Normality, Power & Trust: Reflections from a Facilitator

PRisoN Learning Together 2017

On the PRisoN Learning Together module, facilitators support students in their learning by working with groups of four to encourage discussion and support understanding of the key concepts being discussed. They help students to navigate their critical discussion and ensure that all in the group have the opportunity to have their opinions heard. This blog comes from a facilitator who volunteered to support learning on this module and includes reflections following the first and second taught learning sessions:

There’s a certain kind of studied normality; a conscious normality I felt upon entering the classroom – being aware of acting the way I would with any other individuals who aren’t in a high security prison. And it almost feels false, because you’re internally thinking “This is so freaking insane and cool that I’m here!”, but at the same time your rational mind is going “Everyone in this room…

View original post 1,258 more words

The day I thought I was fatally ill.

If you’re squeamish about periods, don’t read this one. Or do, and get over it. Whatever.

Today we went on safari. Now you’d think that would be a super fun experience. And in parts it definitely was. But unfortunately I was a little bit convinced I was fatally ill, so being hours away from anything resembling decent healthcare wasn’t exactly what I wanted. Not to mention that one’s ability to enjoy the view is significantly inhibited when one is vomiting out of the car door.

Now, in reading what follows, please bear in mind that I am not usually prone to the hypochondriacal. I’m not saying I’m always the most level-headed individual, but I definitely would not have been freaking out so much if I had been anywhere remotely near a hospital where I’d be happy for people to stick needles in me. I wasn’t.

So, to begin.

Last night I found a tampon. Now that’s all good. Except when you find it inside you and have no clear idea how long it’s been there. The last time I remembered putting one up there was a good 2 days ago. At best.

Now, it probably serves me right for reading those trashy mag scare stories, but even without them, everyone knows that Toxic Shock Syndrome is no joke. This is what the NHS says about TSS:

“TSS is a medical emergency.”

Now for those of you for whom TSS is a new concept, let me explain the connection between TSS and tampons. Again I shall refer to the NHS website:

“Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is a rare but life-threatening condition caused by bacteria getting into the body and releasing harmful toxins. It’s often associated with tampon use in young women”.

Leaving a tampon in for an indeterminately long amount of time. Not a great idea.

So last night I went to bed hoping I didn’t wake up with any of the following:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 39C (102.2F) or above
  • flu-like symptoms, such as a headache, chills, muscle aches, a sore throat and a cough
  • feeling and being sick
  • diarrhoea
  • a widespread sunburn-like rash
  • the whites of the eyes, lips and tongue turning a bright red
  • dizziness or fainting
  • breathing difficulties
  • confusion
  • drowsiness

One of the first things I did when I woke up was vomit.

(Things out the other end weren’t too special either.)

This is just G-R-E-A-T – great!

Now I put it down to the fact that I am actually quite a reasonable-minded person that I didn’t immediately insist we abandon the safari and head back to Kampala to the intensive care unit. No, the show must go on.

Now it wasn’t all bad, but here is a list of some things I experienced today:

  • Lying across the back seat enduring horrendous stomach cramps as the car meandered through the national park.
  • Being watched by a curious tribe of antelope as I vomited out of the car door in the national park.
  • Diarrhoea on a ferry where the toilet didn’t flush.
  • Diarrhoea in a squat toilet in the middle of the national park.
  • A 40C temperature (measured at the pharmacy in the national park, where we also picked up some sickness meds).

But y’know what – I saw some elephants, too. So that was fun.

And I held my nerve enough to avoid going to hospital.

And I’m not dead. So that’s a bonus as well. Turns out it wasn’t TSS after all. Just a dodgy goat stew.

Travelling is fun!

A wedding

‘William’ invited ‘Polly’ and I to a wedding. 14051824_10157343184360134_9023372085346316312_nWe were pretty excited about it. Mostly because we’ve been wanting a chance to wear one of these bad-boys for ages. These are traditional Ugandan dresses, called Gomesi, and they’re pretty epic. (I mean look at those shoulders!) We’d seen some of the women at the orphanage wearing them already so figured they might be able to lend us a couple.

Unfortunately, our request for outfits turned into a human Barbie doll experiment!

Instead of Gomesi, the ladies emerged with several rather elaborate prom dresses. This is not what we want. However, since a group of teenage girls have now gathered in our room, we figure that there’s no harm in a least giving it a go. If only to provide a little amusement to the assembled company. What ensued was a two-hour stretch of mostly horrendous items being put onto and taken off our bodies. A definite low-point was when I was almost persuaded that a red, lacy, skin-tight number was the right choice for a wedding. But in the end we picked the two least hideous or revealing, and crashed into bed at 1am.

This morning came and doubts crept in. We still didn’t feel comfortable in our dresses, and were starting to regret the whole wedding thing entirely. Time to consult ‘James’.

