Uganda- A Life Changing Experience
Australians who are doing medical mission in Kamwenge Uganda.
As we traveled through Namibia months ago, we came to the conclusion that the only way of really having a deeper experience was to meet or find an organisation that would enable us to live with a family or within a village somewhere in Africa. Where we could live for a while and find out what the caper is with these convoys of brand new Aid vehicles from NGOs and GOs from all over the world we have been seeing, there must be some serious problems.
I’ve mentioned before, that there are village tours offered and in some it is even possible to live in for a few days to participate in village life. This is not what we were looking for. Feels kinda like Human Zoo stuff that I don’t want to be a part of….even if some of the funds go to the community visited. I may be wrong but that’s how it seemed. I know some photographers do this and pay for extended visits to Himba Villages in Namibia and have built strong relationships and amazing images libraries, and good on them. It is a mine field of NGOs out there, some for profit some not for profit. Most were asking fees that are astounding, well beyond what we could afford and it made us wonder where all the cash was going. We saw many in big Hotels having meeting and expensive dinners, we met volunteers confused about why it has cost them so much to stand in a class room and teach, spending more time with other volunteers than finding out about the culture they were in. We met others having the experience they were after, a mix of volunteering and tourism, Known now as the growth industry called Volunteerism.
We also came across a PHD student studying the money trail of large NGOs. She has been working on it for a year and was disillusioned to the point of wanting to quit. There is so much corruption within the organisations and lying about how and who they are helping and failed projects. She believes many are doing more damage than good and in the long term will destroy the reputation of the ones working with integrity. The usual story of highly paid staff, too much paper work and admin, too many new vehicles, many meetings and not enough actual hands on work and much of the work was unsustainable once the NGO pulls out, leaving in their wake disenchanted Volunteers but more importantly disenchanted Mothers and children of the villages they were supposed to be benefiting.
So as our search continued so did our pessimism and suspicion. We drove past village after village grabbing glimpses through the dust, right through remotest Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania. From a drive by perspective everything looked wonderful, people we met were happy, healthy, lacking finances but most, outside cities and towns were living a subsistence lifestyle, that seemed reasonably ideal in a way- everyone looked productive, villages were spotless as were the surrounds and gardens. Most areas lacked electricity and access to water which were the obvious challenges, as men women and children stretched along the roadside with all sorts of water cartage devices, on their heads as well as piles of wood, coal, bananas and other essential items needed to survive day-to-day.
There were also a lot of ripped clothing and shredded shoes. Life was obviously tough and weather plays such a crucial role. A few weeks or months of hot days and no rainfall and most of the areas we traveled would be in big trouble as crops fail and water sources dry up. Namibia was already suffering from drought, with mile after mile of failed crops. Access to education and Health facilities was also a great problem. No vehicles out here, you need to get somewhere or something, you walk. Xaver and Felix were concerned for the children. How far were they walking with these massive loads? Is the water potable, How far does 20l go. “How can such small children be so strong?, don’t they get tired? Must they do this everyday, is the pump hard to use”? When do they go to school? These are some of the questions pondered by Xaver and Felix along the way. It wouldn’t be too long before these questions would be answered through experience, and many more would arise to as we began our stint volunteering. Eventually we found Beacon of Hope based in Mukono, 20km (one hour),outside Kampala in Uganda.
The brief of what we would be doing was somewhat vague but it sounded like a positive impact and learning experience would be had with small, grass-roots, non-denominational NGO. Beacon of Hope is run by a switched on 26 Year Old Ugandan called Isaac. His story of rising from poverty to where he is today, helping those of the Community in which he lives is inspirational to say the least. All of our questions were answered beyond doubt. We knew we had happened upon someone special doing real, sustainable work at Village level. After falling in love with Zambia (yet to be blogged), we were pleased he was flexible enough to accommodate our frequent ETA changes. We eventually arrived at Namubiru Village where we would be based for the first and last weeks of our 4 week stint. Our room had 2 bunks and a place to wash. Two other volunteers joined us for the first week and together in a few intense hours we created a “KIds Go Green” presentation and delivered it to schools in the region over the week. We also “broke the ground on a new education centre/clinic. It was hot hard work digging with a group of men who were amused at our efforts as they powered on and on like machines (“we are machines with blood” one said with a laugh) as we slowly collapsed one by one for lack of energy.
