A collaboration to be proud of

Being involved in a partnership with people in a different part of the world is something very special. I believe that the secondary school project that we’ve been supporting recently really has brought out the best in people. So many people have been involved in the project since its inception nearly two years ago and many people have made life changing contributions to help the project along its way.

Over the Easter break, Monica told me about the community fundraising event that was being held in Kihembe, in order to raise funds for science equipment and other scholastic materials to be purchased for the school. Over the course of the weekend, over 5million UGX (£980) was raised in cash, and a further 5million UGX was pledged in donations, a staggering amount of money in a small village in rural south-western Uganda.

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I really was overjoyed to hear about this, because it reminded me about why we set up The Zuri Project in the first place. The Zuri Project never has been about hand outs. Our objective is to partner with like-minded organisations, to support people to facilitate long term, sustainable change in their own communities. Our Ugandan partners know that the funding that we provide to support projects is limited, and they encourage the wider community to get involved in all aspects of the project, including fundraising.

The secondary school project in particular has evidenced that our approach can work, and that encouraging people to make a positive contribution to a community based project can have a lasting impact. The project now is very close to completion: the second classroom block is nearly finished, the vegetable gardens have been cultivated and the team are just adding the finishing touches to the school site. In the coming weeks, when we sit down to evaluate the project, I will be thrilled to hear from so many different people about how the project developed, what went well and also what didn’t go so well, in order for us to build and progress in the future.

A lot of people should be very proud of the contributions that they have made to the first ever secondary school in Kihembe, particularly the pioneers and community leaders, like Monica and Herbert, who have driven the project forward since its inception. The project, above all else, is proof that great things can be achieved through collaboration. This is what I’m most proud of and I value the relationships that we have with developed our Ugandan partners so highly.

It will be a joy to see the school finished at the end of next month and also to start planning the next stage of our journey together.

Ross.

 

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A difficult year.

As I sit here mulling over a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the suburbs of Birmingham, I’m finding it really difficult to set the tone for this blog, as so much has happened in the past twelve months. It has perhaps been the most enthralling year of my life, but at the same time the most difficult. Over the course of a year I’ve got engaged, moved into a beautiful apartment and started my own business. Yet hearing the news of Herbert’s death, almost one year ago today, is still the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. As I write this, it sounds so selfish. How can I sit here and feel so terrible about the death of a friend, when his children have lost their father, a wife has lost her husband and a community has lost its leader?

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Yet the reality of the situation is that Herbert was so much more than just a friend. He truly inspired me to change my perception and outlook on life. His humility, his willingness to do so much for others with so little expected in return is a trait that you so rarely see in a person, particularly in this day and age of self-promotion and self-preservation. We often spoke deeply about the purpose of our work in Uganda. Everything for Herbert was about opportunity. He wanted to provide people with opportunities to do things. He wanted the people of his community to have access to decent healthcare. He wanted to provide people with the opportunity to become educated. He wanted to provide people with income generating opportunities to improve their lives and build a better future. When I really understood Herbert’s vision for his community, I was so humbled and I wanted to be a part of it.

His infectious attitude and positive outlook on life, intertwined with his insatiable thirst for development and creativity, drove The Zuri Project from an idea into a reality. He brought people together around his ideas and vision, and invited Martin and I to be a part of his dream. We had an amazing few years together and we achieved a lot to be proud of. But the suddenness of his untimely death really tore us apart, both emotionally and literally as an organisation. We were left without a Plan B. Without closure. Without a goodbye. In the blink of an eye, we had lost the man who changed our lives and inspired us in a way that we never thought possible.

For me personally, these past twelve months have been so difficult. I have always struggled with anxiety and depression, but I’ve really struggled recently, with intense bouts of heightened depression and a difficulty to see the way forward. Interestingly, I wouldn’t say that this is a result of losing Herbert. In a strange kind of way, I find solace in the fact that I was privileged to have called him a friend and grateful for sharing a small part of my life with him. When things do get tough, I remember the times that we spent together in Uganda with great fondness and unparalleled warmth. It’s comforting to know that he is as inspirational in death as he was in life.

