Sometimes the easiest and most impactful way to teach kids about the world can be done right from the comfort of home without having to travel with kids. Signing up the entire family to sponsor a child provides the human element kids really need to learn more about other cultures, societies and economies – without ever getting on a plane. MasterChef Australia’s first winner, Julie Goodwin, tells suitcases&strollers about her experience going to visit her sponsor child in Uganda. 

Why Uganda? We were approached last year by ChildFund who were considering bringing an ambassador on board, and who realised that we were on their database as child sponsors. We were asked if we’d like to come on board and meet one of our sponsor children. It was a no-brainer – of course we would! I am so happy to be an ambassador for a charity that our family has supported for thirteen years now.

To prepare for the trip we needed inoculation against yellow fever and cholera, as well as a hep A booster. I am a bit of a baby about needles but probably more of a baby about catching deadly diseases. We pick our battles. Having been to India a couple of years ago we’re already covered for typhoid and Hep B. We had tablets for malaria too. (Not to mention industrial strength mozzie repellent, sunscreen, hand sanitiser and every kind of over-the-counter medicine that we might even remotely need.) Medical side of things, set.

The paperwork is in place too: visas, federal police check and yellow fever certificate. An interesting fact if you ever want to go to Uganda, you have to have 2 clear pages in your passport. Maybe the customs guys like to draw a little picture or something. Anyway, no worries – my passport has tons of blank pages.

Part of the preparations when we travel to a new country are always to learn as much as we can about our destination. Lots of books and info about Uganda have been downloaded on to my Kindle and I have started to learn much more about the country’s chequered past.

Some facts about the community in Kampala:

  80% of the residents are low income and 40% live in extreme poverty.

  One third of all housing is mud and wattle.

  80% of homes do not have toilets.

  Half – HALF! – of the population is under 18 years of age.

  Almost 50% of adults are illiterate.

  Over 6% of adults and 1% of children are living with HIV/AIDS.

  This is the statistic that knocked the stuffing out of me. As a result of AIDS-related deaths among young adults, orphaned children comprise nearly 17% of the population.  So – nearly one in five people in Kampala is an orphaned child.

The thing Mick and I are most excited about is visiting Hamad, our sponsor child in Kampala, and his family. Hamad is ten, and we have been sponsoring him for three years now. He is one of four kids living with their mum, he’s at school and he loves football. He speaks English although his mum does not.

The big day has arrived! We say goodbye to the boys, the dogs, the chooks and my parents who have come to stay, and jump in the car to the airport on Monday afternoon. The trip from our front door to the hotel at Entebbe takes nearly 30 hours, 20 of which are spent on planes and the rest on the road or waiting at the airport.

The highlight of the flight for me is the leg between Dubai and Uganda. We fly for hours over nothing but pale pink desert. It is frighteningly awesome in its hugeness.

Two of the most striking features about Uganda so far are the vivid red of the soil and the lushness of the greenery. It is a striking and unique place. There are all kinds of birds wheeling overhead, huge and unfamiliar. It kind of hits me for the first time that I am in Africa – a place I have heard and read so much about, but have never visited before.

Another thing that strikes me is that everyone seems to live their life outdoors. Going on a road trip is not just natural scenery and dwellings, it’s a living breathing documentary. Everyone is going about their business outside – sweeping, trading, harvesting, carrying baskets of fruit on their heads. (My “pinch-me” moment of the day is a beautiful woman carrying a baby in her arms and one perfectly round cabbage on her head. Not in a basket, just sitting there on her head.)

There are streams of children walking home from school, all dressed in uniform, almost all barefoot, mucking around with each other and laughing. There are beautiful little toddlers, picking their way through their red-earth yard hand in hand. Goats are tethered by the side of the road, a source of income for many families.

One of the difficulties of this area is that even though the soil is rich and crops grow well, many people do not have the information they need to ensure their children receive the correct nutrients. Think of the first world where we are constantly exposed to public health messages and information and try to imagine a place where these is no mass communication and knowledge about protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals does not exist.

Today is the day we have been waiting for – we are going to finally meet our sponsor child, Hamad.

A little boy appears in the doorway of the building with a bunch of flowers. It’s Hamad and he is gorgeous. He comes out into the yard and hands the flowers to me and whispers something so quietly that I can’t hear it. His eyes are averted and he’s obviously very nervous. Although I want to hug the stuffing out of him I decide that it’s probably not the best move at the moment.

We go inside and meet the team from ChildFund. We are once again thanked profusely for being sponsors and enabling the work that they do. While this is going on Hamad and I have a whispered conversation where he tells me he is nervous and I tell him I am too, but that we’ll have a great day together.

Almost every home has something out the front for sale – whether it’s some hand-made earrings or a few onions and bananas. The reason for this becomes apparent when we learn that the average income in this area is 100,000 Ugandan shillings per month – about AU$40 – and that the average rent is the same amount. With no space to grow their own food, these people rely on every extra shilling they can muster. Even the water costs money – 300 shillings to fill the jerry can at the bore pump.

We enter a small quadrangle and laid out on the ground are the makings of a Ugandan feast. There are women busily preparing the food and I am invited to join in. There are some major differences in food preparation between here and home. For a start, the food is prepared kneeling on the ground. It is considered disrespectful to the food to prepare it standing up. After a little while of this my lower legs go completely numb so I sit cross-legged for a while, to the amusement of the women. I squat at one point which I get into trouble for. Apparently it’s not the done thing.

Another difference is that there are no cutting boards. Peeling, chopping and slicing are all done in the hand and the food dropped directly on to a plate or into the pot. A third difference is that everything is very, very time consuming and it is explained to me that the preparation of food takes at least two hours every day.

We then get to have some time with Hamad and his siblings. Mick has a game of soccer with the boys, who are very skilled at it. Hamad wants to be a professional footballer when he grows up, and he looks to have what it takes! Hamad has come out of his shell and is laughing and having an absolute blast.

Sadly Hamad’s mother has had to go away because of a loss in the family in another part of the country, so we are not able to meet her. Hamad and his siblings are here with their aunt Robina. We find out that Hamad’s 8-year-old sister is at home with malaria.Hamad’s mother supports the family.  ChildFund sponsorship allowed her to get some chickens, which she reared and sold. She used the money to start her own business and now sells cooked cassava and rice on the roadside and is looking to expand her business to also sell groceries and charcoal. She is a part of a savings and loan group.

It is soon time to leave.  I manage not to cry (much), even though I am aware as I hug Hamad that I may never see him again. It has just been the most incredible day, to meet this child who we have only seen in pictures, to interact with him, to see the area where he lives and meet his family.  I am leaving with a greatly changed understanding of what child sponsorship is, and the huge reach it has in assisting not only the sponsored child and their family, but their entire community. The ChildFund staff are committed, passionate, dedicated people with a real love of the people that they serve. I am so grateful to them not only for their assistance to us on this journey, but also for the love they bring to their work.

If you are considering becoming a child sponsor, I can tell you unequivocally that the money you send will be used in ways that give people dignity and hope and opportunity. It will change lives, and it will save lives.

I know, because I have seen it.

For more ideas on how you can teach your children about poverty in other countries, see the suitcases&strollers stories Introducing Kids To Poverty and House-Building Trips.
To read the suitcases&strollers interview with MasterChef Australia series 4 finalist Audra Morrice, click here 

By Julie Goodwin; Images: Jake Lyell