A warm welcome to the Divided Kingdom

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(My family with Monica in London on the day of Mrs May’s ‘Vote of No Confidence’).

Many of our supporters will know that we are currently hosting Monica Agaba here in the UK, our director of projects and operations in Uganda. We initially wanted Monica to visit the UK so that she could join Danielle and I at our wedding on November 9th. But after two totally unfounded rejections, six months of anxiety and frustration and in excess of £600, we (as individuals, not the charity) finally got her visa approved. A visa that, according to the British Government’s website, should only have cost £94. Of course we were delighted that the visa was finally accepted; the irony being that they approved it on the day of our wedding, November 9th. It seemed to me that this trip just wasn’t to be.

In spite of all the hard work, we decided to book flights for Monica after our honeymoon, so she arrived in the UK at the start of December. This was her first journey outside of Uganda. We write a lot about our perceptions of Uganda and other developing countries, and personally, I am ashamed that many people equate lower incomes, simpler levels of living and less material resources, with abject poverty and backwardness, and consider that these countries need to be ‘saved’ by rich Western people. It goes without saying, that I was fascinated to hear Monica’s first impressions of the UK. I gave her a week to settle and we took her to Stratford, London, Birmingham, special dinners with funders etc. before I pounced on her for some answers.

My mind was full of ideas about what Monica must have been thinking when she stepped off that plane at London Heathrow Airport. But I did my best to lay my bias aside and I started off by asking her one simple question: Which three words would you use to describe the United Kingdom? I was fascinated by her answer. ‘Developed, sophisticated and individual’ were the words she used to describe her first ever week in the UK. Of course that sparked a really interesting conversation and I asked her: ‘would you like to live here with Patience and Andrew (her daughter and husband)?’ She laughed out loud, in that typical Ugandan way and exclaimed ‘NO WAY!’ I asked her why she answered like that. She went on to explain that the UK to her was a place of luxury to be visited once in a lifetime. She had absolutely no interest in even entertaining the idea of resettling in the suburbs of Birmingham.

The other question I asked her was ‘what do you like least about the UK?’ She immediately said that nobody talks to each other. I asked her to explain. She said ‘in Uganda it is not about what we have, but about who we have. You could have nothing in the village and there would always be someone there to support you, to help you, to guide you when you’re down. Here, (referring to the village in which my parents live) people only tend to themselves. Nobody even smiles at one another. What’s the point of living if you don’t connect with the people around you?’

My heart sank. I totally agree, I thought. This is why I visit Uganda once a year and feel alive. I actually laugh, I talk to people I don’t know about nothing in particular. I dress how I like. The sun shines. Such simple things. Now I know politics in Africa in general have been viewed negatively by the outside world, and Uganda is no exception. But look at us, right now. We were together in London for my birthday yesterday and again we spoke about many things. When I honed in on politics and loosely explained what all the commotion was about (I hardly understand anything about Brexit), she chuckled. ‘Just like Uganda,’ she said. I laughed and agreed. ‘Welcome to the heart of the Divided Kingdom,’ I said.

 

 

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Voluntourism? Not for us.

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I’ve spent a large proportion of the past three years researching something that has come to be known as ‘voluntourism’. Many people don’t quite understand what the term means, but I’m going to explain, from my own experiences. When I left university in 2012, I had no idea what to do professionally so I decided to go travelling and see what happened. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I might like to be a teacher, but that was only because my BA was in English.

So I turned to Google and typed in something like: Africa, volunteering, travel. Within one minute I discovered an organisation in Uganda that offered a 12-week teaching package. It included 9-5 teaching in a local primary school, accommodation in a custom built lodge, freshly prepared food and transportation. They also offered, for an additional fee, Gorilla Trekking in Bwindi NP, a safari in Queen Elizabeth NP and white water rafting on the River Nile. Oh and there was also a visit to a beautiful lake available for an additional fee. The package didn’t include flights or visa; the customer was to sort out and pay for this themselves.

Now don’t get me wrong, I spent time in Uganda with some amazing people and we had loads of fun. I met people from the US, Australia and the UK and we had a really great group dynamic. In our chilled out, hilltop lodge, the beers were flowing and watching the sunset around the fire every night was awesome. The team leaders, to their credit, organised everything superbly and the trip was everything I imagined it would be.

Then I returned to the UK.

I reflected on my experiences of Uganda with my friends and family and I noticed a pattern: I hardly mentioned anything about teaching, about learning about Ugandan culture or even about the Ugandan friends that I had made whilst being out there. To be honest, what I was reflecting upon was a great holiday. The ‘teaching’ delivered in the classrooms by myself and some of the other ‘volunteers’ was totally pathetic and had nothing to do with the Ugandan curriculum. The only Ugandan people that we spent a considerable amount of time with were teachers, who spent day after day telling us how difficult it is to be a teacher in Uganda and that they were grateful for our help and support. It seemed totally superficial.

After our day of teaching at school, we weren’t encouraged to integrate with the people in the villages in which we ‘volunteered’, we were simply driven back to our comfortable little camp to drink more beer and get to know each other better – our fellow ‘volunteers’. I realised I’d done something truly amazing, but not in the way the website promised I would. I spent twelve weeks in Uganda; I hardly met any Ugandan people, learned nothing about the local culture of the region and taught terrible lessons at a school where the teachers spent the afternoon sleeping instead of teaching. This, I thought to myself, was an amazing thing to achieve. How could I possibly spend so much time in a country and not learn a single thing about it? I made no impact and gained only paltry experience of teaching abroad, realising in the process, that I was a terrible teacher.

