours when the sun shifts her shade. Sometimes she sifts through beans, or receives a visitor to sit with her. Occasionally she wanders around the compound tending to her small plantations, or ventures onto the street outside the gate to take a walk or interact with the neighbours. But mostly she sits.

I’m sure she did less sitting 20 years ago, occupied by 9 small children and a busy household. Though I like to think she still sat outside her house a fair amount — something our culture sees as being a rare luxury, for Sunday afternoons perhaps, as opposed to a daily norm. What’s my goal? Less sitting, more doing? Surely. I wonder if Jaja would tell me to do less and sit more… There’s something about the simplicity of her daily life that challenges me. I assume I’m achieving more by dashing around. But by who’s standards? By what scale of ‘achievement’ am I measuring my days?

When we came back to Kampala after the summer my older sister sent me a message: ‘Janie, try and fight the need to be productive.’ Those words have echoed, challenged, revealed. I’ve realised that productivity and achievement are not just a cultural value I have but a ‘need’; something I’m almost bound by that I have to fight off. I have no doubt that productivity and achievement have great value, but not when they become a need or skewed by my own interpretation of what it means to have achieved. I want a ‘good’ answer when people say ‘what do you do?’ – something that sounds important and impressive. I dress this desire up in good intentions; surely God wants we to be productive and effective with my time, to be doing something monumental for his kingdom. And I love the buzz of busyness and feeling needed and doing something significant, in my eyes.

I clearly have a culturally prompted, personally fueled need to be productive. Increasingly I realise that this need is not prompted or fueled by God. Gently, steadily he is saying slow down. Look at Jaja. Time spent sitting is not time wasted. So today, I’m doing little. Pottering, not rushing. And at the end of the day, in his eyes, I will have no less achieved.

Advertisements

Visit

636474118275676247_Afterlight_Edit.jpg

(Posted by Jane)

According to the last personality test I took I’m mainly ‘a mix of green and yellow.’ The ‘green’ indicating that I’m relational, concerned with and affected by individuals; the ‘yellow’ identifying a love for vision, new ideas, and seeing the ‘big picture.’ A fair sense of my character, deduced from just 20 questions. But despite those ‘green’ traits it seems I’m often slow at appreciating a responsive, personal, and relational approach to working with the poor and marginalised. I’ve surprised myself in recent years with how much I love strategy and a clear, systematic approach to implementing a vision, and how I often find my mind awash with big ideas.

This has been the case recently as I’ve become increasingly involved with an organisation supporting women in one of Kampala’s slums. I’ve often come away from an afternoon of volunteering thinking ‘If we did things this way perhaps we could reach more women’… ‘If we put such-and-such a programme in place perhaps this would be more sustainable’… ‘Maybe we could be more effective if we had a clear plan for how to deal with these different situations’… I must point out that this organisation has many strategic and effective programmes in place, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering.

And yet in the same instant that I’ve had these thoughts, I’ve found myself humbled. Humbled by an amazing organisation driven by love for each individual rather than programmes churned out to unknown faces; an organisation operating relationally and responsively rather than through predetermined systems.

636474118750956116_Afterlight_Edit.jpg

On Thursdays we visit the women in their homes. Simple, we visit them. There are times when I’ve left feeling overwhelmed: overwhelmed by apparent hopelessness, overwhelmed by their practical needs. ‘What more can we be doing?’ I wonder, and I come up with ideas that would result in removing the visits team from the women’s homes and putting them in an office… genius… when the reality is that many of the women we spend time with are so desperate, so lonely, that I doubt they would attend a ‘programme’ for the masses, or that an impersonal strategy would even reach them in their need. What they need is someone to visit them. To know them. To hear their story. To encourage them in their situation to keep going. To offer advice specific to them. To pray with them. To remind them, face to face, eye-contact held, that there is hope.

This time last year I was studying the book of James. Slightly against my will I must add, because I knew I would be challenged by its contents. James certainly does not mince his words! And yet, after making a series of strong demands on the church he summarises with breathtaking simplicity by saying: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress.’

To what? To visit.  

 

Full circle, or another false start?

636467209542397463_Afterlight_Edit

(Posted by Laurence)

Last week I was on a new site, briefing a new crew, and checking the layout of a new building – an exciting time, and yet I have mixed feelings. Around this time last year Jane and I were visiting Rakai District to scout out what we thought would be our new home by this September, and we were investing our thoughts and imagination in the construction of a secondary school there for Cherish Uganda. In January that project was postponed indefinitely due to lack of funding, and our September plans were up in the air. By the time we had left Jinja in May (handing over the Amazima School project to a colleague as previously planned) two projects had been proposed and scrapped, for different reasons, and while we were in Nepal and the UK over the summer another two projects went from ‘a sure thing’ to being written off indefinitely. Just as we were wondering if we were going to have to make ourselves redundant, Cherish Uganda came back into the picture with a request for EMI to build a Community Learning Centre at their existing primary school site near Entebbe – a donor had offered to fund the whole of this specific project.

