Sixth former's diary of volunteering in Uganda in the summer

Sixth former's diary of volunteering in Uganda in the summer

Year 13 student Kate went on a volunteer trip to Uganda in the summer to run an activity camp for orphans and disadvantaged children in the village of Kyalusowe.

Below is Kate's account of the trip which she read out in Assembly recently.

'I had wanted to go to Uganda since 2015, when my family started sponsoring a Ugandan orphan through Drumbeat Children’s Foundation. Drumbeat is a non-profit charity based in Uganda, however it operates in the UK through Director Peter Williams. As a friend of our family, Peter introduced us to Drumbeat and we chose to sponsor 10-year-old Rosemary, who had lost both of her parents to the AIDS crisis and lived with her elderly grandma. Her grandma couldn’t work and had no money to send Rosemary to school, as in Uganda, all education comes at a cost. This is one of the reasons why so many poor children in Uganda remain poor all of their lives, because their families aren’t able to gather enough money to pay their school fees. The aim of Drumbeat is to break the cycle of poverty by helping as many of these children as possible into education.

The founder of Drumbeat is Mugwanya Johnbosco (John), who was sponsored as a child through the GlobalCare program. His sponsor was Peter, who was able to watch John grow up from an illiterate orphan into a university graduate who now runs both a successful shop and a primary school. Although John now lives in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, with his wife and two children, he wanted to help other children just like him in his home village of Kyalusowe. He therefore set up Drumbeat with Peter’s help. The charity finds UK sponsors, like myself, who pay for the education of one of the children in the village, as well as helping their family with any additional costs such as medical care or clothing.

Kyalusowe village is in Masaka district, in the south west of Uganda. It is unfortunately extremely poor, and the majority of its residents have low paying jobs and live in inadequate homes with no electricity or running water. However, there was a real sense of community in the village as everyone spends their days together. 16 Drumbeat sponsors, including myself, arrived in Uganda on August 20th, and that same day we took a (very dodgy, with no seatbelts, seat backs or even enough seats!) bus to the village. Expecting to make a quiet entrance so that we could set up the camp that would start two days later, we were taken aback by what the residents had prepared for us. Every single person from the village had come out onto the road in a long parade to welcome us, and there was even a brass band, a military escort and camera drones! A news crew also came to interview Peter and John, and later that night we were able to watch ourselves on Uganda’s national news channel, which was really amazing. All of the children in the parade led us to the village, where banners and flags were flying and the sponsored children had prepared entertainment for us. They’d learnt dances and songs that they performed, and everyone wanted to meet us. The children in particular were really fascinated by us because the vast majority of them had never seen a white person before! A lot of the younger children would stroke my skin and try to brush my hair with their fingers, because it was so different to theirs. They also called us ‘Mzungu’, which literally means ‘whitey’.

As we weren’t able to get much done on the first day, we had to come back again on the Sunday to actually set up the camp. It was on that day that I finally got to meet Rosemary and her grandma, see their home and give them the presents that I’d brought. Rosemary is now 13 years old and in her second year of high school, but it was sad to see that she was very small because of poor nutrition in her childhood, and this was particularly apparent to me as I have a sister who is only a year older, yet much taller. However, meeting Rosemary was the best part of the whole trip. Although her English wasn’t perfect, she was able to tell me that she was ‘happy to see me and had been waiting for me for a long time’, which was really heartwarming. Her grandma had also handmade gifts for me, including a woven bowl and a rug, and Rosemary had painted a picture for me at school. They were very inviting and showed me around their home, which was clean and well-kept although they had no beds and no front or back door, which was concerning to me as I obviously live in a place where a situation like that is inconceivable.

