David Philpott returns to East Africa to see the fruits of aid spending first-hand in Uganda.
“How many died in the Civil War?” I ask to nobody in particular, as we bump along the dirt track, carefully negotiating the occasional crater on a feeder road that will eventually lead us back to the asphalted highway. “300,000” says Alex Aisu, our driver, emphatically.
“I think, many, many thousands more than that,” suggests Peter Walukamba, sitting beside him in the front of our Nissan Hardbody.
“You should Google it” suggests Richard - my fellow Mazungu (white man) - rather helpfully, but in my long quiet reflection, I decide that I don’t want to. When you start using numbers in the hundred-thousands you can forget the individuals and it all becomes meaningless, like the difference between billions and trillions at an international bankers convention.
It is more than ten years since the sights, sounds and pungent aromas of East Africa have assaulted my senses. I have come back – not to Kenya or Tanzania which I knew so well – but this time to Uganda –a place that Churchill described as the Pearl of Africa. I am here to see first hand the work of Fields of Life - an Irish charity which for nearly twenty years has been bringing quality education and clean drinking water to what used to be known as The Killing Fields.
We are in the Luwera Triangle and have just been to see Michael Muhumuza who had won the tender to build a new Fields of Life school in Kasizi. At a cost of £75,000 – when finished it will provide primary schooling for up to 500 children. Now it is providing work for 60 people, half of them from the local community and is therefore regenerating the local economy. The cement mixers and brick-layers and cooks and carpenters are each earning up to $40 a week. “Someone needs to calculate what the follow-through of that money is,” I thought to myself, as I imagined how many small-holders, bakers, water-sellers and so on, would get some of that money and where in turn they might be spending it.
There are just four of us on this 'boy’s own' road trip – Richard Spratt – CEO of this not-for-profit organisation – and our two African compadres; Peter who is responsible for running two water drilling rigs and Alex who looks after the child sponsorship program which matches over 3,500 kids to sponsors. I am impressed by their diligence. Peter tells me of his weekly routine:
“Mondays and Tuesday I usually stay in the office to catch up with paperwork” he says, slowly, carefully, as if reminding himself of just how important this part of the job is. “Then I spend the rest of the week visiting the schools,” he continues. “We have about 65 schools with sponsored children in them, so I visit the schools to make sure that the children are still there and attending classes. If they have moved on – maybe their parents have taken them to another district - we try to find them. The money always stays with the child,” he concludes – as if this were a doctrine of faith.
"She had no name when we found her"
We swing by New Beginning Orphanage and meet Roger Annet, a builder, who gave it all up to come out here and create this amazing haven. Think Justin Lee Collins meets Johnny Depp and you have Roger – a cool dude indeed. One of the 60 kids literally climbs up into my arms and clings so hard that I fear she will never let go.
“What’s her name?” I ask Roger.
“She had no name when we found her in the slums of Kampala but now she is called Faith Annett,” he says, as a dozen other children cling to him or play at his feet.
We move on just along the road and visit another school – the Royal Grammar School in Nakasongola district – and I meet David Charlton. This visionary – for there is no other word for it - has assembled 48 people – mostly men – who for the priviledge of paying £1,800 each, will spend a week or so shovelling dirt, mixing concrete, laying bricks and putting a roof on a pair of new dormitories. He calls them Hopebuilders. I shake his hand and salute him before we move on. We have many miles to cover today.
We are now heading North – having left the Luweo Triangle - but still the horrors of the Civil War that ended in 1986 keep re-surfacing – as if by talking about them – my two new African friends will excercise the demons out of their national history. Fields of bones and skulls are described, forced prostitution, mass executions, even mass suffocations.
We reach the North near Lira but still the horror stories seep out from their mouths like puss from an undressed wound. It is tales of Joseph Kony and his famed Lord’s Resistance Army that terrorised this nation in the name of the God of the Old Testament with 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. I am glad to reach the gorgeously named Gracious Palace Hotel and not in the least surprised that it isn’t.
Morning comes but we must set off early, for the drillers will be sinking a new bore hole today. Some 20 kilometres into the bush, meandering around mud huts and along tracks only wide enough for bicycles, we finally find them sinking a shaft to the water table. It will cost £3,300 but this well will bring clean water to up to 3,000 people every day – and therefore abate that twice-named grim reaper of Cholera and Typhoid and all the life-destroying parasites he brings in his wake.
We are back to the road trip, now heading South and East, to check on another new build school project. But I am lost in thought. I hear my dear old grandad, long since burried, and a thousand other voices echo in my head – the voices I have heard all my life.
“Charity begins at home” he said.
“None of that money you give to Africa ever gets there” he said.
“It’s all a con” he said.
“Not for Faith Annett, its not” I say out loud to the ghost of my grandad past.