This time last week

24 Sep

This time last week I was in Uganda thanks to Retrak and #connectingHRafrica.

 

I had been looking forward to this moment for the last two years and I had massive FOMO in 2016 and 2017. When I was on the plane there I felt incredibly grateful for all the donations and support I had received over the past few months. My People Director and manager had actively encouraged me to apply and fundraising had not been as hard as I thought it was going to be. Kudos to my very generous friends, family and colleagues. I did it, I was on the plane, I knew what to expect as many people I knew had been on the trip in the previous years, but nothing had quite prepared me for how intense the experience was going to be.
We arrived on Saturday to Jevine Hotel and through dinner I got to find out more about the team that was with me. 10 HR professionals from across the UK, all excited to be making a difference. We were all together on the Sunday visiting Bulamu centre. This is one of Retrak’s centres for girls. Staff and girls gave us a warm welcome, although within the first hour I was brought to tears. First thing we did was an exercise amongst our volunteers: we were split into 3 groups. One group had to tie a balloon on them, one group were told to stay close to the person with the balloon and one group was told to try and pop the balloon. I had happily tied a red balloon to my neck and when group 3 started attacking me, I was left in disbelief that anyone would want to pop my balloon. I just stood there and allowed it to happen. Katrina also had a balloon and within seconds had ran away from the situation predicting that it was going to be bad news and that she had to protect herself and her balloon. It left us thinking that we both had a very different upbringing that left me trusting all people and possibly allowed me to become a bit naive. Katrina, on the other hand was always on the look out for danger and protection in unknown situations. This exercise made us realise what vulnerable children go through, how they are left confused and upset and how people near them are either not protecting them or not doing anything to stop the abusers. It was a simple, but very powerful first exercise. We then started meeting the girls, who one by one introduced themselves to us and shared their dreams and favourite subjects with us. I had to keep reminding myself that all of those girls, from the age of 6 had been subjected to sexual abuse. it was hard to comprehend as they looked and are children. When a 15 year old stood up and wasn’t able to say a word to us, that reminded me of what kind of traumas they are working with. She just stood there with tears in her eyes, looking absolutely petrified. Meeting the psychologists there and finding out about the group therapy and single sessions they do, gives you hope that some of them will move on from what they have suffered and will be able to lead a better life and achieve their dreams.
Next we played with them and whilst at first I was a bit scared of how I would be around a large number of children, spending only few minutes with them reminded me of how much fun it was to be a child and play. And I was pretty good at doing that. On my own or with other children. Some of these girls don’t know how to throw a ball and tell me that they simply don’t know how to play. To see their transformations in only a few hours and how much they were enjoying themselves and running around with kites, was one of the most rewarding things that have happened in my life. They were finally kids again.

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They were having fun and grateful to be able to play in a safe environment with adults. The girls were also very keen to dance with me, so I suitably embarrassed myself, creating lots of hilarity amongst them. It was just a brilliant day that left me ecstatic about the impact we made in only a few hours, but deeply angry and upset at adults. How could anyone do that to children? How is this possible? In Kampala, in Uganda, in Milan, in Italy, in Manchester, in England, anywhere in the world… How does child abuse happen? Why? What type of monster would do that?

Monday and the slum walk helped me understand. You hear about slums. You know it’s going to be bad, you know a lot of people are crammed in small spaces and you know it’s going to not be hygienic, however, nothing can prepare you to experience it first hand. It was dirty, it was grim, it felt dangerous and unsafe, but also at the same time it felt bizarrely homely. There was so many kids and toddlers around and you couldn’t have known how far away from their hut or families they were. There were babies looked after by 5 year olds, there was poverty like I have never quite seen before. Small houses with 15 people in them, kids looking for scrap, women cooking, unbearable smells, brothels with children in them, children and young people sniffing jet/aviation fuel, adults working in terrible conditions. Despite the shock of seeing what I saw and being escorted by two armed policemen, I couldn’t stop smiling and interacting with the very amused kids of the slum that followed us round. It was clear that they didn’t see a ‘muzungu’ (white person) everyday. They chanted ‘muzungu’ and quickly the word spread and we had many children and people around us. They know no different, that is their reality and they are still smiling. No point in getting upset or feeling sorry and as we all know, smiles are infectious. Once we left the slums I understood why children can be abused and are abused, when adults and families are living in those conditions. This is what I imagined Manchester to be like after reading ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ by Engels. When he described the dirt and misery in Ancoats during the Industrial Revolution and how children, if they didn’t die were used in factories at a very young age. We are talking about survival, poverty and no other option but to be trying to survive yourself. So much so that sometimes kids are forced, but also have no choice but to volunteer in activities such as prostitution to help their families or single mums. We met Sonia in the afternoon, in a football pitch. She was an incredible girl, about to turn 18 and thanks to apprenticeship programmes offered by Retrak she was able to start hair dressing, get the tools to do so and stop prostituting to help her mum out. She now has a stable job, speaks amazing English and captains and coaches a girls’ football team. She was a great leader that luckily was able to change her situation and work with the charity to now support other kids and talk to them about the benefits of apprenticeships.

Sonia

 

Monday last week was a whirlwind of emotions. From the upset of Sunday to the realisation of how much work there is to do for the charity, how the reality of the situation actually is and the amazing work of the apprenticeship programmes that really help families make a sustainable change. it was truly inspiring and eye opening and I have felt very blessed to be able to witness the situation with my own eyes and come to my own conclusions. It was definitely a powerful start to the trip.

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