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Event Photos

It is January 4, 2014 and we had just landed at Uganda’s main airport, Entebbe located 35km south of the capital Kampala. Entebbe is a small airport that looms large in the mind of those old enough to remember the much famed yet failed plane hijacking that took place in July of 1976. The hijacking was supported by Uganda’s then brutal dictator, Idi Amin and strengthened by his country’s military forces. It was, however, ultimately foiled by the covert storming of the airport terminal by Israeli Defence Force commando forces who released the hostages, killed the hijackers along with dozens of Ugandan military personnel and blew up all of Uganda’s air force planes (Russian made MIGs)  – much to the great embarrassment of Uganda’s leader who slept through the encounter.

The airport is a simple structure not unlike many of the buildings encountered as you travel through Uganda and our transit through it was brief and not unpleasant. Assembled was a team of 20 Australians – 2 groups representing the cities of Brisbane and Melbourne. All had come to Uganda to work at the Village of Hope - a housing project established by the Australian NGO and not-for-profit HopeBuilders International (HBI) and built to house Ugandan disadvantaged children.

The roads of Uganda in many ways are a metaphor of the entire country – broken, chaotic, disordered, unregulated – and travelling through the country by bus is a jarring experience, both bodily and sensory. The drive from Entebbe to the village is around 4 hours during which time the scenery changes from the mess of urban sprawl to quieter rural settings back-dropped by lush jungle. We’re heading to ‘Suubi House’ which is a dorm style home built and maintained by HBI to house the many teams that head to Uganda and the Village of Hope – ‘Suubi’ will be our home for the next few weeks and is modest in its offerings, comfortable and clean (it is around 600-700m from the village).

The Village of Hope

The Village of Hope is located 20mins from Uganda’s second largest town and second largest industrial centre, Jinja with a population of around 230,000 souls. Lake Victoria flanks Jinja’s south and feeds the waters that begin the famed river, the ‘White Nile’ which eventually becomes the Nile itself.

The village comprises ten houses (each populated with between 8-10 children of varying ages), a number of administration and farming buildings along with a number of farm animals all atop a parcel of land which is around 3-4 hectares in size. Widows are the primary care-givers to the children in the village and each home has a ‘mumma’ who cooks, cleans and cares for the children designated to her and her house. One medically trained ‘mumma’ acts as triage nurse looking after the occasional and inevitable injuries that occur (all serious injuries are cared for by the local GP and hospital).

Homes for Kids

Each four room home is constructed in typical Ugandan style with mud-brick walls, a concrete floor and simple tin roof. Two rooms are assigned to the children and split between boys and girls, another room is used by the ‘mumma’ and the last room is a common living space used for homework, games and relaxation. Each two homes share a communal, covered open-air kitchen and dining space.

As the building team, we were assigned various roles during our stay at the village – one team was completing a new house, another was extending an administration building while another was erecting a new farm shed to house the farm animals. Ugandan builders oversee all construction, direct traffic and generally maintain the quality of our work.

The days are hot and long and the work is heavy and hard. Our untrained muscles feel the strain as we lug mud-bricks, erect scaffolding, mix concrete, paint, hammer, dig and drill. Most of the time we are being studied by curious children who are interested in us and what we’re doing (it is their school holidays).

There is plenty of ‘down’ time designed to allow us to get to know the children and to simply hang-out with them – a great respite from the work. I make use of this time to chat with kids about their lives and how it was that they came to be in the village.

 

Meet Brenda

Brenda is an articulate, smart fifteen year old girl who has been in the village for four years. She was born in the local Jinja slum and one day while she was still young her mother sought work in Kampala (her father had already died from disease). During this trip her mother was electrocuted while hanging out washing on a clothes line that had been attached to the mains power in a bid to keep some annoying birds away – no one told mum that the line was alive with mains power. Brenda and her siblings were taken in by their grandmother who attempted to care for them in her one bedroom slum dwelling. Each day was a constant search for food, broken education and always the threat of disease and danger from roaming predators seeking to abuse young girls. HopeBuilders heard about Brenda and so invited her and her siblings into the village.

Speaking with Brenda it soon became apparent that many of her girlfriends who remained in the slum now had children of their own – they no longer attended school but toiled to feed and care for their infants in the slum. Many turn to prostitution as a means of income (prostitutes can make around $1000-2000 Ugandan Shillings per encounter – which is between 50c and $1 in Australian money – enough for a small coke in Uganda). For them the cycle of poverty and abject misery continues.

