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Steve Cran in Uganda – Parts I – III

Part I

Hello everyone. This is my first blog from Uganda. I’m here to set up a community sustainability project in the north of Uganda near the Sudan border. It’s a hot spot sometimes with cows, guns and dust. These people have been aid dependent for 40 years.

Getting to Uganda from Australia was a mission. It took me 40 hours of travel. I arrived at Kampala airport late at night and finally got to a hotel looking like a zombie. The next day I met my boss and went over my mission. I have been given a heap of lattitude to make this work.

Day two I’m taken to downtown Kampala to the roof top of a tall building for a meeting with some UN dudes. I can see these huge birds, some kind of crane, gliding all over the city like they own it. Kampala looks like a nice city from up there but I can see slums poking out of the cracks.

The Ugandan people are friendly and polite with me and each other. I’m given a vehicle and a driver to get to Karamoja, 8 hours drive north. Bags in the vehicle, wave goodbye to the police guards at the gate and off we go. Once we leave the city the driver puts his foot down. I check my seatbelt. We are speeding along potholed tarmac through villages at 130 kph, just missing people, cows, chickens and parked vehicles. The drivers accent is so strong I think he is speaking in another language. He puts a cd of local music making the drive seem like a weird movie. This country feels familiar even though Ive never been to Africa.

The further out we get the more lush the land looks. I see lots of small scale farming. Casava, banana, beans, goats, pigs… pretty basic subsistence farming. People are all well dressed. Women are loaded with baskets and jerry cans on their heads. We speed on. The country gets drier. The towns are filthy with rubbish, dust and vehicle exaust. Everybody’s still smiling. We stop at dark and I crash in a hotel for tourists. The phone rings at midnight. The reception guy asks me something and I can’t understand his accent. Finally I realize he is asking if I need a wake up call. GRRRR! I just get back to sleep when there’s a knock on the door. I open the door to a tall Man with a big smile, “water suh?” He’s holding up a water bottle. I thank him and close the door, unplug the phone and bury my head in a pillow. It’s 1 am.

Next day we’re speeding again through the scrubby bush. The land is drying out and the road is turning into a 4×4 adventure. Along the sides of the road in the middle of nowhere are women and men in their sunday best, or so it seems. Colourfully dressed carrying all kinds of stuff on their heads. They wave and give us big happy smiles. It dawns on me that I really like these people. The kids are lots of fun and they run along the side of the vehicle yelling “mazoonga!” which means white man in a non racist way.

Finally I take over driving as the driver is nodding off. Tricky driving as the holes in the track are hungry and threaten to swallow the ute. Finally we get to Hq at Abim. I meet the staff and unload my gear at the “hotel” which is a room that comes with 2 jerry cans of water per day. It’s hot here at Abim but I’ve had worse. Small scrubby mountains crowd around the edges of this frontier town. I check out the town’s wells and their hand pumps. There are women lined up at each one. They tell me the water is good and it hasn’t yet dried up in 15 years. These women are paid to get water for the NGOs and buisnesses and carry the jerry cans on their heads. They must have tough necks!

I’m here now in the safe zone. I’m planning my first demo garden which I’ll start on today. Ive got tools seeds and sacks. I’ll pay the local kids to bring in sacks of animal manure. I’m showing the local people, by paying the children, that manure is valuable. I don’t pay too much or the adults will want to do it. That may cause them to lose face if they are seen collecting shit! Kids don’t care and they may be the only breadwinners in the family. They are funny dudes. They sneak up beside me and in a quiet voice say “how are you?” When I answer they giggle and just stand there looking at me with their wide smiles. I’m gonna have some fun with these guys!

Well thats it for now. I gotta get digging,
Cheers, Steve

Part II

Hello again from Northern Uganda. A lot has happened since my last blog and it’s hard to believe its been just over a week.

I’m driving the ute at speed through the bush. There are four of us in the cab. It’s getting dark and we’re late. We should have been in camp hours ago. We were delayed by a series of comical events but now it’s not so funny. The guys with me start telling local horror stories. “If the warriors catch you, you will surely perish” one guy says. The other guy adds "This is the area they operate." I press harder on the accelerator! We make it home without incident.

It’s easy to get complacent about security because the people seem so friendly and always give me a wave. The Karamojong have a fearsome reputation. They are cattle people. They love cattle because it is a symbol of wealth, prestige and they can’t get a wife unless they have at least 200 head. A “Kjong” as they’re nicknamed can give a description of a particular cow to another Kjong who can walk 100 kilometers and pick that exact cow out of a herd of a few thousand. They live and breath cattle. Each Kjong male has a cow whacking stick and a small wooden seat which he carries everywhere. The guys and the girls have the same haircut and both wear a kind of striped robe. The women wear a neck full of colored beads and the guys wear a colorful top hat and earrings, sometimes with colored feathers.