Immediately he tells us to just wear our own clothes – whatever we feel comfortable in. An immense relief. After much deliberation, we opt for two of ‘Polly’s wrap-around skirts and simple tops.

By this point ‘James’ is pestering us to hurry because William is waiting. We find this a bit silly considering he leaves us waiting 2 hours pretty much every day always. Nevertheless, we duly make our way to the car (this time a larger one borrowed from another friend). Once inside, William informs us that we are off to collect the bridegroom from the salon.

So now we’re in the bridal party. Great. Well at least it’s not the bride we’re picking up! Oh no – turns out that due to a translational error, William has incorrectly informed us, and it is, in fact, the bride we’re transporting.

Along with her 6 bridesmaids.

Should have stayed in bed.

Despite the rush earlier, this is still Uganda, so naturally the bridal party are not ready for us. By this point, William has also realised that we are more than a little disappointed we weren’t allowed to wear the traditional Gomesi, and the next thing we hear is him on the phone saying something about “Gomesi biri”. How we don’t know much Luganda, but we do know enough to know that this means “Two Gomesi”. We wait apprehensively for the call to end.

Putting the phone down, William cheerfully informs us that we are going to get dresses now. Hang on a minute – what about the bride!? It would just be the icing on the cake if after crashing her wedding, and then crashing her bridal party, we were late to pick her up because we were getting our own dresses!!  This is too much. And yet, a mere 15 minutes later, we find ourselves at William’s neighbour’s house, being suited and booted.

But not in Gomesi.

Instead, the neighbour produces two floaty sahri-style outfits (matching, of course). Apparently this is the traditional dress of the Acholi tribe, the cattle herders. This is the selected garment we will now wear to the wedding. And still we didn’t chose it. Oh well, by this point we’re not just going with the flow, we’re in the flood and there is no going back!

But I guess all’s well that ends well, even if I did have to go bra shopping with William to make my outfit work! The bride also seemed fine with us gate-crashing, which was a bonus.. And the whole event was so colourful and full of music and dancing, which is always a plus. Good fun was had by all (especially William, who became ‘that guy’ who turned up to a wedding with two English dates!)

Here we are with our traditional Acholi tribe dresses.

And the bride!


A strange evening.

Today I experienced probably the highest high and the lowest low of my trip so far.

The high? I learnt how to ride a motorbike. Yeah I did! (Clutch and everything).

The low? I watched someone die.

Upon our return from ‘William’s motorbike lesson, ‘James’ tells myself and another volunteer, ‘Polly’, that “the old woman we gave TB drugs to is dying”. He has been contacted from the village by his friend ‘Jackson’. Time to go.

Back in the village, we head for the woman’s house. It is a tiny two-room mud hut at the side of the main road. The roof, a slant of corrugated metal sheeting. Out front stands a small grocery stall where the few families around usually sell fruits and veg to those passing. Now it is night, and quiet.

Inside the hut, the woman’s bedroom contains her single mattress, and a low bench seat along one wall. The room is already crowded with people. As soon as I step inside, I smell death in the cramped space. The old woman is laid out straight, her blanket smoothed around her. She is laid out to die.

A neighbour speaks to James in Luganda, telling him that the woman wants to be left to die. James does not accept this. He will fight for her life until the last breath leaves her body. I am conflicted. I have seen the last moments of life. The last hours and minutes of my Mum’s life. The last breaths. They are precious. I know she will die and I don’t want to take her. But there is no time for discussion about last wishes. It is now or never. And now we are here we will do what we can.

Once it is decided that we are taking her to hospital, everyone springs into action. The car is brought from the road, and the woman carried out. As she is slid onto the back seat, I jump inside to take her head onto my lap. Her daughter follows us into the car, along with James, Jackson and Polly. William is driving.

As we speed along the main road into town, I am convinced this woman will die in my lap before we reach our destination. I can comfortably count to five in between her jagged breaths. Her eyes are closed, and her right arm hangs limp into the foot-well. I touch her sweaty forehead with my hand. It is cold.

Arriving at the hospital we carry her in and place her on a bed in ‘A&E’. The doctor approaches to do checks. He begins with gentle prodding and probing, but suddenly he is pummelling her chest. He pushes down repeatedly. Hard. Surely that isn’t helping her. What’s he doing?

Then, as quickly as it began, it’s all over. The doctor walks away.

The woman is gone.

Her daughter stoops next to the bed, opening a suitcase she has brought and extracting swathes of fabric. We wrap her mother in these scarves. One under her chin to close her mouth. One round her stomach. A single sheet is laid over the top to cover her.

Polly, myself, and the woman’s daughter stand round the bed. Silent. In the bed next door, a man lies unconscious and bleeding. We stand. The daughter begins to cry quietly, shaking. I hold her next to me. The tears pass and we separate. I find William to ask how to express condolence in Luganda. I repeat his words back to him. He is satisfied so I repeat them to the woman who has just lost her mother. I don’t know what it means but she repeats it back to me and shakes her head in sorrow. I silently hope I didn’t just tell her her mother is in heaven.

