Team visit to Uganda - Sarah Kemp

Sarah in UgandaUganda is a beautiful country, full of beautiful people and our first visit in November was extraordinary on many levels. It was uplifting, shocking, engaging, levelling, breathtaking, frustrating -  an experience that will never be forgotten. We thought we understood what abject poverty is, but you can never prepare yourself for experiencing the reality of it. There's a statistic out there somewhere that says millions of people in the world live on less than a $1 a day, very hard for us to imagine but we met families who would probabl be ok if they actually had $1 a day, but most don't.

Uganda is a country where 85% of the population are engaged in either agriculture or subsistence farming. They live in the most beautiful lush green equatorial country, no home is  more than a few yards away from crops of corn, sweet potatoes, green bananas, tea, coffee, every kind of produce you can imagine, and yet so many are severely malnourished or starving.

As African countries go, Uganda is far from being the most poverty - challenged country - it's climate near perfect for growing food, a multi-party democracy that has been politically stable for some years now and yet still so many problems. The GDP of Greater Manchester is five times that of Uganda.

Over 2million children are estimated to be AIDS orphans, malaria still the biggest killer of children, probably no child unaffected by HIV/AIDS in some way, so much deformity and disability. We felt cross and indignant - so much of the suffering entirely preventable.... if only the population were properly vaccinated, if only everyone were tested and treated for HIV, if every birth was assisted, if everyone slept under mosquito nets. The tragedy is that for all that has been achieved in finding political stability, in providing good quality, free education, that you still have to be well, you still have to be fully abled to go to school, to attend the medical clinics, to farm your land, to feed your family.

Yet despite feeling these frustrations, we were overwhelmed by the welcome we received, the generosity of spirit of the Ugandan people, the industrious and entrepreneurial nature of the people, the lack of self-pity or complaint. The Ugandans love their children and like us, wish for nothing more than for them to be healthy and happy. They count their blessings one by one for every small gift, act of kindness, consideration, every meal, every day of life.

It was a terrible thing to see so many children suffering for no reason other than by circumstance of where they happened to be born. We met so many children suffering from AIDS at a time where it's possible to prevent transmission of HIV through pregnancy, prevent progression of the disease, where it's possible to live a long and normal life if tested and treated early enough. There are so, so many children with severe disabilities but no physical aids, no medication, no physiotherapy - much of it caused through malnutrition, birth trauma or cerebral malaria, but not a wheelchair in sight. Each and everyone of those children, just want a fighting chance to have their life, just their own life, the life they were given, as we do ours. In that respect, we're all the same.

But for every child found abandoned, for every child we saw traumatised or in pain or difficulty, we met extraordinary people for whom helping these children was nothing but a privilege for  them, no task too great, no price to pay too high. Nothing prepared us for the shock of visiting Noeline in her "orphanage" home for the first time, a women who opened up her own home to children who have nowhere to go. We knew that it wasn't in great shape, but this home, no bigger than most people's living room in the UK, houses 31 children, all of whom have some form of disability or chronic illness, many also mentally, emotionally and sexually abused and traumatised for one reason or another. Despite the obvious poverty and unimaginable living conditions, the overwhelming love and support these children have for each other, the unfaltering love and guardianship and cheerfulness of Noeline is difficult to describe - but self-sacrifice doesn't even come close to describing the amazing commitment of this lady. Even more remarkable, Noeline suffered from Polio in her earlier years, no longer has the use of her legs which are severely deformed, and drags her body around her home and land, using  flipflops to protect her hands on the floor. Yet no problem too big, no child too much, no shortage of a willing spirit, or loving heart.

We met many families in need but we met as many families and children who have been helped by Wellspring clinic and it was such a joy and a privilege to see how a helping hand has transformed their lives. Two twin baby girls, abandoned when only a few weeks old, taken in by the clinic, and now happy and healthy, happily homed with a lady who already has 9 children of her own but was delighted to embrace them as part of her family.  We met Rosemary, her husband and children, recently homed in a new house built by Medcare after being found helpless with malnutrition in appalling and indescribable living conditions, needing hospitalisation for  weeks to recover, but now all happily running around, looking fit and healthy, able to live safely and look after themselves. We also met Miriam, four years old, abandoned, no one knows for how long or where her family is, severely malnourished, barely able to stand anymore, too fragile to pick up, totally traumatised - not speaking and completely unresponsive, a very pretty but very sad little girl. I think about her every day and wonder how she's doing but I know that staff at Wellspring will ensure she's hospitalised to full recovery and will do everything they can to find and place her with her own family or another loving home and will keep a watchful eye over her recovery and progress for as long as is needed.

Not that we ever doubted the service and commitment of the staff at Wellspring, their devotion and passion for what they do is remarkable. The staff operate with conviction and a sense of vocation - their love for the children of Uganda, very evident. No opportunity is lost in the waiting room to educate the patients and their families on the need for vaccinations or how to protect from malaria or general guidance on a whole plethora of health and wellbeing topics. Any reported incidence of a child or family in distress in the community is investigated and appropriate help offered. No child helped is ever forgotten and every member of the staff engages with all the children and most especially, those  children registered on the COIN/MDI sponsorship programme. Every need is carefully monitored and responded to, and every child seen on at least a monthly basis to provide social care, food supplements, clothes and emotional support and encouragement.

Whilst the need is great, there is no doubt in our minds that Medcare is saving lives every day and every life matters - it matters to the child, to their families, it matters to the staff at Wellsprings and it should matter to each and every one of us. We take so much for granted and have so much good fortune by comparison but yet we have so much to learn from a small country of people who face so much adversity, who have so little by comparison to us, yet have such big hearts and give so much back to their own - we have much to learn.

We were fortunate enough at the end of our trip to spend a couple of days in two of Uganda's national parks, one of which, Mburo Lake Park,  is only a couple of hours drive from the clinic and Noeline's orphanage. It struck me that whilst we were loving the peace, tranquillity and beauty of this extraordinary place, unable to take enough photographs and footage of the hippos and zebras, warthogs, buffalo and antelope, though native to Uganda I imagine many of those children have never seen these animals, never having travelled more than a few miles from home. It would be a wonderful thing, if on one of the weekend get-togethers for the sponsored children, we could take them on a day trip, to experience what's just around the corner. I would hope that this could be for them too, a wonderful, uplifting experience, that they too would never forget for the rest of their lives.

10th December 2015

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