Any University student will know, the summer break between academic years can tend to drag and seem ridiculously long. During my first summer break at Uni I filled my time with work experience and inter-railing, but at about March time this year it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was going to do throughout summer 2012.
When I signed up for the Leeds RAG Uganda project, little did I know that not only would it fulfil my summer to its greatest potential, it would prove to be an incredible experience, as well as looking great on the old CV (how many holidays can do that?!). I even ended up enjoying myself to such an extent that I signed up to be one of the leaders of the Uganda project for 2013.
The Uganda project is one of the longest running fundraiser schemes within the whole of the University’s ‘Raise and Give’ (RAG) society at Leeds. Each year over sixty Leeds University students fly out for a month to help build schools in rural areas of the country. The project works in conjunction with an established charity based in Uganda called Soft Power Education (http://softpowereducation.com), who strive to refurbish and build classrooms in primary schools in an attempt to provide Ugandan children with more habitable learning environments. Each Leeds volunteer is required to fundraise £600 prior to the project, which is spent directly on the building materials for the classrooms.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, my time spent in Uganda during June and July was truly inspiring, and I was able to see firsthand where all the money we raised was spent. Whether it be the mortar and cement, which we mixed by hand, or the tools required for the physical building of classrooms of schools in remote areas, everything was provided by Soft Power. It was amazing too, to get to know the builders who worked the ridiculously long hours making and placing each individual brick for the classrooms. It was a privilege to be given an insight into their lives and to become part of the local community.
My group spent the first two weeks of our trip in a very rural area of the country at a school run by a tiny community on the edge of a rainforest. The people of this village showed great interest in us being there having had no previous experience of tourists, or even Westerners. We fell in love with the kids at the school who were absolutely fascinated by our books, mirrors, cameras and tents as we inhabited their school for a fortnight – bubbles and nail varnish were a particular excitement. With the younger children being taught outside on the floor under a mango tree, it was clear to us how desperate they were in need of properly built facilities, which motivated us to get stuck into the building work despite the scorching heat.
During the second fortnight of the project, our group was based at a school that had successfully adapted more of a structure and daily routine due to the charity’s former contributions. Here we were instructed to paint the classrooms with knowledge that a bright and attractive school had been proven to encourage a larger attendance of children in Uganda. We had to turn a grey and boring classroom into something more exciting for this very reason. I was assigned the task of painting a diagram of the ‘male reproductive system’ on one of the walls, which proved amusing for the both the kids and us.
At the weekends all three groups joined up in the local town to chill out and experience some amazing activities. This year we went rhino trekking and chimp trekking, as well as a full on safari weekend both on land and down the river Nile. My group was incredibly lucky because we saw a wild lioness (much to the dismay of the others). However, the best activity was by far the white water rafting which ended the project on a massive high. I was completely terrified at the prospect of hurtling down grade five white water rapids and falling into whatever horrific creatures that could be submerged within the river Nile, but in the end we didn’t want it to finish and now I can’t wait to do it again next year.
On a serious note, living in such basic conditions with no running water, toilets or sanitation and eating the basic staple diet of plantain shocked me into a realisation of how developed and commodified our lives are in the UK. However, what also struck me was not how poverty stricken and desperate the people were, but how happy and content they were with their very basic lives. I can’t wait to return to see how our contributions and the classrooms we helped build this year have developed the schools and the children’s lives.
I would absolutely recommend Uganda to anyone thinking of doing a RAG project this summer; you will make close friends, experience a completely different culture and way of life to what you may be used to, and are, of course, doing an amazing thing by increasing the standards of children’s education.
If anyone is interested in signing up for the project this year or would like to find out more, then please email us at email@example.com , or come along to one of our introductory meetings on Tuesday 9th October at 6 – 7pm or Friday 12th October at 5 – 6pm in meeting room 5.