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Ugandan mission trip was an education

LAST October, 10 Catholic students from Hamilton—five from Holy Cross High School and five from St John Ogilvie High School—travelled to Uganda with Sister Stacey Cameron of the Sisters of St Peter Claver, Martin Mann from Missio Scotland, myself and two other teachers. Sr Stacey and Martin—who had both liaised with Sr Stella Niwagira in Uganda—had put a great deal of planning into the trip. The pupils too had organised many fundraising events and collected many donations—including pens, pencils, jotters, clothes, football strips and footballs—from their respective school communities to support the schools in Uganda and the projects which were to be visited. So when the time came to leave Glasgow and fly the 6676 miles to Kampala, the entire group were very excited and looking forward to arriving in Uganda to start their mission.

Arrival and acclimatisation

On arriving in Kampala—tired but excited—and after an early night, we rose early for breakfast and started our 400-mile journey to Kabale. On route to Kabale, we crossed the equator, stopping so that the group could have their picture taken. After driving for six hours, we turned off the main road onto a dirt track, 20 miles long, which led to Kabale. Travelling along this road we got our first real insight into just how poor the families there were. Children were returning home from school and, although it was the rainy season, most were bare footed.

When we arrived at our accommodation, rooms were allocated to the group, which were very basic with mosquito nets over each bed. The accommodation for the seven girls and two female staff had one bathroom and the hot water came from a small tank, which was shared not only by our group, but also by the staff managing the centre. Breakfast was eaten outside every morning and consisted of cereal, bread, butter, jam and bananas with tea and coffee available. Lunch was normally at the parish house and consisted of rice, beans, matooke with chicken, meat or fish. Our evening meal was prepared by ourselves and consisted of noodles, toast, bananas, avocados, with pineapple for dessert. On two nights we had chips as a treat!

An education on education

During our mission we visited four schools: St Peter’s Secondary School, St Andrew’s Primary School, Nyarushanje Upper Primary School and Mulago School for the deaf. We also visited two projects: the Peer Link project and Nsambya Babies Home.

St Peter’s Secondary school has around 800 pupils, 215 of whom were starting in Secondary 1. However, by the time the pupils were due to start Secondary 3, the numbers had dropped to 180 with only 19 pupils staying on until Secondary 6. This fall in numbers is down to several factors such as pupils having to leave to find work to support the family or girls leaving to get married. The school day starts at 7am and pupils work right through until 5pm with support classes in the evening.

We received an amazing reception from staff and pupils at the school with the head boy head girl introducing and describing the work of the school as well as a variety of groups performing national dances and traditional Ugandan songs. Our pupils then responded to this amazing introduction by singing traditional Scottish songs and teaching some of the St Peter’s pupils how to dance the Gay Gordons. In the afternoon, football games were arranged for girls and boys with our pupils playing in teams alongside pupils from St Peter’s.

That day at St Peter’s gave us an insight into how much the pupils of St Peter’s value their education and how they see this as a way out of poverty. They work extremely hard during the day and attend school for long hours in an attempt to improve their quality of life. We found it hard to take in the fact that such a large number of pupils had to leave school to support their family or in some cases to get married.

The following day we visited St Andrew’s Primary School. We were given a fantastic welcome with every class in the school performing a song and a dance for us with our pupils responding in song too. Most of the pupils at St Andrew’s live in dormitories in the school grounds, one for boys and one for girls. The dorms were very cramped with bunkbeds very close to each other and a small case at the side of every bed containing all the belongings of each pupil. We visited all the classrooms and viewed the work of all classes, which was very neatly done and it was impressive to see that the pupils weren’t fazed by the work being slightly challenging for their age and stage. Our pupils were amazed at some of the topics covered in classes and the standard of their work.

We visited the school again on the Saturday, which is a normal school day for pupils. Primary 1 to Primary 3 had their faces painted by our pupils and Sr Stacey; Primaries 4 and 5 worked with our pupils performing songs and dances and playing games; and Primaries 6 and 7 were doing maths homework. It was raining heavily outside and one of the teachers brought one light bulb for each class so that we could see. Normally the classes would take place with the natural daylight—light bulbs were only used when special visitors were in the school.

We visited Nyarushanje Upper Primary School too. As we arrived at the school gates, pupils swamped us, so much so that the coach stopped and we had to walk into the school. Each one of our group were taken by the hand by several pupils and lead to the entrance of the school. Once again we received a fantastic musical welcome. It was the rainy season and there had been heavy rain for most of the morning, but the vast majority of pupils were barefoot and everything about the school told a tale of poverty. Just before we left the school, the pupils were told about some of the donations that we were making. When it was mentioned that there were flip-flops all of the pupils started cheering. This drew and emotional response from some of our pupils as they realised that the simple things that we take for granted are often a major luxury for others.

On returning to Kampala, we visited Mulago School for the Deaf. There are 198 pupils in the school and all but 10 stay within it. Deafness in Uganda—as in many other African nations—is a disability that is viewed as a burden on the family and many are often ostracised as a result. When we arrived at the school it was the start of lunchtime and the pupils were in the playground. Two of the pupils came across and took my hands and led me to the class teacher. The pupils were able to make themselves understood and had taken me to the teacher because he was the one in charge of the pupils dancing. The pupils performed traditional Ugandan dances, feeling the vibrations form the music travelling through the air and the ground. All of the dancers kept perfect time and had fantastic rhythm. After the dance was finished the pupils went for their lunch of rice and beans. It was a very humbling experience for our group, but it was also fantastic to see just how very happy and were well cared for they were.

Powerful projects

When we were in Kabale we visited the Peer Link project, which works with young girls who had children and young boys whose parents had died from HIV/AIDS. They attend the project two days a week for a year and obtain skills for life and work. While we were there they worked with us to display their skills and to give us a opportunity to experience the tasks they work on, such as: jewellery-making, cake-baking (above), making chapatis, sewing bags, pencil cases, shorts and laptop bags. This project carries out amazing work and provides young people with skills that they can use to improve their quality of life.

Our final visit was to the Nsambya Babies Home in Kampala. The home takes in abandoned babies from birth to the age of 6. The babies—who are often abandoned on the streets—are normally brought to the centre by the police. The centre can care for up to 30 children, but, at present, they only have 23 children, due to only being able to cover the cost of medicines and care for that number. The centre relies on donations to run and is extremely grateful for all contributions. The youngest child we saw was a mere one-week old. All the other children were playing outside and, again, seemed happy and well cared for. Not for the first time on the trip, our pupils excelled themselves by talking to and playing with the children and by the end of that particular visit, they found it very difficult to leave the children.

The careful planning and organisation by Sr Stacey and Martin really paid off. Prior to the trip, a weekend retreat was held where the pupils were encouraged to think about the Church and their mission within it and while in Uganda I think they all did just that. During that retreat the pupils bonded so much that by the time we went to Uganda it was difficult to tell which school each pupil was from. The trip itself was then enhanced by the input from Sr Stella. It was she, Sr Stacey and Martin who took the decision to make the journey to the village in Kabale and it turned out to be a brilliant one as it exposed the group to village life in Uganda and the challenges faced by all in the community.

Uganda is an amazing country, but unfortunately there remains real poverty. During our time there, however, we came across numerous people who are offering support in a variety of ways to help people gain skills that will hopefully offer them the chance of a better life and a brighter future.

Missio Scotland plays a large part in supporting these schools and projects in Uganda in a very practical way. The young people of Uganda benefit from the work of Missio Scotland, but it was also extremely beneficial for our own pupils, who were fortunate enough to be part of the visit to see the valuable work carried out by Missio Scotland at first hand.

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