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Africa 101

I have just returned from a two week volunteer trip to Africa with the Global Volunteer Network and the ESG Foundation. The purpose of my trip was to better understand one of the main projects we are supporting as a business via the ESG Foundation, and also to spend a week on a Global Volunteer Network “Distribution Trip” to visit several projects in Uganda where money that has been raised by Eat So They Can had been previously distributed.

It was without question one the most amazing experiences of my life.

I’ve been back for a week now and I still can’t find the words to answer the question I have been asked a thousand times since I got home “how was your trip”? …. I think I’ve said “Inspiring”, “Rewarding” and “Amazing” so far, but these just don’t come close to accurately conveying the feelings I had when I was there and how my thinking and beliefs have changed since leaving Sydney only a couple of weeks ago.

The first feeling I distinctly remember was one of embarrassment when we first sat down with Leslie, the Director of “The Real Uganda” who hosted the GVN week long trip and has lived in Uganda for the past 9 years. In 30 mins listening to her talk I realised that 99% of what I thought I knew about Africa and specifically helping people there needed a complete rethink. I was probably like a lot of people in the developed world who really want to help but thought that sending money or building schools was the answer (it makes you feel good too right?)…. Man did I have it wrong!

I learned that afternoon and over the course of the next few days that giving money needs to be done in a sustainable way that helps the people there help themselves….. sure building a school makes us feel great but if no thought has been given to who will run the school, how the local community will be engaged, what the curriculum will be or how it will continue to fund itself, then all we are really doing is building something that looks like a school!! Rather than simply building a school, let’s think about helping in a different way…. What if we set out to help the people of Uganda become better educated (and then be able to help themselves and their families support a better life)… this might mean we build a school, but it also opens up a multitude of other avenues and thoughts about how we might help?

I won’t give you a chronological account of the week but the second day we were there I got another fast lesson on “giving money sustainably in a way that benefits everyone” and it came, believe it or not, from a bunch of cows!

We were lucky enough to visit the village of Kitoola, about an hour from Mukono, where the women in the community had been gifted several pregnant cows from funds raised. However these cows had not simply been driven up one day in a truck and dropped off courtesy of the well meaning folk in NZ and Australia (at this point who is guilty of thinking that surely people that live in a village in Uganda must know how to look after cows….my hand was up!), these women have been trained progressively over time how to care for livestock and in many cases had graduated from chickens to pigs before the female elders of the village would deem them responsible enough to be provided with one of the pregnant cows (pregnant so the next cow can be gifted the same way). Now let’s compare this to the school and think about this not in terms of giving the cow away but in terms of providing an ongoing supply of milk and nutrients to their families and a way of these people earning some additional income….. I hope I am starting to make sense in explaining that it’s not about the gift but what the outcome is that’s critical.

The result of this particular program being done the right way provided me and the rest of the group with a day we will surely never forget. We arrived on a bus into the village that was very remote and were met with smiles, hugs and lots of loud screaming by about 10 local women wearing their Sunday best, who could not have been happier to meet and thank us for raising the money for the latest assets to their village and families…the cows!! We then spent the day playing with some very healthy looking kids (who were also incredibly polite articulate and well behaved) and visiting all of the cows one by one (someone in the group suggested after 3 or 4 cows that perhaps we had seen enough but there was no way this group of fiercely proud and independent ladies was going to let us leave without meeting each and every cow!). We were then treated to a wonderful lunch and some speeches before finishing our day dancing with these sensational ladies as is a the local tradition (PLEASE… may that video never make it onto You Tube)!!

The majority of the week followed a very similar path with us meeting some simply amazing people doing amazing things. I am sure like me everyone in our group was riding an amazing wave of emotions…. At one point the comment was made on the bus “how do we go back to work after this” ? At the time it was a very fair question, as to be immersed in something so very different and then on top of this, to realise that everything you thought you knew about how to help was well intentioned but incorrect …. Well let’s just say it changed the way I think about the world.

Uganda and Africa certainly taught me a great deal more than I was able offer it and I will be forever thankful for the time I was able to spend there and to the people that hosted us throughout the two weeks (you know who you are). I made some wonderful friends during the trip (you also know who you are) and whilst riding my own personal rollercoaster, still managed to have plenty of laughs along the way (where does chocolate milk come from again??)

I left Africa with a genuine affinity for the countries I visited and the people I met…. With this I also developed a burning passion to make sure the ESG Foundation helps out in the future in a way that is both sustainable and provides education and skills to those that want and need it…..making sure that resources are directed where they work best – which I understand now needs to be done via local engagement programs – not by dropping off cows or constructing one off buildings.

So the next person who asks me how my trip was had better look out…. I will probably say something like “It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The people I met were just like you and I, just with less material things… they are proud, love their families, want to better themselves in life, and display a wonderful sense of happiness that I have never encountered before, we can learn so much from these people. Instead of heading to Disneyland on your next holiday, contact Global Volunteer Network and find a way to help…. You will never regret it” 🙂