Volunteer Blog

1-4-2019, Celebrating Suubi's 10th Birthday and Farewells For Another Year

What a wonderful day it was when we finally had the chance to celebrate the 10th birthday of Suubi Centre. We combined the event to welcome our new Senior 1 and 5 students and also to congratulate last years Senior 4 on successfully passing their 'O' level examinations. The day was filled will lots of performances; singing, dancing and celebrating in true Ugandan style. Thank you to each an every person who has been part of our amazing journey over the past 10 years!

The day began with an official welcome for the Aussies who were lucky enough to be there for the party.

Traditional dance was one of the many special performances during the day, which also included mimes, popular dance and news reading.

There was also many speeches and thank you's throughout the day. 

The Suubi ladies group were acknowledged for over 10 years of being together, sharing skills and supporting each other. They were the very first group to come together, even before Suubi Centre was first built all those years ago.

Suubi Centre Director, Ssemwogerere David and I took the opportunity to thank the many people who have been part of this amazing journey - it certainly has been a huge team effort to help make Suubi the success that it is today.

David was presented with a portrait that had been made from banana fibre, by Frank, a hugely talented local artist. It will now be proudly hung in the administration area of the Suubi SS.

Once the party was over it was time to say farewell to my Ugandan family for another year. It is never an easy thing to do but I know I will be back to see everyone again next year.

I look forward to dinner at the house with Madelena, Noelene, Sematiko and Katende again next year.

Maria's family changes each year as new grandchildren join her at her home. I have been blessed to have watched her own children grow up over the past 10 years and look forward to also seeing these children grow in to adults too over the coming years.

After leaving Lubanda Village I headed to David's Elite Backpackers in Masaka for my last day. This gave me the chance to have a hot shower, enjoy the last delicious dinner prepare by Jackson, finalise my packing and also farewell all the fabulous staff who have become my Masaka based Ugandan family.

EBS staff have taken wonderful care of us whenever we stayed in Masaka. They too are a part of my beloved Ugandan family who I am going to miss so much.

As usual, at the end of a trip I have such mixed feelings; leaving behind my Ugandan family is heartbreaking but the thought of heading home to my Aussie family fills me with joy. I feel absolutely blessed to be lucky enough to have family on both sides of the world, I love them all with all my heart! 

March 27th27-3-2019

We had a hugely exciting day at Suubi SS today when a team from the National Examination Board came to do their inspection, as part of the accreditation process for our school to become a National Examination Centre. They toured the school, taking particular notice of the science room and the vocational training hall, where the students will actually be sitting their exams from. 

The inspectors were impressed with the facilities available in the new science room, where student will be able to do all their practical experiments from during exams.

The vocational training hall was measured and it was calculated that 60  students can fit in to the space, allowing for the required distance between desks, during the exams. 

The inspectors were very quickly able to see that everything on their checklist had been met and by the end of their visit Suubi Director, Ssemwogerere David, was thrilled to be told that we had been approved as a National Examination Centre.

We look forward to picking up the official papers on April 29th, which will ensure our 2019, and all future Senior 4 students, will be able to sit their 'O' level exams at Suubi Secondary School.

We also distributed the sports gear today; uniforms that had so generously been donated by Mathew Flinders College on the Sunshine Coast and football boots from Bennett's Intersport in Kyabram. Our enormous thanks goes to them both for supporting our sporting program at Suubi SS - The gear, that was considered out of date in Australia, will certainly put to great use at Suubi SS now.

The Suubi SS students were thrilled to receive the sporting gear and certainly look professional now. This will give them great confidence when they are representing the school in the future.

And while all this was happening in the village, Suubi SS students, Gertrude, Silvia and Abbey have busy working with the Smiling HeARTs students in town. The fabulous team of Aussie ladies are teaching lots of new sewing and craft skills to everyone in there. 

Our Suubi SS students were thrilled to be part of the sewing and craft classes being carried out by Lis, Karin, Adele and Karin at our Smiling HeARTs house in Masaka.

Sylvia, Gertrude and Abbey have been great ambassadors for Suubi SS and will return to school and share their new skills with other tailoring students.

Abbey soaked up everything that was being taught and made the most of the opportunity that had been presented to him.

Sylvia proudly showed off one of the art smocks that Lis and the team had taught them to make. 

Abbey showed off one of the microwave bags he made. Scrunchies, hair bands, and necklaces were also masters by everyone; all of the items made will be taken back to Australia to sell.

Once back at Suubi SS the students also used their new found skills to make laptop covers for all the machines now available in the school computer lab, many of which had been sourced by Karin from connections she has via teaching in Melbourne. 

The covers will definitely protect the new laptops but will certainly brighten up the computer lab at Suubi SS too!

So as you can see, great things have been happening all over the place here. Our huge thanks to EVERYONE that has helped make this all possible!

17-3-2019, Seeing Suubi SS In Action Is Absolutely Surreal

After arriving in the village last weekend to lots of singing and dancing to celebrate my return, the week since has given me an opportunity to see, with my own eyes, how Suubi Secondary School operates on a daily basis. Although I have seen hundreds of photos and heard from David how things have been progressing since my last visit; about structures being built and activities being carried out, it has been absolutely surreal to see it all for myself. It is difficult to describe how it feels to see almost 200 students now having the opportunity to get an education in the village. The dream we had is now a reality! 

Celebrating with singing and dancing is always a wonderful way to be welcomed back.

Since I was here last here the new classroom block, including the library, computer & science laboratories and 2 additional classrooms have been completed. To see how they are now being utilised and the positive impact they are having on the quality of education the students are receiving is overwhelming. Students now have access to books to study from, enough computers to hone their IT skills on and science equipment to carry out experiments, rather than only learning from the blackboard. These are all things that students and teachers in the western world take for granted but their counterparts at Suubi SS realise how lucky they are to have these facilities in Uganda, particularly in the village, and are definitely making the most of it all.

The library is a place where students access books to gain a greater understanding of what they have been studying in each of the 15 subjects they are taught. They can read from within the library space as seen here, or borrow books to use after class hours or in the dormitory at night.

Students seem to devour the information they are reading. This is understandable when you consider that prior to the library being added at Suubi SS many of them would have spent their entire education, prior to that, only learning by coping information from the backboard or in rote fashion. Now they can absorb the information at they own pace and gain a true understanding of what they are being taught.

I have also been impressed to see students individually then take the books and approach teachers, outside of their ordinary class time, to make sure they fully understand what they have read.   

Our Senior 5 students are very fortunate to have one on one access to teachers so they have the greatest chance of succeeding when it comes time to sitting their 'A' level examinations.

In the computer laboratory students now have access to a laptop each - they no longer need to sit around for long periods of time waiting for their turn. This means they are learning for the entire time they are in their computer class.

Again, it is wonderful to see students focused and absorbed in what they are being taught for every moment they are in class.

The science laboratory is also a hive of activity. Students carrying out experiments to gain a 'true understanding' rather than trying to imagine what is being taught from the blackboard or text book is something that was only dreamed of in the past.

In this chemistry class students could see for themselves how different chemicals react when mixed with each other.

Carrying out experiments, such as watching the solution turn various shades of blue on this occasion, rather than merely reading that this would be the reaction, has been a new experience for students in the village.

