A few months ago when I decided to travel to Uganda to undertake some volunteer work I had no idea what exactly I was going to face or what tasks and challenges I would encounter. Ten years ago I did what I thought was a similar project in Moshi, Tanzania where I spent just over a month stationed in a volunteer house and helping to teach in a school. The experience is one I have treasured to this day and hold close to my heart; I truly believe being in such an environment has added to enriching some of the better qualities that I have as a person.
Coming back to the present day I was expecting a similar experience, however little did I know that what I was going to encounter and be a part of would be life-changing in ways I could never imagine. I have a love affair with Africa so knew that it would be my destination but had to make the decision of where exactly to go. I have travelled to quite a few countries in Africa and settled on Uganda when I read about the severity of the mass HIV problem in the nation.
I signed up to a travel volunteering site www.givingway.com and filled in my requirements and chosen destination of Uganda. Before I had even applied for any projects myself I received emails from various charities in Uganda inviting me to join them. I decided on a NGO called Branches of Life International. The charity is run by Charles Kalunda and aims to help and rehabilitate street kids. Charles used to be a street kid living in the slums himself and that helped in making my final decision.
I originally booked a ticket for two months but it became apparent that my commitments in England and being out of work for that long was not possible so I changed it to five and a half weeks.
On arrival in Entebbe where the airport is based, and during the journey from there to Kampala I felt at ease with the familiar African smells, hustle and bustle and dry humidity that I have become accustomed and attached to in other countries on the continent. However on the journey through Kampala I was really surprised by some of the lavish and extravagant buildings and material finery and luxury in the surroundings.
I was almost wondering if I had made the wrong decision and whether my help could have been better placed elsewhere. That was until my first full day in the country when we visited the slums…
I have to say I have never seen anything like it anywhere in Africa or elsewhere. Being blessed to having been very well-travelled and not always to luxurious holiday destinations, I was taken aback in a way that I just did not see coming.
I had not done much research before I arrived due to life stresses and commitments but I had presumed street kids were orphans. This is not the case at all – My first surprise was that the vast majority of these children have families however a breakdown in the system or family unit due to the economic and social setup of the country has led them to end up living on the streets.
The Kisenyi slums where we are working are on the outskirts of the capital in an area that has not been built on yet purely because of location and that it is in a valley. Therefore roughly 400 street kids have gathered here and formed a sort of community.
It is like walking into a bizarre nightmare full of shining souls. There are kids as small as babies up to teenagers living in the open dirt under the relentlessly beating sun. Many have found their ‘spot’ and made makeshift shelters out of timber and rubbish to house themselves.
You walk through ‘the ghetto’ and witness kids dragging themselves around with odd shoes if they are lucky – many are barefoot, with clothes that are ill-fitting, ripped and heavily soiled. Open wounds are common with cuts, lacerations and dried bloody sores covering some of their bodies; the invitation of infection just waiting to happen.
When you hug a child or put your hands on their shoulders you can feel their bones jutting out of their frail physiques… and then there are the drugs.
There are older groups who smoke crack cocaine in huts but the younger ones, especially in the area we frequent thankfully cannot afford such an expensive opiate. What they can afford however is marijuana and bottles filled with aeroplane fuel – rags soaked in kerosene. The latter is the most common choice especially amongst the boys circa 8 to 15 years old.
Whenever we go into the ghetto and see the young boys clutching these it sends a shiver down my spine. They inhale the fumes through their mouth, clutching the bottles to their chest as if their life depends on it. Charles does his best to bribe the kids with food or whatever we can offer that day in exchange for the bottles and this often works, showing just how hungry these kids are and how they are forced to the last resort of using them.
I have asked many of them why they inhale this poison that turns them into bleary eyed zombies and destroys their lungs. Charles himself has a personal hate towards them as he witnessed a close friend’s chest literally explode in front of his eyes when he was a street kid himself because of abusing the same opiate.
The kids always give me the same answers when I ask them that question… Quite simply when they are that high they don’t feel and they are taken to another level of reality where the hunger pains, extreme heat in the day and cold at night, and the fear that comes through the danger of nighttime in the slums disappears.
