One month to go…

Ok so this post is a little late, as there’s just 3 weeks to go now, but I’m still finding myself asking ‘Where have the last 11 months gone?!’ It’s been a crazy year full of surprises, fun, laughter, tears and long-lasting memories.

Special thanks to ICYE for getting me here, and to all my new friends and ‘family’ for keeping me here! Check out my feature on ICYE’s website to find out more about what I was doing in my first 6 months in Uganda and thoughts on volunteering:

So what’s next?

Well after spending a month at home for Christmas, I’ll be boarding a plane back to this wonderful continent, this time heading to South Africa to start a Masters at the University of Cape Town! (Of course I’ll be keeping in close contact with Uganda, which is not too far away!)

Thanks to everyone for reading, following and supporting my journey this year, it really means a lot. I’ll leave you with a video of one of my songs, ‘Hold Me’, performed at a wonderful little church in Mbale, Eastern Uganda. Enjoy 🙂



Awkward British situations you won’t find in Uganda

After a few ‘heavy’ blog posts, I reckoned it was time for something a little more light hearted, so here it is: Awkward British situations you won’t find in Uganda (please forgive me for the Buzzfeed style format, but everyone loves a good list!)

#1 Awkward greetings, especially with someone you’ve never met…

In Britain greetings can be a scary thing: Do I kiss them on the cheek (and if so, how many times?) or give them a hug? Or shake hands? And when is it appropriate to do so: when saying hello, when saying goodbye or when you haven’t seen them in a long time? It gets so complicated that most of the time we wait for the other person to act first, unless they are using the same trick, whereby we both end up awkwardly standing in front of each other, slowly turning red in the face but trying desperately to play it cool and pretend that was our intention all along!

In Uganda, it’s simple: shake hands. If you’re a young person you can fist bump (known here as ‘bonga’) and if you’re meeting a Muganda or a friend you can give them a hug. But no greeting at all is just plain rude!

With my good friend Ibra

With my good friend Ibra

#2 Awkward eye contact in the street or on public transport…

I once got yelled at by a girl on the bus on the way to school just for looking at her. Instead of standing my ground and replying with ‘So what?’ I turned bright red and stared profusely at the floor until I reached my stop. Even if you have never experienced a confrontation like that one, pretty much every British person can identify with the problem of where to look on buses, trains (especially the opposite-facing seats of the Picadilly line!) and even when walking down the street, to make sure you avoid eye contact and therefore the possibility of causing any kind of offense or rudeness.

In Uganda, no-one cares. Your business is everyone’s business and people unashamedly stare at you (especially if you’re a muzungu!) It doesn’t mean it’s not uncomfortable though, I usually greet someone if I find them staring at me for more than a minute or two, and that breaks the ice sufficiently to start a conversation or shock them into looking away/carry on with what they were doing.

#3 Running for the bus (and potentially missing it)…

Almost an everyday occurrence when I was in secondary school (due to a certain sister holding us up every morning!) Whether you make it or you don’t, it’s embarrassing either way: fumbling for your oyster card in front of the driver while panting heavily and trying to hide a triumphant smile, or sitting dejectedly at the bus stop, annoyed with yourself for leaving 30 seconds too late and more so with the bus driver for not stopping for you when he could clearly see you in his rear-view mirror!

In Uganda, I don’t think it’s even possible to miss a taxi (bus) – drivers want to fill their seats so badly that they wait for as long as it takes for the person to amble up to them, and even reverse backwards down the road to pick up someone they’ve seen in the rear-view mirror. They frequently stop for people who have no intention of boarding and spend the whole journey beeping the horn and hollering out of the window at passers-by, ‘Kampala! Kampala!’ or whichever destination they are going to. And if you do manage to miss one for whatever reason, the good thing is you only have to wait another one or two minutes before the next one comes thundering down the road towards you.

A taxi conductor in Kampala Photo: Red Pepper

A taxi conductor in Kampala. Photo: Red Pepper

#4 Awkward queuing…

Of course, the British are known for their queuing habit, and the passive aggressiveness that comes out in a collection of sighs, mutterings and throat-clearing when someone skips in front of you or holds up the line for longer than is socially acceptable.

Well in Uganda there is virtually no queuing, even in supermarkets people tend to stand side-by-side around the counter until they get served. The only time I witnessed proper queuing was for the parking machine at the international airport, where the Ugandans were shamelessly pushing in front of bemused and annoyed international tourists who were trying to work out whether to stay in their line or just push in front too. Luckily I was with a Ugandan so I didn’t have to make that choice!


