Working with an aid project in Uganda brought Martin Blakebrough face to face with the optimism of community growth and achievement – undermined by a stark reminder of the destructive effects of alcohol
Wales has a long association with Uganda mainly due to the connection between Mbale and Pontypridd brought about by the community link programme Pont. The success of the project has been recognised by the Welsh Government, who now send leaders in public service on placements in Mbale.
I was fortunate to be selected for the programme and worked with the Uganda Women Concern Ministry for eight weeks. The project’s primary mission is to support women in rural communities and it was started in the early 1990s by Edith Wakumire, who was herself an orphan and whose work with women has been recognised by the UN.
There is a very serious need to invest in women in Uganda, not only to further their economic empowerment, but also because women will then invest in their families.
Through microfinance schemes I was able to see women funding nurseries, building a secondary school and paying school fees for their children. Women are the real workers in Uganda and through better farming, can lift themselves and their families from subsistence to living a life of aspiration. To see a community of women buying 23 cows was a sign of real progress. The Welsh government is investing in schemes from tree planting to coffee co-ops, and Pont’s vision in partnership with the government is ensuring support is targeted effectively and making a real difference.
Yet there is a problem that seems to be under everyone’s radar, and that is addiction. Our UK government may be promoting bingo but as in the UK, gambling is a real problem for male Ugandans. The other addiction that we share with Uganda is alcohol. The focus on regeneration is vital, but families are being crippled by alcohol abuse.
A study by US Broadcaster CNN puts Uganda as the leading African country in terms of alcohol consumption and eighth in the world. According to CNN: ‘Uganda leads its African neighbours for alcohol intake, largely thanks to a rampant trade in illegally made rotgut and a winning formula of booze made from bananas.
‘High on the menu is a potent liquor called waragi, also known as war gin because it was once used to fortify troops. Though drinking too much inevitably leads to surrender.’
The Ugandan Daily Monitor also notes: ‘Intake of colossal amounts of potent gins and other forms of crude liquor in mostly poverty-stricken rural communities and urban slums has raised health alarms amid declining productivity by affected youth.’
I witnessed for myself the destruction that alcohol was causing to rural communities. I was taken round villages and many gardens laid testimony to the waste in human lives, with graves of men dying far too young. HIV/Aids is still a major problem but many more people that I spoke and met talked about those they are losing due to deaths from alcohol. The problem in Uganda is not just men drinking; there is an increased uptake of drinking by women, which has led some children to be left in an appalling situation without food, education or any real love.
The response to alcohol abuse of course would be different to that provided by agencies such as Kaleidoscope, but to ignore the problem means that communities will be plunged into depression. The need for training and support from agencies to respond to this killer problem is ever more pressing.
Working with women in Uganda I also saw how the death of a husband, in itself traumatic, was compounded by that death placing the family in danger. Women often do not inherit property and in some cases, family members of the dead husband come in, seize their land and make their vulnerable family homeless. I was fortunate enough to be involved in supporting one such family to build a new home on land donated by the church community, but these cases are sadly not the norm.
Uganda is an amazing country to visit and work in. There are many inspiring people and I am most grateful for the friendship of so many I met. As with many poor countries, there are people struggling with crippling poverty. Sadly, for some the poverty is so harsh they look for a way of escaping their reality and turn to drugs such as alcohol. It means that the support we give must be both economic and social. I hope I can help in a little way and that government can remember that support for people to move out of poverty comes in many forms.
Martin Blakebrough is the CEO of Kaleidoscope and was in Uganda as a guest of Pont from 2 January to 28 February. For more information about Pont visit http://pont-mbale.org.uk
Kaleidoscope’s conference, ‘From harm reduction to mindfulness’ is on 14 May in Newport, Gwent. Details at www.kaleidoscopeproject.org.uk