This is all new territory for me. We are now in possession of a body we have removed from its home. Her daughter is distressed, not knowing how she will get her mother home. I feel responsible and Jackson translates my promise that we will cover any expense to get her mother home again. The doctor wants to know if we will take her today or leave her in the mortuary until tomorrow. Polly and I see no issue. We brought her in the car with us. We can take her back the same way. We can take her today. We can take her now.

But William says no. We cannot put the body in his car. He gives no explanation, but from his rigid stare and blank statement of “I feel like crying”, I figure he doesn’t deal well with death. No more information is given and I don’t ask. We won’t be getting the body home this way.

James says the woman’s family or in-laws must come tomorrow to collect her. The daughter phones them but they do not want to help. In-laws don’t deal with dead bodies.

What can be done? I will not leave her here. There must be another way. Polly and I will pay what is needed from our own money, if only we can get this woman home tonight. But still we need transport.

The solution? A Boda-boda. A motorbike taxi. A normal-sized motorbike with room for 2 adults on the back. This is what will be used to take the woman’s body back to the village. Has James gone mad? Apparently not. Apparently this is normal in the villages. Many bodies are carried on bodas. A boda is here ready and waiting. A boda is convenient. A boda it is.

James negotiates with the boda-man. The journey will cost 70,000 Ugandan shillings and the daughter will go too, holding the coffin on the back of the bike. Polly and I, still wondering how this absurb body on a boda situation might work in practice, reach into our purses for a not-inconsiderable sum of money. This journey will cost 35times more with a dead person than a live person, but the woman is grateful and I am relieved a solution has been found. We say our goodbyes and leave.

It has been a strange evening.


Today day started off sedately. As usual, ‘William’ was about 2 hours late, arriving about 11 with his car. We picked up 3 children (with their mothers/grandmothers) to take to the Namutamba Rehabilitation Centre to have assessments to see why they can’t walk. The centre is way out in the bush (standard) and the car takes another beating at my hands on the potholed tracks.

The assessments all went well – two children diagnosed cerebral palsy and another with possible muscular dystrophy (to be investigated further). The staff think they can help them all in some way, not least by educating their families about the conditions. The boy with suspected muscular dystrophy, ‘Emmanuel’, has previously suffered a traditional ‘remedy’ where a hot poker was pressed to his back in an attempt to ‘reactivate’ his nerves.

Assessments over, I am “Madam Driver” again. I head out of the compound gate.


Look in the rear view mirror. Is that a dirty jerrycan I just drove over? How did I not see – oh no. That’d be my exhaust pipe. It was only replaced 2/3 days ago, but there it lies, dented and shorn completely off. Into the boot it goes. Now I sound like a total boy racer, which is definitely fun, but not ideal, especially when passing police checkpoints!




Today we almost saw this calf being born.

It was our second visit to prison. Another rural prison which was fairly similar to the last one, except here, instead of the inmates being quiet and subdued, they were full of anger at the injustices and their treatment. I don’t know which is worse. I looked in the cells this time. Bare concrete floors are a few rolled blankets. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be held there.

The session was quite short because as we arrived the men were still working out in the field. A cow was tied up outside, and the prison guard informed us she was about to give birth. As we watched, the mother’s waters broke, and by the time we came out, the new calf was ready to take it’s first shaky steps. A pretty cool thing to see.

“A proper Buganda woman.”

I’ve spent the last weekend staying with friends I’ve known for years. They’re Ugandan friends from my church who live in Kampala.

The wife, ‘Amaka’, is a phenomenal cook. After a diet of beans, rice, posho and matoke over the past couple of weeks, I have just spent a weekend being force-fed like a prize turkey. On the first evening alone, the meal consisted of fish, greens, avocado, tomato, carrot, red onion, matoke, rice, potatoes, beans and a bottle of Uganda’s fantastic Nile lager.

On Saturday, Amaka’s two nieces bought matoke and I joined in the pealing. I kept asking for more to peal, while they kept telling me to stop and rest. It’s embarrassing how little they think I can do!

Today started off on a less than good note. Another bout of sickness and diarrhoea. I think such a massive volume of rich foods, meat and fish, had fully shocked my body! Not having to use a latrine this time was a definite bonus. The only challenge was persuading the women of the house that I didn’t want to eat anything. When Amaka came to see me, I told her I’d only be drinking bottled water all morning. She was very confused, so I tried to explain that by starving myself I was starving whatever might be causing the sickness. Her response? “What about some milk?”. Nope.

An hour later, Amaka returned to ask if I wanted some breakfast. Still nope.