We learned what hard work on one meal a day was all about, the norm for these totally ripped builders. I think the shirtless bodies of these blokes kept the girls enthusiastic for a while though. They just made me insecure. They called me “Slow but Sure” even though I was powering to my limits. The school visits were wonderful and insightful, learning how children walked kilometers to and from school and went all day until around 5pm on just a cup of watery porridge supplied by the schools at lunch time. Teachers are incredibly low paid and also struggled for food. Our first school was a small 2 room mud structure from where about 30 kids came running at our arrival yelling Muzungu, Muzungu and took us by the hands or jumped into our arms for hugs. They were especially interested in Xaver and Felix who were mobbed. We enjoyed a song of welcome from bold beautiful voices and then watched as they sang and danced with the teacher for another good while before our presentation. Xaver and Felix played well with the children at all schools and showed amazing patience but were at times overwhelmed by all the attention. We were already pretty tired by the end of the first week, but it was nothing compared to what was to come during the following 2 weeks. We were going to be with an organisation called Vision2040 Resource Centre.
Solid 10 hour drive across to Western Uganda to Kamwenge with our host Sabiiti Fenekansi. We were welcomed by his Family, Anna who we affectionately called “Maama Trevor”, their 5 year old son Trevor and 6mth old “Baby Brandon”. There were also Mackleen, Rose, Daphene and Innocent who were around to help babysit, cook, clean, fetch water, move the goats and generally look after the household and us as Sabiiti spent his days with us and Maama Trevor was a teacher at a village school.
Truth be told we had no idea what we were going to be doing so it was go with the flow until we got a gist of what was expected of us. We had a room to ourselves. There was no power and we had a few litres of water per day to wash with in a bucket. We were the first Volunteers they had staying with them. They have had one other volunteer who lived with the other partners of V40RC some time ago. As the week progressed we realized what a big deal it must have been to accommodate, and feed a family of 4. I’m sure they would have been nervous of our reaction to their living conditions and whether we would cope, but for us it was perfect.
The boys learned what it was like to live without electricity and running water. It is amazing how the women produced such amazing feasts on 3 tiny charcoal cookers. Every day we would have breakfast of chapatis, Banana, Pineapple, eggs, bread and spreads. Lunch, when we were about was similar to dinner, with pots of Rice, Matooke (mashed cooking bananas), Beans, Cabbage, potatoes, cassava and G-Nut sauce (Ground Nut), which I couldn’t get enough of. In fact we have decided it is the best food we have had in all of Africa.
Often days were long and we would arrive home around 7pm when we were presented with “Tea”, consisting of Bread and honey, tea, chapatis and fruit. We would sit around by lamp light and discuss the days activities. By 9pm dinner was on the table by which time we were well tired and longing to creep under the mozzie nets to rest the mind from its maddening buzz trying to process the day’s experiences. In the end the routine and the warmth of seeing “Maama Trevor” and the kids as we returned each evening was a real warm blanket we all looked forward to. Xaver and Felix attended “Little Angles Primary School. Xaver in P2 and Felix joined Trevor in what they call Top Class. The school consists of 7 tiny class rooms, dirt floors and long wooden Benches, with only natural light coming from the windows. The play Ground was a small bare patch of dirt with a single spinning metal frame with 4 seats for the children to play on. The ball we gave them proved exciting enough for an excursion up to the soccer ground for a couple of hours.
The schooling level was pretty high and Xaver coped well with the challenges presented. I love the way Xaver takes everything in stride, super confident but humble. I know I would have been nervous but he loves to get stuck in. During dinner after their first day, Felix admitted with a crooked smirk that his teacher told him to pick up his pencil, paper and bag and go to the principles office where he spent most of the day. Kindy math and writing was beyond his level.
The only reason X was in 2 minds about returning was because…”the teacher whacked a few of the kids” He didn’t want to experience corporal punishment. With reassurance from everyone that it wouldn’t happen to him he returned and was proud of his daily achievements. He went to school on most days but joined us on visits to projects that Sabiiti thought would be beneficial for the boys to experience also. I was to learn corporal punishment is a common tool in Ugandan classrooms. Teachers are paid around 80-150 dollars per month if I understood correctly and pay is often many months in arrears.
The government pays for some teachers but the school must find the funds for the others. This puts pressure on students to pay school fees, and often told to go home if they can’t be produced on the day. In fact many of the projects we visited over the next 2 weeks were parent inspired initiatives to raise incomes to pay these fees and feed the children.
