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Reconnecting with community

His recent return from Uganda with a new family has been a whirlwind for local photographer Geoff Walker. He sat down with BELLA CLEARY to discuss why he left New Zealand, living in Uganda, and reacclimatizing to life in Masterton.

Sitting at his dining room table wearing a Greytown Butchery cap, Geoff Walker says returning to the region and reconnecting with his hometown’s community has already been worth the wait.

It took years of gruelling bureaucracy to organise the visa paperwork for his partner Auma Mirriam, her two children Eddie and Blessing, and the couple’s twin five-year-old boys Opiyo and Ocen to be able to join him.

Now he’s organising school, bank accounts, and bills – parts of life he says didn’t exist for him in Uganda, where for the most part he didn’t even own a phone.

“There was no power in the village – it’s lovely,” Walker says.

“We all lived in thatched grass huts where there was no running water; you would get it from a borehole or a well down the road.”

The village Walker’s referring to is Awere, which sits about five hours north of Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

The closest city to Awere was Gulu, a two-hour journey west for any supplies or necessities not available in the village.

It was certainly a big change from life in Wairarapa.

But change is what Walker was seeking after witnessing the traumatic 2012 hot air balloon accident in Carterton in which 11 people died after the balloon struck powerlines.

Walker had been taking pictures of the hot air balloon ride and says the legal dispute that followed over releasing images to the public was exhausting.

“It was such a major, tragic thing and a constant talking point for everyone,” Walker says.

“It was terrible, it affected the whole community.”

On arrival in Uganda, he went in “with an open mind about what he could learn”.

The country is still extremely vulnerable to poverty, and its political climate has remained fraught with the social and economic cost of war.

Even so, Walker says he fell in love with the country as soon as he hit the soil.

“I was captivated by these lovely people who had nothing and who had suffered so much,” Walker recalls.

“They were so welcoming and kind, and underneath that was often desperation and wanting something.

“But that’s natural. It’s the effects of poverty and suffering, and I can’t blame them for that.”

This attitude prevailed even on the numerous occasions Walker was robbed, including when his laptop – with six years of photographs on it – was taken in the middle of the night.

Causes that Walker has sought to raise awareness of while living in Uganda include nodding syndrome, albinism, and homeless youth.

The symptoms of nodding syndrome – a neurological illness that mainly affects children in East Africa – include uncontrollable head nodding, episodes of wandering, and violent seizures.

Walker says two of Mirriam’s cousins suffer from it.

“It’s a really debilitating disease and, with all the corruption, very little help was on offer,” Walker says.

“Albinism is also prevalent, and there is a lot of prejudice around it, as people say it’s because of evil and witchcraft.”

He says there is a high population of youth facing indescribable abuse and poverty.

To help, Walker helped found an organisation called Ki Gen Sanctuary to fundraise and kickstart local initiatives.

He stops mid-sentence when one of his twin five-year-olds comes up to whisper a question.

The boys have quickly settled into Wairarapa life and seem to be taking their new home in their stride.

Joining Walker at the table, his partner Mirriam says it’s a vastly different life for all of them.

“There are many things we haven’t eaten before, like butter, sheep meat, and strawberries,” she says.

“I’ve had to learn how to use our washing machine – at home we use soap and wash our things in a basin.”

It’s difficult to check in with her family, Mirriam says, because most of her relatives don’t own smartphones.

“If I can find someone in Gulu with a smartphone, they can relay a message back for me, but other than that, it’s hard.”

A tailor by trade, Mirriam has brought to New Zealand a stack of colourful clothes she’s sewn herself and she says she’s excited to see if there are work opportunities available, or maybe even the opportunity to go back to school.

It’s a readjustment for the whole whānau, Walker notes.

“It’s even an effort for me because so much has changed.”

Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary
Bella Cleary is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age, originally hailing from Wellington. She is interested in social issues and writes about the local arts and culture scene.

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