Sunday, 29 March 2009

High Hopes and Sweet Dreams

With barely three weeks left here I find invitations flooding in: today I am to be Guest of Honour at the Great Lakes College morning service on Sunday and have then been invited to lunch with a member of staff from the Primary School. I am getting the hang of being a Guest of Honour now and have prepared a longish speech, which is what is expected, to deliver in the middle of the service. Unfortunately a torrential downpour of rain thunders down onto the tin roof of the chapel as I begin and I am very glad of all those years of taking assemblies with young children which have taught me how to project my voice above competing noises - though today's deluge gives a whole new meaning to the word 'deafening' and in the end we have to sing a few loud hymns until the worst is over and I can resume where I left off……

Three hours on – the average length of a service here – I am more than ready for lunch with Alistidia, who is married to another teacher and has a baby son. They live in a simple, bare little two-roomed house with no electricity (so they are happily indifferent to the fact that it is off yet again today) and despite their double income are clearly still poorly off. Teachers are not well-paid here and as both are fairly newly qualified they as yet earn very little. However, in true hospitable Ugandan style they serve up a hen in my honour, which here is the equivalent of a fatted calf and definitely a special-occasion treat: a chicken costs three times as much as a kilo of beef here, despite invariably being well into middle-age and very scrawny. Various neighbours appear as lunch is being served and soon there are eight of us and the baby squeezed into the tiny room, most on the floor although I have been allocated a chair – clearly I am G of H again. It is unclear whether the other visitors have actually been invited or simply smelled the food and decided not to miss out on a good meal: here no-one is turned away. Plates are shared and somehow we all manage to eat our fill . Having had so little meat recently – once a week at the most – even the scant three mouthfuls that my bony portion of chicken offers transport me into gastronomic heaven and I even find myself taking it in my hands to chew thoroughly in the manner of my fellow-diners - although I draw the line at noisily sucking the bones as they do. I am clearly not quite a Ugandan yet….

Later in the afternoon I set off to see Jenna, the school bursar. Jenna is in her forties and has one son, a teenager who boards at his senior school so is often away. She is, unusually for a woman here, divorced and financially independent. She supports several members of her family and her house seems always to be full of children and adults who are related to her in some way, a number of whom are living there either permanently or temporarily. Jenna has now added a baby to her household: not her own but her niece's - and therein hangs a tale. Last year, the brother of this girl died, aged only sixteen. He had complained of a pain in his thigh and was taken into hospital where nothing could be found wrong with him despite many tests. His condition deteriorated and he was eventually sent home where he died a few days later. Sadly, if a diagnosis cannot be made here the word 'witchcraft' is often whispered – the perfect let-out in a difficult case like this one. Perhaps because of this recent tragedy or perhaps just out of fear, his teenage sister, finding herself pregnant, told nobody. Uganda is very like the UK in the nineteen fifties: abstinence is strongly promoted, contraception is not available for teenagers and abortion is illegal. To have a baby out of wedlock is a disgrace: back-street abortions are common and there are many deaths resulting from these. Jenna's niece managed to hide her pregnancy from everyone and simply went into labour one day in January – having taken her 'O' levels the month before and done extremely well. Her mother, still mourning her dead son, was too shocked to cope with the situation. The girl herself wanted only to go back to school and showed no interest in the baby. So Jenna has semi-adopted the tiny boy and is cheerfully reconciled to the broken nights and the tiring routine of caring for a baby again. Both Jenna and Alistidia have nursemaids who live in, in both cases a girl from a very poor family who has dropped out of senior school and is glad of a job where she gets meals, somewhere to sleep and probably a tiny wage as well – certainly a better option than an early marriage. Most families, if they are a rung or two up the poverty ladder, employ a girl to help in the house and it is ironic that live-in help, an arrangement that in the UK is the preserve of the relatively wealthy, is here an accepted way of helping both one's own and another family. Jenna's baby is very, very small with perfect, delicate features. She is feeding him on cow's milk as powdered baby milk is too expensive but he looks none the worse for that. He is dressed all in pink today – a colour which here has absolutely no gender distinction at all – and she tells me that he is to be named Divine Grace as she thinks he has survived only by God's intervention and has perhaps even been sent to replace the dead brother. As we talk, she asks me if I would agree to be his godmother – and despite some misgivings, since I have never felt that I have carried out this role very well in the past, I feel I cannot possibly refuse - especially as I suddenly remember that today is Mothering Sunday. What better way could there be to celebrate the day, I ask myself as I walk home, than to acquire a god-child? The baptism is to be next Sunday – the date of a family Christening at home that I am sad to be missing, but will by this strange turn of events, be mirroring here in my African parallel universe….

