Communicating in Uganda

Uganda is one of the friendliest countries I have ever been to. Whenever I tell anyone how many weeks I have left here, they insist I make plans to visit them before I leave, sometimes to villages around 80 kilometres away. It’s not like in the UK when people make plans, secretly hoping that they won’t actually have to go through with them. If I say ‘that sounds like a nice idea!’ it is taken as  confirmation that I will indeed pay them a visit and it is followed up on a remarkably regular basis. Currently, I am not actually sure how I am going to fit in all of the visits alongside the work that I want to do out here. I may have to return in the near future on a holiday.

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There are other stark contrasts between Uganda and the UK, it is not just the fact Ugandans will welcome a perfect stranger into their homes, but there are so many other social norms that I am beginning to learn. Everyone will ask you about your family. The first few times I talked about my parents and brother, not understanding why people were laughing. The manager at the clinic I am working at explained that they want to know about my ‘nuclear family’ my husband and children. Now when they discover my age AND the fact I am single I am given advice on how to find a husband, invited to meet relatives that I could marry, given warnings about a woman’s limited fertility but also congratulated on how young I still look (which is lucky as apparently all is not lost). This might be mortifying for some people, but I have genuinely enjoyed the frankness of the discussions; there is no embarrassment or feeling sorry, just lots of positive advice, back slapping and enjoyment at discovering more ‘alternative’ lifestyles from the UK and of course appreciation that if I had a family then maybe my path wouldn’t have brought me to Uganda.

But aside from what I have been learning personally through my day to day interactions about the Ugandan culture, I have been on an enormous professional learning curve. I studied communications at University and have gone on to spend the majority of my career working in communications roles, you might even go so far as to call me a communications expert. My expectations in coming to Uganda were to support NGOs to capacity build and develop skills in communications.

My first week was spent with University of South Wales students going on field trips to undertake research to rural villages, slums, self-help projects, community groups…At the time I was constantly aware of the fact I only had 8 weeks in Uganda, and wondering whether this was the best use of my time. Now I know it was essential. It gave me insight into the day to day lives of people, the challenges that they face: both social and those of infrastructure. It was a timely reminder that to be an effective communicator you need to understand as much about the organisation you are working for as the people you want to communicate with. If I had spent my first week in Mbale, only travelling to Bushikori Christian Centre for work each day, my understanding would have been limited to the people who lived in the immediate vicinity or my colleagues. How would I have been able to think critically about encouraging people living in other areas to take up the opportunities that the centre offers?

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The challenges have seemed overwhelming and I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t caused me to lose all of my confidence in the first weeks, but I had expected to feel this way. It’s not an International Learning Opportunity if you don’t learn about what you are capable of as well as what you are not capable of. The skill set that I have developed over the last few years has been driven largely by technological advances, a democratisation of media through social platforms, communication becoming more about the visual and less about the written word and press sector that are being challenged with the demands of increasing workload. But, what I have quickly realised is that you can use ever more exciting channels, write intellectually stimulating blogs about burning political issues and get double page spreads in the weekend papers. But, if you are always thinking about what you want to say and not what people want to hear or indeed how they access it, then what is the point.

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Over the last two weeks, I have worked in an office with a pen and paper, no internet access and eight hours a day stretching ahead of me, completely different to my life at home, where I have two computer screens and spend my day with one eye on four social media channels and the other eye on the day to day work of being an External Affairs Manager. With the change in pace here, I have had a lot of time to think about the challenges of being a parent in Uganda, as one of the things that Bushikori have asked me to look at is increasing the pupil numbers at Joshua Primary School. As I pondered my strategy I thought about what I would do in the UK: a clever strategy that highlights the unique achievements of the school, time your publicity to coincide with the time of year parents make school choices, build a website and run a social media campaign, have an outreach programme and produce glossy brochures.

As I thought about the audience more I realised that the school do not need to create a desire for education or for this school in particular. Everyone here would willingly come to school if they could, the problem is how the school can help overcome the challenges in their lives that mean coming to school seems like an impossible dream. In addition, what happens when the parents you want to appeal to are illiterate, when technology isn’t prolific rendering social media obsolete, when the immediate challenges of poverty and hunger occupy people’s minds from the moment they wake up, when journalists won’t write about you unless you pay them to attend your events, when people live in isolated communities rarely making their way to built up areas where advertising becomes a useful investment? We can broadcast messages as much as we like, but if we don’t use the right channels or somehow address the challenges that people face everyday then we may as well be talking to ourselves.

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So, as for the plan to increase registration, I have yet to come up with it. In truth, my role is to offer the skeleton consisiting of skills that the staff here can flesh out with their knowledge. In eight weeks I will never be able to deliver solutions, but I can leave behind some of what I have learnt throughout my career, that will allow them to think about the solutions that are appropriate for Uganda. Bushikori already run some excellent schemes including a child sponsorship scheme where people from all over the world cover the fees of pupils who are most vulnerable. The problem with this is there are always more pupils wanting education than there are sponsors, many children wait on the list for many years, until eventually they are too old begin families of their own and start to think about how they are going to afford education for their children.

So as much as the role of someone on the International Learning Opportunity programme is to support the development of organisations in country, it is also to act as an ambassador and make sure the good work that is happening out here is communicated in the UK, because without organisations in Wales and the rest of the developed world partnering with organisations in Uganda, challenges of finance, resource and effectively communicating to the people that need them most will remain just that, challenges.

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