Exiles Forum

Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland


Unwrapping the truth of what your gift can mean


HEROES AND HEROINES... In view of the remarkable work carried out by staff and volunteers at Oxfam's Kitgum District base in northern Ugandan, they are fully deserving of those titles. You can help them this Christmas by buying life-changing gifts available from Oxfam 'Unwrapped'. Pictured with them (standing fourth from right) is journalist, Niall Crozier, who, travelled with Oxfam Ireland to report on the venture on behalf of Johnson Press, Dublin-based Oxfam staff p    air Paul Dunphy and KD Ryan, and well-known Irish singer-songwriter Eleanor McEvoy of 'Women's Heart' fame. Dublin photo-journalist, Kim Naughton, is pictured front centre. Oxfam has 19 shops in Northern Ireland from which most of the gifts in the charity's Unwrapped catalogue are available. The Lisburn shop is 10 Market Street. Other gifts are available on line from

We take a lot for granted in this part of the world. We have high expectations and materially there is much of which we can be pretty certain.

In comparison, in recent years the only thing of which people in northern Uganda have been certain has been hardship. Which is why projects like Oxfam Ireland's alternate gift idea, 'Unwrapped', are so important.

It offers help and hope in a variety of ways and in a number of key areas. Like health, water and sanitation, education, agriculture - both arable and pastoral - and in supporting people in their desire and efforts to be self-sufficient. It enables, it motivates, it encourages, it restores pride and purpose. In short, it empowers.

A five-day sojourn in Kitgum District -which has more than 80 parishes, a similar number of transition camps and a population of 270,000, two-thirds of them under 18 years of age - provided ample evidence of what 'Unwrapped' has done and is doing. The gift of water or latrines - to say nothing of cows, pigs, goats, seeds, farm tools or a fully-repayable 40 business start-up loan -can play a part in transforming lives. Ditto assistance with education.

In Kitgum, farming is vital. Paradoxically, given the food shortages there have been, the soil here is among the most fertile anywhere in Africa. Traditionally this has been "the breadbasket of Uganda".

Kitgum's remaining transition camps are painful reminders of the internal war which has ravaged northern Uganda - and southern Sudan which borders it - for almost two decades, driving upwards of two million off their land. The Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army is inactive at the moment, with many of those who served in its ranks now believed to have defected. But the fact some LRA fighters are still somewhere out in the bush worries people who fear they might return. More than once I was told Kony has yet to sign any treaty or confirm that his campaign is over.

Usually the transit camps are close - tantalizingly so - to the farms and villages the people were forced to leave. Some 1.8 million were displaced. In recent times, though, they have begun to go back. More and more of them.

This cannot be done overnight, however. First, ground has to be cleared, prepared, ploughed and planted so as to be capable of supporting those returning. This being a hand-to-mouth subsistence economy, they live off the land and are wholly dependent on two harvests per year. On the plus side, having lain fallow for years, the soil is highly productive.

Having witnessed the low of the hardship we saw as we drove from Pader airfield to Kitgum, I am boosted by seeing a farmer like 48-year old Christopher Kagwa, productively back on his land, in his rebuilt hut and now the proud owner of an Oxfam-supplied bicycle. He provides hope of a better future and proof of what can be done. His is a genuine good news story and he is delighted to share it.

Here a bike is a status symbol, incidentally. The motorised vehicles are those belonging to the charity organisations, the UN and Uganda's State Army.

Clean, safe water has to be provided before people can return to their villages, too, and Oxfam's record in finding and installing it is excellent. At a pump in Madi Opei - a camp of 2,000 inhabitants - I meet Ayasabia, a woman whose job is to add chlorine tablets to each of the freshly-filled 20-litre jerrycans which the bare-footed locals can balance on their heads. Oxfam supplies the tablets, 300 of which are used every day at this communal pump.

Ayasabia works 15 days each month, earning 2,000 shillings (slightly less than 70 pence) per day. She says she enjoys being able to educate others on the safe use of water, so helping to improve things. She has four daughters and two sons, their ages ranging from 18 years to 18 months. Like everyone to whom I speak, the education of her young charges is the priority. In addition to school fees, books and uniforms have to be paid for.

In a manner reminiscent of Tony Blair's famous "Education, education, education" speech, Kitgum's adults deliver a similar mantra. They all want to be self-sufficient and to put their youngsters through school. Thus in the Palabek Gem transit camp I met 40-year old Acan Terijina, whose husband died of AIDS, as did her sister, leaving her to care for seven children - five of her own plus her two orphaned nieces. Having received a cow from 'Unwrapped', she explains that she hopes to be able to sell a calf which she will then use to help put the children through school. A communal bull is brought in to play his part in the process. In one school we are treated to music, dance and drama through which the message of the importance of hygiene is shared. The war against hepatitis E is one they are learning to fight and as well as being hugely entertaining, this importance of this performance is that it imparts vital truths. So as well as being a great production, it works.

Before people can return to villages, huts have to be built - and the natural materials required are only.
available at certain times of year - and the land around them cleared of undergrowth which might attract or provide hiding places for disease-carrying vermin.

All of that takes time and each step of the attempted return to what constitutes normality here is taken against a backdrop of disease. For bear in mind that this is a region which, in addition to war, has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, malaria and cholera.

It is in the face of all of these handicaps that Oxfam is working with the people to make their lives safer, more purposeful and altogether better. These are essential, life-changing projects in which 'Unwrapped' plays a major part.

You see fields full of crops, animals which are providing food and incomes, women who have been able to set up marketstalls as a result of 40 business start-up loans, schools in which Uganda's next generation of children are learning not only academic lessons, but vital life lessons, too.

The provision of clean drinking water and communal latrines, in tandem with education to teach people how disease is spread and what can be done to safeguard against its transmission, is vital.

I don't know how many Christmas presents you plan to buy this year, or for whom. But given what I have seen, I do know 'Unwrapped' gifts make a massive difference to the lives of people with little or nothing, whereas a bottle of aftershave or perfume or socks probably won't mean a great deal to someone who has plenty. Food for thought............

Ulster Star