It's amazing how many pineapples you can fit on a bicycle. That's what I thought as I looked out of the car window on my way to a home visit, and saw local men pushing bicycles dangling with multiple pineapples up an unforgiving slope in the intense heat. They transport these pineapples to the market everyday to make a living. Hard, unforgiving work. Sadly, this was only a small glimpse of the hardship that I was about to witness. I knew that the conditions of the homes we were visiting might be dire, but it still didn't prepare me for what I was going to see. The homes all had walls made out of dried mud, and their interiors were beyond simple, and of course with no running water or electricity which are an unimaginable luxury for the vast majority of rural Ugandans. Three children shared a dirt caked single mattress - so old that it didn't even resemble a mattress anymore, but was really just a block of foam littered with holes and dents - with a fourth being forced to sleep on the dusty floor because they would wet the 'bed' at night. Between fifteen and twenty shared a tiny compound that would really only comfortably house a family of three. In their 'free time' the children would have to go on exhausting water collection runs, chop firewood or dig in the field for hours at a time... while only receiving one basic meal a day. It is heartbreaking that we cannot offer each and every one of the children living in such conditions a place at The Peace Centre, but the harsh truth is that even in extreme poverty some children are in more need than others. Quantifying poverty is an impossible task, and certainly a great deal harder than counting pineapples on an overloaded bike.
When someone says the word 'orphanage' to you, what comes to mind? Prior to visiting The Peace Centre, the word orphanage for me conjured up images of a bleak place filled with dejected children; a grey shell; a basic means of food and shelter until they are old enough to be able to forge their own way in the world. Something coming from the world of Dickens. It pleased me greatly to have these misconceptions proved totally wrong. On the contrary, The Peace Centre has a warm, caring and loving environment. The relationships that the children have formed with the staff and other orphans in their new home are close, tender, strong and loving. When little 7 year old Joan was asked how The Peace Centre is a home to her, she replied: "The Peace Centre is a home to me because Peace and Golden are my parents." This shows how TPC fully embodies its motto which is to provide children with 'Love, Care and a Home'. It is a place that allows these orphans their right to a childhood, gives them the love and attention they deserve, and allows them to develop to their full potential. I am glad that when I next hear the word 'orphanage', images of children not being able to ask for second helpings of porridge will be far from my mind.
"I would rather die a rich person than poor", was a comment made to me by one of the volunteer staff at The Peace Centre. My first interpretation of this comment was that the word 'rich' only referred to monetary wealth, which made me feel a bit guilty. It was a reminder that even though we were in Bukinda together our lives are very much different. Although through the two weeks in the village our lives became very much closer and intertwined, the difference between 'us' and 'them' is that after these two weeks we will get on a plane and resume our lives all over the world, whilst for them Bukinda, is and will continue to be, their daily reality. However, upon further reflection, I believe that the word 'rich' also refers to a sense of happiness and satisfaction, that comes from within the heart, and has a great deal more to do with love, deep friendships and a sense of belonging than it does to do with anything as fleeting as finance. Based on the many comments from our new friends, it seems that bit by bit our stay here has contributed to improving that less tangible richness for not only The Peace Centre members, but the wider community too. It was fantastic to see the news that The Peace Centre had a brand new swing set and 15ft trampoline spread like wildfire, resulting in many more kids from the village showing up to play. Specific to The Peace Centre children, we have helped to support their education, which will undoubtedly lead to more opportunities and a greater sense of self worth in the future. As the Primary School headmaster bluntly put it, we have given his 'monkeys' the chance to go to school. I guess the reason why I was a bit shocked to hear the TPC volunteer share this statement about wealth, was because I have never heard someone poor explicitly state that they are. Although we can't give everyone monetary wealth, we can help make others richer in terms of experiences, relationships and through love. As they say, money doesn't always buy happiness, right? I feel so blessed to consider how my own life is infinitely richer as a result of the love and friendships I have built in this past fortnight, and if any of their richness has increased by even a fraction of mine, then I would consider them wealthy indeed.
Why do people do volunteer work? I always thought that volunteering was all about giving up your time to help someone else. But I now realise this doesn't account for all the things that you learn as a volunteer. On the surface you can easily pick out the few new experiences such as using the long drop toilet, trying (and failing) to chop wood, or building a chicken coop (more like a chicken palace). However, if you look harder you will see that there have been much more significant changes within, and that our outlook on the world has undergone a somewhat radical shift. Although some of the jobs we worked during the two weeks were not easy, no one complained. For example, fetching seemingly endless wheelbarrows of sand from up the hill may have been exhausting, but we took turns and got the job done because it was worth seeing the smiles on the children's faces when the project was complete. The reward for hard work was no longer an arbitrary grade, something that is in itself (if you are honest with yourself) meaningless, divisive and only creates unnecessary comparisons and boundaries where there don't need to be any. The reward now was a smile, was seeing unbounded joy in action. Which, I ask you, has more real value?
In addition, we learned how to overcome language barriers. When the vast majority of conversations in English with the children go as far as...
Child: "Hi. How are you?"
Me: "I am fine. And you?"
...you have got to get a bit creative. We learned that non verbal communication works great, such as playing hand games, drawing, or kicking a ball around. In fact, we may have even learned more about them through such activities than we would've if we had tried to have a sit down conversation. This trip has taught me that volunteer work is about personal learning experiences, and about building meaningful relationships. It isn't really about helping others at all.
No school trip will ever be able to top this one, unless I am able to return to Bukinda next year - and Mum and Dad, now seems like as good a time as any to tell you that I definitely do want to come back here in 2016! Manual labour, working with kids, an inexplicably deep sense of love for children only recently met, along with rope swings, bag weaving, ropeless tug-of-war, heart-breaking home visits, counting pineapples, morning quests for a perfect egg, endless photos of beamingly happy faces, chapati making and waterfalls of tears at our farewells... this trip has truly had it all. It has been an honour and a privilege to be part of the 2015 Peace Centre team. If only all learning could be as deep and meaningful as this.