Ronan Scully, Spancilhill, writes about his recent visit to Uganda with teachers and pupils from Coláiste Lurgan in Inverin, Galway
IT takes two days to travel from a school tuck-shop in Inverin, County Galway to the poor homes of Kayunga in Uganda but, in a very real sense, the journey is one of a million miles.
After two days of travel, your eyes are heavy and your legs are stiff but, in Kayunga, your mind is racing. Your first thought is to wonder how people could live in such poverty; your second is to wonder how you can help them out of it.
I had travelled to the rural district in East Africa to see the work of Irish development organisation Self Help Africa, in the company of a very special group. For the last 12 years, the pupils of Coláiste Lurgan in Inverin have been raising money, through the school tuck-shop, to support projects that work with some of the poorest people in the world. School principal Micheál Ó’Foighil and a number of his staff travelled to Uganda to see the work of Self Help Africa at first hand and were accompanied by a camera production unit, who filmed their visit for an upcoming Irish language documentary. The eight-strong party from Inverin also included primary teacher Stiofán Ó Fearail, the singing star of Wake Me Up and a number of Coláiste Lurgan’s other recordings with his band, Seo Linn.
Reading the stark facts about Uganda is depressing – life expectancy of 48 years, infant mortality rate of about 25%, unemployment at over 70%, over three-quarters of the population living on less than a euro a day. It’s a crushing poverty of such depth that we in Ireland couldn’t even imagine. To witness it is enough to make you weep. The vast majority of Uganda’s population live below the poverty line and in the cities, they live in slums and shantytowns, part of the 187 million Africans who live in similar conditions.
Living in total poverty means no running water, no sanitation, no electricity and little hope. Houses are cobbled together from scrap-board, mud and iron sheets, with no more than a tattered piece of fabric for a door.
Alongside the problems caused by poverty, there has also been a devastating AIDS epidemic in Uganda that has caused over a million deaths over the past few years. Out of a population of just over 30 million people, almost 2 million people in Uganda are living with HIV/AIDS-related illnesses.
In spite of all the interventions put in place in Uganda, poverty and corruption still remains a thorn in its efforts to develop. However, this should not stop us from trying to make a difference for the good of the genuine people in Uganda who need our help and support.
The call to overcome poverty and uphold human dignity is not new but today this challenge is especially compelling because we have the capacity to make a difference. Building on past progress and new opportunities, we can make this a time for hope, even though we are, at times, staring into the abyss with what has happened to the global and Irish economy.
The Irish charity I work for, Self Help Africa, will be 30 years old next year and this is and has been our focus in Africa – to reduce poverty and hunger by focusing on agriculture, education, livelihoods, the credit union and co-op system, entrepreneurial advancement and the empowerment of women.
Our economy is hurting, shaken by corporate misconduct and its impact on workers and investors, as well as the broader forces of globalisation and economic change. Our world is broken by deadly violence and widespread hunger and deprivation. Poverty is not just about numbers. It is about parents who cannot feed their children or who are unable to bring sick or disabled children to a doctor. It is about the devastating consequences of addiction and family violence, about AIDS orphans and abandoned children and street children. These people are not just statistics; they are members of our human family.
However, statistics can indicate the magnitude of the problem and the urgency of the task. As we enter into the last few months of 2013, more than half of the world’s population lives on less than €2 a day. More than 1.2 billion people live on less than €1 a day. Almost 1 billion people across the globe, most of them children, live with hunger or malnutrition as a regular fact of life. They live in desperate poverty, which means they die younger than they should, struggle with hunger and disease, and live with little hope and less opportunity for a life of dignity.
Yet poverty is not limited to the poorest countries. In our own beautiful country, poverty is also persistent and pervasive. To be poor in our country is far different from being poor in parts of Africa or Asia but poverty still diminishes the lives and undermines the dignity of many families who live in our midst.
In Ireland, thousands of people live below the official poverty line. The younger you are in our country, the more likely you are to be poor, basically because we have kicked the debt from our excessive living and greed down the road so that the younger generation of today and tomorrow will have to pay for it.
Arriving in Kaunga was a surreal moment. I had viewed photographs and read reports before I arrived there. This was not a photograph or a dream. I was really in Kaunga in Uganda in Africa.
The teachers and pupils from Coláiste Lurgan who travelled with me, and who had become internet sensations over the summer, had turned to Africa for inspiration for their next hit. Fresh from clocking more than two million views for their Irish language cover of the hit song Wake Me Up, their new release will use footage taken during the Uganda trip.
Coláiste Lurgan established Siopa Africa a number of years ago to enable pupils and teachers to support development projects overseas. All profits that are raised from the sale of goods are contributed to the work of Self Help Africa and in the past two years, more than €50,000 has been donated to assist development activities in Uganda.
During the week, the teachers spent a few nights living in local communities and took part in everyday chores and activities with the farming families, who hosted them in Kayunga.
Film footage that was shot in Uganda included segments of local people singing and performing. The Irish language school is planning to incorporate clips from these performances and from the wider trip in their next release, in the hope that it too will find millions of viewers on You Tube and, in doing so, raise further awareness of the college’s work, the Irish language in the 21st century, and of the work of Self Help Africa.
That work in Uganda is concentrated on improving small-scale farming systems, supporting communities to access seed, promoting rural enterprise, strengthening farmer knowledge and supporting rural households to adapt to climate change. A major new project started in 2012, Uganda Community Connector sees Self Help Africa working in partnership with a range of other agencies on a project that is designed to improve livelihoods for close to 81,000 households across 18 districts.
It is only through the randomness of birth that I am Irish; I could easily have been Ugandan. My heritage was not my choice. But rather than focussing on our differences, meeting these people and children in Uganda has made me realise how alike we are. We breathe the same air. We walk the same way. Our spirits need love and acceptance.
Our bodies need food, water and sleep. We share the same humanity. We are really not so different. Ugandan’s people impressed me much more than its poverty. War, hunger and physical suffering have not stolen their hope. They remain joyful when they have every reason to be depressed. You can hear hope in their songs;
‘The Lord will bless someone today. It may be you. It may be me. It may be someone by your side’.
They have something to teach us. As I’ve written before, sometimes it is us that have been helped. I met some truly beautiful people, especially in Kayunga and Ndeeba Secondary School, all of them friendly and welcoming. I came away feeling blessed to have met them and as though it was me who had been helped, not them.
Children are a precious human resource any country can boast of and it is in the children that any country has its future. As the saying goes, ‘a forest without young trees today will never be a forest tomorrow’. It is imperative, therefore, that a child born today in Uganda and indeed any part of Africa should survive, grow and develop to their fullest potential in order that these countries can have a prosperous future. Children in these poor countries cannot wait; for children, tomorrow is too late.
The strangest things can make a difference. A tuck-shop in a school in the West of Ireland, a pop song in the Irish language on YouTube – these are not things that anyone would associate with an end to hunger and poverty in Africa. Except, they have undoubtedly helped to end hunger and poverty for many.
It may be a million miles from Inverin to Kayunga but watching people from both places make a song together in the African bush a few weeks ago, I was struck by how close our lives are. Close your eyes and the voices are all the same, all singing the same song.
If you would like to help Self Help Africa, visit www.selfhelpafrica.org.