Students interact and ask questions about what they have seen, again creating the best opportunity for them to truely understand what they are learning.

It is great to see the boys dormitory almost complete too. This year we have over 60 boys who are boarding so it is a relief to no longer have them crowded in to a spare classroom. They have recently moved in to the new dorm which they are all very happy about and are looking forward to the completion of their washrooms over the coming week.

The new boys dormitory structure, which sits in front of the original classroom block, is now almost complete. Painting and washrooms will completed over the coming week.

The boys are happy to have moved in to their new home.

With an additional 74 Senior 1 students this year, Suubi SS staff soon realised that there was a need to a greater amount of clean drinking water. Although there has been a small water purifier in the foyer of the administration area it could simply not provide the amount of drinking water required for the increased number of students. With this in mind, the solar water purifier that had previously been install at Suubi Clinic/Centre was moved to the school site this week. The Clinic has a smaller water purifier in the foyer which can easily cater for patients.

It was quite a sight to see a group of students carrying the solar water purifier through the village to be put in position at the school! 

Clean water is something that westerners take for granted but it is vital to help prevent waterborne illness among students and staff here. We hope positioning the solar water purifier between the two classroom blocks will be a solution to providing enough for everyone. 

So as you can see the past week has been quite a lot to take in!

I'm looking forward to spending more time with the Suubi ladies and some of the Suubi SS students in the week ahead, teaching them some new craft skills. I can't wait for the arrival of Loretta, Karin, Sandra, Lis and Adele next weekend too - I'm sure they will come with lots of great ideas that we can pass on to the ladies, students and Smiling HeARTs. I look forward to telling you all about it in the next blog update.

Until then, HUGs from Helen

8-8-2017, HUG Lives Up To Its Name - Help Us Grow

As I sit down to write my final blog entry of the trip we have just completed in Uganda, I feel the now quite normal, mixed emotions of being home. After 11 visits, you would think it would get easier to resettle back in, but not so. Every year the same thing happens; I feel such happiness to be home with Browny and more easily able to communicate with our sons and their families who a scattered across the world, but at the same time I feel such sadness to have left my Ugandan family and still struggle with how I can fit back in to day to day life here again. 

As Beth and Aaron have so articulately written in their earlier blog entries, once you have been to Uganda, your perspective on life in the western world changes forever. We have so many 'things' here, so many choices, so many opportunities, but so many people seem to be so unhappy. In Uganda, the important things in life, like having a healthy, happy family are not taken for granted and the smallest opportunities bring great happiness and gratitude. If only we could get more people in the West to live like this, instead of constantly searching for validation via buying a bigger 'thing' or how many 'likes' they get on social media. 

While not everyone longs to return to Uganda year after year like some of us, I get enormous joy out of seeing that HUG, Suubi, and more recently Smiling heARTs, has provided a place where so many people have been able to open their hearts and minds; refocus their attitude and perspective on what can truly make us happy. Being back in Australia allows all of us, who have been lucky enough to actually become part of our ever growing Suubi family, the chance to spread the story so that both Ugandans and Aussies can continue to grow - just as the HUG (Help Us Grow) name suggests. 

I'd also like to fill you in on my last 10 days of this years trip. It was wonderful to be able to totally immerse myself in village life; spend unrushed time with the many happy 'Muzungu' calling children that I met throughout my days and have a chance to simply sit and chat with the Suubi ladies, students and staff. It was also wonderful to have time to witness the positive impact of the items we had taken over, or arranged while being there, was having:

At the beginning of our trip the parents had been extremely impressed with the laptops and science equipment, we had brought with us for Suubi SS.

While the microscopes and laptops were considered out of date or too slow back home it was fabulous that people had thought to donate them to HUG. This means the students at Suubi SS will also have the opportunity to use machines they consider state of the art.

During my last week in the village I was lucky enough to see the new laptops being used by the Senior 3 computer studies students. Such a contrast to what I had seen last year when a whole class had been trying to squeeze around the 7 old laptops we had available at the time. This year the computer class saw students seated at tables and not more than two of them having to share access to a machine.

This enabled the students to each have extended periods of hands on time on the laptop which means their skill level will improve significantly quicker with each lesson. A huge thank you to everyone who donated a laptop this year - what you may have otherwise left sitting in the back of your cupboard or thrown in the rubbish is now helping our students at Suubi SS to learn valuable IT skills. Perfect!

In another classroom I found the rest of the Senior 3 class, who had not selected computer studies as one of their electives, doing revision work. This normally involves reading or copying notes that someone else had taken during class time so they can go over it again in the lead up to exams. As you can see Jane was quite happy doing this but also had the option of reading from the text books we had recently bought.

With a small number text books now available for all 15 subjects, the students are taking advantage of the extra information they can get from them and therefore broadening their understanding of what they have been taught.

Sharon and Lynet read from one of the chemistry books and took time to discuss and learn more together.

While Saidat took great interest in life drawings that will help her with her fine art studies.

The science equipment which had been sitting in a shed in Shepparton for a number of years because the O'Connell family had been unable to get it to a school in Nepal, is now also being put to great use. Thanks to Jenny and Pat for contacting HUG about the variety of science equipment that their daughter, Kate, had sourced from a Melbourne university after volunteering in Nepal in 2010, and to our willing contingent of volunteers to take it in their luggage this year, I was also able to see the Suubi SS students thoroughly inthralled during their science practicals. 

The microscopes are certainly a hit in biology classes as students are now able see micro-organisms that they had previously only seen pictures of or been told about. 

Joan, Dorothy, Alex, Sylivia and Norah gained a greater understanding during their physics lessons with the help of some of the new science equipment.

Shannah and Shadia were a picture of concentration as they worked.

I can't even begin to thank everyone enough for all of the books and equipment we have been able to provide for the students at Suubi SS this year. I know many of you think that buying a book for $20, or donating a laptop that you would have probably thrown out, or clearing out your shed of boxes is not much of a big deal, but I'm telling you it is! Small gestures like these can, and now are, changing the lives of our students at Suubi SS! I have seen with my own eyes what a huge difference this is making, so please continue to tell your family, friends and work collegues that they too can help us to make Suubi SS even better. If they have an old laptop or other suitable educational equipment, email me and let me know so we can try to organise to send it across with our next group of volunteers. Or you may know others who want to purchase a book/s so we can eventually fill a Suubi SS library!

Finally, before I sign off for another year I want to let you know that we had a very special arrival the day before I left Uganda. Two of our dearest Suubi family members, Elias and Fatumah (Tit) welcomed a brand new baby girl in to the world. It was both a harrowing and joyful experience to be around for. It started with an extremely long labour that lead to an emergency caesarean. As we waited for hours, not knowing whether Tit or the baby would survive, we all supported each other in the usual Ugandan way, by simply being there to help each other through. Although Maria (Tit's Mum) and I may not share the same language, we shared hugs and comforted each other. As a mother far away from my own children I was confronted with the thought of what it would be like sitting, waiting to hear if one of them was going to survive. Although neither Maria's grown up children, nor my sons can be classed as a child any more, the love of a mother never lessens - the heartache was palpable. Maria and I clung to each other and finally shared in the excitement and joy when we realised that both Tit and the baby were going to be ok. Maria and I have always been very close but I'm sure this experience will bind us together in yet another special way. 

