Mobile libraries and missing shoes

thumbnailReflecting on his recent visit to Uganda, Viva’s Monitoring and Evaluation Manager Martin Hull writes about some of the people he met, stories he heard and sights he saw – and the impact our partner network CRANE is making for vulnerable children. Here are some snippets of what he wrote.

Downtown Kampala could easily have been the inspiration for Martin Handford’s ‘Where’s Wally’ cartoons. The streets were filled with an impossibly high density of people, engaging in all manner of activities. Barrows of sugar cane. Roadside stalls. Huge mounds of sound equipment.

Photo: Tim AbbottMen walked past with sacks perfectly balanced upon their heads. I guessed that London’s streets might host just as many people – but here the walls had been stripped away and life was exposed for all to see.

We screeched to a halt – because the car in front had done likewise. At first I could see no reason, then I realised that his entire front wheel – right up to the axel – had sunk into a drain-hole.

But this was no major crisis. Within 30 seconds a group of five men – five young strong men with the muscles of ten – flowed out from a small steel mill opposite, and had righted the car before a minute was out. Only afterwards did it strike me that they could have put their capabilities to more permanent use by fashioning some ironwork to fill the hole in the broken drain.

It was my first afternoon in Kampala.


High above these streets, Namirembi Hill, where I was staying, gave me a 360-degree view of the changing city. At the crest of the hill is the cathedral, Uganda’s oldest. Around it are scattered properties of the church and in one of these buildings at the end of a rutted track, reside the offices of CRANE and Viva Africa.

I visited there the next morning and first chatted to David Baguye who started by asking me: “Did you know that we are reaching out to over 400 schools as well?” My mental image of what the Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC) in Uganda was aiming to achieve was about to be beaten into quite a different shape.

If I thought it simply intended to install 20 Creative Learning Centres for marginalised girls – as if that wasn’t challenging enough – then I was about to be surprised.

Because mainstream education in Uganda has a poor reputation – especially when it comes to unnecessarily draconian measures of discipline – the GEC team extend its sights beyond their own learning centres. They run vocational training programmes for teachers in the mainstream schools, introducing the teachers to some of the methods used in the learning centres.

Mobile libraryDavid took me to see the GEC mobile library: a service which is extended where possible to the surrounding mainstream schools. I was a little surprised at first. It was the smallest mobile library I had ever seen, and I took a while to appreciate that the effectiveness of a mobile library is not a function of its size.

This library is fleet-footed – going out on the road every day, servicing the 20 learning centres and 60 mainstream schools. There are not many books in the van, because most of them have already been loaned out.

Susan NAs I spoke with more of the team, I began to encounter a common theme – that working for GEC was profoundly challenging. Susan Naigaga (right), GEC’s monitoring guru, said, “The biggest challenges in my life have been the baseline and midline surveys for GEC.”

The mountain of questionnaires that Susan plonked down on the table in front of me was daunting. As we talked I realised that the comprehensive nature of GEC’s research was driven by how seriously CRANE took the lives of the girls that GEC is there to help.

The next morning I spent time exploring CRANE’s other programmes. I met Chris Tabu – who effervesced over CRANE’s Child Ambassador programme, which has 40 Safe Clubs – each run by ten child ambassadors – and each one of these 400 ambassadors is elected democratically by their peers. The venues vary, but many meet in schools.

Ambassador“The Safe Clubs may also each attract another ten or 20 children during term time…” said Chris, “or up to 150 additional children during holidays…”

I halted Chris’s flow to unpack those statistics. If many of the clubs are in schools, why do more children attend during the holidays?

He tells me, “Everyone sends their children to boarding school in Uganda – rich or poor – it makes no difference. Families with no money will try to send their children to boarding school and often get themselves into huge debts.” So the mainstream schools are seen as a last resort? “Yes. And it is the children who come home from boarding school in the holidays who all come along to the Safe Clubs run by the Child Ambassadors.”

Chris (right) told me a story of a private school with a headteacher with a strong reputation for punitive discipline and of how, the day after new rainwater tanks arrived, a boy with a reputation as a trouble-maker stuck a nail through one of them.

Immediately the child ambassadors went to the headteacher and boldly asked that the boy who damaged the tanks should be forgiven.

“You must understand that forgiveness is the last course of action that this headteacher would have chosen,” Chris said. “But he listened to them, and he agreed to their request. But more than this – he was so impressed by their courage and resolve that he became interested by some of CRANE’s campaigns to introduce better standards of child protection. He began attending workshops run by CRANE, and has since become an advocate of child protection.”

Chris’ story about challenging the culture of harsh discipline towards children shines light on the one theme which concerns CRANE more than anything else in Kampala: the need to protect children from unnecessary danger.

The CRANE team have worked tirelessly, year-on-year with limited recognition, to change the way that Kampala views its children.

TV advertOne of the innovative initiatives that the CRANE team embarked upon three years ago was to begin posting adverts on national TV. These adverts were not targeting schools or institutions, but rather the country’s ordinary families. They highlighted concepts such as taking time to play with children, or giving children a say in the big decisions that affect their children’s lives.

The adverts were made to a high quality and were costly to air. However these adverts achieved the result of exposing Jesus’ message of ‘the child in the midst’ to more than five million Ugandans – a seventh of the country’s 35 million population.

One of my journeys outside of the capital during my fleeting visit to Uganda was through the centre of Jinja: a town more sedate than Kampala, almost calm.

I noticed a street child working his way purposefully down the road with a white mail-sack over his shoulder. I watched him passively until I realised that he was wearing only one shoe.

In fact it wasn’t even a shoe – just a flip-flop – a shoe looked down upon by most Ugandans as inappropriate. Suddenly my head filled with questions.

one shoeWhere was his other shoe?
Did anyone care that he had only one shoe?
Would he be sleeping on that mail sack tonight?
Had he collected enough plastic bottles to buy food?
Then back to the shoe: was it so hard to find him a pair of shoes?

I remembered Susan’s comment back in Kampala: that lots of Karamojong children had appeared on the streets of Kampala over recent months. No one knew how they had got there as the journey from northern Uganda is long and expensive. The staff at CRANE were stumped, and no one had the language skills to learn more about the children.

I knew that the CRANE staff would make the effort and find out about these children – where they had come from and why – because CRANE is there for the marginalised children of the city.

I could have bought that boy a new set of shoes – but it would take an entire community to ensure that they stayed on his feet – a new kind of community: the kind that CRANE is building.


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