Thursday 27 June 2013

Life in the Mountains

The Bakhongo are predominantly a mountain people, found either side of the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the mighty snow-capped Rwenzori Mountain range as the heart of their ancestral lands.  If you’re going to work with the Bakhongo, it really makes sense that you get into the mountains.  Back in March, Alfonse and I spent 3 or 4 days on a big road-trip around Kasese District visiting most of the 36 Baptist Churches and Preaching Points in the Association.  This involved spending a huge amount of time and diesel in low-range gears and 4WD in the Landcruiser, and a fair amount of time, and copious bottles of water, in 2-leg-drive on foot.  Although it was wonderful to breathe fresh and cool air, to see the beautiful mountain views and to meet and greet so many wonderful people in these churches, some of whom had never been visited by a Mzungu before, or even by the leadership of their Baptist Association; those weren’t the main purposes of the trip.  We came back with pages of notes about the challenges faced by these small and often remote communities:  The list of issues they face is considerable but can perhaps be summed up in 3 words:  Food, Energy and Access – with the latter including physical access to water, firewood, schools, healthcare, markets, legal justice and all the other amenities which are often at least 2 hours walk away, if not more.

As missionaries with access to moderate resources and time there’s not much we can do about the lack of physical infrastructure or the appalling state of the mountain roads.  I’m not an agriculturalist and it would take years of dedicated and specialist work with mountain farmers to implement different techniques for farming on such steep slopes, so we decided our focus would be on providing energy, and on forms of energy that also generate income which the churches can then use to help address some of their other challenges.  Three months and many hours of research and proposal writing down the line, I’m delighted to be able to write that BMS has sent funding for solar projects (like the one we piloted at Kahokya) for 7 more village Baptist churches, and charcoal briquette making projects (like the one piloted in Acholi Quarter) for another 14 Baptist churches.  My challenge over the next 6-12 months is to implement them all!

With my innate wariness, verging on paranoia, of getting stuck on a mountain in heavy rains (which you’d understand if you’d seen the flooding in May or ever slithered a car through Ugandan mud), I decided we’d better start with the most inaccessible churches while it’s still so hot and dry.  Last weekend myself, electrician Amisi, and the ever-trusty Isaiah headed to Kantare Baptist Church to do the first solar installation.  We left Kasese about 8am and drove 60km, mostly on tarmac roads, to Kathasenda Baptist Church where we parked the car and met Pastor Michael and 3 members of his church.  From there we loaded a 60W solar panel in a welded frame, 2 heavy batteries, a wooden control box, various other bits of equipment, 2 coils of wire, a heavy bag of tools, our own clothes, nets and camp-bedding, and about 10 litres of water onto our backs, heads or shoulders and started walking up to Kantare.  On my previous visit with Alfonse we’d taken the longer shallower route up and the shorter but insanely steep route down.  This time the young guy we were following lead us directly up the steepest route for a gruelling 1.5 hour climb.  On arrival at the church we got straight to work bolting the control box to the wall (by punching holes through the mud and then putting U-bolts around the eucalyptus poles which frame the church), bolting the panel in its frame to the roof and then wiring the lights. 

Although we’d carried plenty of water as there is no piped water in Kantare, you never take your own food to an African village.  We were given “breakfast” of coffee and bread at 1.30pm, and lunch of beans and rice at 3.30pm, with a final evening meal at 10.30pm just as were all 3 starting to fall asleep!  The habit of saying grace has lapsed across much of Britain, but I’m always so thankful when I get fed in a Ugandan village, partly because you never know just how much labour or expense has gone into gathering and preparing the ingredients involved (eg someone carrying a sack of rice on their head up a mountain), but also because you never know what you’ll get or at what time, or even whether what you’re eating is in fact your only meal for the rest of the day, or just something to “push you” until a later meal.   Fortunately the hyper metabolism of my youth is gradually slowing with age!

