It takes two days to travel from my home in Galway to the rural poor families with whom Self Help Africa works with in Uganda. But in other respects it’s a journey that may as well be a million miles. After two days of travel, your eyes are heavy and your legs are stiff but your mind is racing. You cannot but question how come there are people living in such poverty. It is inevitable then that you ask ‘what can I do to help?’
I made this journey recently with a great group of Irish supporters of Self Help Africa to visit projects and communities that the charity are implementing in Uganda. We read and hear a lot about the positive changes that Africa is going through.
Despite this however, the biggest challenge – poverty – stares you in the face. Children are barefoot and in rags, schools are dirt floored and overcrowded, and electricity, if it exists at all, is not much more than a bare bulb hanging from a ceiling. Life expectancy in Uganda recently topped 60 years of age. By our standards that is extremely low, but when you consider that it has increased from 52 years of age just a decade ago, that is evidence of significant change.
Rural unemployment levels remain alarmingly high, and basic services – sanitation, basic healthcare, education and electricity - are way behind what we should expect in any country in the 21st century. The social and economic challenges faced by poor families are vast. It is difficult for us to imagine growing up in a world where you lack the very basics in life such as food, clean water, medicine, shelter, safety, a bed of your own.
Condemned to poverty
Beyond that, there are few toys for children - no dolls, no soccer balls, no sweets and treats. Families struggle to fund the cost of sending their children to school beyond the very rudimentary overcrowded primary schools that are available at a village level, and because of that, huge numbers of young and innocent children are condemned to a life of poverty from the earliest age.
Growing up brings its share of problems wherever you are in the world, but growing up in a place like Uganda can be a struggle beyond imagination. Many children are fortunate to be still alive at the age of five, as many of their friends have died of things such as malaria, dysentery, malnutrition, and the like. If both parents are still living, that can be considered another miracle.
Malaria is still the number one killer in East Africa, but AIDS comes in a strong second place. Wherever you go you can see the evidence of the ravages of AIDS. Go into any school and ask how many children have only one parent, or no parent and you would be astounded. In a country like Uganda with a population of just over 40 million, there are as many as 1.2 million AIDS orphans. Yes, there is rebel activity in the north and west of Uganda. Yes, there is malaria and other illnesses.
This is the other war, AIDS, the silent killer that sweeps through offices, villages, banks, schools and government institutions.The Irish charity I proudly work for, Self Help Africa is committed to reducing poverty, hunger, health problems and the refugee crisis by focusing on agriculture and healthcare in parts – both the capacity of small farms to produce the food that a family might need, and the capacity of the land to generate an income from which the household can invest in food, clothing, school fees, medication and the other necessities of daily life.
On our trip, we visited a wide variety of different communities and households that Self Help Africa is working with in the country, and we saw at first hand the impact that the simplest activities can have on ordinary daily life.
Introducing farmers to new crop varieties, supporting families to set up their own modest backyard vegetable plots, and promoting new breeds of goats, pigs and poultry are just a handful in a myriad of activities that are slowly, but surely changing peoples lives. Under-pinning all of the different activities that are being carried out by Self Help Africa’s Ugandan team is a relentless focus on training and education – so that farmers and their families can do it for themselves, and can make the changes that they want to in their lives.
It’s why we are called ‘self help’!Self Help Africa’s MAYEP project in Uganda is currently helping 3,000 young Ugandans with training that will help them to become farmers, become small agriculture based business people, and also pursue careers in a host of different areas. In just a year it has seen young people commit their futures to their local areas – as processors and traders, as bookkeepers, as construction workers, transport providers and an array of different careers.
While the scale of the problems of rural Africa may be vast, and the provision of training to young people, women and families in some respects might seem just like a drop in the ocean, it does illustrate the practical measures that can be taken, and that can and are making a difference. These are practical steps made possible by the kindness and support of my 12 Irish travelling companions to Uganda, and could be made by you too. These people are not just statistics; they are members of our human family.
However, statistics can indicate the magnitude of the problem and the urgency of the task. As we enter into the Second half of 2018, more than half of the world’s population lives on less than €2 a day. More than 1.2 billion people live on less than €1 a day. Over one billion people across the globe, most of them children, live with hunger or malnutrition as a regular fact of life. They live in desperate poverty, which means they die younger than they should, struggle with hunger and disease, and live with little hope and less opportunity for a life of dignity.
Yet poverty is not limited to the poorest countries as we ourselves know! In our own beautiful country of Ireland, poverty is also persistent and pervasive. To be poor in our country is far different from being poor in parts of Africa or Asia but poverty still diminishes the lives and undermines the dignity of many families who live in our midst.
A million miles
It may be a million miles from Galway to Uganda but watching people from both places meet and share of their lives together in the African bush a few weeks ago, I was struck by how close our lives are. Close your eyes and the voices are all the same, all singing the same song. It’s hard to really appreciate the suffering of these people when we are so removed from them in every way. But we can try. We all need help at some point.
The problems of the world can seem pretty overwhelming and it can sometimes feel that simply looking after our own is all we can do and yet, just a little would help so much. The littlest things can help make a difference. Simple examples of this difference include the various fundraising events around many parts of our county. It is in this way that we can all play our part in helping to bring an end to hunger, poverty and misery in Africa. The fight against hunger and poverty in Africa - and in Ireland - is not anyone’s responsibility. It is everyone’s.
If you would like to help Self Help Africa with its work or would like to attend the Gorta Self Help Africa charity Ball on Friday October 12 in The Galway Bay Hotel, you can get in touch on (01 ) 6778880 or at www.selfhelpafrica.org or simply send whatever you can afford to Self Help Africa, Westside Resource Centre, Seamus Quirke Road, Westside, Galway. If you would like to drop me a note to [email protected] or (087 ) 6189094. I’d be happy to chat!