You might have noticed that we’ve been a little quiet over these past 12 months, particularly across social media. It’s not that we haven’t been doing anything, far from it actually. It’s just been a long process of re-building for us. We have restructured our team in Uganda and have intensified our fundraising efforts in the UK. There has been a lot of soul searching and a lot of questions raised about the future direction of The Zuri Project. But I must admit, I am so excited about what the future has in store. Under the guidance of Monica Agaba, The Zuri Project is growing and continuing to achieve wonderful things with the people of Kihembe. Martin and I are still grateful to be a part of it and will continue to do everything we can to support the work that Herbert started.

Although it’s been an incredibly tough year, on the anniversary of Herbert’s death this weekend I will be raising a glass in celebration of his life. Although he’s no longer with us, his legacy is being built by the people who knew and loved him. And to be a part of that makes everything worth it, even when times are hard.

Here’s to the future.

Ross x

Progress. Sweet Progress.

We’re absolutely thrilled with the progress being made at the secondary school site. At the end of 2017, we secured the funding to support Opportunity Africa to build a new classroom block at the secondary school site, which will provide students with the chance to study at S3 level at the new school in Kihembe.

As 2017 turned into 2018, we were sent lots of updates by Monica [OA project manager] and some wonderful photos, showing us just how much progress the OA team had made in a remarkably short space of time. We’ve been so proud of how the OA team have worked since the inception of this project late in 2016, so it is no surprise at how well the newest phase of the project is developing. Below are a couple of images of the new block as it currently stands:

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Although there is still quite a long way to go, we are confident that the classroom block will be built by March, just in time for the new term starting, which would be a fantastic achievement for all involved. With the funds in place to complete all of the work, we are now turning our attention to thinking about ways of supporting the secondary school in the longer term, with a focus on how to support the school towards sustainability.

Thanks to the generous contributions from our partners Bora Coffee Co, and of course a lot of our regular supporters and donors, we are exploring different ways of using coffee to support the school to generate an income.

As always, we would like to thank everyone who has supported this project and we can’t wait for the school building to be finished. Keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the coming months and hopefully news about more pupils having the opportunity to attend secondary school for the very first time.

Reflections on 2017

It’s been an eventful year for The Zuri Project Uganda – a true mixture of highs, lows and everything in between.

In true Zuri fashion, the year started with a meeting to plan for the future. We were all incredibly excited about the secondary school project, and we were delighted to hear that the project was on target to be finished by the start of the next school term in February. Whilst the finishing touches were being added to the secondary school, we got our Ugandan team together for a capacity building workshop, which presented an opportunity for all involved in our work in Uganda to raise any concerns and to problem solve together to improve our practice. This meeting also proved to be a great opportunity to map out our priorities for the rest of the year, and it allowed us to formulate a concrete plan from which to work.

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[The Opportunity Africa team]

Whilst things in Uganda were developing nicely, co-founder Martin undertook what has to be our most ambitious fundraiser yet, by cycling 3600km across Europe to raise funds for our on-going work in Kihembe. In spite of encountering a ridiculous amount of challenges, Martin successfully completed his ride and raised over £2500 for our charity. We were all so proud and inspired by his efforts, and you can read about his efforts in more detail here.

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[Martin somewhere in Europe!]

However, at the end of March of this year, we were absolutely devastated to hear the news about the death of our dear friend and project manager Herbert Niwagaba. As I sit here on New Years Eve writing this blog, it still feels impossible for me to imagine the future of The Zuri Project without Herbert at the helm. He really did mean everything to Martin and I and the work that he pioneered in his community is the foundation of his legacy. A legacy that we hope will continue long into the future. You can read our tribute to Herbert here.

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[Herbert evaluating our projects]

Danielle and I spent a couple of weeks in Uganda after Herbert’s death, mourning with his family, friends and fellow community members. It was an incredibly difficult time, but we were also absolutely inspired to visit the secondary school just shortly after it opened its doors to the first 100 pupils. In the summer, I wrote a comprehensive blog outlining the secondary school project in detail, and you can read it here. To date, it is the project that I am personally most proud of supporting and I envisage big things for the future of Kihembe Vocational Secondary School.

