This is my third trip to Uganda with the Kain C+C Charitable Foundation: the inaugural trip in 2009, in 2010 and again this year in 2014. When this year’s trip began, I knew that much had been done over the last five years but I was interested in answering one simple question – what has actually been achieved?
My initial attempts to answer this question did little more than confirm how long it has been since I last travelled to Uganda. I began the trip very much in Mzungu businessman mode, as evidenced by my attempt to measure our achievements by a manifest of what we had built or provided with about $0.25 million of expenditure since 2009:
- Homes for 48 children;
- 25,000+ meals provided to children;
- Over half a tonne of clothing, allowing us to clothe approximately 2,000 children;
- Educational infrastructure including lavatories and teachers homes;
- Educational materials including desks and chairs for almost 150 children and almost 200kgs of calculators, pens, books and every other imaginable educational tool; and
- Completing the building and equipping of the UACO Hospital operating theatre, which since February has saved the lives of more than 65 women in surgery.
I must confess that the further our trip evolved, and the more children I met, the greater a sense of shame I felt at my feeble attempts to build a material inventory of a human undertaking. This was no more so than when we visited the house built by our 2013 team at Watoto’s Children’s Village at Lamindera, east of Gulu. There I met Doris and Ronnie (not their real names for reasons which will be soon apparent). Doris is the house mother to eight children, including Ronnie. The term house mother is a gross misnomer. Doris is the mother to these children in all but the biological sense. It was truly moving to see the genuine love between Doris and the children, the children and Doris and amongst the children. In truth, they were a family. To those of us who fall into the trap of trying to account for everything, Doris’s story of Ronnie’s past and future was a salient reminder of why we do what we do.
Ronnie is now 10 years old. His father was a soldier. A few years ago he shot Ronnie’s mother dead; he then shot himself leaving Ronnie and his siblings abandoned in their rural hut. Ronnie’s grandmother took responsibility for raising Ronnie. She died last year, leaving Ronnie to the care of other relatives. Ronnie was maltreated and compelled to perform taxing manual tasks before he would be fed his one insubstantial meal for the day. When Ronnie attended school, he was still compelled to perform the same tasks after school and before receiving his solitary and modest daily meal. School or not, if he did not perform those tasks he was not fed. Faced with an effective choice between eating and learning, Ronnie choose eating and consequently only occasionally went to school. Understandably, Ronnie developed a combative character, often fighting with other children. Ronnie was destined for educational oblivion and in all likelihood the fate of one of life’s unknown statistics.
In April, Ronnie moved into Doris’s home – the home funded and built by our 2013 team. There he is safe. He enjoys three meals each day. He is loved by his mother, Doris. He is loved by, and he loves, his house siblings. He is on holidays now, but looking forward to the next term of school. He no longer fights with other children. He is happy. He has hope. He has a future.
Any person who could hear Ronnie’s life story, feel the warmth of his hug, see the flash of white teeth across his constant smile and not shed a tear – well you are made of different stuff than me.
The food, shelter and clothing we have funded and delivered over the last five years is of vital importance, but it tells us nothing of the hundreds of Ronnies we have helped. Nor does it tell us of that great intangible – human dignity. It was sobering to hear Brother Loubert (one of the Brothers of Missionaries of the Poor in Kampala) explain to us that as much as the food and clothing we provided were important to the children in their care, our presence, however fleeting, was of equal importance. As Brother Loubert explained, a key part of MOP’s role is not just to look after the abandoned, but to restore their human dignity – a fragile commodity, hard won but easily lost when all others literally abandon you. The simple act of us being there with the children – talking with them, singing with them, playing with them, tells the children that they are loved, they are cared for and that they matter. No inventory can count that. No accountant can value that. But every child feels it – and every caring hand, silly song or ridiculous game helps rebuild that most precious commodity that many of us take for granted, human dignity.
So, how do I answer my initial question – after five years, what have we actually achieved? I am happy to say, far more than even I had thought. Of course the 30+ travellers to Uganda (and their generous supporters) over the last five years have improved the material lot of hundreds of orphaned or disadvantaged children in different ways, and to different degrees – but they have done much more than that. They have each helped in the process of rebuilding in those children, that indispensible quality of human dignity – without which no person can ever properly fulfill their potential or become self reliant. Because if no-one values you, how do you value yourself? If you don’t value yourself, how can you even begin to fulfill your potential?
It has been said countless times, but I will say it again. On every trip, these beautiful children give us far more than we can ever give them.
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We look forward to continuing our work next year.