It’s put about at school that a female member of staff is wanted to join a school trip to Uganda in October. I am familiar with this trip, as it’s run several times now, and it seems right up my street. I tentatively show an interest, but worry that it will be beyond my financial means.
The trip is organised by Amigos, a charity based in Barnstaple (my nearest town), whose aim is to bring about, through training and education, self-supporting communities across Uganda. Their current projects include Kira Farm Development Centre, drilling of bore holes, child sponsorship, building rainwater harvesting jars, teaching sustainable farming, and microfinance.
I am amazed to hear that not only have I been selected, but the cost is not too crippling; with some scrimping and working extra hard, I think I can afford it.
We are on our long summer break from school now. I begin to think about Uganda and pay a visit to Amigos head office…….which sounds rather grand. In fact it is a humble space above a small shop on the edge of the town’s retail heart. An office space and a storeroom. Phil Pugsley, who started Amigos in 2000 and is its CEO, is there to greet me with a smile. Although I have dropped in unannounced, Phil makes me feel like a VIP. In his smiling and extremely soft-spoken way, he shares all kinds of information with me about the charity’s work, travel essentials, anecdotes about previous trips, Uganda’s geography and history. After an hour I feel like I am fully prepared and raring to go.
Back at school, I make contact with the four students I’ll be travelling with. We’ll be joining a group of 16 students and two staff from a neighbouring school. At first we discuss vaccinations we’ll be needing, malaria tablets etc., then the kind of things we’ll be taking out with us. As we are travelling with a charity we can take two bags each (2 x 23kg) which is massive. Phil has given me a list of items that are desperately needed; they include mobile phones, laptops, tablets, cameras, clamps and planes for carpentry, fabric, sturdy shoes, sports equipment, coats. We start to gather as many of these items as we can by appealing to friends and families.
3 weeks to go! My group is meeting weekly now, just for 20 minutes or so. We talk about our expectations, our visions, what we hope to achieve, how we think we’ll cope with the culture shock. We discuss basic differences between the UK and Uganda in terms of infrastructure, landscape, living standards, education, employment and everything else we can think of. We share our thoughts on western aid to poverty stricken regions and what is good and bad charity. We think we are prepared.
The day has finally come! We drag our sizeable luggage onto the minibus – it’s 2.30am and a fairly balmy night which is good as we are dressed for the tropics. The village is completely empty except for this small handful of families handing over their children to me – all extremely proud; also anxious and emotional. I hope that my brave face and assurances are enough to send them back home with confidence. No tears that I can see; I’m sure those will come later when they are reunited. We pick up two staff members from the other school, then are on our way to Bristol Airport for the 6.30am flight to Amsterdam. We find the rest of our group in the check-in area. All together we are 26.
Our connecting flight from Schiphol is an eight hour stretch to Kigali. Passengers really seem to be taking the Deep Vein Thrombosis advice to heart – I’ve never seen so much activity on a flight. People are strolling around the cabin, doing some gentle exercise and chatting in the aisles. After an hour on the runway at Kigali, the last leg of our flight finally gets underway. The KLM crew are really excellent and look after us well. The airport at Entebbe is as basic as it gets, but everything runs smoothly and swiftly. Until today, my only reference point on Entebbe is the PLO hostage crisis in 1976 when I was the same age as these students I’m now accompanying. Our group’s enormous stack of luggage certainly raises a few eyebrows from our fellow passengers. En masse we move to the exit and are thankful to see the smiling faces of Joshua and Joseph, Amigos staff, to meet us. We are to travel in three vehicles on the two hour drive to our final destination. It’s 11pm, fairly humid and pleasantly warm. We are all itching to get a good look at our new surroundings, but it’s just too dark. The way is quite bumpy, and we can’t see much more than small bars and shops by the side of the road, and dozens of men on motorcycles waiting for who knows what. I suppose they must be taxis, but there’s very little business to go round. I want to take everything in, but am so exhausted that I finally drop off to sleep, but not for long. The last mile or so to Kira Farm is extremely bumpy – every time it rains, more of the dirt road is washed away, and dips and gullies get larger and larger. At times it really feels like the bus will tip over. At 1am we arrive at our base for the next 11 days; there is hot tea and bananas waiting for us.
