Rebar at night — engineer’s delight

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(Posted by Laurence)

Everywhere you look in Kampala there are unfinished buildings with concrete columns and reinforcing bars protruding; some of these are under construction, some awaiting for the next injection of funds in a year or two’s time, and some are seemingly abandoned. Normally I find these half-built buildings ugly and untidy, but the other night (walking up the road to buy chicken and chips from a local food stand), these columns and rebar had a kind of twilight elegance about them.

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The state of steel

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(Posted by Laurence) – One for the engineering-minded perhaps… but also some insights into Ugandan economy!

It’s an exciting time on site at Cherish Uganda right now, as the roof is being installed on the Community Learning Centre. Aesthetically this is giving the building it’s final shape, and is a great morale boost; practically it will allow us to work on the interior even when it pours with rain… also a morale boost!

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The steel trusses are being fabricated and installed by a contractor: one of three steel contractors who dominate the Uganda construction industry, and who are generally the only firms that EMI invites bids from for this scale of work. Small scale metalworkers can be found on the side of the road, virtually every few hundred yards, but for large-span structural steel trusses we need assurance of quality workmanship.

On site last week I was chatting with our foreman and the contractor’s foreman about these ‘big three’ firms. They are all owned by Kenyans or Indians (the latter being either Kenyan or Ugandan citizens) – none are owned by native Ugandans. This is due, they said, to the need for start-up capital for this kind of business, which most Ugandans can’t find easily.

But I wonder if the state of the steel industry here might also point to something else: that there isn’t enough major steel construction in Uganda to encourage the growth of other contractors, which says something about the level of development of infrastructure here. You might be fooled by the cluster of high-rise buildings in downtown Kampala, but within a kilometre of the city centre the tallest buildings are only four or five storeys; and outside the capital (and perhaps one or two other major towns) the predominant structures are still single-storey brick houses and shops.

No money for startup, but also not enough work to make the investment worthwhile. Perhaps. This is mainly just speculation!

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Central Kampala: note the small cluster of high-rise buildings quickly giving way to smaller buildings.

Chapel time

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Impromptu praise and worship on site at the Amazima School project last year

(Posted by Laurence)

It’s been fascinating to see how ‘chapel’ on site has evolved in the two years I have been here with EMI. When I arrived, chapel at one of the ongoing projects consisted of a half-hour talk from one the site management, followed sometimes by questions from workers; last year at the Amazima School, a small group of workers started leading impromptu praise and worship songs before each chapel session; somewhere along the way this developed into an expected part of ‘chapel time’, with traditional drums making a regular appearance; also at Amazima we trialed the Alpha course with positive results, and Richard (the EMI foreman working with me) has been keen to use it again at Cherish Uganda.

So now ‘chapel’ on my current project site starts with praise and worship led by our cooks, followed by a short talk from the Alpha programme, then discussion groups. Here’s a clip of the praise and worship…

 

 

Sunrise at Kajjansi

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(Posted by Laurence)

I often like getting into work early (mainly so I can leave early!), and one of the benefits is catching mornings like this… the sun rising over the marshy inlet of Lake Victoria that backs onto Kajjansi Airfield, with Mission Aviation Fellowship’s planes parked up waiting for their morning runs to Northern Uganda, DRC, and South Sudan.

Follow the wheelbarrow…

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(Posted by Laurence)

This last week we’ve been pouring concrete for the columns and beams of the Community Learning Centre at Cherish Uganda. In my continued effort to give you some insight into what our construction site is like, here is some poor-quality camerawork following a worker from the mixer to where the pour is happening. I say ‘pour’, but as you can see the concrete is first shoveled into a wheelbarrow, then carted to the right place, where it is scooped into half-jerrycans and passed up to other workers be troweled into place,  before finally being settled with a poker vibrator which you can see being prepared towards the end of the video.

Click on the image below to play the video…

D is for Diversity

 

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Some of our diverse, multi-cultural team of staff and associates on site at Cherish Uganda.