Elias, Tit and their beautiful little daughter certainly didn't have an easy start to this life; they and their extended family will always be grateful as long as they are all healthy and happy. 

So cute - she looked just like a baby doll!

Although I'm now back sitting at my desk in Kyabram writing this blog post, part of my heart will always remain with my Ugandan family ...... just as part of it is in Queensland with Dustyn, Loz, Archie, Bren, Angy and Sunny, part of it is in the UK with Chad and Maria and part in LA with Ryl and Jooch. I know I definitely can't physically be with everyone I love, all of the time..... BUT my heart is always with them and WILL physically be with them all again in the not to distant future! Until then - Thank God for Skype!

So it's see you later to little Dalvin for now. (what a lucky boy to have so many Jja jjas that love him so much!)

We may be on opposites sides of the world right now but our hearts and families are forever joined!

HUGs from Helen

28-7-2017, Reverse Culture Shock

Returning home after your first visit to Uganda isn't always easy, as Beth perfectly articulates in the blog she has written:

Everyone told me it would be tough going to Uganda, the terms and customs that needed to be followed, the poor conditions and sights I would be confronted with, .... but no one told me the biggest shock of all would be coming ‘home’ to our developed world. Nothing could prepare me for the feelings I’ve experienced post my return from Uganda.

It only took a little time in a third-world country, to be really rocked and somewhat bitter when I returned home from the sheer quality of life we get to experience and are exposed to. The cleanliness of the streets, the ridiculous abundance of options in the grocery stores and our wardrobe, the wastage, water sources everywhere,,, the general comfort of everything! The opportunity in front of me was overwhelming and hard to digest.

The feeling I got when I looked around at people was - insufficiency and dissatisfaction. We aren’t rich enough, we don’t have a good enough car, our house is too small, we are too fat, or too skinny. Nothing ever seemed enough. But whilst we are so consumed worrying about what we don’t have, and how we don’t look, we are only cluttering and subtracting time that could be spent being grateful and thankful. For the community I had just been immersed in, being fed, clothed and sheltered would be sufficient, and even that is a luxury at times.

The instinctual question asked when you return from a trip is always “How was your trip?” When asked my face would light up, because It was my chance to talk about the people and experiences I loved so much, .... but 80% of the time the listener was just wanting a one line response - ‘Yeah, really good thanks’. It annoyed me why they didn’t want to listen? Did they not care? Was it not my responsibility to pass on my learnings and teachings and educate the developed world on ways they could help? I still have to constantly remind myself that this was my experience, and not everyone needed to feel as inspired or moved as I. Not everyone wanted to hear my story, and that needed to be okay.

My first day back at work exposed me to many mental challenges, one that still sticks was when my boss said to me ‘That was probably the worst time of the year to go away, end of financial year. You have missed so many ‘important’ things’. I felt tears build in my eyes, and I knew in that moment what he classified as important, was very different to me, and somehow that needed to be okay.

The first time I saw Aaron after our trip, we hugged like we have never hugged. No words were needed, there was a mutual understanding, a transfer of love and safety that we both clearly needed. Those still in Uganda (Helen and Mum) advised us to stay close to each other when we returned. I never actually understood until now how important that advice was to follow. We constantly check in with each other and ride the waves of emotions as they come, together. Mostly our conversations end in laughter and smiles, just like the Ugandans would want.

I didn’t quite know where to place my emotions or how to settle the tears. I needed to find a strength, a strength greater than anything I needed to use in Uganda to get past these thoughts. I knew I had to channel my emotions into new energy. Energy that would allow me to focus on all the great things I can do from Australia to support my Ugandan family.

I’m not blinded or fooled by my travels to Uganda. I know I can’t save the world, nor do I need to give up the freedoms and luxuries I enjoy and give them to people who don’t have them. I don't need to adopt a life of poverty just to understand the plight of those less fortunate. Rather, it has made me thankful and mindful. It’s caused me to consciously manifest an attitude of thankfulness and gratefulness.

Whilst home is always home, I wish I still had the dust on my feet, and the Ugandan’s in my arms.

Until next time – Siima Kyolina.

- Beth Lilford.

26-7-2017, Suubi Safari For 8 and "one other"

Cate and Karin head to the airport to fly back home today. A huge thank you for everything they did during their time with us and the way they embraced every situation that came their way. Before they left, Cate put together a blog about their safari experience; one part of their very special time spent in Uganda.......

"Stay safe "was the constant reply when we told our friends and family we were off for Safari at Murchison falls Uganda. To be near the source of one of the streams feeding the White Nile via Lake Victoria was a completion for me.I had already cruised on the Nile in Egypt from Cairo to Aswan and had also viewed the end of the Nile Delta emptying into ocean ,courtesy of an Etihad aeroplane window. Our Blue Costa bus comfortably seated our group of 8. Loretta, her hubby John,daughter Beth, friend Aaron, Steve and wife Joan, who had already completed their Suubi trip. Karin and I had previously arranged in crossing paths with the Suubi group to join together forming the "Suubi Safari." Our driver, organised by David, was Fred, who invited his friend Roger, who became the "one other" along the whole 4 day 3 night Safari trip. Roger was between jobs and had never been to Murchison Falls area; he became our self appointed guide and payment organiser, for the separate excursions which included himself. Except on the Rhinotrekking where unfortunatley for him, Roger's thong foot wear excluded his participation for safety reasons.

As Helen Brown had explained, Ugandans have a very sharing social culture. We found ourselves adjusting to this concept, not quite sure what the protocol was towards our "one other" Safari companion. Roger soon became a very practical helper, swatting the suspected Tse tse flies that flew into visit us inside the bus. I thought Karin was exaggerating about not wearing royal blue or dark cothing as this attracts the fly. All along the road were many Tse Tse fly traps in royal blue and black....I was glad my condensed wardrobe for those few days had other colors, respectfully then I listened to Karin and her google resevoir of what to do and not do on Safari.

Our first night was at Kabalega Resort, on the outside of Murchison National Park, which I had booked via booking.com. It was to be our last. We cancelled our third night of the safari there due to bed cockroaches, bugs nesting in curtains, noisy traffic, the included breakfast, very limited and .oh oh ..the clincher.. no running water..On a positive note, their grounds were well kept as we glimpsed our first monkeys hiding in the background.

Inside the National Park, on road to our accommodation, we saw many various types of monkeys, like Colobus monkey and Baboons.

Red Chilli Rest Camp was our only option for accommodation within the park for our group of eight. The other accomodation was either fully booked, far too expensive ie Parra Lodge or restrictive ie Sambiya Lodge. They had room for all of us but lost this revenue...due to no onsite credit card facilities. As pretty woman pointedly put it, they lost out ."Big time".

The first night we were safely ensconced in Bandas, concrete rendered thatched huts.The second night we were moved into tents as we needed to find another night within the park to fit in our to do list. That second night was certainly cooler overnight in the airy tents.

