Star gazing over the Nile

28 Nov

Greetings from Moyo!

I am somewhat slacking with my blog entries and it has been some time since I’ve written a new entry so I will try make this one good!

I would like to begin by telling you of an observation which shows how remote this place is, and how uncommon white people are here – I have not seen another white person (or non-African person) since the 20th September…69 days and counting!!!!

Two weekends ago I took a road trip with Sr Pasqua to the nearest town, Adjumani. Although it is the nearest town, the journey took 3 hours. The roads here are shockingly bad. Never again will I complain about the bad state of Irish roads! In this region none of the roads are tarmacked and potholes are painfully frequent. The journey to Adjumani also involved a trip across the River Nile! It was my first time to see the Nile and I was very excited. The distance across is only about 300m yet it requires a small car ferry to take people across. The Nile really is a gorgeous river and it is surprisingly fast moving and powerful. The region of the Nile where we were is quite dangerous. There are many hippos and alligators in the river that can kill people whilst they are fishing or crossing it in their traditional boats. I didn’t see any though. The journey to Adjumani, although very bumpy, was quite entertaining – for whole journey people waved at me and looked so happy to see me. I think I know what the Queen must feel like as she is driven around.

Whilst in Adjumani we stayed with the Sisters that run the Redeemer primary school. The Redeemer Childrens Home (where I am staying) had been located in Adjumani until one night in 2003 when the LRA rebels abducted 16 children from the Home. That night the Sisters transported the remaining children to Moyo where they stayed in the Mission until funding could be obtained to build a new Home. Sadly not all the children were saved from the rebels – some were killed and some have not been accounted for. The Sisters told me of one gruesome story where one of the abducted Redeemer kids had epilepsy and had a fit whilst being held by the rebels. Upon seeing this, the rebels decided the boy must be killed and they then forced the other children to stone him to death. Those who refused were told that they would face the same death. Needless to say, the children that were saved were highly traumatised after the horrific experience.

Following the departure of the childrens Home from Adjumani, a primary school was built in its place. The school is now hugely popular, with over 1,200 students, and is one of the highest scoring schools in the district. However, as is the case with many schools here, the class sizes are shockingly high. Some classes have over 100 kids being taught by one teacher in one classroom.

Adjumani is a very hot place, much hotter than Moyo and needless to say, I was red faced and sweaty for the entire weekend there. On the Sunday morning, I attended mass with one of the Sisters. From what I hear, white people are even rarer in Adjumani than in Moyo and so I attracted too much attention wherever I went! From the moment I stepped into the church, people stared at me and watched my every move. You would think that after receiving this type of attention for the last 10 weeks I would be used to it, but I am not, it makes me very awkward. So at the end of the mass, the priest was making the announcements but the acoustics were particularly bad and I could not make out what the priest was saying. So I was quite surprised when I saw every head in the church turn to me. Sister Grace whispered to me to stand up so I feebly got to my feet. She then motioned for me to go up to the altar, I was completely in shock at this. She thought I knew what was happening, I didn’t. So I went up to the altar and waves of excitement literally went around the church. Kids were actually jumping onto older people to get a better look at me. People were pointing and laughing. I started panicking, getting even redder, much to the delight of the crowd. I didn’t know what to say or do so I stood there smiling at the crowd. Well, the priest also thought I was mental and was like ‘just please greet the congregation’, so I said ‘hi’ and before I could say anything else, the place erupted in laughter. I mumbled an embarrassingly poor greeting and then basically ran to my seat. It was awful. Sister Grace told me people will speak of the time that a white person got nervous and ran off the altar for a very long time to come. I hope never to think of it again.

Another highlight of the weekend was the return journey to Moyo. We reached the Nile as the sun was setting and due to ‘African time’, we spent a very long time waiting for the boat. So I got to spend a long time gazing at the stars on the River Nile. It was really peaceful and beautiful – a lovely way to spend a Sunday evening!

But back to the world of accounting, my purpose for being in this wonderful place, Richard and I have recently been working on the inventory records. We had counted the livestock and crops in the Home for October month end which involved counting, amongst others: pigs, cows, goats, maize, millet and groundnuts! Having spent my accounting career to date in financial services audit, I had never done a stock count before, so that was definitely an interesting experience. But last week, we had to count the stock of the two shops that the Home owns in town:  the Divine Mercy Shop and the Divine Mercy Store. I was quite a bit worried about it as Richard expects me to know the answer to every question he asks, so I had to let on that I was a pro at stock counts!

Counting the shop stock was a slow job but thankfully it went ok. Both shops are managed by very helpful staff who really did most of the counting. My job was writing down the results! The Shop products vary from Obama pens to boys shoes to curry powder to babies socks which made the counting quite tedious. The shop is managed by Moris who is a huge Arsenal fan (as are most men in Moyo) so I was able to put my ‘football knowledge’ to use while trying to keep us entertained during the count. The Store (which is managed by Luca) sells most goods at wholesale so there are not as many different types of products but they are in large quantities.

Sadly the stock counts proved that my suspicions about the shop inventory were correct – the cost of sales had not been accounted for correctly and so when we valued the inventory, the actual value was hugely less than the value on their accounts. So we needed to spend a few days analysing the records books to see why this was, then we had to determine the most appropriate way to correct the inventory balance. Although they use computerised accounting software, all the shop records are manually kept. Therefore to calculate cost of sales can be a very tedious task. I recommended some ways that the accountant can make it easier for himself in the future like, for example, to have a list of all product costs on the computer so that he can just get prices from that instead of going back through pages of the purchases book.

