Unearthing gems in the ‘Pearl of Africa’

Uganda.  What comes to mind when you think of Uganda?

For most people it is simply two things; Africa and Amin.

While the first does nothing more than describe the geography of the country, with all the pitfalls and prospects that come with being located in the heart of the mother of civilization, the second actually does more to describe the challenges faced by Ugandans today.

For me, when I hear Uganda, I am transported back to my summer with Volunteer Uganda (VU) helping a small community overcome these challenges and set Uganda on a path towards prosperity.

To understand the work that VU does it is important to understand how Uganda has got to a point where 85% of the population survive on less than one dollar a day.

Idi Amin was one of the most brutal dictators every to wield power in post-colonial Africa.

After seizing power in 1971 in a coup, Amin set about cementing his power base in a frenzy of politically motivated murders. The exact number of people who died at the hand of Amin’s regime will never be fully known but most estimates put the number at between 100,000 and 300,000 over his eight year reign of terror.

While this brutality undoubtedly had a long-term impact on the country – children missing fathers, being forced to work the land to support their family rather than study and growing up under a malaise that infected society – it was a decision that came to Amin in a dream that, arguably, had a far greater impact.

Amin’s decision to expel the 35,000 Asians of Uganda in the space of three months between August and November 1972 was economic folly of the highest order.

After the vision came to him that Asian’s were “sucking the life out of Uganda” he acted immediately, troops arrived to seize property and any sign of prosperity and Asian’s fled in their thousands.

This was the beginning of the end for the Ugandan economy.

Interest rates rose, inflation soared, the currency effectively became worthless. The Asians had held most of the business interests in Uganda, hence Amin’s ire, but with the business class gone there was no growth and the economy stagnated, and then floundered.

Subsistence farming became the norm. Despite Uganda’s rich soil and fertile land, Amin’s regime had brought the economic infrastructure to its knees and there was no way to trade out of poverty.

This is Amin’s legacy. It was he who finally sucked the life out of his country until he was deposed in 1979. It is now left to the third sector to try to breathe life back into this most ill-fated of countries.

Volunteer Uganda is one such charitable organisation.

VU operates under CHIFCOD, an NGO that works to alleviate poverty and improve education standards in Kanungu district in the south-west of Uganda.

After only three full years of operation, VU now works with twenty schools, educating over eight thousand children and has an alumnus of over one hundred volunteers.

The impact of this is palpable, and could not be further removed from the frightening, domineering and controlling years of Amin.

VU works for and with the community it supports. There is a partnership, the basis of all successful development projects, with the people of Kanungu. The community elders direct and advise, the school teachers listen and learn from suggestions and the children have a work ethic like I have never seen before.

“Mzungu, Mzungu” is a common call as you walk down the copper coloured dust track. “Mzungu”, Rukiga for ‘white person’ is an affectionate term, much more so than I had anticipated. It is said with a mixture of respect and gentle teasing.

The teasing comes from the novelty of having white skinned people as part of the community when they are few and far between in this part of the world. The attention that this can receive can be bewildering, like you are a permanent prop in a show and tell – though it is never intrusive or uncomfortable.

The respect simply stems from the work that ‘Mzungus’ are doing and the impact it is having on the community.

On of the 'bandas' at the VU lodge overlooking Bwindi

Volunteers, who have the option of a six week or twelve week stay at the custom built lodge on the edge of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest while teaching, come from all backgrounds and all parts of the UK.

Marco, my teaching partner on my six week programme in July and August, was just finishing his gap year having travelled the world and wanted to do “something more than lying on a beach” before returning home.

Jenny, the youngest of the group at eighteen, had never even been to London before never mind remote, rural Uganda.

What binds the volunteers together is a sense of achievement, both in the work that is being done and the groundwork it is being laid for future years.

VU believes in sustainable development. It is at the organisation’s core and guiding principle. And it is refreshing to see.

While the Horn of Africa suffered a terrible drought during my time in Uganda, the focus of the international community was, as usual, on which countries are meeting the UN mandated commitment to 0.7% of GDP being spent on international aid.

While UN vans can be seen in Uganda, and palates of aid are unloaded at Entebbe airport, this is not ‘sustainable development’.

Giving people the help they need to help themselves is sustainable and that is what VU is all about.

The old adage says “give a man a fish he will eat for a day, give him a net and he will never go hungry.”

Give the children of Uganda a good education; they will feed the country in the years ahead through enterprise and endeavour.

Volunteers teach classes of up to 60 children in what is ostensibly a normal school day. But ask any teacher back in the UK and the teaching that volunteers undertake is anything but normal.

The walls of classrooms are bare and worn, the floors are covered in dust, sometimes there is not enough chalk to teach lessons and, amazingly, the textbooks that children are taught from often contain ‘answers’ that are not even close to being factual.

