My African adventure: Sincerely, Uganda

by Sam Blackledge

AT the start of this year I met up with Tom Gill, co-founder of East African Playgrounds, in a coffee shop in Redhill, Surrey. I told him that I wanted to go to Uganda to report on the work the charity was doing, building playgrounds for primary school children. He said yes, and so began my African adventure.

Local newspapers, particularly those in relatively affluent areas like Surrey, are filled with stories about charity fundraising, both in the UK and abroad. You might see the odd picture of a local resident in a war-torn or poverty-stricken area, alongside a link to their Just Giving site, and then turn the page and forget about it.

The Advertiser for Africa campaign was not only a chance for me to see what is happening in Uganda, and to report on it, but it was an opportunity for readers of the Dorking Advertiser to find out exactly where their money was going. So many large charities operate “top down” schemes, whereby the directors skim off a layer of donations and the rest gets swallowed up and unaccounted for.

By inviting me to live and work with them in Uganda, EAP displayed a refreshing transparency. The charity is unique in that all the money raised by its UK volunteers goes towards the cost of building playgrounds and paying Ugandan staff, who have been trained up from scratch over the last five years.

EAP started life as a small family, and is growing at an impressive rate. I am pleased to count myself as a member of the team, and aside from the pride and honour I feel on a professional level, I have met some fantastic people who I hope will remain friends for years to come.

With a big project like this it is easy to forget the real reason for your involvement. EAP takes its inspiration from article 31 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which states that “every child has the right to engage in play and recreational activities”.

The 800 kids who attend the BMK primary school near Iganga – more than 200 of whom are orphans – have been dealt a rough hand. They wear ripped and ragged clothes, they do not get their required nutrition and they are at risk from disease and illness. But despite all of this, they have boundless enthusiasm, endless curiosity and a natural instinct to play.

Often during my time at the school the volunteers would fill their afternoons by shooting basketball hoops. Every time the ball missed its target – which was much more often than it hit – a group of 15 children would bound after the ball and bring it back, eager to get a touch and be a part of the action. Throw a football into the communal space outside the classrooms and you would create a stampede. At other times, the kids could be seen entertaining themselves by simply making use of an old stick, a discarded tyre or a spare watering can.

There are problems in Uganda that go way beyond playgrounds, that was all too apparent during our brief stay. Healthcare, sanitation, the condition of the roads, all the way up to alleged government corruption – a country of huge potential is in danger of being left behind. But just because the big picture is murky, that shouldn’t be a reason to give up on the individuals beneath.

The energy that children have is one of the most powerful natural resources available. EAP is giving them the opportunity to harness that energy, and is inspiring people from the other side of the world to spread the message.

What will stick with me more than anything from this trip is the emotion that came from the members of the community. They saw how much work the volunteers put in, and they made it clear how much it meant to them. There was a farmer in the village named Patrick who would start every sentence with the word “sincerely”. It is a linguistic quirk, but to us it summed up the whole experience. We sincerely cared for them, and they were sincerely grateful.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the Advertiser for Africa campaign. To find out more about EAP, including how you can get involved in next year’s projects, click here.

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