Reading week in Uganda….

Reading Week in Uganda…

Self Help Africa is an international charity that promotes and implements long-term rural development projects in Africa.”

The main aim of the charity is to provide the people of under-developed countries with the means to help themselves, and aid them in developing their own skills and practices, to ensure a brighter and more promising future for their families. Our group of 12 musicians, friends, and coworkers, took a trip to Uganda, during the mid-term break of October 2013, in order to learn from the people themselves about how the charity has helped the various communities in the past few decades. With the aid of TreeLight Pictures, our experiences were documented on film, and will hopefully be shown on TG4 in the near future. Here is an account of our experiences…..

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Long journeys like this have a way of catching up on you. My suitcase is still strewn open next to the washing machine, and I’m slightly nervous to remove everything for fear of the layer of reddish-coloured dust that covers everything being spread all over the house. While it’s all still fresh in my mind I feel I better write it down, but everything is still a bit hazy – it feels a bit like a dream.
The mountains of pictures that we took have filled up multiple memory cards, and the jetlag has finally begun to set in as I reassess the amount of college work that was supposed to have been done all week….

First world problems aside, the world that we have just been a part of for a mere few days is stuck in my head; images of raggedly-clothed children squealing ecstatically and rampaging in a herd at the sight of a balloon; small classrooms filled to capacity with the eager minds of 150 shaved young heads; an acute awareness of the fact that many of these children are already married – Uganda is a different world.

On our arrival we were driven in jeeps from Entebbe Airport, through streets littered with people (even at 2am), across the city on roads that even Kildare County Council would deem unfit for moving vehicles. As we bumped and swayed over the rocks and cavernous potholes that make up the roadways, the horn sounding with the onset of every other vehicle we met, scooter-bikes overtook and weaved around us like ants, carrying huge loads of people and goods that you could never imagine would fit atop a 15 year-old Honda scooter. One particular man I saw had managed to balance an entire mattress and three water-containers between himself and a woman sitting side-saddle behind him. The lack of road markings or signs led to a mass congregation of vehicles, honking and pushing forward towards the source of whatever conjestion existed, promptly ceasing to do so at the sight of the machete-armed-policemen who patrol the streets unchecked.
A similarly huge rifle guarded the entrance of the hotel we stayed in that night – looking slightly out-of-proportion in the arms of a young man who smiled and nodded to us on entry. There wasn’t much difference in the hotel itself with any normal hotel at home, though the beers in the bar downstairs “Tuskers”, and “Nile” succeeded in finally cementing in our heads that we had made it to Africa.

The following morning we were greeted with an unexpectedly delicious breakfast of omlette and fruit, the pineapple quickly being established as the fruit most-likely to be gobbled up and eaten already, should you happen to ignore the early-rising sun and sleep on late through the morning – late being considered half 8 or 9 o’clock. That first day in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, started with the intention of finding Keith a new djembé drum, and so we set off with our guides (native men whom we christened Eoin and Paul) to trawl through the markets and busy streets of the city.
Though the day had started off with a bright and scorching sun, a sort of glow that I discerned on the first day to be infinitely different from any “hot” day in Ireland, around midday signaled the onslaught of a downpour the likes of which we had never experienced before. One minute I was sweating and jumping ninja-like from one patch of shade to another (a skill which many gingers have learned to perfect), and the next the heavens had opened and suddenly the heavy droplets were soaking every inch of us as the city turned into one big puddle- it was all we could do to find shelter in a coffee shop.
One thing I think we all noticed about Uganda, was that its citizens are never, ever in any rush. They do not hurry. To do anything. Not even to drive. I’d like to say that we were in that coffee shop for a little more than 2 hours and that we had a grand old time laughing and hanging around after we’d finished our drinks, but in reality, it was a little more than 2 hours before we RECEIVED our orders, and were to the point of not even wanting them anymore by the time they arrived. We ate/drank, paid grudgingly, vowed never to return to the shop, and proceeded to be frisked by small men with big guns (not the muscley kind) on the way into the supermarket next door. After a bit more market-hopping and haggling, we ate in a fast food place (again, fast being a source of much irony in this situation), and some the lads had a very interesting experience in a pub/club which turned out to be a brothel in their innocent search for a crate of beer. On escaping, they returned with the beer and we proceeded to have a wander up to the roof of the hotel to see the city during the night.

