travel

'I doubted the wisdom of taking my 9yo daughter to Uganda. Right up until we landed.'

My bum is stuck to a green plastic garden chair and I’m crying.

I’m 12,500 kilometres from home, listening to 100 Ugandan children singing the Australian national anthem. Our problematic lyrics feel, in the mouths of kids at a bush school in a patch of cleared jungle, like a dream, like a wish. Not a wish for these proud east-Africans to be Australian, but a wish for something many of us have – endless possibilities.

Next, a group of children stand up to sing a self-penned “thank you” song to this school and my tears come faster.

“I want to become a doctor, I want to become a teacher… Education changes everything…”

I look over at my nine-year-old daughter, Matilda, who is watching with saucer-eyes but dry cheeks. She sees me sobbing and gives me an encouraging smile. A tiny role-reversal.

Why are these Ugandan village children singing Advance Australia Fair? Because they’re welcoming a group of Aussie parents and kids to a school built by an Australian not-for-profit organisation called School For Life. And without it, their lives would be very different.

The students of Mbazzi High School sing their 'thank you' song. Photo: Louis Lemessururier

We are at Mbazzi High School, surrounded by thick forest and banana trees. It’s only an hour’s drive east from Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One-and-a-half million people live in Kampala, and to inexperienced western eyes (like mine and Matilda's), it’s a startling mix of an imagined African city and something else, something more familiar.

At an enormous city roundabout with an indeterminate number of traffic lanes, you’ll see old motorbikes carrying a helmetless family of four. Men on mopeds balancing six-feet-long bunches of sugar-cane or a mountain of strapped-down pineapples. You’ll see smart young men in suits, walking with purpose, satchels strung across their bodies. A woman carrying a basket of green bananas on her head. Impeccably-dressed women in tailored dresses in bright reds, greens and turquoise, intricate braids and bright lipstick, holding the hands of tiny children in neat school smocks, picking their way through the chaos and dust. And there’s that old man without legs, dragging himself along the road. And then there are the wandering cows and goats and chickens. And there’s the occasional man in camouflage gear, carrying a giant gun.

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At one junction we crossed daily to reach the schools we came to visit, the telegraph poles were crowned with giant, foreboding marabou storks – possibly the ugliest creatures of creation, their faces covered in red sores, their huge beaks designed only to rip meat from the corpses of livestock. Matilda immediately labels them a bad omen. “If we see storks, Mummy, we’re not going to have a good day.”

We saw storks on the way to the Ugandan government school we visited on the first full day of our trip, before the singing, before the tears. St Francis primary is on the way to Mbazzi and Katuuso – School For Life’s first and original school – but a mighty distance apart in every other way.

The whole School for Life Travel 4 Good team at St Francis government Primary School.

At St Francis, we are shown around by John, the Deputy Principal, who shows us the staff room where well-worn signs on the walls declare that corporal punishment is never the answer, and to ‘Forget what hurt you, but never forget what it taught you’.

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There is plenty of diligence here at St Francis. Looking at the written work of the kids, their handwriting is neat, their English (still Uganda’s official language amongst more than 50 local dialects) is excellent, but there’s a lot that’s missing. Walls, for a start. Windows and doors. Primary 4 is sharing their classroom with an enormous mountain of sticks and twigs. The desks are broken, there aren’t enough exercise books. The teachers, unsure when their next pay cheque will arrive, come and go. The kids, too. Mondays are particularly tough for attendance. Market days even sparser.

The average Ugandan child spends just five years at school. Over half never finish Primary education. When it comes to girls, around half between the ages of 15-24 are unable to read or write. Four in five Ugandan girls do not make it to High School. Girls, if they are not educated, can be married off at a startling age, as young as 10.

Matilda and I in a biology class at Mbazzi High. Matilda's first. I flunked. Photo: Louis Lemessurier

It was this environment that Annabelle Chauncy, a 21-year-old woman from country New South Wales found confronting when she arrived in Uganda back in 2007. Annabelle was a volunteer English teacher in neighbouring Kenya, and found herself in Kampala not by design, but because she and her companion Dave Everett were driven out when the Kenyan election turned violent.

The young, idealistic Aussie was teaching in a literal mud hut, watching kids walk kilometres on an empty stomach to turn up each day. The school was crumbling, no improvements were on the horizon – and Annabelle said to herself, this is a problem I want to fix.

She wouldn’t be the first backpacker to decide to change the world, but Chauncy is a woman of action. Tiny, blonde and laser-focused, it took this clear-eyed, no-bullshit A-type two years to break ground on Katuuso Primary.

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Twelve years later, Annabelle’s not-for-profit School For Life has built three schools, and every one is staffed and run by local Ugandans. Their boss is not Chauncy, but Janepher Nansubuga, the Director Of Schools, and as impressive a boss lady as you’re going to meet anywhere, juggling, as she does, the complex needs of a challenging local community, kids with a myriad of issues and a team of more than 100 teachers.