However, uninvited visitors called early in the evening and early morning...3 gigantic grunting, fighting "Pumbas" (Warthogs ) bailed me up in the tent as next door in the Banda, the new 20 something group, had left an empty pizza box outside. Warthogs have an acute sense of smell, there are warnings everywhere "Do not leave any food, packaged or otherwise. Fines start at US 100 dollars if tent is torn."...Needless to say I wondered what to do if the hogs came at me! There were also newspaper articles at Red Chilli of rangers being chased by Hippos past the Red Chilli sign. The hippo's top speed is 45 kms..We heard them grazing around the bandas and tents in the early morning..Advice is do not approach, do not shine light on either species....?.Maybe pray is all you can do for deliverance, as 85 % of Ugandans are Christian..and 25% Muslim, pray is powerful here.

Before our first night, we ventured across the river by ferry with Roger to the other side for our Murchison River cruise about 3 and half hours. Well worth the US 32 .00 per person.

It was sureal seeing these zoo animals close to the river so free and plentiful. In contrast, we were the animals enclosed in the river boat cell bars. Elephants in herds and rogue males, isolated. A sudden deluge occured after we boarded, then stopped as quickly as it descended. This brought more Nile crocs to the surface and hippos grazing in the long grass, some fighting each other, which apparantly can go all day. 

There were many different deer and antelope, water buffalo and warthogs. The bird life was abundant, including the regal African fish eagle, patrolling the Murchison River and Nile.

The menu at Red Chilli each night was one white meat dish, one red meat and one vegetarian. It was all very tasty and appreciated, as we looked out over the beautiful valley then warmed ourselves by the camp fire after sunset.

The safari started off early at 8 am but as we had no vehicle organised nor guide, we were finally ready and paid to leave Parra Lodge at 10.30 am. This entailed another ferry crossing over to join our vehicle and drver. It is hard to express the amazement of seeing three of the huge beasts in their natural state, where once there were four, now there were elephants, lions and giraffes minus the near exinct White Rhino. One matriach elephant, who wanted to shepherd her calf across the road in front of us, was not pleased with our proximity, which resulted in us as one chorus yelling "Go,Go,Go." It certainly added to the thrill. In hindsight however for a future tip, choose a National Park guide for their knowledge and spotter ability. We had organised a tour bus from Para lodge ourselves but it did not come with a guide, instead Roger became our self appointed guide; at one stage was asleep or riding shotgun position outside, blocking our view. The driver needed to concentrate on the road conditions. A hired guide would have instilled more confidence in safety issues too. Other animals we saw were 2 lions, hyenas, jackets, vultures surrounding a kill. It got to the point we were ignoring the many smaller animals like deer, antelope, warthog to find the greater numbers in an elephants herd or giraffe. For Loretta and most of the other group they were our favourites.

The following day was the highlight of the Rhino trekking situated in Ziwa Conservation Park.Currently they have bred upto a herd of 19. Once they reach past 20 they can start to move these endandered giants, back into Murchison National Park. The Rhinos were wrongly named White Rhino due to a South African translation error what they meant was Wide mouthed Rhino. Their full grown horns are worth a million dollars each on the black market...mainly mainland China. 64 Patrol guards are responsible 24 hours to monitor their charges. Bribery is lucrative and they choose their staff with due diligence. The strength of these beasts 3 tonne of muscle and thick hide is countered with their poor eyesight. However their hearing is acute....It was the quietest our group had ever been at one time...our lives depended on it! We were so close to them 

 we could smell these magnificent creatures. They definitely must have been able to smell us, respectively fearful, yet deeply appreciative to be able to help the cause to protect them. Maybe they sensed we were friendlies not foes, or just it was too hot to move being midday and they needed to conserve energy, as they cannot sweat to control their internal thermostat.

If you do come over to see Suubi Centre with the Secondary School and the unique and special programes set up by HUG and Smiling Hearts personnel, enjoy the whole Ugandan experience and do a safari at some stage of your visit. Learn from Rogers example, when the opportunity presents itself, embrace it with an open heart and Go for it! 

The repose, after the trek with Helen and David, minus yours truely, at Lizzie's "The Guinea Fowl" An oasis accommodation with hot showers and great tucker in Entebbe!

Post Script:In gratitude to photos, other than mine , contributed by Bethany, amazing.

23-7-2017, First Books Arrive At Suubi Secondary!

I don't even know how to begin to write this blog in a way that can adequately express the excitement and sheer joy of the first books arriving at Suubi Secondary School during last week. As many of you will know, we have created a virtual library on the home page of our website. Thanks to the many people's generosity we have been now able to purchase the first group of actual books to kick start the Suubi Secondary School library! Even my usual yipeeeee seems so understated as a way of celebrating this fabulous achievement at Suubi SS. 

While the number of books we have started with may seem very small for a school to have by western standards, the reality is that most schools in Uganda have very few or no books for students to access. For the past two and half years the teachers at Suubi SS have been making do with one book per subject so they could use it for class planning purposes. So when we were able finally to ask the teachers to make a list of the text books they thought would be most useful for each of the subjects they are teaching, they thought it somewhat like Christmas. They all carefully selected the most important books that are required for the Ugandan syllabus, across the 15 subjects that are being taught. Then, thanks to the wonderful support from people who had bought books in the virtual library and Tennis Australia's pay it forward grant, David was able to organise to purchase 3 copies of each of these books. This means the students will be now be able access these books to read during their study times; no longer will they have to solely rely on the notes they have been able to take either from the blackboard or from dictation during class. 

While our aim is certainly to continue to add to the school library, everyone was beside themselves with excitement when the first lot of books were bought and distributed last week. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who helped to make this possible. The book/s you purchased may not have seemed like a big deal at the time but you will continue to positively touch the lives of students at Suubi SS for years to come. We would love for you to encourage your family, friends and workmates to help us fill up the rest of the library by also purchasing a book/s in the virtual library.

David and I were so excited when the first lot of books were delivered to us in Entebbe. It was wonderful for Beth, Az, John, Joan and Steve to see them before they flew back home. For Cate and Karin, who were about to set off back to Suubi for the first time, it was a great introduction to Ugandan time.... we waited 5 hours for the books to come from Kampala which is about 45 mins drive away from Entebbe! Well worth the wait though!

The following day at Elite Backpackers (EBS) we sorted through the boxes and cross checked to make sure we had received all the books we had ordered. Little Dalvin was a great help with this!

Even the staff and patrons of EBS were excited to see all the books and spent time reading through them all.

The following day we headed out to Suubi with Loretta, Cate, Karin and Florence, an intern from the UK who will be staying at Suubi for a month. They were all blown away when we arrived at the school to see the students lined up to form a guard of honour to welcome them to their school.

The dancers and drummers lead the way as the new volunteers were welcomed in to the school.

Then they put on a spectacular performance of traditional dance 

and singing of the school and national anthem

which was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone.

But it was definitely the arrival of the new books that bought the most excitement. Although the teachers had put in their wish list, they certainly didn't know that the books would be arriving so soon and the students had absolutely no idea they were coming. To see the genuine excitement and joy on their faces is something that will be etched in to my heart forever! To know that something relatively small, that we westerns take for granted, could be so cherished and appreciated bought a flood of tears of happiness. 

Teachers and students alike were thrilled to get their hands on the new books.

Although this may look a set up photo I absolutely promise it was not... the students were devouring the words on the pages!

Unfortunately the internet is not working well enough for me to upload the video to the blog today for you to see and hear the excitement, but hopefully you can imagine it.