Reviewing the inventory for the shop and store, led us to stumble upon other issues that were impacting on the accounts. Occasionally sales were not recorded properly. Cost of sales wasn’t always booked on the accounting system, though it was calculated for donor reporting purposes. The cost of sales wasn’t calculated for any sales on credit or sales made to the Home. Along with the difficulties in assigning the correct cost price to goods (due to the manual records kept), these are the reasons that the inventory balance was so over-stated on their accounts. We are now trying to work through a few remaining issues such as correcting the debtors and creditors balances, and we will shortly being work on the budget for the next financial year.

The children in the Home continue to be highly entertaining. They are such funny, happy, affectionate children and have really made me feel so at home here. The girls are especially cute – they follow me around the place and always hold my hand or give me hugs. Whenever I sit down with the kids, they will crowd around me and sometimes will fight to get near me, with everyone trying to rest their hands on me, its gas but quite intense sometimes as they can literally swamp me! They are fascinated about comparing their hands/legs/arms/feet to mine. If they ever see a scar or mark on me, they get noticeably upset and will call over the others to investigate and will say ‘sorry’ to me because of the scar. Its very cute!

I am writing this by torch light as a storm is raging overhead so our solar power has to be switched off. I best go and stop rambling although I will post another entry in the next few days – I spent the whole of last Saturday at a nursery school graduation, which involved tinsel, gowns and the whole town. You will have to read the blog to know how they all piece together!!!

So it was a solider, a nun and I…

15 Nov

Hello from Moyo!

This last week has been quite eventful. I will begin from where I left off last time – last Sunday was first Holy Communion in the parish. Over 180 kids received communion at mass, including 6 from Redeemer. Due to my starring role in mass last week, I was unable to attend the ceremony but there were lots of celebrations here afterwards. The communion children, wearing their finest clothes (thankfully the girls were not dressed in My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding style dresses), came for a special dinner with the Sisters, Mr. Rubanga (the homes ‘father figure’) and I. They were all so excited about eating with us and it was a lovely meal! Of course, they were so amused to see that I eat with a knife and fork. I must say though that these kids eat more food than any other children I’ve ever seen. Most of them even had third helpings of food. They were so full that they couldn’t finish their sodas! Quite unlike most kids at home whose priority would be the soda, then the food. I even was able to supply cake (courtesy of my weekly gifts from the Babies Home) as a treat after supper.

Once we finished eating the real entertainment began. A group of kids, the Redeemer Childrens choir if you will, came in to sing us songs! They were so good and so well organised – one was the conductor, different children sang solos and they sang 6 songs word perfect, with actions. A few other children came in to sing solo songs – including one boy called Majaok who composes his own songs which are brilliant and he is such a good performer. When he was performing, I swear every child in the Home stood outside the door to listen and it was the only time I have ever heard all of the children be silent at the same time.

After the excitement of the communion night, the start of the week ticked along rather uneventfully. Richard and I continued to work away. It is still difficult to get time to get our work done, though Richard is aware that I do not have long more working with him so hopefully he will start to make more time for me. It is a work in progress! Last week we focused on preparing reports on the income generating projects that the Home has. We had to obtain the store records to determine how much of each crop had been harvested and in which month. We also needed to see how much harvested crops were used in the Home. This way we were able to correctly determine how profitable the field has been by including the food consumed in the Home. We also did up reports on the performance of the other projects in this financial year. The field is, by far, the most profitable project the Home runs. The main issue with the field is now to determine how to improve this profitability. The Home also owns two shops in Moyo. Their reports for the year show steady sales but large differences in terms of monthly gross profit. This suggests that cost of sales have not been calculated correctly. Next week we are due to do stock counts of the shops and the issue of cost of sales will have to be examined in more detail.

As we are working, like in any other job, other issues pop up that require attention. During discussions about the petty cash and bank account management, it was clear that there are a few problems which have led to large discrepancies between the Homes accounts and actual cash/bank balances. I have learnt that offering any recommendations to Sr Pasqua must be done in a very sensitive way. She is, understandably, very proud of the performance of the Home to date and is somewhat apprehensive of change. Richard is wary of doing anything that might be questioned by Sr Pasqua so making progress in terms of recommendations for change can be slow and difficult.

On Friday last, we celebrated Uganda’s independence again. This was the official celebration for the district as due to many random reasons they did not celebrate it here on the actual day. Sr Pasqua, the director of Redeemer, is a very active political supporter and a very proud Ugandan so she made sure we were among the first to arrive at the venue. The celebrations were hosted in a large playing field, with tents at one side for ‘very important people’. When Sr Pasqua, Sr Florence (a very nice Sister from the convent, who actually lived in Dublin for 3 years!) and I arrived, they ushered us to the front of one of the tents and seated us beside the guests of honour, the MPs. We were quite shocked by this. Then the organisers put a large table in front of us (which signifies importance here). The only other people to have tables in front of them were the MPs and the district councillors.

We were given Ugandan flags, printouts of the Moyo district anthem and throughout the show were given sodas and water. They treated us like royalty, it was so bizarre. The Sisters were really surprised and also quite embarrassed by the fuss!! I liked it…  I think I could get used to being treated like a ‘very important person’. Though, since I was the only white person there, amongst thousands of locals, I also had the paparazzi treatment. I dread to think how many photos of me were taken that day.

The actual celebrations were so exciting. There was a parade of various groups from the area: police, army, schools, nursery schools, teacher training schools and even a group representing people living with HIV/AIDS. It was so well organised and was extra special because many of the Redeemer kids were in the parade!

