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.


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.


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.

CRO Jinja


(Posted by Jane)

I started working at Child Restoration Outreach (CRO) a month ago, and it’s taken that long to piece together all that CRO does, or seeks to do. The vision is vast; not in such a way that leaves CRO ineffective or thinly spread, but in a way that is responsive, holistic and realistic. CRO Jinja is a small indigenous charity that aims to resettle and educate street children in Jinja. It is one of many wonderful non-profits seeking to reach the most vulnerable children in our community, and shares a very similar model with some; a model that is innovative and has proven to be effective.

CRO projects

An overview of CRO’s activities: those in grey are not currently possible due to lack of funding.

CRO has no residential program as it recognises that being on the street does not necessarily mean that children are totally without family or community. The solution it not giving them a home at CRO, but a safe place to come, to clean up, eat a good meal, talk with staff, and receive a basic education while social workers trace their extended families and work to bring reconciliation and ultimately resettle the children in their communities. Many of the children’s families cannot afford school fees, so CRO partners with them, not taking the responsibility away from the care-givers but empowering them to find ways of saving through small businesses, made possible by their community Self Help Groups (microfinance groups).


The CRO centre in Jinja

The whole process starts with the child’s own will. They are invited to the CRO centre by social workers during their day and night walks around town, but the child must choose to turn up at the centre on a daily basis if they want their situation to change. I love this model that CRO and similar organisations in Jinja are seeking to implement; empowering children and families to seek and actualise a better future.

At present, CRO Jinja is being impressively resourceful with very little funding and income. Somehow they enable a little to go a long way, and even in a season when money is sparse they still manage to keep many of their programmes running; and yet the reality is that some of CRO’s projects have had to fall by the wayside. I am working alongside CRO staff to secure funding to get these projects, revised and with new energy, back up and running.

Majengo: where it all began

The view from St John’s Church, Majengo, Nairobi (2007)

(Posted by Jane)

A month ago I was sitting on the steps of St John’s church in Majengo, Nairobi. Back, after ten years. This was my favourite spot; looking out over the corrugated roofs of Majengo, through the precariously balanced aerials, to the skyline of central Nairobi. It’s not much of a view, but it took my breath away, as it always did. Ten years ago I wrote, “I must capture these moments, sat on the steps of St. John’s church. My back against a pillar,  my knees drawn up to my chin, looking out over the slum roofs. I hold my breath – absorbing it… existing in the moment… my heart swelling at the gloriousness of it all.”

This is where it all began: my journey here, to Uganda, started on those steps. Perhaps ‘glorious’ is an unusual word to use when describing Majengo; rife with poverty, struggle, abuse and daily challenge… But then again perhaps the word is fitting. Majengo; rife with love, hospitality, potential, energy, colour, sacrifice, hope… like I’d never experienced before. In 2007 it was my first time out of Europe, aged nineteen, on a five month Tearfund Transform trip and I was naive and clueless as to what to expect. But my first response to Majengo  was (as I recorded ten years ago), “…strangely quiet. Not a rush of emotion, feeling, judgement, surprise or confusion… Just an odd quietness in my heart. My eyes, for the first time, naked to these scenes, but in my heart an unexpected familiarity; like coming home.”

I knew then that I would be back, though it took much longer than I expected and I doubted it in the meantime. I’d been fairly convinced that I would throw in the towel at university after one term and be back on those steps looking over Majengo by Christmas, but it’s alarming how quickly my passions are absorbed into the present, and in time my plans became more measured and calculated.  At University I began to wonder what my purpose would be in going back. Would I be all passion and no use? What did I have to give?

St John’s Church in 2009

I returned two years later, expecting (and hoping) for positive answers to those questions, but in reality I struggled. As my friend SJ and I travelled around the country my heart became heavy:  heavy with helplessness at the extent of poverty, disgust at the level of corruption, uncertainty in an unfamiliar country, and fear at the unpredictability of our experiences. Such a contrast to my heart swelling at the potential, hope, progress and loving dedication that I witnessed in Majengo at St John’s Community Centre. I concluded, reluctantly, that there was little I could do to effect change; the task too large, my skills too niche, my heart too fearful. Despite the joy of having seen old friends again, and the excitement of adventure with SJ, I felt relieved to arrive home at the end of it all; to the country I know, the language I speak, the culture I understand. So, I would love East Africa from afar…

In our early years of marriage Laurence and I began to dream about what next. The journey was a long one, and much of it unconscious perhaps as I can’t even remember it now. But we considered our combined gifts and skills, and our desire to use them for God’s kingdom, and became fixed on the idea of pursuing a combination of overseas development and mission work; the task was still large, my skills were still niche and my heart was still fearful, but now I was not alone. We were willing to go anywhere, wanting to share the vision of an organisation rather than feeling ‘called’ to a particular country or even continent.

