Kishunju Primary School: A story of Rebuilding

One week after returning from Uganda in April of this year, we heard from our Ugandan team that the classroom blocks at Kishunju Primary School, housing students from Nursery class through to P5, had been totally destroyed in a storm. This news was particularly worrying, given the fact that there were students inside the classrooms at the time. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured, which is a miracle considering the damage that was caused. The classrooms that collapsed were old, made from mud and wood, and were not at all fit for purpose.

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(Inside one of the classrooms just before the storm)

This is not an attempt to lie blame at the door of the school, not at all. But it is the sad reality that faces many primary schools across Uganda. They are so bereft of resources, teaching staff and financial support that they have to deal with what they have. It’s actually incredible that students and teachers turn up to class each day and are motivated to learn in such an environment.

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(Some of the students of Kishunju outside the devastated classroom block after the storm)

The Arden students who had recently visited the village had already decided that they wanted to support Kishunju as part of their legacy project, and this process was expedited when the terrible news of the storm reached us here in the UK. The money that was raised by Arden was enough to make an immediate start on the new classroom block, and work was underway by the end of April. At the same time, our fundraising team in the UK did an incredible job of raising money and we were able to get enough money together to build all of the required classrooms, to a safe and usable standard.

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(One of the new classroom blocks (to the right) under construction earlier this year)

We decided that we would then use the summer and early autumn months to fundraise to complete the plastering and painting of the classrooms, as we simply didn’t have enough money to undertake the whole project in one go. It wasn’t just The Zuri Project and its supporters that contributed to this project. Many members of the PTA of the school and fellow community members contributed whatever they could, including bricks, small amounts of money and even food for the labourers who were undertaking the work.

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(Students outside one of the classroom blocks after the initial building work had been completed)

In what was one of our quickest projects ever, we were delighted to learn that by the end of May, the classrooms were being used by the students and we were well on our way to achieving our fundraising total to finish off the classrooms. As I write, the finishing touches are being added to the new classroom block at the school, and as always, I’m so thrilled with what our Ugandan team have been able to achieve in such a short space of time.

You can watch a short video here of Monica and some of the team showing you the progress they have made with the project thus far.

Upon completion of the classrooms, I will share another post with lots of photographs to show you just how significant the improvements will be to Kishunju Primary School. A huge thank you to everyone who has been involved in fundraising for this project – we couldn’t have done it without you!

Ross x

@ZuriProject

Uganda 2019: Arden Academy – Student Reflections

Last week I promised to share with you reflections of the students that visited Uganda as part of the Arden Academy trip of April this year. Here they are. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Frankie Smith

For me, Uganda was an experience of a lifetime. It opened my eyes to the opposing lives people in different parts of the world lead. Uganda’s economy has very little money yet I can guarantee that I have never seen people with smiles as big as those in Kihembe. Their smiles reflected their warmth, kindness and most of all their elation at our presence. Being over 6,000 miles away from home was a nerve wracking thought for us all, yet our hosts Monica and her daughter, Patience, welcomed us into their traditional Ugandan home and village and made us part of their very loving family. The aim of our visit was to plan a legacy project with the people in the community of Kihembe, in order to do this, we had to visit the possible sites at which a legacy project could be developed.

We visited the local primary school, secondary school and health centre which were in an incomparable condition to sites like these in Knowle. The most emotional day for me of the two weeks was visiting Kishunju Primary School, the children greeted us with the most powerful singing and dancing that sent shivers down my spine. These children were so enthusiastic and positive yet were learning in classrooms literally about to fall down, that we would deem dangerous as they put the children at risk. Sadly, days after returning home from Uganda, these classrooms were blown down in a storm; luckily, before we left we had decided to invest our money to enable the building of permanent classroom blocks for the children at Kishunju.

We are hoping that these classrooms will not only provide a safer learning environment but also give the children an incentive to keep going to school, which we hope will lead to higher overall attendance and most importantly improve their education. The people in the village are very proud of what they have, even though to us it would seem very little; this has demonstrated to me that we take the smallest things, like running water, electricity and flushing toilets for granted. I chose to apply for this trip to Uganda because the opportunity excited me; not only has it taught me about a completely different culture but has also taught me that money doesn’t provide happiness, it is the people around you who do. I can’t wait to go back! The relationships I built throughout this trip with the members of the Opportunity Africa team and the people of Kihembe are something that will stay with me forever.