The inevitable crowd of spectators grew through the afternoon as children returned from school (down in the valley, so they climb the mountain daily), and adults from tending their coffee-plots or other crops.  By the time we had the lights working there was an atmosphere of tangible excitement.  The wonders of LED technology mean that two 3W light-bulbs inside the church and another one outside over the door are enough to provide more light than anyone was previously used to with kerosene lamps.  Unfortunately12V phone-charging is proving more problematic.  Just as the first chargers at Kahokya caused us trouble, the same has happened at Kantare.  Cheap Chinese made chargers of the type you plug into a car cigarette lighter are easy to buy here.  Kasese has almost a dozen shops which sell them, and you always test them first in the shop, where they always work.  Sadly they have a habit of not working for much longer after that.  By the time we left on Sunday afternoon there was only one charger still working at Kantare of the four we had taken up with us, which was even more annoying as this time I’d bought more expensive ones on the mistaken logic that they might be more reliable.  Having just preached a sermon which included suggestions of some of the ways that the church could use the income from phone-charging to improve their ministry and serve their community, it was then embarrassing to leave them with only one working charger – and therefore to have to commit ourselves to climb up there again fairly soon to fit some more!  I know I shouldn’t rant about shoddy Chinese manufacturing, but I will because it really annoys me, especially here in Africa where alternatives are not easily available, and where the people who can least afford it are so often ripped off with poor-quality products.  We are considering getting small inverters and then using standard phone chargers at 220V, but that also poses other challenges and more expense.

Ironically although Pastor Michael runs Kantare Baptist Church at the top of the mountain he lives near Kathasenda at the bottom, while his brother Pastor Moses, who is establishing Mailo Kumi Baptist Church and belatedly finishing his secondary education down in the valley, lives near the top of the mountain.  Having carried stuff with us to sleep in the church, we were invited to stay at Pastor Moses’ house, so at about 9.30;pm we gave up fiddling with the annoying Chinese chargers and slithered our way down the steep slope in the dark for about 15 minutes.  Pastor Michael and some others had stayed in the church so the lights were still on, a gratifying white glow which we could see from hundreds of meters down the track, and a fitting reminder of Matthew 5.14-16. 

After all our labours we “slept like lizards” to quote Isaiah, although Pastor Moses woke us in the dark at 6.30 to pray with us before he headed down the mountain to his church.  I confess I barely woke up for this and slept on until the sun shone through the window after 7.  As I blundered out of the house to use the latrine, which offered an amazing view over an almost sheer drop, it was easy to revel in the beauty of the morning with the cool mountain breeze, amazing views, and the clean-toned sounds of Congolese-style guitar playing reverberating off the slopes from a big church down in the valley.  But then I saw an old woman with a hoe on an opposite slope digging away at her crops which seem to defy gravity as they cling to the mountainside.  Then another woman walked past with a 22l jerry-can on her head carrying water up from the small spring half-an-hour down the mountain, and it was not yet 7.30am.  It is easy to romanticise a brief trip into the mountains before returning to my usual world of hot water on tap, a reasonable electricity supply and a car and good roads with which to get to anywhere I need.  However, the reality for those Bakhongo who live up in the mountains is that life is hard work; everything they grow has to be coaxed out of the mountainsides with huge effort and considerable risk, and everything they buy, sell or use has to be carried long distances on steep slopes.  When things go wrong there is no help available other than prayer, and they often feel forgotten and neglected by most of the outside world.

The Bakhongo don’t dance like the Acholi or run like the Karamajong, they may not have the political skills of the Buganda or the cow-herding prowess of the Ankole, but they are a tough people, and I for one have a huge respect for them!

Prayer Requests: 

Give thanks for the BMS funding for the solar and charcoal projects.

Give thanks for the electrical skills of Amisi Kathaliko on which this solar project depends.

Pray that the system at Kantare will keep working reliably and that we can find a practical and affordable solution for the phone-charging, not only for Kantare, but for all 7 Baptist Churches.