There were many, many speeches throughout the day – these were actually very interesting in terms of hearing about the major issues impacting this district and how the various politicians intend to address them. When the parade finished, many of the schools and other groups came in front of us VIPs (!) and performed traditional dances and songs. It was brilliant!

Before the event ended, a select few of the people in the VIP tents were invited to the supper for dignitarties. Of course, for some odd reason, we were also invited. It was on in the local nightspot called Monkey City. As we are not VIPs, we were quite dubious of this supper and hoped to sit at the back. But when we arrived we were ushered to a table beside the top table. At this stage it was just Sr. Pasqua and I, and we were joined at our table by a very nice Ugandan solider called Moses. So there I was in a nightclub for the first time in 2 months and I was with a solider and a nun – though at least I was protected spiritually and physically! So we stayed for a while and had a few free beers, a lovely supper and several funny conversations between the interesting mix of people at our table. And you’ll never guess what music played throughout the supper?! Westlife. Although I am not a fan of theirs, it was a nice reminder of home!

And finally, to give another example of the different cultures here. On Sunday the girls here at the home wanted to paint my nails. One of the older girls has nail varnish so I gladly said yes. She did my left hand and I was delighted. I went to give her my right hand to do and all the girls laughed. They were like ‘No Clare, you cant do your right hand!!! That’s for eating with!!’ I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I eat with a knife and fork, so now I’ve one my left hand nails painted and not the right. I look like a crazy person. And I’ve no nail varnish remover so hopefully it will just wear off soon…very soon.

Balloons

6 Nov

Hi from Moyo!

You will be glad to hear all is continuing to go well over here in Uganda. In the last week, I have had a few interesting experiences – I found a scorpion in my bathroom (and actually did not freak out when I saw it!), there was more trouble with balloons and I have had a few starring roles in mass.

I will tell about the balloons first. Although, writing about this incident is hard, I have genuinely developed a disliking of balloons now. The children here are OBSESSED with balloons. I don’t know what has happened to them but they seem to associate balloons with white people. From the day I arrived here, they would constantly ask me for balloons. It was funny at first but then started to become quite annoying. So on my first Saturday, I gave them balloons. They were delighted, the enjoyment they got from them was quite amazing. They blew them up then watched in awe as they deflated; they chewed them; they threw them around; they guarded them in their pockets like it was gold. They all looked devastated when someone’s balloon burst. For me, the amazement lasted about an hour. Once they had one, they wanted more. So, I promised that the following Saturday I would give them more balloons.

But during the week, more and more kids seemed like they had balloons. And more kids would ask me for balloons, more frequently. It nearly drove me mad. I made sure that I hid the remaining balloons safely in my room, just in case. Well, probably unsurprisingly, two of the girls went into my room one day, went through all my things and took the balloons! I realised this last Saturday morning, when I went to get the balloons to give to them. Also, that very morning I was woken up by knocking on my door at 6.30am. It was one of the girls asking for a balloon, it was not a nice wake-up call on my day off. So because all my balloons had been stolen, none of the kids could be given balloons and for the whole day most of them didn’t speak to me, except to ask for a balloon. Sr Sarah had to have words with them that night but thankfully, we are all friends again and no one has mentioned the dreaded word ‘balloon’ to me since.

The whole incident may have driven me quite crazy but it really did show a bigger issue here. These kids have no toys or games or even footballs. They get so excited when people give them gifts, too excited in fact. So it really did teach me that sometimes even the smallest thing to me or you, can be something of much more importance to someone else, especially in a poverty stricken area like this.

Sundays are always nice days in Moyo. They start with my new commute from Redeemer to the church – a 35 min walk in the African sun which can be quite a struggle at times. Mass continues to be very entertaining, which is honestly not an exaggeration. It is the best time in the week for people watching, the singing is fun and people frequently cheer, clap and dance. I am a Catholic but I do think that even if you are not Catholic you would still really enjoy mass here. Hopefully my singing has improved a bit in the last few weeks, though I doubt it. This week at practice, a man beside me thought I was singing a different song to the rest of them, I wasn’t, my pronunciations must have just been so bad! I have learnt though that at mass, you need to guard your song book very carefully because people here have no shame at taking it for themselves halfway through a song. It’s a dog eat dog world!

Well, at mass here for collections, an alter server stands on the alter holding a basket and everyone has to walk up the aisle to give money. Personally, I dislike this part as everytime I walk up, I can see so many heads turn to state at me. But last week, for a special collection, they got a man, woman and child from the congregation to hold the baskets. They woman they chose was yours truly. I was so awkward. The minute I stood up on the alter holding the basket, people started laughing, I didn’t know what to do so I just kept smiling and got more and more embarrassed, making my red get redder, much to peoples enjoyment!

After my stellar performance last week, I was asked to be part of the liturgy this week. I was asked to do the first reading, ‘dance’ in the gospel procession, say a prayer of the faithful and ‘dance’ in the offertory procession. One of my friends in the choir was organising the liturgy and asked me to join them. I think I may have been recruited as a crowd pleaser as people were so happy to see me getting involved in the mass. I must say it was quite intimidating standing up in front of a packed church of people staring at you and hanging on to my every word. With the help of the Sisters here, I wrote a prayer for the orphans to say at mass and it was very well received. After mass, so many people stopped me and thanked me for my prayers and involvement. One woman even told me that she was so happy when she saw me, she saw God. It definitely has to be the strangest compliment I have ever received!

Last Sunday, my choir were had a feast as they were recently given a goat. So they slaughtered the goat that morning and after mass we all ate it. Most people here eat with their hands but usually I am given cutlery. Though this time, I had to eat like a local. Also, although the meat here is very nice, they must prepare it differently from home – often there is a lot of fat and bones! So eating food is quite un-glamorous at times.

