Standing in front of a room full of women, seeing a program for hope, their curious eyes looking at me, I felt the tears coming and I realised in that moment why I had come to Uganda.
Eight weeks ago had you asked me where I would be, I never would have in a million years told you I would be standing in a community in Uganda learning about development programs. But here I am. And there is no-where else I would want to be. To see first hand the work of one of my favourite charities, World Vision Australia, that I have supported for more than 10 years is a blessing beyond description. To understand the issues faced by women my own age in a world I can’t even begin to contemplate is extraordinary.
Our day began with a visit to a group of managers from a number of programs in the Iyolwa ADP. We would be attending various projects in this region and experiencing a great range of the work they are doing here with the support of World Vision Australia. It was powerful to hear from local staff about the issues faced in their communities and how they had addresses such challenges. More importantly, we heard about the impact they were having and the outcomes they had achieved. Although there is always a lot to be done, to hear of the progress that is being made and the hope of the staff to continue working towards greater goals is inspiring.
The Vocational Skills Training Centre run by AWAKE Uganda, supported by the Iyolwa ADP, is situated near Tororo. Walking into a room full of women anticipating the overseas visitors was overwhelming and the tears welled up instantly. These women came from backgrounds of domestic violence, broken homes, orphaned teens and lack of education due to early school dropouts. The vocational skills of sewing, tailoring and knitting they would learn over the six-month course would give them the opportunity to make an income for themselves. It was of course hearing about where they had come from that made me sad, but the opportunity these girls and women would now have pushed me to the brink of sobbing.
Invited to walk amongst the women and speak with them, I was promptly called over to the desk of a smiling young lady, Erina. Turns out she was 24, just three years younger than me. She was so thankful to us for coming to learn about the program they were involved in. Her English was exceptional and she spoke confidently and clearly. She held my hands, looked in my eyes and said “I am so happy to be in this program. We do need help. Please will you help us?” I choked back the tears as I listened to her and asked her questions about her life. She had lost both parents and was now the primary carer for her four younger siblings. She had left school and only now was able to extend her education through this skills program. We are in the same age bracket yet we are worlds apart. I told her I had faith in her and thanked her profusely for sharing her story with me. I truly wish her every success and I’m impressed to see the community giving these women a chance.
The group of women welcomed us and invited us to sit with them and observe what they had learned in the program. They presented us with a performance of singing and dancing, again a tearjerker. However, we were soon clapping and grooving along with their joyful tunes and easy lyrics. We were pained to leave but with a full itinerary ahead of us for the day, we just had to. Children ran past in their school uniforms as we left and gave us cheeky waves as they giggled off into the distance. It was a joy to be so welcomed to share in this community.
After this visit we returned to the main office for a morning tea. I stayed in the car a minute longer and had a quiet cry to myself under the cover of my sunglasses. I had to let out the emotion that had finally hit me since I’d even accepted the trip. It had all happened so fast, and now after 31 hours of travel I’m here with the people of this country who are benefiting from the programs. To see these things first hand is eye-opening and a true blessing. I let the reality wash over me and the tears flow.
Our next stop was the hair salon business of a woman who had been helped by the AWAKE Uganda program. There were in fact five women running this business together and with the support of World Vision Australia and the local partner, they were able to buy important supplies to carry out their business. When we arrived, there were two customers having incredible braids put into their hair. It looked intense and painful, so of course I put my hand up to jump to get my hair done. What started as a playful joke quickly escalated to me having two women attempting to braid my hair. Tears were again beginning to flow, but this time from the tugging of each strand of hair forcing my tear ducts to cry out for release. It was extremely humorous when they told me my hair was too difficult to braid and so they did a half braid and left me to it. What a wonderful bonding moment. We chatted as they worked and I learned about how they run the business and the support they’d received through the vocational skills training program. This is the stuff I love!
Next up we went a short way down the road to a carpentry workshop. Again, these young men had been through a vocational skills training course and were now working with their chosen skill set. We observed them making bed frames, stools and tables. This was a really light and fun visit as the other incredible blogger I’m travelling with, Eden Riley, had a special connection with carpentry. Her husband is a builder and takes on apprentices. She explained this to the young men and they promptly offered their skills to her husband in Australia. It was a lovely moment in which we all laughed. The boys clearly love what they are doing and were so happy to share what they had learned. Brought back a few memories of the old woodwork days for me – Not bragging, but, I could rock a plane like nobody’s business!
To a change of scene now as we used the full force of our 4WD’s to head through farmland, over rugged narrow roads, through cornfields to see the next project. We were to meet a farmer who was the beneficiary of biogas. Spoiler alert, I’m not a science buff! I’m no good at it and really to be honest, don’t have much interest in it. The words “biogas” went straight over my head so I anticipated that I would “get it” once I saw the work. When we arrived, we met a cheery farmer who led us to a tank and we had a local program manager translating for us. We were first talking about manure. Ok, cool. He’s a farmer, so we’re going to learn about how he grows the crops. They showed us how he placed it in a big cement vat, it filtered through pipes and arrived in a manure pond, let’s say. We then saw the tomato crops (I freakin love tomatoes so I was excited) and banana plants where he used the manure. Fantastic! The crops are going to grow better with this processed manure. If I’m honest, I was well and truly lost by this stage. My mind was screaming “When do we get to the gas bit!”
