A couple of weeks after visiting Fort Portal, the time came to travel north. Gulu is around six hours drive north from Kampala, and Lira is about two hours south-east of Gulu. We covered both towns on this whistle-stop tour, spending one night in each town.
I had heard a lot about the northern region: that it is very hot there, nobody there has ever met a mzungu (white person), it is a desert, the people are very tall up north, that region is very dangerous, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terrorist group kidnapped children there, and many more things. There was an element of truth in many of these rumours. Certainly it is very arid when compared to other parts of Uganda, although we did visit during the dry season. It is definitely a lot hotter there, averaging the high-30s, but peaking at around 41˚C during our visit. And yes the people seem to be much taller than those I am familiar with from the central region. However, although there has been a lot of violence in the past leading to a huge displacement of people, the LRA has not been active in Uganda for some years, and generally it is quite safe now. There is a very large NGO presence in Gulu in particular, and so there were plenty of mzungu faces around too!
The infrastructure, as could be expected, is certainly less developed in the north compared to the capital, Kampala, and the surrounding areas; the prisons were no different. The buildings and facilities look a bit worn out and dated, but the staff are just as welcoming and diligent as elsewhere, if not more so.
Grace is our project coordinator in Gulu and we first met her at our reintegration centre and shop, in one of the shopping plazas in the town centre. Grace is a former prisoner who was recognised for her skilled tailoring and leadership skills, having completed our course in prison. She too joined our reintegration centre for a year of experience and support, much like the women she now supervises, as she has since joined the POP family to conduct and monitor the courses in Gulu and oversee the shop and reintegration centre.
When a woman has completed any of our tailoring courses (beginner, intermediate or advanced) and is then released from prison, she has the opportunity to take on paid employment for one year in the reintegration centre; this not only helps to meet financial needs from the start, but ensures a level of support is available at all times. So far there has never been a single person to graduate from our reintegration centre who has later gone on to re-offend; a fact which still blows me away.
Grace brought us to meet the current cohort of trainee tailors, who each showed us various items they were working on, mostly shirts or dresses, all made to a high standard. Grace is meticulous and very detail oriented. She ensures that the fundamentals are ingrained before progressing in her tutoring, and this diligence is going a long way. Ladies who leave prison find that they are more skilful than other competitors, making it easier for them to find customers when they first start off their own business.
The shop in Gulu is popular with local people and international visitors alike, with a wide range of quality products not available elsewhere in the area. We stock the shop with tailored goods, as well as items made by prisoners elsewhere in Uganda, such as candles and beaded jewellery. I bought a few items during my visit, to make perfect gifts for when I next travel home for a visit.
Grace was joined by Susan in the shop, currently the sole participant in the reintegration centre – although a few ladies are due to be released from prison within the next couple of weeks. Susan was busying herself making really cool and quirky owl cushions from recycled shirts and other fabrics. I may need to buy a few of these myself!
I thoroughly enjoyed Gulu, and the time getting to know Grace and Susan was really precious. The work they do is undertaken with such heart, that you can really tell that every item stocked in the shop has been made with a lot of deliberate care. I can’t wait to return to Gulu, although, after the heat we endured, perhaps at a cooler time of year!
Fundraising and Business Development Intern