The summer of 2017 is one that will live long in my memory, and forever hold a special place in my heart for this was the summer that I finally took the plunge into overseas volunteer work. I made the trip to Nansana, Uganda to work as a teacher volunteer with the Irish founded NGO called Nurture Africa. Inspired by the magical stories of wonderful friends who had taken this same flight and walked these same roads before me, I boarded a plane on Friday 21st July 2017, along with 29 other Irish volunteers, bound for Nansana, a suburb of Uganda’s capital city Kampala. After several months of emails, phone calls, training days, fundraising events, vaccination appointments and preparation, it was finally time to make my way to the country which Winston Churchill once famously described as the “Pearl of Africa”.
I had heard many positive reports from friends and colleagues who had previously completed volunteering placements with Nurture Africa and they were all hugely positive about their experience with the charity. The decision therefore to volunteer with Nurture Africa this summer was an easy one. Nurture Africa is an organisation which seeks to nurture the mental, physical and emotional growth and well-being of Ugandan HIV/AIDS infected and affected orphans and vulnerable children, and their HIV+ parents/guardians. The organisation does this by providing access to quality healthcare, education and sustainable livelihoods projects while at all times emphasising the importance of both child welfare and gender equality. In so doing, Nurture Africa offers real hope and opportunities to those who are most vulnerable, both in the short and long term.
To say that all my feelings setting off were of the positive variety would be untrue and so, while there was an undoubted sense of excitement and joy in embarking on a new and exciting adventure, there were also some feelings of apprehension at what lay in store for me and my fellow volunteers. I needn’t have worried. Upon arriving at Entebbe International Airport, I was greeted by Alex, our driver for most of the trip, who was wearing a Louth GAA Jersey! As a proud Clare-man teaching in Drogheda, this immediately brought a smile to my face and I knew from that moment on that I was in the right place, with the right people around me to guide me on my way. As well as Alex, we were assisted in moving our luggage by a student named Regan who was on hand to hoist our many suitcases onto the roof of a Toyota Hiace van, which would be our preferred mode of transport for the duration of our trip. Regan is but one example of the many young people who are benefitting from the assistance of Nurture Africa. The kindness and helpfulness of these two young men offered us new arrivals an early indication of the friendly and hardworking nature of Ugandan people, aspects of their makeup which were consistently displayed by the local people we met throughout our time in Uganda.
During a bumpy, yet hugely entertaining journey to our living quarters, we got an early introduction to the hustle and bustle of Ugandan life, with people going busily about their daily lives. Street vendors were selling anything from beds, to fruit, to fast food and hens, making their enthusiastic sales pitches while alongside them, an endless number of Boda Boda bikes weaved their way between the lines of taxis which filled the dust filled streets of Kampala. Our eyes had been opened to a new world and we couldn’t wait to see more. After settling into our living quarters and adjusting our mosquito nets, it was time to begin the working week! Along with 10 other teachers, I made my way to Kasengejje Primary School on Monday 24th July to begin my 3-week placement in P3 Class.
Upon arriving at the school at 8am, my fellow volunteers and I were warmly greeted by Sulamain who, as well as being a P3 teacher in the school, served as the liaison person between the school and Nurture Africa. The sense of love and warmth which this man showed us, not only on that first day but on each day throughout our placement is something which I will never forget and it set the tone for what was to follow. The second person we met was a senior teacher named Grace who hugged and welcomed each of us upon meeting us. It was no surprise therefore when we discovered that she was wearing a pair of shoes which had the word “Love” etched onto them. This same sense of love and kindness permeated throughout every corner of this school. In the classrooms, we met the most wonderful of children and teachers who despite challenging class sizes and limited resources, always displayed a wonderful determination to learn and improve while at the same time offering huge levels of appreciation for the efforts we made in our time in the school.
