COVID19 Fundraising appeal
Gulu Mission Initiative (GMI) has been working in Northern Uganda for more than 10 years; rebuilding schools and communities that had been devastated by the 24-year civil war.
With the immediate lockdown of schools, public, social, religious and economic gatherings, the children and staff at Bethel schools had to very quickly go back to their homes. There is no Government financial help, no food banks to access, and no school meals, families now find themselves desperately struggling to survive. Many have gone home to elderly guardians who are unable to feed themselves, let alone feed children too.
Teachers and staff have also had to go home without any salaries, due to not enough parents paying the small fees at the beginning of term (February). This has had such an impact on all our work. It’s heartbreaking.
What an incredible acheivement. Our school has performed best in the recently released National Primary Seven Results in Gulu District! Our head teacher was invited to a meeting at the District Education Department and was recognised, in front of all the other primary school head teachers, by the Chief Administrative Officer of Gulu.”
Phoebe’s been to see us!
What an amazing time we had back in October with Phoebe when her feet touched British soil. Her feet didn’t actually ‘touch the ground’ as the saying goes because we didn’t stop travelling the whole time she was with us – we clocked the mileage; 1400 miles from London to Surrey, Cleethorpes, Stoke-on-Trent to Wales and back again. Phew visiting Schools, Churches and some Rotary clubs too. Pictures scattered throughout this letter.
Phoebe writes Education Programme
This year, Bethel reached a significant milestone. The school was registered by the Uganda National Examination Board, and accredited as a centre that can present candidates to this authority to sit the Primary Leaving Examination Board.
Pupils have continued to do regular assessments to enable them learn how to answer questions ahead of the primary leaving exams at the end of grade seven and also assess their understanding of the syllabus. On average, each class does 4 sets of assessment every school term. This approach enables teachers to identify weak performances and support the pupils accordingly.
4 teachers participated in a training course organized by the district education department and facilitated by experts from the Ministry of Education on how to prepare pupils to pass the national exams.
Bethel was also visited by the Inspector of schools. The regular support visit by the Inspector is very important as it ensures that the school is complying to set standards at all times. His visit boosted the confidence of the teachers and made them more determined to work hard.
James writes … Thank you for your constant support.
Good news was with us in Uganda around the results of the national exams, our pupils did last year, November 2016.
The grades are as follows out of 55 children;
-First grade 23 pupils. -second grade 26 pupils. -Third grade 6 pupils.
Thus in Gulu District, our children were the best and followed by another school which got 4 first grades.
In the Acholi region, which is has eight districts, our children were in the eighth position(this ranking is both for town and village schools together).
Three of our children were on two Uganda national newspapers yesterday for excellent performance. The children are; Ogwang Oscar, Lagum Paska & opiyo Moses
Note that every one of our children has passed and qualified to join high school.
The key co-curriculum activity this term has been debating. The pupils in P4 – P6 have been engaged in debating in their respective classes. The theme for debates have been around the rights and duties of children, the importance of education, equality for boys and girls and other life skills for the children. Debates offer many benefits: building the confidence of the children, expanding their knowledge, improving their expression and entertaining the pupils.
Bethel also continued to organise parents’ day – a day where parents come to school and interact with the teachers over their children’s performance. This has strengthened the relationship between the parents and the school and has continued to be fun for both parents and the pupils who look forward to the day, every first Saturday of the month.
Children are also engaged in a lot of games within the school.
New build update
Bethel has managed to acquire suitable land for the construction of the high school, a short distance away from the existing primary school. All preparations for construction have been successfully completed and work is well underway on the first block of classrooms and a laboratory for science teaching.
Additionally, we have constructed 2 blocks of pit latrines, each with 6 stances, a dormitory for pupils to board and installed additional solar panels for power.
The Church and Community Growth
The work of community growth has continued under the leadership of Pastor James. This year, the church has visited homes in villages as well as organising several conferences. We have able to organise a youth conference, women’s conference, men’s conference and marriage conferences. These conferences have enabled the church to deliver a wide programme to the different groups of people.
The Health Project
The community health workers have continued to carry out community sensitizations in the sub-counties of Bunagtira, Patiko, Palaro and Odek as well as making referrals of women to go to the health centres for antenatal and delivery.
The motorbike ambulances have continued to take mothers to the health centres to have their babies. Despite this initiative being challenging in terms of the maintenance and running of the bikes, there is an outcry in other sub-counties to have the ambulances, having seen their benefits.
