Travelling Jinja-ly Through Africa


Room for another?!

Since my return one of the starkest contrasts I’ve noticed between life in the UK and life in Africa is the difference in transport systems! A trip I made recently by car from Newcastle to see friends in Leeds demonstrates the point.

I was guided, in my own car, from door-to-door by my sat-nav in exactly the 1 hour 45 minutes that it had predicted it would take. The tarmacked roads and hassle-free service stations (with pretty good toilet facilities) made the whole experience a pleasure when you consider that my journey from Ghana to Jinja in Uganda included:

  • A ride in a bus operated by a company priding itself on “safety, comfort and reliability” but which nevertheless hurtled down wet, potholed roads with me sandwiched between fellow passengers not to mention their yams, chickens and babies! I was finally delivered to my destination an hour late.
  • A six-hour flight seated next to a first-time flyer who spent the duration digging his elbow into my increasingly bruised ribs, coughing over me at regular intervals and, most unforgivably of all, tutting at me for enjoying a glass of wine with my meal!!
  • Waiting 30 minutes for a Matatu (public mini bus) to fill up before we set off on the next leg of the journey during which passengers regularly had to climb over one another to swap seats as people were dropped off and picked up. This was made a little tricky for me due to clutching a backpack containing all my worldly possessions!
  • On being dropped off at the bus station I was immediately targeted by dozens of touts and salespeople asking me where I wanted to go, if I’d like to buy water, plastic toys, fish pies and a whole host of other goods.
  • Finally, there was a short but hair-raising pillion ride on a boda boda (motor cycle taxi) to my final destination – a backpackers that would be my base during my time in Jinja.

I will never speak ill of UK trains, buses, service station food or road works ever again, well, not until May Bank Holiday at least…


Ghana Getting Results!!

COCO in the thick of it in Ghana!

I’ve been back in the UK long enough to collect my thoughts and reflect on what I witnessed and learnt during my 10 weeks in Africa. As such I thought you might appreciate an update on one of the sites that was mentioned earlier in my trip, so let me take you back to Shia…

I was incredibly sad to leave Ghana where we are working with some amazing organisations that are really up against it, whether that be due to lack of water, sanitation, electricity, government cooperation, funding or all of the above!

It’s therefore a source of genuine pride that I can tell you about real progress in the village of Shia where COCO had helped fund the construction of an IT Centre as well as a cocoa farmers’ cooperative.

The IT Centre (part of the Shia Secondary School) is now complete and a Ghanaian donor has been found to assist those students at the school who had been struggling to pay school fees; as a result the headmaster is much happier with how the future looks for his students.

As for the farmers’ cooperative, the plan is to provide small loans that will give farmers long sought after access to capital to enable them to put their cocoa farms on a sustainable footing. All the loans will be repaid without interest and only after the cocoa plantations have started to produce – something that traditional sources of funding (i.e. banks) often do not take into account. The money will go back into the cooperative rather than returning to COCO meaning other farmers can benefit.

All in all the trip to Ghana was very successful, eye opening and a great opportunity for me to find out what COCO should be prioritising for these fantastic communities to ensure sustainable futures for the many children and families we are working with.

Sawla Sisters – Part Two

Let the games Commence - Volleyball at Sawla

In my last post I wrote about my arrival at the Sawla Vocational Training Centre in Northern Ghana and my experiences talking to the female students about their lives.

The next stage of my visit involved being shown the sleeping arrangements. There were 12 sets of bunk-beds in each dorm but more than 24 girls in each room; many more put mats on the floor between the beds to sleep. My tour progressed to the food storage area where there were boxes all with locks containing yams, oil, salt, rice and other basic cooking ingredients to feed the girls for the term. Seeing this triggered a flash-back to my own experience at boarding school, we had boxes like this but that was for “tuck”, we didn’t have to worry about getting three square meals a day. Instead we were concerned with chocolates and sweets, neither of which these girls are likely to treat themselves to any time soon. Most of these girls have travelled far from home to study at Sawla and, although it was their choice to come in order to further their education, simply feeding themselves so far from their families is difficult. For many of the students the contents of their food boxes will not last the whole term and they will need to find some part-time work to pay for additional food, this is on top of chores, revision, cooking, cleaning and homework.

