My Journey

My Journey
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What a journey these last few years have been. If 5 years ago, I was asked “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” The answer would never have been “in Africa” ! So, how did I find myself there? I guess you could say a door on my life’s pathway was closed and my guardian angel opened a window or two. Most of my life, my head has ruled my heart. I have never really been a passionate person obsessed with any dream or goal. Now, at last I have a dream to follow and yes I am very passionate about my obsession. My obsession is Uganda and the amazing women there that I have had the privilege to teach and call my friends. And here I am in June 2010 preparing for what is now my annual visit to Uganda in East Africa.

My African journey began with a “good news / bad news” moment - the unexpected financial bonus of a redundancy payment and then a chance conversation with friends about a local Gold Coast woman who had sold her house in Australia and moved to Kenya to set up an orphanage, that then lead to another friend telling me about Soft Power Education in Uganda where she had recently traveled on her way home from England via Africa. So, together with my nephew and travel buddy, Ryan (my sister, Wendy’s eldest son) in August 2007 I went to Uganda to do volunteer work with Soft Power Education. For a month, while Uganda wove its spell around us, we painted at a pre-school surrounded by excited 4 and 5 year olds. As well as painting ourselves and the children, we painted walls and doors and shutters and teaching aids inside the classrooms in all colours of the rainbow and Ryan painted the most marvelous murals of African animals on the outside walls of the school.

During the month Ryan and I spent there we met many other volunteers, one of them was an Irish woman, Marie, who had come to work with Soft Power and hoped to set up English classes for adults. It must have planted a seed somewhere in my brain because once home I found myself looking up information about TESOL courses. TESOL is an acronym for ‘teaching English to speakers of other languages’. I emailed Soft Power and my teaching career was about to begin. It transpired that Marie had never started her hoped for English classes and Soft Power asked me if I would like to implement the English teaching program. So, armed with my TESOL certificate and a bag full of teaching resources, in May 2008 I was back in Uganda for 4½ months. Soft Power gave me total control of the project, the only parameters being ‘teach English to the women in the local rural community’. It made for some sleepless nights for me in the beginning but I can definitely say the best discoveries really are made outside your comfort zone! Although English is the official language of Uganda, most Ugandans speak their tribal language and unless they have been to school where teaching is in English after the first 3 years, Ugandans know very little of their official language! And women being very much second class citizens in Uganda often do not have the chance to go to school. As many as 50 women registered for lessons that first year, but sadly some were prevented by husbands from attending, but 40 women did attend regularly and gained Soft Power certificates of achievement. I was really inspired by these women who are so strong both physically and emotionally and so determined to do something to improve their and their family’s lives. In June last year, I returned to what is now my second home, for another 6 months and this time I had 62 students. Soon I am on my way back again, with a little help from my friends. This time Soft Power have asked if I will train some of the Ugandan tutors and set up a course and lesson plans, so that the English teaching can continue without a volunteer teacher. This will be another challenge and another installment of my African journey.

Soft Power is a small NGO, or charity, based in a rural area of Uganda. Its main focus is providing teaching facilities for the many children in Uganda. Since 1999 they have been building and refurbishing primary schools in an ever increasing circle from their base in Jinja. They built and fully fund two pre-schools for very disadvantaged children. They now have an Education Centre in the middle of Kyabirwa village, courtesy of a large group of university students from Leeds in England who donated their summer holidays in 2004 and 2005 and built and stocked the Centre. The Centre is now partnered with 27 local primary schools, so that the students in Primary 6 (the second last year of primary school) at these schools have the opportunity to attend the Centre twice a year to experience things not available in their government schools, like computers, art and drama, agriculture and life skills and a library. If you have ever thought of doing volunteer work in other parts of the world, I can really recommend the experience with Soft Power Education.
You can look up all about them and their volunteer programs at http://www.softpowereducation.com.

Although Soft Power’s focus is on helping educate the children, the English teaching program is one of their community projects and proved to be the most popular following a survey of the community. The program is as much about empowering women as it is about them learning English. I feel so humble and proud to be a part of something that enables these women to grow in confidence and self worth. I have many letters from these women thanking me for ‘changing their lives’.

My teaching has been as a volunteer and my redundancy windfall has long gone, but I feel I have gained far more from the whole experience than I have ever given to these wonderful women and I am constantly trying to think of ideas and ways to help them help themselves. We have a fantastic penfriend scheme between women in Uganda and Australia. Some of their children have also joined in writing letters to friends in Australia. Not an easy task in a village where there are no postmen, no street names or house numbers, and no letter boxes! We have a collection tin at Doyles on the Beach restaurant where the staff generously donate their tips to pay the school fees for 4 children of two of my dear friends in the village, both single mums. The Ugandan people are welcoming and generous and there is a wonderful sense of community, in spite of what we see as great poverty and hardship. It is hard to explain just how happy I feel when I am there. I have a Ugandan family and also four special sons who look after me. I have many firm friendships and children and grandchildren by the score in the village. I constantly hear the words Mama Jenny or Dhadha Jenny, so why wouldn’t I find myself smiling often despite being covered in dust or mud every day and dealing with the vagaries of African life. I can even smile when every task I set myself, takes two or three times longer to complete than it would at home. I know the time I have spent in Uganda has been the time of my life and I know it has changed my life. Something I read recently puts it in perspective: “In Africa the essentials of existence – light, earth, water, food, birth, family, love, sickness, death – are more immediate, more intense; so you realise what is important in life and, to risk a huge generalization, amid our wasteful wealth and time-pressed lives we have lost human values that still abound in Africa.”

(Written June 2010)



Musings from Bujagali (in rural Uganda)


Those of us lucky enough to be born in a first world country should never for one minute think we know more, feel more, work harder or are happier than someone born in a third world country. Is there a second world somewhere?? In the first world we are just fortunate that we have had more opportunities to be educated and to be exposed to many forms of stimulation and learning – television, newspapers, movies, internet, books – from a young age to help us grow and learn about things outside our immediate surroundings. No matter where we were born, we all have the same feelings. The same things make us sad or happy. We all work as hard as necessary in our day to day lives: in the first world it is to acquire more possessions or more admiration while in the third world it is to survive from day to day, feeding and clothing and, hopefully, educating the family. Life is definitely a struggle in rural Uganda: there are many manual tasks each day and there are no labour saving devices. But music, the louder the better, and dance are wonderful antidotes. And for many their faith gives them strength to deal with the many setbacks in life. (In 2013 in sub-Saharan Africa over 2 million babies died in the first 3 weeks of their lives.) Of course there are neighbourhood disputes in village life but generally there is a strong sense of community and a generosity that sees those with very little sharing everything they have. After all the time I have spent in rural Uganda I am more and more ashamed and annoyed by the attitude of those from other countries who think they are better and know more than the people they meet in Uganda. I often wonder how we would feel if tourists in our countries were looking over our fences and taking photos of our day to day lives. A traveller should spend time learning a little of the culture and way of life of the country he or she is visiting and not simply think that his or her way is best. Although there is a photo around every corner, I have few photos of village life as I am uncomfortable treating the local people as exhibitions in a museum or zoo. Time to get off my soapbox ……

(written 2013)