The following day dawned, and we were forced to say goodbye to the luxury of the hotel with it’s flushing toilets and working electricity. We piled on to the bus, instruments, cameras, and suitcases in tow, and headed out to the rural district of Kayunga, about an hour and a half drive out from Kampala.
As we drove, I couldn’t help but notice that the further out we got, the poorer and poorer our surroundings became. Multi-storey buildings gradually became tiny single storey red-brick houses, which then became flat, clay-made huts. Their occupants were strewn out all over the countryside; sitting outside the huts on chairs preparing food or clothing, working in the surrounding fields, or carrying unimaginable weights on the top of their heads along the street. However heartwrenching it was to see young children playing barefoot with sticks and tyres in the street, in a twisted way, these typical images of rural African society were something we had been expecting. These are the images we have been presented with since we took home that first trocaire box back in Junior Infants. So, in all honesty, it didn’t surprise me. We have gotten to the stage where we are aware of the difference between our cultures being just so vast that we have stopped trying to come to terms with it, and have just accepted it as something that IS, and has been for the past hundreds of years. Instead of trying to understand it and to help in some small way to change it, we have gone on living our lives in our developed society, dimly aware of the difficulties faced by the people in third-world countries, yet ultimately clueless and helpless as to how to aid them. By the end of our visit, we had realized that our very presence in the country was something that suggested, for the most part, a strange element of hope and positivity; proof that there is an alternative to the hardship they face day after day.

What did surprise me was the pure vibrance and vitality of everything around us. The vegetation itself seemed to glow with a beautiful healthy green hue, the fertility of the land making up for the low industrial production levels. As we turned off the bumpy road and into Ndeeba Senior Secondary School, the place came to life around us, the young people pointing excitedly at the bus, as the “Mazunga” (white man) finally arrived. We were treated to a display of traditional drumming and dancing from the school choir on our arrival, a rendition of their national anthem (which has been stuck in my head ever since, “Oh U-GAAANda”) and the principal of the school led us in prayer. We were asked to perform a song as a group, and so we quickly pulled together and produced slightly rough –and –ready versions of two of our best songs, afterwards being struck with the realization that they were expecting an explanation regarding the meaning behind the songs. Keith and Stiofán thankfully saved the day by insisting that we had been singing mainly about love and togetherness in the Irish language, (which, in a roundabout way, I suppose we had), and this seemed to satisfy the crowd, who erupted in a rhythmic applause. Relieved that we had delivered some aspect of what the school had been expecting from us, we settled down to a meal with the teachers and administration, outside in the school grounds, in a clearing of trees under the sun.

Although we had been entirely unsure of what to expect when it came to food and nutrition, I think I can speak for us all when I say we were pleasantly surprised. The diet of the school consisted mainly on starchy foods, the various forms of carbohydrates being complimented by chunks of the freshest fruit imaginable. They piled our plates high with roast potatoes, rice, noodles, banana mush (a local substitute for mashed potato), beans, and pumpkin. The unidentified chunks of meat I avoided, but I heard from others were extremely tasty – the soup in which it came proving a delicious alternative for gravy or sauce for the potatoes. There was plenty of food to go around, and some people even went up for seconds. Even still, I felt rude when I found that they had piled my plate with more than I could finish off, and discreetly shared my leftovers with others around me.

After dinner we were brought to the hall in which we would be staying, given bamboo mats and mosquito nets – a luxury that half the students in the dorms of the school aren’t even privy to – and a box of bottled water.
We were then asked would we like to sit in on some of the classes, where we experienced the overcrowding difficulties faced by the school first hand. In one classroom, 150 students sat chattering and giggling as one teacher attempted to teach about 17th century African History from his one textbook, while the students scribbled notes. Even though those towards the back of the room were clearly having difficulty hearing what was going on, those up towards the front made up for it, frequently asking questions and answering those posed by the teacher correctly. I found myself falling asleep with the heat and then shaking myself awake as the students stared – something they had not stopped doing since our entrance into the room. The intelligence of the students was evident as they took down word for word what the “Master” said, and answered difficult questions posed at the end of the class.
After classes, we headed down with the students to the football pitch, where we took part in a match between two girls’ team, dividing so that there were three of us on each team. The kids on the sidelines went crazy at the prospect of a goal from either side, the cheers and clapping adding to the atmosphere and spurring both teams on even more to score. Daithi and Rónán proved particularly popular among the onlookers, and the final score of 1-1 leading into penalties had the schoolkids squealing with excitement – the kind of reaction you’d see in movies, only this time, they were fully “ar bís” about the whole thing. I suppose it must have been one of the few opportunities they get for recreation and fun, and so a lot of energy went in to making it as best as it could possibly be, which is definitely to be said with regards to the teams playing – their energy and enthusiasm really showed us all up!

