A platform for voices supporting women's rights
Written by Pat Brennan.
In many parts of the world children struggle to get by without even the basics in life – nutritious food, an education, a safe home and loving parents. It doesn’t have to be this way. Pat Brennan explains why.
When I returned from my first visit to Uganda in August, 2007, I remember saying to family and friends, “I feel like I’ve just watched myself on Comic Relief.” Such were the sad and heartbreaking experiences I’d witnessed.
I’d been to visit the homes of two girls called Jackie and Justine. I can still recall walking into Justine’s house, an old curtain serving as the door. For us in our developed countries, it was more of a roof over their heads. But for Justine and her family it was their home and they were very pleased to welcome me into it. I was greeted warmly by Justine’s mam and I sat on what was the only chair, indeed the only furniture – a wooden plank held up by two bricks.
Justine’s mam had probably never been to school and spoke no English, but from the wide smile on her face, it was obvious she was grateful for my visit. I asked Justine where they all slept. She smiled and pointed to the floor.
I’ve now been to Uganda five times. After my most recent visit there I received an email from a young university friend, Phiona. She told me about the rural area she was staying in near the Uganda-Congo border. Phiona was doing some work experience during her long vacation, interpreting for some American medic friends and undertaking her own lab work at Bwindi Community Hospital.
One day the four of them were working high up in the mountains when they came across a girl who’d recently been orphaned and was attempting to look after her younger siblings. Because Phiona knew I’d be keen to help, she suggested I contact a lady called Josline at Bwindi Community Hospital to find out more.
Josline emailed me the girl’s background story: After the death of her parents, 13-year-old Mawazo is now the head of her family, with four younger siblings to care for. Their immediate relatives not only refuse to help, they stole their property and land. And although there’s an uncle living near by, he’s too poor to give any support. So, they live alone in an old one-roomed, grass-thatched hut in a village called Mukongoro – the last village on the hilltop at the border of Uganda and Congo.
Mawazo is a hardworking, intelligent girl. Then there’s Samwiri (aged 10), Eliya (7), Aaron (5) and Kellen (3). None of the children go to school. Mawazo used to, but had to ‘drop out’ to look after the younger children.
The Bwindi Hospital Community Team became aware of Mawazo when they visited the village during their routine malnutrition screening and mass de-worming programme. Samwiri was severely malnourished and was admitted to the hospital. After intense treatment, he was discharged, but unfortunately has had to be re-admitted on several occasions.
The Community Health Team asked hospital staff to support the children and, as a result, they supplied them with food, including posho, beans, maize flour, sugar and butter. Now, with regular checks, Samwiri is making slow, but positive progress.
Mawazo and her siblings badly need an improved shelter, food, clothing, health care and the opportunity to receive a school education. If these basic requirements are met, the chances of the children’s survival will increase greatly. This very sad and very shocking situation is not a story, but reality. It’s something with which we, in our own developed countries, find it hard to empathise.
But what of Jackie and Justine, the two girls I met on my first trip to Uganda? I sponsor and mentor the two girls who’ve both successfully graduated from university and are busy working. In fact, my family and I have been sponsoring children for many years now through my friend Fr Charlie Beirne, who works in Mbarara, Uganda.
The success of Jackie and Justine gives us so much pride and pleasure. They’re both from very humble backgrounds and they’d never have arrived at where they are now in life, without help, guidance and direction.
Education isn’t free in Uganda, so without funding, children aren’t able to attend school. Throughout the underdeveloped world, there are similar children to Jackie and Justine, or Mawazo and her siblings, trying to survive when all the odds are stacked against them.