I awake pretty early, around 7am, take a cold shower under the dribble of water available in my en suite, then meet up with Archie who has also woken up early. We take a stroll around the farm with our cameras. It’s so peaceful and beautifully green and lush. The sky is a delicate shade of pink, and an ethereal mist hangs over the fields by the river. I soon begin to spot many familiar plants which also grow in Thailand; papaya, mango, banana, lemon grass, sugar cane; also many I don’t recognise. Brightly coloured birds are flitting around – I immediately know I’m going to love it here.
The rest of our party are pretty sluggish, but everyone has made it out of bed by 9am and we share our first breakfast together on the top floor of the banda (the large wooden house where we are staying). There are imported cereals, baked beans, sausages and toast. I stick to yoghurt and the tiny lemony bananas which will be a permanent fixture throughout our stay, in huge bunches. Things are pretty subdued and well-mannered so far, as we are not yet all well-acquainted with each other. This will not last for long!
Kira Farm is a development and training centre which takes 40 trainees annually, from all over Uganda; young people who have grown up in poverty and suffered the effects of AIDS/HIV and war. The trainees stay for one year and receive vocational training in a variety of skills including sustainable farming, building, carpentry, tailoring and hairdressing, environmentally friendly technologies, business and communication.
The trainees are nearing the end of their year long stay at Kira, and will soon be returning to their villages, hopefully equipped with enough knowledge to set them up in employment or to share with others in their community the new skills they have acquired. After our breakfast, we are shown around the farm by some of the trainees. Each trainee has their own vegetable plot where they tend maize and beans, and there are other garden areas where they are growing cabbages, onion, salad leaves, avocados, tapioca, okra, peas and rice. Everything is orderly, tidy and looking very strong and healthy. Over the next ten days I will not see any maize on our travels around the country which is as tall or as robust as it is right here.
Later, walking through the adjacent village to the local water supply, we stop to meet a woman who has been loaned a sewing machine by Amigos in order to start her own small tailoring business. She now makes school uniforms from home and is able to support her family. She tells us that her ten year old son makes two trips to the communal tap every morning before he goes to school (unusual, as this is commonly girls’ work – she obviously has no daughters). It’s probably about a half mile round trip, and the water container holds 20 litres, which weighs 20 kilograms. One of the boys in our group offers to fill a container and drop it back at the house. We walk on to the village tap, and find it out of order. The only water now available is a murky pool. We are told that the chances of getting ill from drinking this water is 100%. Walking back to the seamstress’s house, our students start to appreciate how draining the water run can be in this heat.
Our day ends with a visit to the local school playing field where the trainees (the majority barefoot) have challenged the North Devon students to a football match. The Ugandans win a decisive victory.
After dinner, we hear from Amigos staff about the reality of living in poverty for the majority of Ugandans. After decades of war, massive government corruption and AIDS, the demographics of Uganda are unusual. Half the population is under fifteen years of age; a great many of them are orphans. Only two percent of the population is over 65. So much wisdom missing. Young people have grown up severely lacking good advice and counsel from their elders. Unemployment of under 25s is currently at about 80%, which brings home just how important the work of Amigos on Kira Farm is. Across rural Uganda, the main occupation is subsistence farming. Every household grows a small amount of crops for their own use (maize, beans, bananas, tapioca etc) and hopefully has a little left over that they can sell in order to buy other essentials like charcoal (for cooking), matches, sugar, cooking oil. The fortunate ones will be able to buy school uniform and stationery so that their children can attend school. Amongst those, few will be able to afford a school dinner, so the children are more often than not hungry and thirsty at school, not to mention already exhausted after first having to collect water for the running of the home. It’s little wonder that many children are well into their teens before they pass their primary 7 exam which enables them to go on to secondary school.
By 9am, it’s already incredibly hot. Our students go to help trainees harvest sweet potatoes at various locations on the farm. The tool of choice for this is a simple stick about 10 – 12 inches long. Potatoes are then peeled ready for today’s meals – they are a staple of the trainees and seem to be eaten three times a day. The students then take on a teaching role and help the trainees get to grips with email and other tasks on the computer – hopefully they have been of some benefit.
The temperature has been rising steadily, and in mid afternoon we get some relief as the heavens open and there is a short rainfall. Next, a huge treat and the highlight of my trip; the trainees perform a show of tribal singing and dancing to reflect their culture. The women are dressed in red striped skirts of kikoy fabric and have incredible skill in isolating their hips in a locking movement; the men are adorned with body paint, some masked, carrying spears and shields, or with cloaks of animal skin, and looking fearsome.
