Friday 5th October 2018: The adventure begins!

Our intrepid party of 12 set off from Grosvenor Church, Barnstaple, Devon, in the early hours of the morning to head for Bristol Airport. The first challenge was fitting the enormous amount of luggage on board the minibus. We had all utilised the maximum allowance of 2 x 23kg bags, as we were carrying donations of clothing, bedding, tools and anything else we thought might be useful for Amigos Projects. 

After a brief touchdown in Kigali, Rwanda, we arrived at Entebbe Airport and were collected by Big Josh who runs Kira Farm and Little Josh who teaches IT at the Farm. Big Josh is married to Mary, the Guest House Manager, and Little Josh is Mary’s little brother! Our first glimpse of Kira Farm was in the dark, but we were shown to our guest bungalow and fell into bed exhausted but excited too! (I'm pictured fourth from the left)

Saturday 6th October: An impressive array of vocational training

After a late breakfast, we were taken on a tour of the farm by two of last year’s students who are now working as interns and teaching farming to the current students. 

I’d heard a lot about Kira Farm already from school groups who’d visited, but I was unaware of just how impressive it would be. There were so many areas of vocational training apart from agriculture: carpentry, building, bicycle repair, hairdressing, tailoring, beekeeping, caring for the animals (rabbits and goats) and the students take part in as many areas as possible during their year here. It is already clear how much the trainees value their opportunity presented to them at Kira. 

Additionally, they rotate across the roles needed to ensure the smooth running of the farm, taking turns with cooking, cleaning and helping out with guests at the centre. I’d also heard about Mary’s cooking skills and I wasn’t disappointed; she somehow manages to juggle catering for large groups, looking after her own family and being a role model to the female trainees who help her with running the guest house.

Sunday 7th October: A maintenance check for the soul

Today was a new experience for me: a Sunday morning visit to “garage time” rather than traditional church - very different from any service I’d ever attended in the UK. Worship Harvest Church want their congregation to ‘be’ the church in the local community Monday to Saturday. The idea of a weekly maintenance check for the soul in such a vibrant, joyful community of mainly young people had real appeal.

For an hour there was music, singing, dancing, prayers & a sermon that even I could relate to.  I loved it and felt overwhelmed by the welcome we received from the congregation, with hugs and handshakes and invitations for refreshments afterwards.

This afternoon, after lunch, we were invited to meet the trainees who were going to perform for us.  Coming from all over Uganda, as they do, they had made an effort to teach each other about their respective cultures and share traditional songs and dances.

The spirit of integration was clear as trainees from different tribes proudly demonstrated their own culture.  We were all invited to join in & of course chaos ensued!! Watching one of our group, Peter, dance - carrying his spear and shield, is a memory I will always cherish. It was at this point that two of our party met the student they were currently sponsoring - a truly heart-warming moment for us all.

The mood changed later that evening when we listened to one of the trainees tell us the story of his life and the factors that had led up to his stay at Kira Farm. Jimmy is the nephew of Joseph Kony, the leader of the so called Lords Resistance Army and one of the most wanted rebel leaders in the world. It is hard for those of us from Europe to empathise with such extreme hardship and prejudice from a young age, and his acceptance of this and willingness to rise above it was humbling. It is becoming more and more clear what an impact a stay at Kira Farm can have on these young lives.

Monday 8th October: Totem pole painting

The trainees have embarked on their fortnight’s experience of ‘entrepreneurial training’, where, in groups of three, they are competing to make the most profit. Because of this many of them have been up since 4am, cooking before going out to sell their wares. 

Kira Farm was much quieter without them there, but we ‘supporters’ were determined to contribute something, even in their absence.  Mike was creating a bee and hive design for the totem poles marking the driveway into Kira, and I spent some of the day helping him with painting. 

Others helped out in the tailoring department with ideas for craft projects that might help to bring in extra cash, or made seed trays for planting. This afternoon Jenny and I helped to sort the donations that the group had couriered, some of which will stay at Kira. Other items were put aside for Amigos’ Child Sponsorship programme that will be given to Joseph to distribute amongst the families and children that he works with in the North of Uganda.

Tuesday 9th October: Thunderstorms and maize mills

Today was the start of our trip to the north to visit some of Amigos’ other projects. We left after breakfast for a 5 hour drive to Gulu, and after crossing the Nile, we arrived at our hotel by 2p

Titus is responsible for managing the farming projects up here and so acted as our guide, taking us to visit the Gulu Office and the warehouse for grain storage and the machinery for grinding it. He also manages the many fieldworkers who teach ‘Farming God’s Way’ to small farmers’ groups across the region.