While this is the everyday experience of Ugandan schoolchildren, their enthusiasm and willingness to learn is unchecked.

One of the boys in my primary five class stood out. Dadson, a sweet-natured boy of ten with a cheeky grin and build of a much older boy thanks to working the land, had an appetite to learn that would put any UK pupil to shame.

Yet, one day, he was not in class. After enquiring I was told that his mother – his father had died at the age of 32, not unusual in country where life expectancy is just 48 – was unable to pay his school fees amounting to 80,000 UGS, about £20, and was immediately pulled out of class.

He was back the next day, the money having been found by an uncle, but it underlined to me the frailty of the progress that can be made through education – the children have to first be able to attend school.

That is why for the poorest of children, VU encourages sponsorship so they can attend classes and get the qualifications needed to get up and get on.

Ask UK children what they want to be when they grow up and you get the normal mix of astronaut, footballer, princess, pop star and so on.

In Kanungu, ask the same question and, while you will get the odd footballer and President, on the whole children want to own a business so they can support their family.

VU helps to provide the next generation with the skills needed to make that dream a reality and it is enormously gratifying to be a part of.

As with any growing organisation, VU is expanding. Volunteering focused on teaching is still the focus but the new developments add depth to the charities development structure.

As well as teaching children, VU has formed a partnership with Teach First, an organisation that sends exceptional graduates to deprived schools in the UK, to help train Ugandan teachers in more advanced teaching techniques.

Martin Atukwase - Headteacher of Mothercare Primary School

It is a sad fact of the Ugandan education system that caning is still a daily occurrence. Martin, the twenty-three year old head teacher of Mothercare primary school, told me that while he does not enjoy the practice, if he does not do it “my pupil’s parents will ask me why I have not, why I am not educating their child.”

The Teach First programme steers Ugandan teachers away from these old teaching methods and towards a syllabus that promotes interactive learning that is reward based and pupil focused.

Natalie Parker, a volunteer and Teach First graduate, explains that just little changes in teaching style can make a big difference.

“Education in Uganda is one dimensional. Teacher writes on the black board, child copies it down. Repeat.

“Explaining that children learn by doing was almost revelatory to the Ugandan teachers. These small changes can have a big impact on the quality of the teaching.

“Change isn’t going to happen overnight but it felt like we had started something.”

VU has also teamed up with Mend the Broken Hearts of Uganda to provide free HIV testing to children in local schools.

It is hard to describe the feeling that explaining the ABC’s of AIDS prevention to over 200 children gives you. It is only an hour of your life but has the potential to change the lives of the audience.

61 of the children got tested for HIV that day, and all came back negative. This is not always the case, so VU will continue to make HIV education one of its central pillars in years to come.

Simon Graffy, a VU Director, has other plans in the pipeline.

An Arsenal fan, he has secured a link with the football club to send coaches out to Kanungu to help in the sporting development of children in VU schools.

To see the children at lunchtime kick around a ball made of banana leaves is to understand their love of sport.

The link with Arsenal will add structure to this passion and, it is hoped, will uncover a few sporting diamonds in the rough.

Simon said; “VU is growing at a rate no one could have imagined at the outset. But the growth of the organisation is matched by the work that is being done on the ground.

“I’m never satisfied. I always want more, more volunteers, more partnerships and more ideas.”

It is maybe this drive that has led VU to set up its ambassador programme that uses volunteers who have experienced all that VU and Uganda has to offer to look out for the next synergy or the next person wanting to do “more than just lie on a beach”.

A few of Uganda's "gems"

I am lucky to be one of those ambassadors and will tell any and all who will listen about the fantastic work that VU does. The commitment to real sustainable development and the giant steps that have been taken in few years show that it is indeed a model for voluntary organisations that want to make a real difference.

Churchill once called Uganda “the pearl of Africa.” What VU does is hunt for gems. They are out there, in classrooms all over the country. I know, I have seen them. And with just a little help these gems can lead to a better and brighter future for Uganda.


2 thoughts on “Unearthing gems in the ‘Pearl of Africa’

  1. nofootnotes says:

    This is a wonderfully in-depth post on your experience. I have been thinking about doing something similar this summer but when I searched the internet for information on Volunteer Uganda, I kept finding results which told me what it was about and how to apply but not about the actual experience. Do you think that the money you, as a volunteer, paid is put to good use? Did you get many opportunities to travel? It sounds like a truly great experience.

  2. Diana says:

    Wow, that is a very in depth article about VU, I am getting inspired the more I research about Volunteer Uganda. I really want to do something, challenging, rewarding to both me and the Ugandan society, after I graduate. Volunteer Uganda, I am thinking so hard about it.

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