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(Frankie with Moses at the Opportunity Africa office during the legacy project meeting)

Ashleigh Lawrence

Our visit to the village of Kihembe is an experience I will never forget, it was genuinely life changing. We came to Uganda to appreciate and learn about its culture, to meet new people and interact with the villagers. We saw and did so many incredible things but for me, the close relationships that we built with the Opportunity Africa team and the villagers was something I didn’t expect and is honestly what I miss most about it.

The welcoming, unconditionally generous and generally happy nature of these people made our visit the wonderful experience it was and I know it was the beginning of some very special friendships. The visit did have its share of challenges, but the most difficult one of all was having to say goodbye – I’m missing it and everyone so much that I am already hoping to go back! My visit to Uganda was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and I am so grateful to Ross, Danielle, Monica, The Zuri Project Uganda and Opportunity Africa for making the village of Kihembe part of our lives.

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(Ashleigh with Monica, Frankie and Moses, on a tour of the secondary school site)

Eoin Russell

The trip to Uganda was a life changing experience and I am grateful that i’ve had the opportunity to see an area of the world that is so different to England. Our experience of Uganda was definitely not what any of us expected. I think England on the whole is fed quite a negative image of Uganda through the media but I must say that it deserves a much better reputation that the one it is given. I tried to approach the trip with empathy for the Ugandans but in fact, I left the trip envious of them and their culture. They are some of the happiest people I have met and this has taught me that money definitely doesn’t equal happiness.

We were greeted with an overwhelming reception everywhere we went and my favourite memory of the trip was our arrival at Kihembe Secondary School. The students proudly performed traditional dances, songs and acts. It was very touching to see how grateful they are for their opportunity to get an education (something that we take for granted) and how the charity’s contributions have positively impacted their lives. I’m sure that Arden’s contribution will be equally as impactful and that is something that the whole school can be very proud of. Ross told us that The Zuri Project is built on relationships and now I understand why. In the short time we spent there we made some amazing friends who we still keep in touch with now. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Uganda and hope that future sixth formers can have the same experience as we have.

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(Eoin & Nihal doing what they do best: playing football with the secondary school team! Pete (blue cap) and Ross (big bum) are also in the huddle!)

Nihal Bhatt

I would like to thank Arden and The Zuri Project for exposing me to such a different culture and lifestyle to the one that we have here. While we were in the village we went to visit some of their most important facilities and while they were incomparable to the facilities we have here, everyone was appreciative and were very optimistic for what these facilities can and could provide in the future. Everywhere we went we received a very warm reception and were made to feel at home which was a truly heart warming experience. This hospitality lead me to build some great relationships in the relatively short space of time we spent in the village.

It was very refreshing to see overseas charity work being done with the community in charge. What really stood out to me was the selflessness and ingenuity of the community members, especially the members of Opportunity Africa. For example, the use of coffee and vegetable plants to sustain teachers’ salaries and to maintain infrastructure, I thought was such a creative solution to a serious issue. I am delighted to have had the chance to be a part of The Zuri Project and I am certain this is not the last time I will be a part of this amazing initiative.

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(Nihal, front left with some of the OA & Zuri Project team. From Back left – Monica, Bright, Frankie, Ross, Moses, Danielle, Eoin, Elly, Ashleigh. Front from left – Nihal, Jimz, Pete & Sarah).

More to follow next week!

Ross.

@ZuriProject

Arden Academy & The Zuri Project

I’m frustrated with myself that it’s taken me so long to write a post about this. Mainly because this partnership and the resulting opportunities it has created thus far have been life changing, quite literally.

I first rocked up to Arden Academy, or Arden School as it was known then, as a skinny, anxious 11 year old in Autumn 2002. The five years that followed were full of the usual ups and downs of senior school and I have too many stories and memories to go into any great detail in this post. However, there is one memory in particular that I would like to share, as it’s particularly relevant to the development of my relationship with Arden as an adult.

In Year 11 I was (rightly) told that I was crap at Maths. I didn’t need to be told as I was already dreading the Maths GCSE more than any other. However, I was offered the opportunity to take up additional one hour Maths lessons after school on Friday evenings. Unable to remember my motivation for doing so, I agreed. With initially little to no enthusiasm, I started to attend these after school sessions, led by a new teacher, Mr Pete Simpson.