It is hoped that such a project as the mill and grain store can generate income for Amigos, but Phil is aware that the charity needs to be careful to avoid straying from their main mission. Tonight, back at our hotel, we were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm, which will hopefully clear the air for the morning.

Wednesday 10th October: A riot of singing and dancing

This turned out to be a really good day! First, we drove to meet Miriam – a beautiful young woman that Hilary & Mike (part of the Supporters’ trip) sponsored last year at Kira. We were able to see first-hand the results of her new-found skills & confidence & it is clear that in her home village she is now regarded with great respect, being able to support her two siblings as well as her own daughter.  

We were greeted with great curiosity in this remote rural village & the children were enraptured by the photos we took. Miriam accompanied us as we continued to our next stop: the site of a borehole, funded by another couple in our party.

Here we were met by a welcoming committee, with speeches and singing, and experienced the sincere gratitude of the community for the ‘Gift of Life’. When we saw the muddy colour of the sample of water that villagers had previously walked to collect, we could understand just what an enormous difference the innovation of a nearby pump would bring. 

Amigos has involved the community at every stage of this project and set up a committee to manage maintenance & repairs. Everyone was expected to contribute a small monthly amount to go into a saving fund, the surplus of which could be used as a community bank. Amigos is all about increasing independence rather than reliance.

Finally that day, we drove to a village where seven of the local farming groups had come together to offer their hospitality. We were soon immersed in a riot of singing, dancing, drumming and plenty of speeches, surrounded by all age groups, who needed no English to let us know how welcome we were. My Zumba knowledge allowed me to give some of the dances a try!  We sampled the banquet which had been prepared for us and I can only say that the experience of using the drop toilet is indelibly printed on my memory!

Thursday 11th October: Elephants, giraffe and buffalo

Amigos is keen to encourage adult groups to visit Uganda, using Kira Farm as a base and combining the chance to safari with opportunities to see what life is really like for most Ugandans. 

Having had a few trips to parts of the world far from the traditional vacation spots, I find that I much prefer this insight into a different culture.  A fortnight on a beach no longer holds the same appeal! Inevitably I return feeling I have gained far more than I have ever contributed: typically, people from the poorest communities are the most welcoming and generous, and seeing the hurdles overcome on a daily basis serves to put my own ‘first world problems’ into perspective. 

Today saw the start of the touristy element of our stay in Uganda and we were all excited to be entering the Game Reserve after two hour drive. Almost immediately we were rewarded by sightings of elephants, giraffes and buffalo and this was even before we boarded the boat for our safari cruise. 

The journey along the Nile was wonderful, taking in a commentary on the wildlife we saw and travelling as far as the spectacular Murchison Falls. As the sun went down, we embarked on the return trip to the Pakuba Lodge for the most luxurious lodging of our trip. We cooled off in the swimming pool, with its impressive view of the sun setting on the horizon and went to bed feeling incredibly lucky to be here, surrounded by such natural beauty.

Friday 12th October: Kevin is a girl

Today was very emotional for many reasons. Leaving Pakuba Lodge at 6.15am after an early breakfast, we went on a safari drive with our official guide, Henry. His instincts and eyesight proved invaluable as he managed to find us a lion, which we saw at relatively close range, before our trip to the ferry crossing. 

Phil had timings worked out with precision, as he managed to squeeze in a bonus lightning excursion to the top of Murchison Falls. Seeing a double rainbow amidst the cascading spray sealed the sensation that this was truly a once in a lifetime experience. We all enjoyed Phil’s impromptu soaking from being too close to the most powerful waterfall in the world, but it was so hot that his clothes soon dried out.

At the gate of the park we collected Joseph, who looks after the Child Sponsorship Programme. Joseph had lined up a hectic itinerary for the rest of the day! Miraculously this all fell into place and we 1) visited an ex-Kira Farm student (Ester) who is now running her own salon and motorbike hire business 2) visited a secondary school where one of our group was sponsoring a 14 year old girl (Kevin, which is actually only a female name in Uganda) 3) visited a guest house managed by Beatrice, another ex-Kira student and talked to her about how her life had changed 4) visited a primary school to meet a girl sponsored by a Barnstaple Church Group. 

I was particularly shocked by the level of poverty here and was quickly surrounded by children asking how they could go about being sponsored, or whether I would be able to sponsor their siblings who were unable to attend school. It was shocking to witness children in such extreme need and made me all the more determined to spread the word about the work Amigos is doing. Our fifth visit of the afternoon was to William, another former Kira trainee, who took great pride in showing us around his smallholding and tailoring workshop.