Once again, thank you for your continued support, we very much value your friendship.
Summer 2016 Newsletter
STOP PRESS!!!!! We have some great news – Our Ugandan partner Phoebe Ochan has been granted her visa and will be visiting the UK in October 2016. We will let everyone know her schedule as soon as we have her itinerary confirmed.
Bethel Primary school has taken many strides academically from January 2016. Gulu Bethel Christian School completed registration with the Uganda National Examination Board (UNEB), the body that grants the status to Primary Schools to become centres where pupils can sit the Primary Leaving Examination (P.L.E). All classes sat at least 4 sets of exams in the first term, and so far 2 in the second term. P.7 class sat the Pre mock examinations that were set by the district education office and emerged 4th in the whole district in performance.
The school has also introduced computer class, using children’s computers to introduce basic skills in computer to the children, but also to improve children’s reading and spelling skills. This has been very exciting to the pupils.
Majorly this term, pupils at Bethel indulged in internal debating and football competition.
In football, P.5 class emerged victors, taking the trophy from last year’s winners who are now in P.6.
There were also debating competitions P.3Vs P.4 with the motion “Urban life is better than rural life”. P.3 who were the opposers of the motion were the winners
Bethel has continued to train children to live God’s way. This has yielded a lot in shaping the children and the parents testify that their children who come to Bethel are examples to the other kids in the villages. One boy, Jude Lubangakene, now in P.7 is an example of the change. When he came to Bethel that was a “punishment” by his parents who considered him impossible to discipline. At the start of his study at Bethel, he was renowned for bad things; fighting, theft and disobedience. Through constant hearing the word of God and guidance from his teachers, Jude changed and his parents and people in his whole village were amazed. 3 other parents from Jude’s village sent their kids to Bethel as a result of the transformation they saw in Jude.
Bethel staff has continued to hold their mid-week fellowship every Wednesday. The head teacher of the school, Ronnie Obonyo, also wedded his wife in Church in June as a result of hearing the word of God regarding how a Christian should live.
Capacity building (Teacher training)
In the first term, the head teacher participated in computer training, organised by the District Education Department to equip head teachers with skills to fill registration forms for P.7 pupils on line. There were also a number of internal capacity building initiative; staff were trained in basics of management and customer care.
Health – Pastor James writes…
The ambulance is still in good mechanical condition. It has been picking up women and other emergency cases from the villages to the health centers.
Challenges on its use:
- The sub-county is struggling with fueling the motorcycle ambulance.
- The wet/dump soil is inconveniencing the use of the motorcycle.
- Minor repair/services on the motorcycle is needed but there is no money to do this.
As usual the motorcycle ambulance is very busy in the field. Actually when I was there, it was way deep in the village getting an expectant mother to the health centre.
In the last 3 months it has brought 11 expectant mothers and 22 emergency cases to the Health centre. The condition of the motorcycle ambulance is good according to the patients we interviewed.
Conferences in Uganda
In Gulu, they have held a youth conference, women’s conference and men’s conference since December 2015. James also spoke at a youth conference in Serere, a district in Eastern Uganda. James and Phoebe both spoke at another conference in Kumi, also a district in Eastern Uganda.
New High School update
We’ve been sending money over to secure land and begin the foundations of phase one of the building of our new secondary school. We’re so excited to show our latest photograph.
It doesn’t look much but to us it’s a visual reminder of the promise of a dream we were given 6 years ago!
December 2015 Newsletter
It’s been a busy few months for GMI. In the UK there’s been fundraising, speaking engagements, the first steps to fund the construction of a secondary school in Paminano, and not to forget the Annual General Meeting!
Meanwhile in Uganda the real work has been happening! We start off this newsletter with an update on all that’s been going on from Phoebe Ochan, Director of Bethel Christian School.
Academics The third term saw lots of initiatives take place to improve the academics in the school. All classes sat at least 4 sets of exams this term, with P.6 sitting 5 sets of examinations. The intention is to acquaint the pupils with answering exams so that by the time they sit the national exams at P.7, they are well trained on how to approach exams questions.
On their parts, the teachers, carried out 4 “peer to peer” lesson supervisions this term. In this activity, teachers supervised each others’ lessons and after the supervision, they would give feedback to one another. The result is that their level of preparation for lessons improved and learning and teaching was subsequently more effective.