After a couple of weeks, for the first time in my school career Mr Simpson had managed to do something no other teacher, in my humble opinion, had; he was actually talking sense in a Maths lesson. I can’t remember exactly what it was about the lessons, but I suddenly developed a basic understanding of some of the concepts that had been keeping me awake for years and I dared to dream that I might actually pass my Maths GCSE. It turned out that Mr Simpson was tutoring intermediate Maths very patiently, whereas previously, for some unknown reason, I had been in a class where higher Maths was on the agenda. With Mr Simpson’s advice, I ditched higher Maths and chose to take the intermediate paper at GCSE level.

When I got a B I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately Mr Simpson, or Pete as I now know him, has no recollection of this, which is great for me of course as I wouldn’t want him taking too much credit for my incredible turnaround and newfound outstanding mathematical genius (wink wink).

When I met Pete in his office 10 years later, we weren’t together to discuss GCSE Maths. Fortunately. We were meeting to discuss how The Zuri Project could form a mutually beneficial partnership with Arden Academy, particularly the Sixth Form, of which Pete was (and still is) the head. With nothing grandiose in mind, I was just enthusiastic about the idea of going back to my old school and having a chat about Uganda and what i’d been up to. Over the course of a number of meetings, Pete and I had many rich, engaging conversations about international development, Arden’s interest in engaging students in rewarding extra-curricular activities, as well as a whole host of other interesting topics.

Somehow, we agreed that it would be a good idea to plan a school trip to Uganda for four Arden Academy students. I shared my research into Voluntourism with Pete and told him about our charity’s stance on engaging with volunteers in Uganda. (You can read about this in my post from last year). If I was to be involved in supporting young adults to visit Uganda, it was going to be in a totally different way to anything I had previously encountered. And this was the beauty of our partnership, we had a blank canvas to work from.

What we came up with, essentially, and with the help of our Ugandan partners Opportunity Africa, was the opposite to what I would regard as conventional Voluntourism. This trip was to be forged by the people of Kihembe, through the leaders of the community. It was an opportunity for Opportunity Africa to show ‘the Uganda that Ugandans want you to see’ and the focus of the trip was to develop cross cultural relationships and develop compassionate understanding. We decided that the students would not actually do anything – they wouldn’t teach classes, they wouldn’t dig a well, they wouldn’t help build a school. They would simply visit, learn and enjoy the company of their Ugandan hosts and the natural beauty of ‘The Pearl of Africa’.

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(Arden Academy students with some of the OA team’s family members, taking a leisurely walk just outside the Bwindi National Park)

The only thing that we actually built into the trip, was the opportunity for the students to sit down with the Opportunity Africa team at the end of their time in Kihembe and help plan a legacy project that would be designed and delivered by OA and the local populace when the students returned home. The students, through a non-uniform day at school and some of their own creative fundraising initiatives, managed to raise £3,000 to contribute to the legacy project, and it was decided that the money would be spent at Kishunju Primary School (more on this in future posts).

I was taken aback by the trip in many ways. I was delighted to witness young people from Knowle interact with people from Kihembe. The contrast in their upbringings, their culture, their beliefs, traditions and interests made for some remarkable conversations and interactions and the building of some lasting friendships. Personally, I achieved something that I so desperately desired; to show people that there is an achievable, impactful alternative to Voluntourism. One that does not place the foreign visitor on a pedestal above their native counterparts, nor one that relies on outdated stereotypical assumptions that wealth and privilege is a pretext for alleviating ‘poverty’.

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(Project Manager Bright proving to us that he does in fact love millet)

The trip was remarkable. It was inspiring and it was life changing for many of us involved. But i’m not going to tell you why and/or how. I’m going to let the four students who participated tell you that.

All will be revealed in next week’s post.

Ross x

@ZuriProject

Hello again.

A broken leg. That’s my excuse for not writing a blog post for so long. I’ve been too busy feeling sorry for myself! So much has happened in 2019, I’m either going to have to write some kind of thesis style essay, or write several blogs over the coming weeks and months. I’m going to opt for the latter.

Where to begin? Well, I’ve spent some time going through the blog posts that I’ve written most recently, and I’ve realised that I haven’t actually shared an update on the secondary school for a while. So i’m going to start there.

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(A Crested Crane, the national bird of Uganda, perched on top of the goalposts at the school).

