‘Too Hot to Handle’: An Extract from the ‘VMM Stories’ Book

Sally Graham went as a volunteer maternity nurse with VMM to Uganda, in 1986. For VMM’s 50th Anniversary celebration in Dublin last September, she wrote for the book ‘VMM Stories’ of her experiences in such trying circumstances; of the nerve, resolve and cool heads required when you arrive just as a military coup is happening. And then, learning what do you do when it gets ‘Too Hot to Handle’. Here are her words:

VMM Volunteer Group 49

Sally Graham’s Volunteer Group, #49, 1986

Settling in to a Coup: A Volunteer’s Mission

Uganda in 1986 was a very different place than it is today. There had just been a coup when I arrived with my companion in Kampala. We were to go from there to South Karamoja, a remote area in the north east several hundred kilometres from the capital, to a village health centre called Tokora. What had been a small but thriving health facility was then in ruins. It had been looted and all but destroyed during the fighting. The staff had fled in terror to the nearby mountain area and were still in hiding in fear of their lives. The diocese had requested a team from VMM to live and work there, to help them to return to their homes and, together with the local staff, to re-establish some health care facilities for the local population.

At this time all social services had totally collapsed because of the coup and the missionaries and others working within the diocese were the only ones able to provide the basic needs of food and medicines for the people in the nearby villages. The infrastructure had broken down completely. It was a desperate time.

Volunteers and Locals Work to Create Stability

We set up home in one of the surviving staff houses and began to get organised. Little by little the staff then began to return to their homes once they realised that things were getting back to normal. The work of the centre gradually began again, as people were less scared and felt able to come to work. We were able to set up clinics, vaccination and mother and baby services. At night, we could still hear periodic outbreaks of gun fire and from time to time there was a raid by the army who were looking for guerrillas hiding in the bush. This was very unnerving and people were terrified and fled into hiding on these occasions. As time went, on even this calmed down and life settled into something like a normal pattern. People came for treatment and we got to know the local population, the mothers and their babies and to understand the culture. We were lucky to have a Ugandan trained medical assistant, a nurse and a midwife, plus local staff for other duties. This was very important because we had not learnt yet how to speak Karamojong and needed help to communicate.

Tokora is about 90 kms from the diocesan headquarters in Moroto. We were without a vehicle for the first few months, so we were unable to travel. It was very isolated. Visitors were few and far between and we looked forward to the delivery of medical and other supplies from Moroto by Fr. Marco, every few weeks. We were kept so busy throughout the day that we scarcely noticed the time or the deprivations. It was good to see things taking shape and to know that we were helping the people. Life was fairly tranquil in the midst of it all. That is until one day, when I was busy writing up some notes, one of the male nurse aids come rushing in, eyes filled with terror. “The children have found a hand grenade and are playing football with it!” What was I to do without alarming them and causing it to be accidentally activated?

The Situation Becomes a Dangerous Game

I found Bernard, the medical assistant, a wise, mature man and asked him to talk to the children in Karamojong. I thought he would be able to get them to give him the grenade without causing any panic. It was a great relief when he came to me a short time later bearing the object. “What shall we do with hit?” he said. “If the authorities know we have it there will be terrible trouble”, I replied. “I will put it in the safe and when Fr. Marco next visits us we will ask him to deal with it. He will know what to do.” The following week he came with one of the Sisters to bring medical supplies and I quietly took him aside and told him the story. Even after this time I was still shaking at the thought of what would have happened if the pin had been pulled!

Father said he would deal with it and make sure it was disposed of without the army being involved. This in itself would be difficult as he had to make the return journey to Moroto and at this time there were road blocks every few miles, with vehicles being routinely searched. I wondered how he was going to get through without the grenade being found. He told me not to worry, that he had a plan. Later I discovered that the Sister, unbeknownst to her, had travelled all the way back to Moroto with the hand grenade on her lap, hidden in a small basket of fruit!

This poem sums up an alternative outcome if one of the children had accidentally pulled out the pin!

– Dangerous Games –

Girls and boys come out to play,

The sun is shining as bright as …

Screams, sudden, awful ripped the day,

As the ball of death exploded.

Girls and boys no longer play

The sun is darkened as dull as …

Deaths, swift, certain filled the day

As the fire and shrapnel landed.

Arms and legs children need to play,

But now no longer have them.

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