Dr. Stoma is not known for being backward at coming forward with regard to helping some of the world’s most impoverished people, so after merrily jabbing five of us with an array of tropical diseases he didn’t hesitate to suggest we take a couple of bag-fulls of spectacles with us to Africa to distribute among those most in need.
“Beware the village Big Man,” he cautioned. “If in doubt give them to nuns.”
Many of the glasses had been collected by students from Agora International College last term, others were donated by patients at Dr. Stoma’s surgery in Portals, yet more found their way into our luggage from random sources until when we left there were more than 70 pairs, allowing my daughter to observe that there would be “plenty of space for purchases …” on the way home.
I had spent months planning our journey around Uganda, trying to mingle exotic safaris with excursions into areas that would show us the true nature of life there. (For full details of the trip and planning see my ebook out on Amazon in November).
Known as the Pearl of Africa for its lush greenery, this landlocked nation has suffered both from wars in neighbouring Rwanda, Sudan and Congo and from Joseph Kony’s civil war in the north of the country. These troubles have stunted development so that only 4% of the population have electricity, but the intense emphasis placed on education shows the Ugandans intend to rectify this, fast.
The journey from the capital, Kampala, to Queen Elizabeth National Park took us through Kichwamba where I had found an orphanage called the House of Love. Many of the children there have HIV, others are from parents killed in Kony’s war. I had been emailing the administrator, Lillian, who asked us to bring toothbrushes as they did not have any. Initially we had only intended to leave the children’s glasses there, but Lillian asked if we would leave some adult ones too because of the number of people in the area who needed them. As we had already arranged to leave glasses with the Little Sisters of Assisi in Jinja, we decided to split our cache between the two places.
When we arrived Lillian had unfortunately been delayed – the roads are manic so this is not unusual. Two of the older residents showed us round and gave us fabulous fresh pineapple from their allotment, informing us that they produce most of their own food. We unpacked the school supplies, toothbrushes and glasses, conscious that we could not linger too long because of getting stuck behind elephants leaving their watering holes at sunset – wildlife has right of way.
Local people had begun swarming into the grounds, “they’ve heard about the glasses,” our young guide explained, “but they need to wait for Lillian,” she added, a strangely imploring look in her eyes.
By this time people were trying on glasses all over the place and to be honest it was a bit of a bun fight. A wizened lady with eyes so opaque she must have struggled to see even rough outlines appeared before us, insect-like in enormous spectacles. She grasped Pete’s arm fiercely, “I can see!” she cried. “God bless you!”
However, our hosts were looking increasingly perturbed and we noticed three plastic chairs had been placed under the only shady tree. There was no doubt, the Big Man had arrived with his two henchmen.
“Sorry,” I said loudly, “We have to wait for Lillian to ensure you’ve got the best glasses for each of you, pop them back in the box and she’ll let you know when she’s ready for you to come.” Everyone, apart from the enthroned trio, began smiling again and putting the glasses back in the box.
“Keep these for me,” whispered the elderly lady, folding her vision away for another day.
At the beginning of September Lillian emailed to say the medical glasses had been distributed to those who needed them, also there was a “special thank you from the bodaboda cyclists to whom we gave the sunglasses,” she wrote. “They were so happy more of them are still coming in from the countryside to ask if we are giving out more.”
Bodaboda cyclists take two or three passengers on the back of their bicycles – no gears and often no brakes – the more affluent ones provide the same service on motorbikes. They work incredibly hard and earn less than 2 euros a day. Today some of them have their eyes protected from the flying stones on the dirt roads by Mallorca’s cast-off Prada and Gucci!
After our safari we continued on to Jinja with the aim of giving the remaining glasses to the resident nuns. However, after a white water rafting accident we left abruptly and never made it to the nunnery.
As luck would have it, we got chatting to a Scottish missionary called Fiona. I was confiding in her that I would like to do something to balance the opulence we were about to experience at the annual Goat Ascot held at the luxurious Commonwealth Resort in Munyonyo.
“Get John to take you up to the shanty town,” she said hastily scrawling a phone number on a piece of paper while ignoring her husband’s calls that their bus was about to depart. “The women are widows from Kony’s war, they make jewellery out of magazine paper to pay for their children’s education,” she shouted as she dashed for her bus.
John is Rwandan; all his brothers were killed in the 1990 genocide while he was studying at Liverpool University. He meets us on a teeming street corner and, somehow, our battered mini-van does not shake itself into complete oblivion on the way up to the town.
There are hundreds of children and, like everywhere in this country, they all have huge smiles. No TV, play station or computer, not even a ball, running water or electric light, but these kids are completely happy. We enter the only concrete building. Outside the grey wall is emblazoned with rainbow letters announcing: “Project Have Hope”. Inside, women with babies strapped to their backs are making beads and have laid out heaps of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and bags they have created from them.
John has recently opened a medical centre for this town of women and children. He gets Dutch students to come and work there so they learn how to care for people with only the most basic supplies. We leave the remaining glasses here.
This holiday was so special we are going back next year – something we have never done before. If we had just booked a couple of safaris, some white water rafting and a posh day at the races would we have felt this way? Probably not. In the end it was the stuff we didn’t pay a fortune for that really touched us; the people we met, their individual stories. We owe a massive debt of gratitude to Dr. Stoma and the students from Agora for furnishing us with the idea and the tools needed to truly experience this wonderful country.