Friday, January 23, 2009
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
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
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...
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
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.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
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!
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.
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.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
I was excited by this opportunity as it meant we were going to visit the “real” Uganda. What I mean by this is that in some ways Watoto is a bit like Disneyland. It’s not real… certainly not “Real Uganda”. So today we got a much better insight into the hardships and tragedy of Ugandan life.
The day started with slight hiccup when Katrina poisoned Fred our driver for the day…. After one of Katrina’s super-strong coffees, our guide was sent running to the toilet where he suffered a 20 minute vomiting attack. Now Ugandan drivers are absolutely crazy at the best of times, so needless to say Katrina and I were feeling a tad nervous when our driver got back into the car rather shakily.
The driver started the car, put it in gear and then turned to me and said…” Would you please say a prayer”. Now I can’t say that any “off-the-shelf” prayers immediately jumped to mind, so I improvised with something along the lines of…
“Dear God, lets hope we get to our destination in one piece”. That seemed to do the trick and driver roared off to do battle with chaotic Kampalan traffic.
The trip was just mind blowing. For me it really was an assault on the senses…. I was just speechless taking in all of the sites and sounds…
When we arrived in the project office of the charity, we met some of the charity workers and they showed us photo albums of various kids, activities etc. that the charity are involved with.
Then the three children turned up (we can't use their names because of privacy). The 12 year boy that Alasdair sponsors, the 11 year old girl that Clare sponsors and Oliver sponsors a 6 year old boy who travelled for 3 hours with his case worker for the meeting.
We travelled out to the 11 year old girls house and met her family and got a tour of their house and gardens. It was at this point that reality really hit Katrina and I. I’ll try to give you just a feeling for their situation. Her house was probably not much bigger than a double car garage. There were 4 kids living there now (some had moved out). Her mother has contracted HIV (we think from her father). Her father doesn’t seem to live at home or spend much time there, as far as we can tell he lives in an old army office (don’t ask me why). Her sister Luth is 18 and 8 months pregnant.
We then had lunch back a the project office. This was actually quite amusing as it was a typical African lunch which consisted of Metoki (mashed green bananas), rice, chicken, spinach, soup and a nut paste. Katrina and I thought it was pretty good, and for the local kids it was definitely a feast. Jeffery ate a plate full that was probably twice what I could have eaten. We were told that he has probably not ever eaten a meal as good as this as he comes from a very poor family. The amusing part was the look on Alasdair and Clare’s face when they scooped the plate full of Metoki, spinach etc. despite the rather feeble protests….. There’s no chicken nuggets and chips over here…. Your not in Kansas any more Toto. The kids enjoyed the rice and potatoes but struggled with a lot of the more traditional fare.
After luch we went to the 12 year old boys house. His mother is dead and his father is also seriously ill (staying near a hospital for treatment). He is the youngest of 10 siblings and is looked after by his big sister. Their house was probably the size of a single car garage.
While we were there I had fun with lots of the local kids who were fascinated by my cameras. I took their pictures and showed them the image on the LCD display which sent them off into fits of laughter. They were absolutely gorgeous kids. What also struck us was the way kids as young as 6 years old were given responsibility for looking after babies that couldn’t have been much older than 6 months old. They just walked around with them on their back like a Koala bear.
When we got back to the project office, we actually were hit with one more shocking discovery. We spotted a strange sign in the charity office that we at first thought was some sort of joke poster. However we were very quickly informed about a very serious and quite prevalent practice that neither of us had heard about… child sacrifice. This is unbelievable. Apparently the peasants will go and consult with one of the local witch doctors and seek a blessing to obtain prosperity. In order to deliver the blessing the witch doctor requires a sacrifice which is often the head of a child. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing, but after talking to a few others, it is clear this practice is fairly prevalent and of significant concern…. It is currently being discussed in the Ugandan parliament.
By the time we got back in our mini-bus for the trip back, it’s fair to say that Katrina and I were both stunned by our experiences of the day. It is one thing to hear about the poverty in the world and hear all of the stats and facts, but I don’t think anything really prepares you for coming face-to-face with it and experiencing it for yourself.
I wish I was more articulate with words, because I really find myself struggling to convey in words what I am experiencing and observing. Despite all of this unbelievable poverty and tragedy, if I were to try to summarise the Ugandan people, the first word that would come to mind would be “Beautiful”… they truly are beautiful physically…. Especially the children…. Also in spirit and attitude. As we drive through the villages, there are smiles everywhere. There is definitely a very strong thread of hope that you feel everywhere. Hope for more prosperity, a better life, a more stable country, less corruption etc. etc. But you know what… they really make the best of what they have. What I find interesting is I remember clearly on my last visit to the USA thinking how depressed many of the people seemed as they walked down the street….. and they have so much!
