Joseph's blog: 14 Days, 14 Lessons Learnt! My job makes me smile! Why? I have just spent two weeks visiting the 393 precious children who are part of the Amigos child sponsorship programme. My colleague, Milly, and I couldn't wait to hit the road. We headed north to Lira and then over to Masindi where we checked on how the children were doing and helped them write letters to their sponsors. Here’s Milly in the office making the final arrangements for the trip… look at that big smile on her face! Lesson1: ‘Postman’ should be in my job description Together we have been busy sorting out all the letters from overseas sponsors so we can deliver them to the relevant children. It’s true – I am a postman as well as a Child Sponsorship Co-ordinator! Why? There is no national postal system in Uganda so if I don’t deliver these letters, no one will! Lesson 2: Everyone loves a chapati The next day, Saturday, sponsored children from Wakiso came to Kira Farm to write letters to their sponsors. They were so keen they started arriving at 7.00 am – despite the fact some had to walk 8 kilometres to get here. The children really look forward to these days as it’s the only time of year they get a coca cola and a chapatti. A family visiting from the UK, the Shorts, were at Kira Farm and met with their former sponsored child Dorah. When they started sponsoring Dorah she was just 8 years old, today she is 22 and studying for a degree in Social Administration at Makerere University. It was an emotional meeting! Lesson 3: Next time, bring a cart The following day we set off on a 10 hour journey to Lira. A public bus took us half the way, but we had to disembark at Bweyale. It was raining cats and dogs and we were worried the children’s letters would get wet in our suitcase, so in the end we hired this cart to ferry our stuff to the next bus. Poor Milly was wet and shivering! Eventually we boarded an 8 seater shared taxi with 15 people rammed into it. We made it to Lira town at 9.30pm – wet, squashed and exhausted - but excited about meeting the children the next day. Waking up on Tuesday to clear skies was wonderful! We made our way to All Nations Church on the outskirts of Lira town to meet the children who were already waiting for ‘Uncle Joseph’ and ‘Auntie Milly’. I arrived local-style, on the back of a bicycle taxi, with my laptop and a suitcase full of letters. Lesson 4: Magic tricks rule After lunch we’d planned to show the children a video about teeth brushing, but the hired projector wouldn’t work. Instead I did a little talk on HIV/AIDS and some magic tricks for the kids. It’s a varied job! After some letter writing and sharing stories it was time for sodas and samosas. The children with good school reports received extra snacks as a reward for their hard work. Lesson 5: Wheelbarrows are more useful than you think The next day we caught up with some of the caregivers who had attended our life and business skills. Almost a year on, it was amazing to hear about the difference it had made. Santa Akello told us: ‘Before the training I used to think of myself as a failure, I was just a poor lady who lived hand to mouth. During the training I realised I had the potential to lead a better life. I always thought I couldn’t achieve anything because I didn’t have any capital, but the training made me realise that my brain is my capital.’ We were asked to think about all our unused assets and I realised I had a wheelbarrow that was sitting idle. I decided to load up my wheelbarrow with bananas from the market and take them into the centre of Lira town – choosing to ignore people’s whispers and gossip. Can you believe I’d sold all the bananas by midday? I’d only invested 50,000 shillings into the business, and now it is worth 100,000 shillings. I have managed to pay off all my debts and escape from the money lenders.’ I love hearing stories like this, it makes all the bumpy journeys and wet days worth it! Here’s a picture of Santa’s wheelbarrow after a successful day’s trading! Lesson 6: Greasy fingers aren’t good for letter writing On Thursday morning I woke up at 5.30am thanks to some noisy motorbikes on the road outside - still it meant we got cracking early to meet with sponsored children and caregivers in an area called Barr. We were pleased to see that all of the children looked happy, smart and well cared for. We hoped the children wouldn’t get their oily samosa fingers on the letters they were writing, but I’m afraid some of them did! Apologies in advance! Lesson 7: Lunch is the secret to good school attendance! We discovered that school attendance in Barr is particularly good because the children are being fed at lunchtime – this means they want to go to school even when they are ill! And we were pleased to hear that concentration has improved because the children are sleeping well - a number who used to sleep on rough mats