Following the meal, I joined a few of my new friends from the choir, including Vuni, in the local pub for a drink. In typical Irish/Ugandan fashion, one beer turned into a few and we ended up spending the whole afternoon there watching the football. People are football crazy here. They support one of four teams: Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool. And they passionately support their teams! They are also very impressed when I tell them that I was born in Manchester, as obviously Man Utd are the most popular team here!!! Between the feast with my choir and going to the pub with my friends, it was such a nice day! It really made me feel at home, and made me realise that I have actually made good friends here, which is great!

Work wise, the last week or so has been good. It can be difficult to get time with Richard (the accountant here) to get through our work but we are still soldiering on. When I first got here, I did a review of their accounts for the year and realised that the deferred revenue (from the donor, IRT) had not been accounted for correctly since this time last year. As this job was complicated and incredibly boring, it took quite some time to correct the closing balance from the last financial year and also to make sure that the current balance is correct. We were both happy when we finished that job. We also spent time making sure that all the incomes and expenses were correctly allocated to the right accounts on their accounting system Quickbooks. A further job this week was to review the cash management process of the Home. The current system is working well but Richard has told me that there are areas which he thinks could be improved. This is a difficult area for any business, but particularly in the culture here, any recommendations or advice regarding cash processes have to be given carefully with a lot of sensitivity.

I returned to the Babies Home this week for a day to help Vuni with the month end reporting. I wanted to make sure that the new reports and procedures, which we had been working on when I was there, were being continued. It is always so exciting returning to the Babies Home. The children go MENTAL when they see me, they literally start chanting my name from the minute they see me in the distance walking up. All the workers there and the Sisters, also give me such a great welcome, that it is like I am returning home when I go there. I am also always given loads of delicious home-made cakes and bread to bring back to Redeemer!

The weather has turned a bit funny here. It is so changeable – one minute it will be roasting hot and ten minutes later there will be a huge rainfall. We keep getting a lot of heavy rainfalls and storms. The rain can be so heavy at night that it will wake everyone up. When it rains, the air turns quite cold which can be a nice change from the hot sun heat here!

Well thank you to anyone who has read this far and apologies for writing such a long blog this week! I’ll add a new blog entry soon! xx

Clara

26 Oct

Hello from the Redeemer Childrens Home!

So last week, I made the big move from the Babies Home to the Childrens Home. It felt strange packing my stuff to leave the Babies Home – I had been there for nearly 4 weeks yet it felt a lot longer, they really had made me feel at home. The night before I left, the Sisters told me that they would be giving me a special send-off involving staff, Sisters and children so I knew I was in for something interesting. By the time it came for me to leave, all the children and staff had gathered on the grass outside my room (mind you some children were actually very annoyed/sad about my departure and refused to shake my hand or say bye!!!). As my bag was loaded into the back of the vehicle, so were ten stage 3 kids, three caretakers and the gardener. In the back seat were two Sisters and the accountant which left the driver, me and one child on my knee, in the front. I never knew so many people could fit into such a relatively small truck. As we left the Babies Home, everyone in the truck, and those remaining in the Home, started singing ‘Goodbye Clara, thank you for staying at the Moyo Babies Home’ (everyone in the Babies Home called me Clara, which is actually Madi for Clare! Though to the kids, I was key-laaaarrrrrra!!). So as we drove along, this song and a couple of others were sung loudly from the truck! It was like a moving choir so we attracted quite a few funny looks!! After a 5 min drive, we arrived at Redeemer only to find everyone from the Home standing outside singing ‘Welcome Clare, welcome to Redeemer Childrens Home’. It really was such a great way to arrive in a new place! Though the whole experience was quite emotionally overwhelming!

The Homes are ran by the same order of Sacred Heart Sisters and have many similarities. When children in the Babies Home reach about 6 or 7 and have no families to be resettled with, they are brought to the Childrens Home. The two Homes are also funded mainly by the same donor, International Refugee Trust (www.irt.co.uk). But the Homes are very different. Redeemer has over one hundred children in its care. There are over 80 children here at the moment and the remaining children are boarding in senior schools or are at university or vocational training. Running a Home with so many children is a very difficult job and apart from needing a lot of money, it requires a very strong person in charge. Sr Pasqua, the Homes director is such a person. She is funny, vivacious, knows everything about every child here, is incredibly protective of the children and is really passionate about the Home!

The Redeemer Home is aiming to become self-sufficient in the future. To achieve this goal, the Home has a number of income generating projects on the go. It has two shops in Moyo town, a farm where numerous crops are grown for the Home and to sell; and on site here there are cows, chickens, a piggery, a grinding mill and shortly a bee-keeping project will start. So there is A LOT going on but thankfully Sr Pasqua has everything under complete control!

I wont lie, though, it has taken me a few days to adjust to this next phase of my trip. Redeemer is so nice and everyone is so friendly here, but there are differences between the two places – in the Babies Home, there was a community of 5 Sisters based there (though only 2 officially worked in the Home) whilst here there are only two Sisters; from morning to night (apart from nap time) there are children running around the Babies Home but here most children are in school all day, which means the place can be v quiet at times! Though once the children return, the Home becomes a mad house. The two Sisters, the father figure of the Home and I eat all meals in our dining room which is beside the childrens dining hall. We all tend to have supper at the same time, and often you have to literally shout to each other just so you are heard above the children!! Meals here are very entertaining. Sr Pasqua is a great entertainer and she usually leads the chats. You will either hear the local gossip or else she will give you a rundown on a particular child – she has an incredible knowledge of all the children here. She will often recount how different children ended up in the Home, this is always interesting to hear but always heart-breaking.

