Friday, January 23, 2009

Homeward Bound

Hi Folks

Well we have left Murchison Falls and we are back in Kampala for one night before beginning the trip home via Dubai.

It has been an incredible trip in so many ways... one that all of us will remember for the rest of our lives... of that I'm sure.

This is my last posting on this blog. Thanks to those of you that left comments, sent feedback and showed your appreciation for the blog postings.... I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed putting them together.

I have some incredible video footage and hundreds of great images. Over the coming weeks I'm going to edit up a video of our trip that will really give you a good feel for our experience over here. I'll liaise with Jane on details for a screening sometime.

See you all soon.

Please be nice to all of the team... we will surely be sporting a good case of jetlag.

Stella and Jane... please approve all of my expenses (and yes, I think the back massage at "Sparkles" is a legitimate business expense ;-)

Over and out


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Day 6 Off For Safari

Well after a pretty intense week with Watoto, it is time to say farewell to Kampala and set off to Murchison Falls for a couple of days of safari. Murchison Falls is about 6 hours bumpy van ride North of Kampala.

Unfortunately our intrepid crew has been struck down by a bunch of African illnesses. Yesterday Anna was pretty sick, and Lauren and George were also struck with a very nasty case of dysentery.

This morning we set out at 4am for our drive up to Murchison falls. George and Lauren especially were feeling extremely sick. I couldn't imagine a worse place to be sick than bouncing around in the back of the van for 6 hours across absolutely horrific roads.

George and Lauren were extremely sick when we reached
The Nile river ferry Crossing... I'm talking REALLY sick.

We stopped at the Nile river for a ferry crossing and both Lauren and George almost fell out of the van. That's when I got a glimpse of Anna's empathetic side - she looked at Lauren and said something along the lines of "You really look like crap today.. and what's with your clothes, you are mixing checks and stripes"! Needless to say, I won't publish Lauren's response.

After arriving at the Safari lodge, we took a quick swim and then set off for our first safari. It was fascinating, we saw so many different types of animals, some of the highlights included Elephants, Hippos, Giraffes, Water Buffalo, warthogs, a crocodile and thousands of different species of deer.

I think some of the team are missing home quite a lot, and it's starting to tell. Stephen quite fancied a knock-kneed female giraffe and started gazing at it in a slightly disturbing sort of way. Not sure if it reminded him of Anne or whether he just really likes Giraffes.

The good news is that by the end of the day both Lauren and George were feeling much better. We even started getting the odd Swiss joke again which is a sure sign that he was on the mend. Last night after dinner George even started a debate about the accomplishments of Swiss after quite boldly stating something along the lines of the Swiss being the most ferocious warriors in the world. After we all picked ourselves up off the ground from laughing Stephen challenged him to name as many famous Swiss people as he could..... We got to Roger Federa! End of debate!

Tomorrow we are on a sunrise safari and a boat trip up the Nile River to Murchison Falls.

Over and Out


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 5 - Bullrushes Baby Centre

Today we went over to visit the Bullrushes baby centre.... This is where babies up to about 18 months are raised. There were 107 babies in the centre.... it was amazing... babies everywhere. Every room you went into.... more babies.

I think it's fair to say that everybody from the team was taken with these gorgeous little kids, there were all types of kids.... cute, cheeky, disabled, disfigured, premature... you name it... we saw it.

We spent about 3 hours totally immersed in babies, at one point Lauren had 3 babies asleep on her and a 4th one lying on her legs. Within minutes all of the HRX crew were playing with the kids, changing nappies, feeding them, cuddling them and just holding them while they slept.

The nurse's were telling us about the various babies, some of their stories are just amazing. We met one little boy called Chris who was born 2o weeks premature and weighed only 850gms! You would never know this by looking at him now, he was a gorgeous and healthy looking infant.

We met lots of volunteers while we were there. There was a surprising number of Aussies there... most of them seemed associated with the Hillsong church in some way. The work that they are doing is really noble.