The youth are bored. They stand for hours watching their cattle, or somebody else’s cattle. Their life is worth nothing until they have cattle. Where do you get cattle from if you want a wife? You get an AK47 and go on an organized raid and steal them from “the enemy”. There’s nothing to lose except a dull life. They even take on the army, a thousand young warriors itching to get free cattle.

One of my roles here is to come up with a solution to the “warriors”. I go to a Manyatta, a stick fort surrounding a few huts. This is were the women live permanently while the warriors roam the land looking for fodder and water with their prize cattle. They’ve built the manyattas for defense high on the slope of the valley but away from water. The land is drying up from over grazing, charcoal making, fence building and drying winds. The soil is starting to blow away. The women have to carry water a kilometer from the hand pump in the valley. I crawl through the entrance on my hands and knees. No fat people allowed! They wouldn’t fit.

There’s a narrow hallway of sticks and another crawl hole. Very clever for defence. Any intruder would be very vulnerable to attack. I make it through the maze to the cooking hut. I swallow hard. These people are starving. This place reeks of extreme poverty. There’s no maize in the granary. The kids are slow and have distended bellies (worms).

An old woman is sitting on a dirty cow hide. I shake her rough hand. Her skin is dusty and looks like leather. I smell rotting flesh. On a stick rack next to me are two giant bush rats, each the size of a corgi. They have been gutted and are covered in blue-assed flies. They have been dead a while. My translator Catherine wrinkles her nose and I point to the carcasses. “You hungry?” I ask. She moves away rapidly. We get the hell out of there and make our way to the vehicle down in the valley. How can I help these people. Their village is too far from water. They want to grow food but they can barely carry the water they need for survival.

The bore pump in the valley has a strong hand pump sticking out of a cement circle. The girls place the gerry can under the spout and jump up and down holding the handle. A group of thirsty cows jostle each other to get at the flow. One cows tounge snakes out and slurps at the water going into the gerry. Slap! A girl whacks the cow on the face. It doesn’t care. There’s a puddle below the cement ring with cow shit, flies and mud all squashed up into a foul soup. I see a design in my head. Animal trough at the outflow. Steel pickets with barbed wire surrounding a community vegetable garden with a lockable steel gate. I see the outflow from the trough running into the garden and fruit trees with heavy duty guards planted around the garden. OK, I’ll try that. Saves the women from carrying more water.

I’m in Moroto. It has paved roads! Uganda’s third highest mountain looms over the dusty town. I see a prison. My driver says there is a farm in there. “Can we go in?” I ask. I’m thinking of a story I read about Idi Amin’s prison system where inmates were given sledgehammers to execute each other. The driver nods and we turn in. A guard is sitting under a tree. Lazily he puts the barrel of his rifle in the dirt and pushes himself to his feet. He calls over a tall guy who takes us on a tour. The prisoners are dressed in yellow shorts and tee shirts. They look like a soccer team. Their gardens are pathetic. Only four varieties of hybrids. the same story everywhere. No diversity. I see these squalid huts and feel sorry for the prisoners. “that’s where the wardens live” says my guide. Oh dear! I meet the head warden. I tell him what I want. I want to improve their gardens in exchange for them becoming a seed bank. He agrees. Most of the 90 prisoners are Kjong warriors caught in the field. I want to work with them so I can understand their culture. I can’t find them in the bush and it’s too dangerous to look. Here they are a captive audience. I can train them and expand the non-hybrid open polinated seeds I am collecting. The prisoners can make a business of it. The warden is overjoyed. He takes me to meet the governor who gives me the thumbs up. I’ve always wanted to make a permaculture prison and now it’s in my lap. The inmates smile and laugh when my translator “Ram” (short for Ramadan) tells them what the Mazoonga will do.

I’m driving all over Karamoja looking for strategies that are working so I can put them in the manual I’m writing. Sometimes I have a military escort which is a ute with 4 armed soldiers hanging off the back. I’m slowly coming up with a plan. These cattle are killing this place. I hear of a farm where ex-warriors are growing casava and loving it. I’m headed there next week. My garden at the compound is growing. An 11 year old boy “Achilla” who I call Atilla waters it for me. He’s going to be a doctor when he grows up. This place is growing on me.