What is deeply concerning, is that my experience is not an exception, but the norm. I paid in excess of £4,000 to a UK based organisation for this experience and what did I get out of it? What positive contribution did I make? I think you get my point. I had no relevant teaching qualifications, no experience and no passionate desire to be a teacher. How on earth does that make me a suitable candidate for a program just like the one I participated in?

There are organisations like this popping up all over the world, encouraging more and more young people to sign up to projects that will ‘change their lives’ or help to ‘lift communities out of poverty’. What a sham. To this day I deeply regret participating in a voluntourism project, but from a positive viewpoint, alongside a local school we have been developing a pioneering approach to locally led tourism, where young adults don’t go to Africa to save it, but to learn from it. ‘Saving Africa from poverty’ and ‘Giving something back to people less fortunate than ourselves’ are ridiculous, out-dated and simply serve to re-enforce the ‘White Saviour Complex’.

It’s about time that we started treating Africans with respect. People might be poor, but their children don’t need to be taught by un-qualified teachers with questionable integrity in regards to their involvement in the project. They don’t need their babies picked up off the street to make the perfect selfie for Facebook. Think about it from your perspective – if a young African man walked down your local high street, picked up your baby and took a photograph of him/her, I can imagine you would be totally mortified. So why is it any different in Africa? It isn’t, it’s still offensive, it’s still demeaning and it’s still suggestive that people of wealth are better than those who lead more difficult lives.

I’ve been asked many times by young people if we have voluntourism type projects that they can get involved in. The answer is always no. And it always will be. Voluntourism exploits the very people it is supposed to support, and enriches the lives of those that have offered their time and money to ‘make a difference’. It is a totally flawed system that needs to be re-adjusted. Ugandans, for example, are the most entrepreneurial people I’ve ever met. They don’t want our charity. They want our respect. They want our support. They want our co-operation and the opportunity to collaborate.

Please, I implore you, before signing up to an expensive voluntourism project, think about what you are getting yourself into. If it’s a piss up with other travellers, then I recommend a different continent entirely. If you truly want to make a positive contribution, voluntourism is very unlikely to provide you with one. That’s why everyone at The Zuri Project encourages people to visit the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and see just what an amazing place it is. There is no need to meddle in people’s lives just because you want to enhance your CV or get some great holiday snaps.

If you are planning a trip to Uganda, East Africa or perhaps somewhere else in the world, then please do some due diligence before you sign up for projects that are dividing communities and re-enforcing negative stereotypes across the world.

Ugandans are people. They live real lives. Treat them with respect.

Ross.

What have I learned this year?

 

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(Councillor Brian at the secondary School site)

What an outrageously difficult question to answer! I’m sorry the blog hasn’t been updated for a few months, but I’ve been quite ill and I’ve had to take some time off work. Nevertheless, The Zuri Project & Opportunity Africa projects are flying and as always, I have to pinch myself to appreciate what we’re achieving together. Even throughout my illness, I haven’t been able to stop working on the projects and developing ideas with our team.

To briefly summarise what we’ve been up to:

  • We have completed the construction of the first ever secondary school in Kihembe, with two classroom blocks and just short of 100 students signed up.
  • We’ve provided the funding for our partners to build a kitchen block at the school, as previously, the school had been using the kitchen of a very friendly neighbour!
  • We’ve planted over 1,500 coffee trees at the secondary school to work towards our five year sustainability plan.
  • We’ve provided funding for the Opportunity Africa team to purchase a motorcycle. Expenses for our team were ever growing, so we decided to buy the motorbike to save on boda boda fees.
  • We have hired a new member of staff in Uganda and we welcome Jims to our team as an agricultural officer.
  • We’ve reviewed our relationship with Kishunju PS and we are starting from the beginning. We’ve tried lots of smaller projects at the school, many of which have been positive, but some of them haven’t worked as well as we hoped they would.
  • We’re conducting our biggest ever research project in Kihembe. Our team in the field, led by Elly, is creating focus groups across the community to get feedback and to gain an insight into future ideas. We want to collect data from at least 100 focus groups by the end of the year, so Elly really does have a job on his hands!

 

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(Students outside the new secondary school in Kihembe)

I could go on, but this sums up what we’ve been up to since the start of 2018 quite nicely. Back to the subject of the blog, what have I learned this year through our work in Uganda? I think that, above all else, I’ve realised just how resilient we can be as a team, and also as individuals. After losing Herbert last year, we’ve also had a lot of difficult issues to deal with together this year, and we’ve still managed to achieve so many great outcomes, as you can see above.

 

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(Niwagaba Herbert. Our inspiration, always.)

Being resilient is difficult. It’s about sticking to your values and beliefs when things happen to challenge the very soul of what you truly believe in. But in our case, resilience has brought us closer together. It has strengthened our bonds of friendship and trust, and we are definitely stronger for it. I suppose it’s difficult to learn how to be resilient, you either are or you aren’t. But when people are resilient together, it’s amazing how much confidence and belief you can retain to try and keep moving forward. My Ugandan friends have been simply incredible in every possible way this year. What they’ve done and what they’ve sacrificed for their own community is simply outstanding, and I want to tell everyone about it. For all the negative stories circulating around the media, we have our own little world in which we succeed together and fail together. It’s an incredible thing to be a part of, particularly in dark and difficult times. Knowing you can be resilient with incredible people behind you is something amazing to learn about yourself, and by extension, the reasons why you are drawn to other people.

Danielle and I are getting married in two weeks and I wish more than anything that our Ugandan friends could be with us, but it hasn’t worked out. I think we will be shooting off to Uganda as soon as we can, to celebrate with everyone who couldn’t make it to our big day. This excites me so much. We’ve been through so much this year and it’s been tough. But we’ve all done it together. And we will continue to do so in the months and years to come.

Have a great couple of months and I’ll be back with another blog post at Christmas.

Ross x

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.

 

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