Co curricular Activities
Majorly this term, pupils at Bethel indulged in internal debating and football competition.
In football, P.5 class emerged victors; they led in both the girls’ & boys’ football and got an overall points of 9.
There were 3 different debating competitions; P.3Vs P.4 with the motion “Urban life is better than rural life”. P.3 who were the proposers of the motion were the winners. P.5 Vs P.6 debated over the motion “Family planning should be abolished in Uganda”. P.6 who were opposing the motion emerged the winners. In the third round of competition, P.5 girls faced the boys on the motion “Science has done more harm than good” and the boys who were opposing the motion were the winners.
In living our value, Bethel always aims at training children God’s way. This term, the children continued to pray every morning and evening. Children also told bible stories in their “bible reading groups”. Every Sunday, the children have “child to child preaching”. This has trained children to minister to one another. Nambuye and Moses of P.3 for example were the “great preachers” this term. Children’s behaviour has also changed as a result of this. Francis, a boy in P.4 liked fighting so much. However, from the word of God he has heard, Francis has abandoned this behaviour.
Bethel staff have continued to hold their mid-week fellowship every Wednesday. This term, 2 staff members become Christians as a result of this fellowship.
Besides the health and hygiene messages given to the pupils during assembly, the school also partnered with the nearby government health centre to provide health service to pupils. This term 2 rounds of immunization was done at the school. As part of government campaign against neglected tropical diseases, 498 pupils were given tablets to immunise against bilharzia. Another 501 children were given Albendazole, a deworming tablet.
Bethel has always partnered with the district education department and other partners to tap from capacity building initiatives that are available. This term, 2 teachers participated in “P.7 teachers’ training” organized by the district education department. This is in preparation for handling P.7 pupils’ class next year.
The head teacher also participated in a training organized by “Teacher Africa” a local organization. The training was on financial management and administration.
Meanwhile, back in the UK…
Running for Uganda
The GMI team would like to salute five incredible individuals who put themselves through all sorts of pain to raise money for the children of Gulu.
On October 4, four intrepid runners – Liz Harries, Sammi Bryan, and Luke and Sophie Moreno, completed the Cardiff half marathon, in aid of GMI-UK.
The team, competing under the collective name, ‘Easier said than run’ together raised the incredible sum of £1,145.
Upon finishing the gruelling ordeal an understated Liz – a seasoned half marathon pro – said, “I am happy to say I finished the half marathon”. Sammi added, “I’ve got to say that was one of the best (and hardest) experiences of my life!” While Sophie got straight to the point – “I’m feeling ok but I’m dreading taking off my blister plasters”. Well quite, Sophie, quite.
Just a week later the amazing Paul Winstanley completed the 59th International Isle of Wight Marathon.
The marathon is one of the longest running in the UK. One website even claims it has been run continuously since 1957, causing this confused spectator to assume the inaugural race had one very determined but particularly slow competitor, still running now in his mid seventies…?!
We are thrilled to say Paul completed the race, raising a further £325. Well done, Paul!
The GMI team would like to say a huge thank you to each of our runners, and those who generously supported them.
P.S. – It’s nearly New Year’s resolution time! If you are thinking of tackling any physical feats or taking on a significant personal challenge in the next 12 months, why not consider raising some pennies for GM at the same time. We would love to hear from you, please get in touch.
Annual General Meeting & Secondary School
On 17 September we held our AGM and welcomed some new members to the team – John Hornsby and Drew Firth joining Helen and Steve as Trustees, while Gwyn Trehearne was selected to act as our independent examiner.
You can find out a bit more about John and Drew by visiting our website.
‘The Mighty’ Gwyn doesn’t currently appear on our website as we can’t afford his image rights(!) But if you are interested he can often be spotted driving a white camper van around the South Wales region, looking for a mountain to climb.
We were also excited to be joined at our AGM this year by a number of folk interested in finding out more about the work of GMI – thank you all for coming.
The AGM provided an opportunity to discuss our next major goal – to build a secondary school for the children soon to graduate from Bethel Primary School.
We have already been able to provide funds for our Ugandan partners to start on the foundations, but there is a lot more work to do to complete phase one of the build, allowing the secondary school to open in 2016.