Each morning, we were enthusiastically welcomed by our students and the warmth and sincerity of their smiles are things which I will never forget. In such moments, it was easy to appreciate why Ernest Hemmingway once famously said “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy”. Our work with the students focused mainly on the teaching of English, Maths, Music and P.E. To see their openness to new ideas was truly a sight to behold, and I was constantly inspired by these young children, who, despite the many challenges they face in life, display a relentless sense of joy and optimism in all that they do. This was most obviously evident when we did music with the children and we saw them sing with all their hearts and smile with their entire selves. This sense of music as a sustaining influence in their lives was again displayed during assembly which took place each Monday and at church each Wednesday. The songs they sang spoke of hope for their own futures and the future of Uganda, of gratitude for all they possessed and of thanks to God and humanity for all that they had received. It was hard not to be moved and inspired by the sight over six hundred children singing as one, with such conviction and pride. It is moments such as these that give a person reason to believe that anything is possible in this life.
Another particularly pleasing aspect of being stationed to teach in Kassengejje Primary School was having an opportunity to see a hugely exciting new programme entitled “Bia le Beatha” being rolled out to the students of the school. This project, which was the brainchild of two of last year’s volunteers, Dave O’Neill and Síle Ní Dhonnchadha, has provided the students of Kassengejje Primary School with two nutritious meals during their school day, which runs from 8am to 5pm. Last year, the aforementioned volunteers identified the need for a programme which would ensure the students were well nourished during their long day at school. After many months of tireless fundraising and campaigning, the programme is now up and running and is having a very positive impact on attendance levels and performance levels in class, and has been extremely well received in the school community as a whole. Huge credit must go to Dave and Síle for identifying such a need and coming up with a real and sustainable solution to the issue, for the benefit of all the children of the school.
After lunch each day, my fellow volunteers and I were required to complete a variety of evening activities related to the overall work of the Nurture Africa Organisation and included; first aid workshops, teacher workshops, business visits, home visits, building/painting sessions and library sessions. The variety of these activities ensured that all volunteers came away with a far greater understanding of the overall work of the Nurture Africa Organisation and this was something which I am very thankful for. It was very heartening to see how the charity has helped people set up small yet sustainable businesses which allow parents to put their children through school. Similarly, it was very rewarding and humbling to visit the homes of people who have received medical support from Nurture Africa, and to listen to their stories of how they can now look to the future with a renewed sense of hope, as a result of the support they receive from Nurture Africa.
And so, as I sit here reflecting on the experience I have just had in Uganda, I think of all the people who firstly made it possible to embark on such a trip and secondly, of all the people who contributed to three weeks of memories which I will forever look back on with pride and only the happiest of thoughts. I wish to start by thanking all the staff, students, parents and wider St. Paul’s S.N.S. community in Drogheda, Co. Louth for the generous support, sponsorship and encouragement which you all afforded me in the run up to the trip. I also wish to thank my family and close friends for encouraging me, supporting me and inspiring me to set off on this great trip. I also wish to thank Pat Fitzgerald at Clare GAA, for providing me with a few Clare jerseys for the children of Kassengejje Primary School at short notice. The assistance which Folens afforded me on this trip is something I am also extremely thankful for and is something I wish to hereby acknowledge. The money they have donated to Nurture Africa will help to ensure that young Ugandan children can dream of a brighter tomorrow and have access to schooling and medical assistance which are so badly needed. Similarly, the donation Folens made to my own trip expenses eased the financial strain which comes from booking flights and getting the vaccinations required for embarking on a trip such as this. Many thanks to all at Folens for supporting education and children, both at home and abroad.
In terms of the trip itself, I wish to thank all the staff at Nurture Africa, particularly our Irish Coordinator, Anna Egan, who ensured that my fellow volunteers and I were at all times supported and encouraged throughout our placement. I wish to thank the staff and students of Kasengejje Primary School who live up to their school motto each and every day, and inspire the rest of us to do likewise, a motto which states “We Strive for the Better”. I wish to thank my teaching partners in P3, Niamh Hanlon and Orna Phelan and to all my fellow volunteers for ensuring that there was never a dull moment in our time away from Ireland. The experiences shared, the fun had and the friendships made will live on. To see young trainee teachers and medics stand up as leaders on this trip has reassured me that the future is bright for Ireland and her people and I am optimistic that the same can be said for Uganda. Shoulder to shoulder, let us continue to answer the call of Uganda and her beautiful people, a people who truly deserve the brighter tomorrow they are striving for.