Part III

It’s my third week in Uganda’s Karamoja province. It feels like I’ve been here for years. We load the pick-up truck with tools. There’s a village 5 km north of town. The name of the village is too hard to pronounce for a Mazungu like me so I call it “the 5 kilometer village”. We load steel shovels, hoe rakes, steel digging bars, large sacks for hauling dry manure, and the African hoes. The women’s group at this village have promised to build a fence for their vege garden. I don’t expect much because I know they don’t have any tools. If they make an effort I’m going to help them. We arrive and they are waiting under a shady tree beside the road. It’s hot and a fierce wind blinds us with dust as we get out of the ute. The mountain behind is on fire. The wind is fanning the flames to amazing heights. The fire eats the vegetation off the mountain like a hungry monster.

The women clap and cheer when I shake hands with the chief. He’s the only man in the group of 30. He has a list of everybody’s name. He’s done this before. The charities have trained him well. I tell him I don’t want names, just a garden. He smiles and translates this to the group. I drop the tailgate and pass the tools to Santos and my trainees. The women go nuts. They whoop and make a lee lee lee lee noise between their teeth. The enthusiasm is genuine. I’m a bit embarrassed. They take me over to where they have cleared an area for the fence. The shrubs have been chopped down and piled up at one end. We mark out an area for the first garden with a shady tree at one end. I visualize the tree as the meeting point for the garden crew. Lots of kids sneak up all around. Some are brave and touch the blonde hair on my arm and run away. I spin around and growl as they shriek and evaporate. Everybody laughs when they realize I’m not going to eat the children.

This is one of my pilot projects to test my designs for the manual. The women ask about seed. There are 40 kg of non hybrid seed at HQ. You get the seed when the garden is dug, I tell them. They begin to sing this time. I wonder why after 40 years of aid somebody hasn’t taken the time to cover the basics – water and food. Grow your own is better than American GM flour off the back of a truck! I tell the women no more cheering until the garden is dug and the fences are up.

We head to the prison in Moroto with the first sample of seeds. This time we get invited in to the inner prison. The guard closes the heavy doors as we enter and I feel a little apprehensive. Inside the prisoners are playing volleyball. Whew! The governor ushers us in to his office. We make a deal. The garden project will grow all the new crops, and some for seed. Our crew will consist of several Karamajong rival tribes all mixed up. Traditional enemies will be working together. The Guv, as I call him, shows us around. He takes us to a patch of open ground where he wants the project to start. The soil is heavy dark clay. It needs a fence. The water pump is nearby. Yep it’ll work. The Guv’s happy and the head warden looks on with a big grin. We have to go. Lots to do.

We visit a farm run by ex-warriors. It’s way out in the middle of the bush. The leader speaks english. He sees the permaculture Designers’ Manual in the back of the landcruiser. I show him the mandala design. He gets excited. We need training, not handouts he says. A deal is made. We’ll train his mob if he trains warriors in the future. He offers us land for a field school. I tell him we’ll be back in 10 days with tools. He’ll have the leaders ready for a training session. I give him some seeds. Very happy guy.

On the return trip I decide to take the dangerous short cut. The security dudes warn us against it. My gut says go. We go. We drive like rally drivers. Nice road most of the way. The four of us are tense. No warriors. We make it no worries. Next day we find out warriors ambushed the safe road where we were supposed to go. One motorcyclist killed, a truck shot up and occupants kidnapped. My guys say lucky we listened to our gut! The gut is smarter than the security guys.

My garden is taking shape back at HQ. Many villagers watch its progress through the bamboo fence. Every demonstration is a teacher. The kids watering the garden each day are proud now the seeds have sprouted. They talk to the other kids through the fence as they water. They are junior trainers whether they know it or not. Everything is growing…. Thank God!

Watch this site for updates….


  1. fantastic update Steve. have to read it again as theres a lot of detail. you are on the forefront of our movement. im curious.. what path took you to uganda? also.. what is your background.
    great work mate. looking forward to seeing the trough water pump design.
    all the best.

  2. There is no formal training at present available for permies to become aid workers. I have been lucky and taken opportunities as they have come to me. I was a soldier before I came across permaculture. I worked in extreme conditions with Aboriginies for 5 years. Somebody sent me to East Timor (5 years after that), The Aceh (one year) and now Uganda with a large organization. Each mission taught me the next level. In the future I will be setting up effective training for sustainability aid. If I can impart to people all the known best practices we will see better field people than me emerge.

    Keep up the enthusiasm!

  3. Networking and depending on your gut-good things. Look forward to seeing your work with the Ugandans expand into greater good-it will.
    Any possibility of one of the Moringa family working in the area you are in?

