40 years on.. my first trip back to Uganda (by Piyush Navinbhai Patel)

The three of us travelling to Uganda. From Left - Dilip Patel, Aashish Nathwani and me.

As we drove to Kampala upon arrival in Uganda, my senses immediately brought back memories of my childhood spent here. We went to the exchange bureau and the staff were shocked at the ten-shilling note I had brought back with me from when I had left 40 years ago. Travelling with Aashish Nathwani – a One Cause director, and Dilip Patel – another volunteer, this was the start of our visit to Auro School. In Kampala, we met Kshitij Gheewala– the founder of Auro School, and our journey began.

En route to Tororo we stopped at Jinja, the place I grew up. Here we met local children and started talking about football – a topic I am passionate about so I loved the banter. Tororo is the closest town to the school and is 5 hours from Kampala. On arrival in Tororo, we we met Paul, the founder of Net for Hope Foundation who introduced us to a whole host of other people who had given up their livelihoods and uprooted here to carry out social service. It was extremely satisfying for me to meet these kinds of selfless people, it provided a stark alternative to the fast-paced, single-minded world I am accustomed to in London.

When we arrived to Tororo, we quickly tried to watch the finale of the Premier League football to see who would be crowned Champions, had dinner and then attended the first (of many!) meetings with the whole group. We were also joined by people from the local council and teachers from nearby schools. They talked to us about all the things they had achieved that year and what their aspirations were for the upcoming year.

The next morning, we drove to the school, passing many villages. These villages provided us with our first real glance of what rural Uganda was really like. Mud huts, locals working hard on crops and cows wandering through the roads, surrounded us. We also passed through a local government school (close to the school that One Cause currently sponsors) where we stopped for a few minutes. We met the headmaster, a well dressed and spoken man in his office which was filled with hand drawn posters, crooked chairs and ageing tables. He took us on a tour of the school where we visited the classrooms and saw children dressed proudly in their neat school uniforms and with wide smiles on their faces. The school itself had no books and no posters on the walls of the classrooms, just a solitary blackboard in the front to which all the students’ attentions were drawn. There were small openings in the walls instead of windows and my mind wandered as to what would happen to the classrooms if it rained.

There was no food provided for the children at lunchtime and most children went hungry all day. How could these children – the future of Uganda – take in any knowledge when their stomachs were so empty? My emotions turned to those of sadness and despair, and all I really wanted to do at that moment was to feed these helpless children myself and provide all the books and equipment necessary for them to work. Later on that week, we met a local MP. I pressed him on this matter of lack of books and food available in schools and his justification was to blame the British and the lack of resources at his disposal to rectify this problem. We debated like this for a few hours but to no avail. Not once did he say he would even attempt to do something about this dire situation. I found his lack of care quite ironic as he himself was clearly well fed (as he was fairly large in stature).

Finally, we reached Auro School. The school taught vocational courses in subjects such as English, Tailoring, Carpentry and Bricklaying. We arrived in time for their graduation day.

The graduating students

The festivities included a big welcoming party from the teachers, students and parents. As our mini bus arrived at the school, the students performed a song and dance theme and escorted us to the graduation ceremony. Teachers and students gave speeches, speaking fondly about the impressive work One Cause did for their futures. We were given some demonstrations on the vocational training that the students learn and were entertained with more songs, dancing and martial arts exhibitions. During lunch, there was a choice of about 8 local dishes served by the students. However, the food ran out quickly, and some onlookers such as little children and others attracted by the loud music at the school did not get any food. A few of us collected some money and bought a busload of biscuits and drinks for those less fortunate than us and that were not fed as well as we had just been. I hope these children witnessing the graduation ceremony and the scenes of jubilation by the graduating students would get inspired to study for their futures. The pupils received their certificates and were filled with joy and a sense of purpose after seeing all their hard work being appreciated by friends and family. I had never experienced a party quite like it as my mother never danced like the village people or presented me with a live chicken (the biggest prize one can receive in the village as appreciation)! It was a fabulous and thrilling event organized brilliantly by the teachers.

We went back to the hotel in the evening with mixed emotions. We were filled with joy after witnessing these students graduate, but we were saddened by the thought that not all children had such a wonderful opportunity. I cried when I told my family of this day.