Chatting to some of the young girls after the match, I realized how directed the society is towards marriage and producing children. “Are you married?” “How many children have you got?” “Is this your real hair?” Their reaction when I told them I am not married and do not intend to marry for many years was one of shock and misunderstanding, something which I am sure we all echoed in our reactions to certain other parts of their society also.

After supper; another helping of the leftover foods from dinner, we decided to get a taxi into the town to see if we could find a bar of some sort to relax and discuss the events of the day. With the help of Madame Annette, the principal of Ndeeba, we found our way to the bar in a hotel about a 15 minute drive from the school. We proved unexpected guests for the staff of the hotel. Their modestly stocked fridge was emptied within two rounds, and we slowly began to realize that this sort of recreation was not something the Ugandan people were used to experiencing, as the teachers who had accompanied us informed us that this was the first time they’d ever been out doing something of the sort. We returned to the school hall and settled down for the night in our sleeping bags atop the bamboo mats, and began trying to complete the song that we had come to record with the schoolchildren.

The following day we were each paired with a particular student, and we spent an hour or so chatting to them and getting to know them. The aim was to spend as much time as possible with this particular group of students, and get to know them personally, in order to gain a unique insight into their world and be able to experience their daily lives as they live them. My partner was named Jen, and she told me of her father’s death and her family’s struggle to pay school fees, and of her daily routine, which consisted of going to school, and then cooking and cleaning when she returned home. As the eldest child of the family, she was responsible also for taking care of her 3 younger siblings whenever their mother was not around, and as we talked she became emotional as she spoke of her desire to attend college after her Senior 6 year, but told me that the chances of her being able to afford it were very, very slim. It was clear to me that Jen was a highly intelligent and diligent student, and it was absolutely heart-breaking to speak to her and realize first-hand the hardships she and her peers go through every day, just struggling to make a path for themselves in the world, through the overcrowded schools and streets of this poverty-stricken world. After this humbling first encounter with our partners, we devised a sort of timetable as to who would go visit each student when, to ensure that the camera crew were able to capture everyone’s experiences equally.

Each of the daily chores we took part in, whether it was the collection of water, chopping firewood, picking coffee beans, cooking traditional dishes, tending to the animals, or weeding crops, are all a part of the everyday life of these schoolchildren. Instead of recreational time after or before school hours, every minute of these children’s day is planned and set out before them, each hour dedicated to furthering and helping themselves to sustain their families. For some of them, their efforts are the dominant source of income for the family, often they were the primary breadwinners for a clan of up to eight or nine younger siblings. All of this on top a sixteen-seventeen hour day, and the pressures of studying to achieve the best results they can glean from their exams, in order to strengthen the ever-decreasing possibilities of being able to afford to go to college. It is an endless struggle.

Through interacting with teachers in the school who are also parents to children of school-going age, we discovered that it costs a family 1 million Ugandan shillings to send their child to a University. Considering 3,500 shillings is the equivalent of 1 euro, we worked out that this fee amounts to a mere €285 euro per annum. Considering that education currently remains the most important factor in escaping poverty, the demand on these courses is very high, and so only the best students get accepted, even after striving for years to obtain the grades and fees they require to enter. As Madame Annette informed us sadly, there were very few students that we saw about us in the school that would ever make it that far. For this reason, the teachers in the school were fully dedicated and directed to providing the best possible education for their students, while they had the chance.

As the days went by, we began to get a feel for the rural life in Kayunga, and we formed bonds both with the students we were paired with, and hundreds of others who crowded around us at breaktimes to ask questions and share ideas and stories. From observing their reactions and conversations with us and with one another, is clear that they learned as much from us as we did from them. In throwing together our two contrasting cultures and backgrounds, we did what humans do best, and adapted to our new surroundings. We ate their food, and learned some of their language, while they learned some of ours, and learned somewhat of the customs and differences within our society, some of which none of us may have considered before. Our visit to them was an unusual occurence, and they marked it as often as they could by inviting us to participate in their school events, such as judging a school debate, reading from the Bible and offering songs at their religious service, teaching us to play their instruments and to do their native dance steps. The entire experience was enriched by our closeness and proximity to the people; the insights we were granted truly helped us experience their lives exactly as they are, and was not, as other charity organizations may promote, merely observational.