(Posted by Laurence)

A year ago I wrote about EMI’s core value of discipleship; recently I’ve been reflecting on how another of our core values plays out…

One thing I particularly like about EMI’s vision is the goal, and core value, of diversity. Many westerners working overseas for international development NGOs talk about “working themselves out of a job,” and this makes sense — if an NGO needs to exist, it is much better to employ local nationals than ex-pats — but at EMI, this runs contrary to our vision: to connect “…people of diverse backgrounds, abilities and ethnicities to demonstrate our love for God, our love for the nations and the unity we share in Christ.”

Here at EMI Uganda we currently have 28 design and construction staff, of which 50% are international staff (from the USA, Canada, and the UK), and 50% are Ugandan or East African (there’s one person from DRC). We definitely want to see an increase in the proportion of local national staff, especially in management roles, but that doesn’t mean we’re aiming for a 100% Ugandan team. The EMI ethos is one of sharing experience, professional skills, and approaches to problem solving across national and cultural boundaries. We want to see people of all backgrounds and nationalities working together for God’s kingdom, pursuing design and construction excellence within the local context.

Just this week, at our routine site meeting for the Cherish Uganda Community Learning Centre, there were present six design and construction professionals representing four nationalities, three ethnicities, and a variety of professional experience from Uganda, the UK, Canada, and the USA. We don’t want a homogeneous team of any one nationality or profession, we want this melting pot of ideas and approaches that might sometimes give rise to challenges, but ultimately leads to fresh ideas and success.

The latest EMI online newsletter profiled an EMI India staff architect who is being seconded to EMI Senegal — perhaps the perfect example of how our core value of diversity should be fulfilled. We are neither filling a quota of ethnic minorities, nor hoarding jobs for westerners, but encouraging a flow of professional skills and cultural approaches from country to country.

 

The walls are up!

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(Posted by Laurence)

It’s been longer than usual since our last blog post, and as most readers will know that’s because we were back in the UK for a couple of months over Christmas to have our first baby. We are now back in Kampala, (three of us!), and I am back to work on the construction project at Cherish Uganda. I handed over temporary control of the project to a colleague while I was away, and since I mused about the uncertainty of the project three months ago there has been huge progress…

Progress: foundations to walls

When I left in December we had tentatively started digging foundations while waiting for a construction permit, and on my return I found full-height walls in most places!

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November 2017: scraping away topsoil to set a foundation on the underlying bedrock.

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March 2018: walls almost ready for concrete columns to be poured.

This is particularly satisfying for me, as last year I oversaw the building of the foundations and walls for three buildings at the Amazima School, but left the project before completion; here at Cherish Uganda I will be seeing the second half of this project through to the final coat of paint… I hope!

Cherish Uganda: changing the story of HIV/AIDS

Cherish Uganda are a long-time partner of EMI, and EMI has previously designed and built homes for their boarding pupils and a medical clinic. We are working on the same site now (between Kampala and Entebbe), where Cherish Uganda run a primary school that focuses on creating a future for HIV positive children through education, medical treatment and awareness campaigns. Coming from the UK it’s easy to think that thse days HIV is a manageable condition that doesn’t necessarily have to limit a person’s future, and in fact the NHS says that “If you manage your condition properly by taking your medication correctly and avoiding illness, you should be able to live a near-normal life.” In Uganda this is not the case, and not just because of access to treatment: there is still a huge stigma against HIV positive individuals, and this means their opportunities in life are often severely limited. For a quick insight into the work of Cherish you really must watch this ten minute video, and if you want to know more you can also explore their website.

The Community Learning Centre

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The Community Learning Centre, containing (L-R) offices, classrooms and assembly hall.

Our current project is to build a Community Learning Centre (CLC), which will contain staff offices, classrooms and an assembly hall. The vision is for the building to be used not only by the school children but also by the community surrounding the site for adult education. Alongside the CLC we are building a new kitchen that will serve the primary school, and in total the two buildings cover about 900 square metres; this feels very manageable after managing three decent sized buildings at the Amazima School.

The long term vision for Cherish Uganda

Meanwhile the EMI Uganda design team is busy developing a new masterplan for Cherish Uganda. The secondary school that had been planned for construction in Rakai (south-west Uganda) will now be built here between Kampala and Entebbe, and a recently announced government road-widening project will require a number of buildings to be demolished and replaced or rebuilt; sadly this includes the medical clinic built by EMI just a few years ago, and so our design team are coming up with imaginative ways to demolish and rebuild half the clinic with minimal disruption to the essential services it provides.

