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Learning life lessons in Uganda

I OFFICIALLY ceased to be a teacher of Religious Education in the east end of Glasgow in January of last year and began my new role as Education and Fundraising Officer for the Pontifical Mission Societies that same month.

One of the first tasks in my new role was to work with Sr Stacey Cameron, of the Sisters of St Peter Claver, on a missionary experience with pupils from two South Lanarkshire secondary schools. This was made all the easier because Sr Stacey and I are friends who had travelled to Zambia in Africa with some of my former pupils while I was still their teacher. Together we were leading Missio Scotland’s ‘Get Involved Globally’ programme with ten pupils and two deputy headteachers from Holy Cross and St John Ogilvie High Schools. Our aim was twofold: to enable the young people to gain a firsthand experience of the mission Church in Uganda, Africa (above), and to enable them to grow in their own faith and understanding of the good work that the Catholic Church undertakes throughout the world.

The thorough preparation of the mission trip was months in the making. Not only had we to liaise with religious orders in Uganda to sort out the itinerary, but we also had to receive the necessary medical inoculations and undertake the required academic preparation prior to the journey itself. Thankfully, the task was made easier because of my experience in leading and planning as a teacher, having a positive relationship with Sr Stacey and her order and being ably supported by the two experienced deputy headteachers, Roisin Rea and Peter Galloway. We were also blessed by the fact that the chaplain to Holy Cross is Fr Philip Marsh, a Spiritan priest who spent six years as a missionary in Nigeria. I could not have asked for a more committed and enthusiastic team who were a joy to work with from day one. The way each school community supported the young people was an example of their tangible Catholic ethos. The families and parish communities of the pupils and wider Catholic community of the Catenians were great in raising the funds to make the experience possible and also to support the projects in Uganda.

On the road

Upon our arrival in Kampala—after completing the 6676 mile journey from Glasgow—we were welcomed by Sr Stella Niwagira (above) from the Sisters of St Peter Claver who had spent time at her fellow sisters’ house in Bellshill. She joined us for the entirety of our Ugandan adventure. The young people were given a comfortable introduction to life in Africa, because we stayed in St Augustine’s Retreat Institute while in the capital city. The sights, sounds and smells of Uganda had the young people excited from the moment our plane touched down and despite the long journey they were full of energy. If truth be told, I developed a love for the continent after that trip to Zambia with the charity in 2018, so I too, was excited to be back and I could hardly wait to visit the projects in the rural southern village of Nyarushanje. Each of us put down our thoughts and poured our hearts into our diaries every night from then on.

The following morning, we began the seven-hour journey to Nyarushanje down the Massakah Road, stopping at the equator line on the way. There are so many little things about Africa that make it phenomenal—not least the people—but sitting in the middle of the earth with school pupils on their way to experience another world supported by the Catholic Church, is just one that I’ve been lucky enough to have lived.

After our time on the road, we left the concrete and turned right up the dirt track for Nyarushanje. When I visit schools the young people often ask me: “Martin what’s the first thing that comes into your head when you think of Africa?” They’re always surprised when I reply: “The dirt.” The soil in Africa is a different colour and in the dry season the red dust is everywhere, while in the rainy season—in Uganda this is in October and November—the soil is red and moves underfoot. Journeys take longer in the rainy season because of the movement in the red soil that makes up these dirt track roads.

Our accommodation in Nyarushanje was beautiful. We stayed in cottages looking onto the Kisiizi Falls. The cottages were basic, but more than we needed. Early morning breakfasts consisted of cereal, bread, butter, jam and bananas fresh from the trees. The parish priest became a great friend to us and joined us as we visited St Andrew’s Primary School and St Peter’s Secondary School, where his younger brother was deputy head teacher. Fr John Nsengiyumva and Sr Stella are both natives of Nyarushanje parish near Kabale and are very proud of their village. They are also a great witness to their own faith and examples of the way the Catholic Church inspires people to follow their vocation—whether this be as religious, teachers or parents—and play their role in living out the Gospel.

Life-changing experiences

When experiencing a new culture it is easy to be a little overwhelmed, but I was filled with pride at how the pupils embraced their new experiences. From participating in African tribal dance—and sharing Scottish song and dance in return—to eating staple Ugandan foods of matoke and beans, our young people immersed themselves in all that Africa had to offer (above). Each night, our evening prayer and reflection deepened as we grew in knowledge of both the good work that the Catholic Church does in transforming lives and the importance of our own faith.

It wasn’t all rosy, however, and there were emotional experiences that were challenging for the group too. One of the projects we visited in Nyarushanje Upper Primary School was a particularly deprived establishment where almost all the children had no uniform or even shoes. “School resources are of greater importance,” the headmaster told me. “Kids can walk to school barefoot, but they can’t write without a pencil and paper.” Education is essential for the young people there and they value it greatly. For 16 and 17 year olds from Hamilton, this particular experience was real shock, but the reality is that for much of Africa this is the norm. Our final visit in Nyarushanje was to a peer link project that is designed to upskill children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS virus. From cooking to seamstress work, the young people were imbued with talents that will enable them to find employment and a source of income.

In the blink of an eye our eight days in Nyarushanje were over, but not before we had a chance to meet Sr Stella’s family and share a meal with them. Song and dance is part of life in Africa and after eating outside amongst the mountains of Nyarushanje, we tried our hand at traditional dance. For anyone from Scotland watching traditional dance led by a Ugandan nun, with a 16-year-old Scottish student keeping beat by playing the tribal drum, would be an unusual scene, but it was one of the many wonderful experiences that we will never forget. That is the wonderful thing about our faith, we are part of the same family, no matter where we come from. We are all created in the image and likeness of God and are called to live life to the full—the Gospel is joy for humanity.

The seven-hour return journey to Kampala took us to our final two projects—Mulago School for the Deaf, run by the Spiritans, and Nsambya Home for abandoned children, established by the Mill Hill Fathers in 1955. The Holy Ghost Fathers educate and care for 198 boys and girls all of whom are deaf and provide them with an education. In Africa, having a disability can often result in that person receiving no education whatsoever. The Spiritans transform lives in the capital of the Pearl of Africa. Nsambya Home is a home for babies and young children up—until the age of six—who are abandoned within the city. The children are cared for and reunited with family or prepared for adoption. Some of the women who take on the role of temporary mothers for the children were babies there themselves, I found this very moving. The youngest child was a seven-day-old girl. It was very difficult for all of us to leave this place behind.

Learning life lessons

When people ask me how on earth I could leave the classroom, I reply by saying: “Tony Benn left parliament to spend more time on politics. I’ve left the class for a short period to spend more time on education.” The young people and staff (above) with whom I have been privileged enough to travel to Uganda will never be the same again. Experiencing the mission Church changes you for the better and forever. I will return to Africa again to witness the work of the Catholic Church in transforming lives. I’m certain that some if not all of the pupils will too. I am also certain that their own faith was deepened and strengthened because of their experiences of the universality of the Catholic Church and its mission of service. They have already put their faith into action by sharing what they witnessed with their families, school communities and parishes. We have all been blessed by learning something more about ourselves and the world. Africa tends to teach you life lessons and not just about the colour of the dirt.

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