  4. Awesome stuff. I am looking forward to more updates in the future. It is great to see someone actually out there teaching these people instead of giving them handouts.

    I am amazed (but not surprised) that no one has done this before in this region.

  5. I really enjoyed your blog Steve! You certainly have your work cut out for you. Best of luck and I look forward to your future posts.

  6. Ah, what a lovely blog! Makes me giggle.
    Sounds like you’re onto an approach that works, open and straight forward, great work!
    Looking forward to the next one, and to your manual.
    Did you take seeds over from Aus?
    And how did you fix up the garden beds? Shape, material, etc..
    Good luck, and good that you’ve got such a tuned in gut, keep listening to it..

  7. Hey Steve, you are doing the real end of business mate. Wouldn’t be surprised if you get serious about training others to do this, the scope and benefits are beyond immagination and too important not to do, or at least spark. It’s the business end of permaculture really. I want to be doing this in years to come. Who wouldn’t?!

  8. I heard about you from Ego Lemos in Australia. Do you know how to get the beautifully illustrated Indonesian Permaculture book?

  9. Well that’s a first; a comment deleted by the post’s author.

    The reason I said “Don’t let them know that you are gay Steve!” is because, in case you are not aware, the Ugandan parliament is about to pass a law that proscribes the death penalty for gays and lesbians in Uganda, and imprisonment for NGO’s that do HIV prevention work.

    Whether you are gay or not Steve, you need to understand that in face of such brutal law making, you are actually gay. Everyone is. There’s no other response other than that in the face of such immorality.

    While you are doing excellent work in Uganda, I feel it’s somewhat pointless when there’s such a searing disconnect. Permaculture isn’t about growing things, it’s also about people – all people.

  10. Chris, I think you are treading on dangerous ground with this line of comment, I am all for seeing everything on the planet connected to everything else but are you endangering Steves life and trying to undermine his work, it looks like it. In the western world its ok to be gay, mostly. However, there are more places in the world than just Uganda where it means a death sentence. If you feel so strongly about gay rights in Uganda why dont you go there and do something about it.

  11. Chris, you’re a (namecalling). Steve, you’re awesome! This was a great read, really glad you’ve not only taken the time to do something so great but also taken the time to share it with us. Keep up the great work!

  12. Chris, Steve is trying his utmost to help people, so his work is far from pointless. On contrary, it is more than worthy of admiration. Surely it is people suffering under draconian and discriminatory regimes that most need assistance from those of us that, by luck, are more fortunate.

  13. Hey Dudes lets keep it real. Im not gay and it has little bearing on what I’m here to do. For anyone thats wants to download the Timorese permaculture guide book google IDEP+permaculture manual. It has some great strategies and illustrations in it. We will be putting out a manual from Karamoja in the near future for all those interested in drylands permaculture. The style of the manual can be used by anyone. It will be set up to capture known best practice and future strategies that are working. We have to remember permaculture is growing and changing and we must allow for that to happen.

    Thanks for the positive comments. I hope in the future we can train a new wave of youth to take on these challenges. Watch the Ugandans in the future. There are some outstanding people here wanting to make a change.

  14. hi jack
    my comment was also deleted, and if it wasn’t you would of been able to find further information on Steve and his work in Timor, Aceh etc

    including the Timor and Indonesian permaculture manuals

    also, more interviews on Steve’s work with IDEP, publisher of the manual

  15. Hi Nicholas. I am perplexed. No comment from you was deleted. I’ve just searched the blog’s spam comment filter to see if there’s one there from you (sometimes comments with lots of links will be marked as spam), but nothing from you there.

    The only time I delete comments are for trolls and when people are making personal attacks on others.

    Also not sure why you’re commenting to Jack. :)

  16. These courses may assist you in aid work but they wont give you field skills. Petra Schnider has done a good job with IDEP as an education NGO but the field skills for Aceh and East Timor came from me. Petra spent a few days in the field on a visit. The missing component is field skills and on the ground training. No disrespect intended for these trainers but to gain the skills needed will require more than is offered.

  17. I agree with you Steve.I did not intend to belittle your practical experience.The course being offered is a start.Practical experience is another story.

  18. We can train you up with field skills at Zaytuna Farm check out our 10 week internship programs and the results of our long term successful permaculture aid projects that we have establish stand as testament.,%20Permaculture%20Research%20Institute,%20Zaytuna%20Farm,%20NSW

    We are now interacting with 70 permaculture projects worldwide and deploying well trained permaculture project workers with good ground skills every week.

