We duck down into the gloom of the converted chicken shed to be met with a wall of sound.
‘Are you ok?’ yells a smiling, energetic man into the microphone. ‘We are ok!’ scream 80 kids at the top of their voices.,’Eh?, are you OK’ shouts Solomon. I hadn’t thought the noise could get any louder, how wrong I was, ‘WE ARE OK’ and my eardrums ring.
I’m here in Jinja, in Uganda, for the SALVE summer camp. SALVE is a charity that helps street children to get off the streets and back into families and education. I got involved when I ran the 50km Peak District Challenge which they organise. I went on to sponsor a boy, Mutenga Mubarrak. My parents had been teachers in Uganda and I spent the first, happy eight years of my life there, so it felt like a link with my past.
A couple of months ago, Nicola, asked me to join a group climbing Mount Elgon, and here I was. It was January 25thand we had all been asked to do something with the children. Burns Night, I thought. What could be better? Some dancing and an Address to the Haggis – totally culturally appropriate… It turned out a bit broader than that as I was joined by Helen and David from Ireland and Northern Ireland, so we went Celtic Fringe.
First, time for the Gay Gordons. Most of the children speak English but we had one of the SALVE team, Abbey, to translate into Lugandan for us and help out. I got up and 80 faces looked at me expectantly. Dancing is a huge part of Ugandan culture and we had just been treated to a series of fantastic displays. But I was undaunted, there may not be any leaping and twerking in the Gay Gordons but it is a fine dance.
Grab and Go!
Poor Abbey, first thing he knew, I had slapped a Scottish buff on his head and grabbed him from behind by his two hands, stretched them out and then, ‘Forward, two, three, four. Back, two, three, four.’ Shock, horror and amazement flashed across his face. For one thing it is not normal for men and women to hold hands and we had barely been introduced, for another, he was being whirled around enthusiastically by a sweaty Scotswoman yelling out the steps, Twirl, Twirl Twirl.’
The kids were helpless with hilarity and delight and soon we were all up and reeling. For the rest of the camp, I would spot them in corners, Gay Gordonsing away.
Then it was time for some Irish. Irish in Uganda actually means potato, which added a certain something. David and Helen led a dance and then, David, took to the stage. The group of DJs huddled round the sound system fell silent. The music started and – oh what a joyous flicking and kicking there was. The roof almost came off with the roars when David performed a high can-can. Turns out he’d been a professional Irish Dancer.
Our cultural offering was completed with Helen’s magnificent rendition of both baby and the fearful giant, Finn McCool, which the children replicated perfectly the next day. We reckon it may now filter into Ugandan folklore.
Now, it was time for the haggis or rather, watermelon.
I apologise profusely to the purists amongst you. My address was modified to suit the audience and involved kneeling and then a satisfyingly violent disembowelling of the Chieftain o’ the Puddin’ Race, with a large knife. ‘Can we eat this haggis, Aunty?’ It was solemnly divided and shared and everyone was happy.
Happiness was the overwhelming emotion of the summer camp. The children were wonderful: joining in everything with gusto, even the coolest of the young men and the shyest of the tots. It was easy to forget what these young people had overcome, with SALVE’s help, just to be here.
‘I went on to the streets when I was a young boy. My family was very disorganised and my Mum was a boozer. When she drank she shouted and abused us. But when I got to the streets I found a much worse situation.
To eat, we would go to small African restaurants and ask for leftovers. Or we would search for scrap in the rubbish tips. We would gather 10kg of metal and sell it. Or sometimes a big bag of plastic bottles.
I saw my friends taking drugs – marijuana and aircraft fuel which stops the hunger – but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to steal. I work and earn money for my food.
Then I was found by SALVE. At first I didn’t trust them but then I worked with them and they explained everything to me. They helped me to go back to school. This was my dream. Aunty Nicola believed in me.
But it was difficult. I was much older and I had to be with young children. But I humbled myself and I learned.
I took my exams and now I am waiting for the result. I hope to go to university and be an electrical engineer or maybe a science teacher. But if I fail, I will find another way. I will go to technical college. I believe in God’s path for me.
I am a Conqueror!’
A heart-bursting hello
On the first day of camp, I went outside for a short break and a young man, stood up from where he’d been waiting on the grass. It was Mutenga, the child I had sponsored all through school. We looked at each other and smiled till our faces ached. From our hug, we emerged to look at each other again.
‘You are really real? You are really here? I didn’t know if you were real,’ Mutenga told me. ‘I am so happy to see you. I am so proud of you for finishing school and your mechanic’s training,’ I replied. It is rare that you get to share in someone’s success in this way. All I had done was give some money, Mutenga had worked hard for all those years and now he has a future. It was an overwhelmingly rich meeting, one I will treasure.
The results that SALVE achieves are amazing. And they do it through patience and kindness. I have never met a group of people as inspiring as the SALVE staff. They give the children endless time and dedication. They are consistent and trustworthy and they never give up on a child. No matter how damaged they have been by what they have suffered on the streets: rape, addiction, violence, attempted suicide, near starvation, total abandonment and loneliness. They never give up on a child that wants to be helped.
And the result is children and young people with a chance at a good life and trying their hardest to succeed at school, ‘We need focus and determination, and we will do it,’ one young man told me. He had got the highest marks in his class and was hoping for a scholarship to become a doctor. ‘The child who tried to take his own life, now wants to save the life of others.’
Please consider a donation or sponsoring a child. It is so rewarding and I can vouch for the fact that your money is spent carefully and wisely and to fantastic effect. Or get involved and take part in an event. All the details are on the website www.salveinternational.org
Not all love stories are romantic. But some have a happy ending.