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[Me and Danielle with Sarah, Herbert’s wife, earlier this year]

On that note, and through planning meetings with Opportunity Africa, we recognised that for the school to be successful going forward, then more classrooms needed to be built. Therefore, whilst we went about fundraising in the UK, Opportunity Africa brought people together in Uganda to lay the project plans for two more classrooms to be built at the school site. By early November, thanks to the generosity of our partners and individual donors, we were delighted to have the funds in place to support the building project that started in early December. By building the two new classrooms, it will ensure that the pupils who progress from S1 & S2 have classes to attend at the start of the next academic year in March 2018. It will also allow the school to recruit more students at S1 & S2 level, and also recruit new teachers to teach the relevant classes. Similarly to the first building project that we facilitated at the school site, we have split this project into five phases. Opportunity Africa, now led by the wonderful Monica Agaba, will again be responsible for managing and monitoring the project. As always, we will keep you updated with our progress.

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[Adding the finishing touches to the secondary school]

Back in the UK, lots of other exciting things have been happening! As a family, we have set up a coffee shop in Shirley, Solihull called Bora Coffee Co. where we source and serve a variety of ethical coffees and reinvest a proportion of our profits into The Zuri Project. This has always been a dream of mine, and to be able to depend upon a sustainable income stream for our projects in Uganda is really important for a small charity like ours. The first six months of business have been overwhelming, and we are so grateful to everyone for their support of our little shop! In November, Bora also funded its first project through The Zuri Project, which saw a coffee plantation cultivated at the secondary school site. You can read all about it here.

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[Monica and a truckload of coffee seedlings, funded by Bora Coffee Co.]

As I draw this blog to a close, I also want to give a special mention to all of our supporters and donors, for their incredibly generous support of our work. DGCOS and HIES continue to contribute a very generous amount of money each month, which makes an enormous difference in Uganda. We are also very grateful to both the Rotary Clubs of Chorley Astley and Knowle and Dorridge for their continued support of our work, and we are also excited about collaborating with new Rotary Clubs in the New Year. I would also like to publicly thank The Rotary Clubs of Stourbridge and Coventry North for their generous financial contributions towards the secondary school project.

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[Secondary school children sitting at desks funded by The Rotary Club of Chorley Astley]

Next, I would like to extend a huge thanks to Ethical Currency for just being amazing! They provide an incredible service to small charities like ours, saving us both money and hassle. I was also overwhelmed to receive a message from Alastair from Ethical Currency, informing us that they wanted to make a substantial donation to our work in Uganda. For us, this funding meant that the new secondary school project could start before Christmas and in time for the new school year at the start of 2018, so of course we are incredibly grateful for this! I would honestly recommend Ethical Currency to anyone looking for a simple and hassle free solution for sending money abroad. Thanks guys!

Finally, I would like to thank everyone that has listened to us talk incessantly about The Zuri Project over the past twelve months, to everyone that has donated their hard earned money to our charity and to everyone who has given their time to help us organise events. Our work in Uganda would simply not be possible without your dedication and support, and for that we are so grateful.

Losing Herbert this year was heart breaking, and I still can’t believe he’s gone. Herbert set the standard and we must strive to ensure that this standard is always met. He inspires us all on a daily basis and we will forever remember his commitment, energy and passion for collaborative development. May we now take Herbert’s spirit forward into 2018, and hope that we can continue achieving positive outcomes with people in Uganda throughout the next calendar year.

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[Herbert. Smiling as always]

Thank you all once again and I wish you a healthy, prosperous and exciting New Year.

Ross x

@rossoross

 

Funding a Coffee Plantation in Uganda

As many of you may be aware, six months ago we set up a coffee shop in Solihull. The purpose of the coffee enterprise is to serve high quality, ethically sourced coffee from the African continent and reinvest a proportion of our profits into our development work in Uganda. Bora Coffee Co. is a separate entity to The Zuri Project, but it is run with the same passion for collaborative development. Below is the blog I published earlier, outlining how The Zuri Project and Opportunity Africa made use of the first financial donation from Bora.