I looked at Brenda and asked her what she wanted to do with her life now she was in the village – she replied, ‘I want to be an engineer!’ Good on you Brenda.

Meet Sam

Sam is a great kid who was rescued from the slum some years back and is now something of a big-brother to many of the boys in the village, helping to keep the peace when things get a bit rowdy. His life before the village was filled with the daily struggles of finding enough food to eat as a young boy.

One way to make money in the slums was to forage in the rubbish dump for any metal scraps and then sell anything found to the metal collectors who called in on the slums every now and again. One kg of metal waste equates to around $500 Ugandan Shillings (around $0.25 in Australian money).

His education in the state run school suffered dramatically, as did his health (it should be noted Ugandan schools can get to 1 teacher per 200 students). He was once chased by a witch doctor through the slums but escaped.

Child sacrifice is still active in Uganda and a child’s decapitated head is worth big money for those seeking good luck (the child’s head is buried in the foundations of the home or business according to witchcraft practises). As recently as Dec 23, 2013 a headless child’s body was found close to the Jinja slum.

But Sam is safe now and thriving at the village - he's a smart kid, fun loving and great with the younger boys.

Meet Winnie

Winnie is a sweet teenage girl who lived in the slum with her sibling and three cousins, all of whom had lost their parents through HIV/AIDS. They were looked after by their grandmother (who spoke to me about the loss of the children’s mothers - her own daughters - and the pain she had felt to see her grandchildren become disadvantaged children).

Winnie worked to feed the younger children by collecting waste metals from the garbage dumps around the slum and any money earned was put towards paying for food. Winnie told me that they might sometimes have meat to eat (once a month), but mostly survived on a staple of Pocho (water and maize flour mix) and beans.

All the children and grandmother shared a single room dwelling in the dangerous slums. When HopeBuilders invited Winnie and her younger cares to the Village of Hope, she told me that she thought she was dreaming – it was so clean and safe.

When Winnie was in the slums she would rise in the dark before sunrise and head to the garbage dumps early to beat the other kids to forage for metals; with her food supply now secure, this habit took Winnie some time to break in her new home – she could now sleep and rise with the other children to a quiet breakfast and then think about getting off to school (instead of the dump).

During our stay the team accompanied around 15 of the children for a return visit to their old home, the Jinja slum. All of them had extended family members and/or friends living there and this was an opportunity to re-connect (HBI see this as important in the life of the children that they know their roots as part of their identity formation) .

A Sense of Gratitude

These are just a few snapshots of the lives of the children in the Village of Hope and each child that now lives there has their own personal story to tell about their past experiences growing up and surviving in the slums. Many of the stories are harrowing yet conveyed by the children in a ‘matter of fact’ way. Their stoicism is matched by their deep sense of gratitude for the village and its managers. Indeed, many felt a sense that they too, would one day offer a place of refuge to other disadvantaged children, giving expression to their need to repay what had been gifted to them.

There are many children who remain in the slums today and their daily struggle for food, clean water and security is real and perilous. For most of these children, rescue will not come quickly unless those with the means dig in and offer a way out.

And here’s the rub – if I’m walking along with a rope and come to a pit that contains kids, how can I simply pause, look in and show some pity, then walk on past and do nothing? This metaphoric 'rope' might be your time, skills and abilities, resources you own or control, your business connections or might simply be your bank balance. Most of us in the west have the means to help in some way and for the moment our Australian dollar is powerful in these countries to bring change (e.g. here it costs around $350,000 to build a home for a family and that's building around 23 Ugandan homes).

At GtEM we're challenging ourselves afresh to aim big for these kids - how about you?

In Summary

Uganda is a broken place in many ways with a history of tribal conflict, civil wars, rampant corruption and nefarious, despotic leaders contributing to its languished state.  Its social services are almost non-existent, its infrastructure is in disrepair, its people are impoverished and civic life appears unregulated, chaotic and infested with corrupt officials. Add to that the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic and it’s not hard to see how Uganda’s orphan problem has burgeoned to where it is today with around 2.3 million children.

When you have very little in life, hope is a wonderful, life breathing force – and that is the gift we give when we take up the plight of a suffering individual. Beyond offering hope, we will contribute to offering real, practical help and so see the lives of many children transformed through our efforts at Go the Extra Mile.