If you would like to know more about how you could help Bethel’s five hundred children to continue their education to secondary level, please get in touch J
Helen attended the Refresh women’s breakfast in Maidstone, Kent in October, where she shared her compelling story to around 60 women. She told of the challenges and joys she has faced during her time working with the people of Uganda, how it has changed her life and made her a stronger person.
Both Steve and Helen were able to promote the work of GMI at the One World Week event in Porthcawl, and the money raised was kindly donated to the work of GMI.
In November Helen exhibited the work of GMI at a local craft fayre run by The Spice of Life team at Eden Church in Penarth. Lots of people showed interest in our projects, and the event raised £150.
Thank you so much for your continued interest and support for GMI-UK; we are hugely grateful for your support. The GMI team would like to wish you a happy and peaceful Christmas. See you in 2016!
Hi and welcome to our summer edition of the GMI newsletter. Thank you so much for supporting our work in Uganda, there is lots of news below.
We are sad to say goodbye to Liz Heaton who has stepped down as trustee for GMI due to family and work commitments. Liz has been a valuable help to our work in Uganda over the years, especially with her knowledge and experience shared at Bethel. She remains very much loved by all the staff, children and team in Gulu and here in the UK too. We all wish her well in the future.
At Bethel, pupils are very busy studying in their second term. They have just finished their beginning of term exams, the 4th exams they have sat this year. The teachers have continued to give regular assessment to the pupils to enable them learn how to answer questions ahead of the primary leaving exams at the end of grade seven and also assess their understanding of the syllabus. The exams also enable teachers to identify weak performances and support the pupils accordingly.
Four teachers participated in a training organised by the district education department and facilitated by experts from the ministry of Education on how to prepare pupils to pass the national exams.
Bethel was also visited by the Inspector of Schools last term. The regular support visit by the Inspector of School is very important as it ensures that the school is complying to set standards at all times. His visit boosted the confidence of the teachers and made them more determined to work hard.
The key co-curriculum activity this term has been debating. The pupils in P4-P6 have been engaged in debating in their respective classes. The themes for debates have been around the rights and duties of children, importance of education, equality for boys and girls and other life skills for the children. Debates offer multifaceted benefits of building confidence of the children, expanding their knowledge, improving their expression and entertaining the pupils.
On the first Saturday of the month Bethel continues to organise a parents’ day. Parents come to school and interact with the teachers over their children’s performance. This has strengthened the relationship between the parents and the school and has continued to be fun for both parents and pupils who look forward to the day.
Children have continued to grow spiritually. They pray every morning and evening and also participate in fellowship. This has impacted their morals as well as their faith and the faith of their families.
This term hasn’t been all roses for the school. Two pupils, from P4 escaped off the school premises one Thursday afternoon. They asked their teacher to let them go to the latrine while the rest were having the lessons. They then went off between the barbed wire, which serves as fence for the school. These pupils were only found three days later on a Sunday morning, on the streets of Gulu. It was realized that Junior comes from a broken family and that he previously lived on the streets so he still had his contact there. Both pupils are now back at school and are undergoing counselling. The school now has a big challenge to erect a fence all the way round to prevent any such happening again. The biggest limitations are finances.
Sally got involved in Uganda when her son did an internship there. Sheruns a fair-trade business, marketing Ugandan and Nicaraguan products and an associated sponsorship programme.
Sally Forrester Rich writes…
I run a child sponsorship program for children in rural Uganda. Most of them are orphans living with elderly grandparents struggling to care for them. They were going to government schools where 100 children per class is common, in a classroom built for 50, so half of their school day was spent outside playing. Teachers are rarely paid on time, which depletes their morale to the point where they have no qualms about not showing up for work. Sometimes a teacher takes a whole week off, when she has a child who is ill, and there is no substitute. This is typical education in Uganda.
At first when my Ugandan director suggested boarding school for our children, I resisted. But when he found Bethel Christian School, and suggested we send ten children, I agreed to support him.
The next time I was in Uganda, I visited Bethel, and was amazed to find these children able to understand and even speak English! Because English is the national language, and students may be from different tribes, at Bethel it is the language of instruction, and students are encouraged to use English at all times. Speaking English effectively will be an important factor in their success in life. The children seemed well fed and cared for, and they all told me they loved their new school. I noticed a strong commitment to discipline among the teachers. After about an hour of visiting, the teachers came and rounded up students, not wanting them to miss any more class time. I said, “let’s send more kids here!”