As the children are older here, they help out a lot around the place. A group of girls clean our dishes after the meals, they also help cook the food and maintain the place. They help with the animals, tend to the vegetable garden, work at the farm and even mind each other. Each of the older kids has responsibility for a number of younger kids – they will clean the clothes for them and make sure they are bathed and generally, act as a mother/father figure for them.

The children here are great fun! Its actually like I have turned into a child again – we spend hours playing rope jumping games and a variety of other hand-clapping/dancing/singing games. I also had my first game of African-style football – playing barefoot with a ball made out of plastic bags kept together with string. I may have been playing against kids half my age but I was quite good, I even scored 3 goals! Another day, we had no ball and I spent over 20 mins kicking around a flip-flop with 3 kids. It really is amazing at what can entertain you if there is no TV or electronic games or even toys!

Work wise, this last week has been a bit of a slow starter. On my first day here, I sat down with the accountant, Richard, to review their systems and discuss what needs to be done. At first it seemed like everything was progressing well but as the day went on, more and more things appeared to pop up which we will need to review! Richard then went away for 3 days and I was left to work away on my own. I spent this time trying to figure out how everything is accounted for and generally improving my understanding of the accounts.

The accounting here is quite complex as there are several income generating projects in addition to the general running of the Home, which all need to be accounted for separately. This is of utmost importance as they need to know which projects are actually making money in order to achieve their goal of becoming self-sufficient in the future. To add to the complexity a number of loans are taken out each year to help with the cash flow, and they receive both restricted and unrestricted funding from IRT each year.

Thankfully, there are very good systems are in place which had been introduced by Richard and the last two volunteers. I was able to put my audit skills to the test as I reviewed the year to date accounts. It has been frustrating at times though, as I can see where recommendations from previous volunteers weren’t followed through with, which has meant starting at square one on some accounts. Discovering that there had been some errors with the loan accounting, this was the first area which Richard and I tackled. As I hadn’t had done any loan accounting since studying for my exams, I really had to prepare myself to explain to Richard which entries were missing and why certain entries needed to be made. Richard is eager to learn but is very busy; his office has an almost constant flow of people requesting things from him, so one of the main difficulties here is trying to find time to do our work.

Everything else is going well here – kids still keep poke my lower legs and laugh; I can still scare kids by opening my eyes widely at them; (somehow!) I am still in the church choir and I am still having trouble with balloons.

One account at a time

16 Oct

Hello from Moyo!

Life is as entertaining here as ever! My days are still spent working on the accounting systems with the accountant and playing with the kids. I obviously prefer one of those things a lot more than the other!! Having said that, the work I am doing continues to be very interesting. In the last week, our work has mainly involved preparing the budget for 2013. In order to do that we had to look at the costs of the last year and try to estimate how much money is needed next year. It was a depressing, sobering job. In Uganda, there is incredible inflation of prices. In Kampala, the capital, prices do not change as frequently but here in the North West of the country, prices change daily. Currently, there are nearly 20 babies in the home and they are very expensive to feed. In comparison to the price of other goods, milk for babies is so expensive. The shops know that this is a necessity and price accordingly. The amount of money spent by the Home on milk alone is quite startling but it is due to constant price increases. Soon, the situation will be that the Home cannot afford to take on any new babies as they are just too expensive. Additionally at any major occasion, prices will increase, therefore the Sisters need to start buying clothes and as much food for the children for Christmas now before the major price increases. I find this whole thing really crazy but it is the way of life here. Almost nightly, the current price of a bag of sugar is discussed!

Having seen first-hand how expensive the Home is to run and how in need the Home is for money to cover the remainder of the year, I decided that now would be a good time to tell Sr. Maureen of my fundraising. Before I left, I hosted a fundraiser in my home which raised over €1000 for the Babies Home and its sister Home, Redeemer Childrens Home. I also have an online charity page where money can be donated to the Homes through IRT, their main donor (http://www.justgiving.com/ClareKeaveny). Thanks to everyones support, I have raised over €500 on that too! So I had €500 from the fundraiser and €1000 from very generous family donations to donate to the Babies Home. I was strangely nervous telling Sr. Maureen about the donation. Her reaction made me cry. She was so grateful for the money and began telling me that for the last few days she had been upset as she felt that many doors had been closed to her and the children for funding (sadly, I think the economic downturn and the worsening situation in Sudan has really impacted the availability donor funding). So when I told her of our donation, she said that my family, friends and I were like an open window for the children, which will allow them to breathe for longer. My mum has arranged for the money to be transferred directly to the Home and so will help them in the costly run up to Christmas. So on behalf of Sr. Maureen and the Home, THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH for your donations – she is now including all of you in her prayers.

Last week we celebrated 50 years of Ugandan independence from the Brits (another similarity between the Ugandans and Irish!). In Uganda, it is customary for people to give each other gifts on Independence Day. So the evening before, just as I finished dinner, Sr. Rachel stood up and said some very lovely words about how thankful they are for me being there and how they are so pleased for me to join them in celebrating Independence. It was very moving. To show their gratitude, two kids came in (dressed in their Sunday bests) bearing flowers and a present for me, all the while everyone was singing Ugandan songs for me, it was so nice. Then I got to open my present – one of the older girls that lives and helps out at the Home, had made me a beautiful traditional Ugandan top and skirt. They had even sneakily measured my clothes and so the outfit fits me perfectly! So I was able to wear it for the whole of the Independence Day, much to the delight of everyone.

