The story of how your humble narrator ended up leading a project to build a library in Tanzania begins in a small, poky, but friendly flat share in Vauxhall, London on the bleakest of winter nights in 2013. If memory serves I was playing air guitar to Metallica’s Master of Puppets, or something similarly inconsequential (playing air guitar, that is; not Metallica, who are awesome), when my friend – let’s call him, er, Norman – rang. He had some bad news. He would have to pull out of our planned trip to Turkey, as he couldn’t get the time off work.
At the time I’d recently returned from a trip to Slovenia with another friend of mine (maybe let’s not give him a name), which had rekindled my desire to travel overseas after a couple of years’ hiatus. Now I could’ve just gone to Turkey on my own but, I don’t know, I just wasn’t feeling it for some reason. At the same time, there was no way I was not going to go somewhere overseas that year, so I started to do a bit of research in to the alternatives…and that’s when the idea of doing some voluntary work in Uganda came up.
Doing meaningful, life-changing humanitarian work overseas is something I’d been thinking of doing for several years. Now, I figured, was the time to take the plunge. I’d done some voluntary work in the UK, all with children (helping coach kids’ football, reading with kids in Primary Schools) and, coupled with the fact I’d got several years’ worth of school experience under my belt as a school librarian, applying for a voluntary teaching position was a no-brainer and I was placed in St Andrews’ Primary School in Bwebajja, on the outskirts of Kampala.
Why Uganda? Well, I’d already been to Morocco, so now was the time to see the ‘real’ Africa, as opposed to the part which is essentially more Middle Eastern. I’d considered Kenya and, yes, Tanzania as well, but I knew just how many tourists both of these attract on an annual basis. Uganda – the ‘pearl of Africa’, as Winston Churchill called it – felt like it was still coming in to its own as a must-see destination, and reading that it was essentially all that East Africa had to offer and more eventually sold it to me.
I’m not going to go in to detail about my incredible volunteering experiences in Uganda here. If you do want to know more, I suggest you read this post I wrote for Suja Travel and then work your way forward from there (I hope to put some stuff on here at some point too). Suffice to say that all those clichés about doing this sort of work being a life-changing experience are utterly, utterly true. The experience was all about the kids for me. They were remarkable, and, whilst I ostensibly was there to teach them, their wisdom, humour and stoicism in circumstances that would cause almost all of us to bemoan our misfortune meant that they, in reality, taught me a whole lot more.
In fact, so profoundly affected was I by the experience that, when the time came to leave, I felt like I wanted to do something more for them. Leave them a more substantial and tangible gift than the memories they so generously said would stay with them after I’d gone. But I knew I did not have the ways and means to do something for them by myself…which is where the idea of building a library for them entered my head. The school where I work in London is not only a very keen supporter of charitable causes (our motto is ‘May Love Always Lead Us’), but also has a proven track-record of taking groups of our pupils out on expeditions to developing countries with a humanitarian bent to them. So when I brought it up to my London school, they were all for it.
Unfortunately, upon returning to the UK, things quickly fell apart on the Uganda side of the project. Admittedly, we can’t expect fluent communication from a place where frequent electricity blackouts are the norm. Then I had to consider – and anyone who’s been to this part of Africa will know what I mean – the scope for corruption, and if I could actually know the money we’d send out to them would be spent in the right way, not least because I didn’t have someone who I could totally trust as my eyes and ears in country. And finally, when I mentioned the possibility of building a library to St Andrews’ School they were all for it…but perhaps did not quite appreciate the realities and logistics involved in such a project (more on that in a future post). So after weeks and even months of them not responding to boring – but important – e-mails about costings, blueprints, furniture and the like, I reluctantly decided that this was just not going to work.
So I was back to square one. What now? My school was still supportive of the idea, but if I was going to get a similar project going somewhere else, I would have to get my skates on, otherwise all the momentum would be gone. A challenge for sure; but just as it would’ve been too easy to sulk about not going to Turkey when I was sat in that Vauxhall flat, so would it have been too easy to not bother here. Sure, I was – and still am – disappointed that I couldn’t help the kids in Uganda, but if circumstances prevent you from helping them, the next best thing you can do is help other kids who need your help just as badly.
And so it was quite by chance that one day, in that same Vauxhall flat in early 2014, when I was casually flicking through the same Lonely Planet East Africa guide book I’d taken with me to Uganda, I came across something in its pages that maybe – just maybe – could work…