My interest in Uganda was ignited around this time last year whilst attending SU at my school, Glenlola Collegiate. David Barr who was my RS teacher made an appeal for any pupils who were interested in a trip to Uganda to come forward. His motivation and passionate enthusiasm for the country and project was very evident and stemmed from the legacy of his younger sister Charlene Barr, who was the inspiration and founder of Charlene’s Project. This charity has now become Glenlola’s official charity for 2014.
Charlene was born with cystic fibrosis and was fostered and adopted into the Barr family as a baby. This local mission minded family from Dollingstown, headed up by GP Dickie Barr and his wonderful wife Janice, visited Uganda when Charlene was just sixteen years old, the same age as I am now. Charlene was so affected by the poverty and need she saw in Uganda, particularly amongst the children, that she vowed on her return to Ireland to raise enough money to build a school to replace the makeshift shacks they had witnessed on her family visit. Due to her worsening illness, Charlene was unable to return to school herself to complete her A levels. She was determined to ensure that the Ugandan children she had met would have an opportunity of the gift of education. She set about canvassing local churches, businesses and using social networking sites to raise an incredible £120, 000 to build Hidden Treasure school in Kampala. Unfortunately in 2010 Charlene died, unable to fulfil her dream of returning to Uganda or seeing the school built. Her parents and family have continued her vision and each year take out a team to Uganda . This year, 10 girls from Glenlola joined them to carry on the wonderful work which Charlene started.
After several months of fundraising, team meetings and many weeks of intense GCSE exams, I found myself catapulted to another type of classroom entirely in the middle of rural Uganda . Feeling apprehensive and inadequate as the youngest member of the team I didn’t realise in those first few days how close I would become to the team through the life changing experiences I would encounter. Our accommodation was comfortable in the Fields of Life guest house in Kampala and also in Masindi. A typical day consisted of a European style breakfast followed by a long bus journey to our several destinations. During the bus journey through city and rural areas we would often hand provisions, sanitation packs, clothes etc. to locals through the bus windows . These items were always gratefully and graciously received . During these journeys, as we reflected on the need all around us, there were often moments of sadness, camaraderie and humour. One such comical event was when disembarking from the bus my friend enthusiastically tried to give a local man a sanitation pack. After recurring attempts to bless this man with gifts and puzzled by his refusal to accept, he eventually turned to her in broken English and said ‘ You don’t understand , I’m the bus driver…’
We visited both Hidden Treasure and Kahara Primary schools, both funded by Charlene’s Project. In Kahara, we saw the children who were previously having lessons under a large mango tree. The community was so rural that for many of the locals we were the first ‘muzungus,’ or white people they had ever seen. During our time at Kahara I was deeply touched and challenged by the reverence and worshipful attitude this newly energised community had for God. When we arrived, they sang praises to God and danced a performance for over two hours, most of the words based around the idea that God provides. We were informed that the entire village had gathered to pray giving thanks to God all night and they had not slept for a whole 48 hours! Our team ran holiday Bible clubs for the children attending the school and parents in the community. We worked with the children in class, delivering lessons whilst other team members ran teacher training sessions. I was amazed by the fact that whilst they were working on literacy, one of the teachers shared that he had been praying to God for months to send him someone to help him teach his P4 class literacy. The whole team were reminded by God many times that he was constantly in control of whatever situation we found ourselves in. At each of the schools we visited, we ran health promotional workshops for the children and the wider communities, and distributed sanitation packs to all present. It was humbling to see how the simple things such as toothpaste and soap were accepted with such joy and appreciation.
The other two projects which we were involved with were the sports camps with Youth Sport Uganda and the Bead Project in central Kampala. During the sports camps, around 700 children from the surrounding slums came to take part in the sports programme including hockey, tennis and football. Afterwards, they were provided with food and water, a tracksuit and the sports equipment donated from Ireland.
The Bead Project took place in the Acholi Quarter slum situated in the city of Kampala. This was the most challenging and life changing part of the trip for me. Here, we worked with the young women in the slum who made jewellery from recycled paper and varnish. Comparing their beautiful jewellery, which is giving these incredible women hope, to the alternative they face of working in the local quarry under the beating sun, where they break stones with makeshift hammers to earn 5p for filling a huge bucket, is mind-blowing. Seeing young girls my age have no hope of the education they so deserve and wish for was heart breaking; seeing the home of 22 people which was smaller than my wardrobe made my material abundance seem sickening; seeing a woman whose income depended on selling the necklaces she made insist she would give me one as a gift was an uncomfortable revelation of my selfishness and her selflessness. However, the overall message from the Bead Project was hope – hope that the project had brought these beautiful young women and hope that God was at work in Acholi Quarter and in Uganda as a whole.
Thanks so much to everyone who supported my trip both financially and prayerfully. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I’m really grateful for your interest in Charlene’s Project.