Does international development need God?

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(Posted by Laurence)

I recently came across two opinion pieces – one old, one new – both written by atheists and both promoting the value of churches and religious organisations in international development. Matthew Parris – columnist for The Times and “a confirmed atheist” – is convinced that “Africa needs God,” and that Christian evangelism makes an “enormous contribution” to tackling poverty in developing countries. Duncan Green – strategic adviser for Oxfam and “a lifelong atheist” – asks “are grassroots faith organizations better at advocacy/making change happen? and, after reviewing Tearfund’s report on their faith-based advocacy partnership with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Uganda, concludes that it is “powerful and convincing stuff.

I will nail my colours to the mast as clearly as Parris and Green did: I’m a Christian, and an evangelically-minded one by many peoples’ standards. I work for a Christian NGO that provides design and construction support to faith-based partner organisations in developing countries, with a vision to see “people restored by God and the world restored through design.” So you might think I would be pleased to see writers from leading newspapers and NGOs coming out in support of Christian development work – and I am, because I agree that long-term change is best achieved through the local and global church. But I also think that both Parris and Green have missed the point – Parris by going too far and co-opting Christianity to solve what he sees as “Africa’s biggest problem,” and Green by not going far enough in looking for what he calls “the special sauce.

I am overjoyed that self-proclaimed atheists are recognising that something different happens when the church is mobilised to fight poverty, but the catalyst is not a comfortable faith-based values system that conveniently motivates communities to better themselves, the catalyst is truth. Christian development organisations don’t base their strategy on their faith because it’s a helpful tool to make the world a better place, but because it’s true. And because it’s true, it can change people’s lives for the better.

Workers at the Amazima School project (Photo: Mary McLeod)

The foundation for Parris’ argument is that the central problem in developing countries with a historically tribal society is “the crushing passivity of the people’s mindset.” He goes so far as to claim that in this culture “people won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders,” and that the only solution to this is to supplant tribal values and beliefs with a more effective system – and for this he has chosen Christianity, over the alternatives of “…Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.” To me Parris seems to be in danger of falling into a colonial-era attitude of ‘civilising the savages.’ Why does he want to encourage a belief system that, as an atheist, he must consider utterly false? Presumably because he thinks it will produce some beneficial, practical outcomes for developing countries. Ironically, in another article Parris rails against agnostic political and societal leaders who try to protect religion. He refuses to accept that religion is useful to society regardless of its veracity, and concludes by saying “‘Useful’ be damned. Is it true? — that is the question… It is the only question.

I have a lot of patience for Green, as an adviser to a secular INGO who is prepared to learn from the work of faith-based organisation. He has taken what Tearfund have written at face value, and has reasonably concluded that the church can be an effective agent for change due to the trust it often garners from communities and governments. But if he had dug deeper into what drives the work of Tearfund and many other Christian development organisations he would have found that what really makes these movements effective – “the special sauce,” as he calls it – is not the position of trust they occupy, or their positive attitude and values (as Parris would have us believe), but their faith. Not their faith in a good cause, but their faith in God. Not their faith in any God, but their faith in a God who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth in the first century.

I’m not saying that God is backing these organisations, giving them favour and success. Churches and Christian organisation can, and do, make horrible mistakes and abuses of power. This is because they are run by people. What I am saying is that when international development work is coupled with genuine faith in Jesus, the results can be mind-blowing. Yes, people’s attitude and outlook on life changes, but this is no truer in tribal cultures than it is in the capitalist west. To use Tearfund as an example again, they have produced a great video to answer the question ‘what is poverty?” They highlight how poverty is caused by separation between people on both a local and global level… but also by separation from God. People are not physically poor because they themselves are separated from God, people are poor because so much of the world today is separated from God, and the physical effects of that are often felt hardest in developing countries.

To claim that a God you don’t believe in can change the world is illogical. To seek to learn from the life-changing work of the global church without acknowledging the underlying truth is futile. Does international development need God? Yes, but only because we all need God.

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.