Expat tales: Uganda adventure of a lifetime

LABOUR OF LOVE: Adjumani Health Centre where Helen Manson and her husband work as trauma counsellors.
LABOUR OF LOVE: Adjumani Health Centre where Helen Manson and her husband work as trauma counsellors.

Helen Manson is a trauma counsellor for refugees in Uganda.

Why did you move to Uganda?

To take up an amazing opportunity to work with TEAR Fund New Zealand's partner, Tutapona. They provide group trauma counselling to victims of war and refugees. Best decision we've ever made.

Helen Manson
Helen Manson

What do you do there?

My husband and I work in three refugee camps with people from neighbouring nations taking shelter in Uganda because of war/instability in their home countries. Most recently we've started providing trauma counselling to more than 56,000 South Sudanese fleeing into our nation's northern districts. These people have experienced unfathomable horror and unspeakable loss. It is a privilege to work alongside our local staff to see emotional healing.

What do you like or dislike about life there?

I don't know if it's the beat of those African drums, the relaxed pace of life, the smiling faces that greet me whenever I'm out and about or that I frequently find myself humoured by the fact that some things can only be explained with a shrug and a smile!

I dislike brushing my teeth with bottled water. Dealing with Mzingu (white people) prices for everyday goods and services. Being surrounded by corruption in every facet of life. Unrelenting traffic almost 24/7. Pot holes so deep and roads so bad I have taken to wearing a sports bra when driving. Sleeping under a mosquito net every single night. Getting in and out of our house with multiple keys and padlocks. Monster-sized biting ants, dragonflies, bees, snakes, lizards and birds.

How does the cost of living compare to New Zealand?

Because Uganda is a developing country, the cost of living is significantly cheaper than in NZ. A bowl of nine tomatoes will cost me NZ$0.50, an avocado, NZ$0.25 and a mango a mere NZ$0.75. Petrol is slightly cheaper but not by much. Most foreigners living here have a fulltime day and night guard as well as fulltime house help as labour is very affordable.

What do you do on weekends?

No two weekends are the same. One weekend we'll take a drive into a game park, the next we'll be cooling off at a hotel pool. Another we might be hanging out in a rural village getting to know the locals or getting our fruit and vegetables at the market amid the bedlam. This last weekend my husband got a buzz cut at a local barber that cost NZ$3.50 and took 45 minutes. His head was then sprayed with olive oil. We usually have brunch or dinner with friends and find ourselves outside as the sun sets in the warm weather.

What do you think of the food/what's your favourite thing to eat there?

You buy most of your food at markets and then pick up the rest of your items from a small supermarket (like a Four Square in NZ). Fresh vegetables and fruit are offered on almost every street corner. Tropical fruit like mangoes, pineapples and passion fruit are divine and most other vegetables we eat in the West are available. The local staple food is matoke, beans, rice, posha, and groundnuts. If we want a quick local snack we go for a rolex - a chapatti (local bread) with a fried egg/tomato/cabbage omelette wrapped inside it. That'll set you back NZ$0.50 and fill you up.

What's the best way to get around?

Boda bodas - these motorcycles make the city feel alive. With the loud engines, dodgy driving and colourful characters driving them, this is not for the faint of heart. We have personally seen around one accident every few weeks. Now that we live here we own a car and so we're currently driving a massive (former UN) Land Cruiser Troop Carrier 4.2-litre diesel engine. It feels great to be driving a vehicle that can ram anything off the road. This attitude is of course of great concern to my husband with my driving record.

What's the shopping like?

Challenging. There are no "malls". Rather, picture a market, overfilled with all the colour, noise, chaos and drama you could ever imagine. Uganda is a land of the second-hand everything. To buy clothing you go to an outdoor market, kneel in the dust and rummage through piles of clothing dumped in front of you. Up until two months ago there were no fast food outlets, now there is one in the whole country. To buy furniture you go to an outdoor market, where chairs and couches are built, assembled and upholstered in front of you.

What's the nightlife like?

Pumping. Half of Uganda's population is under the age of 15. The country is young and the nightlife reflects that. In Kampala the capital city, the music from the clubs can often be heard until the wee hours.

What is your favourite part of the city?

The markets. The vibrancy and chaos fascinate me! The other week I was there when a raid happened. About 40 government officers jumped out and started running after young vendors selling knock-off bags, sunglasses and shoes. The young men ran as fast as they could in the opposite direction. There was much laughter as the chase ensued down tiny alleyways and the public did what they could to be as unhelpful as possible.

What time of year is best to visit?

Any time! Uganda is on the equator which means that the climate is pretty steady year round, 27-31 degrees Celsius most days. Tropical rainstorms usually last a couple hours before clearing to the hazy/smoggy blue sky that covers most of the country year round. No matter when you come, expect to sweat every day and have your body consistently caked in a fine layer of red dust.

What's your must-do thing for visitors?

Get out of the car and on to the dirt. Don't be one of "those" people that experiences Uganda from inside your perfectly air conditioned vehicle. Get out, get dirty, get involved.

What are your top tips for tourists?

Come prepared for the adventure of a lifetime. Relax into the African way of life. Don't be afraid to try local food. Get off the beaten track, it's safer than you think. Learn some local greetings.

How easy is it for you to get back to New Zealand?

It's about a 30-hour trip and NZ$2700 one way to get door to door.

If you know an expat who wants to share the inside knowledge on their home away from home, email escape@star-times.co.nz with Expat in the subject line.

Sunday Star Times