received mattresses from their sponsors at Christmas which was a big blessing. The highlight of the day had to be welcoming little Loy Aol to the group, she is the newest child to the programme. Loy was very happy to pose for a photo with her solar lamp – something she received when her sponsor discovered that her family was using a candle for light at night. We closed the day by giving each child a hug, something they have never received from their parents. Lesson 8: Witnessing poverty never gets any easier On Friday we went to a local school to see if there were any children who needed sponsorship. All caregivers need to be willing to join an Amigos farming group, receive training, and remain in the area. If we follow this model we can equip them to lift their family out of poverty within a few years – freeing us up to support more families. Here’s one precious boy and his mother who were identified as needing sponsorship. It doesn’t get any easier seeing the poverty people live in, but I am excited because I know this can change. Lesson 9: Small ideas can have a big impact We started today in high gear, although on empty stomachs as breakfast was delayed and we had a meeting to get to. We met with the head teacher of Ayira Primary School to find out how the sponsorship programme is working within his school. As advised, sponsored children are all receiving lunch as part of the programme's funding. As other parents saw the grades of the sponsored kids increasing, they realised lunch was a good idea too and now over 100 children in the school are sent in with something to eat! We were thrilled to discover that our little idea had such an impact. Lesson 10: East or west, home is best! I felt at home when I arrived at Masindi – a place where many of my family come from. As it’s always said, east or west, home is best. I went to visit an Amigos farming group in Kiyenje and explain that we have received a donation from a generous UK supporter which means we can construct a borehole in the area. The local councillor told me: ‘Many people have to walk 5 kilometres to find safe drinking water. We had given up hope we would ever get a borehole because we had received so many empty promises over the years.’ The village had seen the geological survey happen last week so they knew this wasn’t another empty promise. After the meeting I headed off for a haircut, as people say: ‘smartness is next to godliness’.Lesson 11: Glittering faces means things are going wellThe next day we visited Kigezi primary school for more letter writing. We were pleased to see the children and caregivers in their best clothes, they were on time and their faces glittered - this was a good sign. After lunch the letter writing began. These children are all part of the family transformation programme – we were so encouraged to hear that the caregivers have embraced the training we are providing in farming. Lesson 12: Sponsorship means everything to these little ones… Aisha was still buzzing from her sponsors visiting a couple of weeks ago. She told me it was the first white visitors had ever been in their home and the whole village is still talking about it. ‘It was like my sponsors Luke and Sacha sounded a big drum in my village,’ beamed Aisha! Lesson 13… and even more to the caregivers who realise the difference it will make The caregivers make every effort to meet up with us when we’re in town. This mother rode a bike to our session, carrying her 8 year old sponsored daughter, and her 8 month old baby.Within three years we will have trained her with the practical skills necessary to pay the school fees for both her children! And then we can go on to help more families in need. There was a lot of bike action today. This man (below) got a flat tyre on his bicycle, but he shared a ride to the session with another caregiver. In Amigos we promote unity and encourage people to fix their problems – we were pleased they found a way of turning up on time! Lesson 14: Clean water is life in a forgotten place We were delighted to be able to tell another community – Kiyenje village – that they would be receiving a borehole. This lady pictured, Mary, fell to her knees to thank us. ‘This is a miracle! We have had this water problem for centuries and we felt as if God never heard our prayers. First Amigos came to the village and started a farming group, and now they are drilling a borehole and children have been selected for sponsorship. It’s unbelievable!’ The next day took us to another forgotten place – Kyakalisa village. It was a time for great celebration! Which wasn’t surprising when you see the dirty water families are forced to drink... And finally it was time to head home – 2 weeks of travel, meeting with 393 children – mission accomplished. We enjoyed some roasted beef stew and pineapple on the way back from local traders. It’s been a good trip!