It was an amazing experience spending time with these gorgeous kids. After the visit, we discussed the fact that there are over 11 million orphans in Africa.... it is impossible to get your head around numbers like that... Just seeing the 107 orphans this morning was very powerful and an experience that I'm sure has made an impact on everybody from the team.

I have asked Katrina to write a post with her thoughts on the Bullrushes experience.

After Bullrushes we stopped in to a local art/craft market and then Stephen, George and I thought we better treat ourselves to a Ugandan haircut.

Tonight we are going out with one of the founders of Watoto - Pastor Garry Skinner. Should be interesting, I think we all have lots of questions for him about Watoto and the church and an underlying curiousity about him.

Tomorrow morning we leave for safari up to Murchison Falls.... I think that we are all pretty much exhausted.... not so much physically, but more emotionally. This has been an incredible trip and I know based on conversations with other members of the team that we all feel extremely grateful to the company and all of the staff that contributed to the Watoto project for giving us this experience.

I hope that you have enjoyed following our journey via these blog posts. If I have internet connectivity at Murchison Falls I will continue to update you on our safari. I have some incredible photos and video footage that I will edit over the coming weeks and look forward to sharing more of our experience with you upon our return.


Hi - it's Katrina here. Visiting Bulrushes was very emotional for everyone. It was impossible for any of us to process the enormity of the situation. Everyone from our team immediately found themselves drawn towards a baby. Each time I held a baby I asked the carer to tell me about the baby and as they told me each story such as where they found the baby abandoned, whether they were HIV+, etc... you felt heartbroken. But the smiles on the babies faces and the care they receive gives so much hope. The photo Brent took above of me was with Bethany who is 4 years old and has Cerebral Palsy. She is such a happy and warm girl and at Bulrushes she receives fantastic love and care.

However you can't help but think about all the abandoned babies that aren't found and wonder what can be done to help them...


Day 4 – Final Build Day and Dedication Ceremony

Today we were up bright and early again for the final day of the build. It was overcast in the morning which was a nice change from the blazing sun. On Day 2, Stephen, Anna, Lauren, George & Chris had done a great job with the construction, all the windows were in and the brickwork was completed up to the top of the windows. That left about 5 rows of bricks to be laid.

After about 45 minutes of vigorous brick throwing to stack the bricks the scaffolding was adjusted and we got to work. I went for a wonder with Clare down to the village to take some more portraits of the kids as the lighting conditions were perfect. I took along the portable Epson printer so that I could print out photos for the kids…. They went ballistic over this. I probably printed about 50 prints for the kids.

Everybody in the Watoto village is incredibly friendly. As you walk along everybody says “hi”, the little tackers want to hold your hand and play with you and it’s not long before you start to feel like the pied piper.

I went back to the construction site and found that I had been relegated from “brick layer” to Muchunga shoveler….

Basically the lowest rung on the building hierarchy. I’m not sure whether that was because they inspected my brick laying from day 1 or whether they felt I was skiving off by wondering around the village. Never-the-less I shoveled Muchunga like there was no tomorrow… I was perhaps the best Aussie Muchunga shoveler they had ever seen (OK… I can dream on).

When we completed the building, we had a formal dedication ceremony that was really quite lovely. The Master of Ceremony was Isaac. I handed him a microphone and he went to town… I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t working. He did his best impression of a preacher up on stage. The boss of the Watoto village (Pastor Aurora) also said some kind words and blessed the class room and us.

Katrina also made a lovely speech that was short but really touched on the motivation of our employees to help the children etc. Then we were told it was traditional for the workers to sing a traditional Ugandan song… It was incredible… They were all clapping in complex sequences, singing harmonies, and it sounds like they all could have sung in the Watoto Children’s Choir. We were then put on the spot and asked to sing a song in return. With no advanced warning we were definitely caught on the hop and the best we could muster was a very lame rendition of the first chorus of Advance Australia. This was perhaps not the best choice considering we had a Scot, a Kiwi and a Swiss National on our team. I kept looking at George who was doing a great impression of a goldfish… mouth moving but not words coming out… until we got to the chorus.