Pray for Pastor Michael and his ministry in the mountains.

Pray for our safety as we keep travelling to rural villages by car and on foot.

Thursday 6 June 2013

Development, Dependency, Discipleship, Disaster-relief, Democracy, & other Dilemmas:

As Christians we are called to care for those in need around us.  If true discipleship means living as much as possible to the example set by Christ on earth, then tithing is a bare minimum, and our generosity to those less fortunate than ourselves should extend to the point where we are making real sacrifices, be they of our resources, our time, or both, for others.  If you open the concordance or index at the back of any bible and look for the words “poor, hungry, justice, widows or orphans” you will find hundreds of references and instructions, from the laws of gleaning, Sabbath and Jubilee found in Exodus and Deuteronomy right through almost all of the prophets, the proverbs, the Gospels and the New Testament Epistles.  (Incidentally, you will find many more references to these issues of social justice in the bible than you will to issues of sexuality, despite our apparent 21st century obsession with discussing them).

The bible is many things to many people, but there can be no serious denying that it is, amongst other things, a manifesto for a fairer world and a call for God’s people to play their part in making it so.  But how does this work in practice?  Feeding the five thousand on a hilltop with a few loaves and fishes was a wonderful miracle, and one might argue that the World Food Programme achieves a similar feat (although with significantly more resources) on a daily basis in refugee camps all over the world.  Yet it is also clear that this “hand-out” approach to giving has many flaws, the biggest being that it encourages dependency, which also fosters helplessness and despair.  There are parts of the world where people have been living off food hand-outs for generations and know no other way of living.  This isn’t good for them and it isn’t good for the donors who’ve spent a fortune feeding them.

As a development worker dependency is the thing I’m always seeking to avoid.  Whether this is with regard to planning projects to help communities, or dealing with the continuous individual requests for help with school-fees, medical-bills, or a street-kid begging for a small coin, we have to remember that we are only in Uganda for a short period of time and so allowing people to become dependent on BMS or on us individually is harmful in the long-term.  This tends to mean that we put most of our efforts into projects which aim to have a sustainable impact, even if the projects themselves won’t last indefinitely.  As for the other requests we try to think about the alternatives that the person asking us has and whether or not they have already pursued them, and to what extent the request is a real emergency (which medical requests often are), or something routine which will come round and round again (like termly school fees).

In the neatly defined world of academia there is a distinction between responding to emergencies, or disaster relief – which often involves hand-outs;  and development, which is more long-term and aims to help people help themselves, to avoid dependency, and to achieve sustainability.  Yet in practise it isn’t so simple.  Our work in Acholi Quarter, where we are striving to seek sustainability and sometimes have to refuse requests for help which would only encourage dependency, is overlapping with the flooding situation in neighbouring Congo Quarter and the edges of Acholi Quarter, afflicted by a natural disaster. 

You may have read about some small relief work that we did handing out blankets to those who had been driven from their homes by the floods (paid for by BMS and ourselves), and then a week later giving some jerry-cans, cups and plates to many of the same households (funded by US Baptist NGO World Venture).  With larger and better resourced NGOs such as World Vision and The Red Cross feeding those affected in temporary camps at two primary schools, these gifts were the best things we could give that would be of benefit both in the camps and afterwards on their return to their homes.  At the end of May the camps suddenly closed, because there were two suspected cholera cases and the camps were in schools which needed to re-open for the new term so the temporary residents were given 2 days’ worth of food and sent on their way quickly in order to avert a potential cholera outbreak.

