“It is just by randomness of birth that we are Irish — so we have to help others”

Ronan with Sharon, a young famer harvesting her maize in Kyunga in Uganda.

Ronan with Sharon, a young famer harvesting her maize in Kyunga in Uganda.

I am just back from my recent travels from Galway to Uganda. It takes two days to travel from Galway to travel to the poor homes of Kayunga and Ndeeba in Uganda but, in a very real sense, the journey is one of thousand upon thousands of miles. After two days of travel, your eyes are heavy and your legs are stiff but, in Kayunga, your mind is racing. Your first thought is to wonder how people could live in such poverty; your second is to wonder how you can help them out of it.

I travel to this rural district in East Africa to see the work of Irish development organisation Gorta Self Help Africa. Reading the stark facts about Uganda is depressing – life expectancy of 48 years, infant mortality rate of about 25% , unemployment at over 70%, over three quarters of the population living on less than a euro a day. It’s a crushing poverty of such depth that we in Ireland couldn’t even imagine. To witness it is enough to make you weep. The vast majority of Uganda’s population live below the poverty line and in the cities, they live in slums and shantytowns, part of the 187 million Africans who live in similar conditions. Living in total poverty means no running water, no sanitation, no electricity and little hope. Houses are cobbled together from scrap-board, mud and iron sheets with no more than a tattered piece of fabric for a door.

Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa and is one of the poorest countries in the world. Alongside the problems caused by poverty, there has also been a devastating AIDS epidemic in Uganda that has caused over a million deaths over the past few years. Out of a population of just over 30 million people, almost 2 million people in Uganda are living with HIV/AIDS related illnesses. AIDS is the leading cause of death amongst adults in Uganda, and is a major factor in the country’s low life expectancy.

Many millions of people in Uganda are living in chronic poverty, a crushing cycle where people are born in poverty, live in poverty and frequently pass that poverty on to their children. In spite of all the interventions put in place in Uganda, poverty and corruption still remains a thorn in its efforts to develop. But this should not stop us from trying to make a difference for the good of the genuine people in Uganda that need our help and support. The call to overcome poverty and to uphold human dignity is not new but today this challenge is especially compelling because we have the capacity to make a difference. Building on past progress and new opportunities, we can make this a time for hope, even though we are, at times, staring into the abyss with what has happened to the global and Irish economy. Hope offers the promise that, with shared sacrifice, wise investment and renewed commitment, we can actually reduce substantially the levels of poverty,hunger, and human deprivation in our own country and around the world.

The Irish charity I work for, Gorta Self Help Africa, and this is and has been our focus in Africa - to reduce poverty and hunger by focusing on agriculture, education, livelihoods, the credit union and co-op system, entrepreneurial advancement and the empowerment of women.

Poverty is not just about numbers. It is about parents who cannot feed their children or who are unable to bring sick or disabled children to a doctor. It is about the devastating consequences of addiction and family violence, about AIDS orphans and abandoned children and street children. These people are not just statistics; they are members of our human family.

But poverty is not limited to the poorest countries. In our own beautiful country, poverty is also persistent and pervasive. Clearly, it is experienced in different ways in different places. 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.  In Ireland, thousands of people live below the official poverty line. The younger you are in our country, the more likely you are to be poor, basically because we have kicked the debt from our excessive living and greed down the road so that the younger generation of today and tomorrow will have to pay for it.

Arriving in Kyunga is a surreal moment. I had viewed photographs and read reports before I arrived there. This was not a photograph or a dream. I was really in Kyunga in Uganda in Africa. In the space of two days I had left behind my family, my friends and my home comforts and traveled what felt like was half way around the world.

During my recent trip, I spent time with local families to gain some experience of life in rural Africa. I spent a few nights living in local communities and took part in everyday chores and activities with the farming families who hosted me in Kayunga and in other parts of Uganda where Gorta Self Help Africa work. It was an opportunity for me to experience at first hand some of the challenges faced by Africa’s rural poor.

Our work in Uganda is concentrated on improving small-scale farming systems, supporting communities to access seed, promoting rural enterprise, strengthening farmer knowledge and supporting rural households to adapt to climate change. A major new project started in 2014 -Uganda Community Connector - sees Gorta Self Help Africa working in partnership with a range of other agencies on a project that is designed to improve livelihoods for close to 81,000 households across 18 districts.

It is only through the randomness of birth that we are Irish, we could easily have been Ugandan. Our heritage was not our choice. But rather than focusing on our differences, meeting these people and children in Uganda makes me realise how alike we are. We breathe the same air. We walk the same way. Our spirits need love and acceptance. Our bodies need food, water and sleep. We share the same humanity. We are really not so different really. Ugandan’s people impressed me much more than its poverty. War, hunger and physical suffering has not stolen their hope. They remain joyful when they have every reason to be depressed. You can hear hope in their songs,‘The Lord will bless someone today. It maybe you. It maybe me. It maybe someone by your side’

They have something to teach us; as I’ve written before, sometimes it is us that have been helped. Though I saw much tragedy, sadness and suffering on my trip to Uganda, I also met some truly beautiful people, especially in Kayunga and Ndeeba and on the outshirts of Kampala, all of them friendly and welcoming. I came away feeling blessed to have met them and as though it was me who had been helped, not them. Children are the real wealth of all nations. They are the world’s most precious human resource. As the saying goes, ‘a forest without young trees today will never be a forest tomorrow’. It is imperative therefore that a child born today in Uganda and indeed any part of Africa should survive, grow and develop to their fullest potential in order for Uganda and other African countries to have a prosperous future, indeed to have any future! Gorta Self Help Africa’s vision is to see an end to hunger and poverty in Africa. There is unquestionably a long way to go before we reach this ideal - before we reach a time when childhoods’ across Africa will be work-free, well nurtured and safe from all types of abuse. In the meantime, although these children are part of the very visible legacy of a malfunctioning society, they nonetheless bear witness to the endurance and potential of the human spirit.

Children in these poor countries cannot wait. They have but one humanity, one opportunity. That opportunity, that time is in the here and now. Their needs must be met today, not tomorrow. For children, tomorrow is too late.The littlest things can help make a difference. Simple examples of this difference include the church gate collections in Clare and many other parts of our country. It is in this way that we can all play our part in helping to 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 Gorta Self Help Africa with its work and to “Act locally but impact globally”, you can make a credit or laser card donation by phoning ((01 ) 6778880 or simply send whatever you can afford to Gorta Self Help Africa, Westside Resource Centre, Seamus Quirke Road, Westside, Galway. Because the needs of the poor are ongoing, the ideal way of supporting Self Help Africa is via a monthly standing order from your bank. For people who have nothing, a little can mean an awful lot.  Please also see details on www.selfhelpafrica.org to take part in many fundraising events for Gorta Self Help Africa organised throughout the year or come up with your own Gorta Self Help Africa event or buy some of Gorta Self Help Africa’s Christmas Gift’s at www.selfhelpafrica.org . The Gorta Self Help Africa Charity Ball takes place on Friday the 27th of November in the Galway Bay Hotel and tickets can be bought at €70 from [email protected] or (087 ) 6189094

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