Later in the day we were able to look around Kyalusowe Primary School, which John had attended thanks to Peter’s sponsorship as a child. During the camp, we had two activities held inside the school’s classrooms, so we moved in all of the things that we had brought from the UK for the camp, such as sports equipment, recorders, art supplies and first aid items. The primary school had 4 classrooms over two buildings, but again it was very primitive, as you may be able to see from the pictures. That evening we moved all of our luggage into ‘Granny’s’ (John’s grandma’s) house, the only large house in the village that had running water and electricity as John had built it for her. 8 of the Drumbeat sponsors stayed in the house along with Granny and 5 of the sponsored children who came from different villages, so it was very cramped!

The next day was a Monday and the beginning of the week-long camp. We welcomed almost 200 children supposedly aged between 4 and 16, although we did find that we had quite a few who were barely toddlers or even older than me! This is because the camp was really the opportunity of a lifetime for the young people in the village and so parents and guardians encouraged the children who had places on the camp to bring their siblings with them! However we couldn’t turn anyone away and so we all managed 4 groups of around 50 children each. The children were split between 4 activities: dance, music, art and sports. I managed the dance group, and despite having experience teaching ballet to the little girls at my dance studio on Saturdays, it was very different trying to teach 14 year old boys, tiny toddlers and even adults who wanted to join in, choreographed dances. However it was really fun to watch all of them progress. Many of the children had amazing rhythm and musicality because they had grown up learning traditional African dances, so they could keep to a beat perfectly. During the breaks a lot of the children would ask for songs they knew to be played and make me learn their dances with them, which was really fun and also probably really funny because I was pretty awful at dancing like that! Some of the girls were really eager to learn gymnastics tricks such as handstands and splits and would beg me to teach them, then come over to me during the breaks and make me watch them do little shows. What was particularly noticeable how grateful and attentive all of the children were, not one of them would behave badly or refuse to join in even though it was boiling hot on the field, often reaching 40 degrees C. In this way, I think I learnt a very important lesson from these children, because they never complained, were willing to learn and were thankful for everything when we ourselves can be really selfish and not appreciative of people who help us.

In the arts group the children often made bracelets or pictures which they would give to us as presents: I now have a box filled with these things in my bedroom. And thanks to donations, including from Miss Britton and the Girls’ School, I’d been able to take 53 recorders to Uganda for the children to learn to play in the music group. However the most fun activity was probably the sports group. One of the Drumbeat sponsors, James, was a karate instructor and so the children had a lot of fun learning martial arts! They also played matches of football, netball and volleyball, because a lot of the children without sponsors can’t go to school and so sport is a way for them to pass their time productively. On the penultimate day of the camp we had massive sports tournaments that lasted all day. I have never been so exhausted in my life as I was after that day, when I played 4 football matches and 2 netball matches with a lot of Ugandan children who were miles better than I’ll ever be at either sport!

Also, it was noticeable how grateful a lot of the children were to receive two hot meals a day. A group of women from the village cooked all of the food on open fires for the children, who sometimes go days without eating if they don’t have a sponsor who can help their family buy food in bulk. Thanks to these women, we volunteers also got the chance to try a lot of traditional Ugandan food such as ‘matoke’, which is a type of mashed potato, and ‘luwumbo’, a stew. We were served all of our food wrapped in banana leaves, which is again a typical feature of Ugandan cuisine. In the lunch hour some of the children would try to teach us Lugandan, the native dialect in western Uganda. It is extremely different to English, but very fun to learn because I butchered the pronunciation and made all of the younger children laugh for ages.

During the camp I looked after the very youngest sponsored child, Maria. She wasn’t even 4 years old yet, and as she came from a different village she didn’t know anyone. At the start of the camp she was too shy to join in and would stand on the outside of the groups looking ready to cry. This made me really sad, because she was an adorable little girl and I knew she was sponsored by Suzanne Gauge, who is a governor here at BGS and would want her sponsored child to enjoy the camp. So I carried Maria around pretty much all day and fortunately she became a lot happier and even made some friends, however she became really attached to me and would come running to me every morning screaming ‘TEACHER KATE’ until I picked her up. It was very sweet to know that these are in fact the only two English words that she can say!