Any more suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment below…

International Youth Day 2014

On International Youth Day, I couldn’t help but write from the country with the most youthful population in the world. Uganda has the world’s largest percentage of young people under 30 – 78% – according to the 2012 State of Uganda population report (UN Population Fund) and more than 52% of Ugandans are below 15 years.

So what does this mean for Uganda and its development? According to most media reports – both global and national – a youthful population lays the foundation for unemployment, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy and even terrorism.

But rather than look at it from a negative perspective, as a major challenge that needs to be managed, how about we look at the positives of having such a young population?

Young people have energy, entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility to adapt to changing employment opportunities in our globalised world. I haven’t yet met a Ugandan youth without a Facebook page, and most are accessing it on their smartphones, when they’re not on WhatsApp or Snapchat. A huge number are university graduates with relevant degrees such as IT, accounting and finance, medicine, environmental management etc.

So what’s holding them back? In my view, it’s a political system that’s saturated with the older generation who care more about the contents of their own pockets than investing in the young people of tomorrow. On paper, there are countless schemes to develop youth entrepreneurship and innovation (e.g. The Youth Venture Capital Fund; Youth Livelihood Project) but despite the billions of shillings that have apparently been invested over the last couple of years, no measurable results have emerged as yet.

Although it’s frustrating, it’s difficult not to lose hope when the young people around me are so full of ambition and determination. For the last few months I’ve been part of a youth group in Kampala that goes by the name of “Amfuture”. Started by a passionate youth leader from my church, it’s a friendly, open group of at least 25 dynamic 16+ year olds, who meet every week to discuss different topics: money, family, studying, relationships, Christianity etc, and share ideas and advice with each other.

I am constantly impressed and inspired by the maturity and independence of these young people, the majority of whom are still in school or university. They all face challenges in their lives – big and small – from school fees to family problems, but what is remarkable is their attitude to overcoming them. For example, there’s one brother and sister (both in secondary school) who rear rabbits, chickens, goats and who knows what else in their backyard, to raise money for their school fees. They can tell you off the top of their heads the market price for the different breeds, sex and sizes of all their animals, their current turnover and their aspirations for growing their operations. Now just imagine that spirit harnessed and nurtured on a larger scale, across Kampala and the whole of Uganda…

That’s what I call youth development.

Amfuture youth members

Congolese Church

Shepherd Voice Band

Shepherd Voice Band

Last week I had the pleasure of playing guitar in a Congolese church in Katwe, Kampala, as part of the “Shepherd Voice Band”, started by one of my good friends from DR Congo. When he came to Uganda about ten years ago, fleeing the war, he was completely alone and didn’t know if any of his family was still alive, let alone where they might have ended up. By the grace of God, he found some of his brothers and other relatives three years ago here in Uganda, and they’ve been living together ever since.

Though Uganda is a peaceful and friendly country for refugees, life has not been easy for them. For one thing, none of them came with any knowledge of English (French is the international language of DRC) so finding work was a challenge. But whenever they were in times of trouble, or didn’t have food to eat, they would just sit together and sing, praising God for the gift of life. These singing sessions turned into something more structured as my friend acquired a guitar and began writing songs for them. Thus, the “Shepherd Voice Band” was born.

Katwe (Copyright Stephanie Sinclair)

Katwe (Copyright Stephanie Sinclair)

Katwe is home to the largest of 8 slums in Kampala, and a significant number of refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly from DRC and South Sudan.  Walking to the church through the maze of dirt tracks and open sewers, two things struck me about the place: Firstly, I couldn’t help but notice the volume of rubbish and waste on the floor, which was far more than any other part of Kampala I’ve seen so far, but secondly how full and buzzing the streets were, with adults, children and animals all wondering round, chatting and joking with each other.

The church itself was quite big, held up by wooden beams and an iron roof, with a raised platform for the preachers and worship band.  I was impressed by the quality of the instruments (drum kit, guitars, keyboard), but even more so by the skills of the musicians – the Congolese are famous for their guitar playing, and most of the professional bands in Uganda feature at least one Congolese guitarist in their line-up. I loved listening to their songs, which were full of passion, energy and very cool African beats! Here’s a very small sample below…

The dancing was also something to behold, at one point it got so carried away that a cable snapped and caught fire! Luckily the musicians noticed and put it out before it could spread.

The songs by the Shepherd Voice Band were mellower and more contemplative in comparison, with rich vocal harmonies, though I didn’t join in with the singing as I hadn’t quite got to grips with the Lingala or Swahili words.  DRC has four official languages (in addition to French) and all of these were used during the service, either in the songs, sermon or prayers, so a translator was needed for some people (I had my own personal translator sitting next to me!)