Independence Day began with Mass (as usual here!) but the highlight of the day was lunch. The cooks surpassed themselves with the food they prepared – it was all so delicious! Then the Sisters and I joined all the other workers in the Home for some drinks and dancing on the lawn. All of the children were then brought to the party for sodas and the cake presentation. Again, cakes are used here as a welcome or celebration gift. So there were three cakes made for the occasion and a group of us (Sr. Maureen, 3 kids, 1 caretaker, 1 gardener and I) all held a knife and cut the cakes together.

After that, quite like on our Irish celebration day, people got drunk. They had made local beer and much to my amusement, it was rather alcoholic and I spent the afternoon watching the caretakers and gardeners stumbling around and dancing like crazy people! Sadly, I couldn’t drink any as the water used to make the beer isn’t safe for me. I did however get dragged up dancing with the caretakers who found my dancing skills to be hilarious. They are all so nice and funny and even sang songs in my honour. I’ve no idea what they were about but I repeatedly heard my name being sang and throughout the songs they would dance over to me and kneel in front of me clapping. I hope it was something nice and they weren’t mocking me or anything!!

What with Independence Day falling mid-week, work was a bit slow this week. We had finally cleared off most of our main jobs – preparing the budget for next year; reviewing all the controls in place and implementing some new ones; reviewing all of the donor funding accounting entries made in the year; coaching on how to account for different types of donor funding. Like any other type of job, during the day we are constantly called upon to do different jobs which kept things interesting. Also, as my assignment continued, I would often see other areas that needed to be reviewed which would be added to the list. The final tasks on our to-do list were coaching session specifically on excel and the accounting programme Quickbooks. I was initially quite apprehensive as I thought my knowledge of these wasn’t that great. But it turns out that I know more than I thought I did and I really do think that these lessons were helpful to Vuni (and also to me!).

I have also tried my hand at another Ugandan skill, and once again failed miserably. On Friday, a number of local school kids came here to slash the grass (cutting the grass to you and me). This involves a blade attached to a long handle which you swoosh over the grass. I thought it looked like a hockey/golf swing so I asked if I could have a go. Well, lets just say I do not have half as much arm strength as the locals and the whole thing ended up with a load of people laughing at me. So pretty much how alot of things I do here turn out.

Sadly, I am leaving the Babies Home today and am heading over to the Redeemer Childrens Home. I always knew I would be moving to Redeemer but I am so sad to leave here. Redeemer will, no doubt be equally as enjoyable but right now I don’t want to leave the Babies Home! I really will miss the Sisters and kids here. This place has been like a home from home and the Sisters have really welcomed me to their community. They call me their sixth member and constantly tell me I should become a Sister (could be my back up plan, I suppose!!!). They said I would make a great mundru (‘whitey’ in Madi) Sister. When I told the Sisters that I was heading to Redeemer, they were actually visibly upset which also made me sad (and near tears) but their reactions were so touching and heartwarming.

Redeemer is about 1km away from the Babies Home so I will be back as much as possible to visit. And we have agreed that I will spend the last week of the placement back here at the Babies Home so I can go over all the accounting work again with Vuni! I am secretly delighted, and I think the Sisters are too!

‘Eyes like dolls eyes’

8 Oct

‘Eyes like dolls eyes’

Greetings from a very hot Moyo, Uganda! Well after nearly two weeks in a hot African country, I can now fully appreciate how amazing air conditioning and electric fans are. They don’t have them here…I think in the future someone needs to being them over. But the reason that we sit in baking heat all day and night here is that there is only electricity for 4 hours each evening. Sadly, many of the appliances that I would usually use at home are not available here, such as electric showers, washing machines and dish-washers. This is however teaching me some useful life skills. Bathing each night involves getting a nightly delivery of hot water, which I put in a basin and then use a cup to wash myself with.  The Sisters tend to laugh at me washing dishes and cleaning my clothes. They think its funny that we have machines to do both of those things at home. I am currently learning how to wash clothes the African way. It is very hard and I cannot do it well at all! Things like jeans or towels are particularly horrible to hand wash. So they usually let me begin the process, a few people will then come to have a look at ‘whitey’ cleaning her clothes then someone will take over and properly clean my clothes. Though I must say, they are incredible at cleaning clothes. Their white clothes are whiter than the whitest Daz whites.

Our food is cooked over wood fires in the grounds of the Home. So much of the food is grown in the farm and prepared here. The Home also has chickens, goats and turkeys roaming around. The workers in the Home are so intrigued (and very entertained) any time I show interest in how things are prepared. Today, I ground yeast using stones and most days I help the children pluck maize! I’m gonna have so many useful skills when I get back home!!

With the limited electricity here, you obviously have to adapt. It is not an issue during the day, as its always so bright but things like phones and computers always have to be charged at night. (Ugandan fun fact – They use mobile phones more than anyone I know! Honestly, people are always on the phone here. And, as obtaining good signal is an issue, they usually have sim cards for 2 or 3 networks on the go at once. In fact having a phone with 3 sim cards in it is very common!). For years, the only energy source the Home had was electricity so they couldn’t have a fridge. That meant they couldn’t keep milk for the babies. An American couple, who visited the Home, saw that this was far from ideal and installed solar panels so that the Home could have a fridge for food and medicines. The sun sets at about 7pm here and by 7.20 it is completely dark. The sun rises again at about 6.30 (I have yet to confirm this as at that time, I am usually trying to ignore the screaming children who wake at 6am and am trying to get back to sleep!).

