All posts by Akeo Veerman

Travel Journal II: From Groenlo to Soroti

Blogger: Dirk Naaijkens*

Day 18 – 6th of June 2016

‘We thank you, God, that we can be here all together, and thank You for the presence of Dirk, who came here for us from the very far Netherlands. We are grateful for the food You provided, and for the faith You put in us. Amen.’ With this ‘morning devotion’, yesterday on the 6th of June, the street children project has officially started. This, thanks to the many donations which we have already received. About 15 children participate, although some more than others. Some arrive in the morning, under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This means it is barely possible to even speak to them properly. In the night they sniff plastic bottles which are filled with a piece of cloth, drenched in a mixture of gasoline and glue, which makes them high. This keeps away the feeling of hunger, but it also negatively affects their lungs and brain. The best thing to do is to let them sleep it off, even though this might sound strange. After the communal praying they can wash with some water and soap. The facilities are not fantastic, but we manage with what we have. After we have a breakfast of ‘porridge’, which reminds me a bit of Brinta. Then we start to get ready for the ‘psycho-social programme’.

Our project manager Julius, starts the first group session. He speaks about the idea and goal of the project: ‘You are here because we want to help you. You will learn from us, we will learn from you. We are trying to help you with what you want. If you want to go back home, we will help you with that. But, this will not happen immediately. Some of you lived on the streets for five, six years. Life back home is different than life on the streets. So, we have to prepare you, to get a different mindset. And we have to talk to your family, because you changed during the time you weren’t back home. Life on the streets has no future’. It appears that there is a lot of suspicion: some doubt our motives, they are afraid that we will hand them over to the police. Not without reason; in the past other organisations promised to “care for them”, but instead used them for their own profits. This mostly made them worse off than before. We managed to take away most distrust, but there is still a long road before we will truly gain their trust.

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Of course some open up quicker than others. Especially the photo wall of the previous street children project gets an enthusiastic response. These pictures show youngsters that they know from the streets. With the help of RICODE these children went back to school, returned to their families or created their own home. The pictures contain many well-known faces. ‘Look, Washington!’, one of the boys screams.  Washington went back to school and is now enrolled in high-school. These pictures show a very concrete image of what their future might look like, but: ‘The ball is in your hands now’, Julius emphasises. ‘The question is: what do you do with it? Do you throw it away, or do you keep it in your hands?’ This question will be answered in the upcoming four weeks. The children have until Wednesday to show they are serious about the program by having a sort of intake interview with a psychologist. Those who do not show their commitment, or those who just show up to fill their bellies, will not be accepted in the program. Although of course I hope, as does the rest of the team, they will hold on to the ball with the right guidance.

This will not be easy for all of them. Especially the older ones, there are four aged 20, are very serious. They have reached an age at which their future becomes very concrete if they do not change their way of life: then there is no future. Some of the younger ones take it lighter. ‘You know boxing?’, Otim asks me cheekily. I take my chances: he is way smaller than I am, about 13. So I answer ‘Yes, of course’. Two minutes later they accept me into the group as a hero with a big applause. ‘Haha mzungu, very good!’ I think they start to like me. Another boy, barely 12 years old, says something in Ateso (the local language) which makes the others laugh. ‘What did he say?’ I ask his neighbour. ‘He said, about you: “you look cute. If you were a girl, I would take you”.’ And with that, my feeling of being “one of the guys” crumbled to the floor within minutes.

*Dirk is a student from Utrecht University currently doing his internship in Soroti / Uganda.