In the end I stayed at Sawla for most of the day as I wanted to grasp an idea of what happens once lessons finish. As food is so scarce each girl cooks separately on her own charcoal fire using her own pan and utensils which she then washes up, dries and locks away in her food storage box. I can’t help thinking this could be done much more efficiently but when every last spoonful of rice counts you can understand this “looking after number one” mentality. After eating, some of the girls erected the volleyball net and started to play, desperate to show me how good they were. Most of them wore shorts and t-shirts but many played in their school dresses and shoes, slipping as they reached for the ball; the dry, hard ground meant grazed limbs were common.

I watched them play until the light started to fade and, when the time came, I was sad to leave. The conversations I had with these girls and the time I spent listening to their stories has filled me with hope that the future of places like Northern Ghana is in safe hands. Despite all the obstacles in their path, the will to succeed here is incredible, I just hope we can help them to reach their goals.

Sawla Sisters – Part One

Weaving their way to a brighter future!!

With another journey under my belt I find myself in Sawla and, I have to admit, I love this place! It is my second visit and already I have a good feeling, the girls here are incredible, they work hard and are determined to be somebody. When we arrive the girls are all in class, the local authority has sent some health professionals to talk to them about safe sex, hygiene and pregnancy. The head teacher apologises as they only called last night to say they were coming, I tell her not to worry and instead tell me how things are going at the centre.

The headmistress tells me that the centre is going well but the dorms are overcrowded, there are insufficient resources and teachers. COCO’s assistance in the provision of 4 looms for the girls to weave on and materials for practical tailoring and tie and dye lessons are appreciated. The head tells me that girls are excelling in dress making, ICT, catering, textiles and hairdressing. They all work hard and any students who do not are given strict instructions to improve; the headmistress clearly runs a tight ship! We talk some more about plans for the future and then I am asked to address the girls who have now finished their sexual health talk.

I walk into the packed classroom, there must be over 200 girls crammed in here. As soon as I walk in, they burst into song, a familiar tune, their school welcome song for visitors. Once they finish I am asked to introduce myself and say what I am doing here: I always hate this bit. Nevertheless I tell the girls I am really keen to talk to them about how things are going at the centre and how the equipment COCO funded has helped. I ask for volunteers to take part in interviews this afternoon and lots of hands go up, the head mistress asks the form tutors to organise them under the tree ready to chat to me. I am really impressed at the willingness for  the teachers to let me talk to the girls alone without supervision, this means there’ll be less chance of the teachers making sure the girls only tell me the good things.

The focus groups do not disappoint, the girls confide in me more than I anticipated, telling me how the locals call them a derogatory name meaning “old maid” because they are all studying vocational skills for which there is no upward age limit and they have missed out on secondary school and or college, not to mention marrying young and having babies. It is these stereotypes that hurt the girls but seem to make them very strong. They long to travel so that new people and influences can come into their lives and they talk to me of becoming fashion designers and succeeding in life where their parents did not I feel I’m amongst girls who will – regardless of the odds – make something of their lives.

A Night at the Inn – Ghana Style!

Now if you leave the skeleton you'll just get it for breakfast...