636467212521526807_Afterlight_Edit

Back on site, where I love to be.

There is a neatness in this turn of events for sure: Cherish Uganda are a long-time partner of EMI, and Jane and I were excited about working with them for their secondary school project, so to be able to work with them still is very satisfying. But even as we prepare the site there are concerns in my mind that this project could be the sixth in a line of false starts, because we are relying on local authority approval in the next month, without which the project will stall. A year ago I would have been optimistic, but now I am reluctant to have my hopes dashed again. For me, a project is the focus of my energy as soon as planning starts, and at least two of the proposed projects in the last year consumed enough mental energy to make me twice shy this time round.

That is an honest description of some of my feelings at the moment, but I am by no means feeling pessimistic. Wary perhaps, but not pessimistic. And in other areas of our life here things couldn’t be better: we have made a lovely home in a little house in Kampala that feels like it was built just for us, we are getting involved with a lively international church, and we are excitedly preoccupied with the thought of a trip to the UK over Christmas and the arrival of our baby. These are far better things to focus on, and as much as I love the work I do with EMI there is a danger that it can consume my thoughts.

Over three years ago, while I was in Kenya with the Royal Engineers, I wrote to Jane to tell her that I wanted to leave the Army, saying “I want to make my life much more about you, more about Jesus and much MUCH less about my job with the army.” It’s very easy now to throw all my time and energy into EMI because it seems like a much more noble cause than the Army, but in doing so I risk losing my focus on Jane (and now also our baby), and losing my focus on following Jesus.

 

Connecting belonging with place: reflections on ‘home’

636429923084288765_Afterlight_Edit

(Posted by Jane)

“Home changes often these days / (The concept is on my back)”

A poem written by my friend Tom Burgess has been stuck in my head like a song recently, the words subconsciously tumbling through my mind. Home does indeed change often these days, with frequent packing and unpacking every few months it seems, and even a short stint of literally carrying my home on my back when we were venturing through the mountains in Nepal in June.

Just before we left Uganda in May someone said to us, ‘you probably don’t know where home is at the moment.’ He was right, but it didn’t take me long to figure out. I stood on an English hillside a month later, and I was home. As Tom goes on to say in his poem,

“I’m still bound by the essential landscape of my youth… / the primacy of soil where I first connected / belonging with place”

There is something about England. A connection. An understanding. This summer it didn’t seem to matter where I was: on the Surrey hills where I grew up, watching the sun set over my favourite coastline in Wales, exploring new mountainsides in Cumbria or discovering the wild blackberries of the Cotswolds… whether paths and views I knew by heart or unknown places ripe for discovery, it was all home to me. More than a comforting familiarity but a heart-soaring connection.

636429915550004881_Afterlight_Edit

Carrying my home on my back – Langtang Valley, Nepal

Since moving to Uganda 18 months ago I’ve been in no doubt about how much I miss people (confirmed by the joy of being in the presence of all whom I’ve missed this summer), but I didn’t realise how much I missed a place too. I was surprised to discover that home is more than where certain people are: it’s a land, a soil, a country.

In early September we returned to Uganda and moved back to Kampala. So much familiarity: the welcome of friends who have become our family here, the smell of charcoal, the chaos of the roads, the orange soil, the lilt of Luganda, the tea fields, the colourful markets. And with familiarity comes comfort: the comfort of understanding what’s going on, the comfort of connecting to this ‘home from home’. But there is an awkwardness too, an awkwardness that stops me fully ‘fitting in’, that leaves me confused. I felt a pressure when we first arrived, a self-imposed pressure to call Uganda home, and I expected to find it natural. I expected to be engulfed with a sense of homecoming almost as soon as I stepped off the plane, as I had done arriving in Kenya ten years ago. But that wasn’t my experience on first arrival in Uganda last year, and months later I stood on a hillside and looked across the Ugandan plains, soaking in their beauty, but wondering why the view didn’t make my heart soar like the Surrey hills do.

636429706820155710_Afterlight_Edit

Beautiful but unfamiliar views – Sipi Falls, Uganda

Uganda is a home from home, a place I live in and yet don’t fully belong in. Somehow, in acknowledging this I have found peace and new energy. In accepting and submitting to the ties I have to my homeland I can turn to this country and accept and submit to the fact that it is familiar yet foreign. I can learn the Ugandan way and partake in the culture, I can attempt to speak the language and discover new ways of communication, I can celebrate our similarities and take joy in the discovery of why some things are done differently. But I wont be surprised when I become unstuck, when I don’t understand, when I peel back one cultural complexity only to discover another. I will find freedom in this, embracing perplexity as I grow in love for a foreign land.

