Reflections on HEFAT in Uganda

Tendai Marima

Living on an island with white sandy beaches, coconut trees along the shore and birds that sing sweetly at all hours might sound like the dream, but our time on Uganda’s beautiful Bulago Island has come to an end after three days of Hostile Environment First Aid Training (HEFAT). Instead of sipping shandies and relaxing along Lake Victoria’s shoreline on Bulago Island, we’ve had intense safety training sessions in preparation for our different reporting trips in northern Uganda as part of the IWMF Great Lakes Reporting Initiative. I did HEFAT again after having done it 9 months ago in Kenya, and this was a great refresher course. Re-learning the things that seemed so hard months ago – when to use which which dressing and the different ways in which CPR must be done – has been very useful.

Minus the self defense drills which need loads more practice, I think I’m starting to get the hang of things and the sessions I liked the most were the first aid sessions and the scenarios. The mock terrorist attack was pretty good, even though it was just an exercise, there were scary adrenaline-charged moments. I was hiding in the closet with another fellow and as the attackers were getting closer, shouting and shooting at people, my heart was racing and I was praying, “Please don’t find me, don’t kill me!”.

The first IWMF HEFAT course has taught me to prioritize my safety as I’ve been covering violent protests over the past few months, I’ve put a lot more thought into when to pull out of certain situations and how to avoid getting into trouble with rowdy protesters or the police. We did some mini-scenarios on how to handle different protesters this weekend and this little session was a big plus for me.

Added to that, this Uganda training session has taught me one crucial lesson on safety; always be aware because the risk is everywhere. All the situational scenarios we did such as a terrorist shooting in a hotel, a kidnapping while walking in the bush and being caught up in a hostile confrontation between refugee groups taught me that anything can happen anywhere. Naively, I’d always considered the latter situation as external to me, as an outsider and a problem faced by aid workers as they’re in the field daily. But I totally get it now, Uganda may not be a high-risk environment, but every place has its hazards. Further, while the mock-ups emphasized the importance of always being conscious of risks, being aware of the weird ways in which one’s deep-seated fears can come to the surface in a hostile situation is equally important.

Soon we’ll be heading northwards and I’m really looking forward to the trip and the many more lessons to be learnt on the road and on the ground.

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 -Tendai Marima