Many village schools are built from mud and sticks with cow dung floors. Windows are glass less holes in the walls. Often there are know chairs or desks and the kids sit on rocks or mud bricks using the bumpy, sloping floor as a table. On school visits, as we entered each class the children would stand immediately, tall and straight, and in unison chorus a musical “You are Welcome”. One class that left us laughing, when Sabiiti said “Thank You Children, You may sit down”. In strong loud voices they sang “We shall waste no time” and sat. Kira spent a lot of time in a clinic as she had hoped and returned confounded at how little essential resources they had. Most of her patients were suffering from Malaria and or HIV. At least 35 000 of the children in the district of Kamwenge are Orphans, most losing parents from HIV /AIDS. Yes that is the correct number of zeros.
The mortality rate of 5 years and under is around 30-40%. I asked one farmer I met at the daily footy practice in town why he wanted 7 children. “If 3 or 4 die then I still have some children.” But if they all survive feeding and schooling them becomes an impossible task for most. Family planning is being promoted strongly in these areas as is reducing stigma associated with AIDS so more people will seek help. It is working but there seems to be a long way to go. As Kira worked, Sabiiti introduced me to at least 2 projects a day in surrounding villages, many very remote on small tracks that rarely see a vehicle. The meetings were quite formal and usually I’d be introduced to the group by Sabiiti.
The group would tell us, translated by Sabiiti, what it is they are doing, what is needed to get to the next level and why it is they were doing what they were. Silence would then fall and Sabiiti would ask me to say a few words, offer advice and encouragement to the group. I was never asked by Sabiiti to offer any assistance, but it was often difficult to be void of emotion as the passion and purpose of the people was so strong in every case. What could I say, what could I do. I am useless at public Speaking, in fact it has always been my worst nightmare. So I found each day a challenge but somehow relished the challenge realising this is one reason we ended up here. I was to get used to it slowly as I begun to understand what was expected of me. I remember Xaver whispering one time he accompanied us to a project…” Dad, you don’t have to make another speech do you?”
“Fraid so mate”. I was expected to speak and inspire people. From school children to politicians. Thankfully Sabiiti is a fine public speaker and in translation I’m sure he padded my words to an acceptable level. One particularly tough one was being invited to speak at a village rally against Child Sacrifice. On a few occasions I was fighting emotion from what we witnessed and heard which made it difficult to speak at all. I was slill reeling from the shock that Child Sacrifice and Witch Doctors still existed. The children put on a powerful play, songs and poetry explaining the common reasons why parents might hand their children to witch doctors for such brutal insanity.
After the first week we were all suffering mental and cultural exhaustion. Daily life in Uganda is full of hardship that was difficult to grasp. Information overload, and a feeling of helplessness for the cause. What could we as a family do and how do you choose who to help when all are worthy of time and money. There were Bee Keeping projects, farming groups producing, pineapples, coffee and trees as well as cows and chickens. Drama and Dance groups, craft groups, Banana Wine producers. Schools and orphanages. All of them doing extraordinary work in tiny remote villages with the purpose to get food on the table and their children to school.
We were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people we met, invited to share food, song and dance. There was never any pressure on us to commit any assistance. They were grateful for the opportunity to share their stories with us. The most confronting experience was a visit to rwamwanja-refugee-camp. I was expecting rows and rows of tents, housing the 50 000+ refugees, the sort of scene you see on TV back home. This was different. The Government has moved Ugandans off the land as refugees began arriving at the border 12 months ago. Refugees were given a small plot of land, tarps and basic things to build shelter. They were encouraged to cultivate the land. Now we were driving through a series of villages the land productive with Banana, Kasava and other vegetables which are sold at markets in the area for income. They have built mud and sick homes with thatched roofs, improving on their original tarped emergency structures Most are very basic, but there are the occasional works of art.
We first visited the commander in charge, a job I do not envy as more and more people arrive after every eruption of violence in Congo. And they arrive by the busload every day. Visiting the clinic was amazing and the work they are doing is astounding. It is tiny, under staffed of course and has three tented wards. One for Mothers, one for women and another for men open to dust, flys and mozzies. I cannot imagine the scene during the wet season. Sabiiti role within the camp in is concerning Conflict management. Initially the Ugandans who had to move off the land were up in arms, and now there a clashes between differing tribal groups and Nationalities within the camp. Witch Doctors ply their trade swindling the vulnerable with promises of wealth and health in exchange for money, land or children. We met a group of unaccompanied minors.