Because of the friendships we’d made with the children, the last day of the camp was bittersweet. We had organised a huge party that all of the children’s parents and guardians could come to, but we ended up hosting the whole village including the mayor and even another news crew! The children performed the dances that I’d taught them, which was the best thing for me to see because they’d all put so much effort into perfecting them and I could tell that they genuinely wanted to impress us. Then we had more performances of poems and songs that the children had learnt, which are in videos on the Drumbeat Facebook page. The last slide will have all of the relevant information on it if you’d like to watch any of them.

John came to the party with a huge cake that he’d ordered and also care packages for all of the sponsored children, including school equipment and things like boot polish and shoe laces. In return the parents and guardians wanted to give us presents, so I got a mini African drum, and another of the sponsors, Jessica, was actually gifted a live chicken! Needless to say we gave ‘Tikka’ the chicken to one of the families that kept animals, because we didn’t think that Emirates airlines would be very welcoming of a chicken on the plane.

As I mentioned before, I’d noticed that Rosemary didn’t have a bed when I’d visited her house, which was shocking to me. So I’d given John money to go and buy one, and on the last day he came with a huge van that had beds and assorted furniture items that the other sponsors had brought for their children. I was really happy that after 13 years, Rosemary finally had a bed, but this reminded me that there are sadly so many children in Kyalusowe who don’t, and accept this as normal.

We didn’t leave the party until late at night, so we returned the next morning for our final goodbyes. After helping the children write letters to be sent to their sponsors in England, we took pictures and then tried to say goodbye. This was very, very hard to do and I cried a lot. Maria was too young to understand what was going on or even that I was leaving, so she kept running after me when I tried to get on the bus to go. It was very sad for me to see Rosemary cry, and even sadder when one of the younger girls, called Phiona, came to me in tears too. She wasn’t sponsored and it transpired that she’d been told by her guardian to come and ask me to sponsor her. Obviously having to tell her that I was only 17 and I couldn’t afford to was very upsetting both for me and her, and so from that moment I decided to make it my own personal cause to find sponsors for as many of the children as possible. After all, that day I promised Anne that I’d find her a sponsor.

At the start of the camp we had 60 children with sponsors. We now have almost 80 sponsored children and counting, as relatives and friends have expressed interest in sponsoring and have done so. I’m so happy to say that I did find a sponsor for Phiona: my friend’s family started sponsoring her in September after they’d watched the live videos and seen the photos from Uganda. Mrs Anderson herself has also expressed an interest in sponsoring a child! However we still have over 100 children who are waiting for someone like you to help them. I would really urge anyone who has the means and the heart to consider sponsoring a needy child, although I don’t want to seem like I’m pressuring or guilting anyone into doing it, it has personally been life-changing for me to be so important to someone and watch their life take a whole different trajectory. The cost of paying a child’s school fees is only £220 a year, far, far less than what our own school fees cost. For £300 you have covered everything they will need for an entire year, and you will receive pictures and letters from your child. If you send them letters or presents, John livestreams your child receiving them on the Drumbeat Facebook page and will show them the comments that you leave. On the slide here I’ve included the contact information for Drumbeat if anyone is interested, or alternatively you can come and talk to me about it. If sponsoring a child isn’t something you can do, I’d urge you to consider donating to Drumbeat through the JustGiving page that one of our volunteers has set up, the link to which you can find on Drumbeat’s Facebook.

Overall, my trip to Uganda was an incomparable, unforgettable experience that has perhaps been the best of my life. Although it took me a whole year of hard work to raise enough money for the trip, including getting up at 6am on weekends to go to car boot sales and finding a part time job, I don’t regret it for a second because my time in Uganda showed me how worthwhile it all was. I’d also like to thank the school’s Dorothy Lester Travel Scholarship fund, as I was fortunate enough to be granted £100 towards my trip, for which I am really appreciative. I definitely plan to return to Uganda and reunite with the children, especially Rosemary and Maria, when the summer camp is re-run in 2020.'