This post is part 5 of a daily series I am writing while in Uganda with FUNDaFIELD.org. I don’t talk about it much, but FUNDaFIELD is a 501(c)(3) I have been deeply involved in since age 13 and while I am not always able to dedicate the time I should, it is very important to me. While I have been to Uganda (and other FUNDaFIELD regions) many many times, every FUNDaFIELD trip is an adventure, so I thought it would be fun to document certain aspects of the experience. While I do work for FUNDaFIELD, I am writing this as a personal blog so my words should not be taken as organizational gospel. FUNDaFIELD is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization utilizing the therapeutic power of sports to support the rehabilitation and recovery process in post-conflict and post-trauma regions around the world. We work with local communities to provide sports fields(generally soccer and netball), sports equipment, and to host sports tournaments.
I’ve talked a lot in the last four days about the situation we are working in and the rationale for actually doing that work. I have not actually talked about the work itself. While we have a variety of focus areas, the biggest by far is to work with communities/schools in order to build sustainable community sports facilities. We talk about soccer pitches but also usually build netball courts and occasionally volleyball courts in the same space.
In Palabek refugee camp, we have basically completed two projects and I wanted to share how much of an accomplishment that really is. Unlike many previous projects, I have been much less involved in these fields on the Uganda side, so most of this info is coming from my mom, Lisa, who along with a small team has overseen the full execution of these projects. This is basically a full-time job in another country and she has been an absolute superstar. Go mom!
10 Surprising Issues Building Two Soccer Pitches in Palabek Refugee Camp
These things are not all limited to Palabek, they are constant and a reality of this type of work. APOLOGIES BUZZFEED FOR STEALING YO FORMAT
1. “I am stuck in a manure pit for the night.”
Clay soil is not good for growing grass. For the grass to take hold, we need to add fertilizer. In many places, the best form of fertilizer is some nice cow dung. So naturally, we sent one of our team members with a big truck to a manure pit a few hours away.
The idea was that him and eight other guys from the local community would put on boots, and shovel enough dung to fill the truck. Unfortunately though, the driver backed a bit too far into the manure pit, and the big truck got stuck in the muck. Bad luck. The sun was setting and the truck was done moving for the night. This meant that our guy had to stay with the truck while the local men went home. AKA spending a full night in the middle of nowhere, in a lake of cow poo with all of the bugs, noises, and lovely odors that brings.
The next day the truck was pulled out and the grass sure appreciates our efforts!
2. “The water guys just ‘boomeranged’.”
During our initial construction phase, the camp was in what the UN refers to as an “emergency state.” Thousands of refugees were pouring in and little infrastructure had been built to sustain them. This meant that unlike today, we had no tap (water from a tank that flows down into public taps), and no borehole (basically a well that you can manually pump water out with above ground). The water that was in the camp was strictly for refugee survival and could not even be used for bathing (should be obvious but worth noting we never use water that is needed for drinking or bathing).
Our solution was to find a massive water truck on the side of the road, two hours outside of camp (close to the bigger towns where we sleep at night). The truck was grounded because of a flat tire and agreed to help us on the condition that we fix their tire. We agreed and they committed to watering the field twice in a day. We drove with them to a creek, watched as they hooked up a generator to the truck and took 52 minutes to fill the tank.
To our great annoyance, they got too nervous to stay in a refugee camp that night (which my brother did recently), and ‘boomeranged’. Basically, they just took their half payment, shut off their phones, and bailed. It pains me that this happens often enough that they made a word for it.
3. “You can’t leave your baby here.”
One of the rewarding parts of this work is that we get to hire people in remote communities with few employment opportunities to help us do the work. During the grass planting phase we hired a young women who was in dire need of employment.
On her first day, our team noticed she had left something under a wheelbarrow on the far side of the field. We ran over and realized it was a six-month-old baby in 90+ degrees weather. The baby appeared to be massively dehydrated and so we gave him water and some food right away. We have different standards for certain aspects of life in the US, but even our Ugandan team was shocked by this. Sadly, we had to let the mother go because we couldn’t rationalize the risk. These decisions are ones we have to make all the time here, but they never get easy.