They have no idea whether their parents are alive or dead, or whether they may one day turn up and be living in the next village. A young boy, with a cane to support his injured foot, maybe 16 years old called Amani (Peace in Swahili), was the spokesman for the group of around 15 boys. He told us of their circumstances. Kira was able to pick up these words from his powerful spontaneous delivery before translation. “Hakuna Chakula”- No Food “Hakuna Pemba” – No Love Hakuna Amani” – No Peace They fended entirely for themselves and the usual sparkle in the children’s eyes was absent. They had constructed crude bunk beds from frames of sticks. They had no mattresses or mats and slept directly upon the sticks. A few had torn light grey blankets that were as good as nothing against the cold nights.
The boys are housed under UN tents on dirt floors. Otherwise they have nothing apart from the clothes they wore. Working in the field to earn money for food and school fees which made it difficult to get to school at all. The cooking shelter was an open stick construction where they made a fire and cooked meals in a couple of pots. The older boys were concerned for the mental and physical health of the younger ones and felt it a great responsibility that they must care for such small children when they need love and care themselves which was not available. Xaver and Felix fell silent a big ask under normal circumstances. Xaver later said he wanted to cry and the image of my son standing dumbstruck by one of the self constructed beds I’ll never forget.
Kira and I both struggled for words, Kira was quite emotional. Amani went on without pause, a boy possessed, for 1/2 an hour about the difficulties they faced and said they may as well be back in the war. Sabiiti organized for us to visit a large farm on the edge of the refugee camp land and gave us an opportunity to get up close to a herd of Mega Horn Cattle (Ankole Cows). This was a nice touch to relieve the boys of the confronting scenes they had just witnessed. It was our second last day with Sabiiti, and we arrived home at 8pm shattered, saddened and confused by this reality check.
The last day the boys and I visited a group of mothers in a remote village who made mats and baskets and ran a catering service in an effort to earn school fees. The mats were immaculately made. Living so remote, what they needed most was a market. We saw an opportunity to assist both the mothers and the young boys we met the previous day. By purchasing mats and donating them to the boys to place over the stick beds affording them at least some comfort. At $8 each these mats are a bargain and thanks to a donation from Kira’s folks, the refugees will have mats on or about the 20th of September as the women are now in full production. With more donations we can supply 3 other groups with these mats. Boys and Girls camps are well separated. It is a great start and if we can eventually cover the costs of blankets as well these guys will be in heaven. I can picture their happiness now and the Mothers will have fees for their children. Win Win!
Every evening we would go and watch the Kamwenge Youth Soccer Team practice. Over the 2 weeks they became friends and Xaver was furious if he missed a session because the lads had taken him under their collective wings and allowed him to join the training exercises and match. They train and play on a sloping bumpy dirt pitch. Many of the young men have heart breaking stories of personal sacrifice. Others are volunteering their time to HIV outreach and education. They are totally dedicated to the game and are talented players. Huge crowds turn out for to watch training and matches. They are an inspiration to the Kamwenge Town. We have sponsored them with a new kit and are working on boots, shin pads and gloves for the goal keepers. There are 20 in the squad and the jumping and dancing they did after Xaver and Felix presented the gear to them was unrestrained joy. Now they look as good as they play. “We are So Happy” We ARE SOOO hAPPY” they sang. They made shin pads from the cardboard packaging. As we left they were folding them up neatly.
Tears were shed as we fare-welled our beautiful and talented host family to head back to Mukono for our final week. There are no words to describe our experience with them and the Love they showed us. The boys have experienced so much they will grow in ways yet to show. They were real champs and I’m crazy proud of them. Strong, energetic, brave and compassionate….little buggers. As a goodbye gift we offered to support the installation of Solar Panels. It was quite a buzz to eat a final meal together in light shed by electricity. Sabiiti is a talented man doing incredible work with very little. A man who has gently opened our eyes to daily life in Uganda and some of the challenges faced. Introduced us to hard-working proud and inspiring people and most of all opened his heart and home along with his family, to allow the most fulfilling experience we as a family could ever have hoped for on this African Journey. People can support either of these organisations by checking out their web pages. We full endorse the work they do. It is Grass-Roots and Sustainable, run by inspirational couple of people who live in the area they are assisting. They are angels!