VIDEO: Tales of inspiration and hope from Uganda
Reporter Sarah Howells reflects on her trip to Uganda to visit projects run by the Barnstaple charity Amigos.
While you enjoy the festivities this year, sitting in front of the television after a Christmas dinner with all the frills, Christopher Ezuma and his family will be carrying out their daily chores in Uganda.
After checking the crops, fetching the daily supply of water from a well several miles away and collecting firewood, they may even be able to sit down and enjoy some fresh vegetables and, if they’re really lucky, the rare treat of some meat.
The 27-year-old, known to all as Ezuma, is a former student of Kira Farm Training Centre, run by Barnstaple charity Amigos.
The project teaches young Ugandans sustainable farming, vocational training and holistic life skills to help empower them to get out of poverty.
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When I first met Ezuma in November last year he was a forlorn and troubled young man. His father died of AIDs when he was a child, and he has since had to support his mother, three sisters and brother, as well as his wife and two young children.
I left Ezuma at Kira with eyes troubled beyond their years, and returned this year to find him beaming, a renewed sense of determination about him.
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It was a complete transformation from the young man I had met the previous year.
Reunited with his family and armed with his newly acquired sustainable farming skills, Ezuma had already set to work transforming his once sparse patch of land.
Most impressive of all was the ‘farming God’s way demo plot’ sign he had erected next to his crops.
Despite the severe lack of rain – which is ironic considering another student’s home 20 minutes down the road was completely flooded – one of Uganda’s climatic quirks – Ezuma had been working hard to make a start on his crops.
“So many people have been asking me about my plot that next season I am going to be teaching farming God’s way to the whole village,” said Ezuma.
“I am so grateful to Amigos; Kira Farm has completely changed my life.”
The farming technique involves creating a mulch covering for the seedlings, providing protection and sustenance for the crops which encourages growth without chemicals or fertiliser.
The majority of Uganda’s rural population are subsistence farmers and, by spreading these techniques to his village, Ezuma is the perfect example of what Amigos is all about.
All of the students at Kira Farm carried an horrific past on their shoulders, from those who were abducted and became child soldiers to young women forced into marriage and abused by their husbands.
It made me feel incessantly guilty moaning about my slight jet-lag and minor sunburn, but as I came to know these students I was aware they were keen not to be defined by their past.
One of those people was 17-year-old Gerald Okot, who was abducted by rebels when he was just 10-years-old.
Taken from his village, he was beaten and forced to walk for miles barefoot before the rebels trained him to become one of Uganda’s infamous child soldiers.
When we spoke, Gerald told me about his traumatic past. During military drills he had been picked on to shoot a man who had failed to comply with the rebels, but he had shot into the air and was punished with a cane, leaving him unable to walk for weeks.
The next day he was again handed a gun and with a woman placed in front of him was given a choice: kill or be killed.
“I did not want to shoot that woman, but she told me, ‘you are just a child; shoot me, save yourself’,” Gerald recalled.
He shot her in the head and from then on was entrusted with a gun and sent to work with the groups conducting ambushes.
After a month, the rebels ambushed a pickup truck containing government soldiers, and there was an exchange of heavy gunfire.
“I don’t know if it was a miracle, but I was shot in the leg,” Gerald recalled.
“I was screaming and there was blood everywhere; the others just ran away and left me.
“I raised my hand to signal to the soldiers I was injured; they took me back to the barracks and bandaged me up, and I was eventually reunited with my family.”
Gerald has been through a lifetime of horrors, having also had to cope with the death of his mother at the age of eight.
But when we visited him in Gulu he was proud to show us his achievements, giving us a grand tour of his land and telling us how he was making use of the catering skills he learnt at Kira Farm.
“I’ve been making mandazi (a form of East African doughnut) and selling them at a local school because I want to raise money to bake cookies,” he said.
“Kira Farm has changed my life, it’s taught me forgiveness for all that has happened and now I am looking to the future.”
It is estimated around 80 per cent of 18-25-year-olds in the country are unemployed, and it was humbling to see these students trying to change the future of the next generation.
It was also wonderful to see some of the children who are supported through education as part of Amigos’ child sponsorship scheme.
The project means supporters can fund 90 per cent of the child’s education, encouraging the family to take pride in the child and make up the other 10 per cent.
These children have such vision, and some I spoke to dreamt of becoming doctors or engineers – a dream that can be made possible with the help of their sponsors.
Luckily for these children, they often receive a treat at Christmas from their sponsors, which could be anything from a football to a roof over their heads. It seems a small offering compared to the lining of luxury gifts on our supermarket shelves.
My trip to Uganda was an eye-opening and inspiring experience, and one that I will not forget.
Far from the shy individuals I had met before, it was clear to see the students had blossomed into young adults who were determined to change their futures, all with the help of this wonderful charity and support of the North Devon people.
The people I met were a true testament to the work of Amigos and, if you take a moment to think about these young Ugandans while your tucking into your leftover turkey, then my trip was all the more worthwhile.