And I will rejoice that I can return to that place where I first connected and belonged, when so many people can’t. There are many in my homeland right now who must know the same awkwardness of living that I sometimes feel here, the confusion and uncertainty of a foreign land. But for them they were compelled to leave, whereas I chose to leave. They fled in fear, whereas I calmly set off with hope and excitement. They may long to return one day when war is over, but wonder when that day will come, and in the meantime they fight for a place to live and work in a new land.  My home, their foreign place.


The poem I have quoted here is taken from Tom Burgess’ recent book of poetry, ‘Paint Yourself’, available from Arkbound, Amazon (e-book), and Waterstones. It is a beautiful book of sixteen poems about sunsets and journeys.

Amazima update: chapel roof

1499019079398

(Posted by Laurence)

I have fully relinquished management of the Amazima School project to Matt, one of my fellow EMI project managers, but of course I’m still taking an interest in progress on site! Matt sent me a photo update this weekend showing the roof installation under way — the design team and I put a lot of time into working with the steel contractor over the last few months, and seeing the trusses now fabricated and quite literally dropping into place is really satisfying.

Nepal earthquake reconstruction

1498098794727

The new Langtang village under construction; in the background is the landslide that wiped out the old village and killed hundreds in 2015.

(Posted by Laurence)

That Jane I were able to slot in a timely and meaningful trip to Nepal this month may seem fortuitous, or just incidental – or it could be God, yet again, weaving the tapestry of our lives that we can only see in retrospect.  Regardless, we have had a fascinating and enjoyable time seeing – and being a small part of – the work being done by OM Nepal in the wake of the 2015 earthquake.  But wait, you say, that was two years ago… surely Nepal is well on its way to recovery by now?

I can’t speak to all the factors at play but I believe seasonal extremes of weather, government directives, and the logistical remoteness of many communities have played a part in slowing reconstruction.  We spent two weeks visiting the Langtang Valley, OM Nepal’s current focus for reconstruction and the site of huge devastation in 2015.  The main cause of death and building collapse here was not so much the earthquake tremors but the avalanches and landslides triggered as a result.  The former site of Langtang Village is now a wasteland of fallen rocks where a major landslide took hundreds of lives and literally wiped a village off the hillside.  This village is around 30km from the nearest road, and unless you can afford the luxury of a helicopter (also very weather dependent) all goods and materials must be carried by porter or mule.  Inconvenience aside, this causes the cost of materials to rocket – a bag of cement in the nearest town costs $9, but by the time you add in transport costs (by mule, the cheapest) it will cost closer to $35 in Langtang.

OM Nepal have provided logistical assistance to the people of Langtang – through monetary grants and donation of mules – and are now constructing ‘model houses’ in strategic locations.  NGOs are not permitted to directly rebuild or even fund the rebuilding of general housing in Nepal – the Government is providing rebuilding grants to households – but they are allowed to build houses for the most vulnerable households in a community while simultaneously demonstrating safe building techniques and training local workers.

1498038423706

One of OM’s completed model houses in Langtang Village.

Jane and I were in Nepal primarily so that I could provide Construction Management support to OM Nepal – this was somewhat of an experiment, brought about through a connection I had within OM, but we were confident that having a second opinion on the ground for a few weeks could only be helpful in some way.  This is not the first time EMI has been involved in the earthquake response, in fact a series of EMI teams were present in Nepal in 2015 and 2016 supporting a number of different organisations.

The OM Nepal team are doing sterling work in the face of many challenges, and while I discussed several technical aspects of the construction with them I felt that they were already managing the work to a high standard, and most of the changes we discussed would be going above and beyond government requirements.  One particular opportunity I had that felt extremely worthwhile and satisfying was spending some time with OM’s project engineer introducing him to the concept of a Gantt chart (a project planning tool); he took to it extremely quickly and was keen to put it to immediate use on the next house project that was starting that day.  In an environment where funding is tight and supply lines are long and expensive, good planning is essential and so it was encouraging to see a simple project management tool adapted and used appropriately.

1498037886421

Laurence discussing project planning with OM Nepal’s project engineer.

As is often the case with short-term ‘voluntary’ work, I feel that I was one of the main beneficiaries of our trip!  The three day hike up the valley, a week of living simply ‘off the grid’, with construction observations thrown in… it was a dream for me, and even a chance for us both to spend some time away from the busyness of life.