Sleeping through screaming and crying children is something I am struggling to get used to. Also, the Home have two guard dogs at night who sound like the most deranged, horrible dogs ever. I’ve never seen them but their barks would scare anyone and they like to bark at everything that moves in the night. Finally, the other impediment to sleep here is storms. One night we had a big storm with the loudest thunder I have ever heard and seriously bright lightning. It is common to hear thunder frequently during the day but people here really fear lightening, especially in the dry season. A lot of people in rural parts of this area live in grass huts which, if hit by lightning, will light on fire. This causes quite a lot of deaths every year.

Most of the time, it is strangely easy to forget the realities of a Home like this. You forget that none of the children in the home have mothers, that some of them were abandoned by families and left for dead. Sadly, this weekend, I was brought back to reality as the Home welcomed a new boy to live here. His name is Jesse and he is one and a half. Last month, his mother took all of the belongings from the family home and left him and his elderly father. His father isn’t able to take care of him and so had to make the gut wrenching decision to bring his son to the Babies Home. The Home receives a lot of visitors and so when I saw the man with his child I did not know why they were here. When I greeted the man, he told me the story. The sadness in his eyes was heart-breaking. How one woman can destroy the life of her child and husband like that is beyond me. And to add salt to the wound, the police have tracked down the woman who is of sound mind but refuses to have anything to do with her child. According to the Sisters, it is quite uncommon for children of Jesse’s age to come to the Home due to abandonment and it has really upset the Sisters (and everyone else here) to see the suffering of the man and his son. Having said that, it is very common in Uganda for women to desert families and husbands. This is part of the reason that Homes like this one are full to capacity. Other reasons that babies end up here include mothers dying from AIDS and in recent years, the atrocities in Uganda have left many children in Northern Uganda orphaned.

To change the topic somewhat – this week I managed to make nearly 30 children cry, at the same time, by doing one thing. It was a traumatising event. Basically, I tried to give them balloons. I was trying to be nice! So it started well, but very quickly got out of hand. As I was blowing up balloons, the kids started freaking out. They were screaming my name, trying to touch me or grab me to get my attention. They all wanted to have a balloon before the other kids and got worried that there wouldn’t be enough for everyone. Then they started to turn on each other, it was mayhem. To add to the chaos, some of the kids that got balloons had accidentally burst them within seconds and obviously went mental because their chance was over. So within minutes, I had made the majority of kids here cry. I was nearly crying too out of sheer panic.

They don’t speak English and I don’t speak their language so they couldn’t understand my pleas of ‘calm’!!! The caretakers thought this scene was hilarious until it genuinely got vicious amongst kids, fighting over balloons. They had to take all the older kids to their room to calm down for 20 mins, I had to basically hide in a corner until the whole thing eased off. A lot of the older ones ignored me for that whole evening. Others would come up to me and be all nice but then I would feel their hands checking my pockets for balloons. That happened a few days ago, and still some of them will come up to me and quietly mutter something about balloons and give me their best pleading smile. So it was another lesson learnt – be very, very careful when you give gifts to kids in an orphanage. Though apparently balloons are a good gift but the kids get a bit over excited when they see me, because I play with them so much, so that’s why they reacted so insanely! Well, that’s what Vuni (the accountant) had to tell me to make me feel better about the whole horrifying incident.

Also, in the last week, I made a few friends! Well, to call them friends might be exaggerating things but I might also refer to them as my fanclub. Each day when I walk to the Sisters house for lunch, all the kids from the local schools are on lunch too. So one day, a group of girls stopped me and we started chatting. Within seconds, the group had multiplied to about 30 boys and girls. They all wanted to shake my hand, touch my arms and talk to me. Some were very freaked out and would run away after they cautiously shook my hand. I find this ‘fear’ to be very entertaining so I try to scare them a bit. They were all so interested in my eyes, so I opened my eyes really wide and stared at them, moving closer, and then they would get so scared and run away, it was so funny! It turns out they think that I have eyes like dolls eyes, which is why they are so scared of them – they didn’t think real people have eyes that colour. They also all wanted to poke at the skin under my upper arm – they like the way it moves. I tried to act like I wasn’t insulted! But then they saw my legs. They kept shouting, ‘why are they so biiiiggggg?’ and everyone wanted to touch them. They found my legs hilarious. I was not as impressed. I told the Sisters, who agree with the kids and think I have large legs – which we ended up discussing for the whole of our lunch. If I didn’t have a complex about my ‘muscular’ legs, I do now! But it is quite funny, and for some reason, the kids love to look at my ‘big’ legs…the same group have waited for me every day at 1pm now for a week. They know my name and call it out excitedly the minute they see me – I think I could get used to having a fanclub.

Thanks for reading and I hope you are enjoying my blog! If you are interested in donating any money to the Babies Home, please visit the Just Giving I have set up –

http://www.justgiving.com/ClareKeaveny

Check back in a few days for Ugandan independence day and other stories from Moyo!

 

The only volunteer in the village

30 Sep

The only volunteer in the village

I might just start this entry by thanking everyone for taking the time to read my last blog and for all the praise I got for it…hopefully it doesn’t go to my head.  My first entry was, as those who managed to get through it can testify, quite long so there were a few things I had to leave out. So lets go back to last Sunday, which was my first Sunday here in Moyo.