After the dedication we went back to the Watoto village to spend some more time with the kids. George foolishly challenged on one of the boys to a soccer game…. Told him to go away and bring his “A Team”. Needless to say team HRX got spanked by some grommets with incredible skills. It was a lot of fun spending more time with the kids, they are not shy at all and they all have the most friendly, outgoing attitudes.

Tomorrow is our last day in Kampala and we are going to visit the Bullrushes baby centre and see the orphaned babies.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 3 – Church and Lunch with the kids

An Evangelical Start to the Day
This morning we all went to church…. This concept did come as a bit of a shock to some in the team…. But I think all of the team were stunned by many aspects of the service. This church was the evangelical church that was established by Watoto founder – Pastor Gary Skinner. They have 5 churches in Kamapa, the main one is the central church, followed by North, South, East & West.

We went to the main central church…. Wow… what an event. When we arrived, the crowds were queuing to get into the church (when was the last time you saw people queuing for church)…. While we were waiting we met a few other international Watoto teams…. I spoke the Canadians (who were suffering under the heat of Africa) and also a team from Melbourne.

Now what sets us apart is that we are probably the only non church team that Watoto have had… Everybody asks us what church we are with, and they look a bit puzzled when we say we are not from a church but a company. I think our poor guide Yosam is struggling with this a bit.

Once we got inside, this was more like a rock concert…. The choir was perhaps 40 or 50 people, two drummers, guitarists, keyboards, and 3 or 4 lead singers all up on stage. It was definitely rocking and the congregation were getting down big time. They did some baptisms while the music was playing and people were getting dunked clothes and all in a big pool at the back of the stage.

This whole service was a very slick production… of course HRX were considered VIPs because of our Watoto build, so we had front row seats and were called out by the Pastor.

All I can say about the church service was…. “Interesting”….. “Very Interesting”.
Lunch with the kids
In the afternoon we went to the other Watoto village near Kampala called Suvi. There we were split into two groups and had a traditional African lunch prepared by the two families. The children were very shy during the lunch time and it was very difficult to get any conversation going, however once lunch was over then it was playtime and it was an entirely different situation.

We bought some small gifts for the kids (soccer balls, badminton sets, skipping ropes) and the kids loved them. It didn’t take long before a football game got going and lots of the local kids jumped in.

The shy behaviour that we saw at lunch vanished completely and the kids were totally at ease with us and enjoyed playing with the strangers. They took control of our cameras and had a great time taking hundreds of photos of their brothers and sisters and some of the kids formed real attachments to individuals. Stephen, Chris and George became human climbing gyms, and I don’t think I saw them without one, two or three kids hanging off them.

It is absolutely incredible how quickly you start building bonds with these gorgeous little kids. Our guide Yosam had to drag us away from the kids, and even as we were walking to the van, the kids were holding fast on our hands.

Tomorrow we are back on the building site for final day of construction and the dedication ceremony.

More later

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thoughts from Katrina

Hi, this is Katrina... Brent asked me to write a posting for the blog.

Firstly thank you so much to everyone who contributed money to the project. You always have some reservation about whether your charity donations get to the source and whether they are well spent. I can tell you your money has gone to building the classrooms and the organisation is well run. They are secondary school classrooms (as the earlier Watoto children get older) and are also really important for the children in the community that live nearby. These 4 classrooms mean there are secondary school age children who can now attend a good quality high school – an opportunity they did not have before you donated.

The HRX team here are great! – Stephen, Lauren, Georg, Chris, Anna & Brent (sometimes but not always). They have been very committed to the project and have worked hard. I thank them and their families (who have supported them coming).

Watoto villages are like a private oasis in the middle of chaos – security at the gate, beautiful green lawns, great houses, a good school and medical facilities. It is inspiring to see what has been achieved and in particular meet the children and see how they really live. We had lunch in the home with some Watoto ‘families’ today and I spent time talking to Grace the house mother finding out about each of ‘her’ 8 children. Each story is heartbreaking and many unimaginable but she spoke so lovingly about all of her children regardless of their history, difficulties, whether they are HIV +, etc... – like a true mother. The system of house mothers with 8 orphans works. While it seems only fair that the most vulnerable, disadvantaged HIV orphans in the country go to Watoto, it is important to realise that the ‘average’ child in Uganda has a life that is far removed from life at a Watoto village.

