Jamie Meyer – volunteer, Jan 11 2015
Just a few days ago I was cursing someone under my breath as I hurriedly made my way up the escalator from the underground, as god forbid they hadn’t moved to the right.
Today, I’m in Jinja, Uganda, where I’m volunteering for the next few weeks with Lively Minds. An absolute contrast to the hustle and bustle of London, where I’m now adjusting to “African time”.
For those unsure, Lively Minds are based in both Ghana and Uganda, where they set up early year play schemes for children 3-6 in remote, deprived villages by training local mothers themselves to run the programs. Ensuring they are sustainable and ongoing, with lasting benefits for the entire community.
During my first morning briefing we hear from Grace and Selma, two of the local team members, who have a lead on a potential new play centre location in the village of Kanamb. During the day while we’re out in the field visiting established centres, Joshua contacts the head of the village to arrange a community meeting.
The next day we take the hour long drive via 4WD, passing local villagers along dirt roads as they make their way to a water supply, or to the market where they may try to sell some fruit.
The sheer amount of village huts and locals we pass along the way is quite shocking. In my naivety I had expected a much smaller number of villages around Jinja, each with a small population. The team gives me an understanding of the hundreds of villages, sometimes with thousands of people living within each. Only now to I begin to understand the scale of the issue we are trying to tackle in Uganda alone.
We arrive at the village of Kanamb to see a group of locals have already gathered under the shade of the trees. Around 40 men are seated on wooden stools in a circle, with 10 or so women sitting on the ground to the side of the circle with their children. We are welcomed to the circle and offered a stool, which we take up but ask to expand the circle to include the women. We communicate that we also want to speak to the women of the village and numbers are low, so following the okay from the village head, one of the women runs off to gather more mothers from their homes. Slowly another 20 or so women wonder over to join the meeting.
I am surprised to see the structure of the meeting, which has a dedicated chairperson and leads with a prayer and welcome from the village head. The men explain they have three big issues in the village; the first being a lack of clean water, the second being no work or money, and the third being almost no access to education. They know little about the program so far, but are hoping we can help with one of these issues. I look around the group and can see so much hope and optimism in their eyes, that it really chokes me.
The news that the men are already mentioning education is a really good sign – in some of the villages, it has little value and the team really has to push to put it on their agenda. The men and women clap and cheer in agreement to show their support for a better future.
Grace, Joshua and Selma do a superb job of introducing the program, explaining the value of education and how much we would love to work with 30 women volunteers to run the educational games for the children of the village. I introduce myself with the entire two words of Lugandan I have learned so far, leaving the remainder of my intro to Grace to translate for me. I let them know I am honoured to be welcomed into the village and how much I am looking forward to working with them. They give me a welcome clap and cheer, along with a nickname for me in the local language which translates to “princess” – I try not to take offence of being called a princess!
To understand the village further, we ask the group some questions in the local language: “How many of you have a paid job?” zero movement from the floor, as no one amongst the 70 strong currently have a paid job. Apparently not uncommon as there is so little work available – the sugar cane fields and selling fruit at the market are amongst the most common.
“How many of you here can read?” A few hands start to go up, with around 9 men and 2 women able to read. “What are the causes of these challenges?” Grace encourages the women to speak up, saying she really wants to hear from them – in Uganda, the male dominates the community and rules the family, meaning it is very common for women to shy away from voicing her opinion. A few hands start to go up, explaining that money, distance, chores at home and the fact that their parents did not value education, are the biggest factors.
This leads to the question of “Do you want your children to have opportunities that you didn’t have as a child?” there is agreement amongst both men and women.
Selma demonstrates one of the games that will be used in the play centre – a basic shape puzzle (if you are a kid of the 80’s, it is similar to the red plastic ones that were passed down to you from your siblings or cousins)! She calls upon some volunteers – two men and a woman to see if they can place the shape in the corresponding hole. None of them can do it. Infact, they look incredibly blank as they take their time trying to figure it out. I ask the team later if they were joking – unfortunately not. I am embarrassed that I had even taken my early years education for granted.
The visit has been a success when they invite us back the following Tuesday, where we will hopefully be greeted by some eager volunteers who will begin to learn the games. The women will then spend two hours a week over the next eight weeks learning the program before they graduate, signalling they are ready to teach the children.
We leave the village feeling good and I congratulate the team on their efforts. I am confident we will match their hope and optimism, with a great program that will provide lasting benefits for Kanamb village. So excited to work with these women over the next few weeks and see the transition they go through!