Matilda and I with Hilda (left) and other pupils from Katuuso Primary School at their sports day. Our red team was the Lions, and we won! Photo: Louis Lemessurier.

Janapher is especially proud of the changes the school has made for girls in these villages. “I think coming in as women, and trying to empower females teachers from within the community it changed the perspective of what the community thinks about the girl child," she says. "Now they know they can be someone.”

The School For Life classrooms are bright and light with desks that work and doors that close, but they are also places of intense joy and discipline. While we are there, an impromptu lunchtime dance party stops instantly when one ring of the bell signals playtime is done. Teachers are respected, punctuality matters, routine is paramount.

The schools also run workshops and tertiary training programs for the local village’s adults. Fifteen women are employed in Katuuso's tailor-shop, for example, where they make all the school uniforms and also bags and purses and skirts and laptop cases and all the things out of colourful local prints, providing the women with a good living, a means to escape the domestic abuse that is prevalent in their surrounding villages.

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Sydneysiders Matilda and Amelie visit the home of Fortune, a nine-year-old girl from Mbazzi Primary. Photo: Louis Lemessururier.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that School For Life provides two sturdy meals a day for every child, something that a 21-year-old Annabelle had no idea was going to be one of the primary roles of the schools, back at blueprint stage.

“They were falling asleep at their desks so we had to implement a feeding program,” she says. “Most of them were malnourished, and they were so stunted that a lot of them were two or three years older than we thought they were when we enrolled them.”

Annabelle also had no idea that the ‘schooling’ would not just be for the kids. “We didn’t anticipate the hunger for learning. What we recognised was that the kids were coming to school, borrowing library books and then going home and teaching their parents how to read and write. And then the parents were coming to school and asking for the opportunity to learn so we implemented a basic literacy program to teach 60 of the local village adults how to read and write.”

School for Life's Director of Schools Janepher Nansuguba and Founder Annabelle Chauncy. Two of the most kick-arse women my daughter will likely ever meet.
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So the children are growing, parents who are generally relying on subsistence farming are learning new skills, houses are being built in the area to be close to the schools, more girls are staying in education for longer. The ripple effect goes on, and on.

Back in our barbecue chairs, the enormity of all this is settling on the shoulders of the 24 Australians who have come to see School For Life’s work up close, all having raised a parcel of money and declared themselves willing to spread the word. The parent-child immersion trip that Matilda and I are part of runs twice a year as Travel 4 Good, an organisation that specialises in trips with purpose. The idea is that you spend four days with the schools, and then a few more exploring Uganda, pumping some money into the local economy as you safari and chimp-watch and gorilla-trek.

The safari was incredible, but Matilda's unquestionable highlight was meeting the children in the schools. I was very aware of carrying myself exactly as I would want any visitor to behave if they were visiting my kids' school in Sydney: with respect and some distance. But for M and all of the children she met at Katuuso and Mbazzi, connection was instant. She and they were charging around holding hands, shooting netball hoops and playing on the climbing frame. Pulling faces for endless selfies, flossing in the playground, throwing balloons around. Behaving, you know, like kids.

Matilda and some kids from Katuuso selfie-ing with sunnies. It was all Shaluwa's (top left) idea.
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In the almost 12 months since I decided to take Matilda to a country most of us have only heard of in news headlines alongside the words “dictator”, “war”, “kidnapping” and “Ebola”, I questioned my choice many times.

“It’s going to be alright, right?” I asked everyone from my partner to Annabelle herself to (obviously) the DFAT travel advisory website. “I’m not the worst mother in the world, am I?” (DFAT declined to answer that one).

There were raised eyebrows and tepid reassurances, but my anxiety didn’t subside as our departure date drew nearer, and the epic nature of the journey to Uganda crystallised (three flights, seemingly hundreds of security checks, airports I’d barely heard of).

But once we were in beautiful Uganda, I didn’t question my decision for a second. These children might have been singing to thank us for the Australian dollars that fund their schools, but we got infinitely more from this trip than we gave. I got a glimpse – a tiny, tiny glimpse – into a culture about which I am entirely ignorant, and felt almost embarrassed about the assumptions I’d made.

You see, I thought Matilda and I would come to Africa, to Uganda, and feel grateful. I thought we would be patting ourselves on the back for the dumb luck of being born into cultures where education is a right and food is never scarce. Of course, it’s true that we are beyond lucky, we are privileged. But pity had no place in my feelings about Uganda, there was an enormous amount to learn and to admire from these kids and teachers whose passion for learning and life and family and community was boundless.

For Matilda, she learned that kids are the same wherever you go, and that school is a place of hope and possibility.

And for me, well, I learned that my daughter is more resilient than I knew. I learned that children don't see difference. I learned that thinking any problem is too big to tackle is a nonsense attitude. And I learned something profound about joy and hope that I still don't have the words to express.

I learned that really, my learnings have only just begun.

You can find out more about School For Life, the travel experience or sponsoring a child, here

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