The idea of supporting our partners to build the first ever secondary school in Kihembe was conceived in 2016 and to this day, we have supported the development of the school in many ways, as you can read in a previous blog about this topic. Further to the achievements listed in the aforementioned blog, we have provided funding to build a second classroom block, we have finished the construction of a kitchen block and we have provided funding to plant over one thousand coffee trees.

The school is well into its third year, and whilst it still has its challenges, it’s progressing incredibly well. There are so many students attending the school and it looks like we’re already going to have to fundraise for expansion plans! In fact, one of the first projects that we hope to undertake in 2020 is to provide funding to the Ugandan team to build a science lab at the school site. This is a government requirement and is an urgent requirement to allow the students to practice before their examinations.

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(As always, during our April visit, we were warmly welcomed by the students who performed traditional Bakiga dances.)

We have started fundraising for this and you can see Monica say thank you to some of our fundraisers by watching the following short video. (You can see the new building behind Monica at the top of the hill). Although not mentioned in the video, I’d also like to say a special thank you to Anthony Wilcock, whose 30 @ 30 challenge raised over £1,000 to support the secondary school. An incredible achievement Anthony, many congratulations!

You will be able to read more about the secondary school in upcoming blogs. Just know that it’s going from strength to strength and we’re so proud of what we’ve achieved in a relatively short space of time. I’d like to thank everyone involved for helping the secondary school to grow and develop and we’re excited for our future involvement with the school.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be writing about the time I spent in Uganda with some students from a local sixth form, and I will share their perceptions of their time in Uganda. I’ll also be revealing some exciting news about developments at Kishunju Primary School, as well as other little bits and pieces!

It’s nice to be back writing. I hope you’ve enjoyed this short update and keep your eyes peeled for the next post in the coming weeks.

Ross x

@ZuriProject

 

Direct payments: The future?

I’ve been totally addicted to researching the promising future that appears to be ahead of ‘direct payments’ within the field of International Development. The term, and the concept, were launched by the organisation, aptly named as GiveDirectly.  I have shared a link to their website below, should you wish to learn more about their work:

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If you didn’t guess from the title, this approach to development is super simple – people give money to poor people and let them spend it in any way that they choose. Skeptical? Check out the research for yourself, it’s overwhelmingly positive and can be found on their website.

In one way or another, The Zuri Project has been paying direct, conditional payments to our Ugandan partners for the past three years. We weren’t doing this under the auspice of Direct Giving per se, but as I have been exploring recently, our approach can be categorised as such. Without mentioning the amount, we have been making payments to our partner organisation, Opportunity Africa. They are registered as an NGO at the national level, but they are totally localised in their focus. They work exclusively in the village of Kihembe in the district of Kanungu, which is in the south western corner of Uganda.

The organisation is run totally by Ugandan people from within the village. Our charity, The Zuri Project, supports Opportunity Africa with their development by providing resources and funds where necessary, to enable them to deliver projects desired by the people of their community. For example, Opportunity Africa are responsible for the building of the first ever secondary school in Kihembe, and have worked hard to support the redevelopment of the village’s dilapidated health centre.

Personally, what I have seen and learned is that, when receiving direct payments, they spend the money very wisely and in keeping with their aims and ambitions as a community. To date, we have added conditions to the funding, as we have supported Opportunity Africa to build a framework and manage projects independently. Without this framework, I believe it would have been difficult for us to maintain a prosperous and proactive partnership. But now, three years on from our first conditional direct payment to Uganda, I think we are in a position to start exploring new options, whether it is direct payments to individuals or unconditional payments to Opportunity Africa, we haven’t yet decided.

But we know one thing for sure. The Ugandans that we have worked with haven’t wasted the money, or spent it disproportionately on themselves; criticism which is often fired at organisations who dare to trial direct payments to people or organisations. Quite the contrary is true, in fact. We have found that the Opportunity Africa team has been incredibly diligent with the vast majority of money that has been spent, and it has been very carefully managed. Of course, some of the projects that they have tried haven’t quite worked out as planned, but we will explore with our partners what to try next.

Before we make that decision, we will first look at the data we have collected and see exactly how the money was spent. We hope it will show what we initially think. Simply, that poor does not equal stupid. And when treated with respect & dignity, people, regardless of their economic status, can make a positive contribution to other people’s lives.

Ross.

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.

 

 

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