I hope you enjoy reading it, Ross. 

It is with great pleasure and pride that I can share with you all the results of the first donation that we sent to Uganda last month, via our charity The Zuri Project Uganda. Working in collaboration with Opportunity Africa in the village of Kihembe, located in a coffee growing region in the southwestern district of Kanungu in Uganda, we have provided the funds for our partners to plant a coffee plantation at the first ever secondary school in the village.

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The new vocational secondary school in Kihembe, a project that our charity has been involved with since its inception [you can read all about it here], is giving hundreds of children the opportunity to attend secondary school for the first time. In order to help the school achieve sustainability in the near future, our partners wanted to ensure that the school has the capacity to generate income independently. Therefore, amongst other ideas proposed at focus groups within the community, it was decided by our Ugandan partners that a coffee plantation would be a significant asset to the school and in 3-5 years time, would yield a significant amount of unrestricted funds that could be used to pay for teachers salaries, buy scholastic materials, textbooks and other essentials involved with running a school in Uganda.

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Our initial donation has supported our partners to buy over 160 coffee seedlings that will be planted at the end of this week with the coming of the rains. We have also provided funding to cover the labour costs of project officers who will supervise the delivery of the project, as well as funds to pay for the expertise of agricultural officers to monitor the project and ensure that the coffee can be of the best possible quality. We’d like to thank all of our customers so far for helping us to deliver this project. We are truly passionate about our development work in Uganda, and we’re delighted that you are all now part of this journey with us.

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And who knows, in the next three to five years, you might just be able to taste some of the Kihembe coffee that you’ve helped to plant!

Ross.

Kihembe Vocational Secondary School: A dream that became a reality

Two years ago, when Danielle and I were first introduced to Monica Agaba, she told us about something she wanted more than anything in the world. Alongside her friends, family and other community leaders, she wanted to build a secondary school in her village. The village of Kihembe is populated by six primary schools and home to thousands of children, but the nearest secondary school, until earlier this year, was over 10km away; an insurmountable distance for most considering the fact that public transport is non-existent and the only way that most children can get to school is by foot.

Danielle and I were totally inspired by Monica’s drive and determination to bring a secondary school to her village. We wanted to support her to achieve her dream and, as The Zuri Project, this is exactly what we aim to do: we help local people in Uganda turn their project ideas and dreams into realities. Since we first learned of the idea, the secondary school has truly been a collaborative effort and so many people have been integral to its initial success as a project.

In Uganda, we must thank and pay tribute to Kihembe Development Association, led by Monica, for persevering and for acquiring the land from the government on which the secondary school could be built. The work of the Opportunity Africa team, who have been responsible for planning the building work, facilitating and monitoring the project, has also been incredible. In spite of facing the devastating reality of losing Herbert, the OA team has been resilient and committed throughout, and has seen the project all the way through to its conclusion. We are immensely proud of what the team has achieved. We are also incredibly grateful to all of the hundreds of other people in Uganda who have donated their time, money and effort to get involved in the secondary school project. It would not have been possible without their support.

In the UK, we must extend our thanks to all of our individual donors and fundraisers, who have worked tirelessly to raise funds to send across to our Ugandan team. Zuri Co-founder Martin cycled literally across the European continent to raise money for the secondary school project, an achievement that I still can’t begin to fathom how difficult it must have been. Ambassador Chris arranged and participated in a gruelling 3-peaks challenge with friends and colleagues, and battled the horrible British weather to raise an unbelievable amount of money to contribute to the secondary school project. Joe, Em and Jess have organised the first ever Zuri Project Summer Ball in Birmingham, due to take place at the end of this week. With over 100 people expected to attend, we are hoping that enough money will be raised to start planning the next phase of expansion for the secondary school, due to start in January 2018.

In addition to our passionate volunteers, we are also very grateful to our generous donors and funders, who have supported us with very generous financial donations over the past couple of years. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog about the generosity of The Rotary Clubs that we work with, and you can read all about their support for Zuri here.