4. “The landlord took our wheelbarrow hostage.”
One thing to know about UN refugee camps is that the UN does not often own the actual land. UNHCR works with landlords in remote areas to grant them land on their properties. The argument is that the development will greatly increase the long-term value of the land. This can create all sorts of problems with some landlords who hope to profit off the settlements. In a few extreme cases this includes sabotaging the work if they are not benefiting. Another reality of life here.
In our case one landlord did not like that we weren’t using his family to do our work. We try and hire a combination of refugees and outside experts. To express his displeasure he decided to steal our wheelbarrow and hose until we reached a compromise. This was one of those ‘it’s hard to be too mad when this is just hilarious’ situations, and we eventually did hire some of his family and he returned our equipment.
5. “Define ghost worker?”
Trust is the biggest challenge while working in a country with deeply rooted systemic corruption. For us, this challenge is compounded by generations of harmful aid and NGO policies which have basically made any foreigner a walking dollar sign. When a Ugandan on our team is negotiating for some item, it is not uncommon for the Americans to hide under hot sweatshirts in order to keep from being seen and quadrupling the asking price. Scams are constant and often hard to distinguish from local business culture.
Ghost Worker Scam: This is when we will pay a contractor for 15 people to do a job. We get a daily report with the comments, phone number, and signature of each worker paid. In reality there were only 10 workers and the 5 others either don’t exist or had no idea they were “working” for FUNDaFIELD that day. This is a simple con but devastatingly hard to prevent if we don’t have anyone on site.
Contract Job Scam: We pay John $100 to weld the goalposts together. John pays Steve from a nearby town $70 to do the job and $4 for transport. Steve pays his cousin $40 who works for him to go in his place. This chain continues until the least qualified, most desperate, cheapest, person is hired. This means that instead of a formula one driver (the quality level we are paying for), we get Rick in his barbie car. This is standard practice here and is something we have to work around for all projects.
The scams actually get pretty complicated and impressive. On this project alone we had someone fake the death of their child (the child was fine) as a reason for leaving the job, had multiple sim cards switched to conceal worker identity (we still tracked with GPS), and a ton of other tricks/schemes meant to cost FUNDaFIELD. Luckily mom has a superpower for detecting these but the energy to keep up is exhausting. Worse, it is often more operationally efficient to act like we know nothing and quietly fix the problem, or occasionally to just let it continue.
Sidenote: read Behind the Beautiful Forevers for a deeper look into how systemic corruption manifests at every level of life in a slum in India. A lot of parallels to places we have worked that are hard to understand until they are explained or experienced.
6. “The good soil slid down the hill.”
In our younger soccer days, we would agonize over what side we wanted to start any match. Wind conditions, sun angles, grass length, field slope, and even the viewing position of the most obnoxious parents were all taken into account.
To my teenage person surprise, a sloped pitch is actually design. Pending a professional grade drainage system, most field are build on a grade in order to drain rain away when needed. This is great except when you are building in a place where rain is sporadic and frequent. It meant that multiple times during the Palabek field construction process, our nice fertilized topsoil layer would get caught in the rain and slide down off the pitch. Many hours of shoveling and carrying the dirt back up the hill later, we would continue construction and pray to the rain gods for a few weeks of consistent weather. We ended up digging a trench at the top and side of the field to divert some of the water from flowing downhill.
7. “It takes many many many villages to build a goal.”
This is not a specific problem per se, but just an example of how simple seeming things can be so damn complicated here.
Steps for constructing a pair of FIFA regulation goals:
- Go to capital city of Kampala to buy massive poles for posts. Hide during negotiations.
- Hire truck, fuel, and a driver willing to drive poles 10 hours on bad roads to a refugee camp.
- Find a welder in Kitgum (two hours from camp).
- Pay for welder time, a generator and transport for welding to happen on site, otherwise goals would not be transportable.
- Ban all staff and workers from watching the welding without protective eye gear after one of them burns his eyes from staring into the flame.
- Hire a mason in camp to secure goals into the ground.
- Negotiate for cement in camp.
