Why a Trip to Uganda Will Overwhelm All Your Senses
I reached that stage of life last year where I started to recognise what is fundamentally important to me; I guess you can call it “reshuffling of one’s life priorities”. All it might take is an introspective moment which leads to a subtle shift in perspective, and you begin wanting—and needing—to work towards something with more meaning and more substance. This shift in perspective may have a domino effect, as it did in my case, and you begin wanting to spend time only on things that matter most to you.
For me, the last 12 months have been quite turbulent to say the least. Through this maelstrom of emotion and upheaval, I gained a desire to engage with the world a little more. This manifested itself as a desire to help those without the advantages I have in life; to work with charitable organisations and, ideally, make some kind of difference in the world. Initially, I didn’t know where to start. I knew I wanted to tread carefully and to work in an ethical way—I didn’t want compromise the dignity of the people I wanted to help. I recognise that not all volunteer work is beneficial for all countries. Unless we have time and transferable skills, oftentimes it can be better to travel, trade and spend money in these developing countries. With that in mind, my goal was to find a charity that aligned with my passions, that stood for everything I believe in. But above all, I wanted transparency.
So, how do you go about finding a charity and an experience that genuinely makes a difference? To say I thoroughly did my research is an understatement, and in the process I found The Cotton On Foundation (COF), an organisation committed to making a change in Southern Uganda, South Africa, Thailand and the Northern Territory, Australia. I put many questions to the organisation relating to how donations are distributed and the ways in which it works with the communities it are involved. Via my communication with the foundation, I soon realised its goals and ethics aligned with everything I stand for. Most importantly, the level of transparency the organisation displays was exactly what I was seeking. COF's main focus is on empowering youth through quality education, and if growing up with parents as teachers has taught me anything, it’s the value of quality education.
COF projects fall under four pillars within the Quality Education Model: Education, infrastructure, healthcare and sustainability: All pivotal in making lasting change. Through this burgeoning relationship, I was lucky enough to personally experience this first hand in Mannya, Southern Uganda a couple of weeks ago.
ABOUT THE TRIP
Uganda will overwhelm all your senses: The sights, the smells, and the sounds were like nothing I have experienced before. I arrived some 55 hours after leaving Australia; with a cancelled flight, three passport stamps, and a missing bag. None of these missteps mattered because the feeling of actually standing on African soil transcended any other feeling. I automatically felt disconnected from everything back home, and all I could concentrate on were my deepest motivations. I met my group of 28 incredible people from COF and Lisa, a fellow blogger. From then on, our days were action-packed. We visited schools and HIV clinics, read with children, played various games, saw their nutrition mission program in full force, spoke with teachers about the curriculum and buildings of their school, and got see the COF incredible work, first hand.
We also visited a little village called Mannya, located in the Rakai District of Uganda. To tell my story today, it's important to have the full picture regarding why COF began making a change in Mannya a decade ago.
Cotton On Group’s Founder, Nigel Austin, established COF back in 2007 alongside the local parish’s priest, Father Nestus (who we were fortunate enough to stay with whilst in Mannya). Nigel saw firsthand how Mannya had been devastated by the HIV epidemic which almost wiped out entire generations. These effects are still apparent to this day, with many children left without parents and grandparents, ongoing famine and of course major economic downfall.
Nigel and Nestus were left with a very complex—if not near impossible—situation. Initially, Nigel was asked to make a small donation to a healthcare centre in Mannya, and now 10 years later it's kicking clear goals: Building schools, educating communities about the importance of sanitation, nutrition and above all, changing lives. To date, the COF has created a total of 6,000 educational facilities globally, and its on track to increase that number to an incredible 20,000 by 2020. Whilst 14,000 further places of education might seem like a lot to achieve in a two-year time frame, it is the commitment, passion and determination from the team in Australia and Uganda that helps to bring about such dramatic change. Having witnessed this sheer effort first-hand, I am certain it will achieve any goals set. The team is absolutely immersed in its work, and together everyone is committed to making a difference.
ABOUT THE SCHOOLS
I was lucky enough to visit several schools whilst in Uganda. And there is a notable disparity between the level of facilities provided. Some were tin sheds that were temporary solutions, so the children in the community could still attend school while the sustainability built, brick buildings are being completed by local tradesmen and women. Others schools were more established, similar to what we would find in Australia. What I found fascinating was that in some classrooms, there might be anywhere from 60-100 children in attendance. No matter the numbers or circumstances surrounding their education, the children in each of these classrooms are eager to learn. One of my favourite memories is seven children reading from their African Stories Book: A compilation of stories from local children, published by COF. When you see the smiles on the children’s faces, you cannot help but feel proud of them and marvel at seeing them in such an inspiring and safe place to learn. The way I see it, quality education and a safe place to learn are creating an opportunity for them to have a choice in what they want to do with their life: Something they may not have had prior to this.
Each school is built with sustainability in mind. For instance, the kitchen stoves are powered by bio-gas which allows the children to be fed two meals at school everyday, which is essential since we all know that food helps with learning capabilities. Also, COF has also planted fruit-bearing trees around the boundaries of their schools as an addition to their nutrition program.
As expected, there is a level of commitment required from volunteers in order to make the projects successful. To date, the total funds raised exceeds $70 million globally, with 100 percent of proceeds going towards COF's global projects. Having experienced it firsthand, I think that to have even the smallest influence upon improving another person’s life makes it beyond valuable and a worthwhile endeavour for anyone to undertake.
ABOUT THE BONDS FORMED
I was concerned that going to Uganda for only a week would mean the relationships forged with students would dissolve as soon as I boarded the plane home. I was, however, quickly disabused of this notion: Thanks to social media, volunteers and members of the COF have the opportunity to stay connected. This illustrates the enduring power that initiatives such as these can have long after the trips end. Additionally, Cotton On has an impressive fundraising model: All proceeds go to the charity. I think this is such an important concept that I’ll repeat it again. All proceeds go to the charity—when a Cotton On sales assistant tells you that one bottle of water equals seven bricks for a school in Uganda, they mean it, and it does. Of the $2 you spend on water or any other product, 36 cents is spent on production and the other $1.64 goes straight to the foundation. It is with the incredible generosity of customers and the passion of team members that COF has been able to make a positive difference in people’s lives across the globe.
Within the small space of time I was on the ground in Uganda, I quickly learned that a trip like this isn't your average trip overseas—it has the power to change you in unexpected and important ways. As I took time to reflect on my 25 hour trip back to Australia, I thought about everything I had experienced within that week: The tears I cried, the smiles and laughter from all the children and, most importantly, the knowledge I returned home with with. It’s a travel experience that goes beyond photographing the major iconic cities or selfies with a famous landmark. Uganda gave me so much more than I thought was possible, and with it came a great shift in perspective. Within that week, I went through so many changes that are hard to define and that are part of a bigger self-evolution. It’s taken me some time to evaluate and digest my experience of Uganda, but here I am today, filling you all in. And this is only the beginning of what is yet to come…
Head to the Cotton On Foundation for more information and to donate.