As you have read, so many people have been involved in turning the secondary school dream into a reality. Below is a timeline of events showing you how the project unfolded. I hope you are inspired by the progress that our Ugandan partners have made. We certainly are.

Phase 1

September – October 2016

  • Land legally acquired from the government of Uganda to start the building process.

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  • Community mobilisation and fundraising. Once the land was confirmed, community leaders and decision makers got together to organise community wide fundraising, which resulted in just short of £1000 being raised to support the first phase of the project.

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  • Laying the foundations. Many community members [Between 100-150] donated their time to clear the land and dig the foundations for the school, as well as providing building materials and tools to support the contractors during the next phase.

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Phase 2 

November – December 2016

  • Contractors hired and main structure started. Opportunity Africa put the contract out to tender to local building firms and the building work started in the middle of November.

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  • ‘Super structure’ finished. By the start of December 2016, our team in Uganda had finished the super structure of the main school building, finishing the brick work up to the roof level.

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Phase 3

December – January 2016 – 17

  • Community meeting. Opportunity Africa arranged a meeting between community leaders, local councillors, local government officials and local NGOs to share updates and plan the opening of the school. It was agreed that the school should be open by the start of February, subject to funding.

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  • Latrines completed. Community members fundraised for three pit latrines to be dug and a structure to be built around them, resulting in one for girls, one for boys and one for staff.

Phase 4 

January – February 2017

  • Roofing and doors added to structure. After the Christmas break, work recommenced on the secondary school building, with contractors adding the roofing and ordering the windows and doors. During the first week of February, the roof was finished, and the windows were ordered to be added to the structure.

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Phase 5 

February – March 2017

  • Desks crafted. In order for the school to open during the first week of February, we purchased enough desks for both classrooms, which were hand crafted and painted by local carpenters from the community.

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  • Scholastic materials purchased. In addition to the desks, we purchased textbooks and other scholastic materials to ensure that the school could open its doors to the community at the start of February.

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  • Teachers recruited. We supported Opportunity Africa and Kihembe Development Association to recruit the first teaching staff at the school – a headmistress is now in place as well as a number of full time class teachers.

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  • 71 students recruited for the first term! Students from across Kihembe have signed up to the school and paid fees for the first term. This number increased to over 100 by the end of the second full term, and we expect this number to continue to rise.

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  • Windows added and fixed. The windows were purchased and fixed to the building during the first term. Many schools in Uganda go without windows, which makes teaching during the rainy season nearly impossible.

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  • Painting done and building work completed. The final touches were added to the building during the Easter holidays and the building was painted white.

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Visit of UK team 

April 2017

After hearing the tragic news of Herbert’s passing, Danielle and I decided to visit Uganda, to pay our respects to Herbert’s family and also to visit the secondary school. We were completely taken aback by just how much our Ugandan team had achieved in the short that passed since the work started.

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Danielle with Moses, Job, Elly, Mercy and Monica, with the secondary school in the background.

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Me [back row] with the class of 2017 after a showcase football match against the villagers, which ended in a hotly contested 2-2 draw!

The future?

We are absolutely thrilled with the success of the secondary school project to date. Supporting a project that has enabled over 100 children now have access to a secondary education is something that we are immensely proud to have been a part of. But this is only just the start of the journey. We have supported the teachers to plant vegetable gardens and coffee on the secondary school site, which we hope in the long term will support the school to have a sustainable, ongoing income on top of school fee payments [see gardens below].

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Given that the school is already full to capacity, we are hoping to support Opportunity Africa to build another classroom block at the school at the start of next year, to enable even more children to have the opportunity to attend the school. All of our fundraising efforts from now until Christmas, will go towards the secondary school project. If you would like to contribute to our efforts, then you can donate via our website:

http://www.zuriprojectuganda.org/donate/ 

We really are incredibly grateful to everyone that has supported our charitable work in Uganda over the past three years, and for helping us to turn the secondary school dream into a reality.

As they say in Kanungu, webare munonga [Thank you very much].