- Go to Gulu (two hours from camp) to find a painter. Have him come prime poles.
- Bring painter a second time to actually paint goals.
- Attach nets.
- PLAY! Simple as that.
8. “Not all work is equal.”
One price per day for all sounds good in theory but is hard to execute in reality. If one of the local workers sees that the landlord’s people are working half as hard for double the pay, it’s not surprising they would be pretty pissed. Eventually, we took a page from the Ugandan agriculture playbook and use the katala system. This meant that we would divide the field into equal sized rectangles that would be owned by a single worker. Once complete, they hold some set value.
This method is also good for FUNDaFIELD because it allows us to look at each katala and judge the quality. We have accountability in terms of quality. This is key because planting grass is a time sensitive venture. Once the Pascalum (local grass) is dug up, we only have two days or so to get it replanted before it dies. This makes it a high-stress process that is costly to mess up. The katala saved the day.
9. “Guys… Our tent is on fire.”
Building a field and operating an NGO requires a lot of STUFF. We want this STUFF to be close to the field sites, so we need a space to put it. We bought a third party UNHCR tent which gave us an office and storage area right on the “downtown market” road at the reception area of camp. Sadly, we can’t afford to have someone constantly on guard, so our tent was broken into and robbed twice. Worse, on the long drive to Northern Uganda this week, we got a phone call saying a fire had also burned our tent. The good news is we will likely be able to salvage the current tent and move into a high security area!
Sidenote: We probably saw 20 different fires this week. These fires are partly accidental thanks to a severe dry season, and partly intentional for two reasons: First, by burning the bush, new healthier grass and plants will have an easier time growing back in the rainy season. Second, the fires smoke out massive (rabbit sized) local rats that are beaten and eaten. We always made fun of the Invisible Children folks for lying about eating giant rats, turns out it was completely true. Sorry Guys!!!!
10. “The daily grind.”
In addition to the work challenges above, the daily grind is grueling. We are only here a few weeks every few months, so we have to pack a lot in. Getting to the camp from town takes two hours each way and we have to be home by dark so it leaves us a narrow window. We take a narrow dirt road that is often blocked by mud, a fallen truck (way too common), or a stalled van (ours), which takes away precious daylight. English is limited and all of the tribes speak different languages which usually makes our Ugandan staff just as clueless as we are. There are cultural norms that will never be obvious to us no matter how much time is spent creating untold numbers of issues. It is often too hot to spend much time outside, and we only have the food and water we bring in. This usually means digestive crackers and a PB&J (made on antibacterial wipes on a laptop in the van) for food. Cell service is random and our generator often goes out. Many people don’t use data since it is costly, so it is often easier to just drive to someones home to have a discussion. I could go on and on but moral of the story here is that mom, and Sandy Storer, and Garrett and Nick, and Kira, and Justin and Manuel, and the many many people who have made these particular projects happen are total champs. Fundraising is hard, doing things right on the ground is infinitely harder.
The end result of all of this is that we have built two of the best (and most cost efficient) football pitches in Uganda at deserving schools in Palabek Refugee Camp.
The two primary schools combine to nearly 5000 young students with less than 40 teachers. After school community boys and girls teams use the fields at all times. Members of the community use the fields as a central gathering place and claim it as a source of identity. Dead serious, our biggest problem right now (one that we worked on this week) is how to schedule field use to stop overuse. This is actually a big challenge given a lack of enforcement methods that are effective against excited footballers.
Thanks for reading all five posts. This has been exhausting, but super fun and meaningful to write. I know I did not do certain aspects of the work/experience justice, I was dehydrated and exhausted each night, so thanks for sticking with it.
As always, please feel free to reach out with more questions and thoughts.
These are some of the issues, wanted to rapid fire some runner ups:
- Your hotel is on a swamp and gets infected by mosquitos (this morning!)
- The tree you sit under for shade starts raining bugs
- Mom locks herself in the bathroom and security has to come take off the door
- Taking a shower and brown water comes out
- Your security guy has a bow and arrow
- Defective bed nets
- “We may be lost but we’re making good time.” -Storer fam