‘Calling’ is  a word Laurence and I have pondered a lot in recent years… were we eventually ‘called’ to EMI, ‘called’ to Uganda? Perhaps. But I find that term can be more confusing than clarifying, with each Christian using it in a slightly different way. For us, it was simply that we were available… and now here we are; after much prayer, lots of searching, common sense and practical planning. The beautiful thing is that this is very much a ‘calling’ for us as a team; and frequently we both say that neither of us would be here if it wasn’t for the other one. The love for East Africa sown in my heart ten years ago, combined with the useful, practical skills that God has given to Laurence, make us both passionate and useful: together.

So here we are, living and working in East Africa. A twelve hour coach journey from those church steps, but close enough. I didn’t have the same sense of homecoming as I did when I first walked the streets of Majengo, in fact I feel far more like an alien in a foreign land; learning it, embracing it, questioning it, and then living and loving as best I know how. But as time passes it feels more like home here, albeit a second one, and it helped to sit back on those steps looking out over Majengo last month, remembering where it all began. I know I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for Laurence, and God’s collective ‘call’ upon our lives; but we wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for that Tearfund Transform trip to Kenya ten years ago, when God planted in me a restlessness for this part of the world.

Back on the church steps after ten years, with four of my fellow Tearfund volunteers (plus two husbands) and our Kenyan friends (2017)

D is for Discipleship

(Posted by Laurence)

Engineering Ministries International has three core values: design, discipleship and diversity (affectionately called ‘the 3 Ds’) and these interplay every day at EMI, both in the office in Kajjansi and on our construction sites.  Discipleship takes two forms within EMI: spiritual and professional.  Professional discipleship most often appears as informal training of casual labourers, spearheaded by EMI foremen but also enacted by experienced workers who pass on their skills.  At other times we might run more formal training (on site safety for example), or instill a certain ethos through our site policy and management style.  EMI doesn’t dictate this to me, and likewise when it comes to spiritual discipleship I am given a relatively free rein.

EMI site routine includes group prayer at the start of the day (led by the foreman) and a weekly ‘chapel’.  Involvement in both of these is optional for our workers – they can sit elsewhere on site if they please, and still be paid for their time – but generally all are present.

When I was thinking over our approach for chapel on this project, I was keen to involve the workers as much as possible, and avoid just a weekly sermon.  We aren’t a church; our workers come and go from projects, and although we can disciple them through our management of the crew I think that any lasting spiritual development will come from their own thought and initiative.  To that end, Yusuf and I are trying out Alpha, a course started in the UK but now used worldwide that explores the basics of the Christian faith through short talks and discussions.

I was dubious about how the discussion part would go down – based on my experience of awkward silences in groups of mature adults in the UK – but I was put to shame!  After my introductory talk last week (theme: truth) the discussion points, questions and counter-questions came thick and fast, and before we knew it we had filled forty-five minutes just discussing “Can more than one religion be true?” and “Is it OK to switch religions when it suits you better?”.  I was amazed by how engaged the crew seemed to be, and how thoughtful their responses.  Maybe I’m doing my countrymen a disservice, but I’m not sure British labourers would engage so quickly in theological discussion.  The reason for that, I think, is that the average person here is much more spiritually aware than in the UK; I haven’t questioned each worker but I know that we have a mixture of Christians and Muslims in our crew (and possibly other belief systems), who might have varying levels of adherence to their religion but at least have some awareness of a spiritual realm rather than the outright denial often found in the UK.

Finally, I was overawed to see how easily Christians and Muslims can not only work side by side but also discuss their religious beliefs.  I know that many Brits of both religions would do the same, but it just seemed to come so naturally to these men and women.  Jane and I were musing as to whether this good relationship between religious groups could also breed apathy to personal faith… I don’t want to make that claim, because I don’t know, but I do hope that our weekly discussions on site over the next two months will lead to people analysing their assumptions about faith and finding new personal beliefs that are based on clear thought and understanding, rather than just tradition and culture – regardless of what those beliefs turn out to be.


(Posted by Laurence)

This was my view out of the kitchen window this morning, in the aftermath of a rainstorm. We are just starting to get into rainy season, and the rain often seems to come at night — I’m sure my father-in-law can explain why… cooler temperatures causing precipitation perhaps?