We then went to the house to see where he had the gas. GREAT! We saw a gas burner and they placed a kettle over the gas burner to show us how effective it was. Excellent, this is what I thought gas burners did and I’m glad to see this one was doing its job. To be fair, I wasn’t overly “wowed” at this stage. He then raised a match to a light fixture above our heads, the little netting bag lit up with a lime green glow and slowly transitioned into white light. WOAH!!!! Now we’re talking. This all happened form the gas. The gas pipe led from the gas burner and then separated and ran up to where the light had switched on. I interjected and asked if I could be dense for a moment (too late Emma) and got them to break this thing down for me. So! You’re telling me that the manure out there (which produces methane, yes I’m now understanding the gas bit) funnels through the system, the gas is pushed out into those pipes and now provides the family with heating and light? Yes Emma! MIND BLOWN!! The entire group laughed at my revelation and my noticeably impressed expression. What an amazing achievement and life changing program for this farmer and his family to be a part of it. Better farming, more environmentally friendly and saving him loads of money every year as he no longer needs to buy propane gas. Ok, science is cool. The best part of it all! The smile on the dear farmers face and the livelihood of his seven children who can all now attend school! Beautiful!
Suitably hungry after a packed morning we had a rather hilarious lunch break back at the head office. We’d pre-ordered meals in the morning from the hotel we were staying at and when they were delivered we were a little surprised. One thing about Africa, when you order off a menu and see items you would recognise from home, just expect there to be some slight variations. The five of us Australians had a good giggle as we ate our interesting menu interpretations and used our fingers, cutlery was a minor oversight of the meal. Tasty, filling and nourishing – we were all thankful for our rest and lunch stop. I’m also thoroughly enjoying our fascinating discussions with the four intelligent and talented women I’m travelling with. They all care about these communities and the incredible work of World Vision Australia, It’s an honour to travel with them.
We had another round of visits packed in for the afternoon. It was a privelege to be able to share in so much of the work the community is doing. I hope to share much more detail about each. Our next stop was the CHAMIKWOKI Women’s Savings Group. This was a local group of 30 women meeting to save funds, make emergency funding for group members and provide small loans for business and family development. We were again welcomed with a joyful song by the enthusiastic group of women. A highlight here was hearing three women’s stories of how saving money and being able to take out loans in a secure and comfortable environment had bettered their lives. We heard from the husband of one member, the Treasurer, as she was away at the time. Andrew showed us to his renovated home and told us about the improvement in his three children’s lives who had very successful school careers. He was glowing with pride showing us around his home and talking about this group and how it had helped his wife and children. Incredible to see and a very warm moment.
At this same site we met with four young girls who were beneficiaries of the re-useable sanitary towel’s initiative. One of the young women stood up and shared a poem with us about menstruation. I couldn’t get over how brave and strong these girls were to come and talk to us. This initiative had changed the lives of these young women. They could now deal with their monthly cycle, a natural occurrence for a woman, in comfort and safety with their re-usable sanitary towels which they were taught to make themselves. A skill they can now share with other women and girls in their communities. Their teacher had had a very different experience in her school life and was thrilled to see these young girls having a better experience and promise for their future. We as an all women group travelling together were just in awe of this program. There is more to come on this, stay tuned!
Our next stop was the Poyameri Health Centre III constructed with the support of World Vision Iyolwa ADP. We saw how they had renovated the centre and made it more secure for those in need to attend. This was most important for those women during pregnancy and their young children who needed a safe and private place to receive medical attention. Health care is such a crucial part of any community and the team here were striving to make it better and better with slow and steady changes. We also stopped by a malaria testing site to see how this was conducted. Unfortunately, in this area there is a high rate of cases of malaria and especially in children under five, it can lead to death. Early detection through regular testing is preventing illnesses amongst the community.
Our final stop for the day was at a Fish Hatchery. Again, not so up on the Earth and Environment Science business so this was all new to me. Apparently, making fishy babies is not so easy! It’s like IVF for fish! IVFish we re-named it. Yes, perhaps the long day had gotten to us by this point and a case of the giggles had set in. We saw various ponds and got to throw food to the water to make the fish appear. I have to say this was another highlight for me. Laughing and giggling with Eden and a lovely old man as we threw the fish food in to the ponds and watched them splash about. It’s the simple things in life that bright the most joy, right! We then got a detailed lesson on fish biology, anatomy and birth practices. It’s a complicated business I’ll have you know and one I’ll leave to the professionals. Amazing none the less and incredible to see how this program has grown and developed over time.
So, my short summary of my first day of project visits has not panned out exactly the way I thought. However, I am happy to share as much as possible about this incredible program and I hope you have enjoyed digitally coming along with me on this journey. I cannot express my gratitude enough to World Vision Australia for giving me this opportunity to experience the work they are doing in-field. It’s incredible and it deserves our support. If you would like to donate or learn more about their work, please visit these links:
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