After my visit to Buipe, I stay overnight in a local guest house and that evening, when hunger takes over around 7pm, I make my way to the restaurant. There is no one around but I can hear singing not too far off.  I call out, “hello” and a small Ghanaian lady appears from what must be the kitchen. Her English is not great but we greet each other with smiles and handshakes and I ask her if I might be able to get something to eat, she nods and retreats back into the kitchen. I’m unsure of whether I made sense as I go back to the room to fetch my book. A few minutes, just as I get back to the kitchen, the lady comes back and tells me “you wait in room I call you”. Seems to make sense so I return to my room and even manage to find a channel on TV which is not fuzzy, it’s a badly dubbed Italian soap opera but the acting is so bad I’m pretty hooked. An hour later, there’s a knock at the door and I am presented with a huge plate of Rice and Tilapia. I pay 7 Cedis for the meal with one extra for her trouble but she makes no move to leave. I ask if there is anything else she needs and she replies “I want to see you eat” a strange request but I oblige nodding my approval at the tasty dish, “delicious” I say and she nods with a huge grin and leaves me to tackle the rest in peace. I am glad she’s gone because I haven’t yet learnt to eat the African way, bones, heads et al and hope I don’t cause offence by leaving the skeleton!!!

Suddenly there is a loud rumble of thunder followed a few seconds later by a lightning bolt and then the rain comes. The noise on the iron sheet roof is incredible! I can’t even hear the badly dubbed Italian soap opera. Once it stops I go outside and see that the rain has brought the frogs and toads out in their masses – and they are huge! I venture out hunting for a good frog photo before calling it a night and heading to bed to be lulled into a sound sleep by the frog chorus of Buipe after a night to remember!

The Wulugu Work Ethic – Part Two

A different type of typing teaching...

COCO has funded the purchase of six PC’s at Buipe and, during my recent visit, I was happy to see that at six are working and that the girls were using them. I talked to the class and they told me they were very happy to have computers because IT is so important to today’s job market in Ghana. Most of the girls want to be secretaries and are keen to learn to type so that they can ultimately find employment locally. 

I went on to see the girls in the next class, who were using typewriters, which despite advancements in technology are still an essential part of the secretarial course under the Ghanaian curriculum. The girls told me they much prefer using the computers but have to take turns because there are only six machines. We moved on to the weaving class where I was given a demonstration of how the wooden frames are used to spin the threads. It’s hard work, especially in the midday heat, but I was shown the end result – a beautifully woven sash which I am given as a gift!

Finally, I was taken to the dormitory to see where the girls sleep. I was met by neatly made bunk beds with all the girls’ belongings hanging from the bed frames; I was pleased to see that all of them have mosquito nets. I asked where they keep their food and the girls told me that each one of them has a box in their dormitory, locked up so that it is safe. Food shortages have resulted in heightened protection over supplies and it is clear that the unwillingness to share is more about survival than anything else. The catering teacher had prepared lunch and served up chicken, salad and rice, the amount is plentiful but I struggled to eat knowing that the girls have so little.

The Wulugu Work Ethic – Part One

Learning skills that pay the bills at Buipe!!

I arrived at Buipe, one of the sites at which the Wulugu project operates in Ghana, to be met with a warm welcome. The head teacher is a very tall Ghanaian lady dressed in traditional clothing; she has an air of authority about her which I find intimidating but reassuring; this might be why the school is so quiet despite lessons going on in the next room! This centre teaches dressmaking, hairdressing, catering, weaving, batik tie-die and now secretarial skills with computer literacy thanks to the provision of 6 computers through COCO earlier in the year.

Girls of all different backgrounds are considered for enrolment; even those who have not completed primary school can study most subjects. Core subjects are taught alongside the practical skills to provide an all-round education and set the girls up for employment once they have sat their final exams. It’s not always as straightforward as that though – this year there has been a delay in the results of the girl’s exams which they took in June due to an administration error at the education authority!

Attending this centre costs 18 cedis per term and there are 3 terms in the year, 54 cedis in total (£24). Most of the courses take between 1 and a half to 2 years and this seems to be affordable for most of the girls although many have to pay in instalments. In addition to the fees, the girls must provide their own food; although many of them travel from far away so carrying sufficient yam or rice for a term is not always possible. The fees paid by the girls go towards the maintenance of the school, electricity, tables, chairs and repairs as well as the provision of resources required for practical lessons such as material, thread, hair products and fabric die. As the school is constantly under resourced, COCO also provided some funding for these materials.

I’ll talk a little about the sort of impact this assistance has had in my next post, watch this space…