We returned to our guest house feeling suitably humbled and a bit daunted.  The emotion wasn’t over yet, as two more sponsored children had been brought by volunteers to visit their sponsors from our group.  I could imagine how overwhelming this experience must have been for the children, but also emotionally challenging for their sponsors.

Saturday 13th October: Loco loco!

This morning began with a visit to the town to buy provisions for one of the sponsored children, who will be moving across to boarding at her school. Here we met a lady called Avice, whose family had received help from Amigos. She now runs a successful tailoring business and wanted to testify how the support she’d had enabled this change.

We then participated in another well-opening ceremony, complete with the usual singing, dancing, speeches, but this time with some additional blindfolded games led by Joseph. This demonstrated the power of Loco Loco (being open to change) and was greeted enthusiastically by everyone there.

We had a long drive back to Kampala through the afternoon, but as we neared Kira Farm, it really felt as if we were returning home. Mary’s chilli was the perfect way to end the day.

Sunday 14th October: Group therapy

Today marked our return to Garage Church for our weekly soul service and, as before, despite not being a regular church-goer, I found it interesting and inspiring. This led on to some thought-provoking conversations about faith with other members of our group. We have all bonded extremely well and there is a real sense of togetherness engendered partly, I think, from participating in such an emotional trip.

After lunch we heard a story from another one of the trainees. Many of the students at Kira have been through deeply traumatic experiences and although they receive no formal counselling, the regime of song, prayer, gardening and working together as a community is obviously a powerful healer.

Trainees are encouraged to talk about their experiences with others as part of this therapy, and being brave enough to address a group of visitors whilst doing so, is, I guess, an extreme form of this.

As with last week I think all of us supporters are incredibly impressed with Joshua (or Uncle Josh as he’s known to trainees). He has the difficult responsibility of deciding which youngsters are offered the lifeline of a year at Kira (currently over 300 apply for the 40 places) and of overseeing the welfare of those who attend. He is incredibly committed and it is clear that the trainees hold him in high regard. The story we heard of Shakira’s early life moved several of us to tears and was a real testament to her courage and resilience.

The rest of the day was spent completing the totem poles and catching up with my journal, before we headed out to watch a cultural show in Kampala. This was a jaw-dropping mixture of singing, dancing & drumming. The highlight for me was the finale, in which drummers carried enormous, heavy drums on their heads, high-kicking to keep the beat of their march. Inevitably, after all of our dance practice of the last few days, we joined the performers on stage for the encore, a performance I will never forget.

Monday 15th October: Goat BBQ

This morning we spent some time rehearsing the parable of The Sower, which our group is set to present to the trainees at this afternoon’s Devotions. Our eclectic group luckily includes those with skills in carpentry, engineering, photography, tailoring, gardening and (fortuitously) a pastor!

Shirley, previously a teacher and now a curate at Trinity Church in Barnstaple, had recruited us, complete with dodgy acting skills (or should I say ‘over-acting skills’) to bring to life the idea of reaping what you sow and tending to your faith as carefully as if it is part of your own garden. 

Seeing some of the men clucking around imitating wildfowl was pretty hilarious, and something which we knew would be well-received by our audience. The ladies in our group also collected the African outfits which had been made for us by Lydia, the textiles teacher. She had demonstrated the fact that she can calculate how to cut a pattern made to measure, simply by recording your measurements. I also purchased a beautiful hand-made tray from the Woodwork teacher (Justin).

After lunch we headed to Devotions and performed our parable, much to the delight of the trainees. I was introduced to Kennedy, the trainee sponsored by Braunton Rotary Club, and was able to spend some time getting to know him better at dinner.

For our final evening, the trainees had killed a goat, resulting in an excellent BBQ, with trainees sitting amongst the visitors and the conversation flowing naturally. I think we are all feeling immensely privileged to have been here and to see for ourselves the difference that Kira Farm is making to the lives and hopes of these young people.

Tuesday 16th October: A taste of luxury

We were all sad to leave this morning after breakfast. As we drove out, the totem poles were being erected as a permanent reminder of our visit. Kira Farm seems to have become like home very quickly and it felt difficult to leave Mary, Josh and Joseph, all of whom are doing wonderful work for the charity.

We had an indulgent touristy day, shopping for souvenirs and visiting Speke’s Resort for a taste of luxury: swimming in the 100m pool, lazing on the sunbeds and drinking cold beer. This felt particularly decadent after everything we had seen in the north of the country.

At the airport we said goodbye to Phil, as he is staying whilst the two groups from Pilton Academy visit in a few days’ time.  I now understand why the school groups gain so much from their trips here and why there are so many benefits for both cultures in them doing so. 

This trip has confirmed my initial good impressions of Amigos and has made me feel all the more determined to do everything that I can to support them in future.