Accompanied by fantastic and sometimes frenzied drumming, this is one of the most spectacular and positively prurient dance shows I’ve ever seen. We are told that some of these sequences are courtship rituals, and I must say they are sizzling hot!
Sunday 23rd October
This morning, like 80% percent of Ugandans, we are going to church. Unlike most of the country, however, we are going to Watoto Church in Kampala, a pentecostal church founded by Pastor Gary Skinner, the son of white missionaries in Zimbabwe. The Watoto organisation works to help children orphaned by AIDS, but outside Uganda is lambasted for its homophobic stance, particularly the fact that it was instrumental in the formation of Uganda’s brutal Anti-homosexuality Bill. There are 2,000 people in this former cinema; many of them seem to be fairly comfortably off Ugandans. The front couple of rows are taken up by Canadians, of whom a huge fuss is made.
The whole experience is out of this world. A glitzy and glamorous event with loud live rock music, beautiful and charismatic people on the stage cranking up the excitement, a smartly co-ordinated choir of angelic voices, in-your-face bright, colourful video with images of perfect, happy Ugandans living dazzling perfect lives, money, money, money, and people enthusiastically giving it to the church – in fact, something far removed from our brief experience of Uganda so far.
Travelling through Kampala later that evening, many bars are absolutely crammed to overflowing. What do these bars have in common? They are all showing that evening’s Premier League fixture between Man Utd and Chelsea. Any bar without a TV is making no money tonight!
Monday 24th October
Up at dawn, as today will be “Life of a Kira Farm trainee”. Students are due to help at the goat enclosure, chicken enclosure or rabbit barn before breakfast. About half make it out of bed early enough. The goats are released from their night shed, which needs sweeping out, then milked (with varying degrees of success). The chickens’ outdoor area is cleared to discourage rats. The rabbits are fed and watered and then vast amounts of vegetation is gathered for the green part of their diet. They eat elephant grass, various leafy veg such as cabbage, and the leaves of a native tree grown in the orchard. Today is our first real taste of everyday Ugandan food. Lunch with the trainees consists of posho (maize flour porridge), sweet potatoes, matoke (plantain mashed) and brown bean stew. We later get a chance to spend time in the tailoring and carpentry workshops.
Today several children from the local village come to visit their sponsors who are in our party. They range in age from 6 year old Alan, to nineteen year old Sophina who is about to start University. Gifts of toys and educational supplies are given, lunch offered and a little more knowlege about each others lives shared.
Later around a campfire, all seventy of us, North Devonians and Ugandans, enjoy each others company, stories, cultural facts, music and customs. We are told about the many languages spoken here and the traditional costumes worn. We hear about the dreams and aspirations of our hosts, and try to explain Britishness to them. By the time we reluctantly retire, we feel that friendships are being made here on Kira Farm. We are starting to remember names and faces and find small things we have in common. Some of the trainees are only a few years older than our students, but their life experiences are worlds apart.
Tuesday 25th October
Early mornings are special to me here. I’m usually up and about by 6am, enjoying the peace and quiet to drink tea, catch up with my journal, chat to Simon, the teacher from our neighbouring school, and watch the bird life. There is plenty of it here, and most days the two of us will spend time on the balcony with binoculars and a handy guide to the birds of Uganda.
Some of the species we see are African Fish Eagle, Crested Crane (the national bird of Uganda), Marabou Stork (surely one of the ugliest birds in the world), egret, heron, hawk, kingfisher, swallow, bee-eater and numerous other jewel-bright birds. I learn that Uganda is renowned as the best birding nation in Africa with over 1,000 species.
Today is the first of three days constructing rainwater harvesting jars. We split into three work groups, each led by a Kira Farm builder, and set off to various homes in the adjoining village. My group has the good fortune to be joined by Francis and Isaac from the farm, who turn out to be excellent communicators and teachers. It takes about 10 minutes to walk to our site, and we are set to work moving a large pile of bricks from the roadside to the back of the house. We soon find out that any kind of physical exertion is very quickly draining in this heat, and I’m so glad I have my hat with me. As well as moving bricks, we need to dig a hole for the water jar foundations, mix cement and concrete, lay bricks for the foundation and mix up mud for tomorrow’s daubing. This is the most fun of the day; roll up your trousers, shoes off, pour water on a huge pile of earth and start stomping.
By 7pm I am so exhausted I can barely eat my dinner; my whole body is done in and I can barely even make conversation.
TO BE CONTINUED