I’ve found my tribe

I’m staring at a blank page, wondering how I can do justice to the things I’ve seen, the stories I’ve heard and the people I’ve met over the last few days.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve just got back from a recent trip to Uganda with Compassion UK. Compassion is a charity who provide sponsorship to children in extreme poverty. Sponsors around the world pay less than 83p a day to sponsor a child. This money goes towards clothes, food, education, health fees, access to training and spiritual/pastoral care.

It’s important to say this wasn’t my first time in Uganda; I first visited with another charity in the summer of my second year of University in 2010.

Although I had a brilliant time back then, I left wondering what impact I’d left upon the small district Nakawa where I spent those few weeks. It was during that first visit where I came into contact with the work of Compassion, it immediately touched me, despite the hopelessness and poverty there was a vibrant hope amongst these people, simply because of a decision someone somewhere had taken to support these children and help them out of poverty.

Upon returning to the UK, I decided I wanted to give something more permanent than a few weeks voluntary work, and so I decided to sponsor a child in Nakawa. My parents were touched by my response and volunteered to support me financially, in addition to this, my Mum also faithfully wrote letters to our sponsored child Akiteng Esther every month or so, and as a family, we started building a special relationship with Akiteng who was six at the time.

Fast forward ten years, I’m back in Uganda with my Mum. The purpose of the trip to see the work of Compassion and to visit Akiteng for the first time in person, now 15. We were traveling with a group we’d never met, many of whom would also be meeting children they sponsor.

Since I’ve returned, many people have asked: “How was your holiday?”. As you might now expect, this wasn’t a typical break. The itinerary was intense. I was up and out earlier than I am for work in the UK! We were often returning at dusk, eating, going to sleep and then doing it all over again the next day.

It was emotionally and physically draining. Most days consisted of visiting a project supported by Compassion, these vary in focus but all provide services and support to either sponsored children and or vulnerable people within the community.

There are 325+ centres in Uganda, touching the lives of over 83,000 children. This is the heart of Compassion.

We started our trip visiting a centre for vulnerable Mum’s and babies; we heard heartbreaking stories of desperation, grief, and abuse. Many of these women are no longer with the men who got them pregnant; young girls are attracted to the financial security men offer, engaging in sexual relationships in the hope that this will change their situations which often result in pregnancies. These same men, either vanish or are forced to leave to seek out work to provide for their family.

Compassion provides pregnant women with access to pre-natal care, health services and ensure the safe delivery of babies. They are also provided with vocational training; we witnessed women during our visit making liquid soap, charcoal, beaded bags and jewellery which they can then sell.

On another occasion, we attended a project day where sponsored children spend the day eating, playing, singing and story-telling. The older children are also taught new practical skills. On the day we visited they were making paper bags from sheets of brown paper and glue.

Whilst there we visited a couple of families whose lives have been touched by Compassion in some of the local slums. The typical houses are 12x12 mud huts with corrugated roofs known to locals as iron sheets; they’re proud of this as many have come from homes without roofs at all. They’re dark, hot and very cramped inside and the sanitation in the surrounding areas is very bad, children playing just feet from open sewage and rubbish.

Yet there’s something different about these families and children; they are not defined by the poverty. They don’t beg unlike the majority of other children we met, they’re humble and grateful, and when you ask them what they want to be when they’re older, they see opportunity beyond their environment. Often stating that they want to be teachers, doctors and accountants. It’s easy to feel looking at their surroundings that these aspirations won’t be achieved.

However, one evening we had the privilege to meet four Compassion graduates, and it was then we realised the hopes of these children are well within reach. Stood before us was a statistician working in the Ugandan government, a university lecturer, an early years school teacher and a man building a real estate company with the aim to provide safe and comfortable housing for everyone in Uganda. These young adults were confident, respected visionaries, determined to give back to not just their communities but their nations. Many of whom are now sponsoring children themselves. It was incredibly powerful to hear first hand what an impact the charity had personally had on their lives.

Compassion is a Christian charity, and I’m ashamed to say this is something I’ve almost felt apologetic about. I’m not ashamed of my faith or of the work they do, but I feel sensitive because I know many people may have misconceptions about what that means.

Compassion responds to children who need the help most, regardless of religion. They work through the local church which is a beacon of hope in these communities, it’s doors are always open, quite literally, and it’s much more than a place of worship. They are a meeting place, a community hall, a school, a place to eat and socialise. The Ugandan government is corrupt, it’s failed it’s people, the poor can’t access health care or afford school fees. The church is one of the only places, people feel that they can turn to. I spoke to one lady during a home visit, and I said what do you do when you need help, she replied: “I run to the church.”

The impact the local church is having on the lives of people in these communities is huge. I can’t fault it. About four-fifths of the Ugandan population is Christian, these children aren’t being coerced, they get enormous hope and encouragement from this aspect of the charity and it’s also a big part of their cultural identity. When someone in our team asked a graduate what makes Compassion different they focused on the fact that this isn’t merely about providing money, it’s relational. It’s holistic. Compassion is providing for their whole being, spiritual, emotional and physical.

One graduate we met said if it had just been about the money, as soon as children made their way out of poverty they would run as far as they could from it. Compassion also provided these graduates with leadership training, and in doing so have built up a generation who aren’t afraid to look back on where they’ve come and are so grateful for the opportunity they’ve been given that they dedicate their lives to providing that same opportunity to others.

When you sponsor it’s easy to wonder what difference you’re making, but in investing in the life of one, through them, you can touch the heart of a nation.

The highlight of the trip, however, has to be meeting Akiteng. The morning we were due to meet I felt nervous, apprehensive and I was starting to worry that we might not relate to each other in person. We were greeted with a warm welcome of over 20 sponsored children, we lined up opposite them, and after some singing, each sponsors name was read out alongside the name of their sponsored child. As our names were read, Akiteng came running across with arms wide open and hugged my Mum so tightly and started to cry. An incredibly moving scene.

Over the next few hours, we talked and enjoyed each other’s company. However, it was one question that Akiteng asked that’ll stay with me forever. She said, “When you were last in Uganda did you leave a handprint on the project building with your name written underneath?.” I replied “yes”. She said, “when I received news of my sponsor, I thought that’s the same Holly”. I was blown over, painting that building felt trivial to me at the time. However, years later I now realise the significance and power that small hand print had on her. It brought us together, it was a constant reminder despite the distance that I had been there, and I was still there with her in spirit.

“The eye never forgets what the heart has seen” African Proverb.
Akiteng Esther (15)

Akiteng is a beautiful, gracious, gentle, grateful young women. She is my inspiration.

Thanks to my employer, Deeson who uniquely offer three Charity days a year to full time staff which are fully paid.

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