Within the slums there are groups that can easily turn on each other and raid, rob and destroy others space and possessions, as well as fighting to cause extreme injury or even worse, as children that are desperate and left to fend for themselves hanging on to the edge of humanity would inevitably do.
Why are they there?
As I mentioned above most of these children have parents but have fled home due to situations such as a new step dad or step mum arriving and taking an immense dislike to or beating them. Some have seen siblings killed in front of their eyes and fearing for their future they pack themselves up and head to the slums of Kisenyi; others are born into families where there are just too many siblings so they are forgotten about or maltreated and they decide to fend for themselves.
Each kid has their own story with some having walked for a week to reach the slums or hiding in the bottom of a bus and eating scraps to arrive at the capital. I have been here for just under three weeks and I still can’t digest what I am seeing.
There is no doubt that there is a huge population problem in Uganda; kids having kids and even the adult population seemingly not understanding the consequences and breeding left, right and centre and not being able to support their decisions. Kids are being born HIV Positive due to the reckless unprotected sexual actions of their parents.
Whilst I have been here I have visited a newborn baby in the slums itself. This child was born to two seventeen year olds who lived in the slum, and so the cycle continues. Imagine a newborn baby being born into a slum with parents who cannot even fend for themselves. This particular child has been born to a boy who is heavily involved in crime to survive – this is something that I am sure will accelerate now he has to look after his girlfriend and child. When I saw the father I was taken aback – he is a child. He looks and speaks like a child and now he has one himself.
Angels in the slums
There is so much to describe about their situation but I can do that in future posts as there is too much detail to tackle. However what I must convey is how the community has stolen my heart, so much so that I can’t imagine living without having them as part of my life.
These children are BEAUTIFUL. They are funny, clever, caring and witty and have the most radiant souls and minds. When you ask them what they want for their future their first answer is usually that they want to go back to school or for the older ones to be trained into a profession.
Many of them try to occupy their time in the day by playing drums and singing songs that they have made up, as well as playing with whatever they can find or that has been donated such as balls.
Others are very skilled in acrobatics and can contort their bodies into mind-bending shapes, as well as being able to juggle batons and flip, twist and tumble, as well as using each other to balance and create statues.
As well as this, others have been trained by elders in the slums to create exquisite and stunning woodwork with tools that have been donated so that they can try to sell them to visitors and make some money.
I adore going into the slums. Seeing the faces light up calling ‘Aunty!’ and running towards me asking how I am, having to break up a harmless quarrel over who is going to hold my hand or escort me to show me something, and joining in with singing and dancing with them.
These children are so beautiful – one of the most heartbreaking things for me is seeing and engaging with a child one day and being able to buy enough simple food to feed about 50 of them for the same amount that it would cost me to feed just myself in a restaurant at home, and the next day seeing that child bleary eyed from drugs or crying or struggling and not being able to pick them up and take them home.
What I am witnessing in the slums of Kampala is a generation of kids that have been let down by their government and their country. I had a thirteen year old ask me what happens to kids like them in my country. I had to be honest and tell him that there aren’t kids like him in my country as we have a system for the youth – homelessness is a huge problem in England and it breaks my heart but it is only adults that suffer this fate. Innocent children are looked after by the government, as they should be as vulnerable citizens.
I am working with Branches of Life International on various projects to help these kids at the moment but the main goal we are working towards is fundraising for a roof to complete the centre to house and rehabilitate these children so they have a chance to rejoin society and to even deliver the resources to create or repair the connection between them and their families.
If you can, please donate and help us in the journey to finish the centre by donating here: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/branches-of-life-international
Follow our journey on Branches of Life International Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/kalundacharles
Sign up to be a part of the team and volunteer in Uganda with BOLI here: http://www.givingway.com/organization/branches-of-life-international
As I said above, there is a lot to convey in greater detail and in the short time I have been here I have experienced some life-changing highs and lows, which I will also be sharing. I have two weeks left here and I intend to continue and try and do all I can to alleviate the pressure of this harrowing situation for as many of these children as I can, as well as long after I return to the UK.
On behalf of myself, the street kids of Kisenyi and Branches of Life International thank you for reading.