As part of their “Harvest” festival, which we understood to be a kind of Halloween celebration, a church service was given outdoors in the courtyard of the school, again a vibrant celebration of singing, dancing, and traditional drumming. The pastor spoke and led us in prayer, and then called for a representative from each school year to bear a small round basket up to the front of the congregation. She then called for the “offerings”, and every student proceeded to place a small item or gift in the baskets, corresponding to their year group. When all the offerings had been received, the basket-bearers crouched down to assess their plunder, and a senior student was chosen to present each item separately to the congregation. Each item was then “auctioned” off to the students and staff, as they bartered with one another to achieve the highest price possible for the goods (items such as mango fruits, limes, ground beans, sugar canes, and pumpkins), in order to exchange them for money. Two items that caused a bit of a stir were a pair of brightly coloured lollipops, offered to a basket by Muzzy, who had brought them from Ireland. The bidding went higher and higher between our host; a Senior 6 boy named David, and Ronan, who was bidding on behalf of the pastors’ son, a small child named Jesse, who had entertained us all during the service by waddling around the open space between his mother and the students as she gave her homily. In the end, they came to a compromise, and shared the sweets. All the money that was received from the auction went to the church, and not the school, as we had anticipated. The winning year group was the one whose basket had collected the most money. When all the goods had been auctioned off, the service ended, and dinner was served to us outdoors in the same green clearing of trees.

Also in the grounds of the Secondary school, lay a primary school, a church, and an orphanage. Two Senior 5 boys took it upon themselves to give us a brief tour of the grounds, where they showed us into the dormitories and dilapidated primary school classrooms. On approaching “Compassion”, the name of the orphanage, we witnessed dozens of very young children having been left to their own devices on rusty swings and metal slides that looked as if every member of the community had at one stage braved a jump from them. The boys told us that a vast amount of children were cared for in the orphanage, the most common factor in their parents’ deaths being diseases such as malaria and HIV. In a similar situation to the primary and secondary schools, many of the children themselves were also HIV positive, or were suffering from similarly debilitating diseases. You only had to look closely at the skin of many of them to observe an assortment of ominous lumps, bumps, cuts and scars for which an explanation was not always desirable. Our two guides informed us that they were lucky in that their families could afford medication for malaria, and that they thanked God daily for their fortune. Indeed, their faith was again evident when a shout came from inside the orphanage telling us to clear off, that we had no right to be on the grounds, and they quickly ushered us away insisting that they would have to pray to God for forgiveness that evening.

Our unique interactions with these young people really served to firmly cement in our minds the vast cultural and societal differences that exist between our countries. Given that some of the students of Ndeeba Senior Secondary school were no more than 4-5 years younger than most of us, their hardships really hit home as we were able to compare our own experiences of secondary school with theirs. The outside worries and preoccupations of a 17-year-old girl in Ireland, when put into context with the troubles of these diligent and talented students, seem distant and irrelevant – a mere shadow of the concerns facing the students of Ndeeba.

We had noticed over the few days in the school that the teenagers’ love for song and dance was a place where they formed a strong bond amongst themselves. As we had planned, we set aside an afternoon to teach them certain parts of our song, both as gaeilge and in their own Bugandan language. Together, we settled on the phrase “Kwegata bue bugumu”, which means “united we are strong” – an adaptation of the Irish phrase “Ar scáth a chéile”, which also features in the song. The talent and enthusiasm of the students was again evident as they picked up the tune and the words as gaeilge within a few minutes of hearing us sing it – and the energy they brought to it! We got excited just listening to them, the song having been brought to life by their voices. We knew then that we were creating something extremely special, and could not wait to shoot the video the following evening.