  19. can you specify how many project workers are being deployed every week, month, year ?

    how do you train for other climates than the Sub Tropics ?

    what exactly do you mean “interacting” with 70 permaculture projects ?

    can you please provide a template for us to learn about how to so constructively “interact” ?

  20. Hi, Great work Steve!
    If anyone is interested, Charles Darwin University offers a batchelor of humanitarian and community studies, the first of its kind in Australia and possibly the world. It trains graduates to work in areas of limited infrastructure, primarily in developing countries. Upon graduating, students are able to work as humanitarian logisticians with aid groups such as the red cross and medicins sans frontiers or work in third world development. If coupled with permaculture training, the potential for ethical and (thus) effective aid/development work would be very exciting. A masters program is being introduced soon as well. The course website is below.,P31_SEARCH_YEAR,P31_SEARCH_VERSION:BHCS%2C2010%2C1

    Looking forward to joining the permaculture aid scene in a few years!

  21. Im currently working for a large international organization that is not a charity. My contract forbids me to divulge my employer. It’s probably a good thing as I dont loke the inflexabilaty of organizations. Because the problems here have been largley created by conventional aid I have been given enough rope to move.( Maybe!) I’m sure if I’m in anyway successful in the next phase in May, they will be telling the world how good they are. Ha ha. Check out

  22. Have been following the various links provided and wow. So much to be learned and done. Great work Steve. What crops are you planting in efforts to move the Ugandans away from aid dependency? I do realize this is a step by step process.

  23. For Nicholas, re: how do you train for other climates than the Sub Tropics. I can comment on my personal experience,with regard to Zaytuna farm and doing a PDC or other training there and/or other locations. Most people soon come to realize that the location for a PDC is interesting but possibly irrelevant. A good instructor will train you how to ‘see’, interpret and act in all the climate zones on the planet. A PDC will not teach you about all the plants or animals and their care for a specific climate location, which is maybe what you are getting at. You learn to see very well what is in front of you, wherever you are and also what is possible to add to it, how to mimic it, improve on it, this vision is transferable. Taking levels anywhere in the world is all the same, directing machinery or human labour is the same wherever you are, building gardens, building soil, managing water, putting in food forests, its all just variations on the same theme regardless of location. Everyone needs practical skills in all areas and it takes time and opportunity to gather all these tecniques, however without universal design as a base you waste a lot of time and energy.

  24. We are deploying an average of 3 project workers every month and that number is increasing.

    We train people for all climates with project references of successful applications and direct skype video conference teaching live to project locations.

    We are in direct communication with projects in all stages of establishment which are funded in numerous ways through large aid organizations, the Australian government through AYAD and VIDA programs, organizations like weforest, universities with environmental aid programs and small local in country NGO’s.

    The main theme that we follow is the “The Permaculture Master Plan” featured on the top right hand side of each page on this web site.

  25. Good on you Steve but don’t take the security issues lightly.
    I lived in the West of Uganda at Kasese in 2005 for 6 months and spent 10 months working around Lake Albert in 2007 / 2008.
    The people need the sort of eduation you are providing rather than handouts.
    I wish you success and a safe time there.
    I plan on returning myself as soon as I can find a way.

  26. Hi Steve

    Hows things – it was a buzz to read and see you on the net. Great to see you are doing well – olde white hair :-)

    Love from

  27. Hi Steve.
    Isnt google a funny thing? I am watching a movie about Bangkok at the moment and thought back to ’83’84 and spending christmas there on leave from butterworth and wondered what had happened to you after I left the army. Glad to see you are doing worthwile stuff and still alive. Take care and keep up the good work.

  28. Steve not sure if you remember me. I certainly remember you. It is wonderful and not at all surprising to see where and what you are up to. Good for you. Wish there were more like you.

  29. G’day Steve,

    It has been a long time between drinks, bloody good to see you getting into it. You always led from the front and still doing it good on you mate. Kathleen dropped you an email a while ago and she let me know where and what you are up to.

    An awesome project Steve, know you’ll kick it in the guts and have it running well.

    Keep up the good work,
    All the best,
    Craig Hannan

  30. Hello again Steve. Have had another read through your achievements. The effort, passion, energy and personality you have of portraying your story is admirable. I still even have the news paper cutting from years ago of your edible park. You are and allways have been a darn good bloke :-)

  31. Hey Steve .. it’s been suggested I contact you ( by Cecilia McCauley) and I’ve been following this thread and now wondering what you’re up to these days ? I’m keen to talk about about a project I’m working on in the Middle East. Please let me know the best way to contact you directly. Cheerio

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