Although Cate and Karin's time in the village was only for three days, they certainly made the most of it and passed on wonderful new skills the students at Suubi SS. Karin is an art and craft teacher in Melbourne and her students back home had produced a beautiful piece of hand made felt. Karin took this fabric, and with Cates assistances, taught a group of Suubi SS students to make beautiful necklaces and glasses cases from it. What a fabulous link between students in Australia and Uganda. 

The first day with the students saw Karin and Cate teaching the student the simple stitches required to sew the necklaces together.

The students listened intently as Karin explained how the felt had been made by her students back home.

And were a picture of concentration as they stitched the pieces of felt together.

Back at the training hall at Suubi Centre in the evening, it was a team effort to cut out the glasses cases in preparation for the following days session with the students.

The beautiful variety of colours will make fabulous glasses cases that we will be able to sell back home in Australia.

The next day saw the students practicing new stitches and then busily stitching items together.

They were certainly very proud of their items when they were finished.

The following day Karin and Florence decided they would like to walk to the water hole where most of the villagers collect water from. This is quite a strenuous work down hill and then back up again when they have collected the water to take home. This walk certainly gave Karin and Florence some perspective when they considered that mostly the children from each village family have to make this trip twice a day so they can have water at home for washing dishes, clothes and for cooking. There is no just turning on the tap to see an endless supply of clean water here!

One 25 litre jerrycans can barely be lifted by most westerners but children in Uganda carry multiple jerrycans to make sure the families have enough water for the day.

Karin and Florence throughly enjoyed visiting the homes of some of the Suubi ladies along the way. Kizoto's husband, John, was very happy to explain to Karin about the coffee he had just picked.

With the walk through the village completed, we headed to Suubi Secondary again to see the Saturday morning vocational studies underway. Knitting, tailoring, carpentry and welding were going on in full swing but it was the brick laying boys that had an important job for that particular morning; they were constructing the base for a new water tank for the dormitory. This had been donated by a wonderful supporter back home that has an interest in providing safe water, particularly for girls. The 'Waterman' as we know him (because he wants to remain anonymous) has provided a number of tanks to schools in the past and and was more than happy to know that this particular one will mean the girls from the dormitory will not have to make the long trip to the water hole that Karin and Florence had just done. In addition to this, a water purifier will be put in to the dormitory so the girls have safe drinking water during the night. Webale nnyo, nnyo, nnyo to the 'Waterman.'

Bricklaying students were busy at work constructing the base for the new tank.

It is now time to farewell Cate and Karin. They have been a joy to have around and passed on wonderful skills while they were with us. A huge thank you to you both for coming to Suubi!

Cate and Karin's hand have now been added to the wall in the training hall and they will forever be part of the Suubi family.

So for the next couple of weeks it will be just Loretta and I here together. There are sure to be lots of fun times and laughs along the way and we look forward to letting you know what we get up to in the next blog.

HUGs from Helen

14-7-2017, Sports Final Brings Great Excitement

There was great excitement in the village last weekend as everyone switched to sports mode. For locals of Lwengo District, (where Suubi Centre is) the finals of our Butonde Bwansi Sports Tournament is something they look forward to in June July each year. What began as a relatively small event in 2010, the tournament has now grown in to a major community event - each year it just gets bigger and better. 

Throughout June, nine preliminary football matches were played, attracting crowds from villages where participating teams were coming from. This gave Suubi staff the opportunity to pass on information about everything that is available at Suubi and also important health and educational messages. With a new team from Boda Boda Football Club entering this year, they bought with them a whole new group of supporters, from the extreme end of the district, to not only enjoy the sports but also to be exposed to the Suubi messages. Perfect - the sporting event is allowing us to reach more and more people in the wider community each year.

The culmination of the event, finals day - which was held last Sunday - is the absolute highlight for everyone though. The Aussie volunteers were thrilled to be in the village to be part of this spectacular day, which is packed with sporting action and excitement for everyone. In the lead up to Sunday, John took the opportunity to introduce some of the Suubi Secondary students to Aussie rules football. With John's connection to the Kyabram and Melbourne Football Clubs, we are hoping that a real link can be made and in the future we will see Ugandans playing Aussie rules too.

The Suubi boys watched on intently as John showed them various skills and explained more about the differences between football and soccer. 

With their athletic ability they caught on very quickly

and were soon taking species!

The boys had been quite serious in the beginning and thought Aussie rules was pretty strange, but by the end of the day they were filled with smiles when they were able to kick further than John!

Sunday morning started bright and early as the tournament organisers woke before day break to finalise everything for the day. With the Delica revving to start, the PA system being checked and the hive of activity going on at Suubi this also meant we Aussie were wide awake too. 

The first event of the day was the cycling. This saw the riders travelling approximately 60km moving through many villages in the surrounding area. People lined the roads to cheer on the riders as they passed through their village. Once again Suubi Centre was bought to the for front of peoples minds that may have otherwise missed out on attending the finals in Lubanda Village.

Everyone gathered at the Suubi junction in anticipation of the riders taking off.

With Beth having worked at Cycling Australia in the past and currently for Altus, she was thrilled to be able supply shirts for the organising committee and cycling gear for all the riders.

Suubi sports manager, Paul, (in the green shirt) was very popular with all the riders has he handed out the cycling shirts.

As we waited for the race to kick off, Elias gave the PA system a work out with his messages and Zak was pumping out the music. It felt like a party in the village and the anticipation of the action filled day ahead was palpable. Locals took advantage of having so many people on the streets by selling meat under the tree at the race line and eats and drinks at the football ground.

John enjoyed Zaks tunes so much he let some of his legendary dance moves rip - a real hit with the kids!

Loretta on the other hand was not so impressed with the meat hanging under the tree. She was happy to buy some for Madelena but wouldn't be joining her for dinner!

Although she gave it a go, Beth wasn't quite as handy with the machete as the butcher!

The tournament is a great place for friends and family to catch up with each other. Aaron, Loretta and Beth were happy to see Deo as that waited at the junction for the action to begin. He is the husband of Loretta's penfriend, Benidikita, that passed away earlier this year. Now Deo and Loretta have become brother and sister.

With the riders setting off, David took off too to follow as the support car in case anyone broke down. Joan, Steve and John jumped in with the rest of the team - 11 of them in total we were told. Steve said afterwards it was one of the most exciting things he had done in his whole life. Travelling through the remote villages (that they never would have had a chance to see if not for the tournament) and trying to keep up with the bike riders who were travelling up to 70kms and hour, up and down the bumpy hills, was a real adrenaline rush.

The jam packed Land Rover took off after the riders

and more than three hours later the winners were crossing the finishing line.

Twin brothers Waswa and Kato were happy to crossed the finish line in 1st and 2nd.

They had been trained by their father, Salongo (in red), who came in 3rd position. What a family power house!

Steve was quite a sight when he climbed from the vehicle - one side of his face completely brown from being covered in dust and the other as sparkling white. 

Once the cycling was over the action moved to the playground at Namagongo Primary School where the netball and football finals were to be held. With the Suubi Secondary School girls set to appear in the finals for the first time we practised our cheering as we waited for the girls from St Benards school to arrive. "Lets go Suubi, lets go!" Eventually when the match got underway the standard was really high, especially when you consider they were playing on a dirt court that had pot holes and slanted downhill. In the end the St Benards girls came out on top 9-6 but the Suubi girls certainly put up a good fight.