As the final evening in Ndeeba arrived, we all gathered for one final time with the students and staff to pray once again, and the school choir gave us one last rendition of the Ugandan national anthem, which by now was stuck in all of our heads. The dancers and drummers performed once again, this time with cameo appearances from Jenny and Stiofán, whose newly-perfected skills proved a source of much hilarity for many of the students (and us too, if we’re being honest). Finally, the cameras rolled for the last time, and we sang “Ar scáth a chéile” together in the clearing of the trees, the music and bilingual lyrics capturing perfectly the bond we had formed during our short visit. The sun went down, yet we continued on singing again and again, the image of the children dancing and singing as gaeilge being one that will stay with me for a very long time to come.
The following morning before we said our goodbyes, we recorded the audio track for the song, which saw the school choir gathered around a single boom mic, as they sang their parts perfectly in the open air. We then planted six trees around the grounds of the school, to mark our visit, and gathered around the packed-up bus to take photographs and say goodbye to the students we had gotten to know. This proved to be far more emotional than any of us had anticipated, as both the students and teachers thanked us endlessly and asked for photographs to remember us by – many of them requesting our email addresses and phone numbers. A final goodbye, a scramble through the crowd to reach the bus, and we were waving helplessly out the window as some of the older students wiped tears from their eyes. To see the effect we had had on many of the students was, as we drove away, both a source of comfort and of pain, as though we knew we had in impacted them positively in many ways, we knew there was only a certain amount that could possibly have been achieved in the space of a few days. It was a bittersweet departure, as the promise of a shower, real toilets and a comfy bed lay ahead of us, while we left behind a world where such things had never been experienced by most of it’s young inhabitants.

******

Following our departure from Kayunga, we headed to Jinga, a bigger and wealthier town about an hour and a half drive away. Jinja is home to the source of the River Nile, a large tourist attraction, which more than likely is the dominant source of the city’s income. After lunch in a fancy hotel overlooking the Nile, which seemed all the more luxurious after the stay in Kayunga, we got excited at the appearance of a troop of monkeys in the grounds around us, and spent a good hour amusing ourselves by testing their limits and seeing how close we could get, whilst feeding them limes from the surrounding trees. From there, we headed on to the banks of the Nile, where we hopped on a small cruise-boat, and headed out to Lake Victoria. We had been told we would be camping the night on an island of some sort, and so we had agreed that one more night sleeping on the ground wasn’t going to be too bad. The trip out on the boat was absolutely exhilarating after spending days in the sweltering heat, and within the same compound of the school. The sun was setting as we arrived on the island, a secluded bird sanctuary named “Samuka Island”, and on discovering that we were to be the sole occupants for the night, save the three workers who lived there, our spirits soared and we immediately headed for the swimming pool, followed by a delicious meal of fresh-fish in the adjoining bar.

They had anticipated our coming, and arranged for us to have a campfire once the sun went down, and so we sat and talked, letting the events of the past few days sink in. One of the three employees proved to be a skilled guitarist, and he treated us to some of his native Kenyan music, then asked to hear some of our music too, and so we went on late into the night. I forced myself to bed, as the prospect of a sunrise on an island in the middle of Lake Victoria in Africa was something I was certain would not present itself to me again very soon, and I was right.
We awoke to the chirping of the hundreds of resident birds around us, a proceeded to climb the viewing tower towards the east of the island. It started off slow – a definite brightness in the distance, complimented by a rising cacophony of birds chattering and squawking around us. By 6.15am, the colours on the horizon had formed a pinky-blue kind of eerie hue, with an orange glow blending up behind them into a stunning orb of light that rose higher and higher with astonishing speed – by 6.30 the sun had fully risen, and fishermen on tiny gondola-boats were bathed in a fresh warm light as they skillfully trawled the calm sea for their morning catch.

The experience was over all too soon, as after a hurried breakfast we gave our thanks to the resident workers, and stepped back on to the boat that would take us back to the mainland. A long drive followed, as our trip finally came to a close. Stopping off in Jinja again to see the rapids was a great experience, the raging waters also proving a great attraction with practiced white-water rafters, and novices alike. Our schedule didn’t allow us to give it a go however, as we needed to be back in Entebbe in time for our flight that evening. Another stop off in a hotel in the centre of a rainforest saw the last supper for our group, after which we headed back on through the city, watching as the vastly populated streets brought the day to a close, people and scooters weaving and beeping past us as they aimed to beat the sunset home, the lights appearing, and streetside fires gradually burning brightly now for light instead of food preparation. It was time to go home.

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