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Visiting communities in the Pearl of Africa

SCIAF Content Editor Sarah Swaroop reflects on her trip to Uganda, where she met many families who are striving for change and saw the impact of the local church in action.

My introduction to Uganda
My very first trip to Africa began in the beautiful country of Uganda, known as the Pearl of Africa. I was there to meet some of the people who’ve been supported by SCIAF projects, to hear their stories and collect photos and video footage, so that we can let people at home in Scotland know how their money is making a difference.

I’ve been on a couple of trips with SCIAF now, and after each one everyone asks ‘How was it?’ This is always a tough question to answer, as these trips are usually simultaneously amazing and difficult. I am coming face to face with the reality of extreme poverty, with people’s hardship, pain and loss, and yet at the same time am often surrounded by hope, joy and faith. This trip was no different.

Over 10 days we travelled across the stunningly beautiful landscape of Northern and Central Uganda, and wherever we went we were greeted by excitable, laughing children, shouting ‘Mzungu, mzungu’ (the local word for ‘foreigner’) running after our jeep, fascinated by our camera equipment, and keen to have their photos taken. I quickly learnt that Ugandans are some of the warmest people you’ll meet. Despite years of war in the north, a devastating HIV/ AIDS epidemic, with many people trapped in abject poverty, they were keen to share their homes and tell us their life stories.

Boys Uganda

The devastating impact of war
We started our trip by visiting remote villages in Northern Uganda, which were hit particularly hard by the conflict between the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and the Ugandan Army. The LRA abducted over 200,000 children and murdered over 100,000 people. 1.7 million people were forced to leave their homes and live in camps for up to a decade. Although the LRA left Uganda in 2006, the effects are still evident, with locals struggling to rebuild their lives. Poverty, trauma and loss are still prevalent.

Here I met striking people like Everlyn, who lost her parents during the war. Brought up by her brothers and sister, she couldn’t go to school and they rarely had enough to eat. She went on to contract HIV from her husband, before he left her with their two young children. She told me “Life was very tough. We lived by the mercy of God.”

Yet when I met Everlyn, she was quick to tell me how her life had changed. Thanks to support from SCIAF’s partner, Comboni Samaritans of Gulu, Everlyn has undertaken business training and opened her own small café. She told me, “I have strength now and a reason to live.” With your support she’s moved on in her life, from despair to hope.

Everyln's cafe
Meeting Lydia
We then moved on to Central Uganda and met with our partner Caritas Lugazi. It was here that I met Lydia, who you’ll recognise from this year’s WEE BOX. Lydia lives in a small village where round huts with thatched roofs are lined up close together on each side of a small, windy road.

At 26, Lydia is considerably younger than me and yet is a single mother to five young children. Until recently, the children weren’t in school and she had to work digging others land to earn money for food. Still, they often went hungry.

When I visited, Lydia explained how, thanks to training in sustainable farming and managing finances, she’s been able to grow maize, bananas and vegetables, selling the surplus to earn an income. She took pride in showing us her land and her thriving crops. In a good season, she can make £62 from selling five bags of maize and three bags of beans. For the first time, Lydia and her children have enough to eat.

Not only that, but Lydia decided to use her savings to train to become a hairdresser. During my trip, Lydia was operating out of a mobile salon in the village and told me of her dream to have her own building for the salon. Today, just eight months later, we’ve learnt that she’s been able to realise her dream and open her own place. While her children are at school, she’s able to earn a living and save for their future.

Lydias family
Alongside the big changes in Lydia’s life, I was also really moved by all of the smaller changes she’s been able to make. The things that go a long way towards making every-day life easier. Lydia now has a solar powered light in her otherwise electricity-free hut and her new energy saving stove means food is cooked much more quickly and efficiently, and she doesn’t have to worry about the safety of her children around an open fire. She also now has a drying rack for pots and pans, so they don’t have to dry on the dirty ground, as well as a mattress which they can all sleep on. It’s these changes, she told me, that have made the biggest difference to her as a mother.

Lydia has turned their lives around. She told me, “I feel like a human being now”. The devastating yet transformative nature of that one simple statement really stayed with me.

Sarah and Lydia

Change in action
One of the joys of each SCIAF trip I've taken, is getting to know our local partners. Working through local people and organisations is at the heart of SCIAF’s approach. Staff from our partner organisations travel with us each day, helping to organise, translate and generally guide us through their country and the communities they work with. I was struck by how the local teams work tirelessly, day in day out, to transform lives. You could see the trust that has developed between those taking part in projects and local staff. Their expertise and dedication to those trapped in poverty is really changing lives. It drills home to me why working through local partners is the best approach to development.

At the end ten days I felt overwhelmed with the amount of pain and difficulty that so many people in the world have to go through on a daily basis. Yet, more than that, I was incredibly moved and inspired by seeing that change really is possible and that even the smallest amount of money given in Scotland makes a real difference to the lives of people in need around the world, every single day.

Having seen it first hand, I want to let you know that your money really does make a huge difference. The lives of those I met would not have been changed without the money you put into your WEE BOX. Even a little can go such a long way. Please give what you can this Lent, knowing that your money can and will make a very real difference.