Here’s the chorus of one of the Shepherd Voice Band’s songs, in Lingala:

Jesu, Jesu yozali nzambe                             Jesus, Jesus you are God
Jesu eh Jesu, Jesu yozali zimba                  Jesus you are the source of life
Yabomoye netolama                                   Be praised

I didn’t manage to get a video of the Shepherd Voice Band in action but there is a possibility of recording some songs in a studio, so watch this space…!

3 months in Uganda

Three months ago today, I was having one last coffee and cake with my family at Heathrow Terminal 5, before setting off on my East African journey.  I had no idea where I would be living, what I would be working on, or even when I would be coming back (!) so needless to say I was feeling a little nervous, but excited all the same.

These last three months have been an absolute whirlwind. For the first few weeks, I felt like I was in a dream, trying to adapt to new sights, sounds and smells (and no, it wasn’t just the side effects of the malaria tablets!) but there came a point around the middle of March, two months in, that I suddenly felt completely comfortable with everything here: the culture, food, language, people…

So today I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve learnt since arriving in Uganda, both about the country and about myself:

1) Ugandans are very friendly!

This is said a lot about African cultures, especially East African, but even so I am constantly surprised by the friendliness and generosity of people, and their ability to strike up a conversation absolutely anywhere.

One day for example, I was walking along a busy road in the middle of the day when I heard a voice call out behind me, ‘Hello!’ I half turned around, replying wearily, ‘Hello, how are you?’ I thought it might be one of the beggars who congregate along that road, holding out their hands for money, sometimes even following you down the street, but when I turned round I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a young guy in low-slung jeans, shades and a snapback cap, but he was draped head-to-toe in ladies’ underwear! It’s a common sight to see hawkers wearing as much as their stock as possible, trying their best to entice passers-by with a sale. But this guy didn’t try to sell me anything; he just wanted to tell me that it was dangerous for me to be walking on my own as a white woman and could he pay for me to take a boda boda?! Without waiting to hear my answer, he turned and hailed a passing driver, stuffed some money into his hand and said ‘Take this madam wherever she needs to go!’

Street hawkers in Kampala (

Street hawkers in Kampala (

2)  That leads me onto my second observation: Ugandan’s are extremely polite (and that’s saying something coming from a British person!)

Men and women are always addressed as Ssebo or Nnyabo, or in English, Sir or Madam. Greetings are very important, so you must always ask someone how they are before you say anything else, even if you’re just asking for directions or where the nearest toilet is!

It’s also common to thank someone for their work, or after a meal to thank your host for cooking. Other unwritten rules that probably have more to do with culture than politeness include: never eat while walking, never publicly show affection (this includes hand-holding between couples, but for some reason it’s fine between friends of the same sex!) and always avoid confrontation or arguments, even behind closed doors.

There’s a Ugandan proverb, “Ombra dra ni” which translates as ‘Anger is death’ (meaning that anger can lead to disastrous situations)

3) Sharing is caring.

That means when you have money, you are expected to share it, and when you don’t it’s acceptable to ask friends and family to help you out. But in my experience, nearly everyone here has problems of some kind and these usually come down to a lack of money, yet it’s only very few who expect to solve their problems themselves; the rest just rely on those around them to support them through the tough times.

And this relates to something I’ve learnt about myself:

4) No matter how much I want to help everyone, it’s not physically possible to do so. As a “muzungu” (white person) I am automatically labelled as ‘rich’, despite being a volunteer, so it means people are constantly asking to borrow money from me. Notice I said ‘borrow’ – the intention is always to pay it back, but I have no idea in what time-frame they are expecting!

5) Patience is a virtue and slowing down is good.

“Africa time” can sometimes be a struggle, especially when plans are pushed back so much you wonder if they will even happen, or someone calls to tell you they’re on their way but don’t show up for another two hours. However, now I’m getting used to it I’ve discovered how much more relaxed it makes me, possibly because of the freedom and lack of expectations about time-keeping.

And I’m even starting to understand the patterns of “Africa time”, for example if you make plans for early in the morning or around lunchtime, you will find that food is the priority, followed by conversations and catch-ups with people, before any thought is given to where you are supposed to be. Similarly, if it’s rush hour or the rainy season, then all plans go out of the window completely!