The two teams took part in a tug a war as part of the prematch entertainment.

It was very exciting for the Suubi girls to be appearing in the finals for the first time and they basked in having so much attention.

Prematch hugs and well wishes between the two teams was lovely to see.

 Suubi SS actually had most of the play and more shots on goal but unfortunately a couple of tall girls in St Benards defence line made it difficult for Suubi goalers to score. The team should be extremely proud of how they performed and with this experience under their belt they are sure to come out on top in the future.

With the netball complete all eyes turn to the football. The new team, Boda Boda FC, had made it through to the finals against Kinonni FC. Both teams came with huge numbers of supporters which saw the pitch completely surrounded four or five deep - the largest crowd we have had since staring the tournament! The match was of a great standard and really competitive. In fact it was all level at full time, which meant a penalty shoot out to decide the champions. 

Both teams lined up before the match began and were wished well by the officials and Aussie volunteers.

The huge crowd enjoyed the high standard of the match. There was lots of cheering and it was easy to see that everyone was having a great time. 

It was the hottest day we had had while in the village - Loretta tried to keep out of the sunshine but her umbrella just didn't want to co-operate.

John took advantage of having such a huge crowd to promote Aussie rules footy too. He held a competition for the longest kick during the half time break.

The kids in the crowd came closer to see what the excitement was about and of course Elias explained what was happening from his vantage point perched high on top of the Delica in the back ground.

David and Brian were thrilled with the hats they received as the winner and runner up while the other boys were happy to get a pen for their efforts.

With the match all tied up at full time there was match excitement when Kinonni FC scored the winning goal in the penalty shoot out. Shortly afterwards the crowd went crazy; people running all around the pitch and cheering for the new champions.

As usual, by the time all the presentations were done the daylight was fading. Kinonni FC took home a cow for 1st prize, Boda Boda a goat for being runners up. 

It was wonderful for the Aussie volunteers to be part of such a special day. Hopefully they will always remember their day at the Suubi sports finals and will have lots of fun telling family, friends and work colleagues about it when they get back home. A huge thanks to John, Beth, Aaron, Joan and Steve for the time they spent at Suubi. They all bought something special to the experience and we wish them all a safe journey as they set off home tomorrow. 

Also a huge thank you to the Suubi staff for yet another amazing job of organising such a fabulous event. It is always inspiring to see so many people having such a great time; not even realising they are learning at the same time. Perfect!

Loretta will now be joined by her two friends Cate and Karen who are sure to have a big adventure of their own. We'll be sure to update you on what they get up to in the next blog.

HUGs from Helen

11-7-2017, An Emotional Rollercoaster

It's been almost a week now since our last blog and since we left Masaka. We haven't had internet connection or phone contact with the western world (which has been quite liberating) and now that we are on the last leg of our journey, we thought it was timely for us to record our experiences of our last day at Elite Backpackers and our life in Suubi Centre and Lubanda village. We thought this was going to be an exciting moment - travelling to start our 4 day national park and safari tour, but instead we drive away from the village holding hands and wiping tears. Hopefully you will understand why below.

Our last day in Masaka had us visiting the other Smiling HeARTs group, 'Good Samaritan' - a school for the deaf and mute (every single student in the school was both deaf and mute). We don't think any of us had really thought about what to expect on our arrival. As we pulled up we saw all the kids running towards us excitedly, like always, but this time as we opened the back doors to get out of the Land Cruiser we were confronted by absolute silence; an almost eerie silence. These kids were expressing just as much excitement and sheer joy to see us as the other groups, but this time it was all through sign language and facial expressions - you could hear a pin drop in the school yard. We were immediately presented with photocopied books about sign language and small groups of children grabbed each of us separately, sat us down and proceeded to teach us how to sign. They did each phrase once with us, then asked us to try it on our own. If we did well, they would sign 'very good', if not they signed for us to repeat it. They were so excited to be showing us their special skill. No matter how less fortunate you are than someone else, you always have something to learn off them. We were also treated with a dance performance. The children were able to 'feel the vibrations through the ground as well as the music in their heart'- we were told by the teachers. This was really special. Each one of the Smiling HeARTs students then sat us down and showed us how they made the bracelets that we have previously sold at markets. It was wonderful to see how much time and effort goes in to these, as when we are back in Melbourne, we'll be able to share this with others. Another truly special day.

It was then a long drive out of Masaka in the back of our trusty Land Cruiser, along the dusty pothole ridden roads. Our luggage was packed on the roof and the back was filled to the brim with food to last us the week in the village, along with second hand laptops, medical supplies, microscopes, cycling jerseys, curtains, art and craft materials etc for the community.

Before we reached Suubi centre we stopped off at the Suubi Secondary School which is located at the entrance of the village. We were greeted with the most spectacular performance of song and dance. Their school anthem, the national anthem and some traditional drumming and dancing. The school was opened in 2015, with this year the 3rd intake of students. Some parents were sceptical about sending their children to Suubi SS as they weren't sure what to expect. But now, they have gained trust and the school is growing fast. Those first year of intake students are very proud and we can see why. So much has been achieved in such a short time, by HUG founders Helen Brown and David Ssemwogerere. The passion and drive to see this village develop is something you need to be here to really understand. We were given a tour of the school- seeing the desks and uniforms which were made by the students themselves - their aim, to be 'academic giants'. They were well and truly on the way. 

Just next to the school, 3 young men (maybe older teenagers) were boring for water. They had dug a well, by hand, by sending one person down in the dark with plastic buckets on a rope wench, to dig 4 ft a day - it's currently at 130ft. They had only just finally reached water that day and it was a pretty big deal. Water, something we take for granted, in any form, is a pretty big deal. The school was scattered with attempts to grow vegetables, but as the principal explained to us, usually the projects didn't take off, as they simply ran out of water. What we saw was small areas with dry grass and very little greenery. At home we leave the tap running while we brush our teeth, we have 10 minute long showers, we water our gardens with hoses and we throw out half finished bottles of drinking water. The Ugandans need to save every drop. It made us feel sick to the stomach with how wasteful we are at home.

At this school was where we were first introduced to the Ugandan drop toilets. Beth was unfortunate enough to have a blow fly come up out of the drop and fly in to her mouth. Needless to say, she didn't finish what she started! We were told to prepare ourselves we suppose!

Our ride from Masaka to Suubi was an uncomfortable ride, but nothing could prepare us for how uncomfortable we were going to be for the next week and the challenges we would face in the village. Nothing!

In Masaka we did have to give up some home comforts such as warm water to shower in, fresh drinking water from taps and our extravagant meals. But in the village, it was next level - drop toilets with blow flies flying around our bums (you can just imagine the smells), no power in our banda (hut), which meant no light once dusk settled in (weirdly the thing that we struggled most with, more than the toilets), wasp nests inside the bandas, no showers - just a jerry can of water and a bucket to stand in (wet wipes became our new friends) no refrigeration, a food cupboard which mice/rats found wonderful to munch through!