Sadly, unbelievably, my second term here is drawing rapidly to a close and I have, of course, been giving a lot of thought to how I can carry on supporting CHIFCOD once I am back in England. I have been asked, and have gladly accepted, to join the board of trustees in the UK which will give me an ongoing involvement and responsibility for CHIFCOD affairs. However, I also feel I should like to play a specific role in the organization and have some clear goals to bring back with me. Dearly though I love the younger children, it is the High School that has affected me the most profoundly while I have been here. Having been so closely involved with its foundation I feel a special bond with it as an institution, and see how greatly it needs support in these early years of its existence. But far more than that, it is the pupils themselves who have impressed and touched me. They enter adolescence and adulthood already bowed under the heavy burden that poverty has laid upon them; yet they have such hopes for their future, as all young people must have – and, without support, so very little chance of achieving them. They work incredibly hard both at school and at home, and suffer the daily humiliations that being poor brings, with great dignity. Talking to some of them again this week I hear more stories of heart-rending hardship. One boy – a double orphan who lives with his 90 year old grandmother (surely a record age in Uganda!) – tells me, when I ask him how he pays for everyday essentials, that because he has no money for soap to wash his clothes he asks his school friends if he can use their water when they have finished their laundry. As a yardstick for measuring poverty it does not compete with starvation, but in terms of dignity and self-esteem surely washing your clothes in someone else's dirty water marks a very low point indeed – especially when you see the filthy brown soup that the dust turns it to here. This lovely, good-natured young man has no sponsor – the only person he has in the world is 'my helpless grand', as he refers to her, whose land he cultivates during the school holidays to earn enough to keep the pair of them and pay his school fees. "But my name means 'hope'" he finishes, smiling cheerfully….

Following last week's blog, and even before its existence has been announced, a first donation to the Orphan Fund has already been sent in: my two generous sisters have agreed that one will give the money to the other as a birthday present but that it will be sent directly to the fund, and I thank them for setting the ball rolling. However, quite a few other people have also said they would really like to help this group of children and it is therefore my intention, and indeed my commitment, to try to raise enough money each year to fund free places for all the orphans and destitute children in the school – currently about fifty. I hope it won't mean that I have to run the London Marathon – although it may yet come to that and I will do it if I have to…! However, there are children in the school who are almost as poor and as disadvantaged as the orphans themselves and I want to help them too. One way to ease their burden is to provide more of the essential items that they need for boarding, the most expensive of which are the foam mattress and the blanket – a requirement at all boarding schools in the country, whether government or private, and not just the High School. Another plan is to set up a hardship fund which can be administered by the wise and all-seeing Headmaster, John, so that children who urgently need essential items like shoes, soap, stationery, underwear and clothes, can be given them.

Today, therefore, I would like to announce the formation of an association called The Friends of Great Lakes High School whose aim is to support and champion the school both financially and in all sorts of practical ways too. Anyone may become a Friend by donating to any one of the following appeals – or indeed to more than one:

Sponsorship: This remains the single most effective way to support both the child and the school. Only about a third of High School pupils have sponsors and many orphans are still waiting desperately for one. £180 a year which can be paid as a monthly payment of £15, will pay for a child's educational costs and school lunch. Target: to find a further 100 sponsors for High School pupils. Can you help?