The next day, after a team meeting, we went to a piece of land that would house the future school (Auro School currently ran on rented premises). We discussed new ideas as to what the school should look like with the architect. After the strategic session, we went to the school only to find out that One Cause had arranged for us to get our hands dirty and do some manual labour. The kitchen needed extending and the floor in the building needed re-laying. The kitchen was merely a thatched roof with some mud walls!

We interviewed the graduating students to get their feedback on what we could do to improve the school. During this interview, I saw just how confident and well spoken they had become. The students spoke of how the teachers were their main inspiration and were the roots of how successful they had become. The teachers were extremely enthusiastic about their jobs and equally as helpful during the interview process.

The next day, we got some early morning exercise climbing the Tororo rock, a known landmark in Tororo. We got back to the hotel, had breakfast before we all gathered for the morning meeting. I have never attended any meetings in my life and suddenly, I was invited to attend a meeting every day! At this meeting, all volunteers, teachers and the local MPs were present to discuss the projects that the school required for the current year.

We went back to school where they provided us with dinner, but not for the first time I was unable to eat with the thought of so many starving children in nearby villages. We interviewed prospective children for a place at the school – there were less than 100 spots available. One Cause had asked me to help make these integral decisions as to which children got a place at the school. However my decision was useless as I was always bound to say yes to everyone. Most of the children had to work hard making and selling crops, other had no parents and most had to walk a few hours just to get to school and back. The children had a lack of confidence and poor English however at the same time the teachers were still able to see the potential. This was an incredibly heart wrenching and saddening experience for me. How could I make such a difficult decision? Surely it should be down to the teacher. The children’s stories were too much for me and I couldn’t endure any more heartache. In my opinion every single one of those children deserved an opportunity.

The future of Uganda depended on these children who weren’t even supplied with a sufficient enough lunch. Later on, we went deep into the village to visit the headmistress’s house. She had build herself 3 beautiful huts and lived with her mother and disabled sister. They grew their own crops and had animals – clearly one of the lucky few.

At the hotel and talked with people on Skype and introduced the locals to our families – who were shocked and amazed by the revolutionary technology they saw. The next day we drove through Jinja on our journey back to Kampala. We went to see Paul’s charity project – Net for Hope Foundation. He had set up a self-sustaining community project. The net for hope foundation is concerned with focusing on a constellation of causes and not just a single problem. Their motto being, “a fish net that catches all of the fish as opposed to a single pole.” The project is committed to helping each other and wanted to help the locals to become self-sustainable. An example of this is when he took us to a fish farm where he had negotiated with the farmer the use of the land for profits of 20% for himself, profit was to be distributed between various groups within the community – the money could also possibly used for micro banking. It was here that I also found out that any money borrowed from banks would be charged 25% interest rate per month. With this type of high interest how could it be possible for any one to start up a new business? We arrived in Kampala and went to a school in the local area that Bhavisha (Kshitij’s sister) supported. She helped provide the school with a roof and her next project is to provide the children with an eco toilet. The children went to school from 3 – 6 and still found time to help look after younger siblings. The school just had basic tables and desk. I sat with the children as they performed a songs and dances for us and they wouldn’t let me go. It was then that I realized that not only did the children require schoolbooks and tables, but they were also a more fundamental possession – love and caring people around them. I wish I was Madonna and could bring them back home with me. We treated the children with; sweets, milkshakes and bread and soon, we were surrounded as a herd of other children became swarming around us for food.

At the graduation ceremony!

Having spent the last eight days witnessing the severe poverty these people lived in I soon realized that the problems we faced in the west were so small to the troubles that people were enduring daily here. I am so glad I funded my trip to a place which opened my eyes on how much can be achieved through education and working with the children. I would encourage anyone to take a trip and see the results for themselves.

One Cause is always looking for volunteers, especially young people who can potentially develop their sense of giving whilst climbing their own career ladder. The result is a better human being!

Extracts from Piyush Patel’s diary after his trip from Uganda. Piyush Patel is running a dinner and dance charity event on 17th November at VIP Lounge, Edgware. Tickets: £30 (includes 3 course dinner, excluding drinks, and a live band). All profits will go towards our solar power project at Auro School. If you would like to attend this event, please contact [email protected]

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