But all of this was simply a reminder for how lucky we really are. These everyday difficulties really brought us down to earth. Grounded us. They have made us appreciate what we have at home. The quote 'Siima Kiyolina' really resonated with us. It means 'Be grateful for what you have' in Lugandan. Every day in the village became survival - rationing every bit of food and water we had (and being a bit protective when someone else ate something you were saving or had more than their fair share), deciding what to eat and when to eat it and whether it will give us crook guts or not. Working out the best way to get a decent wash without wasting water. Deciding when was the best time to do what we needed to do in our banda before we had no light. Calculating what time to use the toilet before the blow flies or mosquitoes took over. All exercises we take for granted at home.

On our arrival at the Suubi centre/clinic we were welcomed again with dance and song by the 'suubi craft ladies'. They were especially excited to see Loretta again as she had developed a special relationship over the years.

The community was so proud to show us their health clinic, and rightly so. Elias (the lab technician, but also a bit of a town leader we discovered throughout our week here) gave us a thorough and animated explanation of what happens in each of the clinic rooms - family planning, counselling, pharmacy, delivery room, inpatient room and the impressive laboratory that is able to give you a malaria or typhoid diagnosis through blood tests within 2-3 minutes! It was great to hear about the shift in attitude within the community regarding the clinic. The Lubandan's are embracing and understanding the importance of early diagnosis, and even more importantly - preventative measures. This is evident through the increased number of patients presenting at the clinic.

Another great moment here, was seeing the privacy hospital curtains that Loretta bought over from The Kyabram Hospital (that were going to be thrown out!). The inpatient room previously had very little privacy between beds and now they have a full curtain between each bed. Sounds so basic and not that exciting to most of you reading this, but this really was like Christmas for the clinic. Everyone rushed in to see them. Photos were being taken and shrieks of excitement and applause could be heard from the other side of the village. We couldn't wipe the smiles of our faces.

It's crazy how much stuff we throw out back home that we now see how valuable they could be here. We are so wasteful. The Ugandan's would be disgusted if they saw just how much of a throw away society we have become.

In the afternoon we took a walk down to the 'water hole' (small creek) where the village collect fresh water from. It was a long walk, downhill on a narrow track through the jungle. As we ventured down, small children were overtaking us with empty jerry cans and others coming towards us up the steep track with full jerry cans of water. The children did this twice a day, just so that they could get water to take back to their families. We helped them, to give them a break and to see how heavy it was. Wow- these jerry cans were so heavy and some of these kids were no older than 6yrs of age.

Day 3 we headed off with Beth's dad John to help some farmers tag some of the 'Suubi goats'. 203 goats to be exact. This was an experience that we won't forget that's for sure. All 203 goats were squashed into a raised platform. The purpose of the day was to educate the farmers on how to keep track of their live stock - which kids belonged to which mothers, which were sick etc in order to learn more about them. Currently they have no system at all. The noises they made when being tagged was both hilarious and hideous at the same time. The platform floor was completely covered in poo and wee and the local farmers walked around barefoot. We were so pleased that we were able to help them work out why some of their livestock was sick and how to prevent it moving forward. John was even able to administer some medicine and saw instant improvement in health by one of the pregnant goats (with twins). Mission accomplished! Fair to say, he introduced himself as Professor J Lilford from this point on.

Our little treat most nights was heading down to the local 'bar' to bring back a drink. This was basically a small structure in the front of a house with a bar fridge inside and 8 small plastic outdoor chairs. We would purchase one Smirnoff Ice each (the only alternative to a local beer) which was 3,000 Ugandan Shillings ($1.08). Although they were a tad cooler than room temperature and often had cockroaches scamper out from behind them, they were our saviour at the end of a long day.

As we would walk around there, all the young kids would run out to wave at us and saying 'hello' or 'how are you' (2 of the very few English phrases they knew). We would often hear them saying 'Muzungu' to their parents or to each other, meaning 'white person'. They were fascinated with us as it was rare to see a Muzungu in the village. We would ask how they were, sometimes in English and sometimes in Lugandan - they would always reply with 'I am fine'..... so polite and adorable. The kids in Uganda are just beautiful.

Another fascinating thing to see on our walks through the village was all the coffee beans drying out in the sun in front of shops or houses. These were laid on large plastic sheets and would often have chickens and their chicks walking over them, pecking at them or digging through them. It would make us wonder what the process was after this? Where do these beans end up. We would stop sometimes, towards the end of the day and help the kids cover them up for the evening to prevent moisture getting into the stock.

We decided one morning we would like to head back to Kakunyu school, so we could spend some more time engaging with the children - our last trip felt more like a tour, plus, we felt we didn't get to say goodbye properly to the Smiling Hearts kids. All the way there, in the back of the land cruiser, we sang Aussie songs like 'Waltzing Matilda' and 'Give Me a Home Amongst the Gum Trees' which was a great experience for the locals in the car - David and Frederick. Arriving back at Kakunyu was wonderful- last time it was all tears, but this time we were just so happy to be coming back to some familiar faces. So it was all smiles. We spent the whole day sitting with the children helping them with their art work. It was great to really be immersed this time and get to know the children better. We made bowls and cards as well as experimented with other art work. This time, as we left, we had yet another full performance. The children sang 'farewell Aunty Betty' and 'farewell Uncle Ronnie' it was adorable. We danced again with them, were thanked by the principal and director and were presented with thank you letters and drawings from the children. So touching. We have come to realise that Ugandans, in general, are just so appreciative of everything. Always thanking us. For even the smallest of things. Something we are taking with us and hoping to apply to our own lives.

On the way back from Kayunya we 'dropped in' to Kinnoni town to see the water tank that was donated some years ago at the secondary school (Kinnoni Town Academic). We discovered at this point that there is no such things as 'dropping in' to a school when you have done something good for them. Yet again, another full on performance upon arrival. These kids were REALLY good dancers. So entertaining. We were given a tour of this school. Another smack in the face of just how tough these kids have it. The dorms were dark, crowded and dirty. The classrooms didn't really look like classrooms - just dusty, concrete rooms with a few desks scattered around .... we wondered just how these students were able to learn in these conditions. But they don't know any different. It's their school, they are proud and they are genuinely happy. They know they live in poverty and they know they need support (as all of their songs tell us so) but they make the most of what they have and they love life to the fullest. They were even rehearsing for their school house dance competitions, all very excited and competitive.

That night, back in the village, we witnessed something very special and rare in the village for Mazungus. A baby girl was born in the Suubi clinic. This is exciting on many levels, not only is it a precious new life in the village, but the mother presented at the clinic with her support person so she was in a safe and sterile place to deliver her baby - something that previously never happened. Mothers would historically give birth at home, having no access to any medical assistance, giving rise to risk and potential birthing complications for both mum and baby. But not today, process was followed perfectly - the birth happened quickly and with the mother's consent we were allowed see her beautiful little girl shortly after. She was wide eyed and alert, looking around and taking in all her surroundings.

That night, we realised it was half way through our trip and it was time to break into our emergency stash of home comforts - a pack of tim tams and a mini bottle of red wine that we took from the plane on the journey over. Some may say we were 'cheating' but if you were here, you would understand. 99% of the time we are living just like the locals, but 1% we slip. And that's ok. You go through moments when you are here where it's just so, so challenging. It's so different to life at home. Village life is a struggle - you are constantly just trying to 'get by'. You have moments where you question why you are here. Luckily we had each other to lean on. We had our little treat. Reminded each other why we came here and shook it off. We had our reset and we were ready to tackle what was ahead. 