EMI: a day in the life

Mason at work

What do I spend my days on site doing? Not playing with angle grinders, sadly…

(Posted by Laurence)

A typical day for me looks something like this…

07:30  I arrive on site, drop my bag in the site office, and join the crew to pray before they start work; then it’s back to my office to reply to any emails that came in the evening before.

08:00  By now the site is up and running for the day so I take a walk around to check progress and chat to the foremen (Richard and Yusuf) and their assistant foremen who, while they aren’t EMI staff, are experienced workers who often join our projects.

09:00  I review the project accounting spreadsheet and make any adjustments to the forecasted costs, and if it’s near the end of the month I will prepare a monthly report for our partner ministry; we make a lot of payments in cash, so keeping on top of accounting is key, and I am ably supported in this by Cossy – our Construction Management Administrator.

10:00  It’s time for the workers’ morning porridge break, although I decline my cup… in the meantime I am on the phone to the sub-contractor who is supplying steel trusses – their latest fabrication drawings need some technical feedback.

11:00  Back to finance again – our ability to estimate the cost of projects relies on up to date information, so I collate some recent prices and send them to our Quantity Surveyor in the main office.

12:00  One of our suppliers has dropped by the site office to deliver an invoice, so I chat to him for a bit and check that he is happy with our payment system.

13:00  I join the workers on site for lunch – a carb and a sauce – my favourite is mashed matooke (plantain) with groundnut sauce!

Site office

Our rather luxurious site office (in a storeroom).

14:00  Once work is underway after lunch, I call my two foremen into an informal meeting in the site office to discuss the tasks they have planned for the next few days.

15:00  I head out around site again, stopping to discuss a design detail with one of the foremen; back in the office I send an email to the Project Architect to seek clarification on this aspect of the design.

16:00  The foremen have prepared their material purchasing requirements for the next week, so I check how much cash we have on hand and put in a request to our partner ministry for more funds.

17:00  I’m off! As with most jobs these days, several emails have come in just as I get up to leave, but they will have to wait until tomorrow…

The facts of poverty

A good friend of ours has written a succinct but informative blog post about some of the facts and figures of poverty in Uganda…

“Consider that more than a third of Uganda’s citizens live below the international extreme poverty line of US$1.90 a day. Only 14% of households in Uganda use electricity for lighting. 71% of all dwellings have earth floors. 1 in 8 households have fewer than two meals per day.”

It’s really worth reading more here: Researching Poverty

Construction insights

(Posted by Laurence)

The recent visit of my father-in-law, and his questions about the construction site, made me realise some construction methods that I am already seeing as ‘normal’ might be worthy of comment for the benefit of UK readers, so here is a little insight into some aspects of construction in Uganda.

Excavation

To date, we have exclusively used manual labour for the excavation of foundations; that is, one metre deep trenches in a varying quality of soil.  There are two main reasons for this: job creation, and quality control.  First, our ethos at EMI means that we would rather pay twenty workers for a week, than one digger operator for a day; this isn’t a black-and-white argument, and opinions vary, but that is where I stand for now.  Second, I am wary of using machinery with operators of unknown skill; I have seen before how quickly excavations can go wrong due to an operator’s lack of skill or misunderstanding, resulting in wasted time or extra cost.

There are, however, some situations where machinery is the only option: mass grading for example.  We need to move thousands of cubic metres of soil to create level benches for the two classroom blocks, which means cutting away the hillside in some areas and filling and compacting in others.  To do this by hand, while technically possible, would take far too long and in my opinion would be too mammoth a task to comprehend.  So for mass grading we have hired a contractor who turned up with bulldozers, graders and rollers and reshaped a hillside in a week.

You may be wondering what the cost implications of these choices are, and it depends a lot on the scale of the work of course.  For the foundation excavations we have been doing it works out as comparable or cheaper to use manual labour, even more so if you consider the risk of having machinery on site for longer than planned.

Concrete

Next up, concrete: our method here is not so unusual, but might seem so to the casual observer (we used a similar approach in the Royal Engineers).  All our concrete is prepared on site using a 350 litre mixer in a central location; from there it is carted in wheelbarrows and poured, before being rammed into place and settled using a mechanical poker vibrator (yes, that is a technical term!).

Our biggest single pour so far has been for the chapel floor slab.  The floor will be finished by grinding the exposed concrete, and so we were anxious to avoid cold joints; to that end we cast the slab in two pours, each of 25 cubic metres (see photo above, right).  Once poured, the concrete was floated using a bull float (think of a metal paddle on the end of a long pole), which continued late into the night to achieve the smoothest possible finish.

For the real construction boffins out there, you will be interested to know that we have been doing cubes tests on our concrete (a service provided in Jinja by the Uganda Ministry of Works).

So there you have it.  Comments? Questions? (which I may or may not be able to answer!)