For us, the past few months of dry season have merely meant uncomfortable hot stuffy nights, but for many in the north-eastern regions of Uganda it has meant drought — food shortages and dry boreholes.

Breaking ground


(Posted by Laurence)

Two weeks ago the first pickaxe bit into the soil on the site of the Amazima School chapel, and since then I have had a growing sense of satisfaction and contentment as construction has bounded ahead.  Prior to breaking ground Yusuf, the project foreman, had conducted two weeks of site preparation: erecting around 400 metres of timber and corrugated iron hoarding (no quick-assemble hoarding here); building a ‘temporary’ pit latrine to provide for up to 100 workers for the length of the project (no porta-loos here); and starting to induct new workers into ‘the EMI way’.

Forming an EMI construction crew

In the planning stages of this project I had asked one of our foremen how we would find workers at the start of the project, and he said “They will come!”.  I was slightly dubious – my approach to project planning would involve having a list of workers before the first day of construction – but I knew this was one of those areas where my western approach wouldn’t work, and lo and behold on the day Yusuf and I turned up at 7:30am to kick off the project we found 40-odd prospective labourers waiting outside the school gates.  The effectiveness of word-of-mouth advertising and the keenness of these men and women to take on relatively low-paid manual labour was impressive, but it also demonstrates the lack of employment opportunities in Uganda.  We only took on 25 workers that day, and told the rest to come back in a few weeks time as work starts to ramp up.

Below is a snapshot of the crew we have had on site over the last couple of weeks – it fluctuates depending on the work available, but the principals remain the same.  I think in organisational pyramids and line diagrams (due mainly to my military background), and so that is how I present the crew.

pmMy role as a project manager here feels very familiar, because as a Royal Engineers Troop Commander I had around 30 soldiers under my command, and I mixed planning and strategy with on-the-ground leadership.  So while I lack some of the mainstream construction experience that my peers have, such as managing multi-million dollar projects with large contractor firms, it’s great to see how God prepared me so well for this role even while I was working in the military, which is in many ways a polar opposite to the NGO sector.


The typical make-up of an EMI-managed construction crew

foremanThe man who is really in the driving seat is Yusuf.  He has worked on EMI projects in some manner since 2008, starting as a casual labourer while studying for his diploma in construction and working his way up into the Foreman position.  One of EMI’s core values is Diversity, and it’s great seeing how Yusuf and I bring different skills and experience to the project from our differing professional and cultural backgrounds.

new-piktochart_20609067_f47a27886364660b0ea0315afe82661ec852f000Still to join my crew is Cossy, another EMI staff member, who’s role (Construction Management Administrator) encompasses project accounting and materials procurement.  This is an essential role, ensuring value for money and transparent accounting for our partner ministries, and I am feeling the extra workload in Cossy’s absence and looking forward to his arrival in a week or so.

emi-skilledYusuf’s right-hand man at the moment is Edison, an experienced mason who has been a casual labourer on EMI projects for some time, and just finished one of our projects over near Kampala.  Our remaining experienced workers are a mixture of people known from previous projects and others who are new to EMI projects and are undergoing a trial period while Yusuf confirms their ability – this week we had a self-proclaimed mason who didn’t know the difference between feet and inches.

emi-unskilledThe remainder of the crew are generally referred to as ‘unskilled’ or ‘helpers’, and have joined our crew from the local area.  This is where EMI strives to have an impact beyond the site boundaries: providing employment, skills training, and a gospel message.  And somewhere among these workers could be future EMI foremen!


Yusuf (EMI Foreman) checking foundation levels

Early days… challenges and successes

The most unique, or new, management situation I have encountered in these early stages is the nature of employment for our casual workers.  First of all there is the sheer volume of people looking for work, and then there is the fact that if we shut down site for a day because I misjudged the scheduling of tasks and there is no work while the concrete cures… then 30 people don’t get paid that day [this happened on Monday].  I’m sure similar employment situations exist in the west and I just haven’t encountered it – but the scale of it here is different.

Other than that, the main issues so far are site safety, security, and weather – this could be the UK!  But so far Yusuf and I are keeping on top of these areas: we have provided each worker with helmet, overalls and gumboots, and so far they are being worn consistently; our site fencing gives us good separation from the staff and children on the operational area of the school site; and although we have had several night-time storms, we are currently steaming ahead with concrete footings before rainy seasons sets in for real… although it is always a matter for debate as to when rainy season really starts!

More insights on these topics in the future: especially site safety, as that is something that I am very conscious of and opinionated about.