Since that time, we have added fifteen more children to the number we have at Bethel, and we hope to send more next year. Your support for Bethel gives Ugandan children a chance at an excellent education!
The Health Project
The community health workers have continued to carry out community sensitisations in the sub counties of Bunagtira, Patiko, Palaro and Odek as well as making referrals of women to go to the health centres for antenatal and delivery. These four sub counties have witnessed significant maternal health improvement due to the health project. The motorcycle ambulances have saved lives in situations where no other means of transport would have been available.
Gulu District government has urged GMI-UK to extend this vital support to other parts of the district. We are currently in the process of bidding alongside our partners (PONT) for further grant funding.
The Church and Spiritual Growth for Community
The ministry, under the leadership of Pastor James has continued to reach out to more people with the word of God. This year, the church conducted door-to-door evangelism in Ongako, a village located 13kms North West of Gulu Town. Many people came to know Christ and a new fellowship has since been established in that place.
Extending Christ’s love to the isolated, the church also organized a fellowship with the women who are in Gulu Central prison in March. 120 women participated in the fellowship. The church members made collections that were used for a decent meal (lunch) for these women. There were also assorted gifts in kind such as sanitary pads, soap, sugar, clothing, jerricans, and basins. The prisoners, many of whom were convicted for murder, felt the love of Christ and many of them gave their life to Christ. They also testified that the word of God that was shared with them offered priceless healing and comfort.
This year also witnessed Pastor James being ordained as Vice Regional Overseer for all Pentecostal churches in Northern Uganda. This colourful occasion took place late April was graced by the speaker of the parliament of Uganda on behalf of the president. Phoebe was also ordained as a minister in church of women in Northern Uganda on the same day.
A BIG year for GMI – Can you help?
Phoebe writes from Uganda…
Your kind deed of supporting GMI work in Uganda makes God’s love real and tangible in the lives of children in this community. GMI through your support has restored hope and caused transformation in the ways below:
Over 554 children have access to improved education at Bethel Christian School.
Several families have improved health practices like upholding good hygiene and sanitation, improved nutritional practices, sending pregnant mothers for ANC and subsequently delivery at health facilities. This is a result of the health project, supported by GMI-UK.
District children’s’ forum
250 Acholi translated Bibles given out
And what next?
When our story started with Pastor James, Phoebe & Bethel Christian School, who could ever imagine what our connection with this story would bring? We made a promise to 40 children in a tiny school in the middle of the African plains outside the town of Gulu, Northern Uganda, to see them through education. Now, 6 years on we have over 500 children in school, have provided water to 5 villages, countless grateful local church leaders have received training at our pastors conference, and have a growing primary health care programme working alongside local government in 30 villages in the area.
2015 brings ever-increasing challenges: with those original, now older children at our primary school needing secondary education. Our main focus for the year will be the necessary buildings to go with it, and the staffing and running structure associated with a comprehensive school! We are continually enthused by the amazing support we receive year on year.
How can you help and be involved with us in making sure these children continue their education?
Read below as to what needs to be done and how you can help …
We have already sourced and paid for the land for the High School, but by September 2015 we need to raise £20,000 to build 2 classrooms, a head teachers office and store room similar to the building below.
Can you help by:
Organising a sponsored bike ride?
Initiating a sponsored walk?
Running a marathon?
Hosting a special event?
Your school putting on a sponsored event?
Do you know a company/organisation/club who would be interested in sponsoring a classroom?
Or any other events?
Thank you for your interest and support, we can’t do this without you.
Primary Health Care Project
2012 saw the launch of an exciting development into Primary Health Care. We have been successful in obtaining a grant through THET (the Tropical Health and Education Trust) working alongside PONT.
This is a report that recently went in the South Wales Western Mail explaining how it works.
‘We are starting something here we are confident will have a very positive impact’
31 Dec 2012
Former Western Mail journalist Madeleine Brindley recently travelled to Uganda with South Wales-based organisation PONT to launch a £250,000 project to set up primary healthcare and motorbike ambulance services in three regions – Gulu, Lowero and Tororo.
