Uganda: difficult choices in hard-to-reach communities

A school in Uganda
Children at the Save the Children-supported Bulyambaghu School in Western Uganda (Photo: Konstantinos Kampiotis)

Save the Children writer Ben Brill visited Uganda in December 2015, to see Save the Children’s work in the country. As part of a series of three blogs, here he writes about his first experience visiting our projects

I’ll always remember this day. Seeing all this for the first time.

It was the start of my first visit to see our work in the field. I’d read about it, watched films about it, and seen it brought to life by the stories my colleagues told. I’d been inspired by it and, in turn, tried to inspire others. But it was always something abstract to me – something second hand and out of reach.

In the weeks before I headed out to Uganda, I’d tried to picture it all, wondered how I would see it. “Make the most of it,” I told myself. “Try to remember every detail.”

And then suddenly I was there, doing my best to take it all in.

The long drive on an unmade road. Low houses and children running up to wave and shout greetings. Then the broken bridge and the long walk from the 4×4. The midday sun and the path around the mountain. The quiet and calm as we looked out on glinting metal roofs of homes, nestled amid endless green.

A long journey

Samuel, our guide, is the man now responsible for Save the Children’s operations across the whole Western Region of Uganda. He told us how he’d grown up on a mountain like this, looking out on a similar view every morning, some 30 years ago. I remember thinking how far he must have come.

I remember too that moment we came around a bend in the path and saw a school building perched on a distant slope. Tiny figures, bright pink uniforms on yet more green. And then, as we got a closer, a new sound – this wonderful, high-pitched chatter of children playing, getting louder and louder and more excited the closer we got.

We were greeted by the headmaster. He shook our hands and showed us around the site – the new buildings paid for by Save the Children supporters, the staff quarters, the football pitch and the water tank – while children hurried about us, trying out their English and squeezing into the frames of our photographs.

Some details I only noticed later, looking back over my photos – patched up clothes, held together by string. But the joy of it all.

A beacon for the community

We were shepherded into the school building, and greeted by a classroom full of parents and teachers. Cool and dark, with bars on the windows, and groups of children peering in.

Banks of old desks, dark wood covered in scratches. Fading posters on the walls, teaching English and Maths, and listing the names of teachers and old pupils. A handwritten sign that read “A teacher is like a candle that burns so that others can get light and warmth.”

They told us how Save the Children had helped. How our support had meant they could build two new classrooms, a water supply, and provide enough books for all the students.

And they told us how the school was thriving. Attendance was on the up. Results were improving. The village was isolated, but the school was the community’s beating heart – opening up the world to young minds.

We walked out into the sunlight, our hearts filled. Humbled to have played such a tiny part in something so life-changing, and so beautiful. A day we’d never forget.

Another side of the mountain

In the time it took for us to say our goodbyes, the weather had changed. Heavy grey skies and, as we started walking, large raindrops blotting our t-shirts.

The red earth track that we’d wandered along only an hour before turned slick then sludgy as the rain got heavier and heavier and we stumbled and slipped our way back in the direction of the 4×4. At points, the path was all but impassable, but our spirits were so high from everything we’d seen earlier that it hardly seemed to matter.

Then up ahead, we heard shouts, and caught a glimpse of a small crowd. About ten people, carrying a homemade stretcher. On the stretcher, swaddled in blankets, a woman lay on her side.

Every couple of hundred yards, the convoy would stop, exhausted, and set the stretcher down on the path for a minute, before hoisting it back up again.

During one break, a couple of the bearers ran back to us, breathlessly explaining that the woman on the stretcher was heavily pregnant, that there had been complications. She urgently needed to make it to a hospital for surgery.

They were carrying her down to the nearest highway – five miles away – in the hope that they’d be able to hitch a lift to the hospital in the nearest town. Was there any way we could help?

We told them that our 4×4 was waiting for us on the other side of the broken bridge, that of course they could use it. They hurried back to the stretcher and off down the mountain and that was the last that we saw of them.

A happy ending

A couple of hours later, we heard that the woman made it hospital safely, and later that she’d delivered a healthy baby boy. And again, we were proud of the cameo role that we’ve played in this story.

We also heard how, in some mountain communities, Save the Children provides motorbikes with stretchers, helping people negotiate the challenging terrain and get sick people to hospital.

It’s a story with a happy ending. But it was hard to stop thinking about what would have happened if we hadn’t been there. How it must feel for a mother-to-be, as the minutes and hours creep and your stretcher inches the miles towards a hospital bed. And how it feels to be one of the bearers, made to carry this heavy weight.

The thoughts struck such a stark contrast with the joyous scenes at the school earlier in the day. But these are the two sides of the mountain – a reminder of the challenges of life in isolated communities, and the fact that, no matter how much we help, there will always be more we can do.

I hope it’s a message I never forget.

Read Ben’s second and third blogs from his visit.

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