From Graduation to Africa!
The charity East African Playgrounds has been in existence for 9 years, operating in Uganda. Its aim is to provide a growing number of primary schools a playground space where children have the right to safe and creative play. EAP works exclusively with student volunteers across UK universities – mine being one. So, when word got around about the 2018 summer projects in Uganda, my friendship group began to toy with the idea. And after realising that most of us had never visited Africa before, done anything like this previously, or even left the Western World for an extended period of time, it was absolutely the best way to finish our university years.
And that was it, myself and five of my university mates were signed up to go to Uganda to experience something entirely new. However, due to the nature of final year, the responsibilities of fundraising, vaccinations and supply-buying seemed to fade into the other things on a finalist’s to-do list of exams, coursework and dissertations – until the day before our flight when it finally sunk in what we were about to do.
So, with degrees under our belts (and overall classifications TBC), we departed Heathrow hideously hungover and began our 35-hour journey to Busesa Mixed Day and Boarding Primary School, just outside of Jinja. (Tip: do not ever think a journey this long is best done hungover).
Excited, tired and a little apprehensive, we pulled up to the gates of the school and greeted the rest of our group. Admittedly, the tour of the sleeping conditions (a sponge mattress on the floor under a mosquito net), the long drop toilets (quite literally a hole in the ground), and the shower (a shack and a bucket) elicited some degree of concern among us all.
BUT fast forward just 12 hours, we had settled in, and soon learned how easy you adapt to whatever your surroundings are – we had fully embraced Ugandan living. Weekly routines included a 6:30am wake up, breakfast, playground building, lunch, creative play session with the children, dinner and then free evening time. Admittedly, within the first week of playground digging, we did question whether we had torn every muscle in our bodies through sheer lack of fitness, however our three builders, Salim, Stevo and Ronald, kept banter levels high and we powered through to cementing, sanding and eventually painting. Being able to see the once empty space turn into something that would bring so much joy to over two thousand children was something incredible.
Each afternoon took on a different class, making paper lanterns or banana vine ropes, and then playing a group game – some of which did result in a number of volunteer injuries. Turns out 8-year olds are much quicker than you. These afternoons gave us an opportunity to get to know the children and teachers, which made the whole experience.
Weekends were allocated to activities, hostels and a lot of beer, giving us time to see Uganda, go on Safari and have some down-time with our project. See below for the overall vibe – pretty sweet.
Despite having incredible things to do at the weekends, our return to Busesa on Sunday nights very quickly started to generate that feeling of having come home – being greeted by the builders and our cook, Monica, made us realise how quickly Busesa had become a very special place to us.
Over the month, there were a number of illnesses – from sprained ankles to upset stomachs, to mango flies, our project saw it all. However, everyone soldiered on and eventually no matter what, always saw the funny side.
Over the project, we got to know the ways of the community, how to get from place to place, and local foods and drinks, as well as learn a lot about Ugandan culture from the teachers and EAP representatives, particularly surrounding education provision. All access to education is charged for in Uganda, meaning only the families who can afford to pay for tuition fees can send their children to school, regardless of their age. Similarly, due to unpredictable incomes, many families have to withdraw their children from education permanently should they not be able to afford the fees, or return their child to school at a later stage when they can – often meaning much older children attend younger classes. Many schools are overcrowded, Busesa specifically had almost two thousand children and only around 30 teachers. This exemplified a solid reason for why we were doing what we were doing – providing children with something that offers their educational years an element of creativity, self-expression and self-development through play.
Even then, the full extent of what was provided to Busesa through the playground wasn’t fully understood by our project team until Opening Day – we were greeted with dancing girls and taken to the front to cut the ribbon, where the Headmaster thanked us in front of the school population for the facilities. We then watched numerous performances from a countless classes who had put together a musical, dramatic or choir piece in gratitude – which was emotional to say the least! We also received thanks from every teacher and were each presented with a polo shirt, printed with our names and the Busesa school emblem and motto. At this point I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. Our goodbyes to the builders and Monica were equally as difficult, and I personally realised how much we had valued them over the last month.
And in the space of what felt like 5 minutes, we were on the road again about to complete the 35 hour journey back to Heathrow.
So, other than sharing something I have done this summer, there was another purpose to this post. If you are currently in university and you are considering doing something like this, all I can say is do it. Don’t come up with a number of excuses for why you can’t – there is nothing else quite like one of these opportunities once you leave university! And in all honesty, as amazing as this experience was, it was also one of the hardest things I have done for a lot of reasons. But go and amaze yourself at what you can do. Getting involved in a project like this not only offers you an experience of seeing a new part of the world, it also supports the affiliations your university holds with charities, is something you can include on your CV, but shows you an entirely different perspective on life – avoiding the cheesy clichés, I genuinely learned a lot when out in Uganda, about culture, people and values, and opportunities like this opens your eyes to life outside of your normal territory. Basically – if you think this may float your boat, go and see what your university offers. Or please feel free to drop me a message on Facebook, I’d be happy to chat and answer any questions you might have!
If you would like to check out East African Playgrounds, please see their website here.