Villagers at Rwotobilo, the source of an Ebola outbreak in 2000 Villagers at Rwotobilo, the source of an Ebola outbreak in 2000
Former Western Mail journalist Madeleine Brindley recently travelled to Uganda with South Wales-based organisation PONT to launch a £250,000 project to set up primary healthcare and motorbike ambulance services in three regions – Gulu, Lowero and Tororo. Here, she outlines her experiences during the fortnight in the central African country
ON OUR second day in Uganda we were told that a woman living in the northern district of Gulu had died from hunger. She committed suicide because she had nothing to eat.
This woman’s death was not exceptional, we were told, in this part of the world, which was the heartland of the Lord’s Resistance Army and where so many horrible things have happened over the past 20 years and continue to happen to a population exhausted by 20 years of war, kidnappings and terrible, pointless massacres.
But this is not a downtrodden population wallowing in the misery of the past or the ongoing health and social challenges of the present. As we travelled north to Gulu from Mbale, bringing with us PONT’s plan to work with local villages, local government and non-governmental organisations to set up primary healthcare and motorbike ambulance services and train health workers, we found communities committed to working together to improve their and their neighbours’ lives.
In Bungatira sub-county, an area of seven parishes and 20 villages, we met a packed town hall of local chairmen, councillors, religious leaders and elders excited by the prospect of training to become community health promoters, health workers and motorbike ambulance drivers.
One of the village elders told us: “When I heard about this news I was very happy – it means our children will live to see another day.
“The challenge is now ours; we have accepted it and it is now up to us to go to our villages and make this dream come true.”
Rose Amono Ambili, a district councillor in Bungatira sub-county, added: “This is the miracle we have been praying for. We have been experiencing war for 20 years and it has not been easy for our people to reach this point but now we have this project and we welcome it.”
I joined a team of healthcare workers – GPs, midwives and paramedics – from PONT (a community-to-community link between Rhondda Cynon Taf and Mbale) and members of Gulu Mission Initiative, also based in South Wales, to travel to Gulu last month to set up a new project to improve access to primary healthcare.
The project replicates PONT’s successful work in the Mbale, Manafwa and Bududa regions in south east Uganda, which now benefit from hundreds of trained health promoters and health workers. Communities also have access to motorbike ambulances to transfer injured patients and pregnant women to health centres for lifesaving treatment.
PONT was recently awarded a £250,000 grant by the Tropical Health and Education Trust to partner three other Welsh charities working in Uganda – Gulu Mission Initiative, Care for Uganda and Vale 4 Africa – to extend the Mbale model to Gulu, Lowero and Tororo, respectively.
Over the next two-and-a-half years, 30 trained village health teams will be set up in each of these areas, supported by up to three motorbike ambulances. In total 360 community health promoters, 360 traditional birth referral attendants and 120 operational level health workers, who can diagnose patients and are responsible for calling for the motorbike ambulances, will be trained.
Martin Ojara Mapenduzi,(pictured above) Gulu’s district chairman, whose surname means revolution in Swahili and who played a prominent role in attempts to end the LRA conflict by confronting its leader Joseph Kony, said: “We are starting something we are confident will have a very positive impact. There are lots of challenges here but this partnership will give very meaningful answers to questions we have been asking but haven’t yet found answers to.”
And James Ochan, a pastor in Gulu and a leading member of Gulu Mission Initiative, said: “Gulu underwent so many horrible things that this [the PONT project] will go a long way to improve the lives of many who are hurting.”
Village health teams are central to the Ugandan government’s policy to improve the health of the population. Official figures show there are 1,455 village health workers in Gulu, 82% of who have been trained, for a population of almost 400,000 people.
In reality, less than two-thirds of those are active, meaning there is one trained village health worker for every 860 people.
There are four hospitals – one state-run, one military, one run by a not-for-profit organisation and the other by a private company – and 66 health centres. The annual budget for each of the health centres is 26m Ugandan shillings a year – it sounds a lot but is equivalent to just £6,300 at today’s exchange rate.
There is a desperate shortage of doctors in the hospitals and there are few midwives working in the health centres – one of which, in Paminano, is closed, despite only being completed last year, because the government cannot afford to pay for medicines.
Although the government wants all women to give birth at their nearest health centre or hospital to reduce the number of women and babies dying, large numbers of women give birth at home because of the lack of transport, including ambulances, and the poor state of the roads.
The health centre in Bungatira recorded only 12 births between September and our visit at the end of November – the last birth was three weeks before our arrival. The nursing assistant at the health centre told us it was because transport is so difficult.