At lunch, when I’d finally made it downstairs and given in enough to agree to eat a plain boiled egg and a spoonful of rice, Amaka pointed repeatedly to array of items on the table, saying “What about –?”…”Or —?”. This no eating thing is a challenging concept. But the whole thing makes me feel the generosity and love even more.

This afternoon, Amaka’s husband, ‘Geoffrey’, was visited by his cousin. The women of the family along with a visiting friend approached him, knelt, and greeted him with “Osibee otya, Ssebo”, which means “Good afternoon, sir”. Naturally, I followed suit, because there is literally no legitimate reason for me not to do so. Amaka saw this and screeched with laughter, crying out “You don’t have to do that!!”.

“Why not?”.

“Ok”, she chuckled, “now you are a proper Buganda woman”.

“Madam Driver”

I have become the designated driver. I am “Madam Driver”.

Yesterday I drove ‘William’s car for the first time. We were visiting families living way into the villages off the tarmac road, so I figured ‘what’s the harm’. That all went fine, so less than 24 hours later I’ve graduated to the main roads.

Driving in Uganda is fun. The rules?

  1. Drive on the left. Unless you’re overtaking several cars and/or lorries in a row, in which case you may spend a while on the other side of the road playing chicken with oncoming vehicles.
  2. The bigger you are the greater your right of way. Pedestrians are below bicycles, are below motorbikes, are below cars, are below lorries.
  3. In order to ensure adherence to rule two, use your horn.
  4. In rural areas, cars go where they can physically get to.
  5. Speed limits are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. As ‘William’ said when I asked was driving 95kmph and suddenly thought to ask what the limit was. He responded with “80… but when it’s clear you just go any speed. This is Africa!”. Good to know.
  6. Street lamps (and sometimes headlights) are for wimps.
  7. If it fits it sits. Vehicle capacities are a fluid concept.

No wonder I saw a billboard informing me that of the 1.25million people who die on the road annually worldwide, 90% of these are in developing countries.


Busy day today going to the local hospital to take a old woman from the village for a check because of terrible diarrhoea and weakness.

Even though she was in a lot of pain we had to physically carry her into the hospital from the car because a wheelchair could not be found. There was no ultrasound machine working at the hospital so we had to take her to nearby clinic (into and out of the car again). Then back to the hospital where we pushed her up 4 ramps to the ward. The un-insulated metal wheels screeching along the tile floor. Immediately upon arrival we were told to go back to the ground floor for an x-ray. The four of us turned the bed around and retraced our steps. People here with no family or friends (or money!) to help them out don’t stand a chance.

She has suspected TB of the lungs and also thickening of stomach and intestinal walls. Not sure what it means – ulceration? Cancer?

In these situations I feel so helpless from my lack of medical knowledge. It feels like everything is crap, and everything costs. For us it may not be a lot (both scans came to a little over £10 total), but that’s heaps in the village where you don’t even earn that in a week.

Off to prison

13912894_10157274992070134_6116640202780618777_nSo today was our first ‘prison day’ – a group session on life in and after prison, encouraging inmates to accept their sentence and not seek revenge..

But first, we had to get there. And that involved jump starting a car. The car belongs to ‘James’ friend ‘William’ and it’s not always the most reliable (more on that later).

So my job was the turn the ignition and rev etc., which is fine. Nothing complicated about that. The only rather disconcerting thing was that the jump start was being done from a spare battery via a couple of wheel wrenches instead of leads. So William and James were holding bars of bare metal between two batteries! When I said to James afterwards that I was nervous because I thought I could have electrocuted someone, he laughed and said, “that’s very true!”. I sometimes wonder how anyone survives!

Anyway, prison. It was certainly not what I expected. And that’s true, even though I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I did expect.

This was an adult male prison holding only 26 prisoners (they have a lot of small local prisons here, particularly for those on remand). The compound is incredibly insecure (literally less secure than schools in the UK). There are no security checks on visitors and you don’t have to hand in any of your belongings.

Of course if inmates run away they will be shot by one of the 6 guards. We also had to make sure that we finished before dark, because they had to be looked up by then – I guess it’s easier to run away at night. We didn’t see inside the prison building (we were outside in the small grassy courtyard), but apparently it’s just one dormitory; a concrete cube. All the men had shaved heads and wore yellow t-shirts and shorts. In the field where they work to grow their own food they also wear Wellies. When they drove up in the truck, covered in dust, they looked like some sort of ghost army, silent and pale. I have no idea what they may have done (apparently the most common is theft, attempted murder and drugs), but my heart went out to them. When I asked what the challenges of prison were, one man said getting sick because they have no access to medication. They didn’t even have soap.

At the end of the session one of the inmates suggested they have a prayer, and they all knelt there in the dirt to pray. It’s strange that at the time you’re just in it, but now thinking about the experience I get tears in my eyes.