Walking around University Park, attending lectures, going out for a couple drinks at night and relaxing with friends and family is my life. It is my reality, and the reality of most of the people reading this article. It is so different from what I would describe as the real world, as in, the world that the majority of its population has to live in.
I got an insight into this ‘real’ world last summer, when I went to volunteer in Uganda. The entire time that I was there I kept thinking that there were so many stories that people in the UK just don’t hear, that there was a level of suffering that you can’t get your head around. I hope that the names and pictures in this article will help combat the desensitising effect that a bombardment of statistics can have on people.
So what is Africa like? This is the most common question people have asked me since I got back. I normally answer with a standard “amazing”, because it’s easier than going through the details of what it really is like. But then I’ve been thinking that this doesn’t really do justice to the people that I met. So what is it like? In parts, it’s pretty horrific. I saw children as young as two years old begging for money on the streets of Kampala. I heard of the abuses that are everyday happenings in Uganda, the murder, sexual assaults, prostitution, child abuse, beatings and neglect. I met families who had fled from the Rwandan genocide over a decade ago. I saw the poverty in the shanty towns. People live without water, without proper food, without security, without an education.
In Uganda AIDS is everywhere. It has wiped out families, and left numerous social problems. I was brought to see the family grave of one member of the community. He explained that the vast majority of his family had died within the last five years from AIDS. I counted 21 graves.
Junior was a student in the school where I worked. He couldn’t afford to get an HIV test, but it was clear from his constant illness and his infections that he had AIDS. He is a very gifted student and football player, but will he ever see his graduation day? That is the reality of his situation. Anatolie is a five-year-old boy I met off the dirt-beaten track in Kamuganja. The first thing that I noticed about him was the huge infected cuts on his limbs. I was told that this was the effect of AIDS and that he would probably require an amputation. When you look into the innocent eyes of someone that young, who has no idea why he is suffering, it makes you question the type of world that we live in.
Don’t get me wrong, not all my experiences in Africa were negative. I have some very fond memories of the trip. Squeezing four people onto a motorbike, sharing my seat in a four-hour bus ride with a chicken, watching the sunsets, playing football with the children and sharing a badly brewed Guinness with some of the locals. One of my favourite memories is meeting a little girl called Alithra after arriving in Entebbe airport. She sang nursery rhymes for the whole half-hour trip to Kampala. However, while these memories make me smile, they are not the dominant memories of the trip.
Can we make a difference to the lives of these people? The group I was with set up a foundation for the education of children moving into secondary school, but is this the best way to help the people on the ground? Our foundation will hopefully put 10 children through school in the first year and will expand over the next couple of years, but this is obviously very small scale. Furthermore, while education is vital, there was nothing we could do for those with AIDS. Should we have directed our time, effort and money to supporting a global organisation that could put money into, for example, research or prescriptive drugs? If the answer to this is yes then surely as young people there is nothing directly that we can do to influence global problems. I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The children who will go to secondary school next year because of our foundation made the trip incredibly worthwhile for me, but at the same time it has become difficult to not become demoralised by the scale of the problems that I saw in Uganda. We have to realise our limitations, but at the same time do not use these limitations as an excuse for doing nothing.