My Three Week Trip to Uganda with 'East African Playgrounds'
When initially signing up with 'East African Playgrounds' to visit Uganda this Summer, I was not expecting to arrive in a place of such exuberant people, such prolific nature and wildlife and such an overwhelming sense of positivity. While the trip was not for the fainthearted, and certainly lacked the traditional luxuries you might receive in a three or four star hotel, I would not have traded the open air showers on the River Nile for hot water. The three week trip allowed us to see the beauty of the country by permitting us to partake in some of the wondrous activities that Uganda has to offer, such as pony-trekking through the animated villages, or kayaking among the river rapids; as well as giving us the opportunity to live and work among the people who make up the heart and soul of the nation. Together we built a playground at Williams School in Jinja so that the children of the community would be able to learn creatively through play. We lived among the students and staff, sleeping in a dorm which was converted from a classroom; watching Sarah, our cook, create delicious local meals; having language lessons in Luganda in the evenings. We worked alongside a 'Build Team' which was made up of 'East African Playground' employees who, through the projects, are trained in skills, such as welding, so that they are qualified to work in the industry. They can therefore be offered long term employment. Our mission was to turn an empty sandy patch into a fully equipped playground fit with swings, tunnels and even a minibus or ‘metatu’ (made from tires and metal cans) for the children to “drive” around in. We spent a week digging holes, tacking tires together, cementing and - what seemed like - an eternity of painting to create a safe and wonderful environment for the children to enhance their expression and engage their imagination. We also spent the afternoons getting involved in the classroom activities which were put in place to introduce creative play into the school’s curriculum and to help the teachers use the concept in their future teachings. Play time isn’t typically seen as important out in Uganda, but 'East African Playgrounds', knowing how crucial it is in childrens' development, aim to introduce it into schools, demonstrating it in classroom activities and training the staff in its importance.
Afternoons at the school became one of my favourite elements of the trip: seeing the childrens' faces light-up as you stapled together their paper crowns around their heads, or letting them teach you how to plait together skipping ropes using wet banana plants, all the while having them laugh at you if it turned out anything less than perfect. They were much better at limbo than any of us, even cartwheeling over the top of the rope, something someone as uncoordinated as me could only ever dream of achieving. Our reward for building the playground was seeing the last remaining mountain gorilla’s on the trek to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which of course was an unbelievable experience that will forever blow my mind. However, we were truly rewarded every day through small personal achievements, such as finishing painting an element of the playground, or eating something we would never have thought to eat before. Even noticing the excitement on the childrens' faces as they watched what we were developing at their school, plus seeing some of the beautiful views of the lakes and volcanoes, and, most importantly, the celebratory open day that the school threw for us. It stands as one of the best days of my life. Their appreciation was bestowed onto us through the dances and songs that the staff and children performed, bringing a lot of us to tears as we saw the difference we had made to a community. The work we had put in didn’t seem enough to warrant the rewards we received from the experience. Most rewarding was when the children were allowed onto the playground for the first time, and the bereft playground elements finally disappeared under a sea of bright pink uniforms.