The next day was what we would say is similar to our open days at The Suubi Secondary College. A chance for the parents to see their children on their rare visit to the school. The students had all ironed shirts, trousers and skirts. It was a big deal. All the visitors were also advised to make an extra effort to look their best. We headed down and had the opportunity to see the students partaking in their vocational studies - mostly
knitting their own uniform jumpers, with knitting machines, welding such things as window frames and doors, sewing uniforms (practicing first with paper from cement bags instead of fabric and then mini versions with fabric before the real deal - material was scarce). All valuable skills for these students to take on to life after school. Such talent and resourcefulness.

Our time at the village was nearing an end, a moment that at times we were selfishly looking forward to, but when the time actually came to leave it was awful. We wanted to freeze time and not go into the next moments of saying 'goodbye'. Our hearts were heavy - from sadness, but also from the abundance of love we were shown and the spectacular memories and friendships we created. This community of people had totally embraced us and welcomed us to their family, we were totally immersed in their culture and living as one of them - and now we had to say goodbye and leave them. It didn't seem fair, it wasn't sitting right, how do you walk away from family? You could see the sadness in their eyes and feel the heartache through their 'hugs'. I don't think words will ever be able to describe our time in the village. We are struggling with them ourselves.

Lubanda, thank you for your teachings, for reminding us what is real and for opening our eyes to all the amazing and ugly sides of the real world. You people are 'diamonds in the rough'. How can we stand here in front of you and not be amazed at your fight for life, your resilience and your general love of life ? You are the teachers here, not us. You are the rich ones, not us.

This is not goodbye, it's see you soon.

Webale, Webale, Webale! 

Beth and Az

4-7-2017, Trip To Smiling Hearts - The Day That Change Us

It was wonderful to have Loretta, John, Beth, Aaron, Joan and Steve arrive on Saturday. They have settled in well at Elite Backpacker and have spent the first couple of days visiting the Smiling heARTs program that Loretta established with Mbabazi Hellen just a little over 12 months again. Beth and Aaron have written a terrific blog that perfectly captures the emotional filled day at Kakunyu:

Day Trip To Kakunyu Smiling Hearts - The Day That Change Us
We felt compelled to write in the blog today for our first time, and record this day, as we have so many emotions running wild. People say that writing down what you experience, helps you deal with it. No words can ever describe what we experienced today but we will give it a go.....

Today changed our lives. It really did. It was the most confronting experience either of us have ever had. A day that will be etched in to our memories forever, like a carving in a tree. A day that changed us.

We spent the day with the Smiling HeARTs children (children with special needs) at Kakunyu school in Masaka. We have been privileged enough to have been spending the last few days with Hellen, teacher and co-founder of Smiling HeARTs, along with her partner David, at Elite Backpackers. She escorted us to the place she spends many hours of her devoted time.

From the moment we pulled up in our dusty Land Cruiser at the front of the school, we were greeted by the entire school of children in purple and yellow uniforms, smiling from ear to ear, singing the chorus 'we are happy because you are here' and then 'welcome visitors'. There was not a dry eye amongst us as we watched these beautiful children put their heart and soul in to their welcome performance.

The tears just continued from there, throughout the day.

We followed inside for more dancing and singing. The singing was pitch perfect. The dancing was so rhythmical and they played the drums and maracas like we have never seen children play before. It was easy to overlook that these children had any disabilities. It was not like a school performance back home - there were no shy or embarrassed children. There were no inhibitions. They were all so proud to be showing us what they had obviously been rehearsing for so long. The teachers coaxed us up to join in and we all danced like no one was watching; so honoured to be included in the special moment. We smiled so hard, for so long, that our cheeks were physically sore. We were confronted by the most overwhelming emotion, like nothing we have ever felt. Still, as we write this blog, we experience that familiar lump in our throats.

Why were we crying though? We kept asking ourselves. We couldn't quite pin point it. Were we crying tears of sadness at how difficult these children's lives must be? Or were they tears of joy, because of the fact that we were able to brighten their day, just by visiting? Whatever the reason, it was raw and it was real. We were experiencing something very unique and it was the reason we came to Uganda. We knew we were going to learn so much more from the Ugandan people than we could ever teach them.

Later on we were introduced to the head teacher, David and the other teachers and were taken down the long dusty track to meet the director Mary, where the dormitories were.

You see most children who attend Kakunyu don't have a home to live, as their parents abandoned them. Kakunyu is their home. Mary was so appreciative of all the work HUG and Smiling HeARTs have been doing for the school. We have never seen someone show so much appreciation. She got down on her knees. She hugged us multiple times and shook our hands equally as many times. She shared her touching story of her own 4 children with special needs and how the school began. She shared the struggles they all face with being accepted - the mistreatment that children with disabilities in Uganda all received in the past. Mary's said it perfectly when she said 'united we stand, divided we fall'. She really did need our help and we were so happy that we were giving it. By this point we were both a mess, with tears continuing to flood.

As we toured through the dormitories, we became completely overwhelmed with what we saw. Many of these children were severely disabled and living in conditions that, for them, had improved over the last few years, but for us, were awful. It was crowded and the stench invaded our nose, we wondered how people could live like this. It was so so sad. Children lying on the concrete covered in flies. Children who crawled because they could not walk. Children who required an apparatus just to help them stand up. The sounds they made, as they attempted to communicate with us via groans and squeals will always be remembered. All they wanted was for us to touch them, hug them, talk to them and treat them like we would any other children.

Through all of this heartache though, we could see the love and passion that was being injected into the school by Mary, the teachers, HUG and Smiling HeARTs. The childrens' disability was not seen as a inability. The main goal for them is to ensure these children feel loved and special and worth something. It didn't matter what they could or couldn't physically do. They were more than their disability.

We spent the next hour or so with Hellen in her Smiling HeARTs art class, where the children were making cards for us to take back home to sell at markets. This just further enforced that 'disability is not inability' as the quality of this work was amazing. Hellen is a beautiful soul who is doing an amazing job with these children.

We were appreciative to be able to finish the day off with some happiness- a celebration with Smiling HeARTs. After many years of planning, since 2012, today was one year since the Smiling HeaARTs kicked off, by Loretta Lilford and Hellen Mbabazi. This was their first birthday and everyone was excited. We put up balloons, sang happy birthday and blew party whistles. 

A really special moment was when two students - Gertrude and Sylvia were presented with new, adjustable crutches. Both girls were permanently reliable on their crutches but both had grown out of their's; they were old and rusted and were causing them much pain and discomfort. The sheer joy and excitement in their eyes when they received these gifts was something we can't begin to explain. What a day!

Through all the trauma, pain and misfortune these beautiful children endure, they still manage to smile every day. You see, they don't care about fancy branded clothes. They don't want expensive toys or technology. They don't need trendy houses in the best suburbs. All those things seem ridiculous to us right now. They have enough food to stop them from being hungry and enough water to keep them hydrated. They have shelter. But most importantly they are happy because they have people around them who love them.

What more do we need?

Love and hope is enough.

We will hold each other close tonight.

Aaron Luxmoore and Beth Lilford

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