Rush hour in downtown Kampala (

Life in the big city

Living in Kampala is not at all like how I thought it would be.  With my expectations based almost solely on my previous trips to Sierra Leone, I was woefully unprepared for the glitzy shopping malls, fast food chains and huge supermarkets of Uganda’s capital city.

Of course it was necessary to try out a few of these luxuries, so without too much detail here are a few of the highlights I’ve enjoyed so far:

  • ‘Terrific Tuesdays’ buy-one-get-one-free pizza at Nandos takeaway;
  • Watching The Hobbit 2 in a 5D cinema with free popcorn and soda;
  • Joining an orchestra and choir at Kampala Music School;
  • Swimming at Rainbow international school;
  • Making burgers with Michaela, an American volunteer also living at my host home; and
  • Going to La Bonita theatre with my host mother on Valentines Day to watch the Ebonies theatre group.
Burgers - American style!

Burgers – American style!

It took a while to discover this side of Kampala, however, as my host home is in one of the cheaper ‘suburbs’ of Kampala, about a half hour taxi ride from the centre.  Our house has ‘drop toilets’ or pit latrines, water comes from a standpipe so you shower with a jerry can (usually in the dark if you wash in the morning or evening) and all the food is cooked on a tiny charcoal stove just wide enough to hold a kettle or a saucepan (but not both so everything is cooked sequentially, which can take hours!)

That being said, at least we have electricity and proper iron beds – I’m always glad for the extra height when I wake up to suspicious rustlings in the night (so far I’ve found a large cockroach and a medium-sized lizard chilling out under there!)

And on a volunteer’s budget, it’s not really practical to indulge in Western luxuries, which can cost more here than in the UK and often leave you disappointed – like the time Michaela bought a wafer chocolate bar which looked and tasted more like stale bread than any chocolate I’ve ever eaten!

The Ugandan street food is much better in my opinion and ridiculously cheap: fried chapattis, half cakes, doughnuts, sticks of cassava, packets of groundnuts (peanuts), or fresh fruits like pineapple, mango, watermelon, bananas and jackfruit sell for 200-500 Ugandan shillings (around 10p).  If you’re pushing the boat out, yoghurt and ice cream are also found nearly everywhere for a little less than 50p per pot!


chapatti stall

I usually buy my breakfast from these stalls on my way to the office, which is a half hour walk from my house (45 mins if you go at Ugandan pace!)  I could take a taxi or boda boda but I find it more interesting to walk, greeting the stall holders setting up for the morning, chatting with kids on their way to school and dodging the cows/goats/chickens along the way!

And I’m not lying about the cows…


Feminism in Uganda? (Part 1)

Ok so I was going to wait a bit before writing about some of the ‘heavier’ issues here, but then I had malaria and had a few days to start thinking about things! So here is the first chapter in my musings on gender equality and feminism in Uganda…

It’s hard to be a white female in Uganda, with the constant hissing, whistling and shouting of Ugandan men following you as you walk down the street, at any time of the day or night. “My size! My size!” is a favourite of theirs, though I think what they really mean is “My colour”!

However, increasingly I’m realising how hard it is to be a Ugandan woman here too.  Not only do young women get the same heckling in the street, but many have to endure even worse treatment in the home and workplace too, where they are treated like inferior citizens, just another piece of property for men.

Studies show that about two-thirds of married women in Uganda have been physically abused by a partner.  Activists say the traditional practice of a bride price, where the man presents gifts – usually livestock – in exchange for the bride strips women of their dignity and exposes them to domestic violence.

Of course this is not the case for every household in Uganda, in fact the country has made great strides in gender equality in recent years and is currently ranked 8th in sub-Saharan Africa and 46th in the world for gender equality.

Even so, in December MPs were still able to pass a bill banning women from wearing miniskirts on the basis that it causes temptation for men.  If the law is passed, it would outlaw any sexually suggestive material including TV shows, music videos, newspapers and magazines, and women wearing suggestive clothing or skirts ‘above the knee’ would be subject to arrest.

The President has until 28 February to decide whether the bill should become law and is under increasing pressure from the international community to veto it.  Considering the number of women I see on a daily basis wearing miniskirts in Kampala (let alone on Saturday nights!), it seems very unlikely that the bill will be passed, but it is still shocking that in 2014 a law of this nature can even be considered.

As one interviewed woman said, rather amusingly, “It’s like they have nothing more pressing to worry about. Let’s forget about roads, schools, and clean water, because it’s certainly my thighs which are destroying the nation!” (Read the full article here)

#savetheminiskirt Photo: clutch magazine (

#savetheminiskirt Photo: clutch magazine