Translation: Akeo Veerman

Travel Journal I: ‘From Groenlo to Soroti’

Blogger: Dirk Naaijkens*

Day 3 – 23rn of May 2016

 ‘You want boiled eggs?’, Johnson asks me. It’s Monday, about 7 in the evening. It’s starting to get dark, and because of the growing number of mosquitoes we decide to move inside. ‘We can eat boiled eggs, if you want’. We are having a drink at a guest house, ‘but here, sleeping is really expensive’, he tells me. This afternoon we discovered Soroti on foot; we visited the famous rock and went to the local market. Of course, every 50 meter we had to stop to greet and talk to family, friends, friends of friends and far relatives. ‘Welcome in Uganda, we are very welcome to have you here’. Or ‘Nice meeting you, God bless you’. The market is a colourful mixture of different stands, selling comparable goods: big chunks of salmon (often covered in flies), fruit, grilled chicken, different kinds of exotic spices in ten-kilo bags, dried fish, and many other things.

After three days I am starting to get used to being stared at all the time, which can be quite intimidating. I cannot take two steps outside, close to the market, or many eyes turn my way and stare at me. Children have the tendency to stare without holding back, smile, or to call ‘mzungu!’. Others stop walking, look at me, and greet me in a way that balances between extreme friendliness and homosexual flirt. I try not to think too much of it

.foto Drik Naaijkens

This morning I visited the project where I will be doing my internship for the upcoming nine weeks, RICODE : Rural Innovation for Community Development (website: http://ricode.org). We had an office meeting, where we discussed the program that will be laid out for me. The idea is that I will take a look at currently running projects: HIV/aids infected teenage mothers, the Food Security and Income Generation Program (a form of microfinance), Village Savings and Loans Associations (where ‘small-scale’ farmers put money together and create a form of banking where they can borrow this money from each other and pay it back –  with interest), and last the project that focuses on the protection of vulnerable (street) children. This last project started in 2014-2015, but because of a lack of funds this pilot was forced to stop. ‘Because’, as the project coordinator explains to me, ‘when you run a project focussed on street children, a lot has to be taken into account. You can offer them psychological support, but if they still walk around without clothes on their back and food in their bellies, it won’t help much’. This is the problem: a well running, long term project costs a lot of money – and time – to offer shelter, food, medical costs, clothing, tuition fee and schoolbooks. Therefore RICODE is working hard to find extra sponsors, to be able to offer these children a steady base from which they can develop and grow. These children, who have to get by with just bananas as food, and the girls who sleep on the streets every night while fearing to be raped. With the help of RICODE they might be able to go to school, work, start their own small business, those kinds of things. Or they can go back home, back to their parents. But also this guidance (for both parents and children) costs money.

Many hours later I watch the news on TV. There is an uprising in Kenya and I see many shouting people and awful images. I sit next to the field officer from RICODE, Johnson. He is a man full of humour and smiles a lot, he reminds me somewhat of my uncle Wilfried. I tell him about the resemblance. ‘So I have a brother in Holland?’ he answers with a big laugh. A couple of minutes later the waiter arrives with a little bowl of eggs. Four of them, hard boiled. ‘It is common here in Soroti’. It is a strange combination with the local beer, but my rumbling tummy thinks otherwise. After we pay, we take a boda boda, back to my place. If you don’t mind risking your life a bit, this small motor that is used as a taxi will  take two people on the backseat  for a small fee. I still see people looking and pointing when they see a mzungu like me on the back of the motor. No doubt this must look strange. Nor I, nor they, will probably ever get used to it.

For those who would like to contribute: donations can be made to MamaWatoto, the organisation that supports RICODE financially. They will make sure that the money gets to Soroti for those who it is intended for (by using Western Union). With this money you contribute to the permanent return of children to school or their parents, and/or a visit to the hospital (many children have infections that need to be treated).

Bank account number: NL92 INGB 0003 4247 92 to 'Stichting Mama Watoto', concerning 'Street children Soroti'. With €12,- a group of approx. 15 street children/young adults can have a decent breakfast. With €60,- they can have breakfast the whole week. Please support us, as there is a serious need o funds at the moment.

*Dirk is a student from Utrecht University currently doing his internship in Soroti / Uganda.

Translation: Akeo Veerman