Uganda :: Visits to the Ssanga Community
Posted on April 11, 2011
Hello! Yah my blog’s been a little sleepy but this past week was spent adjusting to local time, taking care of Wilson who came down with the flu, and catching up with all of our families (the best part!). I also sat down to go through my thousands of images, separating them and even exporting all the necessary images onto my iPad so that I can story-tell a bit better when people ask me, “How was your trip?” (which, by the way is such a weird question). So now that I have the bulk of the images ready, I’ll be able to blog them faster now, yahoo!
Much like every workday on this trip, our day began quite early (well, for someone who works from home and wakes up at a leisurely 9:00am everyday it was “early” for me haha). We got into a habit of backing up data, reviewing images and footage, re-charging all the gear and then re-packing everything the night before so that in the morning we just did a grab ‘n’ go. The trip to Ssanga is significantly longer than Grace. A good hour is spend crammed in the mini-bus and then we take another 30 minutes on the boda bodas across open road and then off road, into the rain forest. After our mini-bus right, we stopped off to eat some breakfast and “take tea” (that’s the local way of saying, “have a tea” or “get some tea”).
The boda boda ride to Ssanga is by far my favourite stretch of getting to any of RTV’s “hard to reach” places. The first half of the ride is open road and the bodas go around 70-80kph. With the open road (very unlike the crazy congested roads of Mukono) and weather we had on the days we visited Ssanga, it felt very much like riding back in Toronto. The only difference is riding beside huge transport trucks or having incoming cars pass each other while also passing you (so imagine passing a car on a 2-lane road while also passing an incoming motorcycle). I don’t think a helmet would have even helped. Anyway, the second half is equally invigorating in its own right because it’s off-road! Yah, these 125CC bikes with no tread or proper suspension go off-roading too haha It’s actually quite fun so long as the path is dry. The two times we went to Ssanga was dry-ish so it wasn’t bad at all. However on our third trip to Ssanga during our last week– oh boy. Our bike had a little accident and well… you’ll have to stay tuned for the full story in a later post :)
The kids at Ssanga were my favourite of all three of RTV’s projects (Grace, Ssanga and Kanga). I think they’re like a mix between Grace and Kanga– not as outgoing as Grace and not as reserved as Kanga. A nice balance. We were also able to spend two days with them so I was able to do a lot more interacting with the kids. With Jennifer art directing, I was able to get well, a lot more direction than at Grace. Over the two days, we covered the school which was starting to get built, the making of the new eco-bricks, snap-shots of kids learning in class, and a lot of portraits. It poured down like crazy on the second day so Jen and I were stuck in their current classroom (made of wood and a tin roof). Since we were stuck there, I set up my Portraits on Black and shot a series of images. “Roll with the punches” was a mantra that you really had to cling onto on this trip because man, were there a lot of punches. Left, right and centre. As a photographer, you really have to learn how to think on your feet, improvise, problem solve, make critical decisions but above all, you still have to deliver. A huge part of my job on this trip was to manage everyone’s (especially Jen’s) expectations if there were unexpected hiccups or situations which would affect the picture-taking. It was also my responsibility to find solutions for some of these unexpected situations. All in all, I think we did a spectacular job at Ssanga despite many obstacles that were thrown at us. Once the rain cleared up, Jen was able to get an interview outside with Gideon and I was able to snap some stills of him. Ssanga is quite hill-y as there is a steep drop to a two-block classroom. The rain did us no favours by turning that steep hill into an incredibly slick, steep hill. Walking around with a softbox on a stand, along with moving a 20lbs battery pack and trying to make that stay on uneven ground was pretty dangerous. All in all though, we plowed through the very little time-frame we were left and made it work!
Hiking back through the rain forest is the “only” way down to the main road (I say “only” because its just too remote for bodas to come back into the forest to pick you up). The hike at a moderate/advance pace is under one hour and with Shawn’s pace, we did it under one hour :P It was during these hikes down that we could get a real sense of Ssanga as a community because we were literally walking through the village, back down to the main road. I could sense Shawn’s trepidations as he warned us of dangerous areas where groups of drunk guys/men would be hanging out. The problem of drugs and alcohol abuse has long since plagued the Ssanga community. Originally, the people mainly depended on harvesting timber from the forest for employment but the Ugandan government had passed a law that prohibited the cutting of trees. This left many people (men) jobless. These workers found themselves without transferable skills to work in agriculture or tending animals and therefore quickly resorting to drugs and alcohol. Locals have turned to making their own local brew and crude spirits (“bathtub gin”) as well as growing their own drugs. We walked through the community and saw tens and tens of men (both young and older) sitting around, loitering, doing nothing and yes, drunk/high.
My experiences at Ssanga kind of wraps up the bitter-sweet feeling I found myself struggling with during most of my three weeks in Uganda. On one hand, you could feel and see the desperation and tragedy of many people and communities; on the other hand, you’d encounter such strong-willed and motivated men and women whose eagerness to change their communities was infectious. Though Ssanga is definitely a troubled community where the average income is less than 35 cents a day and is burdened by a huge social problem, it was so encouraging to see and meet some of the community members who wanted to see a change and were doing something about it. Just check out how much physical grit it takes to make ONE brick!! And these men are making each individual brick like this– by hand. Insane right? But that’s the level of dedication Ssanga has :) How awesome!!
To learn more about the Ssanga community, please head over to this link on the Raising The Village website.
Thanks for checking in.