In the village of Rwotobilo, our minibus drove at breakneck speed along dirt and potholed roads to take a woman in labour to the health centre in Pabwo. She would have given birth to her third child at home because the only way she could have reached this health centre several miles away would have been to walk.
Maternal mortality remains a very real problem in Gulu and the rest of Uganda; 160 women died in childbirth in Bungatira sub-county last year.
Dr Paul Onek, Gulu’s district director of health services, said: “We have very few midwives and the few we have can’t be there all the time. The problem of Gulu is the problem of Uganda.
“We want to have at least two midwives in every level two health centre – we have 49 of these. But at the moment only half of these have a midwife and then only one. In the level four health centres we want four midwives but we only have two. We want staffing levels to be at 100% but even then ‘normal’ staffing levels are abnormal.
“We have trained nurses and nursing assistants to deliver babies. It’s very important for them to be able to identify the early signs of obstructed labour.
“If we can improve referrals from villages to health centres, that would be great – that means village health teams working with the community and with families to refer them. If a mother can reach a health centre when she’s in labour where there’s a qualified person that will be really great.”
In every village where we explain the PONT project, which includes training traditional birth referral attendants to recognise problems in childbirth and refer women in labour to a health centre, it is met with applause because in every village women have died giving birth.
In every village, too, families have lost children. In Rwotobilo, the women told us they had lost two, three, four and even five children each – in childbirth or to disease before the age of five. HIV/Aids and malaria are the biggest killers. In Pabwo health centre, a handwritten chart records the most common health problems in adults and children – respiratory tract infections affect a staggering 71% of adults and 41% of children; malaria 25% and 22% respectively.
In addition to the high prevalence of disease, the people of Gulu are still coping with the legacy of the 20 years of conflict at the hands of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Many of the people we met during our trip to Gulu bear the very visible physical scars of that conflict and the terror and tortured meted out by Kony and his child soldiers.
“The war has caused us many problems,” said Ojou Simon Opige, the level three chairman of Bungatira sub-county. “People have been murdered, maimed, widowed and raped. Many have been disabled and we also have to deal with the problems of HIV/Aids and many other diseases. But, if all goes well, we will get back to our normal lives before the war.”
At the Bethel Christian School, run by Gulu Mission Initiative in Paminano, we met Samuel. He has a prominent scar which runs from ear to ear – the result of being cut with a razor blade by the LRA when he was younger.
This softly-spoken man cannot answer why he was attacked and scarred in this way; our questions bring fear and pain to his face.
In the village of Rwotobilo, the source of a large Ebola outbreak in 2000, all the men were kidnapped by the LRA to serve as child soldiers – there is a collective laugh of disbelief when we ask if any were involved in the war because they all were.
Some managed to escape in the bush; others were not so lucky; most served as child soldiers. One man lifts his shirt to reveal the marks of torture on his back, another permanent reminder of the long years of conflict.
Even the landscape bears the scars of this long conflict, which saw an estimated 66,000 children forced to become child soldiers and sex slaves for the LRA and two million people across northern Uganda displaced – the last camps for internally displaced people closed just months ago.
The conflict is not over, it has only moved across the Ugandan border as Kony continues to evade international charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It was here that villagers held their local market, setting out their stalls to sell the produce they grew on their small plots of land. Today all that remains of that market is a few faint impressions in the vibrant red earth.
One market day, during the war, the villagers made their way to the grove as normal. But on this terrible day, child soldiers had hidden in the trees. They climbed down and slaughtered everyone at the market with machetes and guns. There are knife marks and bullet holes in the trunks of the few trees which remain standing in the grove.
Steve Lock, a director of Gulu Mission Initiative, said the grove has been unnaturally and deathly quiet when he has visited in the past, with no sign of animal life.
He said: “It’s as though everything avoids this piece of land because they know what happened here.”
But the afternoon we visited – the sounds of music and dancing reaching us from the school in the distance – we could hear birdsong, echoing one elder’s conviction that life will return to normal and Kony won’t return. Evidence perhaps that Gulu is beginning to heal.
The camps have closed and families have returned to their native villages. Land is once again being ploughed, crops planted and produce harvested. But there is a distinct shortage of fruit and vegetables at the roadside stalls compared to the opulent displays elsewhere in Uganda and there is a missing generation in the villages and on the streets of Gulu town – the ultimate victims of Kony’s relentless assault on his own Acholi people.