Ugandans are very religious people and as I am effectively living with nuns, religion is a big part of life here in the Home. We say prayers before every meal and before every journey. And Sunday mass is obviously a big deal. So being the only muzungo in the village, there was a lot of commotion as I entered church on Sunday. The accountant of the Home, Vuni Henry Alfred (yes, he has three names and likes to use different ones at different times), is a very religious fellow and is a member of the Church choir. So before mass he suggested that I sing in the choir. I tried to explain that I am a dreadful singer but he just laughed, as he does most of the time – sometimes because things are funny but more often than not because he doesn’t understand what I am saying. When we went into church, he seated me in a pew towards the front and I thought I was safe from choir duty. Had I looked around at that stage I could have saved myself, everyone around me had song sheets and musical instruments, I should have ran. Instead, I stayed put and hoped that somehow my singing voice would be better in Uganda than it is back home (those that know me/have heard me sing will confirm that I have an awful voice, that really should only be publically heard in karaoke after a beer).

But I stayed and tried my best! It was actually great fun – the choir are very enthusiastic and there was some swaying and clapping and cheering throughout the songs. However, I did struggle when we had to sing songs in Madi (the local dialect of the area). Especially as quite a few of the songs are not included in the song book – so I just have to try follow what everyone else is singing and wing it. I did get a few odd looks so my improvising must not be right at times! Two hours later, mass was finally finished (yes, the average mass time is two hours here, and the Church is packed from start to end…they really are devout Catholics). The choir have now welcomed me into their group (they must have very loose standards for new members) and I attend choir practice twice a week now and sing with the choir every Sunday!!

So as I mentioned above, the local language of the area I am in is called Madi. Everyone here speaks it and most people speak English too (Ugandan fact #2 – English is the official language of Uganda and people tend to speak it fluently). None of the kids in this Home speak English though which makes playing with them a bit more difficult. Communication mainly involves a lot of actions and more often than not we are all lost in translation! And I have just realised that the kids all call me ‘whitey’ – I am trying to get them to say my real name as it weird having loads of kids chanting whitey at you all the time!! I am trying to learn some Madi words but I am not the best with languages and it seems to be quite a difficult language to learn (I tell myself). The people here find it hilarious when I do speak some Madi, though I think they are happy I am trying to learn it.

The Babies Home have some land right beside the Sudanese border which they grow crops on to supply the Home with food. So I went to see it with one of the Sisters, Sister Rachel, a few days ago. It was very different to the type of farm that I am used to back in Ireland. They grow maize, millets, cassava, pumpkins, groundnuts, peppers and aubergine to name a few.  I had to go there early in the morning as the Sisters were concerned about me in the strong sun. They also made me cover up every part of me for fear of sun burn – I looked like I was in Ireland on a winters day instead of being in a field in the baking African sun! As the Home grow a lot of fruit and veg, the food here is so good. Pretty much everything is home grown or baked. Some of my new favourite things to eat are cassava (local fruit) or boiled pumpkin with mango jam, fresh avocado eaten straight off the skin or else mixed with bananas, boiled maize and another local fruit geesta which is eaten by sucking at the seeds and then spitting out the pips. Then every few days they bake goods to sell in the town so we then have loads of fresh bread, biscuits and cakes. It is delicious but I’m sure I’ll be craving some lasagne (or sweet and sour pork!!) or a nice roast soon!

During this last week I also began work – what I came here to actually do, which actually isn’t to eat and play with kids all day or be the worst singer in a very good choir. Given my accounting experience is mostly theory based and since I have spent nearly 4 years auditing financial services companies, I was understandably nervous to begin work here. As I previously said, I have never worked for a charity so I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to help at all. Thankfully, AfID (the organisation whom I came here with) and the previous volunteers based in the Babies Home had me well prepped for the work I would have to do. So, I came here with a good understanding of what the last volunteers had done at the Home and what they recommended I work on.

So my first day of proper work was spent with Vuni Henry Alfred trying to get a better idea of how he manages the accounting system of the Home and what we should focus on whilst I am here. Initially, I thought there wouldn’t be much that we had to do but as the day went on, it became apparent that there were quite a few different areas that will need attention. Most of the work we have done so far has been to look at the way they account for the funding they receive from donors. For instance, some donors give money for specific projects at the Home whilst others give money for general running costs. The issue then is to understand how and why this funding, and related costs, must be accounted for separately. Additionally, the donors require frequent reports on the money they give so we had to spend time preparing them. The work has been really interesting so far! I am actually enjoying putting some of the stuff I have spent years learning into practice – though debits and credits are still as annoying as ever. It can be frustrating when things get lost in translation and this can make progress quite slow at times. But having said that, Vuni is such a competent and intelligent guy and is so eager to learn, that his desire to improve his knowledge really does make me want to work harder too! Next week we are working on Q3 reporting, we have quite a few reports to send to donors and we need to go over all the done to date in Q3 to make sure it was ok…should be fun!!!

With my work schedule having started I have less time to hang out with the kids which is sad but also it is given my muscles time to recover. These kids may but small and cute but some can be quite heavy. And I have learnt the valuable lesson – only pick up one child if you have the strength to pick up 20. Seriously, whatever you do to one child, be it a hug, a high five, a handshake or to pick them up, the minute you are done there will be 20 more kids shouting your name and saying, ‘MMMMMMMEEEEEE NEXT’. It can be wrecking. And they can get so aggressive with each other if they think one is getting more attention from me than them…I just have to run away from the chaos sometimes!!! Another valuable thing I have learnt so far – the ability to hold hands with 6 kids at once. Yes, 3 kids at each hand and usually two more holding each of my legs at the back! Walking around the grounds here can be a slow process with all the kids hanging off me! Having said that they are still so entertaining which is making my stay here so enjoyable.

On that note, I will end this weeks blog. I hope everyone is well and I will write again soon! I have been asked to teach the kids some songs, preferably Irish ones, so I’ll let everyone know next time how that is panning out!!!