An exploratory trip to Uganda – bananas and incredible insights from incredible people
Last summer, I was fortunate to receive some funding through the Global Visitor programme to go to Uganda. The purpose of this visit was to establish networks with local researchers and civil society organisations for the purpose of future research collaboration. The trip was short but packed with insights and yes, bananas.
After a detour to Kigali (Rwanda) due to torrential rains in Entebbe (Uganda), I finally arrived with many hours delay. At the airport, I met Odette, a special needs scholar from Kyambogo University who was doubling as my sighted guide for my time in Uganda. We drove up to Gulu (North Uganda) for most of the rest of the day. Along the way, you guessed it, I ate a lot of bananas as both Odette and our driver were unsure whether I could eat some of the other street food. So very yummy bananas it was.
The next morning, I had a meeting with the senior management team of the University of the Sacred Heart in Gulu. This university is still quite young but has the ambition to support the local community in its healing process. It was extremely informative to hear more about the struggles of the local community after the conflict that had held Northern Uganda in its grip for quite some time. They told me that many international NGOs had left now that the region was peaceful again but the problems were still there and some problems only emerged after the actual conflict and the immediate post-conflict period were over. Through their various disciplinary lenses, they talked about all the things that they want to address from very high suicide rates in some areas, to alcoholism, poverty, land disputes to the lack of access to assistive technology.
After another long car journey back to Kampala and many more bananas along the way, we arrived at the East African Centre for Disability, Law and Policy. There, spread over two days I met various disability and special needs education scholars as well as (self)-advocates from different Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs). As a small aside: DPO is the common term for organisations run by people with disabilities to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. They are the core pillars of the disability rights movement around the world.
Back to Uganda: Hearing about the lived experiences of people with disabilities was equally awe-inspiring and shocking. Knowing that a wheelchair costs more than most people earn in a year and that as a consequence, most people who require a wheelchair crawl is in stark contrast with the advanced disability laws of Uganda. In other stories, I learned how a visually impaired young man managed to study for his law degree, now works as a human rights and employment lawyer for people with disabilities in Uganda but still can’t afford to buy a cane. Because of that, he’s risking his life every time he crosses a road or walks anywhere. Others talked about how parents simply leave their children at special needs schools, never picking them up for the school holidays and only turn up when the children die to claim compensation. We talked about religious and spiritual prejudice against disability, especially mental health and cognitive disabilities, While I have my fair share of discrimination and over-emoting obstacles stories, I was truly amazed by the level of perseverance people showed me: crawling up a hill to school every day while experiencing severe pain just to get an education and continuing this all the way to PhD level. In the process, not giving up and doing it in order to then use their skills and expertise to make life better for others.
I was only in Uganda for three days due to my delays flying in, but these three days gave me a richer insight into the lives of people with disabilities in Uganda and East Central Africa, than I could have ever gathered from home. I was also very fortunate to meet so many well-established and driven academics who want to help their communities. This brief visit to Uganda just reconfirmed my belief that research in developing countries should be led by local researchers and civil society organisations. We, as Western researchers should only offer our support but should never take the lead. Context is important in research and from afar, it’s simply impossible to full grasp all the nuances, interdependencies and complexities of any given local context, no matter where in the world it is.
I came home not wanting to eat bananas for a while but determined to do my bit to support the amazing local work. And so far so good. Didn’t eat any bananas for a couple of months but spent that time and the months since closely working with the Ugandan team on designing research projects and submitting our first grant proposal together. Keep your fingers crossed for us. However, I’m sure I’ll be able to tell you about a next trip to Uganda and some exciting new insights soon!! I’m so looking forward to assist the local team wherever and however I can.