Ross x

 

Can altruistic acts improve your overall wellbeing?

Too often, particularly in capitalistic societies in the Western world, wellbeing is defined and therefore understood on parameters that are far too narrow. When considering one’s wellbeing or one’s success, people often struggle to get past material accumulation, career prospects and monetary wealth when considering how ‘well off they are’ or how successful they have been in their lives. Contrary to what so many people think and aspire towards, more money and more power does not equate to more happiness. In 2010, economist Angus Deaton concluded that increases in emotional well being do not correspond with increases in annual income beyond $75,000 [USD] a year [1]. Although perhaps it’s overly simplistic to say that money can’t buy happiness, I do believe that several other factors have to be considered when thinking about wellbeing and happiness.

Research in the field of wellbeing in recent years has been extensive and varied and it would be very easy to draw upon a number of studies to present certain arguments. For example, in 2008, The New Economics Foundation developed a set of steps that we can all take to improve our personal wellbeing, and therefore our subjective happiness [2]. Interestingly, money isn’t mentioned at all. The five, evidence based steps individuals can take to improve their wellbeing are:

  1. Connect – connect with people around you – family, friends, neighbours, community members
  2. Be active – discover a physical activity that you enjoy and can practice regularly
  3. Take notice – Be curious, catch site of the different and appreciate the beauty of the world around you
  4. Keep learning – Try something new, re-discover a new interest, set yourself a challenge
  5. Give – Do something nice. Smile at someone. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The NEF has spent a lot of time researching how the combination of each of these five steps can improve people’s wellbeing and happiness, and I love the idea. I practice the concept both personally and professionally, and I can be honest and say that it has a profound impact on my overall wellbeing. For the purposes of this short blog post, however, I want to focus on step number five: the act of giving.

I wholeheartedly believe that altruistic endeavours can improve our own sense of worth and can make us feel happy, satisfied and productive. Just take a minute to think about the last time you went out of your way to do something nice for someone, without expecting anything in return. Did you feel good about it? Did you feel as if your contribution had a positive impact on that person’s life? If the answer is yes, then you’re not alone in this trait of thinking. In a seminal 2005 research study entitled Altruism, Happiness and Health: it’s good to be good, Stephen Post concluded that “a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviourally compassionate.” [3] I would certainly agree. Having the will, motivation and dedication to help improve the world in a small way is something that is commendable, and should be celebrated.

Having spent a number of years facilitating development projects in rural communities in south-western Uganda, I have become very close to a number of people who have tried to make the world a better place for others, in spite of the fact that they have very little themselves. I’ve worked with people in Uganda who have given up everything to help improve the lives of members of their communities and have given up opportunities to move away and earn lots of money for themselves and their families. It’s been truly inspiring to meet people with such a mind-set, and an absolute pleasure to work alongside them. I’ve worked with Ugandans who have built a school in a village where children have never had the opportunity to attend school previously; I’ve been moved by people who have given so much of their own time, and money, to renovate a dilapidated health centre that exists as the primary care facility for 5000 people; and I’ve been inspired by pioneering individuals who have advocated for the betterment of their communities in the face of extreme adversity.18010516_10154276371255706_5843147821941424790_n 2

The common personality trait that these change makers share, in my opinion, is gratitude. The people that I’ve been working with over the past few years are grateful for what they have and they use this as a springboard from which to give something back to their communities. As a result, they are determined to help their friends, neighbours and other community members improve their lives. In the communities that I have visited and worked in, there is a collective appreciation that altruistic acts, no matter how small, have the potential to catalyse change both intrinsically and extrinsically.

We are all capable of altruism, it is not simply innate. We can all do a little bit extra to help people out, whether it’s volunteering in a local hospice, holding a door open for the person behind us when we’re in a hurry, or making a small donation to a charitable cause that we’re passionate about. Give it a go. Be altruistic, even if for selfish reasons. You might end up feeling good about it.

You might even change the world.
Ross.

 

[1] http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.full

[2] http://www.fivewaystowellbeing.org/

[3] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.485.8406&rep=rep1&type=pdf