Connecting belonging with place: reflections on ‘home’

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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Amazima update: chapel roof

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(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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!)

Preview: Otino Waa

(Posted by Laurence)

EDIT: This project was in the final stages of planning when we wrote this post, but sadly it was cancelled in late May.

In January we posted a little update on my next project with EMI; at that point the future was unclear, but since then our design team have been working hard and we can now share the conceptual design for our next project (above).

In September we will be moving to Lira (a town in Uganda’s northern region) to support Otino Waa Children’s Village in the construction of a multipurpose building that will serve as a chapel and general meeting space for some 300 orphans. We know fairly little about Lira, but we will be visiting next weekend to scout out housing options and meet the Otino Waa team. Please do pray for this trip, and also for the work of the design team and the funds that Otino Waa need to bring this project to fruition.

More news on this as it develops, meanwhile we are looking forward to a sunrise Easter service with our church tomorrow morning — on the banks of the Nile!

The Outtakes

(Posted by Jane)

Last week at Child Restoration Outreach (CRO) we were taking school photos of former street children. These were some of the outtakes – and my favourites – the whole process caused a lot of hilarity!

For these children this is their first school photo; not least because for many of them this is their first year in school. Most of the children in these pictures were part-timers on the streets last year; begging and scavenging during the day and returning to the slum communities around Jinja at night. CRO social workers have been working alongside their families and communities, addressing the issues that have led to these children being on the streets. Through support, counselling and Self Help Groups (microfinance groups), these families and communities are now better able to care for these children, and with the help of CRO they are now getting an education. Paying school fees (a requirement of every school in Uganda) is a perennial problem: CRO shoulders the majority of this burden, whilst requiring families (where possible) to take responsibility for school resources and uniform; encouraging family involvement and investment in the child’s education.

Child Restoration Outreach needs the support of individuals and churches to help keep these children in school. Send me a message below if you are interested in donating to CRO or supporting these children through their education.

Bakusekamaja (people may laugh at you)

(Posted by Jane)

“We called our group Bakusekamaja,” she said, “which means: people may laugh at you… but in time they will admire you.”

I imagine people did laugh to begin with: women gathering together to save their small change, with big hopes and plans as to what they may do through this group; the poorest in their community, saving pennies at a time… what did they hope to achieve? But I have only admiration for these women; five months down the line, and they are already seeing results.

In November 2016 CRO Jinja enabled 300 women in Mafubira, a community just outside Jinja town,  to form and participate in Self Help Groups (SHGs). These groups aim to economically empower women through microfinance initiatives, giving them a voice in their homes and communities. As Noah, one of the social workers at CRO, said, “When you’ve touched the women you’ve touched the whole household; when you empower the women, you empower the children.” It is for this reason that CRO implements these groups; to reach the women, and through them secure a better future for their children, seeing more in school and fewer on the streets.

The model is simple and, in my opinion, ingenious. Gathered in groups of twenty members, with the oversight of two community facilitators, the women meet weekly to save money and hand out loans. They have freedom and autonomy as to how much they save and how they function: one group I visited, who named themselves Bakusekamaja, had an agreement that each member of the group would bring 2,500 shillings (about 50 pence) to each sitting; 1,000 would go towards their general saving fund, 500 to the emergency fund, and the extra 1,000 would be collected and given to one member of the group as a gift (taking it in turns week by week; a bonus 20,000 shillings for whoever’s turn it is!). The group would then hand out loans to it members, enabling them to start up small businesses. This money would be paid back with 10% interest in a month (or two months, depending on the loan). By the time I visited this group in mid March they had a total of 850,000 shillings moving around the group! One woman said to me, “This group is so important to me. I didn’t have work, but now I have a small business.” These businesses do indeed tend to be very small (this woman was buying and selling charcoal at a profit) but the impact is huge. Another woman told me “I am so proud of this group. I am now able to send my child to school when before I could not afford the school fees”. The result of modest savings being gathered and pooled has been life changing for some of these women, even in five months.

The group’s fuel is mutual trust. Perhaps it is a step of faith for some, to give small but significant money into a general fund; but with agreed regulations in place, a rotating leadership that empowers each individual, and capital slowly growing, trust develops and deepens. The women would have known each other prior to the formation of these groups, but many now testify to deeper, more accountable relationships as a consequence of being a member of an SHG. One woman told me, “This group has united us together. We are now friends.” She went on to say, “I have even learnt how to speak in public.”  It appears that the benefits of SHGs go far beyond savings and income generation! Trust and confidence is built, allowing these groups to also be forums for discussing and addressing personal and household issues.

At some point in the future these SHGs in Mafubira hope to form Cluster Level Associations (CLAs), with two representatives from eight to ten well-functioning SHGs. The CLAs will look beyond individuals and households to the needs of the whole community, mobilising resources and planning activities to address them. Perhaps some of these CLAs will even progress to ‘Federation Level’, to act as an effective bridge between the people and the state; raising a united voice against injustice and seeking accountability from the authorities and government decision makers.

In time I think that it will be far more than admiration I’ll have for these groups. I will be in awe… and it all starts with a few women, a shared goal, and mutual trust.