Traveling into the rural villages (85% of Ugandans live in rural villages) yesterday to meet 2 families was an uplifting and shattering experience at the same time. It was moving to meet and hug them – they are very special to our family. I was struck by how much hope the children have and how resilient and capable they are. While the level of poverty is confronting there are many advantages to their culture and way of life - the family grows most of their own food, they spend a lot of time together as a family, babies are always held and carried around by the mother or a sibling, the houses nearby in the village all form a tight community, and everyone contributes to the household where children take responsibility and are capable. Life is difficult -they live in 2 rooms with many children, don’t have running water, often don’t have electricity, etc…but these are not the big issues. There are also dangers we can’t relate to like child sacrifice and 30,000 Ugandan children being abducted to serve as Child Soldiers, but the issue that dwarfs all is HIV.

Of the 2 families we visited, in one family the mother has HIV and the father doesn’t live with the family or support them financially. In the other family the mother has already died and the father is very ill and lives somewhere else to be close to a hospital. So the children in both families could effectively be without parents in the short-term. As this became apparent throughout the day I started to panic about the future of the children in both families and what would happen. I spoke to the people about my concerns and what we can do - it became obvious that because this situation is repeated in such a troubling % of households - there is a new ‘normal’. While these children are so special to us (our children pay for their sponsorship out of their pocket money, write to them, send them presents and eagerly await the letters they send each month) the harsh reality for all involved in helping here is unfortunately they are just 2 of many and there are many who are worse off. While we will be persistent and find a way to help both of these families through whatever happens I felt shattered to think about the new normal and the desperate situation for the 11.6 million HIV orphans living in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

I hope this provides some context for the HRX project and your generous donations. Thanks so much for your contribution!


Day 2 - From Chris Broadway

Our building site showing the progress from day 1.

We headed off on day 2 all the lighter for being without Brent, Katrina and the kids but still at the ungodly hour of 7:30. The day before Steve, George and I had struggled for 45 mins to put up a single window frame and were dreading the thought of putting up the remaining 12 filled us with dread. Thankfully the workers, no longer burdened with our ham-fisted efforts had managed to raise them all in the hour or so after we left. Cue mixed feelings of relief and shame.

We are now working on scaffolding as we start the higher rows

Set to work by the menacing giant Isaac we formed a chain gang to move a freshly delivered batch of bricks, somewhere in the region of 20 tonnes. George took his position at the end of the chain to stack the bricks and with Swiss precision managed to build a curved stack only equalled by the Roman aqueducts of old. A nice rest, cold drink and possibly a massage would have been great after this, but Isaac and his 20-inch machete spurred us to redouble our efforts as we moved onto brick laying. The previous days efforts had given us the skills and calluses to make light work of the laying today and we soon ripped through the 11 row required to get to the top of the window frames. I believe our biggest accomplishment was not falling backwards off the rickety scaffolding and killing ourselves or falling forwards and knocking over our beloved wall. Cue feelings of being awesome.

Ivan the machete-wielding forman

In order to avoid making the locals look bad we left the site an hour early and headed back to the hotel for a quick bevvy or 6 before again meeting our ever-present chaperone/guide Yosam for dinner. Against all our urgings for a dingy bar and roadside roast chickens we were somehow shanghaied into a Belgium restaurant where were less likely to get hammered on cheap local beer and make Yosam’s life that bit more difficult. I never thought I’d try frog’s legs for the first time in Africa, but life’s full of surprises.

This trip continues to be an eye-opening experience and one of the most meaningful of my life. Without descending onto hyperbole the Ugandans friendliest people I’ve ever met and never fail to smile and make you feel welcome, even in the face of some of the most horrific circumstances. Tomorrow we're off to the village to meet the children who will benefit from our labours, something I think will be a highlight for all of us.