Tomorrow we are going to go to the main church in the morning and attend a service by Pastor Garry (one of the founders of Watoto), and then we go to one of the Watoto villages and have lunch prepared by the children which will be fantastic.
Friday, January 16, 2009
When we arrived at the Wototo Village at Bbira it was almost like we entered an Oasis. Our guide Yosam took us on a tour of of the village.
It is huge... I had no idea how big these villages are. This village holds around 400 children. I was bowled over by the contrast to the surrounding neighborhoods.
The village was spotless... as we walked around we saw children doing their chores and sweeping the paths, cleaning the house and garden etc.
After our tour, it was time for work... and I do mean work! We met our foreman, a big guy who looks like he has done some time in the Ugandan army.... quite an intimidating character... I think Katrina has met her match in terms of bossiness ;-)
Isaac showed us how to lay bricks, and taught us our first Lugandan work... "Muchanga" which means concrete. I think it's fair to say we were all feeling a tad nervous at this stage... as we looked around the village we saw all of these beautifully constructed buildings... the last thing we wanted was to build a crappy wobbly building. However after an hour or two (and a fair bit of supervision by some of the "pros". We made good progress.
This was hard, hot dirty work... we are all covered from head to toe in red dust (kind of like the stuff you get out in the Outback of Australia.). However I'm sure I speak for everybody in the team, it was SO rewarding and satisfying. It was great chatting to the locals. They wanted to know about Australia, who were were, what we did etc. We were interested in their lives, Aids, Ugandan politics, etc. Fascinating!
Tomorrow we split up. Katrina and I are going out for a rural trip to meet some kids that Katrina's kids sponsor.... the rest of the team go into day 2 of the build.
Sunday will be a great day... we have a day off building. We go to the church that the founders of Watoto preach at, and then we have lunch with the kids... they prepare a typical African meal for us. We are all looking forward to that.
Monday is our last building day (and a dedication ceremony)... and then Tuesday we go to the babies home... "Bullrushes" where we see some of the orphaned babies that are bought in by the Watoto group.
I hope you are enjoying the updates.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
I met up with most of the team in Dubai... they were looking a little worse for wear.... I managed to grab a few zzz's in Dubai at a very dodgy hotel.... however sheets were clean and it did the trick.
We then went through some of the cultural do's and don'ts.... the one that has most of us worried reads as follows...
GUIDELINES FOR VISITORS
ALCOHOL - in Uganda, it is not acceptable for Christians to consume alcohol. As a courtesy to your hosts please abstain during your visit.
Some of my fellow team members have gone down to the bar to discuss this issue over a pint or two.
Bus leaves for the building site tomorrow @ 7AM sharp.... we work non-stop until lunch time which is at 1PM and then keep working until 4PM (boy I wish Aussie bricklayers worked this long).
Off for dinner now to try and sample some local cuisine.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
I must say that I do have concerns about maximum baggage weight restrictions... I'm not worried about the truckload of video and still photography equipment, I'm more concerned about the 100Kg of lollies that Katrina has stashed. However in typical Katrina fashion the research has been done and she has worked out that she can take 12Kg of hand luggage each... Now with Alisdair and Claire... thats 36Kg of hand baggage.... Add another 10kilos each of lollies that they can stash on their bodies and they should just about be ready to go. I must say, I think I might give them a wide birth going through customs as they will probably resemble drug smugglers... I'm not keen on the rubber gloves myself!!
View Larger Map
Well it's only a couple of days now before we depart for Uganda. The trip itself is rather long...
Sydney - Singapore, then Singapore to Dubai, then Dubai to Addis Abbab (Ethiopia), then finally on to Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
For anybody that is interested in the equipment that I will be taking to record the trip, here's whats going.
Still Photography Equipment
Cameras: Nikon D700, Nikon D200, Panasonic LX3
Lenses: 17mm-35mm f2.8 wide angle zoom, 24mm-70mm f2.8 mid-range zoom, 70mm-300mm telephoto zoom. 50mm f1.4, 16mm fish eye.
JVC 3 tube HD DV camera
4 different microphones
Miller fluid head tripod
I will endeavor to post to this blog each day, and hopefully I will have lots of photos and video of our trip for you to view... not quite the same as being there... hopefully you will avoid the blisters of brick laying. But it should be the next best thing.
See you all in 2 weeks