DSCF3834Read Ben Moon’s blog from Uganda, where he volunteered in the Basajjansolo Memorial Training Centre, working for the plight of HIV/AIDs and offering disadvantaged orphans and vulnerable children.

In 2003, Samuel Waddimba of the Ugandan Pioneers Association (UPA) returned to his home village near Luweero central Uganda to hear a shocking statistic. Against already frightening national HIV/AIDs rates of 5-10%, local infection rates had recently been revealed to be surging above 25%.

His response was to unite with local community leaders and to work for the plight of HIV/AIDS, other disadvantaged orphans and vulnerable children through offering them basic education, life skills and career training. The result, the Basajjansolo Memorial Training Centre (named after the family who donated the land for the project) has gradually been built through the toil and generosity of local and international volunteers and sponsors. Today the school offers education to over 200 vulnerable children aged 4–13 years most of them orphans or half orphans. With the HIV/AIDS rate still staggering between 6.5 – 7% in the Country, the burden of handling its consequences particularly that of orphans remains a huge challenge.

Cut back to the UK, 2012: Ten intrepid A-level from Blackburn College sign up to an additional course of ‘cultural enrichment’ led by their inspirational teachers Andy Mather and Jamila Gurjee. Following an invaluable series of eight peace and international development and preparation workshops delivered by IVS Development Director Helen Wass O’Donnell, the group escaped a rainy Jubilee holiday England and set off loaded with school supplies, football shirts and mosquito nets to Uganda.

DSCF3552A long couple of flights and brief overnight stay near Kampala for UPA orientation later, the group packed into two minibuses together with 15 volunteers from around Uganda and headed north. The next two weeks held massive challenges of very basic living conditions (drop toilets, open fire cooking, water collected on foot from the village borehole); cultural integration (both within and between British and Ugandan groups – with various ethnic groups, religions and cultures represented within each); group living (sharing accommodation in 2 bare classrooms and catering for 30 on a campfire) and homesickness – not to mention the hugely physically, mentally and emotionally demanding work. An impressive slog of practical work was achieved in the short two weeks. Volunteers rose with the sun each day to dig up, hoe and plant crops around the school grounds; fields were harvested and beans dried and collected; volunteers willing and able to apply their hands at cement mixing, bricklaying and mortaring helped construct a new store room and complete a second storey on a large brick chicken shed; the school was repainted and cleaned; and students got involved with teaching at all levels in the school and playing with children during break times.

DSCF3605Each day a quarter of the volunteers dedicated themselves to cooking and washing up for the rest, rising early to light the fire and fetch water for chapatti and fried cassava breakfasts and staying up late into the evening to completed washing up duties. Calories burnt lugging wheelbarrows of sand and cement and carrying hundreds of litres of water all day were replenished well with the high-carb Ugandan diet of potatoes, rice, spaghetti and posho (a kind of mash of ground maize) – often all at the same time – supplemented with ripe mangoes, pineapples, water melons and avocadoes. Not to the tastes of all the British it has to be said (where did those pot noodles keep coming from?) but the majority were tucking into seconds on every meal after the first day or so! Those young and spirited enough burnt off any leftover energy dancing late into the nights.

DSCF3734In addition to the work, the group had an eye-opening visit to a local HIV/AID centre and hosted a HIV/AID testing day at the school; witnessed the level of poverty suffered by many of the pupils during home visits; were received by the local mayor at the district council offices; were treated to dance displays a songs (and a lot of speeches) in the opening and closing ceremonies; hosted Ugandan and British cultural nights (local specialities and Ugandan presentation, and curry and chips and a pub quiz!); and helped judge the school sports day (well, 1 hour of sports and 5 hours of speeches – not everybody managed to stay awake through all that!). In their time off many of the British volunteers visited Kampala and a mixed group took on the challenge of a football match against a local community organisation (but lost gallantly after a replay).

The greatest achievements were the level of co-operation attained between volunteers and the visible bonds developed by the end of the camp. The different national and cultural groups started off very separated, and there were many frictions and problems along the way – from language and communication issues to personality clashes and varying degree of efforts from volunteers – but each was resolved within and by the group. There was barely a dry eye when the volunteers came to pack up and depart two weeks later. Every volunteer had a great deal to be proud of by the end of the project, and all departed with more new experiences and lessons learnt than many months in a classroom at home could ever provide.

Ben Moon