The Orphan and Hardship Fund: this fund is to provide free places for single or double orphans (and other destitute children) throughout their time at the High School. In the case of sponsored children this would mean covering all their boarding costs; and for the unsponsored, the whole of their school expenses. Some money each term would be put into a Hardship Fund to help any children in the school who cannot afford essential items. In the fullness of time I would like to set up a bursary fund to support orphans at university and college too.
Target: £5000 per year - ambitious, but I hope possible!

The Blank-Matt Appeal: £20 will buy a good foam mattress and a blanket for a child at the school. These would be school property and be passed to new pupils when others leave. Not having to buy them will be a tremendous support to poor families, and for the pupils who have no blanket, and some no mattress, a huge blessing and comfort. What better gift could there be than to give a child a good night's sleep? Target: 200 'Blank-Matt' donors: also ambitious – but if every blog-reader did it……

Willing to Help?: If, like me, you know that your will needs updating, please, please consider making a bequest to VolunteerUganda. In this way you can truly become a guardian angel and leave a tangible gift behind that will hugely benefit the poor of Uganda.

Although I do not return to the UK until mid-April, next week will be the last episode of the blog as I know my final few days will be incredibly busy. I hope that many of you, having been my travelling companions and shared this voyage of discovery with me over the last seven months, will now consider continuing that bond by becoming a Friend of Great Lakes High School too. I cannot tell you how much the support you have already given – in the form of sponsorship, providing mosquito nets and text books, making generous donations, sending story books – has meant to the children here, and to the adults in their lives too. You would be amazed, and deeply moved, to see the effect that this kind of giving has on another human being. I have felt so very fortunate to have been the channel for your generosity. It has made me realize that apathy and indifference are amongst the greatest of human sins: and that the parable of the Good Samaritan – which you have exemplified so strongly – is perhaps the most powerful story in the history of mankind….

I have set my hopes high, I know, in launching this ambitious appeal. You have given so much already – but if you can give just a little more, how wonderful that would be. For that young man whose Rukiiga name, Twinamatsiko, does indeed mean 'hope', I dearly wish that, with your help, I can find a way of giving him and many others a warm bed, a secure future at school – and some soap…

Cheques, made out to VolunteerUganda, can be sent to: Dr Karen Sennett,23 Langbourne Avenue, Highgate N6

To sponsor a child please go to and follow the link to the High School

Credit card donations may be made via the High School link on the website. As most people donate money in whole pounds, adding 50p to the total will indicate that it is to go to the Orphan Appeal, and by adding 20p that it is for the Blank-Matt Appeal.

News of the High School and regular progress reports about the appeal and other matters will appear on the website from now on so please check it regularly!

You may also email me if you would like to become a "Friend" at: so that I can send email reports to you. Email addresses will be treated confidentially and will not appear as a list when group emails are sent.

Thank you so much for your wonderful support – the photos show a group of orphans at the High School, my new godchild, and the boy with no soap...



offtocctheworld said...

it must be a strange time for you to have to think about leaving Uganda after making such an adjustment to get used to it.
No doubt it will be very sad to leave the children behind. At least you know it will continue through the support you are planning from now on - and hopefully lots of people will join in.

Have fun in kenya and lots to look forward to back in England !!

Sarah said...

How wonderful to be godmother to a child called Divine Grace! I hope he doesn't find the name too much to live up to.

The support association for the High School is a great idea (though talking of names, the Blank-Matt appeal does sound perilously like the Brinks-Matt bullion robbery). I hope the knowledge that you can carry on working for the benefit of the school when you're back in England will make it less difficult to go, though it does seem a shame to be leaving just when you are really settling in to Guest of Honour status.

I can't help feeling you'll be back, though, because your warm admiration for both people and place is so evident in everything you write. Have a great last few days!

Best love,