"Not all volunteer work practiced overseas is beneficial to the communities the volunteers aim to serve," writer Jasmine Garnsworthy recently told MyDomaine. "The money can often be better spent on practical development programs rather than international visitors, particularly when the foreign volunteers don’t bring practical skills, such as medical training, a firm grasp of the local language, or experience as a teacher. However, I do think it's important that we witness the challenges facing these communities, and raise up those working on solutions." Garnsworthy recently traveled to southern Uganda with the Cotton On Foundation, with the goal to raise awareness and funds for the communities and families she met. This is her heartfelt account of the global effort from local experts in Uganda in partnership with their Australian and American colleagues.
Paul is 11 years old and enthusiastic about learning the way only 11-year-olds seem to be. Right now it’s raining, and he’s crouched up next to his other classmates to try and avoid the muddy ground and leaking roof. The classroom is a shack, really. Paul doesn’t seem to mind much though; he’s already walked several miles to get here and he wants to learn. This kid started his day by hiking for water, before getting his brother and sister ready for school, dividing a meager breakfast among the three of them, and setting off on foot again. Paul never met his father, and his mother died after contracting HIV, so he is now the primary carer for his siblings. This dilapidated school is his answer to a good job and a better life, and he’s determined to give it his full attention.
Tim Diamond, managing director of the Cotton On Foundation, told me this story ahead of my first school visit in Uganda, where the foundation raises money to radically improve education. He met Paul about 10 years ago when Australian retail giant Cotton On was just beginning to consider the possibility of launching its (now hugely impactful) foundation. “You’ll meet lots of kids like Paul this week,” Tim told me. It wasn’t meant as a warning, but I instinctively steeled myself when our Land Rover pulled into the first school. The cloud of red dust that had been following our convoy settled, revealing hundreds of primary school children singing a tune of welcome—clapping, dancing, and stomping their bare feet.
I flew to southern Uganda with Cotton On Foundation, an organization working to bring quality education to the region by building classrooms, introducing health initiatives, and upskilling teachers to learn more about the challenges facing kids—in particular, girls—here. I boarded a plane in New York, bound for the town of Entebbe, to understand why only 52% of kids in this landlocked country ever finish primary school and why does that number drops to 42% when we only look at girls.
Of course, widespread HIV, extreme poverty, and cultural factors—such as the common practice of girls getting married as young as 15—all play a clear role. But through hours of conversations with the school communities, including teachers, students, parents, midwives, and farmers, my eyes were opened so much wider than what a set of statistics could ever achieve. I was confronted by the most extreme poverty I’ve ever witnessed but left Uganda feeling calmed by the positivity and energy behind the community working toward a solution through education.
One of the most memorable schools I visit during my time in Uganda, Bunjako, needs help. It’s day one of my time in Uganda, and the classroom buildings I visit are literally falling apart; there are large craters in the dirt floors, and the simple tin roofs leak constantly. Desks are scarce, as are books, pencils, and other basic materials. Even so, half a dozen children grab my hands when I arrive and proudly show me around their school grounds.
A group of giggling kindergarteners is learning the alphabet, a couple of broken pencils between them and the dirt floor as their desk. “They cannot learn to write the letters properly on the uneven ground,” their teacher points out matter of factly. New education programs, a school meal program, and classroom resources are coming soon but perhaps not fast enough for this class.
I also visit the community in Namabaale. Once Cotton On Foundation has completed its work here, the Namabaale school will offer places for 2500 children to receive a quality education. Perhaps the biggest win for this community is the introduction of a 260,000-liter water tank. It might not sound like much, but, as one teacher puts it, “The tank keeps the children safe.” She goes on to explain to me that these students not only now have access to clean drinking water, but can also regularly wash their hands to halt the spread of disease, and don’t have to walk miles to get potentially unsafe water before the school day even begins.
Once the welcome singing and dancing calm down at the Nambaale school, I duck away to check out the new health care center. It shocks me to learn that before the school medical center was built, the nearest health center was 10 miles away from the Namabaale community—too far for many of these new moms with babies or pregnant women to walk. Many women in Uganda have five children or more, and without nearby healthcare resources, go through pregnancy and childbirth without professional medical support. Maternal healthcare should be a fundamental right, I think, with nowhere to direct my frustration.
A couple days into the trip, I’m exhausted and feel as though I’ve been in the country for three weeks, but one afternoon brings one of the most telling moments of my visit to Uganda. I spend time with some of the women behind Nutrition Mission, a program led by the foundation that teaches parents and the wider community how to use the resources available to them to grow or buy healthy food and incorporate more green vegetables into a largely carbohydrate-based diet.
We’re laughing—quite a lot, considering we don’t speak the same language—when a woman is called over to speak with me in English. “I used to feed the green vegetables to the pigs,” she tells me. “Now, I know to feed them to my family.” It seems like a small thing, but she’s passing this learning on to her children and neighbors, and the message of healthy eating for disease-prevention is going viral across her community.
Most children in this region walk five miles to school and then five miles home, so on Thursday I walk the typical journey a student takes to get to the classroom, through the village of Mannya, chatting the local community along the way.
Here we also visit Elizabeth and her three children at home. Elizabeth is a widow and subsistence farmer, like many of her neighbors. She feeds her young family on the food she grows on her small plot of land and walks miles to collect water each day. She points to her eldest son, a boy of about 12, shyly trying to avoid the visitors, and tells me he recently returned to school in P1 (first grade) after having his school fees sponsored.
Betty Nalubuulwa, the Foundation’s sponsorship coordinator, pulls me aside at this point to offer some context. “I work with the most vulnerable children in the community, like this family. Often, their parents can’t afford to pay for their school, so they drop out. We are able to enter some in a sponsorship program to pay for school fees, so older children sometimes are in P1.”
She explains that while Elizabeth’s family is doing it tough—she shares a small, dirt-floored shack with her three children—other kids fare worse. “There are young teenagers nearby who are the head of their families with no parents at home," Nalubuulwa says. "We bring them into boarding houses to support them.”
The parents of these school children often support themselves through small farms, with some women working in the home each evening to weave baskets and mats for tourists. Craft-based work is the second largest employer of women globally and is often a source of livelihood to those who can’t work outside the home, or gives women the chance to supplement their wages.
The hand-worker economy is a significant source of income for women across this community, and today I meet local artisan women, nabbing a suitcase-load of baskets, bags, and rugs while I’m at it. Most of these women have other jobs or farm during the day, they tell me, but weave in the evening for extra income to pay for school fees, medical bills, and food. A fruit bowl–size basket requires about two evenings to weave, the women share, and sells for the equivalent of about $7.
This snapshot of my experience is just that—a snapshot—and can’t represent the full scope of lived experiences the community shared with me over my week in southern Uganda. Perhaps the best way to conclude is to tell you what happened to Paul.
The foundation has raised millions of dollars (more than $78 million to date, actually) through the sale of water bottles, wrist accessories, and tote bags internationally, which funded the rebuild of Paul’s school in Mannya, offering students new classrooms, well-trained teachers, clean drinking water, a medical center, and two meals per day each.
Paul is now a trained accountant, both of his siblings are at university, and he has returned to Mannya to continue to improve his community. Through education, the cycle of poverty in his family has been broken.
Next up: A mom opens up about raising her son with down syndrome.