Yesterday I went with fellow BMS worker Alex Vickers and his Acholi colleague Genesis to visit Congo Quarter again.  Alex is a soil scientist and Genesis is an agriculturalist and between them they are working wonders with the farmers up in Gulu who have recently reclaimed their land after the 2008 peace which followed two decades of brutal civil war in northern Uganda.  We wanted to investigate how the farm plots in Congo-Quarter have been affected by the flooding in order to see how we could help the farmers to replant next season (which starts in August/September) and regain their livelihoods – their crops for this season were ruined.  Much of the farm land in Congo Quarter is lying underneath between 6 inches and 3 feet of sand deposited by the swollen river as it carved out new routes straight through their community.  With a geologist’s flair, Alex stood in one of the now dry extra river beds and was able to look at all the layers and see not only what had been deposited in the recent flood, but also that the areas must have been flooded a few times before in the last century or so and that at one time the river probably flowed through there permanently.  In other words the people of Congo Quarter are living somewhere which is inherently unstable and liable to flood again.  But where else can they live?  As recent migrants from the war torn DR Congo they arrived with nothing and settled on the only land available to them, where a river provided fertile soil to grow cops and try to make a living in their new country.  Now that soil is buried and their crops have been destroyed.  The good news is that Alex and Genesis have come up with suggestions about how they can mitigate this damage and be able to plant a reasonable crop next season.  We will be working on a proposal to the BMS Relief Fund to help them achieve this, once we’ve got back the test results from the soil samples Alex has taken.

The bad news is that anything we plant in September won’t be harvested until January or February and in the meantime they have nothing.  Their children are being chased away from their schools because they can’t pay their fees and they are struggling to feed themselves.  In Roman occupied Palestine, Jesus and his followers would probably have sold everything they had and shared it with them, although given that there are around 400 people in Congo Quarter even that wouldn’t be simple.  I’m an ordinary human-being though and quite attached to my laptop and my DVD collection, and our boys are very attached to their books and toys so we’re not very keen on giving all our stuff away.  Furthermore, Uganda isn’t occupied by Romans or ruled by King Herod, it is (at least on paper) a modern democratic republic.  Yesterday Pastor Alfonse and I were encouraging the local leader in Congo Quarter to make written representations through the many layers of local government about the plight of his community which seems to have been missed out by the government and NGO aid still going to the people who were flooded in Kilembe.  On paper Uganda was one of the first Sub-Saharan African countries to achieve Universal Primary Education (UPE), but in practice it still isn’t free because even government funded schools charge various supplementary fees, and as there still aren’t enough government schools many children go to cheap private schools run by churches and other charities.  For people who’ve just lost all their crops, none of these schools are now affordable.

So the dilemma is this:  Do we recognise that the people in Congo Quarter are suffering and need help now and try and find some resources to do this?  Even If we can do this how would it affect our efforts to stop putting external resources into neighbouring Acholi Quarter (some of which was also flooded) as we try and encourage them to be more self-sufficient, especially as residents of Congo Quarter go to the church in Acholi Quarter, so the boundaries are blurred?  Even if we could find the resources to help feed 400 people in Congo Quarter how would we organise this?  If helping them becomes a full-time job then what about the long-term development projects which need our focus and energy if they are to succeed?   Or do we help campaign that the Government of Uganda lives up to its fine words and its worthy constitution, and takes better care of those who depend on it?  This is further complicated in Congo Quarter because many of the Congolese residents there may not officially be Ugandan citizens.  As Christians we are called to speak up for the poor and marginalised, and foreigners can at times have an effective voice, but sometimes British people perceived to be interfering in the internal governance of a former British colony can be resented and counter-productive. There can be no doubt at all, given past experience, that any interaction with local government will be extremely slow and frustrating.  Yet if people give up on government and outsiders continually step in to do what the Ugandan government should be doing then where does that leave Uganda as a democracy, especially when Uganda’s economy is consistently growing while the economies of most donor nations are in recession?

The easiest response is to identify the many potential flaws in each possible course of action and then use them as a reason for doing none of them, but that is clearly not the right thing to do.  This article is not a request for money, although donations to BMS are always put to good use, nor is it a request for answers because there are no simple answers here.  It probably is a request for prayer, because we definitely need more wisdom and guidance from the one who created this world in which we live.  Anyway, now I’ve expressed these thoughts online it’s probably time to go and act on some of them, so bye for now!