Our diocese has a link with the diocese of Mityana in Uganda. Over many years the local church has built strong connections with the area – many of our villagers have visited helping with various projects – building wells and new school buildings. We have also welcomed visitors from Uganda to the village. It has been a very fruitful exercise – we have learned from each other. Our local primary school is connected with a primary school there and some of teachers have visited and welcomed colleagues back.
Also, many of or teenagers have been lucky enough to visit as well. It is organised through the church, but most of the teenagers are not regular church goers. The trip helps them to build greater bonds with their peers in the village and learn a great deal about another country and how they live. It helps them realise how much we have in the west, and how different their lives might be in a different country.
So, just over 4 years ago, in February 2016, it came to the time when Mac’s group had the opportunity to go, and Mac was very keen to do it. The agreement was that parents would pay a third of the cost, the individual would raise a third for themselves (e.g. personal fundraising, maybe asking for money for Christmas instead of presents) and a third would be raised together by the group. This meant we spent a year together as a group raising money to go towards the trip.
Mac raised money from relatives and made lots of cakes and biscuits to sell – with generous relatives, he didn’t find it too hard to raise the money for his third. There were plenty of group activities that helped to raise the rest of the money, and Mac was always happy to throw himself in.
One of the most lucrative money raisers was packing bags at the local Waitrose. Waitrose would allocate three days throughout the year when the group could go along and offer to pack bags – the customers would then be asked for a small donation. The group were great – they had special Mityana T-shirts and hoodies, so they looked really smart. And they always worked hard and were really polite – it was always a fantastic money spinner.
Another successful money raiser was cleaning out wheelie bins. one week, most of the group had a Monday off from school for staff training. This was bin day, so all of the wheelie bins had been emptied and were already out on the road. The kids would go round and ask if they could clean out the bins for a small donation. Mac got very involved with our pressure washer (he had done ours a few times before). They also got very wet, but the village ended up with beautiful clean and sweet-smelling bins.
Some of the parents also got together to lay on a curry night with the kids as waiters and waitresses. Swee and I offered to cook her dad’s famous potato and lentil curry to add to the chicken curries and vegetable curries that were already planned. It was a beautiful warm evening, and the food went down really well. As ever the kids worked very hard and lots of money was raised.
So, everyone had managed to raise the money necessary for their trip and the date was fat approaching. As well as taking some money for projects over, the group would also take gifts to give away – nice wash kits, colouring and crayons for the younger children they would meet – they also prepared some stories and lessons that they would teach in some of the schools. There was a great deal to take, so packing was a grand logistical exercise, with many of the cases taken up with small gifts and necessities to give away.
Finally the day in February came. From experience in the past, the group would leave together from the village, with us saying goodbye to our children there – rather than all of the parents going along to the airport (and probably making embarrassing nuisances of ourselves as we waved them off for two weeks!). They were not allowed to take their phones – to be honest they weren’t of much use in any case as lots of the places they would visit had little, if any good mobile signals. For many of them, the deprivation of their screens was definitely going to be the hardest thing. They all got into the various cars, we waved them off, and then they were gone.
It’s amazing how empty a house can feel. It’s silly in so many ways, as Mac was often out of the house, whether at school or out with his friends or just messing about on his bike, but something feels different when you know they’re not coming back, when you’re know they’re away. It’s not just the quiet – somehow the house feels different, less alive.
Meanwhile in Uganda, Mac was having the time of his life and having experiences not many fifteen year olds are lucky to have. During their time they helped in a local primary school, they spent a day at the secondary school with their buddies (someone of a similar age for them to get to know), they visited an orphanage for disabled children and loads more. They worked on projects painting and building. Every night they would gather together to discuss and reflect on the day.
One of the things Mac told me he missed most was music as they did not have their phones or any other electronic equipment. But they managed to fill this gap by singing together in the minibus when they were driving to the various schools and making their own music.
One thing they were allowed was a camera. They all came back with the most amazing pictures – pictures of the schools and the children, pictures of their buddies, pictures of the amazing countryside. They had pictures of them teaching the younger children in school, playing games and football with some of them, and pictures of them travelling along the long, red, dusty roads.
The second half of the trip was an opportunity to go on safari in Northern Uganda. After all of the work they had done, it was a chance to kick back a little and to get the experience of seeing some amazing African animals in their natural habitat. Mac had always enjoyed taking photographs and was actually rather good – I can honestly say that some of his safari pictures are incredible. They saw giraffe, antelope, hippos, elephants, lions, rhinos and all sorts of birdlife. All of this against the most amazing backdrop.
They also visited a chimp sanctuary, although Mac did tell me that he found that quite scary as the older chimps were very loud and pretty aggressive. The babies, on the other hand, were very cute.
Then, at the end of February, my dad and I went to Heathrow to pick him up. I couldn’t wait to see him, and to hear about all his adventures. We had group emails sent to us to assure us they were OK, but had no direct contact.
We waited – I could see from my app that the plane had landed – and then suddenly they were there. I can honestly say that the surge of parental love for my boy was huge – and as I saw him he really looked different. Of course, he had lost some weight, as the food had not been the usual fare, but he had grown in stature. Even though he was tired from the trip and the flight, he stood taller, more confident and more self-assured. In short, he had grown up enormously. He had really come back as a young man – and with the experiences of a lifetime.
The group all looked different, and you could see how much they had obviously shared, how much they had grown together. I knew, at that moment, not only that Mac had grown, but that he had made some real friends for life.